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Sea Siege, Andre Norton

March 16, 2012

Sea Siege, Andre Norton (1957)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

You could debate back and forth whether CL Moore or Leigh Brackett was the true queen of the pulps, but the undisputed queen of the paperback age was Alice Mary Norton, under her Andre Norton nom-de-plume. Norton was one of the most prolific authors under the Ace banner; she has to her credit a large number of doubles—the fifth most-doubled author, with fifteen halves spread over twelve books, plus a reissue including two of those halves—and an even larger number of singles.

Norton spent most of the 1940s as a librarian and then bookseller, before turning writer in 1951: the historical fantasy Huon of the Horn, and the science fiction tale Star Man’s Son (better known under its Ace title of Daybreak – 2250 AD). Her output exploded through the ’60s and ’70s, and included a dozen or more linked series. The most famous is Witch World and its spin-offs, notable for its blend of John Carter-style sword-and-sorcery with early romantic fantasy, playing off both ends of the spectrum (boys and girls).

Most of Norton’s output is “juvenile” fare; that is, aimed at younger readers (what we’d label Young Adult today). To be honest, whenever I pick up an Ace Double or pulp, I expect it to lean closer to young adult—or at least, be somewhat more campy or action-packed—than the average Campbellian Hard SF or philosophical introspection of the New Wave. That’s part of the charm: the sometimes campy, often action-heavy little stories bound back to back. What they lack in complexity they often make up for with entertainment.

Sea Siege is divided into two halves, which makes the book somewhat disjointed. The first deals with Griff Gunston, son of a scientist who’s relocated to San Isadore in the West Indies to study aquatic wildlife. Griff wants to be a jet pilot; his dad refuses to let him leave the island because he’s immature (or something). There’s a strange plague of radioactive red algae that’s killing lots of fish, and Dr Dad is busy working on that. Set 20-25 years after World War II, there’s a Red Menace subplot about a mysterious Soviet submarine, boat disappearances and missing crews, and footnotes about the sorry state of world affairs.

Most of this half involves Griff wandering around, introducing us to the island’s inhabitants (with more than a little casual racism thrown in, thank you 1950s). He also goes exploring, and finds a group of nearby octopuses, and bumps into a group of Navy Seabees who showed up to start construction of a naval base. Not a whole lot happens but setup, and the most “science fiction” is when the Seabees use robots in their construction duties. (We all know how pervasive Combat Construction Robots were in the ’70s.) I know there was a big boom in scuba diving, nautical research and the Caribbean at the time—Jacques Cousteau, Doctor No, Sea Hunt, um, Flipper, … all those episodes of Johnny Quest where they go scuba diving—but I’m not sure the novel uses this to its full potential.

The second half picks up the pace: the world is blown up in a fiery apocalypse, causing great upheaval, volcanoes and earthquakes and changing landmasses. It’s also when the sea monsters show up, but we never get a good look at one: it’s always “resembling the sea serpents of yore” or “it was like an octopus, but smarter”. Herein lies the rub: by dividing the book in half, there’s a distinct difference between the halves. Most of the characters we met in the first half are gone, which eliminates some of the plots we’d been following. Instead, things focus on survival: collecting refugees and fighting back the strange new sea creatures which emerge.

Of her writing style, I have good things to say. Andre Norton was no small fry when it came to writing, and it is very readable, if on the simplistic side. (It does have a distinct juvenile flair.) Her writing is strong but smooth; she’s capable of some quality writing, which this book shows. However, it rings shallow: it never incites emotion, the characters too bland to identify with or root for, the monsters too understated for them to be… well, monstrous. Most of the criticism I have is about the ratio of description (too little) to exposition (too much). You could chalk this up to its juvenile nature, I guess. I knew this one wasn’t her best book going in, but I’d hoped it would be fun.

The pieces of this book are great: Cold War paranoia and the Red Menace, lurking tentacle-creatures and sea serpents, tropical island paradise, the apocalypse. And a “kid with overbearing parent won’t let them follow their dreams” plot. (What, those were obligatory in Young Adult books even then?) Yet somehow these amazing but disparate concepts aren’t pulled to the surface, even when they are connected. None of the plot threads are developed far before they’re cast aside, unfinished, for something else. The worst part was at the end: it’s as if Norton ran out of page space and ended it as it was, abruptly and without resolving anything. Since it was a Harcourt Books hardcover before it was an Ace Double, there’s no “length constraints” excuse, so I’m kind of curious.

Sea Siege is a book suffering from severe balance issues. It has a lot of interesting plot threads, which are undeveloped. At one point I had the realization that since the book was almost over, the plots weren’t going to work themselves out. Norton doesn’t do anything to make the book stick out… a shame, because any novel about post-apocalyptic Cold War sea monsters should stick out damn well. While it’s not a bad adventure tale, Sea Siege isn’t something to go out of your way for. It’s fun for its unique scuba diving sea monster Cold War apocalypse blend, but it isn’t overly impressive. The writing is good, the ideas are slick, but the end result isn’t tied together very well.

In hindsight, it makes me think of it as the first book in a series, constructing a setting and cast of characters for future novels. Which it isn’t. Another shame, because the world has such potential—volcanoes jutting out of the ocean, new landmasses rising while others sink, human refugees fighting back the onslaught of the octo-men and their sea serpent hordes.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

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