Reviews by Patrick T. Reardon

 

No Night Without Stars

Moon of Three Rings

Star Gate

Moon Singer Series ~ “Moon of Three Rings,” “Exiles of the Stars,” “Flight in Yiktor” and Dare to Go a-Hunting”

Daybreak 2250 A.D.

The Time Traders

Galactic Derelict

The Defiant Agents

The Sioux Spaceman

Catseye

Plague Ship

Sargasso of Space

 

“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--- moon of three rings

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.

norton --- star gate

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.

norton..moonsinger...combo

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.)

moon...alt....combo

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.

norton.daybreak

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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"The Sioux Spaceman" by Andre Norton ~ 10.30.17

It’s amazing, if you think of it, how the covers of science-fiction paperbacks are so often completely misleading.

This is true to some extent for paperback novels in general, but it seems to be the case most often in the sci-fi genre.

I have no idea why that is. Or maybe I do.

One reason: That other species

One reason may have to do with the core audience of science fiction — teenage boys and young men as well as older men who, in some part of their being, remain teenage boys or young men. These are readers who tend to be bookish and more than a little shy.

That may explain why, for the most part, there’s little or no sex in the regular run of futuristic novels although this has changed somewhat in recent years. Still, even today, most sci-fi gives its primary focus to the nuts and bolts of technology, ignoring those messy things like emotions and lusts.

You wouldn’t know that, however, if you judged the books by their covers.

This was especially true when pulp science fiction magazines regularly portrayed a hardly clothed creature from that other species…er, that other sex…on their covers.

A slinky star-pointer

It’s continued today. Just look this cover on the right of the 1968 edition of They Shall Have Stars by James Blish, originally published twelve years earlier.

That image of a slinky nude woman pointing off to the cosmos makes the book seem like one kind of novel.   But it isn’t.

Nearly all of its characters — and certainly all of its important characters — are men doing a lot of complicated and very earnest skullduggery in government offices, business headquarters and laboratories to find a way to sneak a spaceship into flight.

Not a single nude woman pointing at the stars shows up in the book’s pages.

So why on the cover? Well, the covers titillate all those shy teenage boys and young men (who know that the stories inside aren’t going to unsettle them with untidy feelings and urges).

“Hair to clothe her”

Books by prolific sci-fi author Andre Norton — a woman born Alice Norton who adopted a male name, the better to be accepted by her primarily male audience — get a lot of these sexy covers. But not always. Consider the images below:

Norton was a writer who was much more at home with, say, telepathy between a young man and a large cat or bird than with romantic entanglements.

Nonetheless, “People of the Crater,” a novella that was her first published science fiction, appearing in 1947 in the first issue of Fantasy Book, featured an unclothed woman on the cover — who doesn’t appear anywhere in the novella.

There actually is a nude woman — an ancient human-like alien, to be exact — in Norton’s Exiles of the Stars, and one edition of the book does feature the outline of a naked lady doing a sort of go-go dance although no go-go dance is carried out in the story.

However, the cover of the 1971 hardcover edition (above, right) is a much better reflection of the novel.

That’s because this ancient alien, held for eons in stasis, is nude but not in a sexy way — and she’s covered up anyway, as Norton explains.

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 a human named Krip Vorlund, 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.

And that’s pretty much how she stays for the rest of the novel. There’s no ogling, no hanky-panky — not in an Andre Norton book!

The other reason: Complexity

The other reason science fiction novels tend to have misleading covers probably has to do with the complexity of the stories.

The goal of the science fiction writer is to create a future world or an alternative world that may have some parallels with the Earth we know and love but is its own place.

This means that much of what the writer of a literary novel or a romance novel or a crime novel is able to take for granted has to be created by the sci-fi writer.

If, for instance, in a crime novel, Character A goes into the basement of a 12-story high-rise and finds a dead body with a knife in the forehead, she may take out her cell phone and call Character B.

Simple. Readers know what a 12-story high-rise is, and a basement, and a knife, and a cell phone.

But, in a science fiction novel, there is a lot the writer has to figure out and then explain to the reader:

What kind of building it is in this world? What does the lower level look like and what is it used for? What sort of wound will there be in the body, from what sort of weapon? Is the body human or alien? If alien, what does it look like? And, once the discovery occurs, how does Character A communicate with Character B?

