Book Review: Ancient, My Enemy, Gordon R. Dickson (1974)

(Peter Rauch’s cover for the 1974 edition)

2.75/5 (collated rating: Vaguely Average)

Between 1974 and 1990 Gordon R. Dickson’s collection Ancient, My Enemy (1974) was reprinted eleven times.  The reason for this “popularity” is beyond me considering I found that a grand total of three of the nine stories were solid while the rest were poorly written cliché-ridden magazine filler…  Dickson had the ability to write some great short SF—for example, Mike at Potpourri of SF Literature adores his collection In the Bone (1987).  But Ancient, My Enemy gives little indication of his talent and generally lacks the insight that his novels such as The Alien Way (1965) possess.

Recommended only for Gordon R. Dickson completists.  I suggest acquiring later more discerning collections of his 50s/60s SF such as In the Bone (1987).

I am pretty sure that is an osage orange “eye” on the Rauch cover…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“Ancient, My Enemy” (1969) 3.5/5 (Good):  “Man with a head-and-a-half / Come so I can kill you.  Ancient, My enemy. / Ancient, my enemy—” (19).  The Udbahr natives are cannibals.  They engage in ritualistic battles, dig burrows every evening to survive the extreme temperatures of the planet, and their strange songs drift ominously across the mountainous landscape of the planet.  Kiev and his companions—including the female graduate student Willy Farchild—are part of a prospecting expedition (for gold of all things!).  Willy’s more educated views on native cultures slowly influences Kiev that the general hatred for the Udbahr and their “primitive” ways might be misguided.  Kiev is forced to confront his own violent nature that is only partially obscured by his “civilized” nature.  Dickson attempts to ruminate on the primitive vs. civilized dichotomy and the nature of violence.  The strongest elements of the story is the atmospheric, horror-tinged, feel of the planet.  Unfortunately, the inarticulate/simplistic “moral” cheapens what could have been a powerful work of anthropological SF.

“The Odd Ones” (1955) 2/5 (Bad):  Snorap and Lut are two ultra-intelligent, unique, alien lifeforms.  They are “philosophical engineers” who correct the balance of lifeforms who have “unbalanced” philosophies of survival (46).  They are silly and funny creatures who, despite their supposed intelligence, are super dumb.  And they encounter some humans on a supposedly empty planet, and of course mankind always show-up the aliens of the universe—the power of human love confuse Snorap and Lut’s advanced philosophical brains.  A sludge pile of putrid 50s clichés…  Avoid.

“The Monkey Wrench” (1951) 1/5 (Terrible):  Cary Harmon, a smug lawyer from Venus, loves to avoid his wife that he detests.  On one of these trips he arrives at a weather station where a fancy computer is operated by an equally smug computer tech named Burke who claims its the most advanced machine ever made: “A big tin god, Cary” Burke reminds him.  Smug lawyer Cary has a proposition that he can derail the computer in minutes!  And of course, he does.  To quote my previous review: “A sludge pile of putrid 50s clichés…  Avoid.”

“Tiger Green” (1965) 4/5 (Good):  Tied for the best story in the collection, “Tiger Green” is characterized by Dickson’s effective description of an alien worldview.  The twist ending is unusual and the world subverts the normal enlightened alien wandering around a rural utopia paradigm.  Jerry McWhin and his crew are slowly going insane on an alien world.  The planet’s inhabitants appear to be able to communicate with them but the logic of their words and phrases is completely “alien.”  Recommended.

“The Friendly Man” (1951) 3/5 (Average):  Dickson’s second published short story is a slightly different take on 50s time-travel—Mark Toren builds a time-travel machine in the year 2190 A.D. and journeys 50,000 years into the future.  But, the future he encounters is not what he expected, rather, a world uncannily similar to Toren’s present.  I found it humorous that Dickson predicts that it will take until the year 2190 for “equality among the sexes” to be firmly established (101).  A standard but readable 50s magazine fare….

“Love Me True” (1961) 2/5 (Bad):  Like Sturgeon’s “The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” (1949), “Love Me True” is another outlandishly silly and trivial cuddly animal SF story.  Ted Holman comes back from a space mission with a pet named Pogey that he attempted to smuggle onto Earth.  However, it’s confiscated.  Ted is unnaturally attached to the create and even eschews a love interested in order to be alone with his pet—there is something sinister afoot!

