In this last of the Forerunner books, published in 1985, Norton rounds off the series with another plucky-loner adventure. Forerunner remnant/revenant/descendant (it’s never totally clear) Simsa is back out in the wild, alone but for her loyal alien animal companion Zass, and she has cornered the market on character-in-jeopardy. This time she’s on a violently hostile alien world, she’s barely surviving, and we learn in flashbacks how she got there.
After the abrupt ending of Forerunner, Thom shipped Simsa out with supposedly trustworthy colleagues who were supposed to take her to their Zacathan boss. But Simsa picked up mental signals that led her to commandeer the ship’s escape pod and make a run for it. The male spacer wanted her for her monetary value, and the female doctor wanted to dissect her.
The pod dropped her on a blasted planet with severely inimical native life. Simsa manages to find, or be found by, the one pocket of humanoid-habitable environment on the whole planet; it’s inhabited by insectoid aliens whom she can just barely communicate with through Zass. These aliens eventually reveal that Simsa’s race came there with good intentions but were attacked by another race of humanoids who resembled Thom, and the planet was almost completely destroyed. One last male of Simsa’s people stayed with the insectoids and died there, leaving his flying machine behind.
Nothing ever comes of the actual machine—Simsa finds it, cleans it up, but never uses it. It’s a device to extract explanations from the aliens, but that’s about it. The flier is a further device to encourage Simsa to leave the enclave and try to find another livable area, which leads her to find a ruined temple of her own kind.
The temple’s center is a magic pool that offers an initiation rite for Simsa’s people. Simsa’s initiation consists of facing her body’s past along with the past of the Elder One who intermittently tries to take over that body, and integrating the two into a mostly functional whole. She then manages to destroy the pool, partly through misunderstanding and partly in self-defense.
Misunderstanding and mistrust are main themes of the book. Street kid Simsa trusts no one, and usually discovers that she’s right. But here she gets proactive in ways that cause more problems than they solve. Her break for freedom only gets her in worse trouble, and her alliance with the aliens leads to the death of the would-be vivisectionist and the near-death of Thom. But the aliens themselves don’t trust Simsa, and she concludes that she can’t stay with them—while being unable to trust her only way off the planet.
Simsa spends a great deal of time fighting with her increasing number of selves: two at first, then three as the ancient flier is added, and by the end she has Thom’s Zacathan boss in the mix as well. She has to learn the hard way that fighting isn’t the answer; cooperation is the way to go. She can keep her identity without driving off or destroying everything that might change it.
Most of the book for me was a slog. The lengthy ordeal on the hell planet consists mainly of Simsa being attacked by ravenous aliens, Simsa trying to find water and food while being attacked by ravenous aliens, and Simsa agonizing over whether she can trust anyone or anything in this universe. There’s a quite low incidence of subterranean journeying, a quite high one of Simsa being moved around by forces both real and illusory. Norton totally forgets that she gave Simsa retractable claws, which would have been really useful in some of the tight spots in which Simsa finds herself. And of course there’s a flashback/hallucinatory experience that results in big changes for the protagonist. Also, quite a lot of beating up on the guy, who never develops into a love interest. By the end there’s more of a nascent partnership with a tiny bit of physical attraction.
Not that every book needs to end in a heterosexual clinch—and here we get a nice triad of Zacathan, Forerunner, and Terran descendant. Simsa is tightly focused on resolving her identity (and preserving the street-kid part of it). She has no time to think about pairing up.
By 1985 this was far less subversive than it would have been in 1965. What’s more interesting is the honest attempt to portray truly nonhuman aliens—who are yet another overwhelmingly female-dominant species; this universe is full of them, and they have even less use for males than most. Simsa has a crutch of sorts in Zass, who immediately bonds with the aliens and serves as a translator.
I’m not sure if Norton realized what she did here. There’s a line about how Simsa regards Zass as an inferior species, a creature she can use for her purposes. That’s actually true of everyone except, as far as I can tell, Zass. Ever sentient being in this universe is a user, including the lofty, scholarly, and conscientiously pacifist Zacathans.
There are whole hierarchies of users and used. Thom isn’t really his boss’s partner, he’s more of an agent and employee, though the relationship is clearly cordial. Simsa uses Zass ruthlessly and with little consideration for how the zorsal might feel about it, and the Elder One uses Simsa, and they both use the aliens, who also use them to access ancient memories.
It’s a cold universe, full of beings who are out to get what they can without regard to the human (or alien) cost. Simsa eventually finds someone to connect with, but it’s very much a transaction: she owes Thom for her attempt to kill him, Thom owes her for placing her with people whom he seriously misjudged, and the Zacathan sees her as a priceless archaeological treasure. They look forward to a profitable future, and adventures I’m sorry Norton never got around to writing.
In spite of its shortcomings, its endlessly recursive plot (nonstop tentacled yellow blobs trying to eat aliens and humans), and its monotonous planetary landscape, the book is surprisingly satisfying. Forerunner’s abrupt ending left me flat-footed, but there’s decent closure here, with an opening for further adventures. The ending does rather stop and start and stop again, with Simsa making a big honking production of the choice to stay with the aliens, then changing her mind, then finding a whole new adventure in the ruined city, and finally hooking up with Thom and the Zacathan, but it is an ending and it wraps the series as well as the book.
We find out a great deal more about Forerunners. Simsa learns a great deal more about what she is. And finally in this series, we get to meet an actual live Zacathan. It’s not a bad finale for the Forerunner sequence.
Next time I’m going far back in the timeline of Norton’s writing, all the way to Daybreak—2250 A.D., which I read under its original title, Star Man’s Son. It’s one of the earliest Norton science fiction adventures, published in 1952, and was one of my favorites when I read it in a library edition in the Sixties. I’ll be interested to see how it’s held up.
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.