a review by Rich Horton
It seems like a good time to highlight another of the SFWA Grand Masters who wrote Ace Doubles. In fact, despite their somewhat déclassé image, quite a few Grand Masters published at least one Ace Double. I suspect the list is complete now -- I don't think anyone else who wrote an Ace Double will be named Grand Master. (Those that did write Ace Doubles are, if memory serves, Jack Williamson, Clifford Simak, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey, Damon Knight, A. E. Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Brian W. Aldiss, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, James Gunn, and Samuel R. Delany. Corrections welcome, mind you! I recall reviewing a Van Vogt Ace Double some long time ago, and noting that at that time I had reviewed all the Grand Masters who wrote an Ace Double -- but as you can see, there were nine more still to come!)
Andre Norton (who was born in 1912 as Alice Mary Norton, but eventually legally changed her first name to Andre), was one of the greatest and most prolific of SF writers for Young Adults (or Juveniles, ad the category was called when she broke in). She began writing in the 1930s, while she was working as a librarian in Cleveland. Her first books were not SF, but she turned to the genre with a story in Fantasy Book (the same magazine that first published "Cordwainer Smith") in 1947; and her first fantasy novel was Huon of the Horn in 1951. (I remember reading that with much enjoyment when I was 10 or 12.) Her first Science Fiction novel, Star Man's Son, appeared in 1952. At this time she was working for Martin Greenberg's pioneering publishing firm Gnome Press. She also edited a few anthologies. But mostly she published novels (and relatively little short fiction), typically in hard covers for the Juvenile market, followed often by a paperback reprint, usually from Ace, marketed for adults. Norton had health problems from early in her life, and sometime in the 1970s she slowed her writing schedule, with much of her later work published with collaborators. She was named a Grand Master in 1984, and she died in 2005, after which SFWA named its award for Best SF/F YA book after her.
A few of Norton's books were among the earliest SF I read (besides Huon of the Horn, I recall The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars with particular fondness). That said, I didn't pay much attention to her once I was reading contemporary adult SF beginning in the mid-70s -- after all, she wrote for kids! But eventually I realized that her books were certainly worth reading for adults as well, and I've read quite a few of her books over the years, including some of the late collaborations (my favorites of these were written with Sherwood Smith).
Norton was not a great writer. Her characterization was limited. There was no real interest in interpersonal relationships in her books -- no love stories (at least in the earlier ones). But her prose, while not at all flashy, was quite solid, with occasional really nice images. Her plots and her SFnal ideas were not original, but they were well-constructed, and the ideas often evocative; and she wrote action quite well. She was also, at least for the first few decades of her career, very consistent.
A couple more personal stories. My wife's older brother told me once of a book he had read as a kid, until their Dad took it away from him (I guess he didn't approve of that sci fi trash!) He described the cover, and I recognized it right away as that of the Ace edition of Daybreak 2250 A. D., which was Don Wollheim's retitling of her first SF novel, Star Man's Son. I found a copy in a used book store and gave it to my brother-in-law, who was astonished. That was pretty gratifying. Also, an Andre Norton book might be the most valuable book I own -- I found a signed first edition of Lord of Thunder (1962), in mint condition, at an antique shop in Carthage, MO (NOT the setting of Gone Girl!), for $12.50. Unsigned copies are offered for $300 on Abebooks (which of course doesn't mean they'll really sell for that). (The fact that that might be the most valuable book I own tells you that I don't really have many particularly rare books!)
Well, that's an awful lot without getting to the books at hand. Sea Siege was first published in 1957 by Harcourt, Brace, for the Juvenile market. The 1962 Ace Double is the first paperback edition. (It is one of quite a few Ace Doubles I have seen with covers by "the two Eds": Emshwiller and Valigursky.) It's about 65,000 words, quite long for an Ace Double half.
|(Cover by Ed Valigursky)|
It's a curious novel. It begins with young Griff Gunston, on San Isidore, a Caribbean Island. He's frustrated because he's stuck there with his Dad, an ichthyologist studying a mysterious new Red Plague that is killing fish. Griff wants to be in the Air Force, or something. But odd things are happening -- ships are disappearing, octopuses are acting very strangely, and there are rumors of sea monsters. Further complications arise from the U. S. Navy, which is rapidly building a new installation on the island. And the locals are getting a bit restless, including performing some voodoo-like rituals.
