Tag Archives: andre norton

[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!]

[Sept. 26, 1961] Sense of Adventure (Andre Norton’s Catseye)


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?

[May 11, 1961] Spotlighting Women (The Second Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Part 3)

Here’s a question I’ve gotten more than once: what is the point in spotlighting woman writers?  Shouldn’t I simply point out the good stories as I find them, and if they happen to be written by women, bully for them?  Why should I create an artificial distinction?

Those are actually fine questions, about which I’ve given much thought.  I make no claims to being an expert, or even someone whose opinion should matter much to you.  All I have is my taste, my gut and (lucky for me) my own column in which to voice my opinions.  So take my words as strictly my viewpoint.

We live in a particular kind of world.  Men are the default: the default heroes, the default writers, even the default pronoun.  Open a history book, and it will be filled with the names of great men.  Women are a seeming afterthought.  You may not even have thought twice about it.  It seems “natural” that movies should star men, that books should star men, that men should be the generals, the presidents.

But, there is a change a brewing.  Black men universally won the right to vote in 1865.  Women secure duniversal suffrage in 1920, fully three generations after the least privileged men.  The gap is narrowing.  This year, a Black man became skipper of a U.S. Naval vessel.  1961 also marks the year a woman became a shipboard U.S. Naval officer for the first time.  Women are now just one generation behind the least advantaged of the men.  Someday, we may be on a level playing field, all races of men and women.

Science fiction is supposed to be forward-looking, yet socially it seems stuck in the present, or even the past.  One almost never reads about woman starship captains or woman presidents or woman…well… anything.  I don’t think this is the result of deliberate collusion by the science fiction writing community.  It’s just that society is the air we breathe.  We are unconsciously bound by its rules and traditions.  Unless something shakes up our viewpoints, we’ll stick in our ruts and continue to accept this male-dominated paradigm as the natural order of things.

So when I spot something unusual that I think should be universal, I note it.  I encourage it.  I enjoy it.

Without further ado, part #3 of my encyclopedic catalog of the woman writers active as of this year of 1961:

Zenna Henderson: It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of my column that I love Zenna Henderson.  While her The People stories do not comprise all of her work, they are representative — unabashedly personal tales, bittersweet and feminine, utterly unlike anything else.  Henderson’s science fiction career began early last decade and is one of the most vivid hallmarks of the divide between the digest and pulp eras.  I strongly recommend Rosemary Benton’s recent article as a introduction to his brilliant author and her work.

Katherine MacLean: One rarely forgets first impressions, and MacLean made a significant one on me with Unhuman Sacrifice, single-handedly saving the November 1958 Astounding, the first magazine I ever reviewed for this column.

This was actually a sort of a rediscovery — she has been publishing stories since the late ’40s, many of which I read in Galaxy.  I wonder if she’s now near the end of her career.  Once a prolific writer, her pace slackened after 1953, and I’ve only seen one of her stories since Sacrifice, the good Interbalance.  Perhaps she’s just busy with other things, or maybe she publishes in the few remaining magazines I don’t cover on a regular basis.  In any-wise, Ms. MacLean is highly regarded, both by me and the general community.  Check her out, and don’t miss her early work published under the name of her former husband, Charles Dye.

Anne McCaffrey: Speaking of first impressions, one of the fun aspects of my job as surveyor of our genre is spotting new authors as they arrive.  Ms. McCaffrey hit the ground running with her 1959 story, The Woman in the Tower.  She topped herself with the recent The Ship who Sang.  Two points make a line; if we continue the trend, it is clear that Ms. McCaffrey is destined to produce some pretty spectacular stuff.  I can’t wait!

Judith Merril: There once was a SF club in New York City.  It was called the Futurians, it only lasted 8 years (ending around the same time as WW2), and it had an outsized impact on the genre.  The 1st WorldCon was a Futurian event, for instance, and its members included future famous personages such as Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl. 

And Judith Merril (who was Mrs. Pohl for a little while).  She has been a pillar of the community ever since, both as a writer and a prolific anthologizer; she has produced a series of “Best of” books since 1956, and her taste is sharp.  My experience with her own writing has been mixed.  They comprise just two stories and a novel.  The stories were good, the novel was terrible (though Fred Pohl and P. Schuyler Miller liked it; what do I know>).  I suspect Judy will be around for a long time, so I imagine I’ll have more on which to evaluate her by the next time I do one of these.

C.L. Moore: I may be stretching a point in calling Ms. Moore a current writer.  A veteran of the pulp era, Ms. Moore wrote most prolifically in partnership with her late husband, Henry Kuttner (who I knew best as Lewis Padgett).  He died in 1958, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.  For this reason, the Journey has covered none of her works, and while I’m sure I must have read some of Moore (psuedonymously, collaboratively, or solitarily), I couldn’t tell you about any of those stories off the top of my head (though I do own the Galaxy Novel, Shambleau; perhaps I shall try it out.)

Andre Norton: Despite the name, Andre Norton is a woman, and she has enjoyed a burgeoning career since her debut a little over a decade ago.  She is given to florid, adventury prose, filled with strapping folks and derring-do.  In a recent review of one of Ms. Norton’s latest books, Alfred Bester opined dismissively that perhaps women just can’t write action.  Well, he’s wrong.  Now, mind you, I haven’t yet read much Norton.  I started Stargate, which failed to grab my interest, and I finished Crossroads of Time, which I quite enjoyed.  She’s got a new one coming out this Summer, which I’ll call the tie-breaker. 

Meanwhile, Bester hasn’t published a story since 1959.  Maybe men just can’t write science fiction anymore…

I’ll have the fourth (and final) installment in this series sometime next month.  Cheer-i-o!

(Part one is here!)

(Part two is here!)

[Dec. 3, 1960] Correcting an Oversight (The Crossroads of Time, by Andre Norton)

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!.