Tag Archives: Andre Norton

534. A Writer Lives for Libraries (3)

Just before I entered high school, the shrinking population of our county caused two school districts to consolidate. They built a new high school and bussed students in from miles away. One room of that new high school was full of empty shelves with boxes of new books sitting on the floor. Since I already knew the English teacher/librarian, and since I was a hard worker (and he wasn’t) I got to empty those boxes and fill those shelves. There is no better way to learn a library than from the ground up.

There were piles of books on science, and I read most of them. There was a copy of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which had just been published. It would have been banned if any of the Baptists had gotten hold of it, but I was probably the only one to read it. That was the book in which Heinlein made sex seem dull. They can’t all be winners.

I graduated from high school, went to college, got married, went into the Navy, and returned to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where I got to use the Regenstein Library. Then I started writing. Wherever we went, my wife got a job at the local library — often in the bookmobile.

I has some success writing but not enough to live on, so I got a credential and made teaching middle school my day job. I kept that day job for twenty-seven years, still writing but with much diminished output. Then I retired and I went back to writing full time.

Once, during that period, the school where I was teaching had a special day in celebration of reading. My teacher friend Crystal invited several of us to talk to her class about our early reading habits.

I went to the local library and found an original copy of Star Man’s Son still on the shelf. It wasn’t the same copy — I was fifteen hundred miles from the library where I started out — but it was the same edition. It probably came off the same press the same week.

Thank God for libraries that never throw anything away. When my turn came, I was able to hold it up and say, “Here is the first book I ever checked out.” Then I could hold up copies of Jandrax and A Fond Farewell to Dying and say, “And here are the books I’ve written, because long ago I learned to love to read.”

Now I live in the foothills of the Sierras and, coincidentally enough, I am once again equidistant from three cities. Each one is a county seat, and each one has a library.

One is the city where I lived for all my teaching years. Its library is in a newer and larger building now, and the books are reasonably up to date. I go there often.

One of the other libraries is old and poor. They have lots of books, but some of them are older than I am. They have a full selection of Buchans, mostly in identical bindings from some original matched set. They have a matched set of Jules Verne, as well, and both sets are battered and worn. As I walk up and down the shelves, I see lots of books that I saw in my first library fifty years ago.

I’m glad to have a library where everything is up to date, but it is also nice to have a place where I can step back into the past, to pick up copies of those books I didn’t have time to read when I first encountered them. Not every good book was written this decade.

Now turn off the computer and go check out a book.

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533. A Writer Lives for Libraries (2)

Readers today are contemptuous of Tom Swift and his kind, and with good reason. I had loved those books up to my first day in the library because they were all I had. They had filled lots of hours with lots of entertainment, and had opened me up to worlds beyond the farm.

Once I had access to libraries, I took home real books, mostly science fiction, and things would never be the same. With my first book, I met a real writer; Andre Norton had something to say, and she said it with grace and style. Ultimately, I would find Heinlein, Zelazny, Dickson, Le Guin, and hundreds of others beyond science fiction. But Norton was the first and she taught me how to write. Almost sixty years later I still hear the echo of her style in my writing.

In full disclosure, the county library I’m talking about was not quite my first library. My class in grade school – all eight of us – were the last to haunt a building that had housed three hundred students before my town shrank. We discovered a disused closet that still held the books that had once been the library, and there I read my first book for adults, Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose.

The county library in Claremore was where my heart and soul lived, but I also had a dalliance with the library in Collinsville. It was an old, small, red brick building donated by Andrew Carnegie. If you have passed through small town America, you’ve probably seen one just like it. Carnegie libraries all look the same.

That was where I discovered one of the great secrets of life: libraries are time machines. I don’t mean that they have books on history. I mean that they never have enough money, so they never throw anything away. In Collinsville in the sixties, the shelves were full of books published during and before World War II. Not only were they about bygone days, the books themselves were actually, physically old. Hundreds of boys, too young to fight, had sat in that library reading the Dave Dawson war books that I now held in my hands twenty years later.

The same actual books. Match that, ebooks!

So I learned to re-read, and to treasure books from eras past. I still read John Buchan regularly, holding my nose at his imperialism and racism.

While digging through the books at home, I found one rare treasure, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, published in 1911. Yes, the taser book, although I couldn’t know that because this was long before tasers were invented.

