Exiles of the Stars — Andre Norton

Cover of Exiles of the Stars

Exiles of the Stars
Andre Norton
249 pages
published in 1971

It was clear from the first page that Exiles to the Stars was a sequel and a quick trip to Librarything confirmed that this was a sequel to Moon of Three Rings, which I’ve never read. It’s neither the first nor likely the last time I’ll read a sequel before the original novel and in Norts on’s case, since she wrote before the rise of the epic fantasy series, her novels always tell complete stories, with anything you need to know from earlier books neatly explained. In Exiles of the Stars the things that need explaining are the protagonists, Krip Vorlund and his companion Maelen. Both are not what they seem. Krip outwardly looks like a Thassa, a humanoid alien race, but his midn is human, having taken over the thassa body when his original was destroyed. The same thing happened to Maelen, now inhabiting the form of a glasssa, a small four footed hunting animal where she once had been a woman and priestess on a planet where the priesthood was adept at body switching. All this of course the result of the action from the previous novel.

Their prediciment shows up the important role psi powers and mind control play in Norton’s space opera, as it does here. Many of her heroes either encounter ESP or discover their own talents during their adventures. It can feel a bit old fashioned, on a par with the navigation tapes used to steer the spaceships. But in this case it also shows how large and strange Norton’s universe is, where her heroes are lucky to survive, let alone thriumph. Occasionally in the wrong body.

Exiles of the Stars starts with the Free Trader ship Lydis Krip and Maelen are part of taking on an assignment for the priests of Thoth, a planet in the Amen-Re system. They’re having a spot of bother with a religiously inspired civil war and want to ship their most valuable temple treasures to their colony on Ptah, another planet in the system. That treasure consists of Forerunner relics, Thoth being particularly rich in the spoils left behind by long dead alien civilisations. Things go wrong when they set off on their journey to Ptah and their ship turns out to be sabotaged, forcing them to crashland on Sekmeth, an habitable but uncolonised world in the same system.

Once safely landed on Sekmeth it’s discovered that the ship can’t take off on its own anymore and two people are sent off in the ship’s flitter to the Patrol beacon routinely installed on any explored planet just for situations like this. They keep in contact by radio but suddenly their broadcasts cease. It’s clear that whoever was behind the sabotage of the Lydis may be present on Sekmeth. Therefore the remaining free traders decide to hide their cargo on Sekmeth while also building their own beacon to call the Patrol. Krip and Maelen are sent out to find a suitable hiding place for the treasures and discover an indication that Sekmeth too might have Forerunner remains…

When a Patrol ship in the vicinity answers the Lydis emergency beacon and lands, it seems the worst problems are over, but this hope is shortlived. Coming back from the investigation of the disappeared crew members sent to the Patrol beacon, the whole ship is brought under mental control of an unknown enemy. Only Maeven manages to free herself from this and sets out to find the person or persons responsible. When she finds them, it turns out that there are not just Forerunner relics on Sekmeth, but actual Forerunners, a quartet of humanoids with vast mental powers, who’ve taken over not just the crew of the Lydis but also the Jack gang that had originally disturbed their resting place. Now only Maelen and Krip stand between these Forerunners and whatever their plans are for the galaxy…

There’s a bit of sloppiness in the plotting of this novel, as the sabotage of the Lydis seems to be unrelated to the events on Sekmeth — the villains there had no real need to bring down the ship, already having a Jack gang to do their dirty work and could only draw attention to themselves by doing this. Who was really behind the sabotage is never resolved, nor was the the trouble they had with the priests on Toth.

Norton also used a trick here she also used in Ordeal in Otherwhere, where the protagonist is goes on a journey in a dream or dreamlike state, then later discovers the reality of what they went through. So here Krip escapes from the villain’s base on his own, but when he leads the rest of the crew through it, it looks completely different from his memories. Both Krip and the reader are left wondering what happened.

Exiles to the Stars is so far the only Andre Norton novel I’ve read which has two protagonists rather than one, with chapters from both Krip and Maelen’s point of view. Maelen, a woman of power now locked in the body of an animal is an interesting viewpoint character, different from Norton’s usual young, somewhat naive and ignorant protagonists. An interesting change from her normal format.

