I didn’t start Galactic Journey with the intention of spotlighting female writers and characters in science fiction. It just happened organically. A good many of my readers are women, and their interests may have influenced me. Or perhaps I simply became bored with the status quo. Woman authors tend to be more experimental or, at least, stylistically unique. And good female characters are a rare surprise (though increasing in frequency).
For a column that emphasizes the literary contributions of the species’ better half, there has been one curiously large omission. Not once have I reviewed a work by Andre Norton.
Norton, despite the masculine pen name, is a woman, and she is one of the genre’s most prolific writers. I think she has escaped my ken because she tends to write juveniles and fantasy novels, so she doesn’t appear in my magazine subscriptions. I also attempted to start one of her books at a reader’s suggestion (Star Gate), and I found it impenetrable.
But last month, I was caught up with current publications and an Ace Double from a few years back attracted my interest: The Crossroads of Time by Norton paired up with Mankind on the Run by Gordon Dickson. I finished Norton’s short novel over Thanksgiving weekend, and here’s what I found:
Blake Walker is a man twice orphaned. He was abandoned in infancy, and his adoptive policeman father died in Blake’s teen years. Now he is a 20-year old student, freshly arrived in New York. His world is turned upside down when he crosses paths with the Time Wardens, agents from an alternate timeline where humans have figured out how to travel to parallel universes. These agents are on the trail of the fugitive, Pranj, who plans to set up shop as a dictator in one of these worlds or “levels.”
Walker is, like most of Norton’s characters, a resourceful loner. In addition, he is possessed of a sense of premonition and a strong psychic shield, the latter of particular importance as the denizens of the Pranj’s timeline all have strong psionic abilities. It is Walker’s premonition that enables him to save an agent from one of the fugitive’s lackeys, which leads to Walker’s recruitment by the agency. On his first mission, he ends up a prisoner of Pranj, but he is able to make his escape on a level-traveler.
This is where the book really began for me (some halfway through). We are treated to a tour of several New Yorks, each one a challenge for survival: Ixanilia, a repressive aristocratic place founded by European refugees from an ascendant Mongol Empire; a nameless island where stone towers occupy our Manhattan, and North America’s only inhabitants are far-ranging Pacific Islanders; a level where the Nazis took England and savaged America to collapse.
It is this last level that Pranj intends to rule. Walker throws his lot in with a band of plucky survivors led by the capable leader and Buffalo Soldier called “The Sarge.” Walker manages to link up with a group of Wardens and assault Pranj’s local headquarters, whose barriers to psychic beings prove less effective against Walker as he is a latent. He is aided in his endeavor by a cute little kitten, who proves to be a tigress both in courage and in effect. I shan’t spoil the ending, but it is a happy one.
This new sideways-in-time genre is one of my favorites. While, the first half of Crossroads is occasionally rough sledding, Norton gradually sheds the hoary pulpisms that suffuse the work, and things shift into higher gear once Walker begins his jaunt to the levels. I was pleased by the appearance of both a Negro and a cat as pivotal, compelling characters. In fact, even Blake is not White, (his ethnicity is a mystery, but it appears to be mixed) and his adoptive father was Black. I found this degree of departure from the norm refreshing. No female characters, though we do learn that women comprise a good number of Sarge’s able team of soldiers.
Norton has written Crossroads with sequels in mind (she suggests as much in the final lines of the book.) The Time Wardens are akin to Poul Anderson’s “Time Patrol” whose time-traveling agents ensure the sanctity of its history, and I could easily see a series developing.
It’s a solid 3.5 stars of entertainment to fill a weekend with. So find a copy if you can, and hope for a sequel!.