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Review © 2001 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Luis Royo (top),
Greg Theakston (bottom).



Dickson's second novel in his epoch-spanning Childe Cycle (which, like most of them, can be read as a stand-alone story) is a much different piece of work than its predecessor, Dorsai! Where Dorsai! was a heavily idealized bit of messianic military SF, Necromancer is more of a futuristic metaphysical thriller. It's also pretty messianic in its own right, but at least Dickson is consistent in picking his clichés. This time, thank goodness, we're not treated to any absurd archetypes of heroic perfection, nor any residual Kennedy-era patronization of women. It's a tight, terrific little tale, most entertaining to read, whose tropes may indeed be almost quaint by today's standards (an "infallible," self-aware, godlike computer benevolently running the world into the ground) but whose influence on current pop-culture SF (The Matrix, anyone?) still resonates.

Necromancer is the story of Paul Formain, who lives on a future Earth that has come as close as possible to achieving utopia by the joys of technology. But all is not well in this paradise; crime, suicide, and collective angst are everywhere. Paul is a disaffected loner with a strange and indefinable talent for self-preservation, which manifests in almost a paranormal form (it's a little like Spider-Man's "Spidey Sense"), but which he doesn't always bother to heed. When Paul loses an arm in a ghastly work accident, and medical technology can't seem to graft him a recplacement, his disillusionment draws him into a strange and shadowy cult called the Chantry Guild.

The Chantry Guild—whose motto is simply "Destruct!"—believes in what they call "Alternate Laws" that defy virtually everything we seem to know about how the universe works, and it's through these "Laws" that Paul hopes to regenerate his arm. But the Guild, and its little-seen leader Walter Blunt, has bigger plans for Paul; they think that by training him in the use of his innate survival skills, he can become instrumental in the Guild's plans to destroy completely Earth's computer-dominated society. Paul undergoes a series of bizarre rituals in a secret base under the surface of Mercury; upon passing these he is elevated to the position of Necromancer, receiving his instructions directly from Blunt himself (or so it seems).

Like so many stories that want to wow you with how labyrinthine and convoluted they are, Necromancer can be confusing. Mysterious overheard conversations pepper the narrative as the story progresses, conveying a sense of the ominous. But a-ha!...there's a method to Dickson's madness. Just when you think you've figured out who's manipulating whom, or what's really going on here, Dickson tosses you a curve, and then a second one. And yet his loose ends are tied up in a most satisfying way and you literally don't see the events of the last forty or so pages coming.

Many SF fans have a built-in resistance (which I can certainly understand) to SF that incorporates paranormal concepts. But what Dickson is doing in Necromancer is giving us a taste of precisely how chaotic and creepy a universe would be in which not only did the paranormal exist, but in which natural and "alternate" laws were constantly at war with one another. Paul's ultimate solution to the whole crisis might seem facile in a rational universe like our own; but in the strange reality of the Childe Cycle universe it may be the only possible solution. Necromancer is an immensely satisfying piece of entertainment that lays the groundwork for the rest of Dickson's Dorsai saga, and showcases the vivid imagination and burgeoning storytelling skills that were to make him one of SF's major players in later years.