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THE DICKSON EDGE
I know what you're thinking. . . .
(And it's not "Do I feel lucky?" If you're looking at this page, you have a hefty hunk of first-rate science fiction by Gordon R. Dickson in hand, so you are lucky, regardless of
what you may feel. I wouldn't recommend buying a lottery ticket, however—lucking into
a Dickson book may have used up your quota of good fortune for the day. . . .)
You're thinking, these are twelve stories by the same author, all on the same subject, so there's liable to be a certain similarity from one story to the next. . . .
Actually you are right about there being a similarity from one story to the next, except that the similarity is that all the stories are well-crafted, ingeniously plotted, show a wide range of tone (sometimes amusing, sometimes grim, sometimes a bit of both), and never fail to entertain.
Or, to put it more succinctly, the certain similarity is that these stories are all by the same grand master: Gordon R. Dickson.
Why should anyone want to listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations, after all? I mean, two sides of an LP—if you remember LPs—or an entire CD taken up by thirty (or thirty-one,
if you count the reprise of the aria) variations on one tune, and played on one instrument, either harpsichord or piano . . . how much variety can there be in that, right?
I'm not going to claim that Gordon R. Dickson was in Bach's league (but then, who in at least the last 100 years has been?), but as with Bach, you are dealing with a high order of talent and craftsmanship. And Dickson can ring ingenious and fresh changes on one theme.
The theme: when human meets alien, even a more technologically advanced alien, said alien had better not get too cocky. Humans can be very tricky when they need to be, giving them an edge—the human edge.
James Blish, reviewing a Dickson novel several years ago, commented that while many critics lumped Dickson and another sf master, Poul Anderson, together, there was a notable difference. Anderson's characters might prevail, or they might fail in spite of their valiant struggle, in stories "written from a floor of brave gloom" (as I recall Blish putting it), but Dickson's characters struggled and prevailed. Dickson's universe was neither
impersonal nor hostile, and the human spirit would win, Blish wrote approvingly.
I recall several Dickson stories (but no novels) with downer endings, so he definitely wasn't writing from the Pollyanna side of the Force. (I also recall quite a few Blish stories that I consider gloomy, so he wasn't, either.) But on the whole, in Dickson's universe, man not only endures, but prevails, to crib a line from Faulkner. (Was he in Bach's league?
Algis Budrys once stated that a sure-fire recipe for being thought profound was frequently to reiterate that the universe is very big, and insignificant humans are very, very small. After noting that though the instruments do show that the universe is very big,
that doesn't necessarily say anything about humans. "They are our instruments, after all," he added, "and we somehow managed to build them." He was writing about a writer whom he praised for having "wider horizons" than other writers who were stuck in the big universe/puny humans mode. And while the writer wasn't Gordon R. Dickson, the same description fits his work very well.
So here Dickson is, spinning virtuoso variations on a theme, in stories written years apart, appearing in many different publications, sometimes with humor, sometimes with grim seriousness, and always with wide horizons; not to mention a towering talent for entertaining.
And you definitely will be entertained.
I told you that you should feel lucky, didn't I?
My appreciative thanks to Jim Baen, who had the idea for a Dickson collection on this theme, gave it its title, and suggested the story "Danger: Human" as the opening shot.
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For a curtain raiser, this one takes the viewpoint of the extraterrestrials, a
sympathetic bunch of regular guys, who capture a strange monster called a
"human" and make the mistake of experimenting on him. There may be things
that extraterrestrials Were Not Meant to Know. . . .
The spaceboat came down in the silence of perfect working order—down through the
cool, dark night of a New Hampshire late spring. There was hardly any moon and the path emerging from the clump of conifers and snaking its way across the dim pasture looked like a long strip of pale cloth, carelessly dropped and forgotten there.
The two aliens checked the boat and stopped it, hovering, some fifty feet above the pasture, and all but invisible against the low-lying clouds. Then they set themselves to wait, their woolly, bearlike forms settled on haunches, their uniform belts glinting a little in the shielded light from the instrument panel, talking now and then in desultory murmurs.
