Okay, you’re probably going to laugh at me when I tell you this: because I’m a self-taught reader, until I was in my mid-teens, I had this back-of-the-brain idea that all fiction authors were dead. I learned to read somewhere around 1950-52 mostly by reading The Eagle (a British boys’ weekly paper) to start, then whatever books my parents had around the house, plus a few they bought me. By the time I was in school, I was a pretty good reader. And what did they give us to read in school? “Classic” writers: Shakespeare and so on. Long-dead writers.
By the late 1950s, when I lived in Florida, I was reading library books and borrowed Ace doubles (borrowed from my friend Jimmy Griffin, who had quite a collection) — and I had no clue these were new books! (I mean, what kid reads copyright dates and the colophon?) So when I read Andre Norton’s Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster (Ace F-147) in 1962, I didn’t know the book was new and the author was still alive. I just assumed, somewhere in the back of my head, that she was dead. Yes, I knew — by then — that Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and presumably others, were alive; I had gone to the library innumerable times to get their newest books; the cognitive dissonance didn’t bother the back of my brain. Ah, well, the follies of youth. So, on to Andre Norton (Figure 1).
Some time ago, this little ebook called Andre Norton: The Essential Collection came into my possession (not sure how, but it is available for download, though I’m afraid it might be an illegal download, so I won’t share that link here) and I put it in my “to-read” pile, as I’ve been an avid Norton reader (as I said) since childhood. Well, this weekend, tired of the “goddamn noisy squawk-box,” as Jubal Harshaw called it (I believe), I fired up the tablet and opened this collection, which contains the following:
Science Fiction Novels & Short Stories:
The Time Traders
The Defiant Agents
Key Out of Time
Storm Over Warlock
The Gifts of Asti
All Cats Are Gray
The People of the Crater
Historical Fantasy & Fiction:
Ride Proud, Rebel!
I prepared to submerge myself in Norton. Now, you can search this particular collection out on Amazon (.com, not .ca — for reasons unknown, there are more of this publisher’s books showing on .com than its sister website); but it states “currently not available for purchase,” which is a shame. You can, however, find several really low-priced Norton collections — and more than a few free Norton novels! — on Amazon. (I’m not plugging that estore particularly; I just know they have these cheap ebooks.) Some are also available at kobobooks.com, as far as I know. Anyway, I found these particular links for you to check out: https://www.amazon.com/Andre-Norton-MEGAPACK-Classic-Stories-ebook/dp/B007NLCJBC/; https://www.amazon.com/Visions-Distant-Shores-Norton-Collection-ebook/dp/B00378L7DQ/; and https://www.amazon.com/Andre-Norton-Super-Pack-ebook/dp/B01CDM42JW/. All of these contain multiple Norton books and/or stories, and all are (I believe) under $2. (What do you have to lose?) Anyway, the edition I’m talking about was published and copyrighted in 2014 by Digital Papyrus, ISBN-13 9781456622916, but Digital Papyrus seems to have vanished; its website is no more, which is why I’m suggesting the above collections as substitutes. One feature of the Digital Papyrus books is that they had links to free Norton audiobooks. Librivox has “public domain” Norton audiobooks you can download.
Something you might not know much about, when we talk about SF/F authors like Norton, is that in those days it was not considered a selling point to have a woman’s name on an SF book cover; Andre was born Alice Mary Norton (she legally changed her first name to Andre years later); and some women still don’t use their first names on SF/F books (not that they are trying to hide their gender any more; some names have become well-known selling points, so why change?). We’ve had famous writers like C.L. Moore (Catherine Lucille Moore); C.J. Cherryh (Carolyn Jane Cherry); James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon); and latterly, P.N. Elrod (Patricia Neal Elrod); and J.K. Rowling (Joanne no middle name Rowling). And — see covers here — Norton also had several male pseudonyms, notably “Andrew North.”
In the ’50s SF was felt to be overwhelmingly the field of (typically) 14-year-old boys and, hard as it is to believe today, when even the President of the United States admits to reading it, was looked down upon as “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” Authors, male or female, slanted much of their writing to appeal to that 14-year-old…and I’m proof that they succeeded, ‘cause, boy, am I an SF/F fan! Much, or even most of it, up until the “New Wave” (Brian Aldiss, Barry Malzberg, Michael Moorcock et al.) was standard adventure “sci-fi,” with about as much depth as a cup of coffee — and few female protagonists (unless you count Moore’s Jirel of Joiry) to speak of.
