I recently read a few short Gordon R. Dickson stories – the Survival! book – and find them interesting enough to go over here.
“The Question”: a small band of men, on a world overrun by aliens, continue to fight despite the inevitability of defeat. And the alien high command needs to know why men fight. These man all have different personalities, different beliefs, but they all keep on fighting. Why?
I can definitely see the Hivers launch a few manipulations to get their answer. But the actual fighting races – the Aslan and the Vargr – don’t ask such questions.
“Our First Death”: a young woman dies, and her last will – to be left in peace, without any autopsy – is ignored for the good of the colony.
The violation of sacred boundaries is common enough in survival situations: from Mal using the bodies of his friends to decorate his ship and pass Reaver inspection in the movie Serenity, to the murder of a family for the sake of their bread in No Blade of Grass.
Most authors today make a show of how they are willing to ignore morality in order to survive, but that’s merely Standard Operating Procedure in today’s culture. Of more interest to me is the prices to be paid for it, a price generally left unmentioned today.
Of course, some boundaries are not truly sacred – Jesus gleaning fields on the Sabbath, say – but there are other boundaries which are – the commandment against murder, or the laws that protect the stranger.
(I like the 73rd Psalm’s viewpoint: Justice comes slowly, but it does come, in time and on earth. For evil cultures, this is all that is needed; but it only a partial payment arrives for evil men. Full payment comes later…)
“No Shield From the Dead”: A very secure, safe, and powerful man is broken and indirectly killed by the skilled manipulation of the very surveillance that supposedly protects him.
The story reminds me of those Close Protection Units who guard the politically powerful: “the two-edged sword” always nearby, always watchful, always lethal.
Also… old men who are going to die soon anyways may well pull a kamikaze. Words, not physical strength, is the hardened foundation of most killing done in this life.
“The Underground”: An ultra-loyalist heads to the bunkers with his Leader, and receives the reward he has earned.
The writer served in the U.S. Army from 1943-1947. From that tidbit, you can make a good guess where he’s going with the story.
“After the Funeral”: A psionic bond lasts beyond death.
As you may suspect, this is NOT a Good Thing. It makes me wonder about Zhodani death rites…
“The General and the Axe”: An old (human) genocider, who wiped out the population of earth, is then ordered to make the surviving Earther population (off-world at the time) reproduce and grow… a population which has no interest in life, now that their homeworld is dead.
This story smells false to me, at least initially: genocidal professionals always want 100% completion, after all.
But hold on a minute: this has happened before. After the American Indians were broken as an independent power, there was a desire to keep a few around in various reservations on unwanted land. In part to provide bureaucratic jobs for the very first American welfare culture, and also as a kind of toy for various visionaries in Washington: toys taxpayers can pay for.
Interesting, this story goes the other way: the easy living provided by the free tech ends with the destruction of the infrastructure, and the locals, forced to fight to live, get their mojo back. The General lives to see the end of the short story, but probably not much longer than that: the first thing free men do is kill monsters that threatens their people, after all.
“Button, Button”: a hardened union leader and a fading starlet work together to survive in space, on automated spacecraft. Knowing the right button to push is of importance to the story.
A comedy, the pair marry, as this insures they cannot testify against each other in court. (This story was written before non-disclosure agreements become popular.)
“Rescue”: a scout discovers a long-lost human tribe, and offers the headman the opportunity to rejoin interstellar society. The headman knows that this will eventually mean the loss of power, and has said scout killed.
The tribal leader hasn’t quite thought things through, as he hasn’t considered what happens when weak hunter-gatherer tribes meet expanding, aggressive civilizations. Then again, it’s quite likely that this particular tribal leader will die in peace, regardless of what happens in a few years or decades, so it’s win-win for him!
“Friend for Life”: an off-worlder discovers that his friend has been murdered. He demands justice, but because the colony needs the desperately-needed technical skills of the murderer, justice is denied.
That excuse isn’t good enough for me, as it opens the door to tyranny. (Or at least an above-the-law Feudal Technocracy…) Skills can be learned by others, after all.
But note that the protagonist of the story refuses to learn the skills needed for the murderer to be sent to court… and for the ‘hero of the story’ to remain on the colony world for the rest of his life. Even getting the wife of the murdered friend isn’t enough to persuade him to make that kind of sacrifice.
A Referee may find the concept useful as a story driver, though: justice is indispensable, but there is a price for it in the real world. Are the PCs willing to pay it?
“Carry Me Home”: a low-tech barbarian who successfully joined and served in a high-tech military service goes back home.
At its core, a simple story of a fighting man, and of a war won for the nation, and lost in his heart.
“Jean Dupres”: A human colony attempts to survive among strange, warlike, yet ceremony-bound low-tech aliens. And a boy becomes an alien in spirit, even as he continues to fight them in the flesh.
Another story drawing on the colonial small wars era, to see how men survive or die in a pre-industrial war. Both the humans and the alien culture are drawn with care and good characterization.
“Breakthrough Gang”: Humans and their civilizations (including starfaring ones) are used as tools, to break other species before being unknowingly packed up and left to rebuild another human culture from the stone-age to the starfaring age… and then ‘turned off’, packed away, and replanted.
A bit unconvincing. Sure, if you use evolutionary assumptions, you can have species far mightier than men out there… but why would they bother with us?
In a mere three centuries or so, humanity (defined as ‘descendants of Adam, regardless of DNA structure’) will be rather different than we are now, when the implants and the tailored gene sets arrive: probably as alien as we are to the run-of-the-mill hunter-gatherer cultures… and probably a good deal superior to the Elder Race that Dickson envisioned.