My grandfather, who lived in Florida and whom I saw only once a year, had read this Tom Swift (Sr.) book fifty years earlier, and he was the one who sent me my first Tom Swift Jr. many years later. Wow!

Libraries are great, but everybody needs to have a stack of books of his own. more on Monday

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

A bit of this was published in very early posts, but it has been completely rewritten.

A writer lives for libraries.

If you want to be a surgeon, there are a hundred textbooks you will have to read. If you want to be a lawyer, the reading list is even longer. If you want to be a novelist, however, you don’t read textbooks, or how-to books. Oh, you can, but beyond the basics, they are worthless.

If you want to be a writer, you have to read whole libraries.

Of course, for a minimal amount of money, you can live on e-books, and know everything about what people think in 2018. If you want a broader education — if you want to know what people were talking about in 1988, or 1908, or 1758, you need libraries.

(The primary exception to this rule is Project Gutenberg, which I recommend without reservations. Check out this, and this, and especially this.)

I didn’t have access to libraries when I grew up. I was born on a faraway planet called Oklahoma in the fifties, on a farm three miles outside the nearest town, and that town was tiny. We had no plumbing at first and the wind blew through the walls in the winter. Don’t get me wrong; I loved life on the farm, and it wasn’t poverty. This was normal life at the edge of the world on the edge of the modern era.

I learned to read from Little Golden Books. They were cheap, available at the local dry goods store (local means twenty miles away), and Dr Seuss wasn’t writing yet. When I was about ten, my grandfather sent me a copy of Tom Swift Jr. and his Outpost in  Space for my birthday. I was instantly hooked.

We lived midway between three towns, which we visited frequently. If you farmed in the fifties, you spent half your time farming and half your time fixing broken machinery. That takes replacement parts, and that means a trip to the John Deere dealer.

Every time we went to town, my great-grandfather would give me a quarter. Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Rick Brant adventure books all cost a dollar each. I bought a book every fourth trip. Looking back, most of these books were terrible, but a few were gems.

When I was about twelve my mother dropped my father off to buy parts, then drove to the other end of town and took me into the county library. I had never seen a library and was barely aware that they existed. I almost fell out of my work boots. It was a big room with tables down one side, and ten double shelves of books down the other.

“Library, where have you been all my life?”

The nice lady librarian typed up a temporary library card and told me I could only have one book the first time. She would be a big part of my life until I left for college and I still remember her face, but I never knew her name.

My mother was waiting, so I quickly picked up a book. It was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, and my fate was sealed. more on Wednesday

Alien Autopsy (1)

Kinnison and Tregonsee well visualized,
with Worsel drawn badly as an alligator.
Interior illustration from a 1941 Astounding.

Raven’s Run concluded Monday, May 22. A new novel, Spirit Deer, will begin in Serial on June 5. Meanwhile, I am scheduled to participate in five panels at Westercon this year. Posts relating to the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?” were presented in Serial last week.

This material is for the second panel “Alien Autopsy: the biology of ET”. Posts for the rest of the panels will be published in A Writing Life.

Take one human being. Count his parts. Now start changing the appearance, number, or configuration of those parts. You might come up with:

A two headed mutant on a century ship.
A seven foot humanoid with curving horns coming out of his forehead.
A human who consists of “four-hundred-odd pounds of rawhide and whalebone”, because his ancestors colonized a high gee planet.

See how easy it is. And that, by the way, was a quiz. All three examples are from major writers of science fiction. Their identities are at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, a little tweak all it takes, and for that you don’t need any help. Anyone could do it, although not everyone does it equally well.

     The first of these three was a monster/villain type, and that was all the critter building required to let him do his job.
     The second was an ersatz Amerindian and everybody knew it. By the way, the term Amerindian was used by anthropologists for a short time before Native American took over, and this author may be the only one to have used it in science fiction. Hint, hint.
     The last human variant was a fairly major character, with an actual personality (albeit a cardboard one) and he looked like he did because he had to, in order to play the role assigned to him.

These are all humans, or the galactic equivalent of human. Sentient beings. HILFs. A HILF is a Highly Intelligent Life Form, a term coined by Ursula Le Guin, which should have replaced sentient being, but never caught on. Sentient actually means “having sensation”, not “having intelligence”. An earthworm is sentient in the dictionary sense, but science fiction speaks its own language.

