The Childe Cycle is an unfinished series of science fiction novels by Canadian writer Gordon R. Dickson. The name Childe Cycle is an allusion to "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", a poem by Robert Browning, which provided considerable inspiration for elements in Dickson's magnum opus.
The series is sometimes referred to as the Dorsai series, as the Dorsai people are central to the series. The related short stories and novellas all center on the Dorsai, primarily members of the Graeme and Morgan families.
While, on the face of it, the Childe Cycle is a science fiction series, it is also an allegory. In addition to the six science fiction novels of the Cycle, Dickson had also planned three historical novels and three novels taking place in the present day. In an essay in his book Steel Brother (Tor, 1985), Dickson describes how he conceived the Childe Cycle, the panoramic "consciously thematic" treatment of the evolution of the human race, and the planned contents of the six never-written novels. Each group of three novels would include one focused on each of three "archetypes, the Philosopher, the Warrior, or the Faith-Holder." The first novel's protagonist would be mercenary John Hawkwood, who lived from the 1320s to 1394. Hawkwood "has been referred to as the first of the modern generals." He defeated a Milanese ruler who might have stymied the Renaissance. The second historical novel was to deal with the poet John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) in the period he served as a "Faith-Holder" and "Fanatic" ... "propagandist for the Cromwellian government." The third historical novel's focus would have been on Robert Browning whose "poetry is a vehicle for his philosophy." The three twentieth century novels would have focused on: "the life and character of George Santayana to showcase a Philosopher," a World War II "Warrior," and a female "Faith-Holder" in the 1980s. The latter novel was expected to deal with issues of space colonization, beginning a thread continuing through Necromancer and concluding with the full formation of the Splinter Cultures.
As originally envisioned, the Cycle was to stretch from the 14th century to the 24th century; the completed books begin in the 21st century. The cycle deals with the conflict between progress and conservatism. It also deals with the interaction and conflict among humanity's traits, most importantly Courage, Faith, and Philosophy.
The science fiction novels of the main Childe Cycle include:
The final book, to have been titled Childe, had not been completed at the time of Dickson's death, and has never been published. Dickson's essay in Steel Brother says it was to chronicle a battle "in which the adventurous part of the id family wins its identity over the conservative part, and the human identity is made whole again."
In addition, there are four shorter pieces and three novels that take place in the same fictional universe as the Childe Cycle, but are not part of the core cycle.
In the latter volume, the stories are framed by a conversation between Hal Mayne and the Third Amanda Morgan, during the events of The Final Encyclopedia. "Warrior" (1965) and "Brothers" (1973) had previously appeared in other publications. The four works have since been collected in one volume as The Dorsai Companion (1986).
The three other novels are:
These three novels concern the background and development of Bleys Ahrens, the antagonist of The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild. They take place in the decades leading up to those books, and were apparently added to the original series outline to provide more detail of the ultimate conflict in Childe. 2007 saw the publication of Antagonist, finished by Dickson's long-time assistant David W. Wixon.
The first published reference to the Dorsai appeared in "Lulungomeena", a 1954 short story published in Galaxy Science Fiction and later dramatized on the X Minus One radio program. The narrator is a man from "the Dorsai planets," who has been working far from home for a long time. The story portrays the Dorsai people as tough and matter-of-fact, but says little else about them.
The main sequence novels basically fall into four periods approximately a century apart.
By the late 21st century, human culture begins to fragment into different aspects. Following the events of Necromancer, humanity has colonized some 14 Younger Worlds. The inhabitants of these worlds have evolved culturally, and to some extent, genetically, into several specialized Splinter Cultures. This was done by the racial collective unconscious itself as an experiment to see what aspects of humanity are the most important. The inhabitants of Earth (now called Old Earth, since New Earth is one of the Younger Worlds) remain "full spectrum humans" as a control.
The interstellar economy is based on the exchange of specialists, which puts Old Earth, the jack of all trades, at something of a disadvantage.
