Andre Norton: Loss of Faith pt. 1

by Rick Brooks


Original in The Dipple Chronicles, November/December 1971
Reprinted in: The Many Worlds of Andre Norton 1974 (p.178)


     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 planet-wide conditioning program. As a correspondent, children's librarian Devra Langsam remarked:

     ...more and more it is the organized cultural groups, like the Patrol, and in this case, the Service (cultural-anthropology?) who are the villains …I suppose that this was foreshadowed in her Solar Queen stories, but it’s still surprising. . . and she's a bit old to be getting, this anti-establishment thing.

     But are these impressions correct? Has Miss Norton lost faith in the future? After reading her books over the last few weeks, 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.

     Star Man's Son, her first science fiction novel, was written after warming up with a couple of short stories (as Andrew North) in Fantasy Book, two historical novels, and “Adapting” the myth of Huon of the Horn. Since Miss Norton “wastes” little in previous writings, in 1965, Steel Magic, a juvenile sequel to Huon of the Horn, came out.

     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 (her first of many Ace Books, published in 1955) 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 as it concerns the alternate histories of another world. With the exception of Norton’s later Toys of Tamisan(ss), this is the only science fiction that comes to mind covering both star travel and travel sideways 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.

     One of the most fascinating things about Andre Norton has been her consistency with respect to certain ideas and themes while totally ignoring consistency where most authors wouldn’t. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

     A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do...Speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon-balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.

     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 along 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 RaceLong Live Lord Kor!(ss) 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.

     In Uncharted Stars, the sequel to The Zero Stone, she runs wild with references to The Zero Stone, a Salarik (pp. 13, 72; the feline race of Sargol in Plague Ship), a male Wyvern of Warlock (p. 114; Ordeal In Otherwhere), a Trystian (p. 117), Zacathans (pp. 117, 176), a Faltharian (p. 166; three races prominent in Star Rangers), “…the Caverns of Arzor and of that Sargasso planet of Limbo…” (p. 140; The Beast Master and Sargasso of Space), and koro stones (p. 173; Plague Ship). References to many other races and many other gem stones are mentioned in passing.

     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.

     Long Live Lord Kor!(ss) was written around an unused cover that showed the couple mounted on a giant fire worm firing at a flying thing. The title was originally Worm Walk. Running things--by human default was a giant super computer called ZAT “…whose limitations had yet to be discovered.” (Worlds of Fantasy No. 2, p. 53). The X Factor is dedicated to “Helen Hoover whose weasel-fisher people gave me the Brothers-In-Fur.” Helen has a series of excellent nature books illustrated by her husband Adrian (whose illustrations remind me of Ernest Thompson Seton’s, who was a very early idol of mine. But Adrian’s are much better.)

     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 ]anus and The Zero Stone are both taken from the great forests of the Matto Grosso.” And of course history plays an important part.

     History, by the way, is not weapons (which are again a form of machines) but human beings--the fact that some ruler was ill on a certain day and so made a decision he might not have done otherwise--the fact that some personal animosity moved action can be seen over and over again. Until we read it from the viewpoint of the people, who were worked upon by the strains and stresses of their times which again may be alien to our present thinking, we do not read real history. I wish the students in school would study diaries and the volumes of contemporary letters of the period they are seeking to study rather than read the texts (which cannot help but be influenced by the personal tastes of their writers). From such sources they would learn what moved these people three, four, five hundred years ago to behave as they did. One volume of Pepys’ diary can give one a vivid impression of Restoration England of far more value to the student than any list of dates and decisions of Parliament of that period.

     To which, I agree heartily. To create an alien culture, it is a big help to understand one. Which means just about all previous cultures as well as the present one. Our command of technology separates us from the cultures of the past. The Founding Fathers had more in common with the Classical civilization members of Greece and Rome than they do with us. But have we lost something?

