Near the end of Forerunner Foray, we discover that it’s a sort-of-sequel to Ordeal in Otherwhere. It’s not obvious at first, since it begins in a new-to-this-series setting, on the “pleasure world” Korwar, with a new protagonist, Ziantha. Ziantha is classic Norton: an orphan of unknown provenance, scraping a living however she can, with arcane powers whose full extent she’s not yet sure of.
In this case she has been taken in by an alien high up in the Thieves’ Guild, the catlike Yasa, and she’s being trained in psychic powers by another of Yasa’s employees, Ogan. When we first meet her, she’s in the midst of a caper, stealing computer code from a rich aristocrat, using telepathy and psychometry to work the heist.
In the course of her adventure, she is sidetracked by an alien artifact that obsesses her long after she makes a successful escape. Ziantha can’t stop herself; she has to have the small and unprepossessing blob of clay with the irresistible psychic field. She commandeers the help of the alien bird-tentacle-fluff creature Harath, who is a powerful pyschic amplifier, and teleports the artifact out of its owner’s apartment.
This object, which is an ancient, crude, and very worn statuette, turns out to be the container for something even more ancient and in no way crude. The green jewel is a psychic focus and amplifier, and it’s of incalculable value. So much so that Yasa departs Korwar with Ziantha on a quest to find the source of the jewel. Ogan and Harath follow.
Their voyage takes them through a rough and dangerous fringe culture, on a borderline-outlaw trader ship. They find their way to a blasted planet, where through the jewel Ziantha finds what used to be the city of Singakok.
Drama ensues. Ziantha’s consciousness is pulled down through the jewel to the time when Singakok was a living city, into the body of an alien woman, Vintra. Vintra has been entombed alive with the body of her deadly enemy, Turan.
Someone else has followed Ziantha along the stream of time, a male sensitive who occupies Turan’s body. He manages to reanimate it long enough to escape the tomb and fall afoul of palace intrigue led by Turan’s consort Zuha.
The only way either Ziantha or the unknown sensitive can make it back to their own time is by finding the mate to Ziantha’s jewel. That means traveling even further back in time to another city and another alien culture, where the jewels are wielded in pairs, and are called Eyes. They’re used to control wormlike Lurla who produce the exudate from which the city is constructed. In this time even more than in Vintra’s time, the culture is in flux and the city is failing.
Ziantha has to gain control of this second body, that of D’Eyree, get hold of both jewels, apport the missing one physically into Vintra’s time, and then find the jewel where Vintra left it, all the way back in her own time. Along the way, the other sensitive is nearly trapped in Turan’s dead body, and Vintra is walled up in his tomb.
After harrowing adventures and hairbreadth escapes, Ziantha makes it back to her own time, to find herself in even worse danger. Harath helps her find her way to the second sensitive—who turns out to be wearing Patrol uniform.
This is bad. The Patrol is vehemently opposed to rogue psychics, and the Guild is prohibited from using them. Those who are caught are mind-wiped—erased.
Ziantha has no choice but to work with him, but she fights him at every step. Finally he convinces her that he’s not Patrol, he’s a Zacathan agent working with the Patrol to investigate the Forerunner finds on this world. The Zacathans, as I recall from other books in this universe, are sauroid aliens of great longevity and wisdom, but the sensitive is human, and, we find out near the end, he’s the offspring of Shann and Charis from Ordeal in Otherwhere. His name is Ris Lantee, and he’s Wyvern-trained, which means he’s a master of dreams and illusion. He uses these talents to overcome the thieving “Jacks” and rescue Ziantha and the Eyes.
In the end, this being a Norton novel, Ziantha falls in love with him, and he informs her that she’s the most valuable archaeological find the Zacathans have seen in a very long time. She’s bonded to the Eyes, and through them has psychic access to multiple Forerunner cultures.
It’s really interesting to read this sequel immediately after its sequel, and to see how different their worlds are. The first was published in 1964, the second ten years later. In between, Star Trek happened. So did the evolution of science fiction from rocket ships and steely-jawed heroes to the more complex and diverse worlds of Delany and Le Guin and their colleagues (and McCaffrey, too, though she headed off in a different direction).
Norton’s rockets still have fins and are essentially submarines in space. Yasa and Ziantha travel in cold sleep—an archaic means of travel, as Yasa observes, but still an efficient one for getting from one distant world to another.
But the universe they live in has expanded and developed a distinctly raffish tone. Thieves’ Guild, pleasure worlds, pirates and capers. The opening sequence recalls James Bond and any number of Seventies caper films; Ziantha is the spiritual sister of Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, Joan Vinge’s Cat, and Samuel R. Delany’s Rydra Wong. Even while Norton was writing this book, George Lucas was putting together the space-opera universe of Star Wars.
Ordeal is late Golden Age, early Sixties. Forerunner Foray is distinctly of the Seventies. The universe is no longer all male with, at most, a single Strong Female. Ziantha grows up in a house full of females, to such an extent that when she finally meets Ris in the flesh, she hardly knows what to do with herself. A boy! A real boy! Whom she likes!
And such a boy, too. Even more than his father Shann, he’s obviously Black, and Ziantha finds him tremendously attractive. Which at that time was pretty radical—Star Trek’s scandalous interracial kiss was only a handful of years in the past.
In a lot of ways the gender roles are still set in cement. Ziantha does great things and marshals great powers, but she takes the constant role of student, disciple, rescuee. When she has to go off on her own and save the world, she’s timid and tentative; she has to keep telling herself she can do this. Everyone from Yasa and Ogan to Ris and even Harath props her up and tells her what to do.
She never quite evolves past this, in spite of all her accomplishments. Both cultures to which she time-travels are dominated by aggressive males, or else by females who act as consorts for and sexualized opponents to those males. Yasa, who appears to come from more of a female-dominated culture, fizzles away into space at the end, and we never get to see actual interactions among her supposedly female household. All Ziantha’s relationships that are not with Yasa are with males or male-presenting aliens.
Still. We’re a long way from young Shann, who appears to have grown in a vat, and Charis whose entire species appears to consist of males and one mentally ill female. The universe is opening up. It’s getting grittier and it’s hinting at what we now would call diversity.
It’s also doing something that Norton seems to have been a little nervous about, though she firmly commits to it. She takes the unusual step of prefacing the book with an author’s note stating that she believes psychic powers are real, and she did actual research with actual psychics. Her argument seems to be that this is hard science fiction using actual technical terms, such as psychometry and apportation, and extrapolating from the present day to a more advanced future.
That is very Sixties and early Seventies. I’m almost surprised she doesn’t mention psychedelic drugs as a means of enhancing mental powers, though being a straitlaced lady of a certain age, she probably would have been horrified by the thought. She resorts to trigger objects instead–reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover with its psychic jewels. In this universe, psi is real science, and the human mind as at least as powerful a device as a computer. She just barely offers a nod to the latter; her focus is very much elsewhere.
I’ll move on next to Forerunner, which I actually recall reading—I still remember its protagonist. I’m looking forward to traveling through space and time with her again.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.