Reviews by Patrick T. Reardon

 

“No Night Without Stars” by Andre Norton ~ 11.19.11

Andre Norton’s “No Night Without Stars” landed in bookstores in 1975.

That was 23 years after her book “Star Man’s Son,” better known as “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.,” appeared in print.

In 2003, Baen Books put the two short novels together into an omnibus titled “Darkness and Dawn.”

I give this bit of publishing history because I read “No Night Without Stars” from that omnibus and because “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.” was a seminal book in my reading life.

Both novels deal with a ravaged American landscape hundreds of years after an atomic war.

Indeed, “Daybreak,” published just seven years after Hiroshima, may have been the first science-fiction novel to mine this concept. (Many other writers have since taken up the subject in books and movies, such as “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the Mad Max films.)

In “Daybreak,” Fors is a mutant who, because of his silver hair and better eyesight, is viewed with fear by his clansmen. Overlooked yet again for full membership in his tribe, he flees his home village to search with his feline companion Lura for the lost city his father had been trying to find when he was slain in battle.

I initially read “Daybreak” around 1960 when I was 10. Fors’ feelings of being an outcast, a mutant and an outsider resonated deeply with my own pre-teen emotions and experiences. He goes out into the world to find not just his father’s lost city but even more to find himself. That resonated deeply with me.

Like many of Andre Norton’s heroes, Fors had a strong, clear telepathic connection with Lura. I was never one for pets, but, as I look back, I suspect that, for me, my Lura was my ability to write, or maybe it was my desire to look deeply and broadly at life. Whatever it was, I knew I was different from other kids my age. (Of course, I suspect that all pre-teens andteens have the same feelings of being different.) I certainly felt that I was different.

Throughout her long career, Norton’s writing was constrained by her target audience — teenage boys. She wrote adventure stories set in the future. She wrote for publishers who imposed strict limits on their writers so as not to rile parents.

Hence, no sex, no romance.

“Daybreak” rises above its limitations. It’s not great art. Yet, there is a mythic quality to the search the Fors undertakes. There’s a simplicity in his efforts to face the world and to find his way, find himself. It is a kind of primitive art that, for me, then and now, was very powerful.

“No Night Without Stars” is a lesser work. I realize that my judgment is colored by the fact that I’ve read the book a half century after I first read “Daybreak” — read it with a half century’s more experience and insight, and understanding of a life’s journey.

Still, objectively, it seems a more muddied story.

Sander, like Fors, has lost his father, and he decides to leave his tribe because he’s been passed over. Sander is a metal smith, and he wants to learn the secrets of metal-working of the Before People.

He has a coyote-like sidekick Rhin, but, instead of traveling alone, he quickly joins forces with Fanyi, a shaman with her own cat-like companions. She seeks the deeper knowledge that her father had described before his death.

So we have two fatherless (and motherless) orphans in their late teens or early 20s, both with animal allies, both on a quest.

The story is told from Sander’s perspective, but, as it evolves, it becomes more about Fanyi’s quest. (In “Daybreak,” Fors does make a friend of another male searcher, Arskane, but the story remains tightly focused on Fors’ own search.)

Also, because they’re two young people, the absence of even thoughts of lust and/or love is glaring here.

In “Daylight,” there were humans on one side of the battle for the landscape, and, on the other side, there were the beast-things.

In “No Night Without Stars,” there are a variety of human, semi-human and non-human adversaries that Sander and Fanyi have to face. Norton allots only a few pages to each threat before she moves on to the next. The succession of threats becomes routine — and somewhat boring.

Still, “No Night Without Stars” is an enjoyable read. It just seems much weaker when packaged with what, for me, was the powerfully evocative story of “Daybreak.”

 

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“Moon of Three Rings” by Andre Norton ~ 1.13.14

Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.

Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience.

She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key.

Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens).

There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class.

Face-to-face with the Other

Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a certain sort. It is a sort that eschews hardware and technology questions (such as how a hyper-drive might work) as well as generally ignoring speculations centering on higher mathematics and philosophical wool-gathering (such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and debates about multiple dimensions and “wrinkles in the fabric of time”).

Again, it’s adventure that Norton’s sort of science fiction is concerned with. Not simply adventure, however, in the sense of a physical testing against a harsh environment. That’s in her stories, journeys through threatening environments, hunting and being hunted.

Much more, though, Norton’s adventures deal with coming face-to-face with the Other. (Indeed, the title of one of her books is Ordeal in Otherwhere.)

