Andre Norton

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Rick Brooks

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The impression that a regular reader of Andre Norton's books might have is that of growing pessimism. From light hearted adventure stories like Star Rangers and Sargasso of Space, she has gone to books like Dread Companion and Dark Piper that give the feeling at the conclusion that it is best not to see or even guess what lies ahead.

While Miss Norton has never seemed too comfortable in the here-and-now, it seems that now the future that once beckoned has become another area for distrust. Even the latest Solar Queen story, Postmarked the Stars, is more subdued and grim in tone. The Patrol, a largely unsullied organization, comes in for its lumps in The Zero Stone and its sequel, Uncharted Stars. In Ice Crown, the Service makes no move to help those under a planetwide conditioning program. (p. 178)

Has Miss Norton lost faith in the future?… I see the answer as yes … and no. She has definitely lost some of her optimism—but haven't we all? In novels like Dread Companion and Dark Piper, she is trying for deeper characterization. This slows down the action and gives one more time to spot her usual lack of blind faith in the future. (pp. 178-79)

Star Man's Son takes place in a post-nuclear-war world. While the ending is upbeat with the hope of a rebirth of civilization, most of the story is rather bleak. This novel sees the birth of a theme that runs through all Norton's books—tolerance for other races.

[Star Rangers] extends this theme to non-humans and introduces the reptilian race of Zacan (the Zacathans) which have become almost a fixture in her later far future novels. The mighty stellar empire of Central Control seen at a much earlier stage is collapsing later in Star Guard, and a battered Patrol ship limps back to Terra, now long forgotten, to start anew. The upbeat ending again overshadows the brutal future pictured with a hardening of hereditary stratification in all groups, even the Patrol, and bloody power struggles in which entire worlds with all their people are burnt off with little apparent concern. The character's rather matter of fact acceptance of the latter is quite chilling.

The Stars Are Ours starts on another post-destruction Terra, this time by a satellite burn-off which triggers a program against Free Scientists. A few escape to Astra under cold sleep. The bleak repressive Terra miraculously gives way to the vividly drawn Astra. With this, Miss Norton comes into her major strength, the portrayal of other worlds. The switch between bleak winter on Terra and the verdant growing season on Astra also seems to mark a turning point in Norton's writing.

She now has a more optimistic tone as she explores the glory of other worlds. In Sargasso of Space, the planet Limbo has been partially burnt off, but in a long gone Forerunner war. Star Guard sees an attempt to set human mercenaries against each other, but no killings of non-combatants. The Crossroads of Time does show some brutal alternate presents. Plague Ship features a run-in with the Patrol and the danger of being shot on sight as plague carriers. Sea Siege is a downbeat near-future tale where radioactive mutated sea life and a nuclear war endanger humanity. Star Born features a clash with Those Others, the vicious native race of Astra. While there still is a lot of violence, the characters' attitude has changed from passive acceptance of it as a part of life to downright loathing.

Star Gate is a rather unique book...

(This entire section contains 3202 words.)

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as it concerns the alternate histories of another world. With the exception of Norton's later "Toys of Tamisan," this is the only science fiction that comes to mind covering both star travel and travelsideways in time. Creating an alien world is usually considered enough, without creating a history to go with it.

Andre Norton seems to have suffered a rough period in 1961–62. Star Hunter has the Patrol ignoring the mental conditioning of a young drifter so that a Veep can be nabbed. In The Defiant Agents, a group of Indians are mentally conditioned and sent off to occupy Topaz before the Reds can. The optimism of Galactic Derelict, where the universe and its wonders had been opened to man, have in its sequel turned to dread of the weapons of the earlier galactic empire in human hands. Eye of the Monster is Norton's most xenophobic story by far. The previous Storm over Warlock had a very nasty portrayal of the Throgs, but humans still try to make peace. Here there is no thought of peace. In all other stories, evil aliens are the result of forbidden researches. Here the crocs are vicious barbarians that suddenly start butchering all off-worlders. Several racial characteristics are adversely mentioned, especially odor. In all other Norton novels, aliens are evil for what they do, not what they are. Despite provocation, no other Norton hero has reacted by a hatred that could be classified as racial. This momentary failure underlines her usual tolerance for living beings.

