Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: 'Hour of the Horde' by Gordon R. Dickson

2/5 Stars

Miles Vander is young man pursuing a career as an artist at a university in Minnesota. Vander’s artistic vision is raw and emotional, perhaps reflecting his status as a polio survivor with a paralyzed arm. When the sun suddenly takes on a reddish hue and the entire planet is in the grip of an apocalyptic fervor, Miles simply paints the effect the altered light has on the landscape of the Mississippi River.

It turns out a race of super-powered aliens, referred to (somewhat banally) as the ‘Center Aliens’ have traveled to earth to disclose something troubling: an enormous armada of ships piloted by weasel-like aliens, the so-called Horde of the book’s title, are descending on the Milky Way Galaxy. The Silver Horde has only one intention: to consume all life in the Galaxy.

Against this locust-like attack, the Center Aliens have decided to recruit a representative from each planet occupied by the sentient races in the galaxy, to staff a fleet of spaceships dedicated to repelling the Horde. As is turns out, Miles Vander has the ‘psychic’ temperament the aliens require from their recruits, and he winds up journeying with the Center Aliens to the rim of the galaxy, there to join with a vast battle line of ships poised to meet the Horde. Miles finds himself unceremoniously dumped into a mean little vessel mockingly termed the Fighting Rowboat.

It turns out that earthpeople, like many other biped races throughout the galaxy, are considered little more than primitive savages by the Center Aliens. Along with 22 other crewmembers aboard the Rowboat, Miles Vander is expected to serve as a kind of reserve of psychic energy needed by the Center Aliens to combat the approaching Horde.

Naturally, Miles doesn’t take too kindly to being relegated to REMF status, disregarded by the powerful Center Aliens. He begins a brutal fight in the Rowboat’s pecking order of alien races. Can Miles gain command of the ship ? And if he does, will he be able to wield his alien comrades into an effective fighting force ? And if and when they encounter the Horde, will the Rowboat last more than a few seconds under enemy fire ?

‘Hour of the Horde’ (1970; 159 pp.) is DAW book No. 303, first printed in 1978. The cover illustration is by Greg Theakston.

I haven’t read many novels or stories by Gordon R. Dickson (1923 -2001), who suffered from severe asthma, and often incorporated the themes of men overcoming their physical limitations through force of their will into his works. So what did I think of ‘Horde’ ?

It’s a competent, if unremarkable, space opera. There are more than a few passages of stilted writing in the book, and the various machinations of the Center Aliens border more on magic than on any ‘genuine’ science fictional phenomena. The book is slow-moving at its start and things don’t gather much momentum until nearly the half-way point in the narrative. The psychological revelations that enable Miles Vander to transcend his physical and emotional limitations seem a bit too close to the Scientology-related tropes that Lafayette Ron Hubbard liked to stick in his own novels (‘Battlefield Earth’ comes to mind).

Dedicated fans of Dickson’s works may want to seek out ‘The Hour of the Horde’ , but I suspect most SF fans won’t find it too exciting.

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