Non-sentient (in the SF sense) beings can also be created by simple tweaks.

The people of Gorth in Star Gate ride larngs; I’m referring to the original novel by Norton, unrelated to the movie or TV series using the same name. A larng is shaggy, clawed, and has a bad temper, but basically he is just a hairy horse with an attitude. On Arzor — Norton, again, in Beast Master and its sequels — humans have to watch out for yoris (think alligators with a poison gland) while they herd frawns (analog to big-horn sheep) across a landscape suspiciously like the American southwest.

I’m not complaining. Beast Master is one of my favorite Norton novels. There is plenty of intrigue, adventure, battle, and family turmoil. It didn’t need a full scale exercise in critter building. In fact, more imagination devoted to that aspect of the novel would just have slowed things down.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, in Hunters of the Red Moon and its sequel The Survivors,  gave us a mammalian snake, complete with nipples, and a giant hyper-fast weasel. She also gave us some sentient beings — there was the cat-critter and the dinosaur-critter. Again, I am not making fun. These sentients had plenty of individuality and charm, but it came from their cultures, not their body structures.

You might call this the minimalist approach; it’s surprising how often it works. Norton was the master of the technique. Gordon Dickson could paint a whole landscape in twenty words. If you have a story to tell, and that story just requires local color, it’s often best not to waste your efforts and your reader’s time in excessive descriptions of the local flora and fauna.

You can combine the minimalist approach with an occasional zinger that brings you reader up short. Marion Zimmer Bradley did that in The Survivors with the proto-saurian Aratak. In the middle of the action, he gets a pheromone soaked calling card from an enemy proto-saurian and disappears. Weeks later he comes back with a smile on his face, ready to take up the quest where they were when he deserted his companions.

I have read hundreds of stories with minimally different aliens. They were all as good, or bad, as the underlying story allowed. I never felt cheated.

However, if you want to go to the next level, and make your aliens really different, that works too. We’ll look at that tomorrow.     

Click here for next post.

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Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The quiz. The examples were from:

Robert Heinlein, Orphans of the Sky
Andre Norton, the Norbies from Beast Master
E. E. Smith, Galactic Patrol, referring, of course, to Peter vanBuskirk.

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.

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“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

263. Andre Norton’s Beast Master

Not every draft post actually gets posted. I started one a year ago in which I asked “What science fiction or fantasy world would you most like to live in?” That’s not the same as which one do you like to read about. I love the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of them. Or, if I were caught in one, I probably would end up dead.

The question never reached the website, but in the draft I answered, “Arzor”, which is the planet in Andre Norton’s Beast Master novels.

In many ways, The Beast Master is the ultimate early Norton. Many of her protagonists are orphans, and Hosteen Storm is a hyper-orphan. He has lost not only his family, but his whole world. He is haunted not only by painful memories, but by an oath sworn during his childhood. He has to choose between the angers of the past and the promise of the future, and in choosing, eventually finds a new family.

Hosteen begins the novel as a man apart, loyal only to his team of mutated animals, with whom he communicates telepathically. This kind of communication is a trope that Norton has used liberally, at least since 1952 with Star Man’s Son. (Incidentally, the first novel I checked out on my first visit to a library.)

Hosteen, half Navaho, half Sioux, chose to enter the Beast Master Corps, where he was teamed with a dune cat, an African eagle, and a pair of meerkats,. This was decades before Timon brought meerkats to everyone’s attention. They trained together, then spent the Xix war engaged in reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Now Earth has been destroyed, and the team is all that Hosteen has left.

He musters out on Arzor, a frontier planet much like his native Arizona. It is exactly what he would have chosen, but in fact he is impelled to go there in pursuit of revenge on a man he has never met. Hosteen will wrestle with himself throughout the book, torn between his oath and his growing respect and liking for the would-be victim and his son Logan.

Arzor is a transmogrified Arizona, with modernized cowboys on variform horses. Frawns look a lot like bighorn sheep; the yoris is clearly a distant relative of a kimodo dragon; the norbies are really, really tall Indians with horns. If you are inclined to cynicism (as I normally am) this could come across as a crude mashup. I have to fall back on my favorite phrase, “Somehow, Norton makes it work.”