Outside of these three novels, not much distinguished one Norton novel from another during the late fifties and most of the sixties except a little more polish in the writing of later ones. With Dark Piper (1968), a lessening of optimism is again visible. (pp. 179-80)

At least one fan has waged a titanic struggle in trying to sort out a consistent "future history" from Norton's books when she never has bothered with one. However, most of her stories do fall within a loose framework. It is almost like such terms as Free Traders, Forerunners, First Ship, Patrol, Jack, Veep, First-in Scout, and Combine fit so well that she doesn't bother to coin others. Races such as the Zacathans and planets such as Astra receive mention in many stories, as does the game of Stars and Comets. Whether this is a matter of sentiment, laziness, or practicality (it is work to create an entire world for just one story, let alone several worlds) is a point that can be argued.

Miss Norton, instead of being bound by a future history, has created a series of alternate universes that largely overlap. All her interplanetary stories, with the exception of Star Gate (though a planet Gorth is mentioned in Moon of Three Rings), Secret of the Lost Race, "Long Live Lord Kor!" and Dark Piper have interlocking references. The latter is probably to emphasize the isolation of the research planet of Beltane from the rest of the galaxy. I think that it is significant that the two novels date from 1958 and 1959, while the other is a novelette. Since Miss Norton's references to previous books have become more numerous in her last group of books, it would seem that certain races, planets, and things have become touchstones for her. (p. 181)

This is a good thing and gives depth to a story, but occasionally Miss Norton goofs in choosing a "spear-carrier" from an earlier story. The worst example is the Salarik who tended bar in Star Hunter. He could not have taken the odors of the place without protection.

Miss Norton's stories are born in many ways. Star Rangers started from the story of the Roman Emperor who ordered a legion eastward across Asia to the end of the world. Childe Roland and the Dark Tower became Warlock of the Witch World. The Year of the Unicorn owed its origin to the folk tale of "Beauty and the Beast." Even more obvious are the links between Dark Piper and the Pied Piper. However, few would realize that Night of Masks was sparked by the "powerful descriptions" of William Hope Hodgson's classic The Night Land….

The stories are shaped by references to an "extensive personal library of natural history, archaeology, anthropology, native religions, folklore, and travel in off-beat sections of the world." The "… forests of Janus and The Zero Stone are both taken from the great forests of the Matto Grosso." And of course history plays an important part. (p. 182)

To create an alien culture, it is a big help to understand one. (p. 183)

So in the end, the chief value of Andre Norton's writing may not lie in entertainment or social commentary, but in her "re-enchanting" us with her creations that renew our linkages to all life. (pp. 184-85)

But Norton falls into a much more rigid pattern in her view of the complex technological future that largely ignores the individual. Her sympathies can be easily seen as the Norton hero or heroine never seems to fit into their society and often are outright misfits. In Night of Masks, Nik Kolkerne has a badly mutilated face and a personality to match. Diskan Fentress is a clumsy oaf crashing through the faerie world of Vaanchard in The X Factor. Ross Murdock is an alienated criminal when he becomes part of a time traveling team in The Time Traders. Roane Hume in Ice Crown finds the medieval life of Clio draws her from her relatives who treat her like an extra pair of hands.

Miss Norton seems to be fond of the medieval period. Moon of Three Rings was deliberately based on the culture of the European Middle Ages…. All six Witch World novels, Key Out of Time, Star Gate, Star Guard, "Toys of Tamisan," "Wizard's World," and to some extent Plague Ship feature a medieval-like culture. Some writers use such a culture regularly because they are too lazy to work out another, but Miss Norton sees important values that we have bypassed in the medieval period.