Think about those great adventure stories I mentioned earlier. All of them have to do with confronting the Other in some way. That Other can be the Trojan army or Grendel or, in the classic western, the Indians.

Who am I?

Much more, though, the confrontation with the Other brings forth an internal confrontation with the Self. That’s what the Odyssey is all about, isn’t it? Odysseus searching to find himself. By facing the Other, the hero has to face himself or herself.

The Other is over there. I am here. I’m different from the Other. But how? Who am I? Why am I here?

That might seem like too ponderous a weight to shackle a simple adventure story with. Yet, think of Norton’s readers. Boys and young men, at the core of their beings, are trying to figure out who they are and how they are going to approach life.

They relate to her heroes because, like those adventurers, the readers are moving through their own confusing, forbidding and often overwhelming landscape (known as adolescence and young adulthood), seeking a safe haven, a home of their own.

This emotional and psychological aspect to the stories isn’t very subtle, but we’re talking about boys and young men. A sledgehammer may be the best way to get their attention.

It was for me.

A revelation

I was 10, I think, just finishing 5th grade. My school, St. Thomas Aquinas, was taking part in an annual program with a book seller to encourage reading over the summer. We were given a list of books, and we could put a checkmark on the small box next to the title of a book, pay a fairly small (but not insubstantial) amount and have the book delivered to our homes. One of the titles I checked was Daybreak — 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton.

As part of the program, many, if not all, of the books on the list were on display at the school so there was probably something about the cover and/or the description of the book that caught my attention. I’d read some science fiction on occasion previously, but, as far as I can remember, never one by Norton.

Well, Daybreak — 2250 A.D. was a revelation for me, a breakthrough moment in my reading history. (I still re-read it every few years.)

Published originally eight years earlier in 1952 under the title Star Man’s Son, the novel tells the story of a teenager named Fors who is an outsider in his clan because of his mutant nature. He has silver hair and better eyesight than anyone else, and can communicate telepathically with Lura, a large mutated cat.

Mutants are the result of a nuclear war at some distant point in the past, and, because some have deformed into something less than human, all are considered unclean in some way.

When Fors is passed over yet again for full membership among the clan’s adult men, he flees his home village, angry and hurt and sets upon a quest. Together with Lura, he is searching to find the lost city his father had been seeking when he was slain in battle.

And Fors is searching for himself.

Three ways

Let me tell you: Any teenage boy, battered by the confusions of puberty and the approach of adulthood, would feel a kinship with Fors. Every teenage boy feels himself an outsider, and he knows in some way that he is going to have to go out from whatever home he has to find his way. And find himself.

Certainly, I did.

Fors has a strong, clear telepathic connection with Lura. That meant nothing to me. My family had never had pets. But I think, for me and for the rest of Norton’s readers, Lura stands for an ally, a friend, a partner on the quest.

This companion is another version of the Other. On the quest, Fors (or any of Norton’s heroes) will have to deal with a threatening Other. But sharing the journey will be a friendly Other.

All this may seem mumbo-jumbo, and maybe it is. Yet, I think there’s something deeply resonant about the three ways in which Fors sees the Other — as a threat, as a friend and as the self.

Or maybe this is all psychobabble.

A way out

In any case, this is a long, windy way of getting to Moon of Three Rings.

Norton’s hero is Krip Vorlund, a young assistant cargomaster on the Free Trader ship Lydis. During a trading fair on the world of Yiktor, he protects Maelen, a Thassa woman, from an attacker.

This ends up putting him into the center of a battle among warlords for control of Yiktor. He’s kidnapped, taken to a remote castle and tortured in an effort by one warlord to figure out how to make and use weapons that the Free Traders know about from other worlds.

After Krip escapes, he is being tracked down by the warlord’s men and hounds. But, as they are closing in, he is found by Maelen.

If the hunters arrive, he will be immediately killed, so Maelen offers him a way out — a way he doesn’t really believe but he says OK. And it happens.

A distorted world

And Krip finds himself inside the body of a kind of wolf called a barsk.

I opened my eyes. Then I screamed, for the world I looked upon was distorted, a matter of odd shapes, shades — so altered that terror walked there for me. But no scream did my ears records, rather a howl with naked fear in it.

This is the essence of Moon of Three Rings. The Thassa have found a way to exchange bodies — a human with an animal, one human with another human.

Within moments of the exchange, the hunters arrive to find Krip’s body alive yet drooling and witless. The traditions of that planet calls for anyone like this — anyone out of their mind — to be taken to a refuge where monks care for the lost souls.

