Gordon R. Dickson introduces a medieval tapestry (perhaps The Lady and the Unicorn in Paris’ Musée national du Moyen Âge)—filled with symbolic representations that make up the sum of the world—as the central framing metaphor for The Far Call (1978). Our idealistic young politician main character sees himself and everyone else as “caught up in its pattern” where “countless threads like his own make up the background.” The brighter threads “would be the movers and shakers among the people” yet no one would be more than a single thread (35). The novel therefore is a sequence of scenes from a near future hyper-realistic tapestry, an intermingling of threads around a particular series of interrelated events: the launch of a spaceship and its journey to Mars. Although cast as a realistic “this-might-really-happen-in-the-1990s” type SF, Dickson aspires to some deeper metaphoric depth behind the vast cast that weaves in and out of the 414 pages.
Dickson’s want-to-be-literary magnum opus fails spectacularly. Numerous non-medieval tapestry metaphors come to mind. I could say that The Far Call is afflicted with a certain bubonic bloat, where each character is a new bubo that reeks and drips… Or, The Far Call looks like a nice new pillow arrayed so beautifully on my bed, the label claims that each character is one of the goose down feathers but as my head touches I immediately realize it is all a deception as they are really each a piece of straw.
The Far Call is a dry and bloated attempt to write a realistic novel rich in character. This sort of realism related to an expedition to Mars would finally come to fruition with Kim Stanley Robinson’s entirely more successful Red Mars (1993). Robinson’s vision succeeds where Dickson fails. Bluntly put, the tapestry of the Mars Trilogy is more engaging and inventive. Where in The Far Call the world of the 1990s is poorly realized, Red Mars manages to evoke a social and political transformation of the future in adept strokes. Where in The Far Call characters who enter the narrative every fifty pages remain lifeless despite endless “inner thoughts” and “pseudo-philosophical rumblings,” Red Mars intrigues with careful characters revelations and their differing philosophical perspectives.
Not recommended. There is a chance that readers obsessed with realistic 1970s visions of future space travel and “hard science fiction” will find some engaging tidbit behind all the belabored prose, awkward characterization, and glacial pace.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
At some point in the 1990s—or the 1970s as the nature of the “future” world is barely an afterthought—Cape Canaveral is happening place as the Mars expedition prepares for its launch. The narrative follows a vast assortment of characters including attractive barmaids, desperate men willing to wiretap for cash, the multi-national (all male) so-called “marsnauts” and their families, and the U.S. Undersecretary for the Development of Space—with all his annoying and belabored disappointing-daddy-who-was-a-famous-senator issues—Jens Wylie.
As Dickson seeks to write a character driven tapestry, he attempts to go into the “inner thoughts” of each and every character and how they feel about everyone else (their families, their lovers, their country, their desires, etc.). Instead of showing these interactions, Dickson follows a firmly defined “template” for each. This “scientific” approach to “character” is painful at best. Their are vast numbers of characters—imagine starting The Wheel of Time series ten books in with all the characters and then introducing each and everyone!
Most of the time the characterization is equally dry: Jens’ inner thoughts about his father, “He had loved Jens as much as any father might have expected to love his only offspring; but Jens had understood early that to the senator there was something unmanly about a son who let his feelings get in the way of his thinking” (11). In this case the “feelings” involved Jens joining the media —> and eventually landing a government position rather than law school —> and eventually landing a government position. Ah, the travails of the wealthy!
Behind the lengthy character exposés is some political oneupmanship. Although the Mars expedition is launched from the US and commanded by an American, they are eager to keep a low profile to avoid looking like they are controlling everything. As a result the expedition is completely overburdened.
Alas, another interior monologue: “Tad Hansard—the Expedition Commander. Our own U.S. Marsnaut. He’s upset over the number of experiments they keep adding to the workload of the Expedition. Every country’s been fighting for as many of its own pet experiments as possible to be part of the program; and the whole program’s got too heavy” (14). As soon as the “marsnauts” launch this program comes to fore. However, as most of the “marsnauts” despite their interior thoughts are never well-realized it is hard to become that interested in their psychological difficulties managing the workload.
Yes, astronauts with too much to do is the main plot point—at least, until a solar storm hits. And Tad Hansard gets a nasty radiation burn. And slowly the expedition appears to disintegrate. Will idealism win out or will the political machinations bring everyone to their knees? Will our cardboard marsnauts get to Mars? I could care less…
How Gordon R. Dickson managed to keep so many novels in print beyond their initial runs is bewildering. Most authors writing at the time produced better work—and supposedly this is his most “mature” novel.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Robert Adragna‘s cover for the 1978 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)
(Kotzky’s cover for the 1989 edition)