Thursday, December 19, 2013

'Soldier, Ask Not' by Gordon R. Dickson

From the Wikipedia entry.
"Soldier, Ask Not is part of Dickson's Childe Cycle series, in which mankind has reached the stars and divided into specialized splinter groups. It takes place at roughly the same time as Dorsai! and a few characters appear in both books. Themes from the rest of the cycle are echoed here, particularly the actions of a key person, like Paul Formain, Cletus Grahame and Donal Graeme in the other novels, who can drastically affect history due to his ability to analyze and influence the behavior of others. Unlike the other protagonists, however, Tam Olyn is no hero."
In my naive youth I first read this second novel in the Dorsai trilogy immediately after 'Tactics of Mistake'. I was expecting new military exploits from the ultra-smart and super-efficient Dorsai mercenaries. Boy, was I disappointed!

The story is told in first-person, Tam Olyn's point of view, and what a nasty piece of work he is: arrogant, selfish and manipulative. He takes a strong dislike to The Friendlies, Calvinist inhabitants of two poor worlds who hire themselves out as cannon fodder, and determines to destroy them. In my ignorance I figured we were seeing way too much of faith-ridden bigots (actually Olyn's view) and not nearly enough Dorsai. (This would be rectified in the third volume, Dorsai!, of course).

But what did I know?

The brilliance of 'Soldier Ask Not' is its careful portrayal of a man warped by his upbringing who causes great damage. But there are people around Olyn who can 'nudge' him in the subtlest of ways, bring him to his own personal crisis and show him the possibilities of redemption. If 'Tactics of Mistake' is centred on military doctrines, then 'Solder, Ask Not' uses the paradigm of Jungian psychotherapy. The author's brilliance is in making the character-evolution of Tam Olyn completely compelling.

The other preoccupation of the book is its penetrating analysis of the power, attractiveness and danger of faith. In the best case wholly admirable in giving form to duty and self-sacrifice, faith can also be a motor for atrocity. Since the book was written, we've become all-too-familiar with the latter case; in 'Soldier, Ask Not' we are immersed in both sides to our greater insight (and that of the main protagonist).

I mentioned in a previous post the importance of dialectics in understanding the Childe Cycle. Dickson's model of a full-spectrum Earth culture fracturing into superior but partial 'splinter cultures' under the impact of interstellar travel (thesis-antithesis) and seeking a resolution in a higher unity (synthesis) is one example. Another is the battle for Olyn's soul: his malevolent and evil initial persona creating forces which react against his destructive actions (thesis-antithesis) which could lead finally to a transformative resolution (synthesis).