Maelen tells the hunters that bringing Krip to that refuge is their responsibility, and they agree to do so.

When they’ve left, Maelen tells Krip that, after the hunters have handed over his breathing but unthinking body to the refuge, she and he will go there and reverse the exchange.

“Walk a mile…”

It doesn’t work out that way, though, and, over the course of the rest of the novel, more exchanges are done, some involving Krip and some others. Not all of these exchanges are able to be reversed, and the ending is bittersweet. Yet, hopeful, too.

For me, the idea of exchanging bodies with an animal or with another human is wonderfully evocative. You’ve heard “walk a mile in his shoes.” This takes that concept to a whole other level.

What’s also interesting is that, in making exchanges, the Thassa and the animals have come to a deep understanding of each other and created a deep bond.

Krip is also changed by the exchanges he goes through.

He goes through an internal adventure that parallels his external one. He is forced to consider who he really is — a human, a barsk, something else?

It’s a scary thing for Krip to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So it is with us. Even if we’re not actually exchanging bodies.

 

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“Star Gate” by Andre Norton ~ 7.14.14

The idea of alternative universes is old hat.

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter just published The Long Mars, the third installment in their Long Earth series about uncountable millions of versions of Earth, set in uncountable millions of versions of the Universe.

In the 2011 film Another Earth, a lookalike planet is discovered, and the more our Earth learns about it, the more it seems to have come somehow from a parallel cosmos. In a key scene, a scientist trying to make contact with the planet suddenly finds herself talking to herself.

There are a wide variety of ways in which to envision alternate universes. The Long Earth and Another Earth are of the type that posits the existence of different versions of the same place at the same time, each slightly or hugely different based on chance happenings.

That’s the concept at the heart of Andre Norton’s 1958 Star Gate, an early attempt to see how this theory might play out in life. Rather than Earth, her story is set on Gorth, and one of the characters explains:

“As it is with men, so it is also with nations and with worlds. There are times when they come to points of separation, and from those points their future takes two roads. And, thus, Kincar, there are many Gorths, each formed by some decision of history, lying as these bands, one beside the other, but each following its own path — .”

Star Lords and Gorthians

Kincar, Star Gate’s central character, is a half-breed. His father Rud was a dark tall Star Lord. His mother Anora was a light-skinned native Gorthian.

The Star Lords are people who came from space several centuries earlier. They are much taller and stronger than the natives, and they can live for many hundreds of years without visibly aging. The Gorthians were a primitive race when the Star Lords arrived, but, with the help of the visitors, they have developed rapidly and now are at a level with the Middle Ages from our own history.

The two peoples have lived together amicably, but the Star Lords have realized that their presence is warping the development of the natives. For instance, technologically sophisticated weapons are falling into the hands of some Gorthians.

So, to remove their negative influence on the planet, most of the visitors re-board their ships and return to space. Some, though, decide to take another route — to leave this Gorth for an alternate version. The method: two portable star gates.

Wormholes

Thirty-six years after Norton’s novel, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich developed the Stargate movie, and, later, a television series of the same name. Their stargate, however, didn’t permit travel from one Earth to another, but from Earth to another place in the Universe.

Nonetheless, both Norton’s star gate and the Devlin-Emmerich stargate represent wormholes in the fabric of the cosmos that permit instant movement through the vastness of space that, otherwise, would require centuries or more of normal travel. Other books and movies have envisioned the use of wormholes or black holes for traveling through time, as in the 2009 Star Trek movie in which a younger Spock meets an older version of himself.

In Star Gate, there’s no possibility of Lord Dillan, one of the Star Lords, bumping into himself at an earlier or later age. But he can — and does — some face-to-face with an alternate Lord Dillan.

One who, up to a moment of historical divergence, was himself, but is no longer.

Good guy and bad guy

Lord Dillan is among the small band of Star Lords and half-breeds who plan to go through the star gates to find an empty Gorth to settle on. However, they are attacked by outlaws who follow them through the first portal. So the travelers destroy that gate and, after going through the second one, demolish it as well.

As a result, they are stranded in a version of Gorth where evil Star Lords rule, enslaving the Gorthians with cruelty and savagery. Even their cities appear from a distance “faintly corrupt and debased.”

Kincar’s Lord Dillan is a good guy, but the one on this Gorth is malevolent.

Norton doesn’t try to explain what might have happened to give the Star Lords who came to Gorth two such drastically different evolutions. It’s a knotty question, made knottier by the existence of many individuals, such as Dillan.

