All Tomorrows: Necromancer

They raise the call of destruction. They called upon alternate laws of science — the powers of nature men had once called witchcraft, the necromantic anti-science of the past brought forward to save the world by destroying it! – From the back of Gordon R. Dickson’s Necromancer, 1962 edition

Welcome back to All Tomorrows dear reader. It’s been far too long since our last foray into the glories of sci-fi’s deviant age. For that, you have my apologies. My day (and night sometimes) job of journalism has been keeping me busier than usual, and on top of that, a box full of many of my best old books, including a lot of future subjects for this column, disappeared, probably eaten by something unspeakable.

Starting with this column, All Tomorrows will shift to every other week. This will give me the time to write pieces of deserving depth on the works we’ll be tackling. Believe me, we’ve got some doozies ahead.

This time, it’s Gordon R. Dickson’s 1962 Uber parable Necromancer, the tale of a future where the enterprising Chantry Guild has figured out a way to make magic work. Not just metaphorically, but also in the “I chant and stuff blows up” way. Necromancer follows an ubermensch-in-training, who joins the guild’s quest to tear down society.

Way back in the very first All Tomorrows I mentioned a certain subgenre of sci-fi hero that fit this description: With his Uber name, imposing looks and knowledge of a vague future super-social-science, Bron is a riff on the sort of character that, in the hands of older school sci-fi writers, would end up at the head of a space armada, woman breathily clinging to his leg, humorlessly announcing the next stage ™ in human evolution.

Well, Necromancer is kind of like that. Dickson was very definitely a product of that older school, but, on a mystical kick that would presage some of the cultural movements about to rock sci-fi (and everything else) he went out on a limb. While this book has all the implied flaws of the old ways, it keeps many of its strengths — big ideas, tight plotting, suspenseful twists and over-the-top action — while offering a glimpse of what was to come.

Distantly, through the chanting and the swirling smoke, came the sound of a loud-speaker from beyond the closed window.
“Formain! Paul Formain! This is the police. We have you completely surrounded. If you do not come out in two minutes, and those with you, we will force and entrance.” There was a momentary pause, and then the speaker once more rattled the window. “Formain! Paul Formain! This is the police. We have you….”
Meanwhile, in the office the smoke was now so thick that even the cotton block of blasting jelly and its rapidly diminishing fuse was hidden from Paul’s eyes. He seemed to hear the chanting of Jace and Kantele mounting in volume:
“From empty airt when thou’rt past
Everie nighte and alle…
To Alleman’s Ende thou comest at last
Destruction take thee all.”

Paul Formain, a mining engineer of all fucking things, has a problem: he’s lost an arm in an accident, and while his remaining limb has grown monstrously powerful, his body won’t take the replacement his future super-science world could provide with ease. This is probably due to his own identity issues and may be related to those bizarre dreams he keeps having.

If that wasn’t enough, the whole world’s falling apart. Even though everyone has everything they could need, they’re going stark raving mad left and right or are at least profoundly disturbed. This particular concept is, yes, a trope that dates back at least to E.M. Forster’s classic The Machine Stops, but Dickson breathes some new life into it by making the technocracy’s director, Kirk Tyne, not entirely unsympathetic while the Chantry Guild, the mysterious wielders of Alternate Laws (magic) that Formain joins up with, are potentially oppressive and cultlike.

The action’s pretty non-stop throughout the book, and Chantry guilders blowing themselves up to escape the police is just the beginning. There’s an entertaining escalation of Uber feats throughout Necromancer. You know what’s badass? Teleporting to Mars with your brain! Is the all-powerful computer evil? Of course it is! Are rogue marching bands the hordes of the apocalypse? You bet! Are there mind bullets?! Yes! And they’re awesome! By the time Paul’s levitating his frozen clone-body out of storage, there’s a bizarre fun quality to the whole escapade.

Dickson began his writing career in the 1950s after a World War II military stint, and ended up devoting much of his literary life to the Childe Cycle, a grand epic of the evolution of humanity with Necromancer as its starting point (though it was written after 1960’s turgidly militaristic Dorsai!). Dickson left it unfinished at his death in 2001. He began with many of the flaws that the Deviant Age’s most shining stars would throw into the dustbin and Necromancer isn’t entirely without those blind spots (the character of Kantele, for example), sometimes ridiculously so. But Dickson also ended up grappling with them himself. Several years after Necromancer came the classic Soldier, Ask Not and later works like Other showed vast nuances of character and theme, while still remaining page-turners.

He must also be credited for perfecting the nearly lost art of the twist, and I’ll admit I didn’t entirely see Necromancer’s final reversal coming.

Dickson’s ending theme is that instead of some Heinleinesque Competent Man, we’re evolving into radically different splinter cultures, all viable in their own way, all a necessary part of the whole and all perfecting some aspect of humanity. From what seems to start as simple “throw the machines out!” Nietzchean story, it develops into a strange but heartfelt meditation on the need for as weird and eclectic a world as possible.

“there’s a lot of different versions of this world of ours, Kirk. You’ve got one, with your Complexes of equipment — a nice steady-ticking world. The only pity is, it won’t stop growing and complicating itself. Then, there’s the world of the fanatics, the people who go in for dangerous sports, wild cults and marching societies. And then again, there’s a vague, gauzy world of the spiritually inclined, and the world of the asymbolic pioneers, artist and scientist. There’s the world of those to whom tradition and an anchored existence are the only worthwhile basis for life. There’s even the world of the psychotics, the neurologically crippled.”
“You talk,” said Tyne, “as if these other… attitudes, had an equal value with normal civilized society.”
“But they have, Kirk, they have,” said Blunt, looming over the smaller man. “Ask anyone who belongs to one of them.”

Question: Splintering cultures is a topic that came up a lot in the Deviant Age of sci-fi and a particularly relevant one now. Dickson had one answer to it: humans splitting into specialized but interdependent shards to perfect certain aspects of human behavior. Do you think that’s accurate? What are some of the most “viable” shards? Do some seem to be winning out over the others in our own time? Should they?

And lastly, when will I get my damn mind bullets?

4 Responses to “All Tomorrows: Necromancer”

  1. Elana Says:

    I might be wrong, but I feel like my (our?) society is top-heavy in the direction of intellectual rigour and cynicism. In fact, these values are built so strongly into me that I am resistant to even admitting that it could be a flaw. It’s hard to remember there are other ways of being that are just as valid, because the tao of intellectual rigour and cynicism is quick to wave them off as stupidity.

  2. m1k3y Says:

    Furries are one splintering culture I’ve been watching with interest for a while now.

    I’m pretty sure they’ll be among the first to leap from cosmetic body-mods to truly edgey stuff like genetic hacking as soon it becomes remotely possible.

    They’re only going to get weirder, that lot.

  3. Michelle Tackabery Says:

    I think the idea of society “splitting into independent shards to perfect certain aspects of human behavior” is certainly a viable option for the future. We always need specialists, and having specialists’ codes, guilds, specialized societies built around those skills — makes sense to me. The separation serves to create order out of chaos while still maintaining diversity among the culture. I think humans can’t resist categorizing things, no matter how much we believe we are equal. Specialization is the best of both worlds.

  4. Peter Tupper Says:

    The world is becoming smaller and flatter, so I don’t think it’s a matter of splintering into different societies as multiple subcultures overlapping and cross-pollinating. Add genetic engineering and body modification and things get really interesting.

    Instead of a Gulliver’s Travels-like world of isolated cultures following one different paths, it will be more like Burning Man always and everywhere.