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Literature: Childe Cycle
The Childe Cycle is an unfinished science fiction series by Gordon R. Dickson, with a setting stretching from the late 21st century into the 24th. Many of the stories in the series feature the Dorsai, an extremely capable warrior people who hire out to interstellar society as mercenaries.

While the various stories have different themes and plots, the series focuses on the human characteristics of Faith, Philosophy, and Courage. Dickson apparently meant the series to be an allegory about the development of humanity.

The Main Cycle

The main series consists of six novels, with a projected seventh and final novel left unfinished at Dickson's death:

  1. Dorsai! (1959): The career of Donal Graeme, a Dorsai Mercenary who matches wits with the ambitious Prince William of Ceta.
  2. Necromancer (1962): Set in the late 21st Century, it follows Paul Formaine as he deals with the mysterious Chantry Guild and its war against a supercomputer.
  3. Soldier, Ask Not (1967): Tam Olyn's quest for revenge against the puritanical Friendlies. Set around the same time as Dorsai!
  4. Tactics of Mistake (1971): Cletus Grahame, ancestor of Donal, begins to revolutionize warfare on the newly settled Younger Worlds.
  5. The Final Encyclopedia (1984)
  6. The Chantry Guild (1988)
  7. Childe: Dickson's unfinished work, probably meant to be the climax of the Cycle.

Short Stories / Novellas

Stories published together in Lost Dorsai (1981):
  • Lost Dorsai: Tells of a Dorsai who has turned to pacifism caught in the middle of a revolt.
  • "Warrior": Ian Graeme (Uncle of Donal), confronts a gangster over an officer's death.

Published together in The Spirit of Dorsai (1979):
  • Amanda Morgan: Set in the later half of Tactics of Mistake, it tells of the defense of the Dorsai from the perspective of the titular character.
  • "Brothers": As a result of the events of Soldier, Ask Not, Ian Graeme must find who murdered his twin brother.

The Bleys Novels

Also included are three novels following the perspective of Bleys Ahrens, the antagonist of The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild:

  1. Young Bleys (1991)
  2. Other (1994)
  3. Antagonist (with David W. Wixon) (2007)


The Childe Cycle provides examples of:

