Gateways in the Library: The Beast Master by Andre Norton

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most popular writers of “juvenile” science fiction was Andre Norton. We didn’t know much about the author at the time, but we all recognized the work and the themes. Worlds of adventure and mystery, danger and turmoil, exploration and triumph. The settings could be the realm of science fiction, or the magical worlds of fantasy. The protagonists were generally alone or in small numbers, pitted against hostile worlds and shadowy enemies. These books were gateways to adventure, and kept us turning pages, sometimes well past bedtime, with a flashlight under the covers.

I first encountered Andre Norton’s work in Ellington, Connecticut’s Hall Memorial Library. The library was donated to the town by Francis Hall to honor his father and brother, and completed in 1903. It was certainly the grandest building in a bucolic town where the number of dairy cows rivaled that of people, constructed of granite and marble that would not be out of place among the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. My mom would visit every two weeks, especially during the summer. In addition to a couple of books for herself, she would pick up a stack of books she thought would interest me and my brothers. Since we liked science fiction, she made sure that books from Asimov, Del Rey, Nourse, Heinlein, Norton and others were among the pile. And Norton’s works proved to be favorites. My older brother liked the fantasy works, including tales of the Witch World. I liked the science fiction, tales of explorers, traders, soldiers, and archaeologists on far away worlds. And the magical thing about mom’s trips to the library was that every two weeks, we had a new stack of books to choose from.

beastmaster2At the time, I knew little about Andre Norton, and only later learned that the author I thought was a he was, in fact, a she. Born Alice Mary Norton in 1912, she had decided that the world of genre fiction was not ready for someone writing openly as a woman, and in addition to writing as Andre Norton, she wrote as Andrew North and Allen Weston. Eventually, she legally changed her name to Andre Norton. During research for this review, I found it fitting that I encountered her work in a library, because for many years, Norton worked as a librarian herself. She also owned a bookstore for a short time, and worked for Gnome Press, an early SF publisher. Norton’s first SF was published in 1947, and she was prolific during the 1950s and beyond, especially in the juvenile market. Frequent themes and features in her work included very small casts of characters, orphans, abandoned worlds filled with ruins, mysterious alien races, and exploration. Her work was often somewhat dark for the juvenile market, permeated with a palpable sense of jeopardy. Norton proudly claimed Native American ancestry, and her work frequently positive portrayals of Native American characters. She also used unappreciated native beings as an analog for Native Americans and the way they were treated in the American West. By the time of her death in 2005, Norton had become one of the giants in the science fiction field. She was the first woman voted to be a SFWA Grand Master, and the first woman inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. In her honor, SFWA created the Andre Norton Award, which each year recognizes excellence in young adult literature.

The Beast Master was published by Harcourt in 1959. It tells the story of Hosteen Storm, a Navajo and former military commando, who is now a man without a planet. The human race has recently won a war with the alien Xik, but at the cost of losing the planet Earth to an alien attack. For all Storm knows, he is the last of his people in the entire universe, the last who speaks his language, and the loss he feels is palpable. Storm is a Beast Master, a specialist who works with a team of animals—an enhanced, far future version of a modern Military Working Dog handler. He has been trained to develop a telepathic connection to several genetically engineered animals, each of whom has skills that can be used to scout and disrupt enemy activities. One is an African Black Eagle, Baku, who provides not only reconnaissance, but can be fierce in a fight. There are two meercats, Ho and Hing, skilled at infiltration and general mischief. And finally, there is a large panther-like dune cat, Surra, the muscle of the group. Together they make up Sabotage Group Number Four.

beastmaster3For reasons not explained, but probably due to the close and personal bonds he has formed with his team, Storm is allowed to keep the animals after his discharge. He asks to emigrate to the planet Arzor, and while he gives the processing officer the most logical reasons for this choice, he secretly has sworn revenge against a man named Quade who has also emigrated to that world. Arzor is a frontier world, and home to a race of beings called the Norbies, who bear a strong resemblance to humans except for prominent horns that grow from their heads. The human settlers and Norbies have developed treaties, and while there are frictions from time to time, for the most part the two races co-exist comfortably. Technology on Arzor is far behind that of most worlds in the star-spanning human civilization called the Confed, with ranches and herding being a primary industry, and horses being the most common mode of transportation. Storm, with his empathic connection to all animals, even those not on his team, takes to this environment like a duck to water, and soon finds a berth with a local rancher and horse breeder. He is given a horse, who he calls Rain, and Rain quickly becomes a sixth member of his team.