Let’s say the branch in the roads occurred after the Star Lords landed on Gorth. When that happened, a version of Dillan went on to live a helpful life on Kincar’s Gorth, but another warped into someone vile and vicious. Both had the same genetic makeup and environmental influences, but, after the branching of history, they developed very differently.

Is that likely?

Rollicking adventure

There’s a lack of nuance here. Yet, in her defense, Norton was early in trying to wrestle with such problems. Plus psychological subtlety was never her strong suit.

Suffice it to say, she offers here a rollicking adventure.

In addition, there is an interesting edge of religious belief to much of the action. Kincar, for instance, finds himself the custodian of a sacred relic, and one character expresses an openness to all right-minded faiths:

Good thoughts and beliefs have the respect of any man, whether they be his own by birth, or native to his friends and kinsmen.

That’s fairly progressive for a novel of the late 1950s. It’s also possibly significant that Norton chose to make the Star Lords — the god-like space travelers — dark-skinned. The Civil Rights Movement was starting to gain speed in the U.S. as Star Gate hit bookstore shelves.

One of Norton’s better novels, Star Gate is inventive, adventurous and fun — a formula she excelled at for more than 70 years as a writer.

 

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MOON SINGER SERIES: “Moon of Three Rings,” “Exiles of the Stars,” “Flight in Yiktor” and Dare to Go a-Hunting” by Andre Norton ~ 6.8.15

A year and a half ago, I read Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings (1966) and described it in a review as one of her best novels.

I liked it so much that I got copies of its three sequels — Exiles of the Stars (1971), Flight in Yiktor (1986) and Dare to Go a-Hunting (1990) — which I read recently.

For a long time, I have tried to figure out why I enjoy reading Norton’s novels. She’s not as good a writer as Robert Heinlein or Edgar Pangborn. Indeed, her characters tend to talk in a stilted, almost fairy-tale like way. “There will be many coming and going — and we shall make us a path through such a gathering to the Faxc entrance — from there it is but a step to the Street of Traders,” says one character in Flight in Yiktor.

Neither is she very inventive in the way of science fiction writers. Her books don’t ponder theoretical speculations or try to figure out the physics of space travel. Almost always in her sci-fi books, her characters are landing on planets where the air is breathable and the gravity just fine.

“Hair to clothe her”

There is no sex in Norton’s books although publishers often slap lurid covers on them, usually having little or nothing to do with the text. (By contrast, Heinlein’s characters were often a randy bunch.)

In the three examples above, the left cover for Exiles of the Stars does have a bit of a connection to the story. However, instead of the slinky, go-go dancer-ish woman that the artist has conceived, Norton describes an ancient alien, held for eons in stasis, this way:

But the fourth was a woman! None of those behind the walls were clothed except for their crowns. And their bodies were flawless, skin to the ideal of beauty held by my species. The woman was such perfection as I had never dreamed could exist in the flesh.

The speaker is Krip Vorlund, a main character of all four Moon Singer books, but it’s not clear how he knows this woman is so perfect since he adds:

From beneath her diadem flowed hair to clothe her almost to her knees.

“My comrade in adventure”

Romance is missing as well. Consider this scene at the end of Exiles of the Stars in which Maelen, the Moon Singer of the series, is talking with Krip about what they should do next.

“Two exiles can find a common life, Krip. And there are stars — a ship can seek them out. I think that our dreams flow together.”

His answer this time came in action, and I found it very good. So did we two who had walked strange ways choose to walk a new one side by side…

I’m pretty sure that means they kissed.

Krip and Maelen travel together through two more books, but Norton steers away from giving any glimpse into their relationship. In Dare We Go a-Hunting, Maelen describes Krip as “my comrade in adventure.”

“The true life of all”

Yet, beyond the physical level, Norton’s four books are about the relationship that Krip and Maelen share, not only with each other but with a wide variety of other humanoids and even animals.

They are able to communicate with each other, to one extent or another, through telepathy. And they work together throughout the four books to stymie the nefarious plots of the bad guys, mainly members of the Thieves Guild, an interstellar version of the Crime Syndicate.

So there are adventures, but the core of Norton’s stories in these four books and in her other science fiction works is the process of coming to grips with the Other and the Self.

The Other can be a threat, such as the Guild or those four ancient aliens in Exiles of the Stars. But the Other can also be a friend. Krip is a Free Trader. Maelen is a Moon Singer. Farree is a hunchback of unknown origin. Other characters are animals of various sorts. But, together, their differences fall aside, and they are a team.

Together, they share “the true life of all.”

Finding our way

But the Other is also the Self.

