Dorsai!. Gordon R. Dickson
Original Publication: 1959
Current Availability: Print
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in July of 2009, and is reprinted in the August 2011 issue of Freelance Traveller and here with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Marc Miller has mentioned numerous books that influenced Traveller in just one of his interviews, and so I’m less convinced that they had much major impact on the game. Herein, I cover one of them.
This fourth review discusses Dorsai!, the first of Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe Cycle books, originally published as The Genetic General in 1959.
About the Story
Dorsai! is the story of a boy, Donal Graeme. He is a Dorsai, which is a race of man who are especially trained for battle and who are the great mercenaries of the sixteen worlds.
The story itself is told in a rather unique manner. It covers nine or ten years, focusing on the story of Donal as he rises up through the ranks, beginning as a “Cadet” and very quickly moving on to higher plateaus. It also focuses on Donal’s interactions with one William of Ceta.
Genre & Style
In 1959 two books were published within a few weeks of each other. One of them was Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while the other was Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai!. It is no exaggeration to say that these two books created the military science-fiction subgenre, which still publishes actively today. They weren’t the first books in the genre, but they did popularize it.
The two books also give military science-fiction two different directions to move in. Starship Troopers highlighted the ideas of infantry and powered-armor suits while instead Dorsai! was built upon great navy battles in space. These have both continued as strong directions for the subgenre, probably thanks only to the near-simultaneous publications of these originating novels.
As a ground-breaker for the genre, of course Dorsai! embodies many of the themes and elements of military science-fiction. What’s more impressive is that it still continues to be very readable today. Donal is a real character, that you’ll care about and enjoy watching him go through life. Beyond that, Dickson describes military tactics both entertainingly and believably. As a biography of the life of a military man, Dorsai! is top rate.
However, I do have some problems beyond that, most of which didn’t really emerge until the end of the book. I won't spoil things, but I will say that the conflict between William and Donal isn’t dramatically presented in such a way that it can truly hold the spine of the book. In addition, the climax spins off into silly areas of philosophy that remind me of Frank Herbert (who I suspect was influenced in his creation of Dune by Dorsai!).
Overall, Dorsai! was a great read, but in some ways less filling than I would have liked, resulting in a Style of "5" and a Substance of "3".
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
So, I said that this was one of those books which Miller had listed as an influence on Traveller, but which I was more dubious of. Does it really seem to be at the basis of any of Traveller?
I remain dubious.
There’s no question that Dorsai! is foundational military science-fiction, and I think there’s also no doubt that Miller and others imagined at least part of Traveller as a military science-fiction role-playing game. The one has to have influenced the other in general ways. Nowadays, Dorsai! remains a great general source of military science-fiction theming that might influence your own Traveller game.
However, it’s equally obvious that the specifics of Dorsai! didn't go into this game of ours. Maybe Dorsai!’s chameleon battledress became Traveller’s battle dress but that was the closest specific element I could find. Dorsai!’s space travel works quite differently from that in Traveller, and Dorsai! military depends upon very general “contracts” for mercenaries, as opposed to the much more specific “tickets” of Traveller.
Mind you, I think there’s a lot that a Traveller GM could find for his own use. I like the idea of Dorsai’s mercenary code, which gives mercs the right to question their merc leaders. I also like some of the ideas of Dorsai’s merc contracts, such as the fact that they can be traded around, that there might be specific “loyalty” clauses that keep you from going over to an enemy, etc. It’s just stuff you’d have to introduce to Traveller on your own, rather than building on something that’s already there.
If Dorsai! influenced Traveller it was only in the general way of a foundational military science-fiction book influencing the first military science-fiction RPG, but given that foundational basis, and the fact that it's a fun read, Dorsai! can still be a useful influence for your own Traveller game with a military feel.