The Defiant Agents — Andre Norton

Cover of The Defiant Agents

The Defiant Agents
Andre Norton
222 pages
published in 1962

The danger with relying on Project Gutenberg for your reading is that you end up missing things, like in this case, where the first novel in a series, The Time Traders was available, but the sequel wasn’t and I only noticed once I had started to read this, the third in the series. Luckily the first chapter is all setup and infodumping, explaining how in Galactic Derelict time travel led to the discovery of a fully functioning alien spaceship, from the same aliens as see in the first novel and that in turn led to a warehouse full of navigation tapes. Those tapes were divided by lot ver various countries, including Soviet Russia and of course with the Cold War raging between the West and the USSR, spying is rife. As The Defiant Agents opens, one Soviet plant has manages to get his hands on the navigation tape for one of the most promising planets the west has in its possession, which means a crash expedition has to be launched to colonise it before the Russians do.

That crash expedition becomes literal when it turns out the Soviets are already there and have hunter/killer satellites in orbit, shooting down the expedition’s spaceship. Thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of skill the ship, though damaged, still manages to crash land on Topaz in such a way that their enemies think they’re dead. With the crew dead, the colonists, now less than forty, all volunteers from an Apache tribe, have to build a new home on a world with not just hostile nature to contend with, but also hostile humans as the Soviets who have poached the planet are still there. And it’s up to Travis Fox, once Time Travel Agent, to guide his people.

The reason why Apaches were chosen as colonists is because they, like the other groups of volunteers, had “a high survival rating in the past” and they were suited to the climate of Topaz; the other groups mentioned being “Eskimos from Point Barren” (sic) and Islanders. As with so much Golden Age science fiction, you never quite get the feeling the planet much more than stage dressing, certainly not an idea that planets are huge and don’t really have a uniform climate as such.

As Fox explores Topaz and the Apaches get settled, he runs into the Soviet colonists, which turns out to be Mongols who unlike the Apaches are held prisoner through the use of mind control machines. Like the Apaches, those Mongols had been subjected to Redax training, which leads them to live the lives of their ancestors while crossing space from Earth to Topaz, leaving most confused about which life is real, that of the Russia they barely remember or that of the Golden Horde. In either case, their will to escape the Soviet mindcontrol is great and it’s one such escapee, Kaydessa, that Fox runs into as she tries to flee into the mountains that would shield her from the mind control rays. Through a series of adventures Fox’s Apaches and Kaydessa’s Mongols of the Golden Horde team and overthrow the Soviet dictators and set out to lead a new and free life on an alien planet.

So yeah, there’s no denying that The Defiant Agents, like the whole Time Traders series is a product of its time, of the fifties-early sixties Cold War period. The Russian baddies are pure evil with no redeeming features and there’s that consistent paranoia about their technical abilities, far beyond those of the American heroes, who have to counter with pluck and moxie. Not surprising as this was written in the shadow of Sputnik, when the Soviet mastery of the space race seemed to prove the superiority of their system. Reading from a post-Cold War point of view this seems naive, but of course we know a lot more about the realities of Soviet Russia than could’ve been known to Norton at the time.

Far more importantly is that this is a novel where, save for the talking heads in chapter one, all the major characters are people of colour, either native Americans or Mongols, with only the Russian baddies being white and those mainly exists as obstacles. Even now this is rare in science fiction, let alone in 1962. Robert Heinlein has gotten a lot of credit over the years by making Rico out of Starship Troopers Philipino as well as hinting that Rod out of Tunnel in the Sky is black, but he never wrote a novel as upfront about having characters of colour as this one.

Mind you, the portrayal of the Apaches and Mongols both, while clearly intended to be respectful, is probably somewhat on the cliched side. I’m not too familiar with Apache culture but it reminded me here of the better sort of western movie.

One recurring Norton theme, that of the bond between telepathic animal and human, is also present here, with Fox having a telepathic bond with a pair of coyotes specially bred for this. Interestingly, Norton explains their powers by making them the descendants of coyotes living in White Sands, which is of course where the US had its first atomic tests…

Victory on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of victory on Janus

Victory on Janus
Andre Norton
190 pages
published in 1966

In Judgement on Janus we met Naill Renfro, forced labourer on the planet Janus who through handling a carefully planted treasure trap is transformed into one of the Iftin, the green skinned ancient and long dead native race of forest dwellers that lived there thousands of years before humanity came to the planet. With it came the memories of Ayyar, a warrior scout from the last days of the Iftin. Having found other changelings Naill-Ayyar made it to the safety of one of the dead tree-cities of the Iftin, there to hibernate through winter.

