published in 1961
For a lot of American science fiction fans my age or older, Andre Norton was the first “real” sf writer they ever read, largely because she was hugely prolific and specialised in what we’d now call young adult novels. For some reason however she was never all that popular in the Netherlands so I’ve read little of her work so far. But that’s changing, thanks to Project Gutenberg, who have a fair few of her books available, those on which the original US copyrights had not been renewed. Star Hunter is one of them, originally published as an Ace Double. I read it during a couple of lunch breaks at work.
Ras Hume is a pilot for the Out-Hunters Guild who on a trip to the newly discovered planet of Jumala has made a discovery that could make him incredibly rich, but to exploit it he needs to make a deal with Wass, the biggest crime boss on Nahuatl. What he found was the lifeboat from the Largo Drift, a space ship which disappeared six years ago, taking with it the heir to the Kogan estate. He also has a plausible candidate to play the part of Rynch Brodie, the teenage heir. What he needs Wazz for is to condition this boy to actually believe he is this heir, then he will be let lose on Jumala for Hume to discover him when he brings over the safari party he’s scheduled to pilot there. It’s an almost foolproof plan, surely nothing can go wrong.
But there wouldn’t have been a story if something didn’t go wrong. The patsy Hume has chosen, Vye Lansor, an orphan plucked from the foulest bar in Nahuatl’s spaceport, was conditioned and dropped on Jumala, but the condition wasn’t good enough and he remembers flashes from his true life. Worse, while Jumala was deemed fit for human visiting and free of intelligent alien life, something has been woken up by the safari party and Hume and Lansor/Brodie find themselves as grudging allies against this alien menace as this attempts to herd them towards imprisonment in the hills of Jumala.
Since Andre Norton has only ninetysix pages in which to tell her story, it obviously has to be tight. Which means that while we do get a resolution to the central plot line, the mystery of the aliens and why they attacked the safari party is never followed through. Hume and Lansor bond, fight their way out of the alien traps and survive and that’s it. A bit unsatisfactory, but not the end of the world.
In the same way, there’s little room to develop the settings, Nahuatl and Jumala, very much. Both are solid pulp sf settings, feel more like small towns than whole planets, but are deftly sketched in by Norton with a few neatly chosen details, especially Jumala. There are the watercats for example, dangerous aquatic ambush predators lurking in creeks and rivers, and the scavengers that come out of the water to finish off their kills — or the watercat, if it’s unlucky. Clearly some thought has gone into setting up the planet, even if it’s only a stage for a pulp adventure.
As science fiction Star Hunter is of course incredibly dated, of the rockets and blasters school of adventure sf. The scheme that drives its plot, to substitute some lookalike for the heir of a vast estate, has long ago been made impossible by the development of cheap DNA testing, while most of the technology on display that isn’t part of the standard sf furniture doesn’t really look all that advanced either. But these are just quibbles. Taken on its own terms, this is a tight, fun, enjoyable little story. Ideal for reading in some stolen moments at work…