A Little Alien Magic: Andre Norton’s Forerunner

By 1981, readers had a very good idea what to expect of an Andre Norton novel. Forerunner did not disappoint.

It’s all there. The plucky protagonist of unknown origins and unsuspected powers. The character of opposite gender who seems to have everything under control, but really doesn’t. The loyal animal partners. The villainous pursuers. The lengthy quest through an alien landscape. The ruins of unimaginable age and mystery. The mysterious power objects just waiting to be discovered by our characters.

Even a somewhat rarer trope, the magical healing pool. And of course the subterranean world—here, for extra bonus points, showing up twice in different ways, in the Burrows where Simsa grows up, and underneath the ruined post-Forerunner fortress or city or whatever it is. And of course there’s a mystical-magical-borderline-incoherent journey through astral and psychic planes, though here it’s mercifully brief.

In this iteration of the classic Norton story, our protagonist is Simsa. Like Kerovan of the Gryphon books, she’s visibly different from everyone around her, though there’s no taint of ancient evil in what she is. Her skin is black and her hair is silver, and she has no knowledge of where she came from. All she knows is that she’s been raised by an ancient woman in the literal underworld of a very old city called Kuxortal on one of Norton’s semi-medieval planets. When the Old One dies, Simsa inherits a handful of treasures of provenance as unknown as Simsa’s.

Simsa has ambitions. She wants to escape the Burrows and make a life for herself higher up in the city. She has two ways of doing this: selling the Old One’s treasures, and renting out her animal partners, the batlike, moth-like, semi-telepathic flying creatures called zorsals. The mother, Zass, has a damaged wing; she was pregnant when Simsa rescued her, and delivered a pair of males who keep Gathar’s warehouse free of vermin.

Simsa’s plans go pear-shaped as quickly as she forms them. A lord of the upper city has it in for Gathar and, it turns out, for Simsa—or rather Simsa’s inheritance.

Simsa meanwhile has crossed the path of a spaceman with an interest in ancient artifacts. Thom is hunting his brother, who disappeared into the remote, hostile, and forbidden Hard Hills. Simsa has no interest in helping him, but she needs to get out of Kuxortal before the lord captures her, and Thom is a useful ally in that respect.

She is more or less pulled along on Thom’s quest. Eventually she gives in to the inevitable, until, very late in the game, she develops a quest of her own.

The Hard Hills turn out to be the blasted remnants of a number of ancient cities and cultures. There’s a graveyard of impossibly old ships (with unspeakably deadly weapons, still heavily radioactive after all these eons) and a ruined city or fortress built on top of a magical healing lake. There’s also a much newer set of remnants including a pair of very dead spacers in suits, and a crew of Jacks or pirates, apparently allied with the lord from Kuxortal, who have been looting the ships’ graveyard and closing in on its hoard of atomic weapons.

In short, a typical convoluted Norton plot. Thom’s brother was seeking out Forerunner artifacts but ran afoul of the Jacks. We never do find out what happened to him, except that he’s presumed dead.

Thom and Simsa reach his abandoned camp by way of the magical healing pool, which among other wonders almost completely heals Zass’s wing. In the camp, Simsa finds her own quest: an image that she believes to be herself, though somewhat older and dressed in jewels, and branded with, essentially, the horns of Hathor.

Thom takes off to try to find his brother and deal with the Jacks. Simsa takes off in the other direction to find her second self.

She does that and more. She finds the warded hall, makes it through the wards, and is assimilated into the ancient priestess-queen who in some mysterious way is both her self and her ancestor. But being Simsa, she makes sure to keep a good part of her forthright and independent personality.

It’s never really clear how all this works, or how Simsa ended up in Kuxortal. There’s something about rebirth and something about accessing ancient memories, but that doesn’t get much of anywhere, either. It’s all brushed aside in favor of Simsa completely healing Zass, blasting hell out of the Jack who attacks her , discovering that there’s a cost to the use of her powers—she has to recharge frequently—and enlisting the vorsals to set the beacon to call Thom’s space-cop allies in.

That never happens, either. The book ends abruptly with the Jacks still out there and Simsa all starry-eyed about going back into space again after all these eons. She’s a Forerunner, of course, and she has powers. Oh, she has powers. And it’s wonderful, she’s off, buh-bye.

I can only conclude that Norton hit the word limit, went Eep, and stopped short. Lord knows there’s plenty of story up to that point. I just wish we’d got the payoff with the Patrol coming in and the Jacks rounded up, and the long-awaited discovery of Thom the elder, dead or alive.

At least we find out who Simsa is, sort of. We also get some future history of Earth: nuclear holocaust, mutants and monsters, and a few human survivors with extra-strong resistance to radiation and a powerful aversion to war.

Norton continues to be quietly subversive. Her future is not white or American. Thom is Chinese, clearly and explicitly so. We aren’t told what the other spacers are, except some are mean and nasty and others are just neutral.

Simsa is humanoid, but even aside from her coloring, she’s not exactly human: she has retractable claws on hands and feet. In her reborn form she’s telepathic and has healing powers, though the latter may be connected to the horns-of-Hathor scepter which she believes is the most valuable thing on the whole planet. She’s also capable of creating doppelgangers to trap Jacks, and using her scepter as a plasma weapon, though it’s not really supposed to be used that way: it’s more of a healing device.

Thom has a magical McGuffin, too—shades of various Witch world characters. One of Simsa’s artifacts is an armlet or cuff, which attaches itself to him and cannot be removed. It turns out, in extremity, to be a powerful shield against energy weapons, able to protect him and deflect the bolt back on the shooter and destroy him.

Everyone’s male, as usual. Simsa and her guardian are female, but they’re it for members of that gender, except for Zass. When Simsa becomes superSimsa, she has brief thoughts of males as inferior, but there’s no time to develop those. It’s a kind of handwave toward the witches of Estcarp and the Wyverns of Warlock.

This corner of Norton’s universe still has that raffish Seventies tone: Thieves’ Guild, wicked feudal lords, city built on top of a massive and reeking slum. Out in space, Free Traders come and go with their wares calibrated to the tech level of the planet, Jacks pursue their piracies, and the whole construct rises out of eons of ancient ruins and long-forgotten cultures.

This is the first Norton I’ve remembered reading in quite some time—I know I’ve read them all, but they’ve slid away into the mists of memory. Here as most often, I remember the character, I remember her name, but I’d completely forgotten the plot.

I guess that’s a tribute of sorts to the vividness of Norton’s characters. Her stories follow pretty much the same trajectory every time. Her characters fit into certain distinct categories, but some of them manage to stand out. Simsa, Shann, Kerovan and Joisan, Simon and Jaelithe, Maelen and Krip, have stayed with me.

Even the utter predictability of their stories has a certain comforting feel to it. We know our orphan is really exceptional, the opposite number will turn out to be lovely after all, and the animal companion or companions will be instrumental in saving the world.

This pair of protagonists even get naked, though it’s very chaste. Simsa 2.0 sheds her clothes permanently. Her skin is enough, she declares. Thom isn’t shy, either, though he’s a little taken aback by Simsa’s frank body positivity.

I enjoyed this one, abrupt ending aside. Next up is Forerunner: The Second Venture. Tor.com is taking a break the week of December 25th-29th, which moves everybody’s articles and series forward a week; we’ll see you next on January 8th. In the meantime, enjoy your holiday, and have a very happy New Year.

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.

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