Another major feature is the stressing of the bond between man and animal (and Iftin and tree in the Janus series)….

Star Rangers also introduces the theme of telepathy. In The Beast Master (1959) the two are fused together and we have Hosteen Storm, the Beast Master, and his team of African Black Eagle, Meerkats, and dune cat are telepathically linked. But like Diskan Fentress in The X Factor, his talent just covers animals. Kartr in Star Rangers as well as Zinga the Zacacathan can communicate telepathically with animals, but do not try for an emotional bond or work with them. (p. 185)

In places; Norton's consistency is disturbing as she insists on attacking the computer of ten or fifteen years ago. But Miss Norton is true to her daemon wherever it leads her. She sees a nuclear war as our probable future and it or the threat of it is a part of all her near future stories except The Stars Are Ours. The crosstime series, the time trader series, and Operation Time Search take place in the calm before the storm and this blights The Defiant Agents. Both Star Guard and Plague Ship note the changes wrought on Terra by such a war several hundred years past.

But her afterview is much too optimistic. Our civilization has delved deeply into the earth for the resources we now use. Let civilization collapse for very long and some of the resources needed to rebuild it will be out of reach. This is our main chance. Muff it, and most likely the stars will forever remain no more than points of light in the night sky.

However, Miss Norton's main thrust is not in the area of science and technology, but in that of human society. While all her stories are good entertainment, most contain more. (pp. 187-88)

Miss Norton's main problem seems to be that of the relationship between man and his machines. And her attitude is fairly obvious. I'd hardly expect a Norton story featuring a planet-bound misfit who finally realizes his dream of becoming a star ship mechanic. There have been sympathetic characters that have dealt with machines, but not recently. Since Galactic Derelick (1959) only Ali Kamil from the engine room of the Solar Queen in Postmarked the Stars comes to mind. And he had played a strong part in the first two books of the series.

Miss Norton is rather unacquainted with the "hard sciences" and her earlier books suffer a bit with her attempts to go into detail. This was especially true of astronomy. (p. 188)

By The Stars Are Ours and following books, Miss Norton avoids the trap most beginning sf writers fall into, and coins most of her planet names, mostly from mythology.

Even this early, Miss Norton showed a marked distrust of what Gene Marine in America the Raped termed the engineering mentality. (p. 189)

In the battle between technology and nature, Miss Norton took a stand long before the great majority of us had any doubts. Miss Norton has little knowledge of technology and rarely tries to explain the scientific wonders in her stories…. The less explanation, the less likely the science of the story is to date. But Andre Norton doesn't go into detail because she doesn't care. Technology is a necessary evil to get there for the adventure and to get some of the story to work. And the adventure is as much to mold her universe to her views as to entertain.

Two of the most extreme nature vs. technology novels are Judgment on Janus and its sequel, Victory on Janus. In this story the Iftin race have left "traps" that change humans sympathetic to nature into Iftin. Their lives are bound with nature and the massive trees. Technology becomes very distasteful. The chief villain turns out to be an alien computer.

The same type of villain turns up in Star Hunter, while a human built computer is the main evil in Ice Crown. In both The Stars Are Ours and Dark Piper where the computer performs a useful function, it isn't allowed any more scope than yesterday's model. In Star Rangers, a city computer directs a robot to destroy the heroes. (pp. 189-90)

Miss Norton sees no marriage of science and human powers…. So it should not be a surprise after traversing all the magical horrors the Witch World universe has to offer to find that the ultimate depth is a world from an environmentalist's nightmare where a degenerate humanity fights against men incorporated with machines both using weapons of advanced technology. (p. 190)

Norton consistently views the future as one where the complexity of science and technology have reduced the value of the individual. But the good of many is in the long run the good of the individual. As John Gardner points out in Self-Renewal: The Individual and The Innovative Society, our cultures become rigid and decay when they cease to allow a wide range of freedom to the individual.

