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The Right to Arm Bears    by Gordon R. Dickson order for
Right to Arm Bears
by Gordon Dickson
Order:  USA  Can
Baen, 2000
* *   Reviewed by Theresa Ichino

The Right to Arm Bears is actually a compendium of three tales set on Dilbia, a world inhabited by intelligent but technologically primitive bear-like sentients. Averaging two and a half to three metres in height, armed with razor claws and formidable teeth, Dilbians look like slim Kodiak bears. Dickson excels in creating well detailed alien cultures, and Dilbia is no exception. Its inhabitants are extremely likeable, with an outlook that places high value on independence and individuality. Since Earth is in competition for Dilbia's allegiance with a civilization from a heavy-gravity planet, this puts humans at a severe disadvantage. The Hemnoids are large and strong, far more impressive than the squeaky-voiced Shorties (as Dilbians call humans). Add to that the Dilbians' contempt for technology as a form of cheating - real men don't need such sissy aids - and the cards are well and truly stacked against the humans.

However, as Dickson's fans know, his protagonists think their way out of difficulties. Oh, they know how to fight, but they fight smart. Spatial Delivery, Spacepaw, and The Law-Twister Shorty showcase three humans who have to think their way out of trouble; and in the process the reader has the unalloyed pleasure of viewing extremely likeable alien characters in home territory. In addition to being a past master at creating alien cultures, the author demonstrates his expertise with tools, weaponry, and tactics, all of which play an important role in the Shorties' victories. Dickson's view of children's tales as lessons in strategy is also used to good effect: the scene where Bill Waltham holds the entire village of Muddy Nose in thrall with a retelling of The Three Little Pigs is one of my favourites; another is Greasy Face (a human woman) explaining to a circle of Dilbian females how to influence a man. Of course, Bill survives the challenge (in each story a Shorty is forced to meet a Dilbian in single combat), administering a well-deserved setback to the underhanded and unscrupulous Hemnoids.

The tone of the stories is light-hearted, as indicated by the playful titles, but the themes are serious. Dickson's characters, Dilbian or human have more similarities than differences; there are better ways to settle disputes than armed conflict; individuals, when pushed to do so, can find the iron at the bottom of their souls. There is optimism in these stories. Dickson's human race, as a species, shows promise. One Dilbian asks John Tardy in Spacial Delivery, 'Why do you figure people ought to like you?' John is surprised. 'Why not? We're prepared to like other people.' John, Bill, and Malcolm O'Keefe are, on the surface, fairly ordinary humans, peaceable individuals who only ask to be left alone to mind their own business. All three are thrust into explosive situations with interplanetary crises waiting on the horizon - and their predicaments are deliberately engineered by the diplomatic service. The service has discovered that unprepared humans who match Dilbian psychological profiles will find a solution where experienced diplomats cannot.

It is this psychological study that makes for a great reading experience. My only quibbles? One is that the last tale is so short; the other, that this is a male-dominant culture and male-dominated stories. Oh the other hand, that certainly doesn't stop the females, especially the Dilbian ones, from speaking out!

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