In these four Moon Singer books, the core of one character’s identity — the consciousness, the Self — is moved from a human body into a wolf-like animal and then into the body of a different sort of human. Another takes a similar journey. A third goes through a surprising metamorphosis.

With these changes — which echo the changes that puberty brings about in teens, particularly the teenage boys who were Norton’s target market — the central question is: Who am I?

In Flight in Yiktor, a prophetess tells Farree: “The time will come when you shall truly know what you are and who. And it will not be an ill time — but a good!”

I think that’s why, as a preteen, I began reading Norton more than half a century ago with her 1952 novel Daybreak — 2250 A.D., a novel about a young man trying to find his way — and his place — in a post-apocalyptic world.

Aren’t we all trying to find our way? Not just as youngsters but throughout our lives?

I think that’s why I still read Norton.

 

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Daybreak — 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton ~ 5.16.16

I wish I could say that Daybreak – 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton has great literary merit. But it doesn’t.

It was one of the first novels in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to grapple with the idea of what the world would look like after a global nuclear war. But it’s overlooked and ignored now, although it helped pave the way for scores of books and films that came after, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

I could tell you that, to my mind, it’s the best of the more than 200 novels that Norton published during her 93-year-long life. But that doesn’t say a lot. She was never much of a stylist.

No, I love Daybreak – 2250 A.D. because it’s a captivating adventure story with psychological themes that resonated deeply with me when I first read it in 1960 at the age of 10 and that still resonate with me when I re-read the book every few years or so.

I refuse to call this a guilty pleasure.  Although no literary gem, it’s not a bad book. It’s a good book.

Opened a door

Maybe you have a book like this. Maybe all readers do. A book that touched you at some key moment in life, one that opened a door or helped you understand your place in the cosmos.

Daybreak – 2250 A.D. was originally published in hardcover in 1952 as Star Man’s Son: 2250 A.D. The copy I originally read — which I got through a school book fair (all hail school book fairs!) — was a paperback from Ace Books with a cover that showed the central character Fors riding a raft through a ruined city, accompanied by Lura, a large telepathic cat.

Although the book was, in the manner of sci-fi, republished many times over the last half century with different covers, no stand-alone version is in print at this point. However, it is available in Darkness and Dawn, a paperback and Kindle book that also contains a second similar Norton novel, No Night Without Stars (1975).

Daybreak wasn’t written for 10-year-olds. Norton’s target audience for her science fiction was always adolescent boys and men who somehow remained in touch with their teenage selves. That’s partially why I can re-read Daybreak, as well as many of Norton’s other novels, with such enjoyment.

A search

They’re about facing danger, going into scary situations. And they almost always involve a search for identity.

That’s why Fors was so important to the 10-year-old me. He is a mutant. His father was a Star Captain, one of the leaders of the Puma Clan in the mountains of what was once the western United States. But on a trip in search of a lost city in the wilderness beyond the clan’s territory, he was killed.

And the clan turns against Fors — “Mutant!” — because of his silver hair, night vision and ability to communicate with Lura through telepathy. Norton writes:

For more than two hundred years — ever since the black days of chaos following the Great Blow-Up, the atomic war — that cry had been enough to condemn without trial. Fear caused it, the strong, instinctive fear of the whole race for anyone cursed with a different physique or unusual powers.

A kind of roadmap

So he sneaks away from the village and goes off to retrace his father’s tracks. He finds the city his father sought. He makes friends. And he faces the nightmare mutants called Beast Things.

They were probably no taller than he but their emaciated bodies perched on stick legs made them seem to top him. The grayish skin which was stretched tight over their sharp bones was deep grained, almost scaly, and their bodies were bare save for strips of filthy tattered stuff worn about their loins. But their faces — !

This was all powerful stuff to the 10-year-old me. On some level, I suspect, every pre-teen and teenager feels like an outcast and a mutant. I certainly did. I could look out on the world, and it was an unknown and scary place. I could look out into my future and see that I would have to go into that world and become — who?

In Daybreak, Norton provided me with a kind of roadmap. It wasn’t one that I could follow. But it showed me that, in facing the risk of life in the world like Fors, I could find my way and find myself.

The power of literature

One other thing: Daybreak also showed me the power of literature. Through Norton’s novel, I learned that books can be life-shifting, in big and small ways. A book, I found, can adjust my perspective, can light up dark places, can open new vistas.

So every book I read, I’m open to how it will change me, and rarely am I disappointed. All thanks to Andre Norton and Daybreak – 2250 A.D.