For my taste, the trick is to come just close enough to the familiar, while keeping just the right admixture of the outré. It’s a tricky, narrow path, and nobody does it better than Norton.

When Hosteen first meets the man he has sworn to kill, he turns aside from the confrontation for reasons he does not understand himself. He subsequently becomes involved in an expedition to the Arzorean back country, which postpones his confrontation, but becomes a deadly adventure in itself. He and his team, with the aid of his would-be victim’s son, overcome an old and deadly enemy.

Finally, Hosteen’s oath can no longer ignored . . . but, even though the novel is nearing sixty years old, I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Three years later, Norton wrote Lord of Thunder, a beast master sequel. which was quite good, though not up to the original. Four decades later, she wrote three more in the series in conjunction with Lyn McConchie: Beast Master’s Ark, Beast Master’s Circus, and Beast Master’s Quest. It seems that Norton liked Arzor as well.

The Beastmaster films are unrelated to the original, although the title is ripped off and the animal characters (two ferrets, an eagle and a panther vs. Norton’s two meerkats, an eagle and a dune cat) certainly looks suspicious. Caveat view-or.

262. Andre Norton’s Star Gate

When I say Star Gate, I don’t mean the TV series. I also don’t mean the movie it was based on. I mean the original, from decades earlier, a novel by Andre Norton.

Andre Norton’s Star Gate came out in 1958 but It didn’t make it to any library I frequented. It didn’t enter my life until a decade later when cheap SF and fantasy paperbacks became generally available. Someone has an original edition for sale on the internet for $299, but at that price, I’ll never see the hardback.

Kincar s’Rud is called to the deathbed of the chief and kinsman he expects to succeed, only to find that it is not to be. He is told that he is only half Gorthian. His father was one of the Star Lords from Earth. To avoid bringing a bloody division to his clan, Kincar must leave succession to a hated cousin.

After generations on Gorth, the people of Earth have departed, but Kincar is told that a few remain, preparing to work out a separate destiny. Among these are his half-kinsmen, whom he must join. On his way he examines the few things given him as heritage and finds a Tie, a green stone amulet that is a tie to the three gods who rule his world.

Kincar is awed to be in the presence of Star Lords, and it takes him some time to adapt to their presence. This remnant consists of those who have formed so deep a bond with Gorth that they cannot bear to leave, even though all other Earth men have gone. Despite the good that Earth men have done on Gorth over the years, they eventually became convinced that their presence was warping the culture of the native Gorthians, and that they must, from conscience, depart. The few who did not take the ships out are also planning to leave, but by a different route.

They are pursued by native Gorthians as they try to find a place of temporary refuge, where they can construct a gate which will take them to an alternate Gorth where the native population never evolved; a place where they can remain in the land they love without doing harm. The gate is constructed hurriedly while under attack. All pass through, but Kincar is struck down harshly. The Tie he wears has reacted badly with the off world technology of the gate.

Here is classic Norton, with a medieval culture in conflict with an advanced technological one, and with real magic residing uneasily alongside real science. Star Gate is truly science fiction, but the fantasy touches that made the Witch World novels so appealing are already in place. (Aside: in the first Witch World novel, Simon Tregarth enters that world through a gate, which may be magical or alien technology. Norton never says which, but it’s probably magical, considering where he ends up.)

Kincar and his kinsmen emerge from the gate in a Gorth, but which Gorth? They have to explore to find out, and it quickly becomes obvious that they are not in the one they wanted. In this new Gorth, the Star Lords never departed. Worse, these Star Lords are cruel tyrants who have enslaved the native population.

Kincar’s group decides to delay building another gate to pursue their dream world. Since Star Lords have so tainted this Gorth, they feel obligated to set things right. This brings Kincar into conflict with his evil alternate father and into an alliance with his hunted alternate self.

*****

A decade after I first read Star Gate, I ripped Norton off for one useful bit. On our Earth, if you had an ancestor named David who’s father was named John, he would be David Johnson or David Johnsen or David Jensen or David Johns. On Gorth, he would be David s’John. I liked that so well that I made it the basis for kinship terminology on the World of the Menhir. Thanks, Andre.