Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton

starmanssonStar Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton (1952)
Review by Guy

This is Norton’s first science fiction title. She notes in an Algol Profile by Gary Allan Ruse, “As I started producing more, it was at the same time that science fiction became saleable,” she says, “So from then on I went into science fiction. Before that I had written spy stories, and adventure stories and historical novels. Things of that kind. You see, you couldn’t sell a science fiction book prior to 1951.” The publication of science fiction novels really took off in the 1950’s, before that science fiction appeared primarily in the pulp magazines and even longer works were serialized in several issues of a magazine. Despite an appearance of her story ‘People of the Crater’, as by Andrew North, in Fantasy Book Vol 1 No 1 in 1947, Norton, unlike most of the science fiction writers of her generation really did not publish much short fiction.

It is two hundred years after the Blow-up, the Atomic War which has decimated the world and Fors of the Eyrie has been passed over for admittance to the Star Hall. The Star Men are explorers who search the wilderness for forgotten knowledge and goods for the Eyrie. Fors has several strikes against him: his mother was a outsider, a member of the plains tribes and Fors had been brought to the Eyrie as a child, by his father Langdon. Langdon, a Star Man himself, was killed on his last trip and so cannot speak for him. And most importantly Fors has enhanced hearing and sight and his white hair clearly marks him as a mutant. So that night Fors pillages the Star Hall for his father’s bag which contains a map to a pre-blow-up city and sets out into the wilderness with Luna his great hunting cat, a beast the size of a mountain lion but marked like a Siamese. Dogs have died out and been replaced by these larger versions of domestic cats who have the ability for limited unspoken communication with some people and they are the companions of the Star Men. Now for Fors his adventures begin, he moves across a devastated and largely unpopulated landscape that is returning to the wild. He encounters more and more remnants of the pre-blow-up civilization and obtains a horse that has strayed from the plains tribes. Eventually he finds the city pictured on his father’s map. Once in the city Fors rescues a black youth Arskane from a Beast Thing trap. Arsine is a scout for a clan of black sheep herders who are migrating into the area. Together they have encounters with both the Beast Things and the plains tribes and things get really exciting as they realize they are caught up in a much larger conflict.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., is an enjoyable read. It was originally marketed as a juvenile novel but the later Ace publication made no mention of this and the book seems to have sold well. Donald A Wollheim, the head of ACE Books at the time, notes in his book The Universe Makers, “I was thinking the other day of ACE Books’ most unsuspected best seller, a novel I reprinted and whose title I changed to Daybreak, 2250 A.D., it was written by Andre Norton as a juvenile novel, and it was her first science-fiction book-length work. She called it Star Man’s Son. It has sold continuously and rapidly for fifteen years, in printing after printing, with steady price rises to meet the rising costs of production, has broken the record for any book ever published by what has become a major paperback publisher and continues to sell with unabated interest. Well over a million copies would be my conservative estimate of its total sale to date. There is nothing in our ACE edition to indicate it is supposed to be a juvenile novel” (p 60). Wollheim also discusses how readers of Norton’s novel, as well as other science fiction novels of the time which took for granted that an atomic war could happen, and the result could well be a devastated world inhabited by mutated survivors.

But this does not seem to have been an important consideration for Norton when she wrote the novel. Paul Walker interviewed Norton for his book Speaking of Science Fiction and raised this point.

PW: Of your books, my favourite is Star Man’s Son. I wonder if it reflected your own anxieties about the Bomb?

AN: No, I was not thinking of the Bomb, except as a means of the plot beginning. What had always fascinated me was trying to imagine my home city of Cleveland as it might be as a deserted ruin. Cleveland, then is the city of that book – only distances in it have been telescoped.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. is a great introduction to Norton’s work since many of the plot elements appear again and again in her work. The protagonists are often young orphans or outcasts. Robert D Lofland conducted a long interview with Norton in her home for his MA thesis, ‘Andre Norton, A Contemporary Author of Books for Young People’, in 1960. In speaking about Norton he notes “she feels the hero must be an orphan in order that his parents cannot interfere with his actions”. Norton will often introduce minority characters, examples include Fanyi of No Night Without Stars, Hosteen Storm of Beastmaster, and Travis Fox of Galactic Derelict. In the same thesis Lofland states “she does feel strongly about racial prejudice and does not feel it should exist”. One of the most obvious threads running through her novels is some level of communication between humans and animals which can be found in many other novels including Catseye, Beastmaster, Storm over Warlock, Moon of Three Rings and No Night Without Stars.

