Going Native: Andre Norton’s Lord of Thunder

In light of some of the comments on previous entries in this reread, I think I should clarify what this series is about.

It’s a reread of books I loved as a child and a teen. That means it’s subjective. It’s about how I reacted then, and whether that reaction is the same now, or whether my feelings have changed. It is not a scholarly study. And yes, I do know how to do one. That’s just not what I’m doing here.

The early Nortons especially are of their time, as commenters have been diligent in informing me. And I understand that. I make a point of saying so, in so many words. But I’m reading them now, in 2018. And sometimes that means that what Norton thought she was doing well or knowledgeably has not stood up to the changes in our culture and understanding. Regardless of what she tried to do, the results are sometimes problematical.

With The Beast Master and Lord of Thunder, she tried very hard to portray a non-white, non-mainstream character.

She did the best research she knew how to do, and constructed her plots around what she understood to be the culture and traditions of her protagonist. For 1959 and again in 1962, this was exceptional, and to a large degree subversive. She was telling young readers of science fiction that the future will not be entirely white.

That doesn’t mean she got it right. She named her character Hosteen, which is an honorific rather than a proper name, and though especially in Lord of Thunder she inserted bits of transliterated Navajo, she still wrote from the perspective of a white woman of the Fifties and early Sixties. “Mister” Storm is a Hollywood Indian, and in the world to which he emigrates after the destruction of Terra, he automatically and uncritically assumes the role of a white settler.

Lord of Thunder picks up half a planet year after the end of The Beast Master, with Logan out in the outback, getting ready to file a claim on the land he’s marked out for himself. But there’s trouble brewing. Completely out of season, all the native humanoids, the Norbies, have pulled out of the settlers’ lands, and won’t explain why, except to say it’s “medicine,” i.e., secret.

Not only that, Storm’s half-brother Logan has disappeared again. Logan is prone to going native and running off with the Norbies. This is worrisome if the Norbies have turned hostile.

Then things really get complicated. An off-world tycoon has shown up demanding a guide into the Blue sector, the forbidden country, where there be cannibals. No aircraft can get in there because of “air currents” (these spacefarers apparently have no capability for surveying a planet from space). It’s also the place where the Norbies have gone.

The off-worlder, Widders, doesn’t care. He’s looking for his son, a traumatized survivor of the Xik war who left rehab with a shipload of fellow veterans and has apparently crash-landed in the Blue.

Storm does not want to take the job, but changes his mind fairly quickly once he realizes Logan must have gone in the same direction with his Norbie tribe. He sets off with his giant cat and his eagle, but not his meerkat, who is busy with her four young kits, and tries to prevent Widders from interfering.

But Widders is a take-charge kind of guy. He agrees to set up supply stations around the borders of the Blue for Storm to find his way to while he searches—and naturally he goes out there to meddle, because he listens to no one but himself.

The challenges for Storm are enormous. He’s traveling in the hot season, when even the natives normally hole up and wait it out. He’s traveling to forbidden country, where the inhabitants eat THE MEAT—i.e., Norbie flesh. He also suspects that there’s some sort of alien installation there, analogous to the “Sealed Caves” which he and Logan, with their Norbie friend Gorgol, discovered in the previous volume.

Sure enough, it all comes together in a deadly dangerous combination of adventures. The Norbies have been led into the Blue by their Drummers or medicine men, and Logan has indeed gone with his adopted tribe. The summons originates with an entity called the Lord of Thunder, who controls the weather and the lightning around the sector. And the downed aircraft Widders is looking for is right in the middle.

Storm, with his cat and his bird, discovers a huge alien installation, which he is convinced has nothing in common with the Sealed Caves. Those are all full of nature and healing and peace. This mountain is crawling with evil machines. There’s no way, thinks Storm, that the same species could have produced both.

Worse, there’s someone controlling the machines, and it’s a Terran tech named Dean with PTSD that has blown up into psychosis. He was one of the veterans on the crashed ship. The others either died in the crash or are trying to keep from being killed by Dean.

