by Rosemary Benton
Catseye is the short, but very well written, science fiction novel from the pen of the legendary Andre Norton. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t experienced much of Norton’s writing myself, although her fans sing her praise joyfully and have repeatedly recommended her titles to me. Reading the back cover of Catseye while in my town’s book store, I had to berate myself for not looking into her before. If half of what her book promised was true, then here was an author that I could fully invest in. I was not disappointed.
In this new installment of Norton’s ever growing bibliography we meet Troy Horan, a young man who, like many of his generation, was displaced from his homeworld because of The War of the Two Sectors. Bitterly fought until a stalemate was realized, the War rewrote galactic geography and national boundaries, forcing many to live in semi permanent statelessness. On the planet Korwar, people like Troy live in slums called the Dipple. Norton ascribes a bleak and uncertain future to those of the Dipple. They can contract to be shipped off-world to some unknown fate, acquire a work permit that will allow them to find short term meager employment in northern Tikil, or they can buy their way into the booming underground Thieves Guild organization. Luckily for Troy, his legacy as a former colonist of Norden allows him to snatch a temp position at a pet shop that caters to the upper echelons of the planet.
Being from the well known herding society of Norden, Troy has an uncanny affinity to animals. The levels of his skill with beasts surprises even himself after he learns that he can communicate telepathically with a select few of the animals at his employer’s establishment. The small menagerie of highly intelligent animals, including the foxes Sargon and Sheba, the cats Sahiba and Simba, and Shang the kinkajou, draw Troy into a maelstrom of conspiracies and death. Troy must decide whether to do what is right or what will best help him survive.
Catseye is most impressive in three ways. First and foremost, the quality of the narrative can not be overlooked. In perfect harmony with the otherworldly environment, Norton peppers original sayings, phrases and honorifics into her writing. The end result is a narrative that makes the reader feel like they are experiencing events within the actual mind of our protagonist.
This is not an easy task for writers. I can’t impress how often I’ve read science fiction and fantasy only to see this common issue of inconsistency with language. For example, in Catseye a “flitter” is a ship and “patroller” refers to the police. This unique dialect creates a flow in the story that makes the reader feel like they are really experiencing a story from another time and place. Take this paragraph from chapter 2:
“There were pedestrians, a crowd of them, gathering. But until they knew that this was not some private challenge-fight, none would call a patroller. By drawing his belt-knife instead of trying for a stunner, Zul had labeled this a meeting-of-honor, unorthodox as its setting may be”.
With only the barest of context Norton has created a scene that is understandable, yet distinctly foreign. It’s a truly gifted writer who can fabricate dialects and weave them so well into their narrative.
The second way in which Norton goes above and beyond is in her tight story structure. Again, writing a good novel is an art, and being able to sufficiently sum up important plot points without becoming side tracked is an essential element of good craftsmanship. In the first chapter Norton establishes the history of the world she has created, introduces our protagonist and sets him on the path to his new employer. The first half of the book is a steady build toward the chase, capture and escape of Troy and the animals back into the wilds. The book concludes with room for a sequel or at least tie in novels. Personally, I hope to see Norton build the world of Catseye into something more. With her succinct ability to set up environments, plot and characters I would love to learn more about the events that led to and occurred during The War of the Two Sectors, clearly modeled after the events of The Great War.
Third, and most importantly, the deeply resonating themes of Catseye make it a must read work of science fiction. This is a book that not only questions the ethics of moral rightness versus survival, but the lives of displaced people. Last month when I reviewed Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land I bemoaned the fact that Heinlein did not try out his proposed social and moral constructs outside of largely intellectual conversations between characters. Norton, on the other hand, accompanies words with actions. While her prose are not as poetic as Zenna Henderson, she has a knack for incorporating astute observations at just the right moments. Take this instance in chapter 4:
“He had early learned in the hard school of the Dipple that knowledge could be both a weapon and a defense, and something as nebulous and beyond reason as his odd mental meeting with two different species of Terran life he preferred to keep to himself”.
In chapter 6 the world building continues with Norton’s point about the necessity of keeping the ugly business surrounding the psychic animals away from the pleasurable aspects of high and comfortable society:
“As long as we can keep Korwar as a pleasant haven for the overlords of other worlds, some of them the greed-wrecked ones, we can hold this one inviolate. One does not want such desolation in one’s own back yard. So far those of the villas have the power, the wealth, to retain Korwar as their unspoiled play place.”
For a first introduction to Andre Norton’s works, Catseye is an exceptional read. It has heart, it has style, and it has philosophy backing it up at just the right moments. I really hope that I can find more from Norton regarding Troy and his journey as a new, free man. The concept is fresh, and let’s face it — as kids and even adults, wouldn’t we love to have Troy’s power and know what’s going on in the minds of our pets?