Sneaking around as traders

A case in point is Norton’s 1960 novel The Sioux Spaceman. Kade Whitehawk is the titular Native American, and he finds himself on Klor, one of many planets controlled by a nasty but technologically savvy alien race called the Styor.

Kade is one of a group of human agents who have a foothold in the world as traders. The Sklor look down on the humans but like some of the merchandise they offer. A subtext is that the humans are searching for vulnerabilities in the Sklor technology which is too strong for them to attack directly.

The concept of human agents sneaking around alien worlds as traders was a central element in Norton’s Time Traders series — The Time Traders (1958), Galactic Derelict (1959) and The Defiant Agents (1962). The second and third novels in the series feature an Apache character, Travis Fox.

Native Americans

It seems clear that, in those two Time Traders books and in The Sioux Spaceman, Norton thought that Native Americans could be employed in such ventures because their ancestry as nomads only a few generations earlier would enable to them to relate to primitive races on other worlds.

This is an idea that, as Norton presents it, strikes me as racist.

Yet, I know that some Native Americans remain very much in tune with their ancestral customs and traditions, and there might be some way of capitalizing on that — in a non-racist way. In addition, there was a version of this employed in World War I and World War II — the “code talkers” who used Native American languages in transmitting coded messages.

In The Sioux Spaceman, the primitive creatures are the Ikkinni, and, based on the notes of an earlier, murdered Native American agent, Kade realizes that the Ikkinni are a lot like the Sioux back on Earth before the tribe got horses. With horses, they would be able to cause a lot of problems for the Styor. And that would be to the benefit of the humans in the galaxy.

Thrown-up hands

So, Norton’s plot is fairly complex and, in its way, nuanced — and not very easy to convey in a single image on the cover.

Here are two examples of how it’s been approached:

Both of them seem to have been produced by artists who, in the face of the complex story, simply threw up their hands and decided: “The hell with it, I’ll just give them something vaguely space-ish for a cover.”

That seems to explain the image on the right which features people walking away from a spaceship.”

The problem here, aside from the complete vagueness of the image, is that the people are shown with their heads enclosed in clear helmets, something no one of Klor has to wear.

The other is vague in a strange way. There is no indication on the dust jacker for the source of the image, but it appears it may be a Native American carving of some sort. There is a stone carving that is a plot point in the carving, but Norton’s description of it bears no resemblance to the image on this cover.

Nothing like the guy

Here is a cover image that is rooted very slightly in the novel, but it appears to be based on a complete misreading of the text.

The novel has a character named Buk who operates a small portable machine that controls the Ikkinni. All he has to do is press a button, and the metal collar around an Ikkinni’s neck will jolt him into spasms of unbearable pain.

Those men walking in chains are supposed to represent the Ikkinni although, with the machine, Buk doesn’t need to put them in chains. Also, the Ikkinni don’t look that much like humans.

The guy with the machine looks even less like Buk whom Norton describes as:

A corpulent humanoid, his yellowish skin stretched in a greasy band over a wobbling paunch…[with a] hairless head,,,[with] three horn-like bumps across the forehead, and…a sharply pointed chine [that] retreated as thick wattle of loose skin into his big neck.

In other words, he looks nothing like the guy on the cover….

The Sioux as a bad guy?

….who, with that head-dress, could be the Sioux of the title!

That’s the really confusing thing about this cover. It makes it seem that the Sioux spaceman is the guy who’s enslaving these victims.

It makes the good guy seem to be a bad guy!

Well, the constant re-issuing of science fiction titles means that there are often many versions, and the two below show that, at times, a cover can be reasonably accurate.

Neither is perfect, but, for my money, the one on the right is the better of the two — and, for me, at least, the most interesting.

(Webmasters Note: The image on the left is not a real cover image - it is from an art project where Artist were tasked with re-imagining book covers.)

 

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"Catseye" by Andre Norton ~ 01.18.18

Andre Norton’s 1974 novel Catseyeis what’s often called a space opera.

In other words, like the old Westerns — called horse operas — it’s an adventure story, set in space, featuring good guys and bad guys. And, in the end, the white hats win.