But their slumber is interrupted by a new menace. The human settlers of Janus, dour religious people calling themselves garthmen had been waging a war against the unending forest of Janus for as long as they’d been there, but now it had entered a new pitch. No longer a struggle by individual garthmen to hew out a living from the forest, the whole planet had united and was now waging a mechanised war on it. This wasn’t about making land fit for farming, this was pure destruction, a war fought as Ayyar finds out, to protect against attacks from the green skinned devils coming out of the forest to attack and destroy holdings. Yet as far as they know, the small band Ayyar is part of are the only Iftin left on the planet, so where are these new ones coming from?

It soon turns out it’s the work of the Iftin’s old enemy THAT, an ancient evil that Ayyar remembers fighting in the last days of Iftin rule of Janus. That evil, bound to a wasteland of its own making, has woken up again as the changelings moved into the forest. Now it’s broadcasting its persuasion rays all over Janus, drawing in men and machines on the planet to form an army, an army gathered together for some purpose, but what? To find out Ayyar has to penetrate the heart of the THAT’s stronghold, face the various dangers on the way as well as those that await him inside.

Victory on Janus therefore looks a lot like a fantasy quest story, but as Naill-Ayyar comes closer to his goal, it takes a turn for the Lovecraftian. As Norton slowly drops the clues to the real nature of THAT, I couldn’t help but get a twisted sort of sense of wonder at the scale of time and power revealed, similar to that you get from some of Lovecraft’s cosmic revelations. THAT is no fantasy evil, but technology twisted to an intent unclear to its opponents, operating with neither anger nor hatred towards its victims, just grim purpose. What’s more, Norton leaves the possibility open that IT is in fact only evil in the eyes of the Iftin, that their revulsion of the strange, of the intruders on their planet is perhaps more xenophobic than it seems at first.

Though Norton knows better than to completely reveal it, it is clear that the history of Janus and the Iftin isn’t quite what it seemed at first, but longer and stranger than the incomplete memories of the changelings indicate, with THAT at the heart of it, existing for as long if not longer.

Victory on Janus is the first Norton novel that triggered in me the sense of cosmic awe that’s at the heart of science fiction, or at least one view of it. She usually keeps that sense of scale and age in the background, while the stories she shows play out on a more human scale. Here though that awe is at the centre of the story, with Ayyar only a pawn in a game of godlike intelligences. It’s a departure for Norton and one I appreciated.

Judgement on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of Judgement on Janus

Judgement on Janus
Andre Norton
188 pages
published in 1963

It’s a miracle: I actually managed to start an Andre Norton series in the right order: Judgement on Janus is the first of a duology, together with Victory on Janus. Another minor miracle is the fact that my copy lasted long enough for me to read it as the cover was flaking off something fierce. Normally Ace paperbacks hold up better. This is actually one of the first Norton novels I’d bought, years ago, but had never read so far.

Naill Renfro is a young man who, caught up in the slums of the Dipple, sells himself as indentured labour (just like Charis Nordholm) in order to have enough money to give his mother a dignified death. He ends up on the planet Janus, where dour religious fanatics fight a never ending battle against the primeval forests covering the planet. These forests they consider a source of evil, as they do many things, especially the alien relics or treasures occassionally found. These are supposed to be reported and destroyed immediately. Those who don’t report it and try to keep them for themselves are punished by god with the green sick and left in the forest to die. Three guesses what happens to Naill.

Yes, he discovers an alien treasure, tries to keep part of it for himself, is caught and indeed gets the disease. Left alone to die he wakes up with his skin turned green, his ears pointed, hairless and with eyes blinded by sunlight but thriving in the dark. Oh, and he now also has the confused memories of an alien warrior called Ayyar. To Naill-Ayyar the forest is now no longer something to be feared, but a living home, while the garth men trying to tame and destroy are even more repulsive.

Naill struggles to come to grip with his new heritage as he wonders whether his transformation was an unfortunate side effect, or deliberately engineered. If the latter, has the same happened to other victims of the green sickness? As he tries to track down any signs of earlier people transformed into Iftin, he instead runs into a newer victim, a young woman he had observed earlier being more interested in the forest than the average garth. He rescues her from her confinement and discovers that Ashla, reborn with the memories of Illylle, a one time priestess of the Mirror, has just as confused memories as he himself has, but is able to remember more.