Ordeal in Otherwhere — Andre Norton

Cover of Ordeal in Otherwhere

Ordeal in Otherwhere
Andre Norton
203 pages
published in 1964

As I said in my review of Andre Norton’s The Zero Stone, where I’d wondered about its lack of women, what was truly odd was that Ordeal in Otherwhere, published four years before it, had a female protagonist. Which I knew because I was already reading it when I wrote that review, as the second book in my Week of Norton. And whereas The Zero Stone contained no women, Ordeal in Otherwhere is one that easily passes the Bechdel test. Nevertheless, as we will see, it does share some of the same gender assumptions as that other book and indeed, most of Norton’s stories I’ve read so far. They’re a product of the time they were written in after all and so it’s not surprising they confirm to the gender roles of fifty years ago.

Nevertheless, this is a novel in which the standard Norton hero is a young woman rather than a young man, one just as inventive, smart and brave as her male counterparts. Charis Nordholm is a young woman left an orphan when her father died of the White Plague sweeping the new colony on Demeter. Ander Nordholm was the educational officer off the colony and had raised his daughter to be inquisitive and competent, something resented by the religious fanatics in the colony. So they sell her into slavery (have her sign a contract of indefinitive length) to a Free Trader, who in turn sells her on to another trader, who takes her to the planet Warlock. The trader needs her to establish trade with the native inhabitants of Warlock, a matriarchal society called Wyverns, the women of which have strange powers. These only talk to other women, hence the need for Charis, who herself hopes to find a way to contact the Survey station somewhere on Warlock to get herself feed from bondage. Of course, things don’t quite work out that simply…

Before long Charis is transported, kidnapped, lured (?) out of the trading post and into the wilds of Warlock, a restless power driving her on. She has to battle this force as well as the natural dangers of the wilderness, but soon gains an ally in the form of a small, furry, telepathic creature called Tsstu. It soon becomes clear to Charis that her half waking, half sleeping ordeals are a test, a test of her character and abilities, one she has passed as she finds herself with the Wyvern women in their citadel, learning to use the same dream powers they have. By concentrating on her guide, a small disc engraved with a spiral design that serves as a focus for her mind, she becomes able to transport herself to other places at will, as long as she can picture them.

Time passes as in a dream and Charis is content with it, until one day she notices a general sense of unease amongst the Wyverns. It prompts her to get back to the meadow where she first met Tsstu. There she finds evidence of violence and it becomes clear something had happened to the trader that had brought her to Warlock. On impulse she transports herself back to his trading post, only to find it destroyed, with a body lying in the ruins. Before she can look who it is though she’s intercepted by a member of the Survey post established on Warlock, who introduces himself as cadet Shann Lantee. Together they start to investigate what happened to the trading post and when they find a spear, of the type Wyvern men use amongst the rubble, Charis calls one of her friends amongst the Wyvern witches, who takes one look at the situation, banishes Shann and takes Charis back to the Citadel.

For the witches all this is a sign they need to purge their planet from all outsiders and force their men back into their service. Charis, meanwhile is desparate not just for her own safety but that of Shann as well and attempts to convince the witches to let her try another way. The reluctantly agree and set her another test, one she must escape before she can rescue Shann, find the people responsible for the attack and stop them from using the male Wyverns to gain the power of Warlock for themselves.

Charis is a capable, competent protagonist and she doesn’t fade when Shann comes in the story; Norton portrays them as equals each with their own strengths. As with all old timey science fiction authors, she packs a lot of plot into twohundred pages and it all moves at breakneck speed. Ordeal in Otherwhere is not as well written as The Zero Stone though, partially because so much happens. At first this looks like it’s going to be about how Charis wins her freedom, but then the focus switches to her exploration of Warlock under the tutelage of the witches, then it becomes a standard Norton adventure story in which Charis and Shann have to fight off the machinations of an evil trading company. It’s all a bit much, with some plot points dropped halfway through the story.

You do wonder how much of the problems on Warlock could’ve been prevented if the Survey Corps had sent some women to it, rather than men. But of course that’s impossible, as only men seem to work for the Corps… Granted, I am inferring this from the other Norton novels I’ve read, but that seems to be the prevailing attitude in her fifties and sixties works, an unthinking reflection of the gender mores of the time. You can see the same thing at work in the paternalistic attitude paid to the inhabitants of Warlock, who have to be prevented from exploitation by unscrupulous human traders whether they like it or not. The people in the Survey corps are idealistic and well intentioned, but there’s still a whiff of colonialism about their works.