     Descartes’ dicotomy had given modern man a philosophical basis for getting rid of the belief in witches, and this contributed considerably to the actual overcoming of witchcraft in the eighteenth century. Everyone would agree that this was a great gain. But we likewise got rid of the fairies, elves, trolls, and all of the demicreatures of the woods and earth. It is generally assumed that this, too, was a gain, since it helped sweep man's mind clear of ‘superstition’ and ‘magic’. But I believe that this is an error. Actually what we did in getting rid of the fairies and the elves and their ilk was to impoverish our lives; and impoverishment is not the lasting way to clear men’s minds of superstition. There is a sound truth in the old parable of the man who swept the evil spirit out of his house, but the spirit, noticing that the house stood clean and vacant, returned, bringing seven more evil spirits with him; and the second state of the man was worse than the first. For it is the empty and vacant people who seize on the new and more destructive forms of our latter-day superstitions, such as beliefs in the totalitarian mythologies, engrams, miracles like the day the sun stood still, and so on. Our world has become disenchanted, and it leaves us not only out of tune with nature but with ourselves as well. (Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May, Signet, pp. 62-3)

     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. One might say of her writing that

     …there was much she said beyond my understanding, references to events and people unknown, such hints only making me wistful to go through the doors they represented and see what lay on the far side. (Moon of Three Rings, Ace, p. 103)

     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. (Dark Ages is a misnomer, for an age that saw the inventions of the horse collar, the windmill, and stirrups. These allowed men to harness horsepower and windpower for the first time and to weld man and horse into a battle unit. See Lynn White's book on medieval technology. Miss Norton would stress the Guilds and other human factors.) All six Witch World novels, Key Out of TimeStar Gate, Star GuardToys of Tamisan(ss), Wizard’s Worlds(ss), 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). In Star Man's Son, Fors of the Puma clan had Lura, the mutant cat, as a companion. In Star Rangers occurs the following:

     Fylh’s crest lifted. He raised his face to the sky and poured out a liquid run of notes, so pure and heart tearing a melody that Kartr held his breath in wonder. Was this Fylh’s form of happy release from emotion?

     Then came the birds, wheeling and fluttering. Kartr stiffened into statue stillness, afraid to break the spell. As Fylh’s carols rose, died, rose again, more and more of the fliers gathered, with flashes of red feathers, blue, yellow, white, green. They hopped before the Trystian’s feet, perched on his shoulders, his arms, circled around his head.

     Kartr had seen Fylh entice Winged things to him before but never just this way. It appeared to his bewildered eyes that the whole campsite was a maze of fluttering wings and rainbow feathers.

     The trills of Song died away and the birds arose, a flock of color. Three times they circled Fylh, hiding his head and shoulders from sight with the tapestry of tints they wove in flight. Then they were gone--up into the morning. Kartr could not move, his eyes remained fixed on Fylh. For the Trystian was on his feet, his arms outstretched, straining upward as if he would have followed the others up and out. And for the first time, dimly, the sergeant sensed what longings must be born in Fylh’s people since they had lost their wings. Had that loss been good--should they have traded wings for intelligence? Did Fylh wonder about that? (Ace, 1955, p. 166)

     In view of this, it is also hardly surprising that the survivors of the Patrol choose to go out into the wilderness and live off nature instead of seeking another abandoned city to live in at the book’s end. 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.

     Murray Leinster’s “Exploration Team” (Astounding ScienceFiction magazine, March 1956, “Combat Team" in Colonial Survey) had a team of man, eagle, and giant bears. They manage to save a colony that was supposed to be protected by robots. It could have influenced Norton, but since she was heading that way anyway, I doubt it. Besides, she makes a point of not reading other sf when she is writing so it won’t influence her. The treatment of robots is about the same (the robots in Leinster's story were computer controlled as I remember). Andre Norton’s only favorable mention of robots is in Star Rangers where one had been a member of the crew and “...he was good with engines-being one himself.” (Ace, 1955, p. 20)

     In Moon of Three Rings, Maelen the Moon Singer can telepathically communicate with her animals that work together for her traveling show. Travis Fox and the mutant coyotes work together and communicate on Topaz in The Defiant AgentsKey Out of Time features Karara Trehern telepathically linked with dolphins. Shann Lantree and his wolverines mentally share information and work together in Storm Over Warlock.

     Catseye carries the idea the next logical step. Troy Horan, once son of a Range Master on Norden, becomes an equal partner with a kinkajou, two foxes and two cats that have been mutated for greater intelligence. Rerne, the ranger of the wilds, asks:

     “Always we. Why, Horan?" Rerne rubbed his wrists.