She also remembers enough of her previous human life to want to rescue her sister from the holding. That however goes badly wrong and they’re forced to flee into the wastelands where an ancient evil, the ancient enemy that ended the rule of the Iftin thousands of years before human settlers landed, still waits…

The idea of changelings, of humans transformed into aliens, is of course an old idea, found in myths and legends all over the world. Norton’s science fictionalisation of it works well, partially because she’s careful never to explain the technology that made it possible. It’s Clarke’s third law of technology in action: any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indisguisable from magic and here the Terran technology, with its blasters and space suits and rocket ships is dropped into what is arguably a fantasy world. One of the most unsettling scenes in the book is when Naill and Ashla are hunted by a animated spacesuit of an obsolete but recognisable human design.

One recurring theme in Norton’s settings, which comes especially to the fore in Judgement on Janus, is religious fanatics as the enemy and plot driver. We’ve had religious thugs starting the action in The Zero Stone by attacking the protagonist, Charis Nordholm driven away from her home by the hatred of her religious neighbours in Ordeal in Otherwhere and here the hate of the garth for the forest. There’s even the corrupt priesthood in Exiles of the Stars setting that story in motion. Once you see this pattern you can’t unsee it: religious fanatics make a good enemy for Norton, something for her heroes to distinguish themselves from, push against.

Judgement on Janus ends, not so much on a cliffhanger, but with a room for a sequel. That sequel, Victory on Janus would be written three years later and is what I’m currently reading.

Storm over Warlock — Andre Norton

Cover of Storm over Warlock

Storm over Warlock
Andre Norton
192 pages
published in 1960

So I was reading the first page and thought, hmmm, Shann Lantee, I’m sure I’ve read that name before. And yes, it turned out I should’ve read this before I read Ordeal in Otherwhere. It’s a measure of Norton’s writing skill that despite reading these in the exact wrong order, they weren’t spoiled. It helped of course that, unlike in the case of Exiles of the Stars, these were separate stories just set on the same planet; there wasn’t the need to have read this before reading Ordeal in Otherwhere. You do get a few hints that there is a larger backstory, but you get that anyway with Norton. There’s always the sense that her heroes are having their adventures as part of a much larger, largely unknown universe.

In Shann Lantee’s case, his adventure begins when the survey camp on Warlock he’s the most junior member of, is attacked by the Throg and before you can say wild thing, everybody in it is dead, apart from him and the escaped wolverines he set out to catch. Now he’s alone on a hostile planet with an even more hostile occupation force he has to evade to keep safe. He has no plan, nothing else but a will to survive and hopefully get a chance to revenge himself on the alien Throg, until fate intervenes in the shape of Ragnar Thorvald, a giant of the Scout service. Ragnar was away when the camp was attacked and his scout ship runs into an ambush when her returns, which Shann witnesses. They team up and Ragnar has a plan. They need to head to the coast, not the mountains as Shann intended. Why though he cannot or does not want to say.

Until about halfway through the story, this is all about the two of them surviving the dangers of Warlock while keeping out of reach of the Throg, but then things start happening. Having landed on a small island away from the coast Ragnar starts to behave oddly, finally leaving Shann stranded on his own. When he himself starts to sabotage his own attempts to leave, he starts to suspect that some alien intelligence is plotting against him and he sets a trap.

Which is how he makes first contact with the Wyvern, the dream manipulating witch women I already knew from Ordeal in Otherwhere. Here they’re described as reptilian but humanoid women, strange but not repulsive. Most of Norton’s aliens so far have been humanoids, which has never been explained as far as I know, just one of those standard tropes of sixties science fiction.

Shann now has to win the trust of the Wyvern, find out what happened to Ragnar and find a way to drive the Throg off planet and save both himself and Ragnar, as well as the Wyvern. This being a Norton novel, he of course succeeds.

What I liked here was that Shann had his own backstory, of having lived in the slums of another planet and through his own efforts and hard work managing to get a place in the Survey corps. This backstory is mostly hinted at, explained in a few sentences here and there but would be enough to fill another novel. It shows off the width and depth of Norton’s universe, each novel only showing a snapshot of it. Unlike many other writers of the same vintage, you never get the feeling that her planets are just stage settings. They have histories that continue once the story is done.

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 mind 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.