Storm soon forms bonds with some of the settlers, while at the same time clashing with others. He meets the Norbies, who are impressed by the bond he shares with his animals, and he takes quickly to the “finger talk” that the Norbies and humans use to communicate. In particular, he befriends a young Norbie named Gorgol. At the end of the horse drive, he and Gorgol find berths supporting an archeology team using the opportunity presented by the rainy season to travel out past the edge of human settlements, into wastelands that even the Norbies rarely visit. The archaeologist is going out to investigate stories of the “Sealed Caves,” which seem to be relics of a civilization that predates that of both humans and Norbies. Storm has an uneasy encounter with Quade, and while the reader still doesn’t know what fuels his grudge, it’s easy to see that Storm is beginning to doubt his blind hatred. And in the wilds beyond the frontier, the mysteries of the Sealed Cave are revealed, along with the fact that the war with the Xik—despite all appearances to the contrary—has not really ended. I will leave my summary there, as I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who might seek the book out to read themselves.

beastmaster4The themes in The Beast Master are thoroughly compelling, and appealed both to my young self and to my older self upon re-reading decades later. The book has held up extremely well over time, with only a general lack of communications technology dating its contents. Part of this is due to Norton’s habit of giving only enough detail to sketch things out for the reader, leaving it to them to flesh out the particulars. For example, weapons are given simple names that immediately imply how they work: stun rods stun, blasters blast, and slicers slice, with no further exposition required. The lack of detailed descriptions and exposition is refreshing to a modern reader, more familar with books that are often longer, but tend towards being bloated with detail and backstory.

Furthermore, the central concept of the book—the ability to commune and cooperate with animals at even deeper levels than are currently possible—is something everyone who has owned a pet has imagined at one time or another. As previously mentioned, Native American culture has an important place in the book, and was an area of interest to me in my youth—certainly the culture, history, and struggles of Native Americans remain extremely relevant at the current moment. While descriptions of Storm sometimes veer close to romanticized stereotypes that were common in the era in which the book was written, he is always presented in a favorable light, and in the end, he is a well-realized character, and far more than a cliché. The frontier planet Arzor and the human interaction with the Norbies is an interesting analog for the western American frontier, and the theme of cooperation between peoples is still a vital one. The planet also offers many mysteries to explore, with its sealed caves hinting of visits from ancient civilizations, a theme that Norton revisited many times in other books. Moreover, the discovery that the war with the Xik is not quite over offers some exciting action. All in all, The Beast Master is a fast-paced and compelling story, with a depth to it that was often lacking during the pulp era when it was written. There is a lot packed into this relatively short novel.

beastmasterplanetThe Beast Master was a popular book for Norton, and she followed it with a sequel in 1962, Lord of Thunder. In 2005, the two books were packaged by Tor in an omnibus edition, Beast Master’s Planet (a copy of which I used in writing this review). In Norton’s later years, co-author Lyn McConchie completed additional adventures featuring Hosteen Storm: Beast Master’s Ark, Beast Master’s Circus, and Beast Master’s Quest, the last of which appeared after Norton’s death in 2005. The idea of the Beast Master was used as the original premise for a series of movies and a TV show about a man with similar powers to commune with animals, although Norton was reportedly unhappy with the changes they made to the story (including shifting it from an SF to a fantasy setting). And certainly, the idea of bonding with animals as a team has become a lasting trope within the SF field.

After many years away, I returned to the Hall Library a few years ago, to return an overdue library book for my mother, who was no longer good at remembering such tasks. I found it not only in good repair, but with a generous new addition expanding its size, and with a variety of computers and other media supplementing the books. The parking lot was full, and the building busy. There were more than a few young people using the facility. It was good to see the place in good use and not finished with its days of providing gateways to adventure.

And now, I’d like to hear from you. How and when did you first encounter the work of Andre Norton? If you have read it, what are your recollections of The Beast Master? What other works of Andre Norton have you read, and what are your favorites? There are certainly many good ones from which to choose…

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a background in military history and strategy.

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