     “Men have used animals as tools.” Troy said slowly, trying to fit into words something he did not wholly understand himself. “Now some men, somewhere, have made better tools, tools so good that they can turn and cut the maker. But that is not the fault of the tools--that they are no longer tools but--”

     “Perhaps companions?” Rerne ended for him, his fingers still stroking his ridged flesh, but his eyes very intent on Troy.

     “How did you know?” the younger man was startled into demanding.

     “Let me say that I am also a workman who can admire fine tools, even when they have ceased, as you point out, to be any longer tools.”

     Troy grasped at that hint of sympathy. “You understand--”

     “Only too well. Most of our breed want tools, not companions. And the age-old fear of man, that he will lose his supremacy, will bring down all the hawks and hunters of the galaxy down on your trail, Horan. Do not expect any aid from your own species when it is threatened by powers it cannot and does not want to understand…” (Ace, pp. 141-2)

   In Eric Frank Russell’s The Undecided (ss) (Astounding ScienceFiction magazine, April 1949, Deep Space) he handles the same theme of equality between man and our “little brothers.” As he sums it up:

     For all had passed through the many eons. Some had leaped ahead, some lagged behind. But several of the laggers had put on last moment spurts--because of late functioning of natural laws--and the impact upon their various kinds of the one kind called Man.

     Until they had breasted the tape together. (Bantam, p. 53)

     Or, as Miss Norton puts it in Catseye:

     “We are of one kind, plains rider.” Then Rerne looked beyond the man to the animals. “So shall we all be in the end.” (Ace, p.176)

     Judgment on Janus (which begins in the Dipple of Korwar, as does Catseye) has a working agreement between the Iftin and the quarrin, a vaguely owl-like bird that can communicate mentally with the lftin. In The X Factor, Diskan Fentress seems to almost fall under the domination of the “Brothers—in-Fur,” and their communication is rather uncertain.

     Ordeal In Otherwhere, the sequel to Storm Over Warlock, takes things a step further than equality. Shann Lantee and the wolverine Taggi (Togi is busy with the kids) are joined by Charis Nordholm and Tsstu, the curl-cat. Together they form a unit (almost the same as the mental fusion in Doc Smith’s The Children of The Lens, Astounding ScienceFiction magazine, November, December 1947, January, February 1948) that can withstand all that the Power of the Wyverns can throw at them. (But even in the unit, the man is still “first among equals”)

     In places, Norton’s consistency is disturbing as she insists on attacking the computer of ten or fifteen years ago. But Miss Norton’s 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. Most of the writers now considered great, from Shakespeare on, have considered it necessary to entertain as well as say something, but for some reason that is out of style today.

     No writer writes out of his having found the answer to the problem; he writes rather out of his having the problem and wanting a solution. The solution consists not of a resolution. It consists of the deeper and wider dimensions of conscience to which the writer is carried by virtue of his wrestling with the problem. We create out of a problem; the writer and the artist are not presenting answers but creating as an experience of something in themselves trying to work--'to seek, to find and not to yield.’ The contribution which is given to the world by the painting or the book is the process of the search. (Love and Will, Rollo May, pp. 170-1)

     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 Derelict (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. Sol is off the charts, yet the “Sirius Worlds” are mentioned as a familiar part of history (The Last Planet /Star Rangers, Ace, 1955, pp. 158, 170) while the ship is the “Vegan Starfire” (p. 183) and the Hall of Leave-Taking was supposed to be on Alpha Centauri (p. 171). Norton’s Star Atlas gives Vega as 26 light years away, Sirius 9, and Alpha Centauri 4.3. With a galaxy around 100,000 light years wide, these are literally in our lap. And only Proxima Centauri is now closer than Alpha Centauri.

     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. Those Others who inhabit a part of Astra and almost wiped themselves out were rather evil. In Star Born (1957), Astra is visited by Terran space travelers generations after the events of the first book.

     To Raf, the straight highways suggested something else. Master engineering, certainly. But a ruthlessness too, as if the builders, who refused to accept any modifications of their original plans from nature, might be as arrogant in other ways. (Ace, p. 39)

     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. John Campbell, whose death has left us all the poorer, once said something like, “If we really could explain it, we'd patent it.” 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.


Continued in Andre Norton: Loss of Faith pt. 2



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