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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Antagonist by Gordon Dickson and David Nixon

Antagonist by Gordon R. Dickson and David W. Nixon. New York: Tor, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-312-85388-4

As an avid science fiction reader for many years, I have always been a big fan of books in series, especially when the series forms a grand design of the future. Classic examples include Robert Heinlein's loosely connected “Future History” and “Lazarus Long” series, Larry Niven's “Known Space” series, and of course, Gordon R. Dickson's “Childe Cycle,” also known as “The Dorsai Series.”

In the case of Dickson, he had outlined his intentions for the series well before his death. It was supposed to consist of six science fiction novels, three historical novels, and three novels set in contemporary times. But, as an established science fiction author, Dickson apparently found the science fiction part of the story easier to write, or more fulfilling. At any rate, none of the historical or present day novels were written before his death, and the six proposed science fiction novels had expanded into several more, along with various short stories and other novels set in the same universe. For a good summary of the series, and how the various extant works fit into it, read the Wikipedia entry on the Childe Cycle.

It is also worth mentioning that the name "Childe Cycle" comes from the famous Robert Browning poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which was also the creative impetus behind Stephen King's equally remarkable "Dark Tower" series.

Now comes this novel, which continues the cycle where Dickson left off. Apparently Nixon was Dickson's assistant, and had access to Dickson's extensive notes and other materials. Antagonist continues the story of Bleys Ahrens, who is indeed, the Antagonist. He seemingly opposes the vision for the future of the human race that is embodied in The Final Encyclopedia, which was the title of one of the previous novels in the series. His opponent is Hal Maynes, the current head of The Final Encyclopedia project, who, in one of the stranger aspects of the cycle, is seemingly the reincarnation of at least two people previously important in the saga.

Bottom line: do I recommend this book to current readers? Well, unless you've been following the cycle, and have at least read The Final Encyclopedia (1984), Young Bleys (1991) and Other (1994), you probably won't make a lot of sense out of Antagonist, and if if you make sense out of it, may not find it particularly interesting or entertaining. But if, like me, you're a fairly devoted fan of the cycle, it will be essential reading.

It is a bit disconcerting to read entire novels told from the perspective of Bleys Ahrens, who we've been previously conditioned to regard as the bad guy. It is almost impossible not to identify with the primary protagonist of any novel, and Ahrens is not depicted as an evil monster, nor is he shown doing anything particularly egregious in the story. Rather, he appears driven by his own inner vision for the future of the race, which to him is inevitable and essential, but which the reader in the know will believe to be completely wrong.

To be completely honest, as is not uncommon with series like this, grandiosely conceived on an epic scale, it is much easier to write exciting and rewarding stories set within the series than it is to pull the entire framework together into a coherent or completed whole. The much earlier Dorsai novels are, in my view at least, some of the best science fiction ever written, and are highly recommended to anyone who hasn't read them. I've read several of them more than once, and hope to read them all again, someday.

But this book, and the sequel(s) I hope are yet to come, are recommended primarily to the avid fans of the series, like myself. For us they are essential reading. For other, more casual readers, you can't go wrong with the earlier Dorsai novels.


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