Thursday, 19 February 2004

Gordon R. Dickson: Tactics of Mistake (1975)

Edition: Sphere, 1975 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1222

Though Dickson himself is keen that the three novels generally known as the Dorsai Trilogy should be considered to be part of the far larger framework of his Chantry Guild future history of which they form part, there are few science fiction fans who would not feel that Tactics of Mistake, Soldier, Ask Not and Dorsai! are far more interesting and readable than their fellows. The reason for this is simple: Dickson later on let his writing become weighed down by some of the mystical ideas which form a relatively small part of these three novels; interesting they may be, but they dominate the other books to such an extent that the reader is put off.

Tactics of Mistake introduces the Dorsai, a race of mercenary soldiers of the future. The background situation is one which is common in a lot of American science fiction of the period - the Cold War extended over a group of colonised planets. In Dickson's future history, many of these planets are home to groups of specialists - scientists on Newton, the mystical Exotics on Kultis; this, under the name of the Splintering, is one of the ideas central to the Chantry Guild series as a whole: for the human race to mature properly, it needs to split into groups which will each develop a specific kind of human, for later re-integration.

The setting is the planet Mara, host to a small war between the Alliance-backed Exotics, the employers of the Dorsai, and the Coalition-backed Neulanders. Cletus Grahame is an Alliance officer recently arrived from Earth, who has come to Kultis to try out some new ideas he as about military strategy, notably the "tactics of mistake", which basically consists of drawing an opponent into a series of errors at the end of which their position becomes untenable.

There are obviously shadows of the Vietnam War in the novel, and implied criticism of American policy in the opportunistic imperialism which marks both the Alliance and the Coalition. Grahame's tactics similarly seem to criticise American attempts to win in Vietnam by brute force methods - more men, better weapons, rather than tactics suited to the nature of the conflict (as those adopted by the Viet Cong proved to be).

Dickson's writing style is nothing if not mainstream science fiction. The influences of Heinlein and Herbert are clearly to be seen in this novel, for example. Dickson shared with Herbert a desire to make his subject matter more sophisticated than in earlier science fiction; he was here attempting to do for the depiction of military strategy what Herbert had done for politics in Dune. The difference can be seen by citing another example. In E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, the strategic decisions consist of the deployment of a sequence of ever more spectacular weapons, combined with small group operations to disable the enemy command structure. I find it hard to see, however, how the tactics Grahame devises based on the (notoriously difficult to assess) psychology of powerful members of the enemy hierarchy, could be generally applicable. (Think about how hard it has been for Americans to find Osama bin Laden - and I think that Grahame's analysis of future actions of people like Dow Castries are on the same sort of level of difficulty.) Yet Grahame's plans always seem to work perfectly; no miscalculations, no unforeseen difficulties, no chance event ruining things. The only exception to his psychological understanding is his inability to read the woman he wants to marry.

The take on the subject matter may be influenced by Herbert, but the writing style is more firmly in the style of Robert Heinlein's earlier novels (before Stranger in a Strange Land). This is despite Dickson's clear rejection of the type of militarism which is part of Starship Troopers. The Tactics of Mistake is exciting and easy to read. Most serious science fiction fans will probably already have read the Dorsai Trilogy, but if not - anyone who likes writers like Heinlein and Herbert will enjoy it.

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