Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2283
Although [Andre Norton's] fantasies and historical stories have merit, it seems to me that the science fiction is the most interesting part of her work and the basis of her reputation.
Miss Norton's science fiction books are, in the main, 'space opera': stories of galactic and inter-galactic adventure. This is the category of science fiction which is least likely to be found acceptable by the literati. Space opera is associated with pulp magazines, and is apt to be written off on superficial inspection as wild, undisciplined stuff, all about clashing fleets of spaceships, battles with bug-eyed monsters, death and destruction by ray-gun: action of meaningless violence in settings which are spatially enormous but imaginatively minute. Andre Norton has used the standard ingredients of space opera without undue inhibition, but they are not the be-all and end-all of her work. The sheer size of her world, which is infinitely extended in time and space, and in which nothing is outside the bounds of possibility, is matched by the size of the themes she tackles. She has had her artistic failures—quite a number of them—but she has had her successes, too.
She is a highly professional writer, and has always paid full attention to the need to hold the reader, including the young reader who is simply in it for the story. Incident follows incident, sometimes coming so thick and fast as to obscure the main line of the plot. But there is always something beyond the immediate action to be reached for and thought about. Miss Norton's sources of inspiration include Greek and Roman history as well as archaeology and anthropology, myth and folklore. She is not much interested in science-for-science's-sake, and obviously has a strong awareness of the menace of uncontrolled or miscontrolled technological development. One subject which deeply interests her and which occurs again and again is telepathy, often as a means of communication between man and animal. She is also fascinated by mutations and new forms of life, although she does not seem to me to have overcome the problem imposed by the limits of human imagination: we cannot conceive of really new forms of life, we tend to think of variations on forms we know, and the result is often ludicrous. (pp. 143-44)
Her first science fiction stories—though they were by no means her first novels—were the four 'Star' books: Star Man's Son, Star Rangers, Star Guard, and Star Gate. The title of Star Man's Son … sounds like that of a sequel, but it is not. It is a fairly straightforward story, set in a post cataclysmic world—our own—where a few small communities survive in a primitive way, and in which the hero sets to look for a lost city which is rumoured to be safe from radiation. The Norton interest in telepathy and mutation is already present; the hero is himself a mutant and has a telepathic relationship with a giant cat; but the book does not have the range and imaginative power of later ones.
The other three 'Star' books, while all set in the future, have classical associations. A foreword to Star Rangers (1953) refers to the legend of the Roman Emperor who simultaneously demonstrated his absolute power and the loyalty of his legions by sending one of them to march to the end of the world…. This is a big advance on Miss Norton's first science fiction novel; it is probably the best of the early group and certainly the one I would recommend for sampling. Apart from the Roman analogy, her interest in telepathy is developed: there are now 'sensitives' at different levels on the scale of extrasensory perception, and, at one point, a literal battle of wills is described with some success. (pp. 144-45)
The third book, Star Guard (1955), is also based on a Roman Empire situation—in this case a decadent central power-structure trying to hold down vigorous barbarians from Earth—but its main action, the retreat of a legion, has a Greek source, for it is in effect a retelling of the Anabasis of Xenophon. The fourth, Star Gate (1958), begins with the withdrawal of the wise and great Star Lords from a planet which they have raised from savagery to a feudal civilization. Although this hints at the departure of the legions, the feeling of the story is medieval. And the philosophic interest is something different again. It lies in an exploration of time theory: could there be a parallel world, also existing 'now', in which things have developed differently? The assumption is made that there could; and the 'star gate' is a device for transposing into and out of it. (Incidentally, if time as a single straight line is the fourth dimension, then a time in which parallel developments could take place would require a fifth dimension, that of space-in-time. Miss Norton's field of speculation is wide indeed.) But although Andre Norton is prepared to mix the remote past with the distant future and the might-have-been, her action has to be on a comprehensible human scale, and tends to take place on a reasonably familiar-seeming earth-type planet on which people can move and breathe as we do. The hero of The Beast Master (1959) and its sequel Lord of Thunder (1962) is, by ancestry, a Navajo Indian, and although he lives at a time when this earth has been reduced to a blue radioactive cinder, the territory he inhabits on another planet is remarkably like the American West.
Of the later Norton science fiction books, which cannot all be discussed in this small amount of space, the most imaginative, though not the most successful, is Judgment on Janus (1963), in which the hero finds himself drawn through inward change into membership of an infinitely-remote, green-skinned tree people. There is a sequel, Victory on Janus…. (pp. 144-46)
[The] blending in these two books of space technology with the myth-infused forest world of the Iftin does not come off. Too often it produces a result which, instead of the intended dramatic clash, is simply a ludicrous inappropriateness.
The value of old ways of life, of the simple and natural against the sophisticated, artificial and ever-changing, is a frequent issue in Miss Norton's work. It may seem odd to compare her with Rosemary Sutcliff, but there are curious correspondences. Miss Norton, as the Roman references may already have suggested, is concerned with civilization under the threat of barbarism; but there is also a part of her which sees that civilization is not all, which is deeply aware of instinctual life, is conscious of the rooting of myth in the cycle of life and death, the turning of the seasons. This is true of Miss Sutcliff, too. It is not a contradiction but a proper ambiguity which perhaps is unavoidable in people who both think and feel. And for all their vast spans of time and distance, the Norton novels can often appear to be bounded in a nutshell as well as free of infinite space, for—as in the Janus books—the conflict of tree people with advance technology may be seen as the externalization of an inner struggle.
