Book review: “Judgment on Janus” by Andre Norton

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Book review: “Judgment on Janus” by Andre Norton

Naill Renfro has the Green Sick and has been exiled into the great, dark forest.  He awakens from a fever dream and drags himself to a nearby pool for a drink.  Instead, he makes a shocking discovery when he looks in the water.  

“No!” that denial was torn out of him in a word half a moan.  Naill drove his fist at the surface of the pool, to break that lying mirror, to blot out the thing it reported. 

Yet, even as he denies what his eyes see, his fingers force him to accept what has happened:

Naill’s hands went to his head for a second touch — exploration, to verify the reflection.  Hairless head — ears larger than human, with the upper tips sharply pointed and rising well above the top line of his skull.

And — he held his shaking hands out before him, forcing his eyes wide open for that study — his skin, which should have been an even brown, was now green!…It was true — he was green!

Great changes

Even before this scene occurs five chapters into Judgement on Janus, Andre Norton’s 1963 science fiction novel, Naill has already undergone great changes.

Born in space, the son of a Free Trader killed in the intergalactic wars, Naill and his mother were shunted as refugees to the planet Korwar, a pleasure planet with a slum called the Dipple, supplying low-cost workers.  (The Dipple, for displaced persons, is a setting for four other Norton novels: Catseye, Night of the Masks, Forerunner Foray, and Victory on Janus, the sequel to Judgment on Janus.)

As Judgment on Janus opens, Naill’s mother is dying, and, in order to ease her death, the son buys an hallucinogenic that will keep her reliving the happy past until the end.  To do so, though, he has sold himself into labor slavery and has to ship out immediately.

When he awakens from the deep sleep of the trip, he finds himself on Janus, a planet that has been bought by the Sky People for their particular sort of religious-based farms, known as garths.  It’s back-breaking work, involving the cutting down of the edge of the great forest which members of the sect see as a scary place with green “monsters.”

On a work party, Naill finds a beautiful artifact, part of a cache of such treasures.  He hides the one he likes and watches while a religious leader destroys the others.  When he goes back to retrieve the artifact, he’s caught by the garth farmers. 

Initially locked up, he is thrown into the forest when it’s discovered he has the Green Sick.

The twist

Judgment of Janus has a twist that makes it one of Norton’s best novels.

Naill is changed by the Green Sick in drastic ways.  Not only is his body transformed into an alien shape, but he also finds that his mind is filled with memories of a long-ago Iftcan warrior named Ayyar.  Somehow, the beautiful artifact has brought about the physical transformation — and also made him, in some way, Ayyar.

Here, though, is the twist.

Naill isn’t changed from one human person to another Iftcan person.  Norton’s brilliant imagination is that he is both — both human and Iftcan, able to get access in jagged ways to the memories and knowledge of both.

It’s a metaphor of the very human experience of growing up in one environment and finding a life in another.  It very much mirrors the experience of immigrants throughout history.

Norton stresses this throughout the book, calling her character Naill when he is acting in a human manner and calling him Ayyar when he is acting in an Iftcan manner.

For speculative fiction, this is a neat turn, this internal dance of the familiar human and strange alien that brings about a new person

Another twist

There’s another, though smaller, twist in the novel that sets it apart from the vast majority of those a half century ago.

After some days of getting used to his double-personality, Naill discovers another human who has gotten the Green Sick and undergone a similar transformation — Ashla Himmer, the daughter of one of the garth-holders.

At first, she fears the green-skinned Naill.  He works to get her to tap into her new/old Iftcan inheritance and her memories of the forest.

“The forest — but I am not Ashla.”  Again that note of firmness, of decision.  “I am Illylle — Illylle!” Some of the confidence trailed away.

“Illylle,” Naill repeated.  “And I am Ayyar — of the Iftin.”

And — here’s the second twist — Illylle is not just another Iftcan, but a priestess of high status and power. Indeed, Naill comes soon to realize that “the leadership of their small party was passing from him to her.”

A woman — a girl, really, in her teens or a young adult — leading men is an unusual plot element in mid-20th century science fiction, and it’s a welcome change, especially from the present-day perspective.

Against That Which Abides

Even when a few other male humans-turned-Iftcan are found, Illylle continues to be an important decision-maker.

And, as the novel comes to its end, the action that saves this small contingent of double-personalitied people is taken by Illylle.

Her power is strong enough to go up against That Which Abides, a murky, toxic power that seeks to control the planet — and win.

But not completely.

That story Norton would take up three years later in Victory on Janus.

Patrick T. Reardon

9.30.19

1 Comment

  1. […] Norton’s previous book Judgment on Janus details, Naill and Ashla, who lived on different farms, called garths, found beautiful artifacts of […]

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