So why did I like this novel so much as a teen and adult? Fors has a sword, a bow and a giant cat, for a pet crazed kid with hamsters, wow. As enemies the Beast Things are pretty scary and clear cut. Like almost all protagonists in YA literature Fors is unappreciated (weren’t we all at that age) but wins his place in the world in the end. While Norton states The Bomb did not influence her thinking in this work, but as a child who was taught to crawl under his deck in a Windsor public school in case the big ones launched from Cuba, it certainly influenced my reading and my thinking. Norton books were common in both my school library and the public library across the street and I loved authors with a big backlist, as knowing there were many more books by them to enjoy had great appeal. Often I would read one book, be it a historical novel, mystery etc, and then seek out and read all the other books by that author without embracing the entire genre.

So Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. was just the beginning, Andre would take me out of my own life, across the galaxy, into our future and our past, with aliens, animals and adventures galore. Thanks Andre!

This review originally appeared on Star Born.

Witch World, Andre Norton

WTCHWRLD1963Witch World, Andre Norton (1963)
Review by Megan AM

… but he could not accept the atmosphere of this place as anything but alien. And not only alien, for that which is strange need not necessarily be a menace, but in some manner this place was utterly opposed to him and his kind. No, not alien… but unhuman, whereas the witches of Estcarp were human, no matter whatever else they might also be (p 182)

How could two so widely differing levels of civilization exist side by side? …Alien, alien – once more he was on the very verge of understanding – of guessing – (p 171)

He never figures it out. At least, not in the first book of this expansive series.

And it’s odd to the see the term “alien” pop up so repetitively in a magic fantasy novel about witches, but it was a term to which I clung out of the hope that something really cool or meaningful would happen. That’s not to say I expected little green men to tromp around this world of witches (okay, maybe a little), but I hoped to extrapolate some deeper significance when considering the immigrant status of our good protagonist Simon Tregarth. It never happened.

Post-WWII, former soldier Simon finds himself wrapped up in some unsavory deals with dangerous folks. Now they want to kill him, but Dr. Jorge Petronius offers Simon the perfect, permanent hiding place in exchange for a large payment. Simon accepts the offer, goes through a door, and WHOOSH! He finds himself in an alternate universe where witches with vague and limited powers run the kingdom of Estcarp, which maintains unstable, often violent relations with at least five other provinces, including an evil, mysterious land beyond the sea. After weeks or years (I’ve reread this part a dozen times and I still can’t tell) Simon assimilates to his new culture and becomes a guard for Estcarp. His band of soldiers attack an enemy, then another, then another. There’s a big ship wipeout, and a cave, and some Falconers, and these zombie bird-men, and maybe some machines… that’s the alien part, I think.

And if you want to incapacitate a witch, and you haven’t any buckets of water, you can just rape her. Because a woman’s power is in her purity.

It’s possible that Witch World dangles on the cusp of the feminist fantasy genre, sandwiched between the stale gender roles in works by TH White and JRR Tolkein and the more subversive gender roles portrayed in works by Ursula Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley. From Witch World, there is a small sense that Norton might attempt to do something different from her predecessors, which is why the most bothersome part of this novel is its absolute surrender to a dated worldview. It was a characteristic I was surprised to find in a sixties SF novel written by a woman, but an oversight that I think is corrected in the series’ later novels. Still, knowing that makes this installment all the more unsatisfactory, as its truncated story could have continued in longer and possibly more satisfying form. An omnibus version of the first three books was published in 2003, perhaps to address this issue.

Regardless of Witch World‘s potential social statements, the treatment of female magic is unimaginative and disappointing. The witches demonstrate small, covert powers that are easily neutralized by sexual intercourse. I had hoped that fantasy had shed its chastity belts by 1963, but in Witch World, only pure, virginal women can possess these vague, magical powers, although it is hinted that Simon, the strange outworlder, might also have a knack for psychic hunches. (I wonder if he’s had sex.) If a witch’s purity is sullied, she is essentially castrated. A witch who chooses to marry, chooses to [disarm] herself, put aside all her weapons and defences, given into his hands what she believed was the ordering of her life” (p 222).

And gender isn’t the only thing that receives old-fashioned treatment. Koris, the Guard captain of questionable breeding and unique stature, is basically an over-muscled dwarf, to whom Norton often refers as “misshapen”, “grotesque”, and “ill-formed”. These descriptors are not intended to be malicious, but communicate an ignorance that isn’t acceptable in today’s SF. Norton characterizes him with honor and respect, perhaps a “beauty on the inside” lesson, but it niggled my PC lobe. Beyond that, I was especially excited to discover a fantasy character named Jorge (a doctor of some kind, nonetheless!), only to be disappointed when his brief appearance involved underground dealing and scamming. Bummer.

