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Gordon Dickson and Rafael Sabatini

by Fred Reynolds

Gordon R. Dickson's Childe Cycle, which has been called "the grandest saga in the history of science fiction," has an intimate and intricate relation to a work of Rafael Sabatini.

To explain, I'll first introduce Gordon Dickson and his place in modern science fiction. I'll then try to summarize the Cycle, and finish by drawing out some intentional parallels and connections to the works of R.S.


The late Gordon R. Dickson (1923 - 2001) was a multi-award winning author of science fiction, contemporary fiction, and fantasy. He was educated at the University of Minnesota, and, according to his Associated Press obituary, studied creative writing under such notables as Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren. He was a highly prolific author. A bibliography of his work can be found here.

Dickson has been termed the "quiet giant" of science fiction. Despite winning 3 Hugo awards and one Nebula for his science fiction, it is widely held that Dickson is an underrated writer (not unlike R. S.) both inside and outside the genre. Nicholls's and Clute's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes: "very little of GRD's later fiction, however hastily written some of it may seem, fails to pose questions and arguments about humankind's fundamental nature," while acknowledging a "tone of underlying and rather relentless seriousness which became so marked in later works.">

Childe Cycle

Dickson's life work was a series of inter-related novels and shorter works which, collectively, he termed the Childe Cycle. Conceived in the early 1960's, it was to include 3 historical novels, 3 contemporary novels, and 6 science fiction novels (later expanded to at least 7 novels). All novels were to be thematically linked, collectively span approximately 1000 years, and tell the story of an accelerated human evolution, an acceleration that began in 14th century Europe. The term "Childe" is medieval; it refers to a noble-born squire who is in training to become a full knight. Dickson, in the Childe Cycle, wrote to trace the evolution and metamorphosis of humanity from "Childe" to "Knight."

As of January 2002, there are 6 published sf novels directly in the series, and 2 novels and 2 short story collections that Dickson considered "illuminations" to the main series. Dickson's death in 2001 left unwritten or unfinished the historical novels, the contemporary novels, and the capstone novel in the series, which was to be titled "Childe."

Science fiction is often referred to a the "literature of ideas." To the extent this is true, Dickson's Cycle could be considered a quintessential science fiction series. At its heart, the series examines "two parts in particular of the human soul – one which yearns to grow and reach out, one which is determined to conserve and stop all such adventuring into unknown futures," as Dickson himself put it. The story of the Cycle is both a reification of those human traits, and the chronicle of their ultimate and final conflict.

Lest this sounds irredeemably ponderous, let me quickly point out that these books are generally thought of as "adventure stories with depth," a description that could be equally applied to R. S.'s works. Most of these stories are rattling adventure yarns, with swift action sequences and clever, unexpected plots, and very strong characters. Each book is, in effect, the biography of central character that dominates his or her time (many of them soldiers or military strategists – action figures, all), and whose actions either advances or hinders the central argument of the series.

The novels of the Child Cycle, together with their internal dates and central characters, are:

2093-2094 A.D. Necromancer Paul Formaine
2184 Tactics of Mistake Cletus Grahame
2270-2289 Soldier, Ask Not Tam Olyn
2276-2289 Dorsai! Donal Grahame
23xx-2359 Young Bleys Bleys Ahrens
2359-23xx Other Bleys Ahrens
2359-2366 The Final Encyclopedia Hal Mayne
2366-? Chantry Guild Hal Mayne
?? Childe (planned) Hal Mayne and...

In addition, it is known that the first (planned) historical novel, titled The Pikeman, was to focus on the life of Sir John Hawkwood, while the second historical novel centered on John Milton.

Links to the works of Rafael Sabatini

It is through the central character of the Cycle that we link to Sabatini.

In The Final Encyclopedia we meet Hal Mayne, a young man with traits and powers that develop beyond human. Mayne has recurring visions of other times and other lives. It is revealed to him (and us, the readers) through these visions that Mayne himself has lived other lives. Several of the characters in the earlier novels are animated by the same spirit as Mayne himself.

One of Mayne's visions is of a soldier and battlefield of 14th century Europe. In the course of the novel Mayne discovers the identity of the 14th century soldier of his vision: Sir John Hawkwood.

Sir John Hawkwood is a real historical figure. Hawkwood was an English mercenary who become one of the first of the condottiere: mercenary generals of medieval Italy who fought in defense of the Italian city-states. Hawkwood – "the first modern general" – is the first pivotal figure in Dickson 1000-year story, the first who precipitates all the events that follow – the quickening of human evolution.

Sir John was also the real-life character on whom Sabatini based his novel Bellarion the Fortunate.

Dickson was fully aware of this, and wanted the reader to be aware of it, too. From a conversation in The Final Encyclopedia: "Sabatini's Bellarion draws strongly upon the military genius of the actual fourteenth century condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood, from whom Conan Doyle also drew to some extent in the writing of the books that contain the character of Sir Nigel [Loring]. It is generally accepted that John Hawkwood was in part a model for both fictional characters."

[Note: the two Conan Doyle historical romances to feature Sir Nigel Loring are: Sir Nigel, and The White Company.]

Readers of Bellarion the Fortunate might find the following plot synopsis of interest: a young man of established intelligence but unproven experience chances on an encounter with a young woman. The woman, mistaking the young man for another, engages him in a rather bumbling intrigue. The young man, in his efforts to extricate the young woman from her problems, manages to alienate her affections while arousing the enmity of her powerful protector. The mettle of the young man is proved by an escalating series of adventures and battles.

Yes, this is a summary of Bellarion the Fortunate. It is also a summary of Dorsai! And, in case the point is missed, it is also (loosely) a summary of Tactics of Mistake. These books are not pastiche – and certainly not plagiarisms – but read like the updating of a myth.

There are doubtless other Sabatini/Dickson connections. Sabatini, famed for his opening sentences, begins The Snare: "It is established beyond doubt that Mr. Butler was drunk at the time." Dickson's Tactics of Mistake begins: "The young lieutenant-colonel was drunk, apparently, and determined to rush upon disaster."

To conclude: for readers who might like to read of "the further exploits" of Bellarion, or more generally Sabatini-like heroes, in a radically different milieu, might wish to explore Dickson's Childe Cycle.

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Last updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 2002 by Fred Reynolds. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.