  • Absent Aliens
  • The Alcoholic: Montor ArDell, a brilliant Newtonian who got stuck working for William of Ceta. He despises the Prince so much that he drinks... a lot.
    • The Eeyore: Poor Montor is such a depressing fellow.
  • The Alliance: The Western Alliance and Eastern Coalition.
  • All There in the Manual: The New Dorsai Companion by David W. Wixon. Based on details from Dickson, it provides information on the universe of the Cycle not provided in the novels.
  • All Your Base Are Belong to Us: Dow deCastries leads an invasion of the Dorsai in the climax of Tactics of Mistake. He even occupies Grahamehouse with Melissa and her father. It turns out to be the final mistake for deCastries. Cletus has spent years forcing Dow into this position, so his Alliance-Coalition Troops would be easily defeated by the elderly, young, and sick of the Dorsai.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Tam, William, and deCastries play this straight - Tam wishes to be free from the contract system, and uses his powers for selfish gain. deCastries is power hungry, and wants all the worlds under him. William seems to be motivated purely by his ambitions. Inverted with Donal, who wants to become "the greatest general that ever was!" and proceeds to do just that. But unlike the previous examples, Donal isn't self serving and is does plenty of good along the way.
  • Armor-Piercing Question - After Cletus Graeme has forced Melissa Khan to marry him as part of his overarching strategy, Melissa has only one question; "Then you never loved me?" "Did I ever say I did?" Cletus responds, and leaves the room. This tells Melissa all she needs to know. He loves her. If the answer was no he wouldn't have evaded the question.
  • Artificial Gravity
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: It is implied, but not quite certain, that this was the desired end state of the Myth Arc never completed because of Author Existence Failure.
  • Autodoc: Medical Mechs, one of which shows up in "Warrior".
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Cletus Grahame, Donal Graeme, most other major Dorsai characters
  • Badass Bookworm: Cletus Grahame.
  • Badass Family: The Graemes. Being Dorsai, they are all naturally badass. But Donal, Ian, and Kensie are military geniuses, and their family was founded by Cletus Grahame, who helped make the Dorsai the feared supersoldiers they are.
  • Badass Normal: Burton McLeod, compared to the rest of the Chantry Guild.
  • Big Book of War: Written by Cletus Grahame.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Thanks to the Phase Shift Drive, ships can go through a series of jumps to get to different star systems. However, trade between the stars tends to be expensive, but people can take a spaceship as if traveling on a boat or an aircraft.
  • The Chessmaster: William of Ceta, Donal Graeme, Tam Olyn
  • Combat Pragmatist: The Dorsai. While they do believe in thinking outside the box, they would never, ever, violate the "Mercenaries Code". When one person asked one of the Dorsai commanders if he had ever shot prisoners, the commander got quite threatening about the idea that he would ever do such a thing.
  • Conscription: The Friendlies practice this, as does Cassida, for their troops. In general, most of the younger worlds are able to conscript anyone by selling their contract without approval of that individual.
  • The Coup: Dorsai! and Soldier Ask Not has these as part of background events, usually part of some larger plan.
  • Death from Above: How Donal deals with a sneak attack Having taken preparations to detect the attack, he orders his men to climb the trees and stay silent. With their Chameleon camouflage and being so high, they wouldn't be seen by their foes. Once the attackers were under them, Donal orders his forces to fire from the trees.
  • The Determinator:
    • The Dorsai and Friendlies.
    • Ian Graeme exemplifies this trait in Warrior. He goes to Earth to confront a gangster who was responsible for the death of one of Ian's officers. Never mind Ian didn't even like the officer, that the officer was executed rightfully, or that the gangster is well protected (both legally and physically). Ian will not let any of that prevent him from fulfilling his own duty.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: The Tactics of Mistake. The title comes from the hero's tactical doctrine, which calls for a series of feints, that gradually draw the enemy into an untenable position, at which point he attacks, and demolishes them. In fact, his later descendents will use this to great effect.
  • Deflector Shields: Not for most of the books, but in The Final Encyclopedia one is established around the entire Earth.
  • Do Anything Soldier: Donal is not only capable of leading ground troops, but can also command warships as well.
  • Everything's Louder With Bagpipes
  • Excited Show Title!: Dorsai!
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Friendlies are based roughly on the Roundheads of the The English Civil War, while The Dorsai are loosely based on historical Swiss mercenaries.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Space travel is achieved through a series of jumps called phase shift, where the ship is annihilated at one spot and reconstituted in another. The jumps not only have to be extensively calculated (the ship must be located absolutely in the universe, and its destination point must also be exactly calculated, to the same degree), the jump itself has a psychological effect on the crew and passengers, so the more often the jump, the greater the psychic shock and the closer the people on board get to insanity. Tranquilizers are made available to help lessen the experience, but cannot nullify it. This is a subplot point in Dorsai! , where the effect is shown during a raid on a planet - something nobody thinks possible.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Prince William may seem like a polite old businessman. But under that, he's very cunning and ruthless.
