Double Dystopia in:

Andre Norton’s The Stars Are Ours!

 

star guard 1955

(1954) Published by World, HC, LCCN 54008169, $2.75, 237pg ~ cover by Virgil Finlay

 

The Second World War and its aftermath clearly had a profound effect on Andre Norton’s imagination and political philosophy. Her early science fiction is full of endless wars, blasted worlds, and hunted refugees. She saw great danger in religious fanaticism and anti-science movements. And she made it clear that white supremacy would not survive; that the “master race” would kill itself off and leave the world to black and brown people.

Stars Are Ours!, The (complete with exclamation point) is both an unsparing condemnation of militarized ignorance and a triumphal celebration of human perseverance.

Its (male, of course) protagonist rises from starving, hunted refugee to valued crew member of an interstellar colony ship. But the world on which he settles has undergone the same process of global genocide and wanton destruction as Earth. It’s an explicit warning to us all, and a kind of hope-in-despair: War is inevitable, destruction will happen, but humans will overcome.

The novel begins several hundred years in our future, if the technology and the naming conventions are anything to go by. Young Dard Nordis is in hiding on the family farm with his disabled brother Lars and Lars’ daughter Dessie. The world has been taken over by a religious cult called the Pax, which has done its best to stamp out science and scientists. The Pax, ironically, still uses high-tech weapons and copter transport, and centers around a temple which houses a supercomputer. But none of the cultists know or care how to maintain their tech. There are no new inventions, and once a machine fails, there’s no new one to replace it.

Lars is a scientist working on something important and secret, and keeping contact with other scientists. But his disability prevents him from being able to make it to their hideout. He’s holed up on the farm, and they’re all starving; his wife has curled up and died, as Norton wives and mothers of this era usually do.

Just as they’re at the end of their endurance, Lars finishes his work, and the cultists blow up the farm. Dard manages to get them all out and, eventually, to the scientists’ hidden stronghold. Lars dies heroically en route, but Dard has a mental gift: he sees patterns in words and images. This enables Lars to send him to the scientists with a numerical and visual code that contains the results of Lars’ work.

Dessie, meanwhile, has a telepathic link with animals. This will be important later.

Once Dard and Dessie are taken into the stronghold, events on Earth gallop to a conclusion. The scientists have been building a starship. Lars’ work is the final piece of the puzzle: a solution to the problem of cold sleep, since the ship can’t travel above lightspeed; their voyage is expected to last for centuries.

There’s just one last problem. In order to calculate the ship’s course, they need a computer. And the only one available is the one in the temple.

It just so happens that Dard has been to the temple and knows the rules for getting in—and even more conveniently, he has an eidetic memory. He remembers every single thing that needs to be done in order to get access to the computer.

There are many distinctly hair-raising moments, but he and his new friend Kimber, an African-American pilot, get in and out again with the information they need—just ahead of pursuit. They barely make it back in time before the computer’s course settings expire, and just in time to load up everybody on the ship and escape, with heavy casualties as the Pax closes in.

That’s the first half of the story. Dard and company are locked up in cold sleep, and off they go into the wild black yonder. The stars, as they declare, belong to them, and they’re headed for whichever Earthlike world the ship can find. It’s a great leap into the dark, with no assurance of success. But none of them refuses the call.

The second half opens with Dard waking up as the ship approaches a new world. It’s Earthlike with a Sol-like sun, and its air is breathable.

The ship lands with just about the last of its fuel—it won’t be flying again. This is it for the colonists, for better or worse. Luckily the local flora and fauna are not so lethal that they can’t be dealt with, and there are plants and animals that can be eaten, so the colonists won’t starve.

There are some dangerous creatures, and some hair-raising adventures. Dard is indispensable with his hunting and survivalist skills, though he keeps feeling inferior because he’s not a scientist. The scientists, be it noted, do not share his doubts. They appreciate what he has to offer.

As Dard and company explore the world, they discover that it’s even more of a ruin than the Earth they left. It’s covered with the remnants of a planetary war, but the people who fought it seem to have obliterated themselves.

Then Dessie encounters a baby sort-of-sea otter who turns out to belong to a sentient species that communicates telepathically. These amphibious people were once enslaved by the city builders, and they let the Terrans know that descendants of these people are still alive on another continent.

And they’re evil. Dard has figured out that bands of color on walls of the ruins represent a form of language. He finds a book in an abandoned bunker, and with the scientists’ help he’s able to decode it.

What he finds is horrifying. There is no point of contact between human minds and the minds of the aliens, no possible way to connect with them. They’re just bad. Bad. Bad.

The colonists have to make a choice between approaching the alien survivors and starting an all-out war, or staying put and hoping they’re well entrenched before the aliens attack. In the end, they opt to stay where they are, confirm their alliance with the sea people, and prepare for the inevitable conflict, which they intend to win.

The ending is almost uncomfortable in its triumphalism. The stars are ours! Humans will never give up! Never surrender! No, they will not! The last word is a giant, boldface NO!

To which I said, “Oooookaaaayyy.”

For the most part this is a nice page-turner, with a protagonist who never fails to step up when he’s needed, and a rather diverse supporting cast. His best buddy is Black, the head of the expedition is from central Asia, and there are actual female humans with actual speaking roles, including one of the leaders.

Men still rule, and the sea people live in patriarchal units, too. Women are delicate and fragile and mostly defer to the men, and for the most part serve in domestic roles. But at least they’re there, and once in a while they even get to talk.

Dessie is an interesting character, though as a small child she’s mostly either in cold sleep or being packed around while Dard does the heavy lifting. She turns out to be a key to the colony’s survival, thanks to her telepathic powers.

There’s one other female character who actually shows some complexity. That’s Lotta, the evil neighbor’s daughter back on Earth. She’s obviously abused, as is her mother, and she is extremely fond of Dessie. That fondness leads her to take great risks on behalf of Lars and his family; their escape from the farm, and later Dard’s return to the hideout after the foray to the temple, would not be possible without her.

Lotta pretends to be dull and stupid, and speaks hick dialect. But even before she says so in as many words, it’s clear she’s far brighter than she looks. I was a little sad that she didn’t get to go to the stars; she deserved a reward for all she did to help Dessie and her family. But once her father is dead (thanks to Dard), she seems to have a plan for survival. She knows how to navigate the dystopia she lives in, and she does her quiet best to subvert it.

There’s a lot of subversion going on here, of racism, militarism, religious fanaticism, even sexism. Norton has a clear message for American boys of the early Fifties, sometimes to the point of having her characters deliver deliberately didactic speeches. But she makes sure to keep the preachiness down to a minimum and the pacing brisk, with plenty of danger and daring, and a nicely alien and exciting planet to explore.

Next up is the sequel to this novel, Star Born.