The unresolved ending and sudden (oh, so sudden!) romantic tangles, which challenge the Estcarp status quo, indicate that the Witch World series has the potential to shed these antiquated worldviews, but not enough seeds are planted to convince me that challenging social roles was part of Norton’s original agenda. It’s common for even celebrated fantasy novels to embrace the rigid past and avoid social statements (beyond the “poor white boy becomes a hero” trope), but they make up for it in rich character development and tense plot movement – none of which happen in Witch World. Considering Norton’s long publishing history, I expected better technique and concepts, and was disappointed by her stilted narrative style. The story failed to keep my attention, often requiring me to reread passages with greater intensity than usual, which heightened my notice of confusing sections. It was a chore to read, but it might be an adequate story for a child. I stopped after the first novel, but the omnibus version might prove to be more satisfying.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Time Traders, Andre Norton

timetradersThe Time Traders, Andre Norton (1958)
Review by Martin Wisse

If it wasn’t for Project Gutenberg I might’ve never read this novel. Though Andre Norton was one of the most prolific US science fiction writers, mostly writing what we’d now call young adult novels, she was never translated into Dutch much so was missing when I went through my personal Golden Age. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to catch up with her, in no small part thanks to Gutenberg’s collection of her works. Because until roughly the seventies, American copyright was only valid for a limited time and had to be explicitly renewed, a lot of science fiction pulp and early paperback stories entered the public domain. In this case, the copyright on the original 1958 hardcover publication of The Time Traders was never renewed, making it fair game for Gutenberg.

I picked this out of the available Nortons for two reasons: it was the first book in a series and more importantly, it was a time travel story. It had been a while since I’d last read a good, old fashioned time travel story and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After all, it has time agents who have to travel undercover through prehistoric times to find the ancient civilisation from which the Soviets are getting sophisticated weaponry and technology they couldn’t have possibly produced themselves.

But that does point to the novel’s greatest problem: it was written in 1958, at the height of the first Cold War and it shows. It’s not just that this is a straight arms race between heroic, American time travellers and devious Soviet agents, it’s also that the protagonist, Ross Murdock, is an example of that other fifties bugbear, a juvenile delinquent, mollycoddled by society. He thinks he knows how the game is played until he finds himself being drafted in a top secret project, which we, even if the title hadn’t been a dead giveaway, know soon enough is a time travel project, but which costs him some time to find out. Though gifted with a bit of cunning and some inner strength, Ross at first is not the brightest bulb.

The Time Traders starts with Ross being drafted into the project, blind, as alternative to being sent to prison for unspecified crimes. He at first thinks to play along to bide his time until he has an opportunity to escape the polar base he’s sent to, but when his chance at escape would mean betraying the base to the Soviets, he can’t do it. This finally earns him some measure of trust as the goal of the time travel project is explained to him and he begins his training in earnest.

This second part of the book is dominated by I guess you can call it a love story, between Ross and his mentor, an older time agent called Gordon Ashe. Gordon is the father figure Ross never had and he does his utmost to win his respect. This comes to a head as they go on their first time travel journey together, back to Iron Age Britain, where the agents have established themselves as foreign traders and established a small base. Of course things go wrong and of course it turns to Ross to save the day.

If I’m honest, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ross and Gordon’s adventures in prehistory, rather than it all devolving in spy games with Russian time agents. Though much of what Norton shows of Iron Age Britain may be obsolete or have always been nonsense, she does have a good eye for the small, telling detail to make a world come alive and I would’ve liked to spent more time there. The plot itself is of course dated, especially because it is supposed to be set sometime in the near future, but after a while it didn’t bother me. If it would you, there’s an updated version brought out by Baen Books, if I’m not mistaken, which has updated the Cold War plots. I’m not sure that was needed.