"It's not a bad place," said the one of junior rank, looking down at the earth below.
"Why should it be?" answered the senior.
The junior did not answer. He shifted on his haunches.
"The babies are due soon," he said. "I just got a message."
"How many?" asked the senior.
"Three—the doctor thinks. That's not bad for a first birthing."
"My wife only had two."
"I know. You told me."
They fell silent for a few seconds. The spaceboat rocked almost imperceptibly in the waters of night.
"Look—" said the junior, suddenly. "Here it comes, right on schedule."
The senior glanced overside. Down below, a tall, dark form had emerged from the trees and was coming put along the path. A little beam of light shone before him, terminating in a blob of illumination that danced along the path ahead, lighting his way. The senior stiffened.
"Take controls," he said. The casualness had gone out of his voice. It had become crisp, impersonal.
"Controls," answered the other, in the same emotionless voice.
"Take her down."
"Down it is."
The spaceboat dropped groundward. There was an odd sort of soundless, lightless explosion—it was as if concussive wave had passed, robbed of all effects but one. The figure dropped, the light rolling from its grasp and losing its glow in a tangle of short grass. The spaceboat landed and the two aliens got out.
In the dark night they loomed furrily above the still figure. It was that of a lean, dark man in his early thirties, dressed in clean, much-washed corduroy pants and checkered wool lumberjack shirt. He was unconscious, but breathing slowly, deeply and easily.
"I'll take it up by the head, here," said the senior. "You take the other end. Got it? Lift! Now, carry it into the boat."
The junior backed away, up through the spaceboat's open lock, grunting a little with the awkwardness of his burden.
"It feels slimy," he said.
"Nonsense!" said the senior. "That's your imagination."
Eldridge Timothy Parker drifted in that dreamy limbo between awakeness and full sleep. He found himself contemplating his own name.
Eldridge Timothy Parker. Eldridgetimothyparker. Eldridge TIMOTHYparker. ELdrlDGEtiMOthy
There was a hardness under his back, the back on which he was lying—and a coolness.
His flaccid right hand turned flat, feeling. It felt like steel beneath him. Metal? He tried to sit up and bumped his forehead against a ceiling a few inches overhead. He blinked his eyes in the darkness—
He flung out his hands, searching, feeling terror leap up inside him. His knuckles bruised against walls to right and left. Frantic, his groping fingers felt out, around and about him. He was walled in, he was surrounded, he was enclosed.
Like in a coffin.
He began to scream. . . .
* * *
Much later, when he awoke again, he was in a strange place that seemed to have no walls, but many instruments. He floated in the center of mechanisms that passed and re-passed about him, touching, probing, turning. He felt touches of heat and cold. Strange hums and notes of various pitches came and went. He felt voices questioning him.
Who are you?
"Eldridge Parker—Eldridge Timothy Parker—"
What are you?
"I'm Eldridge Parker—"
Tell about yourself.
"Tell what? What?"
Tell about yourself.
"What? What do you want to know? What—"
Tell about. . . .
Tell. . . .
* * *
. . . well, i suppose i was pretty much like any of the kids around our town . . . i was a pretty good shot and i won the fifth grade seventy-five yard dash . . . i played hockey, too . . . pretty cold weather up around our parts, you know, the air used to smell strange it was so cold winter mornings in January when you first stepped out of doors . . . it is good, open country, new england, and there were lots of smells . . . there were pine smells and grass smells and i remember especially the kitchen smells . . . and then, too, there was the way the oak benches in church used to smell on Sunday when you knelt with your nose
right next to the back of the pew ahead. . . .
. . . the fishing up our parts is good too . . . i liked to fish but i never wasted time on weekdays . . . we were presbyterians, you know, and my father had the farm, but he also had money invested in land around the country . . . we have never been badly off but i would have liked a motor-scooter. . . .
. . . no i did not never hate the germans, at least i did not think i ever did, of course though i was over in europe i never really had it bad, combat, i mean . . . i was in a motor pool with the raw smell of gasoline, i like to work with my hands, and it was not like being in the infantry. . . .
