Star Born, Andre Norton

Star Born, Andre Norton (1957)
Review by Carl Vincent

Star Born packs quite a lot of storytelling punch in its brief 187 pages. Andre Norton’s 1957 story examines such issues as slavery, racial prejudice, apocalyptic warfare and governmental oppression and wraps it all up in the kind of adventure-filled story that was a pleasure to read as and adult and would have had me gazing heavenward as a child. Star Born is an example of fine world-building and classic space adventure that remains accessible and surprisingly relevant 55 years after its release.

At the beginning of Norton’s novel we are introduced to Dalgard, the progeny of members of a generation ship who escaped an oppressive government on Earth (Terra) and fled to the planet Astra in hopes to make a new start. Dalgard is traveling with Sssuri, a member of a sea-born race affectionately referred to as mermen, and merwomen. Dalgard and Sssuri are traveling together, examining the ruins of a race of beings who at one time brought destructive warfare to Astra and who are rumored to be returning to reclaim the advanced technology that would once again make them a formidable enemy. Through the buddy story of Dalgard and Sssuri the reader learns much of the history of both Terra and Astra as well as learning about the culture of the people indigenous to Astra and that of the colonists who long ago landed there.

Alternately the reader is treated to the story of Raf, a Terran pilot who is a member of a larger party of explorers sent out to explore the stars to see if they could discover any remnants of those long-ago missions now that the oppressive Pax government was dead. Through Raf’s eyes the reader is able to experience Astra as if we too were landing on a strange planet for the first time. The excitement and fear of the unknown is an interesting contrast to the journey that Dalgard and Sssuri are undertaking and Norton’s story alternates back and forth between these two viewpoints. In so doing the reader gets a picture of the mysterious Others who are the alleged warmongers of Astra.

While reading Star Born I really appreciated the cleverness of Andre Norton. In reading classic science fiction stories like this there is always a chance that the story will not only feel dated but that the storytelling choices that were perhaps brilliant at the time will have a ‘been there, done that’ feel because of the decades of stories they have inspired since their release. Certainly some of the outcomes of Star Born were a foregone conclusion, but the manner in which Norton gets the story there and the surprising amount of social and political relevance for today allows Star Born to feel fresh despite the now well-worn tropes. In particular the examination of the Terran government’s views on racial prejudice and how that informs the actions of the space travelers as their adventure unfolds gave me pause as I thought about what goes on in our world today coupled with the imminent election of our President here in the United States.

But lest you think political and social commentary make for a boring work of fiction, let me assure you that Andre Norton keeps the story moving with the kind of action, suspense and sense of wonder that makes science fiction such a pleasure to read. Star Born ratchets up the tension right to the very end. Despite being well past my bed time I could not stop turning the pages as I was alternately curious about how the story would end and also how it could be possible for Norton to come to a satisfying end given the rapid disappearance of pages left to read. Without spoiling anything I will say that this reader was particularly satisfied with her execution and the choices she made as an author. She truly knew her audience and she delivered.

Star Born contains a nice mixture of Lost World fantasy and space-faring science fiction and Andre Norton manages to compare and contrast the two worlds without passing judgment on either. Critics could point out that the science is beyond iffy in Norton’s book. Unlike some of the Heinlein juveniles to which Star Born could and should be favourably compared, there is little attempt at explaining anything from the telepathic ability of the mermen and colonists to the advanced technology of the Others. The emphasis is firmly placed on the examination of the way in which mankind, or various intelligent species in this case, treats one another and given the time period in which this was written could and would have applicability across a wide range of historical events.

In the end I enjoyed Star Born because it was fun. Some of my favorite classic science fiction reading experiences have been thanks to the efforts of authors aiming science fiction at young people, providing them exciting adventures of space exploration while not talking down to them with his writing. Andre Norton too refuses to talk down to her readers, examining with maturity subject matter that is important to get a handle on early in life while at the same time providing the kid of page-turning adventure that recalls the novels that hooked me as a young adult. I am glad that I chose this as my first experience with Andre Norton. It will be the first of many, I assure you.

This review originally appeared on Stainless Steel Droppings.

Suburst, Phyllis Gotlieb

Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
Review by Ian Sales

A garish orange cover, the strapline “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion” and a back cover that promises a story set “in the hideous aftermath of the atomic sunburst”, and you might be forgiven for thinking Phyllis Gotlieb’s debut novel is a piece of 1950s schlock sf which trades more to the genre’s pulp ancestors than it does any kind of serious speculative literature.

It’s true that the novel’s central conceit is straight from the heartland of sf of a couple of generations earlier and wouldn’t stand a moment’s scientific scrutiny in the present day, but Sunburst is more than first impressions would indicate. Its protagonist is a Tom-Sawyerish thirteen-year-old girl who reads considerably older than her years; but then she has reason to. She lives in Sorrel Park, a small US town which was sealed off after an accident at the local nuclear power station. It has been under martial law ever since. However, it’s not simply the fact of the accident which has led to this – those volunteers who tried to contain the incident at the power station subsequently had children… who exhibited freak psionic powers on reaching puberty.