The Time Traders was popular enough to spawn three sequels, two of which (but not the second) are also available at Gutenberg, as well as three much later continuations by Norton plus a junior writer. Again, not having read them, I’d be wary to try these latter. Famous writers revisiting popular series with the help of less famous writers never work out.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Voodoo Planet, Andre Norton

voodooVoodoo Planet, Andre Norton (1959)
Review by Martin Wisse

Genre science fiction got its start in the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties and many of its early writers were just pulp authors writing the same old stories they’d always written, just with some sf flavourings. So instead of the brave sheriff depending on his horse and trusty six-gun to fight off the bandits out in the Oklahoma badlands, you got the brave space marshal depending on his trusty rocket and raygun to take out the bandits hiding out in the Martian badlands. It’s this that fans meant when they talked about space opera, before that got co-opted for something more respectable, crappy fake science fiction stories that might just as well have been westerns. As the field matured and new writers moved in actually interested in science fiction as a genre, these stories quickly disappeared.

Even so, they never completely went away and every now and then you run across a story whose pulp roots are clearly visible, even with a writer like Andre Norton. Voodoo Planet, as you may have guessed, is one example. The sequel to Plague Ship, this is another adventure of the crew of the Solar Queen, who have been invited to a big game hunt on Khatka, a planet settled by African colonists, where they run straight into a trap set by the resident witch doctor.

Which is just as pulpy as it sounds. Khatka is a planet that’s like the Africa out of pulp magazines, mostly untamed wilderness full of dangerous animals, while the natives are somewhat more sophisticated than in the pre-war pulps. Norton is at pains to emphasise that Khatka is just as civilised a planet as any other, they just prefer the primitive life of their terran ancestors. It’s all a bit separate but equal, not very progressive even for the fifties.

The plot doesn’t help, pitting the rational crew of the Solar Queen against one of the hoariest of pulp clichés, the evil medicine man who uses superstition to oppress the hapless natives. Even though the various black characters are just as well rounded as the Solar Queen’s men, ie, solidly two-dimensional, that kind of plot still taps into all sorts of racist, colonial imagery. Again, Norton does seem to do her best to avoid this, but the shape of the story works against her. It remains too obviously a pulp African adventure transplanted to a science fiction setting. Not her best story.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Plague Ship, Andre Norton

plagueshipPlague 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.

The Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton

TheCrossroadsofTimeThe Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton (1956)
Review by nawfalaq

This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005). It was originally published in 1956. The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.

Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway. Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero. Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.

Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible. He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history. Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc. In fact, Blake may actually be a psi. So much for going to art school…

Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller. There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself. For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate. They just do.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book. For example, chapter four. I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice. I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky. At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on. Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cf. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading. It is not the crossroads of time. Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable. I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.

In any case, I am glad I read this. I had fun. It was a decent read. But I wish it were a little bit better. As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it. A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story. I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.

This review originally appeared on AQ’s Reviews.

The Zero Stone, Andre Norton

zero_stone_1969_95960The Zero Stone, Andre Norton (1968)
Review by Redhead

Can someone please tell me why it took me so long to read this book? Nearly every Andre Norton I’ve picked up has been excellent, and The Zero Stone is no different. Skillfully written and wonderfully imaginative, I think this is my favorite Norton so far.

The story gets rolling right away when Murdoc Jern’s patron is assassinated. Raised by a gem dealer with shady connections and then apprenticed out to the legitimate gem merchant Vondar Ustle, Murdoc knows everything there is to know about gems and stones, but he’s woefully naive about everything else. When Ustle is murdered Murdoc finds sanctuary and then takes the first available ship off planet.

All this time, Murdoc has been in possession of a singularly strange ring. Too large for any human finger, the ring holds a weird lusterless stone. It was found on a corpse in space, and it seems to offer guidance to specific people. What does the ring point to? Is this why Ustle was killed? Is Murdoc in danger?

Befriended by the ship’s cat, Murdoc accidentally allows the cat to eat a strange pebble. The pebble impregnates the cat, and a weird little mutant cat is born. The mutant cat, who calls itself Eet, is telepathic, intelligent, and refuses to tell Murdoc anything about its origin. Eet helps Murdoc escape from those who would do him harm, and a partnership is formed between the two. Not quite trusting friends, they do need each other. Eet is stuck in a tiny feline body and needs a strong person to help, and Murdoc could certainly use some help avoiding certain death and learning more about the powers and origin of the ring.

Murdoc isn’t your typical space adventurer (he doesn’t even want to have an adventure!), and Eet most certainly isn’t your typical telepathic cat. The ring guides them to a planet, and at first it is believed this is the home planet of the ring and other powerful stones. At first all Murdoc and Eet find are cannibalistic natives. Eet doesn’t so much offer suggestions of how to survive as made demands of what Murdoc should do to do and when. If Murdoc wants to survive, he better listen to the mysterious little mutant.

