Gordon R. Dickson


This book is dedicated to Harry Frank and Martha Frank, without whom I could never have hoped it to be what it is.


Chris Clayton

Juanita Coulson

John Fentriss—Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Harry Frank—University of Michigan-Flint

Michael Longcor

Peter McLeod—University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

John Miesel

Sandra Miesel

Kenneth S. Norris—University of California-Santa Cruz

Anne Passovoy—Chicago, Illinois

Robert D. Passovoy—Chicago, Illinois

Irene Pepperberg—Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, Department of Anthropology

Edward O. Price—University of California-Davis


I can’t remember when I first read something by Gordon Dickson. Every now and then (usually when the basement floods and I have to move my paperbacks to high ground) I thumb through an old issue of Galaxy or Astounding and run across a story that I remember clearly and with fondness and “discover” that Gordon Dickson wrote it. I guess you go from reading a particular author to being a reader of that author when you begin to look for his books and stories. That happened over twenty-five years ago.

But if I can’t say when I began reading Dickson’s work, I certainly know why I have continued to do so. First, he’s a dandy storyteller. Even in the mid-1960’s, the Dark Ages when a lot of first-rate science-fiction writers produced a lot of second-rate imitations of avant-garde “mainstream” literature, you could count on Dickson for good, basic storytelling. Stuff with a beginning, a middle, and an end in plausible settings with characters you’d like to meet.

Secondly, the science in Dickson’s work is often behavioral science rather than physical science. This is not to say that his futuristic novels lack the usual trappings of hyperspace travel, disintegration beams, and the like, but these are mere technological furnishings. He never bothers the reader with tiresome lectures about how they actually work, and I can’t remember a single plot that depended on curious properties of neutron stars or the paradoxes of faster-than-light travel. It’s not that I don’t enjoy these plots. Asimov and Niven do it splendidly, and I enjoy it very much—but I don’t know enough about physical science to appreciate it.

Also, I freely admit to a behavioral scientist’s bias in such matters: I spend less time wondering about how we’re going to get to the stars than I spend wondering about what we’ll do when we get there.

I not only find it congenial that Dickson looks to behavioral science for the “hook” in many of his plots, but also that he does so with scrupulous integrity. He doesn’t take liberties with the meaning of a scientific concept just to exploit its current popular appeal. None but Man, for example, is less a science-fiction novel than it is a parable about the clash of cultures. It illustrates far better than many cultural-anthropology texts the role that culture plays in equipping us with glasses through which we interpret reality, and how difficult it is to realize that others with other values, or glasses, can view the world differently but with perfect validity.

Similarly, the solution to the problem confronting the central character in The Alien Way was ultimately resolved by recognizing that different evolutionary pathways—even if they lead to similar end products—can leave very different instinctual residues. Indeed, Dickson hung the plot on the character’s recollection of work reported by Peter Krott in Natural History magazine on foraging patterns in bears. The research was reported faithfully, the pivotal connection with the plot was plausible, and even the citation was accurate.

Consequently it was with more than my usual sense of anticipation that I settled back to read the title story in the Dickson anthology In Iron Years. The cover illustration showed a man carrying something vaguely similar to the Finnish version of the AK-47 assault rifle and accompanied by a rather medieval, but recognizable representation of a wolf. I had worked with wolves and compared wolf and dog social behavior for several years and looked forward to seeing how Dickson would weave into his plot the complex subtleties I’d found to be so elusive and fascinating. When I finished the story, I was not merely disappointed—I was downright angry. Dickson had given his reader nothing but an overgrown dog wrapped in wolf’s clothing!

Exit the reader; enter the pedagogue. The setting in one of Dickson’s novels had described enough of the local landscape and downtown area for me to surmise that the locale was his own hometown. With nothing more to go on, I called information and, to my surprise, was given a listed telephone number for one Gordon R. Dickson. I called, spoke to one of his assistants, left my name—complete with academic affiliation, which I thought might pique his interest—and to my surprise got a return call in less than an hour.

Exit the pedagogue; enter the reader. I don’t recall much of our conversation. I only remember how congenial and self-effacing and gracious was the person on the other end of the line. I sent him a few reprints of some of my early wolf-research papers, casually dropped his name for a few days with students and colleagues I knew were science-fiction readers, and promptly filed the conversation away under “interesting people I’ve met.”

A few years later I received another telephone call. Gordon told me that he was expanding In Iron Years into a novel and wondered if I would be willing to read the passages describing wolf behavior and check them over for authenticity. I promptly agreed, and so began my role as Gordon Dickson’s wolf consultant.

I was flattered, and I looked forward to the satisfaction of contributing even in a minor way to a work by a favorite author. Gordon doesn’t know it, but most of my colleagues I told about the project were very dubious. I won’t catalog the list of pitfalls they envisioned for me. I don’t really remember them—I only recall that they were pretty gloomy. But I thought it would be great fun. They were wrong. I was right.

In retrospect, I can see all sorts of problems that might have cropped up and made the project a painful chore. That it turned out to be—as I had blithely expected—great fun was because Gordon is the person he is. I don’t mean this to sound condescending—but he is the sort of student every teacher hopes for. He is interested in everything, immerses himself in technical and theoretical details, asks questions that I have to think about for several days, and comes out of the whole thing with a sure and confident grip on essentials. It is fortunate for his fans that he made fiction his life’s work. But if he had not done so, I feel certain that he would have had an equally illustrious career in any of the sciences.

John Le Carre said that authenticity is less important than plausibility. For Gordon, authenticity is the way to achieve plausibility, and it’s not just a means to an end. It’s a passion. It was not sufficient that he understand enough about certain aspects of wolf behavior to ensure that these were presented faithfully. He had to know everything about wolf behavior. He not only read books and papers I recommended, but questioned me about them to be certain he had understood them properly. And he went way beyond the books I recommended. He went way beyond what I could tell him with any firsthand confidence and sent me scurrying to the telephone to call friends and colleagues who had more experience with wolf behavior in the wild, who knew someone who knew someone

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