Andre Norton, aka Alice Mary Norton (1912 to 2005). Science fiction writer and Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. My high school’s library had many of her books – she initially defined herself as a writer of ‘juvenile fiction,’ back in the 40s and 50s – and I devoured them, sometimes two or three in a day. Then I left school, went to university, got on with a myriad other things (and authors) and forgot all about her until I added the invaluable Stanza e-book app to my iPhone and discovered that a number of her texts had passed out of copyright and were available on Project Gutenburg, one of my favourite websites.
So I downloaded half a dozen or so and read them and suddenly found myself keeping company with my 15 or 16 year old self. And I’m just as much a sucker for an inventive, star-spanning, rollicking good yarn now as I was then.
So what happens?
I wouldn’t say that there was a formula to a good Norton novel but there’s generally a protagonist who, whether adult or teenager, has some kind of growing up to do. All her novels feature some form of rite of passage. There’s usually a strong environmental theme or engagement with the wild, either literally in the form of the wild oceans the heroes of Key Out Of Time find themselves adrift upon, or the symbolised by the wolverines who accompany Shann in Storm Over Warlock.
There are also aliens, frequently very convincing aliens. In both the aforementioned books, the dominant gender in the alien races encountered are is female, with males either non-existence or powerless and firmly kept off-stage. Critics might complain (with some justification) that witchy female aliens and action-oriented male humans reflect rather stereotypical gender attributes but there’s no doubting the power of her extra-terrestrials. It’s heady stuff.
Why on earth would I want to read her?
Her books are fun! And they’re also very well-written, in that economical, efficient prose that the best writers of 50s hard SF had down. The ideas flow, plots accelerate and pages fly by. There’s plenty of action to be had but some of the best (like Plague Ship) demand that their characters find non-violent means to solve their problems and grow up, whether through guile, science, negotiation or tough choices. As with Heinlein’s ‘juvenile’ classics like Starship Troopers or the charming Star Beast, there’s a didactic undertow but never at the expense of the story
So these are children’s books?
Look, I think after Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and the rest, we’ve pretty much established that there are good books and bad books and that the ostensibly targeted age group is by and large irrelevant. Good writers ultimately balance pleasing themselves with pleasing their audience. Norton loved to write and it shows.
And where next?
Off to Project Gutenburg, of course, and search on Andre Norton. Start with the ones I’ve mentioned then dig around for copies of the Witch World series. Her official site is here. She deserves as much of a cult as is belatedly gathering around the wonderful Diane Wynne Jones and I’m happy to do my bit.