Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Influences: Andre Norton

1971. A boy, no more than eight, went into Carnegie Library's junior section. He hadn't been in here more than once or twice before. He chooses two books – both science fiction, chosen for the intriguing covers. One is a story of a meeting with aliens by the crew of a space rocket – First Contact, by Hugh Walters. And the other is bright green, with a robot being watched from concealment by an elfin figure. Victory on Janus, by Andre Norton.

I hadn't read anything by Andre Norton before then. Actually, I hadn't read a great deal at all. Victory on Janus was the second part of a two-book sequence (trust me to jump in half way through). It was far stranger, more alien, than the straightforward space adventure I had picked up alongside it. And it intrigued me. I don't think I really understood it, but there was enough action, adventure and tension to capture my attention.

Over the next three years I devoured books. Andre Norton wasn't the only author I loved, but she was among the top half dozen authors, and probably, looking back after forty years, one of the most influential. Star Rangers, The X-Factor, Catseye, Star Guard, Night of Masks, The Beast Master, Lord of Thunder, Sargasso of Space and Postmarked – The Stars. I read and re-read these from the library. And others, too, but that little list of books were critical. Books that told me how a story should be written.

The stories were intended for young adults (so I, still thoroughly pre-teen, was perhaps too young for them – but that never troubled me) – but their heroes were adults. These were not stories about children. But I felt an affinity for Norton's heroes. They were typically outsiders – often almost friendless, feeling alien in the settings they found themselves in. Growing and developing, gaining strength and confidence. Classic coming-of-age stories, but they resonated with me. 

They also involved non-humans alongside the humans, ex-tees (a Norton term for extra-terrestrials that felt natural and real) who weren't automatically the enemy. Often the aliens were the most sympathetic characters for the hero.

Of course, what I notice now as I re-read these is how few female characters appeared. Some novels had no women at all. At the time, that didn't trouble me. Now, it feels wrong, but Norton was writing these books for her market in the fifties and sixties.


As I grew up, I discovered new novels. Dark Piper scared me – the first apocalyptic novel I had read that had any impact on me. Moon of Three Rings was the first that jumped from narrator to narrator, confusing me greatly until I worked out what I was reading. The Zero Stone. Ice Crown. Uncharted Stars. Names to conjure with – but the core stories for me were the ones I read when I was very young. The Solar Queen stories – Sargasso of Space and Postmarked – The Stars were books I read time and again. It wasn't until I was in my late teens I learned there were two other books in the sequence, Plague Ship and Voodoo Planet, which I grabbed urgently. And the Dipple stories – Catseye and Night of Masks. These were books set in the far future, not anywhere akin to Earth, but in worlds that felt real and complete.
In my late teens and early twenties I discovered much more she had written – Witch World, particularly. But it is still those early novels, which I read almost exclusively in the Gollancz hardbacks pictured here, which have stayed with me... and editions of which still grace my shelves now, and which I still re-read with great fondness.

The cover illustrations are all shamelessly stolen from the website of Andre-Norton-Books.com with grateful thanks - I would add that Night of Masks and Sargasso of Space are my copies, scanned and sent to the site to add to their collection of covers.

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