  • Fictional Field of Science: The Exotics have a social science called ontogenetics that allow them to perceive patterns in human history and to a certain degree predict which individuals and events will be key points in the evolution of humans to a higher state of being. While the exact details are intentionally left vague, it is said to involve calculations that take into account every person in all the world, as well as how institutions and societies shape the pattern of history and human evolution. One component of the science is the idea that certain individuals have an unusually large impact on the pattern of history. Gordon R. Dickson often uses this as something of an lampshade and in-universe justification for the fact that his Main Characters (some arguably rising to the level of The Chosen One) all play a major role in the movement of the Myth Arc toward his planned final ending
  • Fictional Geneva Conventions: The Mercenaries Code.
  • Four-Star Badass: Most Dorsai officers, including Donal and Marshall Galt.
  • Galactic Conqueror: Donal Graeme becomes the Protector of the human worlds.
  • Gambit Pileup: The real politics of the Fourteen Worlds are handled by individual power brokers, each one dealing with each other, making plans with one person, and planning another thing with someone else behind their back. Donal takes advantage of this during the Venus peace conference.
  • Great Big Library of Everything:The Final Encyclopedia, which is a database of all human knowledge. The thing is so massive, it has to be sent up to orbit to be fully functional.
  • Guile Hero: Donal Graeme and Cletus Grahame.
  • Hero Antagonist: Jamethon Black in Soldier Ask Not. He stands in contrast to Tam's perceptions of the Friendlies - a faithful man not driven to extremes. Jamethon's Faith is what foils and saves Tam.
  • Heroic BSOD: Donal in Dorsai! blacks out after discovering his brother's death, but not before mentally tormenting William. After waking up, Donal takes pity on William and heals his mind.
  • Honor Before Reason: In "Warrior", Ian risks his life for his duty.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: The Chantry Guild in Necromancer has the ability to use what they call Alternate Forces to create magic-like effects, including teleporation. It is strongly implied that these abilities are present among many of the Exotics. Also, Donal Graeme's unique abilities could be called Psychic.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Ships are sometimes lost through phase shift travel.
  • Hyperspeed Ambush: Donal Graeme stages a daring raid against an enemy planet in Dorsai!. He uses multiple swift hyperspace jumps to simulate a huge armada attacking his enemy, even though it drives him and his crew to the edge of collapse, with each jump leaving them more and more in pain and disorientation.
  • Informed Attribute: In Dorsai! we are constantly being told how special Anea the Select of Kultis, a genetically designed superwoman, is but she acts like a standard dimwit Pulp heroine. Donal actually advises her to stop trying to do things and just sit there looking lovely and desirable.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Tam Olyn. He takes risks to advance his own agenda.
  • Invisibility Cloak: Chameleon Battle-Dress, which allows it's wearers to visually blend into the environment.
  • It's Raining Men:
    • In Dorsai!, Military troops drop from their ships onto a planet.
    • In Tactics of Mistake, the Dorsai mercenaries are trained as jump troops - men using jet belts to deploy from aircraft into a landing zone.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Though energy weapons do exist, many directed energy weapons and chemical-propelled weapons can be stopped by long range jamming. In the field, the best weapon is Spring Rifle - a needle-gun like weapon that is designed to resist such countermeasures.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
  • Loners Are Freaks: And those who isolate themselves from the rest of humanity are actively dangerous.
    • Donal Graeme was always considered strange to everyone. And despite his genius and friends, he still feels separated by his friends. It turns out he's a superhuman, with a different thought process as others. In addition, finds he cannot accomplish his goal of uniting humanity alone. As the "main character" of the Cycle, he not only has to travel in time (though not in the same body) to not only set historical events in motion, but to change their significance in history so that not only events but people are in place for a Final Battle.
    • Soldier, Ask Not with Tam Olyn.
    • Played to a extreme in the short story Brothers with Ian.
    • Bleys Ahrens suffers from an extreme and self imposed case of this trope. His antagonist Hal Mayne must actively learn to connect with ordinary people.
  • Love Is a Weakness: William uses this to his advantage, using Anea as bait to bind men like Hugh Killien and Ardel Montor to him and make them do what he wants.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Hugh Killien leaves his command to spend time with Anea alone. As a result, most of his men die in an attack, and Donal has him executed.
  • Magical Society: The Chantry Guild in Necromancer. It's a loose alliance of alternative groups from Luddites to anarchists to satanists. They're all connected by the Guild's founder who wishes to destroy technological society to save mankind. They form the basis of the Exotic society.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • William displays this, using people's feelings as part of his schemes.
    • Upon discovering his potential, Tam immediately uses his powers to manipulate others for personal gain - even his own sister.
  • Master Computer: The World Complex in Necromancer
  • Merchant Prince: Prince William of Ceta in Dorsai!. Using his business talents, William managed to acquire enough political power to de facto rule a planet. And managing to manipulate the interstellar market, almost conquered all of inhabited space.
