Some of the first science fiction books I read were by Andre Norton. That was after I had read Eleanor Cameron‘s Mushroom Planet series, and before I moved on to novels by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
I’m sure I must have read the Time Traders series at some point, though I’m not sure if it’s the one I remember doing a book report on in sixth grade. Part of the assignment was to make something to show the class along with talking about the book, so I made a 3D scene showing a rocket made with aluminum foil and some men holding blasters. For a long time I’ve wondered what book that was, and tried to figure out based on a vague impression of those men having been stranded on an alien planet, finding and exploring abandoned buildings.
I came across the title Galactic Derelict (the second book in the series), and thought that sounded vaguely familiar. So when I discovered our library had the entire four-book series, I decided it was a good time to reread it, and perhaps introduce my son to Andre Norton’s writing also (he likes books about time travel).
It’s strange, going back and reading books I last read when I was younger than my son is now – and that were written when I was a baby or before I was born. Little things – the time agents going back in time as Beaker traders, the name of a character – seem to tickle a very faint sense of recognition, but no more than that. And the stories themselves are so different, in some ways, from the science fiction/fantasy I have read more recently.
The first and fourth books are told from the point of view of Ross Murdock, a young criminal who was recruited for a secret government project as an alternative to prison. The second and third books are told from the point of view of Travis Fox, an Apache who stumbles onto the secret government project and is immediately recruited to be part of it. I suppose there are other series where the narrator changes from book to book, but it’s certainly not the norm.
As for recruiting agents in that manner – I don’t know anything much about secret government projects (if I did, they wouldn’t be secret), but I can’t imagine our government today making such men trusted agents. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they use criminals sometimes, but such “agents” would be tools used for special jobs that required their particular expertise, not full members of the project. And someone with no background in the agency at all, who had seen something he shouldn’t have, would not be taken into full confidence so quickly if at all.
Then there is the lack of “diversity” among members of the project. Agents are chosen in part for their ethnic background, not to meet any quotas or diversity goals, but because they look the part for traveling into a particular time and place in the past. Aside from that, they all seem to be white males.
In the last book, there is a woman on the team, and Ross finds it difficult to get comfortable with the idea of a woman as a partner. She is there not so much as a scientist, however, as for her ability to work well with the dolphins who are also part of the team.
I have no problem with this – I find it somewhat refreshing to read books where political correctness is not a factor. Issues of prejudice (both against women and ethnic minorities) are raised briefly, but they are dealt with on a personal level, not a societal level. There is no sense that certain people have the characteristics they do either because the government agency felt they had to include a diverse group, or because Andre Norton felt she did. The focus is on the story, and not whether a group photo would display a representative cross-section of society.
Even more than the recruitment issues, I have trouble imagining our government today ever using the underhanded techniques depicted in The Defiant Agents. Not that there isn’t a lot of underhanded stuff going on in the government, but most of that has to do with money.
In The Defiant Agents, a group of Apache volunteers is subjected to an experimental technique that regresses them to their “racial memories” so that they can better survive on a primitive world. To begin with, the whole idea of racial memories is largely rejected today – though it makes a useful plot device in science fiction/fantasy writing. But even aside from that, there is the matter of the government using this technique on volunteers without getting their informed consent, and then sending them – unconscious and unknowing – off on a spaceship that may never return.
Such a decision was fought by some of the project leaders, but they were overruled by the felt urgency of not letting the Communists create space colonies before the U.S. does. This is probably one of the biggest disconnects a young person today will find in reading these books. The Cold War was still going on when I was growing up (though I missed the era of air raid drills), but even to me it seems strange to read about the lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to keep the Reds from winning the space race.
I remember the first moon landing, and how long and tedious the hours were between the landing of the lunar module and when the first human actually set foot on the moon. Every last detail of preparation had to be done very carefully, to ensure the astronauts’ safety and their success in carrying out all their tasks. It’s hard to imagine anything making them rush that process, much as I would have liked it was a viewer in my living room over two hundred thousand miles away.
As much as the U.S. wanted to beat the Reds (when did I last hear them called that, outside of fiction?), would the U.S. government really have used a process that had not yet been fully tested, on a group of volunteers who didn’t know the full extent of what they were getting into, just to keep from falling behind? Of course, the fact that they did it to members of an ethnic minority does seem to fit a certain period of our history, though it would make such a decision all the more unthinkable today.
As far as the books themselves, they were enjoyable to read, and so little remembered that it was like reading them for the first time. I still can’t decide whether one of them might have been the one I did my book report on in sixth grade. The rocket I remember making was tall and pointy, like the ones NASA used, while the spaceships in this series are round globes. I think they were in on a desert-like landscape, and while that does match a part of Galactic Derelict, the tubular blasters don’t show up until the following book.
From what I read on wikipedia about Andre Norton, she used similar weapons in a number of her books. And her novels tend to take place in open countryside, often exploring ruins of vanished civilizations. So somewhere out there, maybe I’ll find another Andre Norton book that turns out to be the one I read in sixth grade.