Like Murdoc, at first I was a little creeped out by Eet, but I quickly came to care about that bossy little alien freak. The Zero Stone is pure adventure, and fun on every page. If you’re new to Norton, this is an excellent place to start. The story continues in Uncharted Stars, and both can be found in the Omnibus Search for the Star Stones from Baen Books.

The only thing I can complain about with The Zero Stone is that even though the entire thing is perfectly paced, for the first half of the book or so you have no idea where the plot is going. This really isn’t a big deal, as that first half of the book is filled with Murdoc’s fascinating and funny thoughts about what’s going on around him, background information about his family, and of course, the oh-so-alien Eet. So even though I had no idea where the story was headed, I was having so much fun I barely noticed.

Something that surprised me was the complete nonchalance of a lot of the minor characters. When the cat is pregnant with an alien kitten, no one seems to care much. They lock her in sickbay, and don’t seem to mind when she escapes to give birth elsewhere. Things like that, that these days (thanks to decades of sci-fi horror movies) are big deals, back then it was fine to gloss right over them. I found things like that very funny.

I’ve already mentioned it, but if you are new to Andre Norton, The Zero Stone is a perfect place to start. The story will pull you in right away (even if you’re not sure where it’s going) and as soon as you meet Eet, you’ll be asking yourself the same question with which I opened this review.

This review originally appeared on The Little Red Reviewer.

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.

Star Hunter, Andre Norton

Star Hunter, Andre Norton (1961)
Review by Martin Wisse

For a lot of American science fiction fans my age or older, Andre Norton was the first “real” sf writer they ever read, largely because she was hugely prolific and specialised in what we’d now call young adult novels. For some reason however she was never all that popular in the Netherlands so I’ve read little of her work so far. But that’s changing, thanks to Project Gutenberg, who have a fair few of her books available, those on which the original US copyrights had not been renewed. Star Hunter is one of them, originally published as an Ace Double. I read it during a couple of lunch breaks at work.

Ras Hume is a pilot for the Out-Hunters Guild who on a trip to the newly discovered planet of Jumala has made a discovery that could make him incredibly rich, but to exploit it he needs to make a deal with Wass, the biggest crime boss on Nahuatl. What he found was the lifeboat from the Largo Drift, a space ship which disappeared six years ago, taking with it the heir to the Kogan estate. He also has a plausible candidate to play the part of Rynch Brodie, the teenage heir. What he needs Wazz for is to condition this boy to actually believe he is this heir, then he will be let lose on Jumala for Hume to discover him when he brings over the safari party he’s scheduled to pilot there. It’s an almost foolproof plan, surely nothing can go wrong.

But there wouldn’t have been a story if something didn’t go wrong. The patsy Hume has chosen, Vye Lansor, an orphan plucked from the foulest bar in Nahuatl’s spaceport, was conditioned and dropped on Jumala, but the condition wasn’t good enough and he remembers flashes from his true life. Worse, while Jumala was deemed fit for human visiting and free of intelligent alien life, something has been woken up by the safari party and Hume and Lansor/Brodie find themselves as grudging allies against this alien menace as this attempts to herd them towards imprisonment in the hills of Jumala.

Since Andre Norton has only ninety-six pages in which to tell her story, it obviously has to be tight. Which means that while we do get a resolution to the central plot line, the mystery of the aliens and why they attacked the safari party is never followed through. Hume and Lansor bond, fight their way out of the alien traps and survive and that’s it. A bit unsatisfactory, but not the end of the world.

In the same way, there’s little room to develop the settings, Nahuatl and Jumala, very much. Both are solid pulp sf settings, feel more like small towns than whole planets, but are deftly sketched in by Norton with a few neatly chosen details, especially Jumala. There are the watercats for example, dangerous aquatic ambush predators lurking in creeks and rivers, and the scavengers that come out of the water to finish off their kills – or the watercat, if it’s unlucky. Clearly some thought has gone into setting up the planet, even if it’s only a stage for a pulp adventure.

As science fiction Star Hunter is of course incredibly dated, of the rockets and blasters school of adventure sf. The scheme that drives its plot, to substitute some lookalike for the heir of a vast estate, has long ago been made impossible by the development of cheap DNA testing, while most of the technology on display that isn’t part of the standard sf furniture doesn’t really look all that advanced either. But these are just quibbles. Taken on its own terms, this is a tight, fun, enjoyable little story. Ideal for reading in some stolen moments at work…

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Sargasso of Space, Andre Norton

Sargasso of Space, Andre Norton (1955)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Andre Norton’s Sargasso of Space, the first installment of her Solar Queen sequence of novels, delivers everything a 1950s juvenile science fiction adventure should. Sargasso of Space is not only blessed with genuine tension, intriguing situations, heroic young adults, but also a multi-racial cast (an African-American apprentice engineer and two crew members of Asian descent). This is my first of Andre Norton’s massive body of work I’ve read and I will be looking to add more to my collection. There’s something so appealing in the classic archetypal trope of the young hero – with the help of loyal friends – solving an intriguing (and dangerous) puzzle.