This is not to say that all SF/F books until lately were bland or shallow; the writers who endured are those who kept experimenting with character, with plot, with layering and depth and motivation. It’s my opinion that no writer worth his (or her) salt writes only for a paycheque (regardless of what Heinlein said — he certainly didn’t obey his own dictum); every writer wants the new book to be better than the last one. Some SF writing — indeed, some of what I’m reviewing today — has its quaint and old-timey side; given the pace of modern scientific and social advance, which absolutely no writer foresaw, coined words for futuristic machinery or social codes and speech sound clunky at best. (I have a 3D TV, because I’ve read of “tri-d” or “stereo vid” and the like all my life, but until the manufacturers make the movies and TV shows cheap and accessible, 3D TV will be a flash in the pan as it was in the ’50s. Go out now and try to buy a new 3D TV. Bet you can’t.) Anyway, “micro tapes,” “visi-screens,” “jetpacks,” “plasteel” and those sorts of words sound funky and silly to our ears today; but in 1957-64, they yelled “future!” and “adventure!” into our teen-age ears.
Andre Norton wrote something like 21 different series (2 or more books per series) plus innumerable stand-alone books; she was quite prolific. Of the five books I’ve read so far in this collection (the first 5 mentioned above), all of them belong to either the “Solar Queen” series or the “Time Traders” series; they feature either Dane Thorson (“Solar Queen”), or Ross Murdock or Travis Fox (“Time Traders”); the latter series is somewhat atypical for SF of the time for featuring a female secondary character in Key Out of Time. One thing you may note about some of Norton’s SF is that the protagonist is fairly young if not actually a juvenile; for that reason, some of her SF is considered “juvenile” (now YA) fiction. That may truer now than it was in its day; latter-day cynicism might lessen this fiction’s impact for grown and world-weary readers. (Can you say weltschmertz?)
Plague Ship (Figure 3) is not the first “Solar Queen” book; that was Sargasso of Space. In this book, Dane Thorson is apprenticed to Cargo Hold-Master Van Ryck of the Solar Queen; the ship is attempting to set up regular trading with the Salariki natives of Sargol. Terran spacers fall into three main categories: the big Companies (Inter-Solar, the Combine, etc.), who dominate space trading, the Free Traders (like the Solar Queen), who pick up the smaller trade routes — often just the leftovers of the Companies; and the Patrol, who enforce Terra’s laws in space. (There don’t appear to be any other space-faring species in this series, though I’m not finished yet, and memory is silent on the subject.) Anyway, there is no love lost between the Companies (notably I-S, or Inter-Solar) and the Free Traders; once a trade route is awarded, there is no poaching allowed by the Patrol, although a certain amount of underhanded play can happen before a trade agreement or route is awarded. In this case, the Queen is hoping to take over a trade agrement for certain fragrant gems found on the planet made by a previous free trader who had been killed by pirates. As traders, Dane and Van Ryck have to know and adhere to the customs of a hundred different worlds: the Salariki, for example, have a feline ancestry, and have a warrior-clan culture. To fend off Inter-Solar’s bid, the Queen has to make a trip to Terra and back in a certain time, but something happens on the way — the crew of the Queen start falling ill and unconscious. Have they picked up some kind of virulent, previously unknown plague on Sargol? Will they be “warned off” by the Patrol as a Plague Ship, fair game for any who wish to kill them all? These and other questions are answered in this fast-moving tale of the future! (Hey, I could get a job writing blurbs, don’t you think?) RATING: four out of five what’s-its: ¤¤¤¤
Unfortunately, this collection doesn’t include the first Solar Queen adventure, Sargasso of Space (Figure 5), which I remember fondly. Guess I’ll have to buy whichever of the above collections includes it. I’m running out of space on this particular column, which means I won’t be getting to the Beastmaster series, which I also enjoyed. If anyone remembers the dreadful Marc Singer movie Beastmaster, that was fairly loosely based on Norton’s The Beast Master (1959), about a Navajo named Hosteen Storm, who had a telepathic bond with several animals and a bird. That book had a sequel written by Norton, called Lord of Thunder, and two sequels supposedly by Norton and Lyn McConchie, though Wikipedia reports that the two were actually both written by McConchie. (I can verify that in her later years Norton was open to collaborating on sequels; I had an idea of doing two sequels to Catseye in collaboration with her, and I have a letter from her approving the idea, though life events prevented me from following through.) Getting back to The Beast Master, Norton enjoyed using Native Americans as protagonists in her books; previously, she had Travis Fox, an Apache, as a protagonist in a couple of Time Traders books. Her books were multicultural in a time when multicultural wasn’t even a word
One of the things I wanted to point out was that Ace had chosen — in my opinion — the wrong Alex Schomburg cover for Lord of Thunder. Figure 6 shows the cover they chose; Alex had submitted several cover roughs for the book. The cover rough I used to own (but had to sell during a long period of unemployment) is shown in Figure 7. A superior cover in every way, in my opinion.
Here’s the deal: I really like comments on my columns, good or bad. I often learn things from them; I get additions, corrections, and even egoboo. I’m actually thick-skinned enough that negative comments — as long as they’re not just ad hominem attacks — can spur me to be better. So go ahead, make my day. Go ahead and comment — here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Whether I agree with your comments or not, they’re all welcome. So don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, okay? My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!