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Soldier, Ask Not

Soldier, Ask Not
by Gordon R. Dickson
Published by Dell, 1967
Amazon.com: paperback
Amazon.ca: paperback
Amazon.co.uk: paperback
Suggested by: Elliot Hanowski
[Soldier, Ask Not]

Book Rating
Rated 3 (Highly Recommended) by: nobody
Rated 2 (Recommended) by: 1 person
Rated 1 (Suggested) by: 1 person
Rated 0 (Reviewed) by: nobody
Total Votes: 2 people
Average Rating: 1.50 (Recommended)
Score: 0.30 (Reviewed)

Soldier, Ask Not is a novel by Gordon Dickson, published in 1967. It was originally a short story by the same title, which won the Hugo award in 1965.

One of the most memorable passages includes this song:

Soldier, ask not - now, or ever,
Where to war your banners go.
Anarch's legions all surround us.
Strike - and do not count the blow!
Glory, honor, praise and profit,
Are but toys of tinsel worth.
Render up your work, unasking,
Leave the human clay to earth.
Blood and sorrow, pain unending,
Are the portion of us all.
Grasp the naked sword, opposing,
Gladly in the battle fall.
So shall we, anointed soldiers,
Stand at last before the Throne,
Baptized in our wounds, red-flowing,
Sealed unto our Lord - alone!

I finally got around to reading it this past week. Soldier is set in Dickson's Dorsai universe. The premise is this: when humanity left Earth to colonize other solar systems, it split into a number of highly specialized cultures. The Dorsai are super soldiers, something like the Spartans or Frank Herbert's Fremen, though they seem more sophisticated and cultured. The Exotics are the ultimate philosophers, psychiatrists, and mystics. There is a scientist culture, as well, though I don't remember if it has a unique name.

The Friendlies, who sing the battle hymn above, are a culture of religious fanatics. They inhabit bleak and stony worlds without significant natural resources, so they are forced to send their people offworld as cheap mercenaries. They are governed by a theocratic Council of Churches. Despite this, and their frequent references to God and "the Lord," it's hard to tell if they are Christians or not. There's a single reference to their flag having a cross on it, so I suppose they are. We don't really hear much about their beliefs, other than a conviction that they are God's chosen people, and that they are all equal in His sight. They also seem to have commitments to being plain, obedient, iconoclastic, and depressing.

I expected this to mean that Dickson was criticizing Christianity or religion in general, but that doesn't seem to have been his goal. He includes in his story the Catholic planet of St. Marie, which doesn't get along with the Friendlies. The conclusion of the book also indicates that he was trying to make a different point. Essentially this culture embodies the more dour aspects of the Puritans (think Oliver Cromwell) and Calvin's Geneva. Their cannon fodder approach to warfare reminded me of Iran's 'human wave' attacks in the Iran-Iraq War. And I couldn't help thinking of the Murdstone siblings from David Copperfield:

"...what such people miscall their religion, is a vent for their bad humours and arrogance. And do you know I must say, sir," he continued, mildly laying his head on one side, "that I don't find authority for Mr. and Miss Murdstone in the New Testament?"
"I never found it either!" said I.

The book's protagonist, Tam Olyn, is raised by an uncle with an aggressively nihilistic philosophy. While planning to leave home, he finds himself at the site of Earth's Final Encyclopedia project, where he has an almost-mystical experience. The Final Encyclopedia seeks to compile all human knowledge and thus understand humanity's potential in an objective way. The director of the project comes to believe that Olyn is the successor he's been desperately waiting for. An Exotic explains that his strange experience indicates he is one of a handful of human beings who have control over their own destiny, as well as power over the future of the species. Olyn's not interested in putting his skills to work for anyone else, and he leaves to pursue a career as an elite journalist.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, but it's in this career that he comes into conflict with the Friendlies, and resolves to destroy their culture. In the process, we see the ugly side of their fanaticism. It's this aspect that made the book seem like it would be just another exercise in fundie-bashing, but gradually we come to see that reality is more complex than Tam thinks. He's not a likable protagonist, and it becomes clear that he's imbibed more of his uncle's destructive nihilism than he likes to think. It's in his struggles with himself and others that he finally comes to see the difference between fanaticism and faith, between blind obedience and unshakable personal integrity. Dickson is more interested in faith as a human trait than in the object of that faith, but he does seem to say that the religious impulse is an integral and important part of human nature.

Dickson creates memorable characters with a few deft strokes and describes backdrops well enough. On the whole, though, I didn't think this book was particularly well written. It suffers from the problem much SF historically has – rushing from idea to idea with little regard for literary style. Still, some of those ideas and images are going to remain with me for awhile. (July, 2006)

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Other Comments:

Soldier, Ask Not deals with problems of faith and duty, differing viewpoints, justification for war, etc. Though I don't always agree with Dickson's understanding and treatment of people of faith, others may find it spot on, and he does it pretty fairly. This is just one of the numerous books in the Dorsai or Childe Cycle series, which is pretty good overall, and as a unit highly recommended, imo. The whole series deals with some very thought provoking ideas about the nature and development of mankind. See the following discourse for more info on the overall theme of the series: www.rafaelsabatini.com/Dickson_Sab.html – Rick Shepherd

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