[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]
by Gideon Marcus
Science fiction is often profound. It provides cautionary tales; it explores thorny social issues that are difficult to discuss without metaphor; it glimpses the future.
But much of the time, science fiction is just an escape, a genre ripe for stories of adventure. The vast frontiers of space or under the sea or the frozen arctic wastes have been the setting for countless such tales since the dawn of the Pulp Era.
The prolific Andre Norton had made this type of story her stock in trade. Whether set in a fantasy world, an historical setting, or in a far-flung galactic tableau, her works typically feature a young man gallivanting in a rough-and-tumble environment, surviving by virtue of wit and physical exertion.
American publishing house, Ace Books, also makes this fare its bread and butter. They are perhaps best known for their “Ace Doubles:” For 45 cents, you get not one, but two short science fiction novels. These are often novelized serials from sf magazines. Occasionally, they are purpose-written pieces. Some are subjected to unfortunate edits to cram them into the 250-page format. In short, Ace is something of a bargain-basement venue — the pulps of the book world, if you will.
Ace and Norton are, therefore, something of a match made in heaven. The recent Ace Double, F-147, features two Norton pieces back to back, one reprint novel and one new novella. While it’s nothing to write home about, it will keep you entertained on a long round-trip car, boat, or plane ride.
The novella half of F-147 is strongly influenced by the recent decolonization in Africa. Monster stars Rees Naper, a teenager whose world is turned upside down when the reptilian inhabitans of Ishkur revolt against the Terran inhabitants upon the withdrawal of colonial police protection from the planet. Towns are razed, laboratories smashed, religious missions demolished. Naper must make a perilous trek across a treacherous jungle landscape in an armored transport. His goal is simple: to save his own life as well as those of a colonist boy and two female Salarkans (one mature, one a child), feline traders from another star. Can he make it to the better-protected starport before the Ishkurians find him?
Two factors, one positive and one negative, make this exciting but rather ordinary piece of adventure stand out.
On the plus side, I greatly appreciated the character of Ishbi. The resourceful Salarkan is as important to the story as Rees, tough and competent. Moreover, there isn’t a shade of romance; just two resilient refugees overcoming obstacles. I suspect that Norton made Ishbi an alien explicitly for the purpose of ensuring that there could be a male/female relationship on a platonic, equal basis.
The natives of Ishkur don’t make out so well. Replace Ishkurians with Africans and you’ve got a dead ringer for a tale of noble White settlers and savage Blacks in the Dark Continent. What a far cry from Reynold’s nuanced Mahgreb series, recently published in Analog. It would not have taken much to add dimension to the story; instead, it comes off as insensitive.
Nevertheless, it is a good read, and though the Ishkurians get a shallow, bigoted (by analogy) portrayal, the character of Ishbi is a bright light in a genre dominated by men. Three stars.
This novel was originally published five years ago, and it feels older. The exotic locale for Monster was an Africa analog; for Sea Siege, it is the tiny sun-baked West Indies isle of Santa Isadore. Our hero this time is a young man improbably named “Griff Gunston,” son of a famed icthyologist. As a frequent diver, he notices an increasing number of queer events: patches of “Red Plague,” a radioactive and toxic algae, are spreading across the sea; octopi are displaying greater intelligence and menacing behaviors; ships are disappearing, rumored to have been sunk by sea serpents!
Amidst all this, Cold War tensions are ratcheting up. A detachment of American “Seabees” arrives to construct an atomic-powered supply base. The island’s natives, disconcerted by recent events and resentful of the disturbances they blame on the outsiders, become restive. Just as the frequency of lost divers and vessels reaches a fevered pace, nuclear war breaks out between the superpowers. Continents are torn asunder, new volcanoes are spawned, and Santa Isadore is wracked with geological spasms.
End Part One.
The second half of the novel is a tale of survival in a world gone mad. The weather is freakish as caustic winds lash the island, culminating in a ravaging storm. Worse, whether spurred by radiation-induced mutation or the atomic rupture of the deeps, the ocean has turned against the land-dwellers: octopi-sapiens and their sea serpent thralls make the waters uninhabitable, capsizing ships and snatching people from the beaches. But the ingenuity of humanity, enabled by both the advanced atomic-fueled science of the navy personnel and the native lore of the islanders, wins the day. At least temporarily.
Part Two ends with a number of untied threads: Will the increasingly hostile Santa Isadoreans continue to abide the American soldiers? Can there be a meeting of the minds between people and the cephalopod terrors? Are there any centers of population left in the rest of the world?
Sadly, there is no Part Three. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to make it up.
This is part of what makes Sea Siege a strange book. It takes rather long to get started, a good deal of time spent on Griff’s undersea adventures. Things don’t really move until the mid-point; Part 2 is briskly paced. Because of the plodding set-up and all the unresolved questions, one can’t help but think that Norton meant to write a third part, but just never got around to it.
Norton’s novel is also unusual when viewed side-by-side with the other post-apocalyptic books of the time, e.g. On the Beach and Alas, Babylon. One starts Sea Siege with the impression that, like those books, it is going to be a gritty, realistic story. The departure into scientific fantasy, while not inexpertedly handled, feels odd.
Par for the course with Norton, there is an interesting and diverse cast of characters. The islanders are depicted with dignity; in fact, there is a strong suggestion that their unique technologies and reactionary mindset are a necessary yin to the yang of the headstrong and arrogant foreigners, whose hubris ultimately led to the Earth’s near destruction. And it is clear that Norton has done her homework: her depiction of the Caribbean is evocative, highly sensual, and at times reads like a lightly fictionalized transcription of LIFE’s recent picture-book, The Sea.
All in all, it is a pleasant if slightly unsatisfying read, particularly if you enjoy it as I did — accompanied by Harry Belafonte’s hit record, Calypso. Three stars.