So Miss Norton is actually wrestling with the prime problem, that of human worth and purpose. The question of human purpose has led to reams and reams of prose, most of it junk. Miss Norton is right in saying that it is not to be machine tenders, but she is vague on what human purpose should be. (p. 196)

We get glimpses of a Norton utopia in Judgment on Janus and Victory On Janus as well as scattered places throughout her books. The most appealing might well be the Valley of Green Silences which we see very little considering that parts of three Witch World novels take place there. While all her desirable places are those of nature, it is well to remember that man might not be man as we know him without his links to nature. (p. 197)

[No] matter how deeply Miss Norton's despair in the present and the future is germinating, she never councils quitting or even considering it…. Her heroes and heroines do not tamely bow their heads and accept their lot in a society that does not fit them. Some, like Diskan Fentress, may not seem to be concerned with others, but come through when the chips are down. Even if Norton's future societies do not value the individual, her sympathetic characters do.

Norton's future societies usually combine high ideals with a lack of concern for the people in it, an extrapolation of today's society that seems to be more comfortable treating men largely as interchangeable parts. And as our society worsens, so does her view of the future. Catseye (1961) marked the rise of organized crime. By Night of Masks (1964), crime syndicates had gone interstellar. The Zero Stone (1968) and Uncharted Stars show the Patrol reacting by trampling individual rights in their efforts to stamp out crime.

In Sargasso of Space, the Free Traders were recruited from the trainees that the Combines depended upon, too. By Dread Companion (1970) and Exiles of the Stars, the Free Traders are almost a separate race, rigidly controlling themselves on the planets, with their women and the declining feline race kept on their asteroid bases. It is almost as though the cats began to die out as their masters became less human, less linked to nature.

In the future, most of Miss Norton's work will probably be mainly the more aware and less hopeful novels such as Dark Piper and Dread Companion. But I shall miss seeing more light-hearted optimistic adventures. After all, anyone can be aware. But few can give us an Astra or a Witch World. (pp. 199-200)

Rick Brooks, "Andre Norton: Loss of Faith," in The Many Worlds of Andre Norton by Andre Norton, edited by Roger Elwood (copyright © 1974 by Roger Elwood; reprinted with permission of the publisher), Chilton Book Company, 1974, pp. 178-200.

One cannot but admire the fertility of Mrs. Norton's invention and the consistency of her imagined worlds. The logic of her technology is so beautifully developed, and her characters are just human enough to enable some identification on the part of the reader to take place. There is little room for romance but we are sustained by the old-fashioned virtues of courage, ingenuity and loyalty which were the mainstay of the stories in the old Boys' Own Paper.

The inhabitants of Vroom [in Crosstime Agent] are able to visit any planet at any time and have developed their own civilisation by sneaky trips of plunder. They are strictly controlled so that history is not disturbed. The multitude of worlds has enabled alternative cultures to prosper so that the Aztecs, not the Spaniards, inherited the world in which Marva and Marfy … come to grips with a plot to take over Vroom. Blake Walker is the linkman who holds together all those masterminding the opposition, and a very attractive hero he makes. On balance it is the human interest which dominates the story despite the ingenious scientific milieu. (p. 201)

The Junior Bookshelf, June, 1975.

When Ramsey Kimball is time-zapped into the body of his other level twin Kaskar [in Knave of Dreams] he gets his bearings in no time at all. In a few days he's learned the language and customs of Ulad … and plunged into the intrigue over a successor to the crown. Maybe Ramsey is at home in Ulad because it's so familiar from reading other Norton books, though for better or worse, this world is less complicated than some…. Ramsey's motives are no more human than anyone else's and it's hard to figure out just what he's doing in this fancy dress game … and what you're doing playing with Norton's same old stacked deck one more time. (pp. 857-58)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), August 1, 1975.


Donald A. Wollheim


Margery Fisher