[February 17, 1962] Time and Culture at Odds (Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents)


by Rosemary Benton

It’s an interesting premise: what would a meeting between Apaches and Tartars be like in a “wild west-esque” science fiction setting? And what if the Apaches were American explorers while the Tartars were from the Soviet Union? Andre Norton sets out to explore this idea in The Defiant Agents, her third installment in the Time Traders series.

This time it’s not agents of the future who are being sent physically into the past, but rather the minds of a select group of volunteer Apache explorers who are on a rushed mission to reclaim the alien planet Topaz from the Communists. In a deep sleep they remember the past lives of their ancestral people to prepare them for the frontier world, while their bodies traverse space to the planet. After a crash landing the crew wake up with little memory of their former lives in the present and even less recollection of their mission. Battling the dual lives crammed into their heads as their memories slowly return, archeologist and animal-talker Travis Fox tries to help his group survive against the Tartar peoples under mind-control by the Reds.

Since reading Catseye I have become a firm fan of Andre Norton’s characters and storytelling. So much is my appreciation of her skill as a writer that I took the liberty of familiarizing myself with the rest of the Time Traders series before diving into The Defiant Agents. In 1958 Andre Norton hit the science fiction community with the first book of what would become her enduring series, simply titled The Time Traders

It was a critical and commercial success with an enthralling plot about the search for ancient long-lost knowledge. To uncover this treasure trove of information, social misfit and petty criminal Ross Murdock is selected to travel back to the time of the Beaker culture of Bronze-Age Europe. Without significantly changing the timeline, he and his partner, archeologist Dr. Gordon Ashe, must blend seamlessly into the people of that time to find the knowledge source before their competition does.

Though still largely unfamiliar with Andre Norton at the time, I recall reading Galaxy in 1959 and noticing that The Time Traders appeared on Floyd C. Gale’s “Galaxy’s 5 Star Star Shelf”. Looking back through my own collection of Galaxy I was able to pull up his exact words. His review of the book stated that on page 140 that, “Traders gets Miss Norton back solidly and admirably on her track of excellence.”

With a quick trip to the campus library I was able to find another reviewer in Kirkus Reviews that declared The Time Traders, “An interesting idea, well handled by Andre Norton, science fiction expert, who projects his [sic] reader deftly both backwards and forwards in time and injects his [sic] narrative with considerable and interesting historical information”.

The next book in the series is Galactic Derelict. It came in quick succession, being published in October 1959. I have unfortunately not been able to lay my hands on a copy yet, but reviews gave enough background information for me to be able to read The Defiant Agents without interruption. Again, reviews seem to be overall positive. The October 1959 Kirkus Reviews description of the book even goes so far as to say that, “Andre Norton has no peer in his [sic…again] chosen field of science fiction for teen agers.”

Which brings us to The Defiant Agents. After reading The Time Traders and reading up on Galactic Derelict, I was very excited to begin the third installment of the Time Traders series. Norton had left off Galactic Derelict with a daring trip through hyperspace and to several worlds, all covered in the ruins and decaying machinery of a long gone civilization. Our three protagonists, the Apache archeologist Travis Fox, and the project agents Ross Murdock and Dr. Gordon Ashe all return in The Defiant Agents. The story mainly focuses on Travis Fox however, with only brief appearances of Ross and Dr. Ashe in the beginning chapters to provide exposition.

I was initially (though not lastingly) underwhelmed by the pace of the plot in The Defiant Agents. With such a steady stream of action and changing scenery in The Time Traders, reading The Defiant Agents felt more like a drama than the action story preceding it. This mainly stems from the time Norton dedicates to show the dueling emotions of Travis and his fellow explorers.

In short order Travis and his group of other Apache volunteers find themselves marooned on the contested planet Topaz, groggy from their trip made under the influence of the “Redax” machine, and with no memory of what their original mission was. Their very identities are contestable. The Redax machine allowed them to relive the lives of their ancestors to better prepare them for the frontier of Topaz, but with such a rushed voyage to reclaim the territory from the Reds there was little time to work out all of the flaws in the experimental technology. The resulting story is an interesting one, to be certain, but a much more slower paced one than Norton’s previous novels.