In other words, we’re not talking King Lear or Paradise Lost here.

Catseye is entertainment, pure and simple. And, yet, there is something noble about a well-crafted entertainment, made with pride and integrity and intelligence and a level of creativity.

A kinship

Here, as in many other Norton novels, the story involves a human being — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks named Troy Horan — who is able to talk telepathically with animals. In this case, five animals from Earth — two cats, two foxes and a playful little monkey-like creature called a kinkajou.

This theme was obviously important to Norton, and it’s not just a fun what-if feature to her stories.

Deeper, it is a recognition of a kinship between humans and other creatures and, by extension, with all of creation — a proto-ecology idea when Norton originally used the concept sixty-five years ago in her first science-fiction novel Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (originally published as Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D.).

A community

In Catseye, Norton also takes this concept in an additional direction, envisioning a large wilderness area on Troy Norton’s planet which is being protected from development and violation by a group of tough, politically powerful outdoorspeople known as the Clan.

Along a different line, Norton’s story involves the effort of Horan to escape the Dipple, a slum ghetto in the pleasure city of Tikil where displaced persons are herded and corralled. Here, they live without citizenship, routinely denigrated, casually used for hard labor in the “better” parts of the city and then sent back to the prison-like Dipple.

Horan escapes, but only because of his talent for telepathically communicating with animals and because of a community he forms with the foxes, cats and kinkajou and because of his willingness to treat them as equals and because of their willingness to accept him in their circle.

In its modest way

Catseye is a pleasant entertainment.

It also, in its modest way, nudges the reader to think about the place of humans in the Universe and perhaps to question the knee-jerk sense among humans that they are at the crown of creation.

Similarly, it goes to bat, in its quiet way, for those at the bottom of society. Not only does it ask where humans stand in relation to all of the Universe, but it also questions whether the class structure of human society — with its span from the rich to the poor — is a valid way of treating people.

 

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"Plague Ship" by Andre Norton ~ 12.12.18

Andre Norton’s 1956 Plague Ship is a rip-snortingly inventive yarn that’s one of her better novels, a combination of medical mystery, anthropological adventure and space gallop.  And it features a rare guest appearance by the Earth, or Terra as Norton, like most sci-fic writers, calls it.

Indeed — in one of those science fiction moments that, for the character, represents a look at an horrific past while, for readers, especially those in the 1950s, it calls to mind a possibly horrific future — the Solar Queen trading ship lands on Earth in the Big Burn.

The Big Burn was the horrible scar left by the last of the Atomic Wars — a section of radiation poisoned land comprising hundreds of square miles — land which generations had never dared to penetrate. Originally the survivors of that war had shunned the whole continent which it disfigured. It had been close to two centuries before men had gone into the still wholesome land laying to the far west and the south. And through the years, the avoidance of the Big Burn had become part of their racial instinct as they shrank from it. It was a symbol of something no Terran wanted to remember.

Or, for the reader at the dawn of the atomic age, a symbol of something no human being wanted to have to face.

The Salaricki and the French voyageurs

The Solar Queen has landed on this much-shunned and highly radioactive spot as part of a desperate attempt to obtain medical help for the strange illness that has incapacitated the ship’s captain and senior crew.

At this point in the story, the ship is being run by its four most junior members, including Dane Thorson, the novel’s central character, who, as usual with Norton, is somewhat unsure of himself, somewhat klutzy but, it’s clear, with a lot of untapped potential.

The medical mystery began at the start of the novel with a meeting of the Solar Queen’s trading crew with the Salaricki people on the planet Sargol, an intercultural exchange that had all the earmarks of the gatherings of French voyageurs with Native Americans in the 1700s when the barter of goods and the achievement of profit where the goals, no matter what sort of strange ceremonies the two sides had to take part in.

Echoing history

It’s an example of the many ways this novel has the ring of actual human history.

Another instance is the trade wars in space that mimic the trade wars on Earth’s oceans in the days of high-masted exploration, even to the designation of a contaminated boat as a plague ship.

Plague Ship is a satisfying saga of deering-do and quick thinking and cleverness in the face of dark dangers, and a pleasing echo of the story of our own civilization.

