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Review © 1997 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Jack Gaughan.


Possibly one of the earliest SF novels to deal with smart-drugs, The R-Master is one of Dickson's seemingly forgotten stories. I have no record of whether there's been any printing since this 1975 DAW paperback. In this novel's utopian/dystopian future, humanity is governed by the Earth Council (there's that pesky "EC" again), a routine repressive bureaucracy which claims to have all of our best interests at heart while in fact keeping us all under its collective thumb by giving us menial jobs to make us feel necessary, a subsistence income, and the possibility of "advancement" through experimental drugs like R-47. R-47 is known to increase one's mental capacities and ability to tackle more demanding occupations. Yet there are a few unfortunates for whom the drug backfires savagely, turning them into idiots...and a few super-fortunates, who become complete brainiacs at the hands of R-47, "R-Masters" whose finely honed mental functions (not necessarily a vast increase in intelligence, more of a keen ability to sort through problems efficiently) make them ridiculously overprivileged aristocrats, whom the Earth Council wants to take really good care of — and, naturally, keep an eye on.

Etter Ho is a citizen whose brother, Wally (Wally Ho? Oof.), has taken the drug, had it backfire, attempted suicide because of it, and now lies in cryogenic suspension. Since Etter cannot possibly afford the costs of reviving him in his current status, he decides to take R-47 himself in the odds of increasing his chances of advancement, which would allow him the credit rating to pay to help Wally. (Bad reactions to R-47 like Wally's are still sufficiently rare as to be not particularly worrisome.) So Etter takes the drug, and, boom, wouldn't you know it, becomes an R-Master, bewildered by his new social status. He is given a fawning personal staff, a home on his own island, and all he has to do is snap his fingers to be whisked to Milan for lunch, or Hong Kong for a casino trip! Cool! Or is it? Needless to say, Etter is more than a little suspicious of all this attention. And, after doing a little bit of homework and meeting another, older R-Master who gives him the lowdown on the EC and what their true agenda for humanity is, Etter boldly decides to rally the loyal members of his staff and Fight the Power. (Still, Etter's motives remain personal and selfish rather than altruistic. He only seeks to cure his brother.) Unfortunately, the Power is omnipresent, and there's the rub; how to combat a ruling system that intrudes into its citizens' lives so thoroughly and invisibly they even know when you've bought a candy bar?

The novel's flaws are frustrating. Although the premise is intriguing and believable, and the story has quite a number of memorable scenes, the narrative is fatally talky, with entire chapters devoted to exposition and lengthy dialogue exchanges sorting things out for the reader's edification. And, in Etter Ho, Dickson has given us a mostly unsympathetic hero. Though his irrational temper tantrums and general assholishness are explained as a side-effect of the drug, it still doesn't go a long way towards winning the hearts of readers. Finally, the plan that Etter hatches to infiltrate the Council is kind of hard to follow until it's all over and done. The plot becomes excessively complicated and confusing, something of a feat considering the whole book is only 157 pages. Ultimately, what Dickson has written here is an examination of life under a rigid, classist, and deceptively benevolent world power, that, while certainly intellectually stimulating, doesn't quite cut it as entertainment.