Dark Piper (1968) seems to me to be Miss Norton's best book so far, and it draws together most of her enduring themes. In some ways it shows her at her most Roman. (pp. 146-47)
Miss Norton's science fiction books are mainly written in a hard, dry, somewhat impersonal style. Her heroes are young, determined, often afraid but overcoming their fears. They are not characterized in depth, and appear to be blanks for the reader to fill. In the earlier books there are no girls; in the Janus stories there is the forest maiden Illylle, but there is little about her that is flesh and blood. Commonly the heroes are unrooted 'loners' without family or friends, though they make comrades in the course of the action. Dark Piper is an exception to nearly all these generalizations. It is a first-person narration, which gives greater immediacy than usual. The children are seen both as distinct individuals and in relationship to the group; and there are real, three-dimensional girl characters in the strong-minded, protective Annet and imaginative Gytha.
Miss Norton handles her gadgetry with great aplomb. She never draws special attention to it; it is simply there. Spaceships are as ordinary as buses. Flitters for moving around in; stunners and blasters and flamers for dealing with your enemies; and 'coms' of all kinds for getting in touch with people are, with countless other devices, casually mentioned in passing without any nudge to the reader. Just occasionally the effects of word-coinage are odd—'he spooned up some lorg sauce and spread it neatly over a horva fritter'—but on the whole this is one of Miss Norton's minor strengths. Few writers are better than she is at inventing things and giving names to them. A more important power, which should not be underrated, is that of telling strong, fast-moving stories.
The Norton universe on the whole is an alarming and hostile one. It is assumed that for thousands of years hence there will be wars and rumours of wars. Peace is there only to be disturbed. Prosperity appears in an unpleasing form on the 'pleasure planet' Korwar, which also houses an intergalactic slum called the Dipple. Corruption and injustice are always around. Nature is red in tooth and claw; man in flamer and blaster. In terms of organized society there seems little to look forward to. It could be of course that strife and confusion are externalized from inner states; divided men who war within themselves will form divided, warring communities; and it is not realistic to expect sudden improvements in human nature.
Miss Norton offers no false comfort in a harsh world. In most of her novels it is quite a triumph even to stay alive. Yet the atmosphere is by no means one of despair. There is always the hope of private happiness, private fulfilment (to be found, as in Catseye, in the wild rather than the city), and the development of new faculties, new forms of sympathy and awareness. (pp. 147-49)
John Rowe Townsend, "Andre Norton," in his A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children (copyright © 1971 by John Rowe Townsend; reprinted by permission of J. B. Lippincott Company), Lippincott, 1971. pp. 143-49.
Four boys find a magic jigsaw puzzle in a deserted house [in Dragon Magic], and as each completes one of the four pictured dragons he is propelled into a mythological fantasy neatly tailored to his cultural background and personal hangups…. The legends (particularly the Arthurian material) are cleverly reworked, but the strict parallels of the plot admit little suspense and restrict the fantasies' appeal by making them patly didactic. As always, however, Andre Norton can be relied upon to convert her magic formulas into adroit entertainment. (p. 485)
Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), April 15, 1972.
Dread Companion is as compulsive and relentless as a nightmare—a hideous nightmare to which the reader would not return if the author once allowed him to wake up; but Andre Norton binds her spell tight…. [She writes of] a land of monsters and mirages where touch, smell and taste of the indigenous vegetation affect vision and dimension, where age and time take on new and terrifying meanings. (p. 484)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 28, 1972.
Set in the distant future on a far planet [Dread Companion], though undoubtedly sci-fic., has more in it of magic than of possible scientific developments. A young woman in charge of two children follows them to a frightening and hostile world for which the elder has some barely understood obsession, though she seems to have been bewitched by the Lady of the title, a somewhat shadowy figure reminiscent of Andersen's Snow Queen. The plot could well be taken as an allegory of the seductive yet soul-destroying practice of drug-taking, though readers will make of it what they will and most will enjoy it at face value as the well-written and gripping story that it is. There are enough horrors in it to make the hair stand on end deliciously, yet all through shine the courage and endurance of the heroine and her companion; it is these virtues, bolstered it is true by magic aids, which finally enable these two to bring the children back again to their former world. But the story does not end here, the world has changed and flight once more becomes necessary, pointing the way, the reader hopes, for another adventure of this intrepid girl. This is a book for the adult as well as the junior shelves. (p. 187)
The Junior Bookshelf, June, 1972.
After Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars it becomes convincingly evident that Mrs. Norton's work demands a reading at one sitting if possible. It is not that her technical complications are impossibly fanciful—she writes too convincingly for that—but that a substantial proportion of the narrative consists of introspective meditations by two at least of the mutated or transmuted beings who are part of the regular crew of the Free Trader inter-stellar ship, Lydis, especially Krip Vorlund and the semi-creature, Maelen, the one-time moon-singer on the feudal planet of Yiktor in Moon of Three Rings. Such passages demand exceptional concentration within the framework of a tale which otherwise deals with rapidly changing situations within a highly-technical environment. For a reader without true leisure this reconciliation of elements proves progressively harder. I am not sure I apprehend fully the projected technicalities of Exiles of the Stars but few who essay it will be disappointed. (p. 187)
The Junior Bookshelf, June, 1972.
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