Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, May 14, 2012

1986: The Forever Man (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Frustratingly tedious dialogue moves nowhere (1/5)

I've read time and time again that Dorsai is Dickson's major work and is essentially considered a classic. While I have yet to obtain a copy of Dorsai (1959), after reading two of Dickson's novels I'm in no hurry to pick up a copy even though it's a so-called "classic." More notable would be Dickson's collection entitled In the Bone (1987). He can write some great short work with clever unfolding and wrapping up. The same can't be said for the two novels I've read.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The ancient starship La Chasse Gallerie is found drifting perilously in space. Despite heavy damage from alien Laagi warships, incredibly the ship is still intact and the voice of its pilot, Raoul Penard, comes through loud and clear. But Penard died over one hundred years ago... On earth, frantic investigation reveals that Penard may be dead but his mind is very much alive.. merged with the ship itself. The staggering potential of this evolutionary breakthrough compels the scientists to embark on a technological journey of astonishing discovery..."

Jim Wander is an ace space fighter pilot who loves his ship, AndFriend. When a call from General Mollen comes, Jim is eager to return to flight and fight the Laagi aliens in the space border between the two civilizations. However, the word comes that a 100 year old derelict ship has been found within the Laagi sphere of influence, a border war which has spanned five generations. The ship rings of the voice of its pilot, and the mission is to return with the ship and pilot intact. Aboard with Jim is the psychologist Mary Gallagher.

After recovery of the vehicle, it's soon revealed that the pilot had died decades ago but still lived on as an insane non-corporal form; the pilot had miraculously transfered his mind into the structure of this ship! Because of Jim's proximity to this earth-shattering discovery he is detained in the same building as the laboratory which investigates the mind of the insane disembodied pilot and the ship he resides in. Now the science is in the hands of the military: "the living human essence could exist independently of the normal human biochemical machinery" (47) which "breaks loose from the rest under the strain of what, to the person involved, is an intolerable situation." (59)

Soon, Jim finds himself under such intolerable strain as he's kept away from his pride and joy: his fighter AndFriend. Mary and Mollen have schemed to place Jim's "essence" into his fighter for a secret mission based on information gathered from the rambling pilot of the stricken vessel he helped save. Mary, too, has left her body to ride shotgun on the trip around Laagi space. Together, they are aiming from the region of space closer to the galactic core.

But again, Jim plays the part of the pawn when Mary allows the ship to be captured by Laagi forces. The alien race, culture and physiology unknown to humans, is set to be under examination by the psychologist with methods learned from the "essence" displacement. What they discover on the alien planet is a mystery which serves for long-term study and extensive examination, all of which they must undertaken while being embodied in the captured ship.

This premise sounds excellent with alien cultural anthropology as the main focus of Jim and Mary's Laagi region exploration. Unable to leave the ship, they embed a sliver of the ship into the body of a janitor. This enables Jim to impart some of his essence in the commanding of the low-intelligence alien, whose species acts as servants to the larger Laagi. Jim has a hypnotic lock placed on his capabilities with the ship while Mary pours over the abundance of information being fed through the eyes of the little janitor alien.

In regards to the xeno-anthropology, the Laagi civilization in very interesting. The Laagi aliens are driven to work and only work. There's no sign of art or leisure time with all their waking time being dedicated to work. They even hunker down and takes naps while working. They have a butler species, nicknamed the Squonks, which have a similar sleep and work pattern. When either the Laagi or the Squonks die during their duties they are simply removed and placed with the other trash. The treatment of the Squonk that Jim and Mary employee can be seen as a sort of torture. Given that work satisfaction is what the alien enjoys, they torture by sending the little creature on a quest through the city to find a nonexistent key, thereby robbing the Squonk of any satisfaction from completing his task. The Squonk is simply used as a vessel to witness the customs of the Laagi race. This just adds a whole new level of dislike for Jim and Mary. Jim's frustration builds for months while they overwork the poor butler-cum-snoop. The alien's culture is interesting enough to warrant to novel a high rating... if it weren't for the perpetual back-and-forth dialogue.

The 375-page novel is simply too long to have tiresome ping-ponging dialogue through and through. There's also hypothesizing between Jim and Mary, arguments, moody outbursts, grand assumptions, and casual information diarrhea. If either of the two characters were written to be likable, then Dickson failed miserably because the duo are quarrelsome with Jim being the hotshot pilot know-it-all with always accurate assumptions and a encyclopedic knowledge base; contrastively is the ever questioning female who's submissive to demands, asking for forgiveness, and always on the heels of Jim's assumptions resulting in argument after argument. This ping-pong dialogue stretches for scores of pages even when they finally reach the space beyond the rear of the Laagi frontier. The dialogue becomes steeped in the basics of initial language contact becoming drawn out, tedious, tedious, tedious, tedious, and unmoving.

It felt like Dickson wrote his novel like a shot from the hip, typing words that streamed from his mind to never become edited. There are chunks of pages which are dedicated singlehandedly to interstellar navigation... which is all basically unfathomable. The navigation technique is referred to later in the book but I had very little foundation, even after 8 pages of dialogue about navigation, to understand the importance. It's one of the more shoulder-shrugging aspects of the book besides some awkwardly written passages which, again, read as if shot from hip: "[...] he thought of human dancing, real dancing, and he had to admit to himself that in essence, it was communication in a sense." (314) Some sentences beg to be reread because, as petty as they are, the message within was conveyed in a convoluted manner.

What once sounded as an interesting premise of essence displacement ultimately weighed down the possibilities of the plot. With Jim and Mary stranded within the confines of a metallic hull, only speculative dialogue can occur in tedious chapter after tedious chapter. There's a serious lack of "oomph" which propels the plot to a grand conclusion. Instead of that oomph, the reader is given a plodding plot that tiptoes and ping-pongs until the last page of the book, where a raised eyebrow or pained grimace meets the closing words, "[...] and they walked out together." (375) I will happily part ways with this book. Dorsai may eventually be purchased and read but I hesitate to dive in. I do, however, lustily eye another Dickson collection on my shelves: Mutants (1970).

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