Book Review: The Far Call, Gordon R. Dickson (serialized 1973, book form 1978)

THFRCLLXXXX(Robert Adragna’s cover for the 1978 edition)

2.5/5 (Bad)

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

THFRCLLWPC1978

(Robert Adragna‘s cover for the 1978 edition)

THFRCLLBXX1978

(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

BKTG01787

(Kotzky’s cover for the 1989 edition)

44 thoughts on “Book Review: The Far Call, Gordon R. Dickson (serialized 1973, book form 1978)”

  1. Wow, this is one of your best reviews this year… And I’m not just saying that because you savaged another crappy Dickson novel! Sounds like a dreadful wasted opportunity since the ideas have some promise, but my experience with Dickson leaves me underwhelmed and expecting a dull mess.

    1. Thanks, I didn’t think the review was that good. I was too angry to really “analyze” it. I needed the book OFF of my desk. All the while much better novels sit waiting to be reviewed, White’s All Judgement Fled, Bishop’s catacomb Years, Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World…

      Thanks!

    1. Yeah, there’s no need. His short stories—I reviewed a collection a while back—were just as dull. I did read The Alien Way (1965) (review on site) and, as of now, it’s the best of his work I’ve encountered.

        1. This received an honorable mention at the Hugos for 1979. But I understand that he is definitely more famous for the Dorsai novels — but, I doubt anyone things that they are “mature” works (they are simple pulp really). I have not read them and don’t plan on it anytime soon although they are on my shelf.

            1. He is considered a major SF author. Not sure why. People always point out the Dorsai novels but those can’t be the only reason….

              Clute’s write-up of his work on the SF encyclopedia seems to hint at potential but never really states outright that “he is good.”

              http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/dickson_gordon_r

              He calls The Far Call “ambitious” (which it is) but doesn’t say if the ambition pays off (which it doesn’t).

            2. Maybe at some point I’ll pick up Dorsai — just to read across the genre (it is supposedly an important early military SF novel i.e. my least favorite subgenre). Or, perhaps Sleepwalkers’ World (premise seems intriguing).

            3. Could be years Richard, could be years…. I have so much good stuff to read! I was in the mood for a realistic exploration novel but, not any more! Give me New Wave! Give me radical visions! Give me SF about memory, old age, strange futures, etc.

              I bought a copy of Roberts’ Pavane — will read it while in France for a few months this summer (archival research).

            4. That’s good then,I’m glad I won’t have to rush out and read them yet! We sometimes have very different tastes in books,and I think in this case I’d still be dubious.I think the’d really have to make your brains explode,for me to go after them!

              “Pavane” is excellent.If you’re looking for unread stuff ,go for any Ballard books you haven’t read,Olaf Stapleton’s “Star Maker”,Gene Wolfe,George Martin’s “Ferve Dream”,”Mythago Wood”,Angela Carter.I think I’ve mentioned most of them before,but the’re all quite radical or brilliant,which is what you’re looking.The one my appreciation is aimed currently aimed at,is Harlan Ellison.

              Have a good time in France.

            5. That’s good then,I’m glad I won’t have to rush out and read them yet! We sometimes have very different tastes in books,and I think in this case I’d still be dubious.I think the’d really have to make your brains

              explode,for me to go after them!

              “Pavane” is excellent.If you’re looking for unread stuff ,go for any Ballard books you haven’t read,Olaf Stapleton’s “Star Maker”,Gene Wolfe,George Martin’s “Ferve Dream”,”Mythago Wood”,Angela Carter.I think I’ve mentioned most of them before,but the’re all quite radical or brilliant,which is what you’re looking for.The one my appreciation is currently aimed at,is Harlan Ellison.

              Have a good time in France.

      1. I enjoy Ellison as well — he came and visited my site a while back….

        Pick two books which I loved and you HATED (curious).

        I think we agree more than we disagree. I adore Ballard — everything i’ve read of his is planned (very important), beautiful, and thought-provoking — I don’t think I expect more than that.

        As for France, well, I when i go I tend to spend most of my time staring at esoteric Latin texts produced by medieval Dominicans… And I eat pastries, tons… I am also going to Scotland and England this time around (pleasure, rather than research i.e. Paris).

        1. I know,I read it.I’ve neglegted Ellison’s darkly unsettling but honest stuff in the past,partly I’m ashamed to say,because he only wrote short stories,at least in his sf.A more important and acceptable reason though,is because so little of his stuff has appeared on the shelfs,and nothing of his has been published,shame on them,in the Gollancz Classics series,not counting “Dangerous Visions”,which includes one by him.

