After the collapse of civilization, a social scientist attempts to work his way across North America to his brother’s ranch with a wolf as his companion.
I know Gordon Dickson’s work largely from his excellent Dorsai books, and the (less-effective) rest of the Childe Cycle books. I’ve tried out a few of his other works (e.g., Time Storm, The Dragon and the George), but been less impressed. I’m sorry to say that Wolf and Iron fits in that latter category.
The prose is smooth, the characters engaging. Dickson has obviously done his research, as attested to in a foreword by the wolf expert he consulted. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come across well. The novel was written well before Wikipedia existed, but Wolf and Iron feels like nothing so much as a thorough regurgitation of Wikipedia pages. Protagonist Jeebee Walther is chock full of clever ideas and practical tips that he picked up and remembered through thorough reading, and for every situation he encounters, he remembers one easily and accurately.
Part of the book’s problem is that there’s never really much tension. Jeebee starts off well-stocked with gadgets, and rapidly loses almost all. In fact, he’s so certain to lose them that Dickson almost forgets to tell us. For example, he starts with a high-tech water filter – surely a crucial item that he would rely on daily. Yet at one point, Jeebee, in need of water, suddenly remembers that he lost this vital item some time back. Dickson also loses track of the story in other ways, inadvertently suggesting some incredible coincidences that are probably just editorial errors.
Jeebee’s carelessness doesn’t matter, because we always know that this bookish city boy will overcome any obstacle. This despite the fact that he is evidently less prepared for survival than every other person he encounters. The stock ultra-competent young woman he meets loves him despite his at best anachronistic “hold her close until she stops fighting love” approach to courtship. Dickson throws in some hand-waving to create some relationship-building time, but it isn’t really credible.
The problem is that Dickson becomes so enamored of the practicalities of survival that it becomes the core of the story, and he throws in ever trick he can think of. The book is essentially a rewrite of Robinson Crusoe in Montana, complete with makeshift fortress and source of bounty – except that in Jeebee’s case, that’s not a ship, but a nearby ranch, and Friday is a wolf. The ranch is where the book loses its storyline most thoroughly. Rather than move into the handy abandoned ranch, Jeebee spends chapters dragging material to a more rustic cave, and doesn’t even do it efficiently. While it’s meant as a temporary shelter for one winter, he immediately plans to establish a smithy. While he’s nominally trying to stay silent and inconspicuous to the neighbours who are certain to come, whenever he’s not dragging material back and forth, he’s out shooting cattle. Even the man-wolf relationship, otherwise the saving grace of the book, is secondary to description of day-to-day chores (though Dickson is much more shy of body parts). Much of the space it does take is either Jeebee worrying about what Wolf’s actions mean – until Wolf isn’t quite as useful anymore – or protecting his belonging’s from Wolf’s apparently insane curiosity. For example, he sleeps on top of a metal ladder, because otherwise, Wolf would apparently eat it for dinner.
The book is mildly interesting because it is well-researched, but there’s not much here that Daniel Defoe didn’t already cover in a different setting..
* A note on the Start Science Fiction e-book edition – it’s evidently OCR based, with less than perfect proofreading. There are a fair number of typos, and one spot in which an editorial note has been left [bracketed] in the middle of the text to clarify one obvious and easily fixed original typo. It’s less than impressive for a book that’s not that old.