  • Metal Poor Planet: Most of the Younger Worlds in the cycle, save for Coby and Cassida. It plays an impact on the economics in what they export.
  • Military Science-Fiction: The stories focusing on the Dorsai tend to be this, however Gordon R. Dickson was less concerned about the particulars of military conflict that he was advancing his larger Myth Arc.
  • Myth Arc: As originally envisioned, the Cycle was to stretch from the 14th century to the 24th century; the completed books begin in the 21st century. The cycle deals with the conflict between advancement of human kind. It also deals with the interaction and conflict among humanity's traits, most importantly Courage, Faith, and Philosophy.
  • Naming Your Colony World: The Cycle has fun with this, using New Something, Symbolica, and Mnemosyne. Though one wonders what "Dorsai" and "Kultis" means.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: The Newsman's Guild. Thanks to the main currency being professional skills, and everyone needing accurate news, the Guild is rich and able to do things other NGOs typically can not. With their wide readership, the group is also influential, and its members were exempt from their contracts being traded without consent. This last reason that entices Tam to become a journalist - he wants total freedom in his life.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: William in Dorsai!.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: What kicks off the plot of Soldier, Ask Not - a Friendly fanatic massacres POWs, which Tam Olyn is helpless to prevent. With his only chance to help his sister (the only person he cared for) gone, Tam decides to get revenge by destroying the Friendly culture.
  • The Obstructive Love Interest: Anea Marlivana from Dorsai and Melissa Khan from Tactics of Mistake
  • One World Order:
    • Played straight with the Exotics, the Friendlies, Newton and Cassida. They're all worlds governed by strong, central planetary governments. Though the Friendly worlds suffered from Sectarian violence, their theocratic republic is the main power.
    • Zig-zagged with Ceta. Despite the various nation-states, William has de facto control of the planet thanks to his economic manipulations.
    • Subverted with the Dorsai's United Cantons. Since the Dorsai are fierce individualists, the planetary government has no real power.
  • One-Product Planet: The Trope Codifier, see Planet of Hats bellow for details.
  • Only One Name: William of Ceta, whose last name is never referenced at all.
  • Overnight Conquest: Donal pulls one off by invading and conquering Ceta. Justified in that William sent most of it's fighting forces away as part of his master plan. By the time Donal's forces dropped on Ceta, all that remained were local police, militia, and training cadres.
  • Peace Conference: One of the key events in Dorsai!, were the planetary leaders attempt to discuss a resolution to the Contract issue.
  • Place Beyond Time: Faster-Than-Light Travel operates in part by creating a condition where time is inoperative, allowing ships (or individual people, sometimes) to choose their own location in the universe.
  • Planet of Hats: Many of the colonized planets have developed into highly specialized "Splinter Cultures". The reasons for this is that humanity is unconsciously trying to figure out what is the most important aspects of humanity. In addition, with trained specialists as the interstellar currency, planets have no choice but to either fit into an economic niche or fail. See the Character Page for details. Subverted in that while the Splinter Cultures may focus on a singular character, not everyone is going to take that profession. Not all Dorsai are soldiers - they need fishermen and other jobs to run a society.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: The twins Kensie and Ian Graeme. Both are Dorsai. Ian is the epitome of the Warrior - seemingly aloof and intimidating by his sheer presence. Kensie is his polar opposite - warm, caring, social - everything that Ian is not. In the stories it's implied that together the two make up one individual.
  • The Political Officer: The Friendlies have "Conscience Guardians" who seek out heresy among their troops. Interestingly enough, the Guardians authority is only over their Church members and not foreign mercenaries. They also keep their forces from bickering with each other over issues of religious doctrine, preventing tensions within their army.
  • Practical Currency: Due to high transport costs, interstellar currency largely consists of the trade of skilled professionals. So if a planet needs something or someone, they simply hire out another person in exchange. Many planets have specialized in certain fields to survive. The system not only affects interstellar politics, but drives the plot in several stories.
  • Private Military Contractors: Both the Dorsai and the Friendlies depend largely on revenue from jobs as mercenaries. The Dorsai tend to be the elite forces, while the Friendlies specialized in providing more numerous, fanatical Cannon Fodder. The other worlds also hire out troops, but the Dorsai and Friendlies corner the market.
  • Psycho Sidekick: Lee in Dorsai!. Due to medical reasons, he's unable to tell right from wrong and has social difficulties. Lee knows how troubled he is, and needs a cause to stay functional. He'll do anything for that cause. Fortunately, he found Donal, who keeps him on the straight and narrow.
  • Quantity vs. Quality: In the mercenary market, the Friendlies have the Quantity, while the Dorsai have the Quality.
  • Reincarnation: In a manner of speaking.
  • Retcon: The original versions of Dorsai! and Necromancer listed Newton orbiting Arcturus. This was revised to have the planet located in the Alpha Centauri system.
  • Robot War: The Chantry Guild versus the World Complex.
  • Shocking Defeat Legacy: Minor example when Donal stages a raid on Newton disguising it as a full attack. The shock is so great, it gets Newton off from blackmailing the Sirius system.
