A year and a half ago, I read Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings (1966) and described it in a review as one of her best novels.
I liked it so much that I got copies of its three sequels — Exiles of the Stars (1971), Flight in Yiktor (1986) and Dare to Go a-Hunting (1990) — which I read recently.
For a long time, I have tried to figure out why I enjoy reading Norton’s novels. She’s not as good a writer as Robert Heinlein or Edgar Pangborn. Indeed, her characters tend to talk in a stilted, almost fairy-tale like way. “There will be many coming and going — and we shall make us a path through such a gathering to the Faxc entrance — from there it is but a step to the Street of Traders,” says one character in Flight in Yiktor.
Neither is she very inventive in the way of science fiction writers. Her books don’t ponder theoretical speculations or try to figure out the physics of space travel. Almost always in her sci-fi books, her characters are landing on planets where the air is breathable and the gravity just fine.
“Hair to clothe her”
There is no sex in Norton’s books although publishers often slap lurid covers on them, usually having little or nothing to do with the text. (By contrast, Heinlein’s characters were often a randy bunch.)
In the three examples above, the left cover for Exiles of the Stars does have a bit of a connection to the story. However, instead of the slinky, go-go dancer-ish woman that the artist has conceived, Norton describes an ancient alien, held for eons in stasis, this way:
But the fourth was a woman! None of those behind the walls were clothed except for their crowns. And their bodies were flawless, skin to the ideal of beauty held by my species. The woman was such perfection as I had never dreamed could exist in the flesh.
The speaker is Krip Vorlund, a main character of all four Moon Singer books, but it’s not clear how he knows this woman is so perfect since he adds:
From beneath her diadem flowed hair to clothe her almost to her knees.
“My comrade in adventure”
Romance is missing as well. Consider this scene at the end of Exiles of the Stars in which Maelen, the Moon Singer of the series, is talking with Krip about what they should do next.
“Two exiles can find a common life, Krip. And there are stars — a ship can seek them out. I think that our dreams flow together.”
His answer this time came in action, and I found it very good. So did we two who had walked strange ways choose to walk a new one side by side…
I’m pretty sure that means they kissed.
Krip and Maelen travel together through two more books, but Norton steers away from giving any glimpse into their relationship. In Dare We Go a-Hunting, Maelen describes Krip as “my comrade in adventure.”
“The true life of all”
Yet, beyond the physical level, Norton’s four books are about the relationship that Krip and Maelen share, not only with each other but with a wide variety of other humanoids and even animals.
They are able to communicate with each other, to one extent or another, through telepathy. And they work together throughout the four books to stymie the nefarious plots of the bad guys, mainly members of the Thieves Guild, an interstellar version of the Crime Syndicate.
So there are adventures, but the core of Norton’s stories in these four books and in her other science fiction works is the process of coming to grips with the Other and the Self.
The Other can be a threat, such as the Guild or those four ancient aliens in Exiles of the Stars. But the Other can also be a friend. Krip is a Free Trader. Maelen is a Moon Singer. Farree is a hunchback of unknown origin. Other characters are animals of various sorts. But, together, their differences fall aside, and they are a team.
Together, they share “the true life of all.”
Finding our way
But the Other is also the Self.
In these four Moon Singer books, the core of one character’s identity — the consciousness, the Self — is moved from a human body into a wolf-like animal and then into the body of a different sort of human. Another takes a similar journey. A third goes through a surprising metamorphosis.
With these changes — which echo the changes that puberty brings about in teens, particularly the teenage boys who were Norton’s target market — the central question is: Who am I?
In Flight in Yiktor, a prophetess tells Farree: “The time will come when you shall truly know what you are and who. And it will not be an ill time — but a good!”
I think that’s why, as a preteen, I began reading Norton more than half a century ago with her 1952 novel Daybreak — 2250 A.D., a novel about a young man trying to find his way — and his place — in a post-apocalyptic world.
Aren’t we all trying to find our way? Not just as youngsters but throughout our lives?
I think that’s why I still read Norton.
Patrick T. Reardon