These “psis” are now incarcerated in the Dump, a camp surrounded by barb wire, army guards and a special electromagnetic field, and in which the Dumplings behave like superpowered hoodlums. Shandy, the thirteen-year-old girl, has so far managed to escape testing for psi powers by the military, but has just been caught by Jason, the military’s tame psi. She proves to be an Impervious, which means no psi power works on her. They can’t read her mind, when they cloud people’s minds to make themselves invisible she can still see them, when they knock people out or freeze them it doesn’t work on her…

All this proves very useful when the Dumplings escape. It’s up to Shandy, Jason and Doydoy, a disabled Dumpling reluctantly instrumental to their plans, to find them for the military. It turns out the Dumplings have made a beeline for the “Chicago Pentagon”, which houses the computer which runs “the country and most of the planet”. They plan to hold it to ransom. Happily, they are foiled by Shandy, Jason, Doydoy and Prester, the only African-American psi (who had successfully hidden his powers from the military).

The prose boasts a vim not common in sf novels of the time, and its central cast are drawn well. Unfortunately, even for 1964 that central conceit feels badly dated. Even worse, Gotlieb’s attempt to explain it – through Shandy – proves less than acceptable. Sunburst has a welcomingly diverse cast, but to spend pages explaining that juvenile delinquency is genetic and most often to be found in immigrant families is offensive nonsense. It is this genetic delinquency, Shandy theorises, which has mutated to give the Dumplings their psi powers. While Gotlieb repeatedly argues that this does not make them any less than human, and so they must be treated as fairly as anyone else would be, it’s a definite misstep to equate delinquency with “animal behaviour” and psi powers as something that is useful only to “more primitive” organisms.

It then transpires that Shandy too is a mutant, but of a new type: a “supernormal”. This essentially boils down to a genetic morality. Supernormals must be Impervious so as to be immune to outside influence, they must be of above average intelligence, and they must mature at a slower rate than their peers. Shandy fits all these criteria. It gives her a role in the future, now that the military can no longer keep secret the existence of the Dumplings, or the consequences of the nuclear accident at Sorrel Park. But, still… a genetically encoded morality? That’s a little… absolute. And just the sort of tosh you’d expect in a sf novel of the 1930s or 1940s. It’s a little disheartening it should still be around more than two decades later. And equally disheartening it should be at the core of what would otherwise be a well-written novel.

Many science fiction novels impress with their ideas but are let down by shoddy deployment. Sunburst unfortunately exhibits the opposite behaviour. Disappointing.

The Watcher, Jane Palmer

The Watcher, Jane Palmer (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

The Ojalie are hermaphroditic winged aliens who subsist on the light of one of their planet’s two suns. They are an advanced race, and now pool the light of the sun to feed them when it’s not in the sky. Except an energy vampire, a Star Dancer, has recently appeared and begun draining the energy pools, threatening the Ojalie with extinction. Controller Opu investigates, and discovers that the Star Dancer originates on a planet on the other side of the galaxy. The Ojalie cannot travel through space, and galactic law prevents them from directly interfering in the affairs of another planet. So instead they send an android using an experimental technique, via the home world of an aquatic race, to the Star Dancer’s planet… which happens to be Earth.

The transference technique is not perfect, and the android arrives over a century before the appearance of the Star Dancer. This at least gives it time to figure out how things are on Earth… which it does by means of four human agents who, in the late nineteenth century were shipwrecked off the southern coast of England. Their lifeboat was dragged into a cave in some cliffs, where they were discovered by the alien android, the Kybion. Rather than kill them to keep its existence secret, it chose to co-opt them into its scheme. It made them very long-lived, fitted them internally with transponders which allowed it to track their movements, and fitted one, a young man called Toby, with a transmitter which would attract the Star Dancer.

Flash forward to 1986. Teenage orphan Gabrielle, who, despite her name, is of Indian parentage, has travelled to the south coast after completing her A-levels to house sit for her foster father’s sister. One morning, while exploring the surrounding countryside, she spots a young man staring out to sea. She asks around and discovers that he’s something of a mystery, and not quite as young as he appears. So she approaches him, learns his name is Alfred Tobias Wendle, and the two become friends of a sort.

Wendle, of course, is Victorian Toby, now over one hundred years old but still looking the same age as when he was shipwrecked. He has not left the area since that date – he is, after all, the bait in the trap for the Star Dancer. The other three, however, went off and made their fortunes, and they now think the Star Dancer could be used – by them, of course – as an excellent source of sellable energy. But first, all four have to discover what, or who, the Star Dancer is. Gabrielle finds herself involved with the group when Wendle is kidnapped by one of his fellow immortals, and tortured to to see if he has learned the secret of the Star Dancer…

The title of the book refers to a galactic, or perhaps universal, entity who enforces the Law, a series of symbols, to which all sentient races are beholden. The Watcher was once a Star Dancer itself, and the Star Dancer causing the Ojalie so much grief – unconsciously, it transpires – will on mastering its powers become a Watcher too. But this is sort of tacked on at the end of the novel and has no real bearing on the actual plot.

There are some sf novels which seem to deploy genre tropes with all the logic of a four-year-old. There’s nothing at all convincing about the Ojalie, their view of the galaxy, or indeed the secret of the Star Dancer. However, much of The Watcher is set on Earth and is about Gabrielle, and while it may read a little YA at times, those sections are quite fun in places. The back-cover blurb of The Watcher describes it as “another joyous send up of the sf genre”, though I found it hard to see precisely how it was doing so. A satire – another word used by the publishers – should satirise something. And treating sf tropes with a willful lack of rigour or sense does not in my mind constitute either a send up or satire.