The Zero Stone — Andre Norton

Cover of The Zero Stone

The Zero Stone
Andre Norton
221 pages
published in 1968

You can’t accuse Andre Norton from starting her stories slowly. When The Zero Stone opens, its protagonist, Murdoc Jern is fleeing through a primitive town on an alien planet, barely one step ahead of a mob of religious fanatics wanting to kill him. They already killed his boss when the priests of a local cult indicated the both of them for their next ritual victims, but Murdoc managed to escape. He finally manages to reach the dubious safety of a free trader ship, where his only friend is the ship’s cat, but when it falls pregnant after ingesting a strange stone on the traders’ first stopover and he himself falls ill of a strange plague once the cat gives birth, he learns not only that the trader’s crew plan to abandon him on an airless moon, but also that they had been hired to kidnap him. Luckily for him, the cat’s mutant offspring turns out to be a mysterious and powerful alien intelligence who calls himself Eet and who sets out to save Murdoc from his predicament.

The reason for Murdoc’s continuing bad luck turns out to be the old memento that was the only thing he’d taken from his adopted father’s home, who had been not just a gem trader but also a retired crime Guild boss. This memento is a ring too large to be worn and containing a dull, lifeless stone; it was found on a corpse drifting in space but Murdoc’s father could never find out anything more about it, which is why he called it the zero stone. As you’d expect in a story like this, his son has more success in finding out at least some of the story behind the stone, if only by being dragged behind it in a series of increasingly desparate escapes from danger, aided and abetted by his alien companion.

Escaping from the free trader ship doesn’t get Murdoc out of trouble. First he manages to get to a derelict alien ship, dead for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, which confirms his suspicions that the ring is a Forerunner artifact, something an ancient civilisation left behind long before mankind entered the scene. Then he gets stuck on a forest planet where he finds out he’s just a tool in the struggle between the crime Guild and the Patrol, the first wanting to use the stone to get them to a source of incredible power, the latter wanting to destroy it or at least make sure this doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. The telepathic, highly intelligent and annoyingly mysterious Eet meanwhile, whom the cover actually depicts remarkably well as a sort cross of cat, seal and monkey, says he has the best interests of both himself and Murdoc at heart, but that doesn’t stop him from using Murdoc too.

That relationship between Murdoc and Eet is the heart of the book and it’s a relief to have a telepathic space cat who isn’t incredibly cute and sweet but downright obnoxious and irritated at times. It’s somewhat of a Archie Goodwin/Nero Wolfe relationship, with Eet providing the brain for Murdoc’s brawn. They start out allies but end up sort of reluctant friends, being the only ones each of them can rely upon on.

What’s struck me about Murdoc and indeed about many of Norton’s boy heroes, is how often they are in over their heads, largely ignorant of what’s really going on and basically trying to survive rather than having the fate of the universe in their hands. It makes me wonder how much of influence she had on C. J. Cherryh, who after all specialises in this sort of protagonist and takes great delight in keeping them off balance and on the verge of exhaustion. Like Cherryh, Norton’s heroes are just trying to survive in a vast, ancient and hostile universe, only she’s nicer about it.

The Zero Stone is pure space opera with little hard science in it. It therefore aged remarkably well, some nonsense about navigation tapes notwithstanding. Instead, where it is dated is in its gender assumptions. This is literally a novel without any women in it, or females of any kind other than the ship cat. Not even the aliens are female. This is something that even in 1968, with second wave feminism starting to make noises, must’ve seen natural. No room for women in science fiction; that only distracts. So obvious a fact of life that this absence doesn’t even need to be noted, let alone explained. Half a century on though it stands out like a sore thumb.

From the various novels of her I’ve read it seems that Norton never had much time to include romance in her stories, perhas judging that her young, largely boyish audience would not put up with it. Yet she’s had female protagonists before, e.g. in Ordeal in Otherwhere. It’s therefore not so much malice than that leaves The Zero Stone womanless, rather it was just “natural” for a science fiction adventure story to be a sausagefest.

