The Final Encyclopedia
by Gordon R. Dickson

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Tor: New York, 1984

696 pages

April 2010

A survey of fractional humanity

The Final Encyclopedia is a sort of Cook's Tour of the galactic neighborhood of Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai science fiction series, more properly called the Childe Cycle series. If we presume from the novel's title that an Encyclopedia will have a lot of interesting material, but not embody a really strong overall plot, that would be correct. This is not to say that there are not exciting and well-plotted sequences or events in various passages within such an Encyclopedia: there are a number of these in the book. But the overall effect is notably less than the sum of its parts.

Dickson's much shorter but brilliantly envisioned and well-told early novel Dorsai (1959) sets out the basic idea: that in a not-too-distant future, humanity has spread across interstellar space to a dozen or so worlds, settling the new worlds with specialized fractions of humankind: that is, each planet (or in a couple of instances, a nearby pair of planets) is occupied by a group claiming some affinity, and in the generations thereafter, specializing.

These affinities or specializations are military (the Dorsai world), mental or psychological (on Mara and Kultis), spiritual or religious (the Friendly worlds), and so on. Others seem more prosaic, like the mining world of Coby.

Unfortunately, after a strong and interesting beginning, The Final Encyclopedia drops its young protagonist, Hal Mayne, into the harsh mining environment on Coby, where he undergoes the usual trials of innocence and inexperience at the hands of tough or mean old-hands. The best part of the novel involves Hal's later campaign with an armed band and other inhabitants of one of the Friendly worlds. Dickson expresses a good sense of the religious character; this is rare in science fiction, and to my ear he can speak the language of the Saints when called for in the story. These Friendly folks are vivid and distinct.

Why an Encyclopedia?

The Final Encyclopedia of the title is actually a construction, a universal memory bank orbiting Earth, in which we may hope or expect to see a qualitative breakthrough of some sort from the immense quantity of data, some newly emergent nature or powers of mind. This, if anywhere, is where the plot of the The Final Encyclopedia resides; and for my expectations it is distinctly underdone here. Of course an old question in science fiction is whether anything like a final Encyclopedia actually is a good idea at all.

Dickson discusses briefly the centuries-old concept of a theater of memory or memory palace, in which objects or their arrangement are mnemonic aids, or cues to remembrance. Without memory we scarcely can claim mental function, and the theater of memory is a fascinating means to organize our myriad bits of information, or memory. An encyclopedia of course is an arrangement that has some affinities, and so with the Final Encyclopedia. In fact, Dickson's entire interstellar civilization with its long history and diverse worlds can be looked upon as a theater of memory writ large upon space-time.

The novel has much dovetailing and loose-end entwining with previously published parts of the series: so much so that I think it would be very difficult to read this one first and appreciate what it has to offer. I do urge you to read Gordon R. Dickson's fine novel, Dorsai. If that whets your appetite, try Soldier, Ask Not. And there are other novels and stories of varying quality and varying engagement with Dickson's overall ideas.

The Final Encyclopedia is readable enough, with some quite enjoyable portions, but it really is best for Dorsai / Childe Cycle series completists.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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