          I’ve just sent off for “All the Sounds of Fear” from Amazon,the first volume of two published in Britain,that was printed in one book in the USA as “Alone Against Tomorrow”,the other being “Time of the Eye”,which I read many years ago.I’ll let you know what I think.I still think the best one I’ve read of his,was “Jeffty is Five”.

          Two books? Well.for a start,”Dune” and “The Centauri Device”.Agree totally about Ballard though.He stands on the top tier among science/speculative fiction authors.

          If you didn’t realise it yet,I live in England.Who knows,we might bump into each other!

  2. I’m no longer quite certain which of his books I’ve read, but not this one, I’m sure. Quite glad I didn’t, reading your review!

    The general idea’s been done to death now, and by better writers, but his novel The Dragon and the George was quite fun and fresh in the mid 70s when it came out, even if it was based on a 50s short story!
    (Much later he stretched the idea into an over-long series… )

    1. I enjoy the premise actually of this novel: the human interactions, the backstories, the eventual launch of the Mars craft, etc. BUT, this was so incredibly dull…. If you introduce a vast number of characters I would hope that at least one of them would be interesting.

  3. Caught this on JW Kurtz’s blog…excellent stuff! I love all the old cover images, too–this is a treasure trove! And I think that literature, movies, etc., no matter how bad, NEED to be reviewed by conscientious souls willing to do so (although it’s very hard sometimes, as a writer myself, to critique somebody else’s work). Glad I found this. I will be following you! Thanks!

  4. Dickson was considered a major writer when the science fiction field was a lot smaller and a lot more forgiving of crappily written books if the ideas were good. These days, why would you read him when there are so many better, newer writers to chose from?

    I got a couple of his Dorsai novels, one or two collections and I don’t dislike them as much as Joachim does, but dullness is probably the right charge to lay at Dickson’s feet. Most of it just plods along, neither particularly bad, neither good, never all that surprising.

    1. “These days, why would you read him when there are so many better, newer writers to chose from?”

      I find this a strange question. I adore 70s SF — this was supposedly one of Dickson’s best. It seemed to be a logical work to try. And yes, I am often disappointed by my dabbling but I often find gems that should be read more often. It’s part of the fun! As for newer writers, there are tons of atrocious newer authors as well. So I don’t really understand the point.

  5. I recently read Dickson’s “Brothers” in “Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology” edited by Harry Harrison (1973). Easily the most powerful and memorable story in that all-original collection. Which is not necessarily a good thing. In this case, because of the Lt. Calley (My Lai Massacre) thinking of the Dorsai: “Someone in this city assassinated one of our beloved brothers, so we’re going to burn this whole city to the ground.” Being the only Dickson Dorsai story I’ve ever read, I don’t know if he means to show the Dorsai as exemplary, or if he’s just examining the level that some soldiers can sink to. If the former, it’s a sickening story. If the latter, it’s an admirable piece of fiction.

    1. If I encounter an copy of that anthology I’ll pick it up — I suspect I’ll run into more of his short fiction in the various anthologies I read. I haven’t given up on him yet (for good or bad).

      1. Dickson is hit or miss. I remember reading and enjoying “Wolfling” and “The Alien Way” in my teens. But about a decade ago, I tried reading “The Pilgrim Way” and couldn’t get past the first fifty pages. Because it was so incredibly dull. Which it shouldn’t have been, given the premise.

      1. I speak foolishnish. My god look at those covers I love this blog. Have you read fountains of paradise by arthur c clarke with the awesome cover with beams of light shooting from a cave shaped light a lions mouth from earth up to the moon?

        1. Definitely! Some that come to mind: Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, James Whites’ All Judgement Fled, Varley’s Titan, etc. And of course Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

            1. My friend over at MPorcius’ Fiction Log loves Orbitsville — I have yet to read it. Although I’ve reviewed other novels of his on my site.

              http://mporcius.blogspot.com/2015/02/orbitsville-by-bob-shaw.html

              My other friend over at PotPourri of SF Literature hates it… But, I guess you’ll have to read it yourself!

              http://sfpotpourri.blogspot.com/2013/07/1975-orbitsville-shaw-bob.html

              I hope to have a review up of All Judgement Fled soon — but I have a backlog at the moment.

            2. Ah, the Potpourri review reminded me of Pohl’s Gateway (1977) — another Big Dumb Object novel — loved it. Dark, freudian, ruminative…. The main character is something of an anti-hero who is difficult to galvanize into action .

  6. I recently read Clarke’s “The Lion of Comarre” (novella, 1949) and enjoyed it. I generally prefer Clarke to those other two “Big Three” authors, Heinlein and Asimov. But in terms of sheer writing power, he falls short of Kuttner & Moore, Leiber, Lafferty, and others.

    I’d better stop, as I’m entering the realm of arguing for personal taste. Which can be endlessly useless. 🙂

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