To sum up The Zero Stone was an enjoyable romp even if the lack of women looks really odd. I liked the universe Norton build and the fact Murdoc was never a superhero, just an ordinary guy caught up in forces beyond his control.

Morlock Night — K. W. Jeter

Cover of Morlock Night

Morlock Night
K. W. Jeter
301 pages
published in 1979

The inside cover calls this “one of the three foundational steampunk texts”, but it’s a steampunk that’s far removed from what modern writers mean by it. Morlock Night is far more anarchic, not so stiffly Victorian Brass ‘N Goggles as its descendants. Originally written as throwaway fiction for a British pulp line which wanted a series of novels about king Arthur reincarnated when England needs him most. Jeter and two of his friends divided the series up between them and Jeter went for a 19th century setting. Why they got American novelists to write them is anybody’s guess, but the end result is a seriously gonzo science fiction novel.

It starts off as a sequel to H. G. Wells The Time Machine, asking a simple question: what happened after the Time Traveller went back to the time of the Eloi and Morlocks after he had told his story? One Edwin Hocker –and what a moniker for any author to saddle his protagonist with –, one of the guests at the evening Wells immortalised is about to find out as he’s accosted by a strange man on his way home who drags him, very much against his will, into an adventure even stranger than that of the original Time Traveller, as he’s needed to save England from a Morlock invasion.

So far, so predictable. But things take a turn for the stranger quickly. That pale man that recruited Hocker is none other than Merlin, behind the Morlock menace is his old enemy, while king Arthur has been reincarnated but is in no position to do anything about it. What’s at stake is no less than the very existence of the universe and worse, Christendom and England.

Of course Hocker, Merlin and Arthur do succeed is stopping this menace, but not before e.g. having to traverse the London sewers and ending up in an deep underground community, in the same place where all the treasures lost in London end up, an outpost of ancient Atlantis.

So yeah, Jeter throws a lot of ideas in the air, some of which were less played out in 1979 than they would be now and just lets the plot rollick around with enough momentum that you don’t go “hang on, what just happened” until after you put the book down. It’s a terrific and fun read, something I zipped through in an afternoon. However, it did make me slightly uncomfortable in its politics.

It’s done tongue in cheek, yes, but Jeter does have his heroes share the xenophobic little Englander views of the world of your average self satisfied Victorian Englishman, with the Morlocks described in distinctively racial terms as subhuman brutes with no redeeming feature to them. Granted, this was also present in the original Wells novel, considering that the whole Morlock/Eloi section of that book was basically the educated middle class Victorian social democrat man’s nightmare about the coming rule of the proletariat, but Jeter went further because he makes it more explicit. And of course he was writing roughly a century later and might have known better.

Where this a serious book rather than a romp this racism would make this into a wallbanger — as I’d throw it against the wall. But because this is a tongue in cheek adventure romp it can be overlooked, though I do think you should always point these things out. It’s after all in the unconscious or conscious use of these sort of racist tropes that they get perpetuated.

But we shouldn’t take this too seriously, cause Jeter certainly didn’t. Treat it as the gonzo adventure it is, don’t think too hard about the consequences of its politics and see this as the historical novel this is, one of the starting points of steampunk, even if it perhaps was a dead end.

The Steerswoman — Rosemary Kirstein

Cover of The Steerswoman

The Steerswoman
Rosemary Kirstein
279 pages
published in 1989

As long as I’ve been online and talking to other fans I’ve been hearing about The Steerswoman, how it’s one of those great lost books of science fiction and how sad it was that it had fallen out of print, how everybody who read it loved it; I never heard anybody say anything bad about it. Now, finally, after twenty years of hearing this I had the chance to judge for myself and you know what? Everybody was right. And if you want the chance to see for yourself why this book is so highly rated, the ebook is very reasonably priced.

But reading The Steerswoman, after having heard so much about, brings on a strange tension. As with any such book, you come into it with a certain knowledge about it, an expectation about how the plot would roughly develop, somewhat of an idea of the central gimmick of the novel, of what makes it special. It makes me wonder how I would’ve read The Steerswoman had I stumbled over it in 1989, before I had that knowledge. So erm, for any reader who doesn’t know about it, do me a favour and read it before you read the rest of this post and tell me what you think? Don’t read on, just go out and buy it from the link above.

