The Best of Gordon R. Dickson, Vol. 1
by Gordon R Dickson
Edited by Hank Davis
Cover Artist: Adam Burn
Review by Sam Lubell
Baen Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781476782171
Date: 04 April 2017 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Gordon Dickson had a fairly long career as a writer. His first story came out in 1950 and his last novel came out in 2000 (not counting Antagonist which was completed by David Wixon after his death). If his name is known to modern readers at all, it is probably for his Dorsai books (part of his never-finished Childe Cycle), which arguably set the standard for military science fiction in the 1960s, or his humorous writings – especially The Dragon Knight series (written in the 1990s based on a 1957 story) and the Hoka series (with Poul Anderson). His short fiction won three Hugos and one Nebula.
Unfortunately, except for the original Dragon Knight story "St. Dragon and the George", none of Dickson's best-known work appears in this Best of volume. With one exception, all the stories come from early in Dickson's career, in the 1950s and early 60s. The exception is "Love Song" originally written for Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions in the 1970s and published here for the first time. This features a bard named Hal in a search for beauty, although he mostly settles for ale.
Many of the stories are humorous. "Miss Prinks" has a stereotype of a singleton aunt gaining superpowers but refusing to use them since this would be unladylike. "St. Dragon and the George", probably the best story in the book, is a present-day college teaching assistant whose girlfriend asked a hypnotist to send her back to the time of St George and the Dragon. Jim follows but winds up occupying the body of a dragon called Gorbash. Can the dragon save the fair maiden? "Fleegl of Fleegl" appears to be about an alien who puts a force field around part of a small town and announces a plan to cure Earthlings of their insanity so that humans don't conquer his planet. "The Girl Who Played Wolf" is a werewolf love story, in a way.
Some stories do raise philosophical issues. In "Our First Death", the leaders of a colony have to decide if they should autopsy the first person to die on the planet, which leads to questions about the way Earth set up the leaders (and doctor) for the colony. "Friend for Life" is a tale of revenge on a pragmatic planet. Jimmy assumes the law is corrupt or scared of the man who killed his friend, but it turns out they have very practical reasons for not pursuing the case, leaving Jimmy with a real dilemma. "One on Trial" is about a general experiencing psychotherapy to teach him compassion through experiences in an artificial environment. "An Honorable Death" shows parallels between a traditional dance of the exploited aliens and their current situation with the Earth colonists. In "Dolphin's Way", an alien civilization's willingness to communicate with Earth depends on the results of experiments in dolphin-human communication whose funding is about to be cut.
The other stories are decent, but not exactly standouts. "Danger, Human" is an extreme example of the '50s trope of humans always being more dangerous than the aliens; even if the aliens are more advanced, the human will still find a way to win. "The Question" is a similar type of story, of humans refusing to surrender to alien soldiers despite overwhelming odds. "The Dreamsman" has a 184-year-old man collect humans with special psi-gifts, but the story has a surprise twist. "Whatever Gods There Be" has the survivors of Project Mars Landing face the problem of too much weight to lift off. "Idiot Solvant" appears to be about a slacker student who wants to participate in a medical experiment who turns out a mutant genius who only needs six or seven hours of sleep a week.
In general, Dickson's writing craft is serviceable at best. He does not have much of a writing style and his characters are there simply to carry out the plot.
Overall, this collection is disappointing. There is no introduction or description of Dickson and his career. Considering that this book, Volume 1, has only 260 pages and this includes several minor stories, the publisher may have been better off producing a single volume with just the good stories plus a bit more about the author. Still, I have to commend Baen for doing so much to keep Golden Age authors like Dickson in print.
The Best of Gordon Dickson, Volume 1, is for fans of Dickson and traditional 1950s style stories who are able to consider older fiction with a large dose of historical perspective. Those who like humorous fiction may also be interested in some of these stories. Otherwise, readers who do not already know about Dickson's importance to the science fiction field or who are looking for stories that are more than just plot should skip this volume.