Our young/intrepid hero Dane Thornson is an apprentice Cargo-Master recently graduated from the Training Pool that divvies out spacemen for the various large space companies and independent spaceships. There are multiple gradations of service: the big companies which have prestige and guaranteed profit, interstellar transports which offer little in the way of prestige or wealth, and the Free Traders – small ships which go where the companies will not go, ie the dangerous planets with big risk (and potentially great profit). The computer assigns our hero to a Free Trader named the Solar Queen.

The Solar Queen seeks to purchase trading rights to the Planet Limbo – charted by surveys, but, for mysterious reasons, deemed not worthwhile or too dangerous for one of the big companies. An auction is held and the Solar Queen wins the bid but the crew has to contribute their entire salaries for the voyage to table enough money. If the mission isn’t a success they’ll be unable to buy fuel yet alone restock for another trade mission. We also learn how infrequent it is for Free Traders to win trade rights to any planet – the crew is risking everything on this chance in a lifetime expedition. When the crew opens the sealed packet with the planet information, they learn that the planet, named Limbo due to its unknown status, appears completely worthless. The world is mostly burnt and wrecked due to a war waged by the Forerunners, a group of spacefaring people whose presence stretched across the galaxy before wars destroyed them. The crew feels dejected until a man named Dr Slazar Rich, who claims to be an archaeologist, asks for passage to the world. Also, they believe that there has to be something on the planet if the survey would have put it up for auction. Any Forerunner technology amongst the ruins would be a great boon.

Norton uses the time before the crew’s arrival on Limbo to discuss Dane Thornson’s job on board. He’s the apprentice to the Cargo Master who is in charge of stocking the vessel for long voyages, bringing all the trinkets and objects to initiate first contact (and trade) with potential alien beings. Dane’s interaction with the crew is not discussed at length. As with many juveniles, the main character is the only one who is developed to any degree. Dane does resent the spacemen of the more heroic movie-like mode, I assume due to his own more blue-collar position as an apprentice Cargo-Master.

Norton includes other interesting tidbits of societal information. For example, Free Traders of any mold are reluctant to wear weapons when they embark on a new planet. Only when they are confronted with danger do they break out the blasters. Norton clearly wants to present the Traders, although they bring trinkets and other worthless gifts for natives, as not engaging in trade at gunpoint as European explorers did with Native Americans, Africans, Indians, and other people they encountered.

When they land on Limbo, Rich and his assistants (who are all very suspicious) quickly depart for their camp. In exploring the planet, the crew discovers unknown vehicle tracks and a group of injured translucent globe-like aliens who have clearly been attacked. Adding to the mystery are the remains of many crashed spaceships, including the recent Federation survey ship! And Dr. Rich is nowhere to be found!

I read this in one sitting – while it rained, in a tent, after a long hike – and I couldn’t put it down. Not only does the final mystery resemble one of my favorite (conceptually) episodes of Star Trek Voyager (I won’t give away which one but it involves spaceships crashing on planets) but I found Norton’s inclusion of a multi-racial crew admirable. Remember, this is before Star Trek: the Original Series with Uhura and famous African American scientists… At first Dane does dislike the black crew member Ali Kamil (the apprentice engineer), but it’s because he is the “video idea of a spaceman” (p 13). The fact that Norton has a society where a black man is the ideal spaceman seems very progressive for the 1950s! In addition to Ali there is Frank Mura, the cook, who is of Japanese descent. Despite being a cook, Mura, like all the members of the Solar Queen’s crew, has a vast variety of skills and becomes one of the main characters in the second half of the novel. In addition, there’s the Com-tech Tang Ya, another of the more important members of the crew, who is of Asian descent. Clearly, Norton’s vision of the future includes men of all different races.

That said, there are no female characters. Unfortunately, juveniles from the 1950s rarely include women. If they do, they are the love interest of the youthful hero or an intrepid young news reporter-type figure.

If you are a fan of naive, but delightfully fun, 1950s science fiction adventures then Sargasso of Space is one of the best I’ve come across lately. Recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.