The Steerswoman starts out as any ordinary fantasy novel, with a map in the front and the story opening with our protagonist Rowan, the titular steerswoman, sitting in the common room of an inn talking to the innkeeper about a mysterious blue jewel he found some years ago. Steerswomen, as well as the occasional steerman, are people dedicated to curiosity, asking questions of everyone and having a duty to answering anybody else’s questions in turn. Not answering a steerswoman’s questions is taboo and can have you banned from asking any steerswoman at all. Meanwhile in one noisy corner of the common room a band of Outskirters — nomadic goat herders and occassional raiders living on the outskirts of the settled regions of the world — are telling stories as Rowan is examining the jewels, when she notices the storyteller, a woman called Bel, wearing a silver belt worked with the same kind of jewels.

Rowan talks to Bel and ask her where these jewels were found and in her short conservation with the direct, open and clearly intelligent barbarian comes to like her enough not to hesitate when Bel proposes to travel together back to Rowan’s home, the Archives of the Steerswomen order. Only a day out from the inn however they’re attacked by one of the Red soldiers who’d also been at the inn the previous day, an ambush Rowan likely wouldn’t have survived without Bel. A few days later, the inn they’re staying in at the harbour town from which they’ll take passage for the next leg of their journey is attacked by dragons, which is something that happens but not normally in the middle of town. Rowan isn’t slow to draw the conclusion that somebody is after them, or her and the cause is likely to be the strange blue jewels she had become fascinated by.

She also has a likely subject for who might be behind the attacks, as their first assailant was in the employ of a Wizard of the Red. Wizards are incredibly powerful people, whose powers and spells help both protect from oh say, dragon attacks and keeps them above and beyond the law. Between them and the steerswomen there’s always been a wary sort of understanding, but clearly those jewels are important enough to break this truce. But is it the jewels themselves or is it their origin? As far as Rowan can tell from knowning where they were found, it’s as if some enormous giant had flung them halfway across the world…

Clearly there’s something important about those jewels and to find out what, it’s equally clear Rowan will have to resort to something any steerswoman abhors: subterfuge. In disguise she and Bel will try and get to the largest sources of the stones in the Outskirts and it’s while journeying to this that they meet up with Will, a young man hoping to apprentice with a wizard. A young man clever enough to have invented a magic powder on his own, a power packed with spells that are released if fire is introduced to it…

That’s not the first hint that the world of The Steerswoman isn’t quite the medievaloid fantasy world it first looks like, but it is the most blatant up till then. The blue jewels themselves, always set in some metal fitting seem remarkably like some sort of circuitry, while some of the hints about the nature of the world itself suggests a conflict between a clearly terrestrial ecology and something more …alien… shall we say?

Not to mention the Guidestars, two satellites that orbit the world and from which travellers get their bearings. Is something that useful truly a natural phenomenon or is it something more artificial?

Of course to Rowan and Bel these things are either part of the natural order of the world, only suggestive to the reader, or some form of magic, but not a static, incomprehensible magic. Neither may understand themselves how this magic works, but it is clear that the wizards do, to a certain extent, while as a reader it’s clear that some of this magic is something else entirely, recognisable from real life or, well, science fiction.

Now the question for me personally is, all those hints Kirstein has woved so skillfully into the story, would I have found them without the foreknowledge I’ve gotten from two decades of people talking to me about it? How much would’ve I found on my own? I genuinely don’t know, nor does it matter much. I’m sure I would’ve picked up something, especially after the introduction of William, but in any case I would’ve enjoyed a great story.

One of the highlights of that story being the relationship between Rowan and Bel, two very different woman, one a scholar, the other a warrior, who built up an intense friendship, the sort of friendship between women that’s a rarity to see portrayed in science fiction or fantasy. There either isn’t the second woman, somebody close to the protagonist, to form that friendship with, or it would be a romantic relationship. Nothing wrong with the latter of course, but it’s nice to see a true, non-romantic friendship too.

The Steerswoman is a wonderful novel and I can see why it’s such a favourite of so many people, a comfort read even. Rosemary Kirstein has an accomplished voice and her writing settles over you like a warm cloak in those opening scenes, setting you at ease before she puts the knife in. It’s not entirely perfect, there’s a torture scene I could’ve done without, but on the whole this was a novel I couldn’t stop reading while not wanting it to end either.