“Our First Death” (1955) 3/5 (Average):  A forgettable story about dissension among colonists that come to head with the death of Juny Vewlan of mysterious causes.  The Leaders of Our Colony start bickering about the causes, the children are oddly unengaged.  Is Dickson attempting to create a meaning-rich story about the social effects of separation from the home planet and the harsh realities of life on another world?  For characters suggest that Juny died of a “broken heart” (127) and proclaim it would have been “better” if she stayed in an orphanage back on Earth (134)…  An odd story that remains all too oblique (the oblique descriptor might be related to a general lack of articulation on part of Dickson of his main themes/ideas).

“In the Bone” (1966) 4/5 (Good):  Tied for the best story in the collection—Harry Brennan sets out to explore the galaxy in a fantastic mechanical contraption/body armor/spaceship/communication device.  However, when he arrives on World 1242 a bizarre mechanized black pyramid object detaches him from his contraption and transforms him to an animalistic state.  Filled with animal passions he is desperate to strike back at the pyramid with its animal catching devices and endless chambers.  Dickson explores the traditional dichotomies man vs. machine, the primitive vs. the civilized, animalistic vs. sentient successfully.  Recommended (reprinted in multiple collections).

“The Bleak and Barren Land” (1952) 2/5 (Bad):  The first ten pages of the novelette held promise.  As with “Ancient, My Enemy,” “The Bleak and Barren Land” had the potential to be an insightful anthropologically inclined discussion of the contact between land-hungry colonists flooding from Earth and natives.  The Modorians are fascinating.  The female ride the larger male aliens and they “adopt” humans and allow certain individuals to engage in limited prospecting.  Unfortunately, the Colonial Representative named Kent is faced with the arrival of new colonists that want to disturb traditionally Modorian lands that might unbalance the relationship established between the peoples.  If the conclusion was more adeptly constructed and the pages and pages of needless melodrama excised the story would garner a higher rating.

(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1976 edition)

(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1978 edition)

(Greg Theakston’s cover for the 1980 edition)

(Tony Roberts’ cover for the 1986 edition

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Ancient, My Enemy, Gordon R. Dickson (1974)”

  1. Dickson was huge, mostly for his Dorsai stuff which I read a fair bit of. I think I read this, but as you say it was far from his best.

    He’s not had much luck in the classics reprints has he? I don’t think any of his have made it in. Nor has Van Vogt come to think of it. Probably fair in both cases.

    1. Have you read Sleepwalkers’ World? I’m holding out hope that it is Dickson’s lost classic—haha. Definitely seems, from the back cover, to be an intriguing mood piece. The reviews online bemoan the lack of action but that’s fine with me….

      1. Hmm, maybe I’ll try it along with the first Dorsai! book which I also have on the shelf. If I dislike both (I’m not sure I’ll like Dorsai! at all considering wars/soldiers of the future, in my opinion, do not hold my interest) I’ll quit Dickson for a while….

    2. Null-A was reprinted in 2002, Slan in 2007, and Space Beagle in 2008. Since 2000 there have been two big story collections, Transfinite and Transgalactic. So I think van Vogt is doing OK.

  2. I’ll confess, it’s all probably very 1950’s-60’s in style, but I really enjoyed Dickson’s collection “Mutants”…so I’d probably enjoy these too. What can I say, I like writing from that time period. 🙂
    (And I really dig Theakston’s 1980 cover for Ancient, My Enemy; great composition and very dramatic!)

    1. There’s nothing wrong with 50s-60s style. You read all the reviews of SF from that era on my site (Sheckley, Ballard, Kornbluth, Wilhelm, etc etc etc)!

      My problem is when they’re dull and poorly written. I do see Dickson’s potential in the short form — “Tiger Green” for example was quite good.

  3. I own this one (Theakston cover), but given my ambivalence towards Gordon R. Dickson’s material based on what I’ve read of it so far, I don’t have a burning desire to pull it off the shelf. Still don’t after your review. When he’s good, he’s really good; otherwise he’s really not my bag.

    I know a lot of people like Dickson and compare him to Poul Anderson… but I’d much rather pull out a Poul Anderson collection. (Or a Tenn, or a Sheckley, or…)

    1. “I know a lot of people like Dickson and compare him to Poul Anderson… but I’d much rather pull out a Poul Anderson collection. (Or a Tenn, or a Sheckley, or…)” — my thoughts exactly. Still have one collection of Dickson on the shelf, Star Road but don’t feel that inclined to pick it up. I have a feeling that his 60s stuff is MUCH better than his 50s works (or at least it was for this book).

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