  • Space Cold War:
    • In "Tactics of Mistake", the Earth-based Western Alliance and the Eastern Coalition are vying for influence with the new colonies.
    • By Dorsai! and Soldier Ask Not, the Fourteen Worlds are divided between "Tight" and "Loose" Contract planets. "Tight" societies can sell their citizen's contracts without consent. "Loose" worlds allow people some say were their contracts go, most of the time. Since their economics depends so much on these contracts, the conflict between the two systems drive much of the politics.
  • Space Navy: The major powers have their own permanent space navies by the time of Dorsai!.
  • Spell My Name with an S:
    • Cletus' original family name was Americanized into "Grahame". He later changes it back to "Graeme".
    • Conversed in Necromancer. When Burton McLeod is introduced, the protagonist pronounces it "McCloud". Burton then points out how the spelling is different.
  • The Stoic: Ian Graeme; when his twin is killed he underreacts to the point that people think he just doesn't care. (They're wrong. Really, really wrong.)
  • Straw Nihilist: Mathias, Tam's Uncle, who raised him and his sister Eileen.
    • Abusive Parent: Mathias isn't physically violent nor neglectful, providing his home with his niece and nephew. The problem is his nihilistic attitude - it discourages Tam and Eileen severely.
  • Storming the Castle:
    • In Dorsai! Donal does what is considered military impossible, and conquers Ceta.
    • Also occurs in "Warrior", where Ian must confront a heavily armed and well protected hoodlum in his own penthouse. A police officer tries warning Ian that it's a Suicide Mission. But Ian manages to neutralize his foe's goons without any violence, and manages to invoke the hood into taking action first.
  • Swiss Army Gun: The "dallygun" from Tactics of Mistake.
  • Take Over The Worlds: William's master plan.
  • Teleportation Sickness: Phase shifting causes people to become sick, likely because their minds can't handle the fact they were instantly pull apart and reconstructed. People need to take medication before each shift, and repeated multiple jumps can be lethal.
  • Terraforming: Many of the worlds of the Cycle have been terraformed to one degree or another.
  • Time Travel
  • Title Drop: Somewhere in each book or story, the title will be mentioned.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Donalís reaction when he discovers Anea wants to destroy her Contract. Not only is a personís contract made from a nearly indestructible material, but attempting to destroy one is carries a death sentence everywere. Even more shocking is that Anea is a Select of Kultis, the height of Exotic genetic engineering and training Ė she should be more controlled and logical than that.
  • Trope Codifier: With Starship Troopers and H. Beam Piper's Uller Uprising, Dorsai! helped shape the modern conception of Military Science-Fiction. Dorsai! in particular introduced cunning and hyper-aware military commanders, psychopathic aides, religious-focused fanatics, and space mercenaries. Donal traits can be seen in Col. Falkenberg and Grand Admiral Thrawn. Lee serves as the seed for the psychopathic Joachim Steuben. The Friendlies tend to invoke the fanatical Brotherhood of Nod.
  • The Unfettered: Tam Olyn. He will let nothing stop his quest to destroy the Friendlies as a culture.
  • Universe Compendium: The New Dorsai Companion by David W. Wixon, printed in the Lost Dorsai collection.
  • Veteran Instructor: During Donal's time as Protector of Procyon and later as Commander-In-Chief, Ian trains his nephews' ground forces to become excellent troopers.
  • Villainous Breakdown: At the end of Dorsai! William of Ceta suffers a nasty one when Donal stops his plans. He's so out of it, William kills Donal's brother and leaves the body on display.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: William of Ceta in Dorsai!. As part of his manipulations, he sets up a crisis that gains support for his take over all the inhabited worlds.
    • Discussed between Donal and William. After ruining one of his plans, the Prince demands what protects the Dorsai while being in his presence. Donal replies "public opinion." William then notes that "I know that type of armor from personal experience."
  • Villain Protagonist: Tam Olyn in Soldier, Ask Not. He doesn't care who gets used or hurt in his manipulations. Worse, his plots could negatively affect the future of mankind.
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: In Necromancer, the protagonist transfers his consciousness to a body in a morgue.
  • Warfare Regression: Long range countermeasures have actually reduced the effectiveness of many weapons.
    "Weapon for weapon, any thug in the back alley of a large city had more, and more modern firepower; but the trick with modern warfare was not to outgun the enemy, but carry weapons he could not gimmick. Chemical and radiation armament was too easily put out of action from a distance. Therefore, the spring-rifle with its five thousand-sliver magazine and its tiny, compact, non-metallic mechanism which could put a sliver in a man-sized target at a thousand meters time after time with unvarying accuracy."
  • Workaholic: William's major trait - when not at a party to influence interstellar affairs, he's alone at his desk hard at work.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Anea keeps calling Donal a Mercenary in trying to insult him. However, he points out that the term doesn't mean what she thinks (A selfish, unscrupulous hireling). The term in-universe generally refers to any solider hired to fight, and as the Dorsai prove can just be as honorable as regular soldiers.

Starship TroopersHugo AwardThe Sirens of Titan
Charlotte's WebLiterature of the 1950sChildhood's End
BoloMilitary Science-FictionCoDominium
The Chemical Garden TrilogyScience Fiction LiteratureChildhood's End

alternative title(s): Childe Cycle
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