 

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“The Time Traders” by Andre Norton ~ 5.15.17

Andre Norton was a woman (Alice May Norton), writing as a man in a field dominated by men whose readers were generally teenage boys and young adult men.

She knew how it felt to be a misfit, operating in an alien world.

During her long 93 years, Norton wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. Her central characters were always misfits of a sort.

Such as Ross Murdock, a young troublemaker and minor criminal with a chip on his shoulder about authority.

“A bad little boy”

Norton’s 1958 novel The Time Traders begins with Murdock coming before a judge in late 20th century America and, because of his incorrigible nature, facing the likelihood that he will have to undergo “the treatment.” He doesn’t know exactly what “the treatment” is, but he’s heard enough rumors to be afraid of it.

Although Murdock is anti-social, he’s far from stupid, and, as he stands before the judge, he’s ready to go into his act:

It never paid to talk back, to allow any sign of defiance to show. He would go through the motions as if he were a bad little boy who had realized his errors. It was a meek-and-mild act that had paid off more than once in Ross’s checkered past. So he faced the man seated behind the desk in the other room with an uncertain, diffident smile, standing with boyish awkwardness.

Murdock is given the chance to avoid punishment by agreeing to volunteer. He jumps at the chance without finding out what’s involved, and, the next thing he knows, he’s been whisked by helicopter and short-range rocket to a covert base near the North Pole.

He’s been roped into working on a secret project in which, amid the high tensions of the Cold War, U.S. scientists and agents are working feverishly to discover secrets that the Soviet Union has uncovered.

And it all has to do with time travel.

“Misfits in the modern world”

Although the U.S. and the Soviets are battling in their clash of philosophies, there is no space race.

After Sputnik and a few flights that followed, including a crash on the Moon, attempts to conquer travel through outer space were dropped. The Earth just didn’t have the know-how to make it happen.

The Soviets, though, have discovered another method of travel — through time — and have apparently gotten a hold of other technology which they don’t completely understand but which could ultimately give them dominance.

The Americans have been able to duplicate time travel and are now searching desperately to scour the past to find where the Soviets are getting these new discoveries. The way they do it is through a team of agents who, masquerading as traders, are dropped into different eras where the Reds are known to be.

The agents, as Murdock is told, are of a special breed, the sort that are often spotted and highly useful in a war:

He is the born commando, the secret agent, the expendable man who lives on action. There are not many of this kind, and they are potent weapons. In peacetime that particular collection of emotions, nerve, and skills becomes a menace to the very society he has fought to preserve during a war. He is pressured by the peaceful environment into becoming a criminal or a misfit.

The men we send out from here to explore the past are not only given the best training we can possibly supply for them, but they are all of the type once heralded as the frontiersman. History is sentimental about that type — when he is safely dead — but the present finds him difficult to live with. Our time agents are misfits in the modern world….

“Walking with a proud stride”

Through a series of crises, Murdock ends up in the middle of a hot war with Soviet agents in Britain around the year 2000 BC. Then, hundreds of thousands of years further in the past.

The story, as it develops, involves primitive people, a hidden space ship of unknown history and human-like aliens who might be simply an earlier race from before the dawn of humans.

And, because this is an Andre Norton novel, there’s also a strong woman.

Cassca, the First Sower, the priestess of the Great Mother, has only a small role in the novel. Nonetheless, she makes a memorable entrance:

Out of the bushes stepped a young woman, obviously of some importance in her own group. Walking with a proud stride, her eyes boldly met Ashe’s. A shining disk hung about her neck on a thong, and another decorated the woven belt of her cloth tunic. Her hair was bound with a thread net fasted with jet pins.

“Strange encounter”

Also, because this is an Andre Norton novel, there are several scenes in which the mind, particularly the will, is an important weapon.

Indeed, in the final pages, Murdock engages in the mental wrestling match with two of the aliens:

This strange encounter was a battle of will against will! The same rebellion against authority which had ruled his boyhood, which had pushed him into the orbit of the project, stiffened him to meet this attack.

The Time Traders, rich in many of Norton’s themes, is one of her strongest works and became the first in a series of several books about Murdock and those who travelled back in time to learn the secrets of the past.

Misfits in alien worlds.

 

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“Galactic Derelict” by Andre Norton ~ 6.12.17

Galactic Derelict, published in 1959, is the second in a series of Andre Norton novels that began a year earlier with Time Traders.

After stumbling onto a long-lost alien technology that permits time travel, two groups of humans — the Reds (i.e., the Soviet Union), originally, and then the United States, trying to catch up — endeavor to go into the past in a search for other scientific miracles.

