The Many Worlds of Andre Norton
By Donald A. Wollheim 1974
In lists of leading science ﬁction writers such as might be compiled by academics or fan experts, it is probable that the name of Andre Norton would be missing, whereas such writers as Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, John Brunner and others would be certainly present. Yet if these list compilers would take librarians and booksellers into investigation, they would discover that the name of Andre Norton would be right up there in any top ten list.
Why then would they have omitted her in their original off-the-top-of-the-head listings? It would be for a number of reasons. For one, Andre Norton has but rarely graced the pages of the standard science ﬁction magazines. Her novels are not serialized in the newsstand pulps. And she has written but a handful of short stories and novelettes as compared with the others' output.
For another thing, she never made herself the object of self-promotion. She does not attend conventions; she rarely, if ever, speaks at gatherings of any sort; and her novels do not push themselves to promote any sort of special pleading of the kind likely to attract controversy and debate.
Then also the greater part of her science ﬁction has been composed of novels written for hard-cover publishers as works for “young adults” and not promoted or even offered among the science fiction shelves of the adult ﬁction sections of book shops. Yet any bookseller could tell you that wherever her science ﬁction books are sold, however they may be labeled, they sell well, they sell steadily, they remain in print for years and years.
A couple of decades ago, during the founding days of the paper-back publishing enterprise known as Ace Books, when I was its editor, I took a chance. I have always felt that if a book was enjoyable to me as science ﬁction then it would be enjoyable to the readers I sought to cater to. I published Andre Norton's first science ﬁction novel, a book packaged by its hard-cover publishers as a juvenile, called Star Man’s Son. I published it in paperback with a new title, Daybreak-2250 AD. I avoided all reference to it as a novel for younger readers. I presented it simply as a darned good novel for anybody who reads science ﬁction. It was so accepted and it has been selling steadily as such ever since.
Subsequently this has been true for all her science ﬁction and her marvelous worlds of fantasy too, regardless of how the hard-cover publishers first offered them. The world of science ﬁction and fantasy readers, the same people who devour Anderson and Simak and Farmer and Niven, also buy and read everything by Andre Norton they can get their hands on.
While they may spend a lot of time discussing the sociology and speculations of the other writers, Andre Norton they read for pleasure. This is not to say that her works lack the depth of the others, because they do not. But it is that these depths form part of the natural unobtrusive background of her novels whereas one’s nose is, as it were, forcibly shoved into the special pleading that the others so often project into their novels.
Andre Norton thought of herself as writing for young people; from the start she had an instinctive understanding of modern youth that many of her contemporaries and predecessors in juvenile ﬁction lacked. She knew that you did not have to write down to them; she knew that you did not have to explain the elementary details of futurology or inﬁnity or other-worldly lore to them. She knew that the youth of today was already self-oriented to what came to their older contemporaries as “future shock.”
So quite calmly she could speak of colonized planets and the problems of people living on them; she could write of alien beings, friendly and unfriendly; she could bring to the imagination the feel of what an alien mind could be, of what a wholly nonhuman intelligence might desire, or what unsolved mysteries the galaxy may very well hold for us.
She does this as part of a background in which flesh and blood humans develop--young people indeed, but not so young as not to be able to assume responsibilities for themselves, their causes, their loved ones. She could place a story in the grim setting of a ghetto for the dispossessed of a cosmic war-and her readers would understand. She could bring forth the thrill and commerce of space trade, of corporations and “free traders" and do it so that it all came alive, rang true. She could set a human being down alone on an alien landscape and make that alienness felt, make the reader live just what it had to be like.
She knows and loves animals and she utilizes her own feeling for the other living beasts of our Earth to place them or their like on other worlds and other futures-and she brings the magic of communication between man and his old allies of our terrestrial heritage into a reality desired by the legendry of mankind’s rise, but possibly capable of achievement only through the knowledge of the ways of genetic structuring and mental revision.
So it is that Andre Norton quietly, without fanfare, but always with love, moved into the ranks of the top science fiction writers. Perhaps she herself was unaware of this--she never sought this aim. One feels that her intent was to tell wonderful stories of faroff worlds, of strange and often fearful futures, of dimensions beyond our own, of magic and witchcraft made possible through the advance of science, but she never sought Hugos or Nebulas or the paraphernalia of self-gloriﬁcation.
That her books sell continuously in hard covers and in the millions in paperbacks is evidence that she succeeded in this. Most readers take her for granted. Of course they will buy and read the next Andre Norton book; of course they want to wander her wonder worlds and listen to her tales of witches and wise women and wonder-working beasts and courageous young men and women with pride and courage. It is our good fortune, all of us, that Andre Norton herself enjoys the telling. One feels that her contentment is in our contentment--that she herself enjoys her wonder tales of things to come and of things “elsewhere,” that she is in personal harmony with the living things of Earth that go on four feet or on wings, and that she is happy in that she has managed to bring some of that harmony to the rest of the human sphere.
She is herself primarily an observer from afar rather than a participant. You will, as I said earlier, not find her at conventions or bumbling around at literary gatherings, nor expounding any special theories at academic halls.
Andre Norton is at home telling Wonder stories.
She is telling us that people are marvelously complex and marvelously fascinating. She is telling us that all life is good and that the universe is vast and meant to enhance our life to inﬁnity. She is weaving an endless tapestry of a cosmos no man will ever fully understand, but among whose threads we are meant to wander forever to our personal fulfillment.
Basically this is what science fiction has always been about. And because she has always understood this, her audience will continue to be as ever-renewing and as nearly infinite as her subjects.