Norton kills young Widders off in short order, and disposes of Widders Senior as well–no payoff to be had there, once Widders’ arrogance gets storm where the plot needs him to be. Storm gets Logan out of the Norbie camp, but loses him almost immediately in the network nodes inside the mountain. In the midst of all this, he has an encounter with the Drummer of Logan’s tribe, who allows as how this isn’t right, and accepts Storm as a fellow medicine man.

Ultimately Dean reveals his grand plan to take over the universe with alien weapons, Storm opposes him with the help of Logan and Gorgol, and the Drummer turns the magic of the Norbies against the alien machines and their psychotic master.

It is magic, in so many words. Storm totally gets it because it’s so similar to his “Amerindian” beliefs. It brings down the mountain, but leaves an opening for later exploitation by spacefaring humans. The Norbies are liberated from the evil influence, and Logan and Storm bond like the brothers they are. Storm is finally free to claim his land and set up his horse-training business.

The plot is pretty similar to that of The Beast Master, complete with ancient and inscrutable alien remnants, Logan the perpetual runaway, and Storm the reluctant rescuer with his team of mutant animals. This time the enemy is human rather than Xik, but he’s at least as dangerous.

He’s also very white. His name is Dean, his skin is extremely fair, and he’s a redhead. The heroes, meanwhile, are various flavors of Native American. This is radical for the time, and in its way, it’s subversive.

And yet. So many stereotypes. Dean calls Storm and his fellow Beast Masters “nature boys,” and there’s a clear conflict between machines and the natural world. Storm as an “Amerindian” is all about nature and magic and “medicine.” He doesn’t like machines at all (though he has no problem traveling in space ships or using high-tech weapons). It’s totally bred in, Norton assures us, along with sign language and belief in the supernatural.

At the same time Storm claims to be all about his supposed heritage, he’s completely oblivious to the fact that he’s playing the role of a white settler. He treats the natives with about the same level of respect and basic incomprehension as a moderately enlightened white person would have treated his Navajo ancestors in the days of the Wild West. He never once reflects on the irony of this, nor does he feel any ambivalence about the colonization of a planet already inhabited by sentient beings whose culture and beliefs so closely mirror those of his own ancestors.

That’s Norton’s whiteness showing. It shows also in the way Norbies speak sign language in broken English, but when Storm and Logan sign to each other, it’s grammatical—even though Logan speaks Basic/English in cowboy, droppin’ his g’s and sprinkling his conversation liberally with colorful imagery. Nor can we miss the fact that when he dresses like a native, he looks all “barbaric” and “primitive.”

And then there are the cannibal tribes. Non-cannibal Norbies are tall and relatively light-skinned, a kind of reddish-yellow, with white horns which they may dye various colors. Cannibal Norbies are short, and their horns are black. The subtext there is…uncomfortable.

It really is interesting to read this novel and its predecessor through the many layers of its own time, our time, and what Norton clearly tried to do versus what she actually did. On a strictly surface level it’s a breakneck adventure with engaging characters, set in a pretty decently constructed universe. It reads like a Fifties Western with spaceships and ray guns.

It’s got classic Norton elements. The enigmatic ancient ruins. The lengthy, fraught subterranean adventure. The tough loner protagonist who, pretty much in spite of himself, finds his way to a family. And of course the telepathic alien animals, though she cuts down the cast by relegating the meerkat to mommy duty.

There are no human women. At all. Even Beast Master had a conveniently dead mother. Lord of Thunder mentions Norbie females once, and Storm’s animals are all female (and that’s interesting, too, in a subtextual sort of way), but when it comes to humans, they’re one hundred percent male. It’s a man’s world, completely.

Yes, yes, this is Fifties boys’ adventure, et cetera, et cetera, product of its time, et cetera. But as I read it in 2018, I can’t help but notice the utter absence of half the human race. Even while Norton grants visibility and tries to give honor to Native Americans, she erases her own whole gender.

She did start to make up for this within a couple of years with her Witch World series—where magic and machines come into conflict again, and women occupy positions of tremendous power. That’s a step forward, and a sign of changes in the genre that would, over the decades, transform it profoundly.

I’m off to the Solar Queen novels next, for fun and again to see how they’ve held up. Sargasso of Space first. See you there?

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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