In order to fit in, the Americans masquerade as traders. It’s not clear how the Reds present themselves, and, by the end of the first novel, it doesn’t matter since they’ve gotten their comeuppance from a group of aliens that are discovered lurking thousands of years ago.

Runaway space ship

Galactic Derelict, set in the late 1970s, starts off immediately after the first book and centers on a large ball-like space ship that’s found 12,000 years back in time in what is now the arid stretches of the American Southwest. All those thousands of years ago, however, the land is a lush green place where sabretooth tigers and huge mammoths are threats, as are some primitive humans.

The plan is to set up machinery to send the entire ship back to the late 1970s, but, as everything is being readied, the land is shaken by a series of earthquakes. The time transfer takes place, but, at the same moment, the automatic controls of the craft send it off into space — the space, not of the past, but of the present day. Inside are four Americans — Ashe, Murdock, Travis and Renfry — trapped on a runaway space ship they can’t control.

The bulk of the novel follows the four as the ship’s auto pilot brings them to stops at two worlds before finally coming to what the humans figure out must be its home planet. The question, then, is whether they can figure out a way to get back to Earth.

Weird and foreign intruders

The visits to three worlds gives Norton an opportunity to create a variety of inventively imagined, often colorful alien races — although, of course, on their worlds, they’re not aliens. It’s the humans who are the weird and foreign intruders.

In this novel, Andre Norton is in the early wave of science-fiction writers who are seriously thinking about how odd and unlike humans the intelligent life on another planet might be.

In this, she both succeeds and stumbled.

“It’s foulness”

She stumbles in the simplistic way she equates the physical features of another race, particularly its smell, with its moral qualities — its good-ness or bad-ness.

For instance, the humans find a clump of hair of a creature on one world:

Ashe held on his palm the tuft of hair and the odor rising from it was not only noticeable in the usual scentless atmosphere of the ship, but penetrating in its foulness.

The inference here is that any creature whose hair smell so “foul” would have to be evil.

At another point, the humans come across what might be a den of the “weasel-faced” creatures, and it’s “rank.” Here, the inference is that, if a lair smells bad and if the being that lives there has the face of a weasel, well, it must be a threat.

In each case, the bad-smell species does turn out to be a danger, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of Norton’s imagination. She believes that smell will indicate benevolence or malignancy, and it just doesn’t work.

The aromas of dishes from a culture that isn’t mine may initially turn me off. But, if I try that odd Russian dish or Korean dish or Indian dish, I may find that the food tastes good.

Oddness does not equal bad-ness.

“Neither aggressive nor a danger”

When the humans come across some flying beings who seem to have something of the insect, bird and mammal to them, they are attracted:

It was impossible to read any expression in those stalked eyes, a brilliant blue. But none of the four Terrans felt any repulsion or alarm as they had upon their encounter with the nocturnal desert people. Whatever the flyer was, they could not believe that it was either aggressive or a possible danger to them.

Later, they will note that these flyers have an “alien but not inoffensive odor.”   Hence, they must be OK.

That’s not true on Earth. Here’s a link to a list of 14 beautiful but deadly flowers. What could be safer than a pretty flower? Well, these 14 aren’t safe.

“What makes their minds tick”

Even with this failing, Norton succeeds in Galactic Derelict in thinking about other intelligent races because the novel is filled with questions.

Ashe says to his Travis, “I wouldn’t kill — until I know what I was killing.”

For a moment, Travis did not understand, and then the meaning of the rather ambiguous statement sank in. How could they be sure that the prey was not — man? Or man’s equivalent here?

Trying to figure out whether to deal with one sort of creature, Murdock says the humans may be entering a trap. To which, Travis responds:

“That’s just guessing. How can we tell what makes their minds tick? We don’t even know what they are.”

“Their world”

The humans must deal with technology they don’t understand. On one planet, they confront machinery that they are tempted to tinker with, but hold off because it might result in the explosion of a building and the deaths of the natives who live there. Ashe says:

“Break it open and they’re just as dead as if we mowed them down with blasters.

“They may not be anything or anybody we’d care to live with, but this is their world and we’re intruders.”

Norton may get it wrong when she equates smell with good-ness or bad-ness. But, on a much deeper level, she’s operating on an important moral basis.

We humans aren’t in charge just because we show up.

This is a lesson that would have benefited many human nations and empires throughout history that gave not a thought to the natives into whose world they were intruding.