The most important and noteworthy aspect of The Defiant Agents is how Norton respectfully writes her Native American characters and encapsulates their experience with strong tinges of their cultural memory. Norton writers her Apache characters in a humanizing and personable way, far from any stereotypes of savage and animalistic barbarians (as are common on television, for instance). She repeatedly uses the analogy of the Native Americans on a road between present and past, and relates that condition to their present plight on Topaz, stranded as they are without many supplies and no way of contacting Earth – modern-day Native Americans trapped in a simulacrum of the past.

An evolving theme throughout the Time Traders series is the growing appreciation that our three main characters have for the power of the ancient aliens whose technology and information the US and the USSR so covet. Travis is the culmination of this appreciation. Travis and his people are resourceful and brave, but not so daring as to try to possess the destructive alien power they find on Topaz.  Although he finds a gun that can vaporize immense objects, and he uses it to free the Tartars from their Red held mind-control slavery, it’s Travis who argues that such a thing is the equivalent to the atom bomb and is best left taboo. They take what will benefit them – star tapes, supplies, etc. – and leave behind what could overwhelm them. It’s almost as if Norton is saying that to best survive in our present, looking back on history and culture can provide the best path forward.

Despite the slow pace I wouldn’t say that the book is boring or uninteresting; it was simply not what I was expecting. That being said, I feel confident in giving The Defiant Agents four out of five stars. It contains a resonating message about the dangers of power, a cross cultural exchange between modern people and their ancestral heritage, and a message of peace between like-minded but geographically distant cultures. Inspiring and refreshing, although slow at times, The Defiant Agents is a must read.

[And by the way, Happy 50th birthday, Andre Norton!]

3 thoughts on “[February 17, 1962] Time and Culture at Odds (Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents)”

  1. I found Andre Norton’s work late, when Galactic Derelict came out.  I liked that one a *lot*, and managed to find most of her earlier science fiction novels, and enjoyed them all.

    As much of a fan as I am, it hurts me to say that this one is the first of her books I didn’t like.  Characters emoted, stuff happened… but the story didn’t *go* anywhere.  I kept getting the idea that it was originally written to be something else, and dusted off and crudely patched into the Time Traders timeline.

    Like you, it wasn’t what I expected.  And it’s so different from her earlier work, I wouldn’t have suspected it was one of hers had her name not been on the cover.

    I guess it wasn’t *bad*, but it wasn’t what I’ve come to expect from Andre Norton, particularly compared to the books she’s published just in the last year or two.  Fortunately she’s a prolific writer; if she keeps up at this rate, I’m going to wind up with a whole shelf of just Andre Norton.

  2. Andre North was a bit of a life jacket for me. By 1954 I had rounded up and read all Heinlein ‘juvies’ from Rocket Ship Galileo to Starman Jones. Even at 14 I was reading ‘adult’ SF in Astounding and Galaxy, still I looked for something like Heinlein’s young people SF. I tried Asimov’s Paul French, Donald A. Wollheim, and G Harry Stein (as Lee Correy) with little satisfaction. Happened to notice Star Rangers on the library shelf one day and then Star Guard. I quickly noticed that Norton has absorbed modern SF approach to domesticated Super Science. A good story teller who had Heinlein’s gift for verisimilitude.  Norton was more ‘page 2’ story than Heinlein’s ‘front page’. She drew me in. My guess is she was a bit of a technophobe and that made her extremely careful with the super science. She had a good eye for SF nomenclature and the sound of a high tech object , always like the Vorper! Odd thing is many times her future fiction urban environments were more interesting than her favored far planet pastorals. Liked the Dipple even if it has a dystopian cast to it. I can’t say Alice Mary North is in my top 25 SF writers but she has been a comfort to me.

    1. The main thing I remember about Norton’s early books is her knack for barbarous neologism.  For example, anybody who had any advanced understanding of anything was called a “techneer”; if you were an engineer, or maybe just knew a lot about machines; you were a “mech-techneer”; and a historian, God help us, was a “hist-techneer.”

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