. . . i have as good right to speak up to the town council as any man . . . i do not believe in pushing but if they push me i am going to push right back . . . nor it isn't any man's business what i voted last election no more than my bank balance . . . but i have got as good as right to a say in town doings as if i was the biggest landholder among them. . . .
. . . i did not go to college because it was not necessary . . . too much education can make a fool of any man, i told my father, and i know when i have had enough . . . i am a farmer and will always be a farmer and i will do my own studying as things come up without taking out a pure waste of four years to hang a piece of paper on the wall. . . .
. . . of course i know about the atom bomb, but i am no scientist and no need to be one, no more than i need to be a veterinarian . . . i elect the men that hire the men that need to know those things and the men that i elect will hear from me johnny-quick if things do not go to my liking. . . .
. . . as to why i never married, that is none of your business . . . as it happens, i was never at ease with women much, though there were a couple of times, and i still may if jeanie lind. . . .
. . . i believe in god and the united states of america. . . .
* * *
He woke up gradually. He was in a room that might have been any office, except the furniture was different. That is, there was a box with doors on it that might have been a
filing cabinet and a table that looked like a desk in spite of the single thin rod underneath the center that supported it. However, there were no chairs—only small, flat cushions, on
which three large woolly, bearlike creatures were sitting and watching him in silence.
He himself, he found, was in a chair, though.
As soon as they saw his eyes were open, they turned away from him and began to talk among themselves. Eldridge Parker shook his head and blinked his eyes, and would have blinked his ears if that had been possible. For the sounds the creatures were making were like nothing he had ever heard before; and yet he understood everything they were saying. It was an odd sensation, like a double-image earwise, for he heard the strange mouth-noises just as they came out and then something in his head twisted them around and made them into perfectly understandable English.
Nor was that all. For, as he sat listening to the creatures talk, he began to get the same double image in another way. That is, he still saw the bearlike creature behind the desk as the weird sort of animal he was, while out of the sound of his voice, or from something else, there gradually built up in Eldridge's mind a picture of a thin, rather harassed-looking gray-haired man in something resembling a uniform, but at the same time not quite a uniform. It was the sort of effect an army general might get if he wore his stars and a Sam Browne belt over a civilian double-breasted suit. Similarly, the other creature sitting facing the one behind the desk, at the desk's side, was a young and black-haired man with something of the laboratory about him, and the creature further back, seated almost against the wall, was neither soldier nor scientist, but a heavy older man with a sort of book-won wisdom in him.
"You see, commander," the young one with the black-haired image was saying, "perfectly restored. At least on the physical and mental levels."
"Good, doctor, good," the outlandish syllables from the one behind the desk translated themselves in Eldridge's head. "And you say it . . . he, I should say . . . will be able to understand?"
"Certainly, sir," said the doctor-psychologist—whatever-he-was. "Identification is
"But I mean comprehend—encompass—" The creature behind the desk moved one paw
slightly. "Follow what we tell him—"
The doctor turned his ursinoid head toward the third member of the group. This one spoke slowly, in a deeper voice.
"The culture allows. Certainly."
The one behind the desk bowed slightly to the oldest one.
"Certainly, Academician, certainly."
* * *
They then fell silent, all looking back at Eldridge, who returned their gaze with equivalent interest. There was something unnatural about the whole proceeding. Both sides were regarding the other with the completely blunt and unshielded curiosity given to freaks.
The silence stretched out. It became tinged with a certain embarrassment. Gradually a mutual recognition arose that no one really wanted to be the first to address an alien being directly.
"It . . . he is comfortable?" asked the commander, turning once more to the doctor.
"I should say so," replied the doctor, slowly. "As far as we know. . . ."
Turning back to Eldridge, the commander said, "Eldridge-timothyparker, I suppose you wonder where you are?"
Caution and habit put a clamp on Eldridge's tongue. He hesitated about answering so long that the commander turned in distress to the doctor, who reassured him with a slight movement of the head.