 

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“The Defiant Agents” by Andre Norton ~ 8.1.17

What’s striking about Andre Norton’s 1962 novel The Defiant Agents is how political and moral it is.

Norton was a writer of adventure novels, cranking out an average of about three a year during her 70-year career as a novelist for a total of more than 200.  (She died at the age of 93 in 2005.)

She specialized in science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.  Her usual goal wasn’t to make political commentary the way, say, George Orwell did in 1984.

The Defiant Agents is the third book in what came to be called the Time Traders series which began in 1958 with The Time Traders and continued in 1959 with Galactic Derelict. Although both books pitted American agents against the menacing Reds of the Soviet Union, it was just the usual white hat/black hat dichotomy.

Political and moral reasons

Here, though, in the midst of the adventure in The Defiant Agents, Norton is making clear and direct commentary on the daily headlines of her era — the headlines dealing with the threat, seemingly unavoidable, of nuclear weapons.

The title is a hint.  The agents in the book are defiant for political and moral reasons.

Perhaps it has to do with the time when Norton was writing.  Since the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, world tensions had been escalating as more and more nations obtained atomic and hydrogen bombs and developed larger and larger arsenals.

This would come to a head in October, 1962, with the Cuban missile crisis when the Soviet Union and the United States played a game of nuclear chicken over the building of missile sites in Cuba, a veritable stone’s throw from the U.S. mainland.

Norton’s manuscript for The Defiant Agents had been prepared before that crisis, but she was well-aware of what a nuclear holocaust would bring.

Indeed, her first science fiction novel, published in 1952 as Star Man’s Son: 2250 A.D., and often reissued later as Daybreak: 2250 A.D., was one of the first novels to look at what life on Earth would be like in the aftermath of a global nuclear war.

Alien arms

It’s abundantly clear that it was the nuclear threat that Norton had in mind when she wrote The Defiant Agents and had her character Travis Fox find a treasure trove of powerful alien weaponry.

Fox, a modern-day anthropologist, is an Apache who, with other members of his tribe, has been sent through time and space to this planet, a world that had once been important to the long-gone aliens who left their guns and bombs.

While the Apaches represent the U.S., they are opposed by two groups — Russians of Mongol descent who have been sent to the planet with their Soviet overseers.

The Apaches and Mongols have undergone special psychological manipulation to enable them to get in touch with their deep ethnic memories of operating well in the vast plains of this planet.   When the U.S. spacecraft crashes on landing, the Apaches survive but not their U.S. monitors.

In the novel, the Apaches and Mongols come to the realization that they have more in common with each other than the Mongols do with their overlords.  So, it becomes the two tribes against the technologically powerful Soviets.

But defeating the Reds would only be a partial victory.

That’s because the powerful alien weapons would be available for future use, and that’s what’s really got the Apaches and Mongols scared.  It seems that they’re stranded on this planet, but what if the Soviets send another ship?  Or, for that matter, the Americans?  What is one or the other tribes wants to get control of the planet?

“To use this on a living thing!”

Norton makes it clear that these weapons are truly frightening.  Fox takes out the smallest and most mobile of the arms he can find, a kind of handgun, and, to test it, he points it at a bush and presses the trigger:

The result of his action was quick — quick and terrifying.  There was no sound, no sign of any projectile…ray-gas…or whatever might have issued in answer to his finger movement.  But the bush — the bush was no more!

A black smear made a ragged outline of the extinguished ash, but the bush was gone!

One character describes it as “powerful beyond belief,” adding, “In truth evil is here!”  Then, another raises the gun and points it at a rock:

This time they were able to witness disintegration in progress, the crumble of the stone as if the substance was no more than sand lapped by river water.  A pile of blackened rubble remained — nothing more.

“To use this on a living thing?” Buck protested, horror basing the doubt in his voice.

“The meddling of fools and zealots”

Immediately, the Apaches and the Mongols decide that, once they’ve finished off the Soviets, they will have to close up the alien armory and destroy all evidence of it.

Suppose the Western Conference had discovered the warehouse and explored its riches, would they have been any less eager to exploit them?  As Buck had pointed out, one’s own ideals could well supply reasons for violence.  In the past Terra had been rocked by wars of religion, one fanatically held opinion opposed to another.

There was no righteousness in such struggles, only fatal ends.  The Reds had no right to this new knowledge — but neither did they.  It must be locked against the meddling of fools and zealots.

The Defiant Agents is only a science-fiction adventure novel, and Norton was only a novelist.

But it contained a message of the “fools and zealots” of every age.  Particularly her own.

 

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