Then a true sea monster is found beached. It seems to resemble a plesiosaur. And there are even more dangerous things in the water -- perhaps even extra large, intelligent, octopuses. Griff and his father make a dangerous dive, and are threatened by a denizen of the sea ... and Dr. Dunston is poisoned and rushed to the mainland.
All seems set for the resolution of a mystery about suddenly changed sea creatures, etc. Then, suddenly, a nuclear exchange happens. The island is completely isolated -- radio signals from the mainland are lost. The second half of the book concerns the desperate attempts of the island residents, the Navy folks, and Griff Gunston to survive. Their situation is complicated extremely by the presence of hostile sea creatures all around, so that they cannot venture into the ocean. These creatures include intelligent octopuses (I should add that Norton pluralizes octopus "octopi", which I have been taught is incorrect) riding and controlling plesiosaurs. Huge octopi, too!
The novel proceeds, then, to a curiously unresolved ending. We never learn, for instance, the fate of Griff's father (though perhaps we should assume the worst). The islander, the Navy folks, and some rescued Russians come to a bit of an accomodation between themselves, and vow to defeat the octopus blockade -- but we are left with just that vow (and some small successes) -- no real hint at the ultimate future.
It didn't really work for me. The broken backed structure bothered me; and the various SFnal mysteries -- and cool notions -- were terribly underdeveloped. And Griff is a pretty bland main character. Definitely one of her weaker books.
|(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)|
To start on the negative side -- the book is outrageously colonialist. To the point almost of parody. I was reminded of Jack Vance's The Gray Prince (aka "The Domains of Koryphon") (and so was James Nicoll, I found when I looked for review on the web). Like Vance, Norton stacks the deck -- and tells the story from one side only -- so that the colonizers (not just humans, but, I guess, members of the "Confederation") are clearly in the right, against the treacherous -- and also very smelly! -- crocodile-like locals. So -- that's all hard to buy. Besides that, as I note, the book is short, and ends on a somewhat unfinished note.
But ... on its terms, as I said, it's really pretty good. It's told at a breakneck pace, and it's very exciting. Norton really could write action pretty well. It opens with young Rees Naper, stuck on Ishkur with his stupid Uncle Milo. (His father is missing, presumed dead, and Rees has not been able to follow his father's footsteps into the Patrol.) Uncle Milo is, in Rees' view, a muddle-headed fool, convinced that the natives are unthreatening, and that the Patrol's concerns over their restlessness, and their concomitant evacuation orders, are wrongheaded. Rees returns to their compound, only to find Milo and their guests Mr. and Mrs. Beltz brutally murdered -- along with their dog. Rees takes the Beltz' young son Gordy and immediately sets out in a "Roller" to try to get to another, presumably safer, compound. On the way he rescues a young Salarikan girl (the Salarikan's are catlike aliens), whose family has also been butchered by the Ishkurians. Soon they happen across the Salarikan's mother, a person of very high status.
The four of them continue toward their destination, chased by a band of Ishkurians. They are also menaced by young Gordy, who has been brainwashed by his parents to think the natives are nice people. (Can you believe it? -- he thinks the slang term "Crocs" is offensive!) There are a couple of close shaves on the way, and a desperate final confrontation -- followed by an interesting offer from the Salarikan woman to Rees.
Alas, we never know the final result, though I assume they escape the planet and Rees joins the Salarikan woman's commercial concern -- I admit I'd like to see stories of them working together. But I don't think Norton wrote any such.
Bottom line is, if you can stomach or ignore the colonialist attitudes, this is a pretty cool adventure novella. There were good reasons Andre Norton was as successful as she was, and this shows some of them.