Of all the Splinter Cultures, three are the most successful:
Other Splinter Cultures include the hard scientists of Newton and Venus, the miners of Coby, the fishermen of Dunnin's World, the engineers of Cassida, the Catholic farmers of St. Marie, and the merchants of Ceta.
The internal consistency of the series suggests that the resolution to be sought in Childe is the evolution of Responsible Man, individuals who integrate the three disciplines of the Dorsai, the Exotics, and the Friendlies to the overall advancement of humanity, and who do possess explicit if not yet well-defined paranormal abilities. As of The Chantry Guild, only Donal Graeme/Hal Mayne has achieved the full status of Responsible Man. The conflict which drives this evolution is the developing war between Old Earth, supplemented by the Dorsai and the Exotics, and the organization of Others led by Bleys Ahrens, with the aid of the Friendlies and a powerful (but largely irrelevant to the psychological conflict) coalition of the technically inclined younger worlds. The strength of the Others is that they are hybrids of two of the Splinter Cultures (Ahrens is of Friendly and Exotic extraction), and while less capable than the emerging Responsible Men they are significantly more numerous, and more interested in gaining power for themselves (as by Ahrens using his combined background to manipulate the entire Friendly culture to support his war against the Dorsai, Exotics, and Old Earth).
Dickson has admitted that he was frequently inconsistent on the total number of inhabited worlds. The correct total is sixteen, under nine stars (counting Alpha Centauri A and B separately). Some uninhabited planets also play a role in the series.
Throughout the series, Dickson's primary interest is the characters, not the hardware, much of which is explained only to the point where the reader will understand how it relates to the people around it and thus share the author's imagery.
The invention of the phase-shift drive allowed the colonization of the Younger Worlds. (The drive used in the Childe Cycle appears in many of Gordon R. Dickson's works.) It uses an application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. During a jump, a spaceship's position becomes infinitely uncertain, and occupies every position in the universe, before resolving again at a specific point. The jump itself is instantaneous, but each jump requires a lengthy calculation. A jump is never exact, and long journeys require several jumps, each getting closer to the final destination. A certain percentage of jumps never resolve, and the ships are never seen again. Because of this, the higher the number of jumps, the greater the risk. By the 24th century, a ship could jump directly off a planet's surface, but only the Dorsai are brave/foolhardy enough to do this on a routine basis.
When the phase-shift drive was first invented, a jump would cause passengers severe disorientation. During the Necromancer period (21st century), the disorientation was so bad that the technology was limited to inanimate cargo. The invention of certain drugs enabled human passengers to use the drive. By the 23rd century, these drugs were only necessary in the case of repeated jumps. By the 24th century, the jumps were hardly noticeable.
A large part of the series focuses on the exploits of the Dorsai. In the face of escalating countermeasures, the Dorsai choose to use relatively simple weapons, which are both reliable and effective. The other militaries follow suit.
By the 23rd century, the average civilian sports hunter has a more technologically advanced weapon than the average soldier. In fact, "advanced" small arms are treated with derision, such as the "Dally Gun" which Cletus uses to break up an ambush in Tactics of Mistake. The Dally Gun is possibly derived from a Cadillac Gage weapons system of the 1960s, the Stoner 63, which (like the "Dial-A-Gun" from the story) was designed with interchangeable components for reconfiguration as needed for a particular mission. While the Stoner 63 received significant use with the SEALs of the U.S. NAVY up until 1980 (with high praise regarding both durability and reliability, although it was a bit heavier than other comparable systems), the Dally Gun was considered a failure.
The main infantry weapon throughout the Cycle is the cone rifle. This simple weapon, patterned after the Gyrojet series of small arms, uses chemical-rocket-propelled flechettes. These flechettes are cone shaped, allowing them to be stacked into tubes. The rifles are little more than launching platforms with triggering mechanisms. Because the cones (which explode on impact) accelerate after being fired from the rifle, they are more deadly at long ranges than short.
Also used are spring rifles, utilizing a 5,000 sliver magazine in a non-metallic mechanism to fire a sliver up to one thousand meters.
Power guns (energy weapons) were available as early as Cletus' period, where his aide is nearly killed with one. Sonic cannons are also used as weapons.