111. Our Neighborhood in Fiction

Gordon Dickson’s list of works is huge, but for some of us they all boil down to the Childe Cycle, known to us mortals as the Dorsai books. At some future date I plan a series of posts in appreciation of them, but for now the issue is his use of the local stellar neighborhood.

Dickson provided us with fifteen extrasolar planets circling seven nearby stars. His primary interest wasn’t in planet building, but he had an ability to paint a planet with a broad brush, then close in and give telling details about those local scenes where the action was taking place. It worked; it was just enough world building to carry each story forward.

Since the Childe Cycle consumed twelve novels over forty-seven years, there was plenty of time to visit each world at some time during the series. Some of the worlds, the Dorsai world in particular, were instrumental in shaping the character of the actors, but for the most part, Dickson’s focus was on a larger issue.

Even though the Childe Cycle featured a form of FTL almost from the first, Dickson’s characters never ventured beyond the local neighborhood. The overarching story he was telling concerned man’s early venturing into space, which led to the formation of three splinter cultures, and the semi-mystical forces which were attempting to reintegrate them into the mainstream.

(Yes, Dorsai Irregulars, I know that is an inadequate rendering, but you try putting fifty years of another man’s sophisticated thoughts into one sentence.)

The Friendlies (religious fanatics or men of faith, depending on who was writing the description, and not really that friendly at all) inhabited the planets Harmony and Association under Epsilon Eridani. The Exotics (scientists of the mind, following a believable mash-up of psychology and zen) inhabited Mara and Kultis under Procyon. Dorsai, the warrior world, lay under Fomalhaut. Incidentally, the phrase under (a star’s name) was one Dickson used often. I find it charming, and presume he was exporting to the stars the notion that there is “nothing new under the sun”.

The rest of his planets were well thought out and inhabited by humans who were not of one of the splinter cultures.

Wikipedia has a nice summary of the Childe Cycle, including a full list of Dickson’s planets. Better still go to your used bookstore and start reading.


At the risk of arrogance – a risk any author is always willing to take – I’ll add my own fictional view of the local neighborhood.

My first science fiction novel, Jandrax, used a sabotaged FTL drive to set things in motion, stranding a group of colonists on an unknown planet. The only thing they – or I –  knew about their location was that it was far beyond the limits of exploration, and that none of them were ever going to return.

Cyan was going to be different. I wanted it to exploit the plot possibilities of relativistic flight, and to be a part of the exploration of the local neighborhood. I worked out this backstory as I wrote:

Early in this century, science makes a discovery that allows total conversion of matter to energy, providing the power to reach the stars at relativistic speeds. A multi-ship expedition to Alpha Centauri finds that the planet around Alpha Centauri A which should have been in the habitable zone, actually has an orbit so erratic that it is alternatively fried and frozen. However there is a barely habitable planet circling Alpha Centauri B. They name it Cinder and begin limited colonization.

Every novel of my childhood found an Earth-like planet around Alpha Centauri A; I had to break the pattern.

The second expedition, to Sirius, finds an Earth sized planet in a reasonable orbit for life, but this time the planet Stormking has a Uranian inclination. There is life, but it is basically uninhabitable. This sets up a future novel with an orbiting civilization made up of refugees from the inhabitants of Earth’s asteroid belt. They have chosen Sirius because it doesn’t have a habitable planet. They use Stormking as a prison, which set up the moral basis of the plot.

Three third-generations starships are built in orbit. The first two set out, one for Epsilon Eridani and one for Tau Ceti. A year later, the third set out for Procyon. This is the voyage which is the focus of the novel Cyan. When the explorers return to Earth, they find that the other two expeditions have both found prime planets, Haven and Elysium. Preparations to colonize them are taking all Earth’s resources; Cyan is not to be colonized, which sets up the events of the second half of the novel.

The starship which carried explorers to Cyan now goes on with a new crew to explore Epsilon Indi, before events which I can’t (spoiler alert) tell you about bring this stage of human exploration to a close.

Check out Cyan, due for release in a month or so, for details.


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