Plague Ship, Andre Norton (1956)
Review by Martin Wisse
Hold on to your tail fins, space fans. This retro rocket boosted tale is sure to knock you out of your orbit. Oy, did this very fifties future slang get old fast in Plague Ship. This is another of Norton’s books at Project Gutenberg and mildly irritating as its language occasionally was, it was also the perfect kind of light adventure science fiction to be read in small snatches on my phone, while getting coffee at work.
Plague Ship is the second in Norton’s Solar Queen series, about the adventures of the crew of the ship the series is named after, free traders trying to eke out a living making the kind of trading deals the big companies can’t. The Solar Queen is literally a huge rocket ship, complete with humongous fifties tail fins to land on. Amongst its crew is Dane Thorson, Cargo-master-apprentice and our hero, prone to saying things like “rest easy on your fins” and “right up the rockets” and all other sorts of horrid expressions you have to read around.
Plague Ship starts with the Solar Queen visiting the planet Sargol, for which it now holds a trading license, due to the events of the previous novel. This planet is the source of a new sort of jewels which are very much in fashion back on Earth. Getting those jewels means dealing with the natives, which isn’t the easiest of tasks, as these have a very rigid concept of how negotiations should take place, which the Solar Queen’s crew has no choice but to adapt to. Worse, it turns out there are also representatives of one of the big trading firms present on Sargon, waiting to see if the Solar Queen slips up so they can take over their licence…
Luckily, through a series of misadventures, in which Dane plays a large role, they do manage to get the natives to trade as it turns out they’re very partial to catnip. However, as they blast off from Sargol their problems are only starting as most of the crew, save for Dane and three others fall ill to a mysterious sickness. It’s up to the four of them to get the Solar Queen back to Earth without being quarantined or giving the big trading company an excuse to take over.
I’m not sure if Plague Ship was originally published as a serial, but it sure reads like one. Dane is put from one dangerous situation into another, with no time to catch his breath. He and his friends not only have to deal with getting the Solar Queen back to Earth with all their fellow crew members helpless and sick, no, they also have to evade the space patrol and land on Earth without their knowledge. Then they have to find a way out of the radioactive zone they hid in, a remnant of World War III (another very fifties sf obsession) and get their plight known to the people of Earth, to get out of the fix they’re in. It all moves along quickly, too quickly at times, with no time to really dig deep into anything.
For me personally, I would’ve been happy had Norton kept the focus on the Solar Queen’s adventures on Sargol and skipped the rest of the plot. She had a knack for introducing small, telling details to sketch a world, (also on display in The Time Traders) and what she put in about the tribes of Sargol made me interested in reading more about them. Once the Solar Queen left the planet it all became a lot less interesting.
Nevertheless, if you can get used to the very fifties feel of Plague Ship and are not too bothered with how lowtech the Solar Queen and future Earth are, this is actually a perfectly adequate adventure science fiction story. It’s something you could read in half a day and ideally suited to read in short snatches on your mobile when bored.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.