 

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"Sargasso of Space" by Andre Norton ~ 12.10.18

The traders of the Solar Queen have set a trap for some hardened criminals who are hiding on the planet Limbo.  One of the bad guys gets out of his crawler, a Jeep-like vehicle, to investigate something, and, then,….

A stone thudded against the helmet of the would-be investigator, sending him off balance to clutch at the tread of the crawler for support.  Dane slammed another in his direction and then aimed for the driver of the machine.

The bad guys don’t use their deadly blasters but, apparently stunned by this rock-throwing attack, flee out instead into the distance.

Limbo is a world where the remains of a great many space ships have been found, including remnants of the mysterious, little-understood Forerunners race that had populated the cosmos eons ago.  The world is filled with a multitude of machines able to do amazing things.

Yet, I can’t help but smile to see that Andre Norton, writing initially as Alex North, has this key episode in her 1955 Sargasso of Space turn on the ability of her hero Dane Thorson and his fellows to throw rocks — like any Neanderthal of the distant past.

“Those angles are wrong”

Another distinctive aspect of this novel for me are some insights that Norton has about whatever alien civilizations might be found out in space.  While some, like the reptilian Rigellian bad guy, are somewhat human-like, it seems that the Forerunners were quite different.

The brilliant hues of the buildings were subdued by the lack of sunlight, but they still warred with one another and jolted Terran sense in a subtle fashion.  Either the people who had built this city had a different type of vision, or a chemical reaction from the burn-off had altered the color schemes for the worse.  As it was, none of the Traders felt exactly comfortable if they looked too long at those walls.

“It isn’t altogether the color —,” Rip spoke aloud.  “It’s their shape, too.  Those angles are wrong — just enough wrong to be disturbing —.”

“Horrible personnel problems”

Similarly, there is Norton’s realization that, given the nature of the long space voyages in a highly constrained environment, the team chemistry of crews would be exceedingly important.

The novel opens with Dane and some classmates putting their IDs into a computer called The Psycho and waiting for their ship assignments to be spit out.  The job of the Psycho is to match the right personalities in every crew so as to avoid the disasters of the past:

Long voyaging for small crews sealed into star spacers, with little chance for recreation or amusement, had created many horrible personnel problems in the past.  Some tragic cases were now required reading in the “History of Trade” courses at the Pool.

Foreign-seeming

I’ve enjoyed Andre Norton’s novels for more than half a century.  Maybe it’s the 12-year-old boy in me.

She tells a good story, even if her writing at times can be pompous or clunky.

Consider the names she gives her characters.  A bad guy Dane and his friends capture is called Lav Snall.  This is a typical Norton character name — a bit foreign-seeming with odd consonant combinations and word endings, but still pronounceable.

It’s a workable approach, and I’m not sure what a better way would have been.  Still, there are times when I’d like her to have a character named George or Sally.

Dust on the floor

Norton also has settings and scenes that turn up often in her books, such as the abandoned corridor in the Forerunner building.  You know it’s abandoned because there is a thick covering of dust on the floor.

Also, bad stuff tends to “reek” and look “oily.”

“All right, snake man”

Norton, who wrote from 1934 to 2005 — yep, 71 years; she died at 93 — was a woman of her era, and, like contemporary male sci-fi writers, she often has situations that seem dated today.  For instance, Dane’s crew is all male.

In Sargasso of Space, Norton can be seen expressing a form of prejudice in one place, but countering bias in another.

Remember that reptilian Rigellian bad guy?

Late in the novel, Dane’s friends are trying to get information from him in a manner that is definitely not politically correct:

“All right, snake man, spill —.”

Name-calling such as this is no longer socially acceptable, but, back in 1955 when the novel was published, the U.S. was only a decade removed from World War II during which racial and ethnic epithets were routinely used in talk and in print for the Japanese and German enemies.

On the other hand, in the mid-1950s, when racial segregation was still the policy in most situations in America, Norton has the Solar Queen’s crew of less than a dozen include an Asian (whom she calls an Oriental) and an African-American (whom she calls a Negro).

These two become Dane’s good friends, and, if you didn’t catch the racial identification of the two on page 17, you’d never know that were any different from the rest of the crew.

They were simply crewmates and friends, off on a space adventure.  With the reader riding along.

 

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