A Boy’s Own Adventure: Andre Norton’s Sargasso of Space

This Andre Norton novel is a complete blank in my memory, except for the title. As far as I can recall, I might even have found it up the library shelf a bit, under its original byline, Andrew North. I wouldn’t have cared if Norton and North were the same person, nor did I know the author was a woman. Library-strafing early-teen me was a complete omnivore when it came to books with rockets on their spines.

By the time I would have discovered it, Sargasso was a few years old: I was a newborn the year it was published, in 1955. I’m sure I enjoyed it, because on the reread—which was effectively a first read—I had a grand time.

Of course it’s of its time, which seems to have become the euphemism of this series. There are racial stereotypes and ethnic terms that are no longer considered acceptable (Negro, Oriental), and the universe is completely devoid of females of any species. It’s all boys and men, except when its creatures so alien there’s no telling if they even have gender.

But that’s the genre. This is boys’ adventure, and it’s Golden Age science fiction. The rockets are shaped like Stubby the Rocket and have fins. The aliens are either weird globular insect-like things or blue lizard men. The good guys are somewhat raffish Free Traders on a beat-up but well-run ship. The bad guys are Hollywood toughs and sleazy con men. There’s a space Patrol and a Survey and Forerunner remnants, blasters and stunners (called sleep rays here) and weapons called boppers, flitters and crawlers and a very basic sort of locator for crewmen in the field.

Protagonist Dane Thorson, nicknamed Viking by the school bully, is a poor kid from nowhere who dreams of the stars. He’s been to Trader school and is now setting out on his hoped-for career as a cargo master. His future is determined by the somewhat unfortunately named Psycho, a computerized Sorting Hat that assigns graduates to their first jobs. Its decisions are final, and there is no appeal.

Psycho dispatches Dane to a somewhat disappointing post: apprentice cargomaster on the Free Trader Solar Queen. In this age of Norton’s universe, the oligarchy is just setting in hard, with rich kids assigned to the wealthy and powerful Companies and kids from nowhere sent to much less lucrative postings.

But Dane is a plucky sort, and the Queen suits him. He fits fairly well into its crew of twelve, though he has doubts and fears and makes mistakes; it’s his first voyage after all, and he has a lot to learn.

The ship quickly finds itself in a predicament. Trade rights to newly discovered worlds are put up for auction, and the Queen pools its limited resources for a year’s exclusive on a world called Limbo. The auction is a gamble: you find out what you bought after you buy it.

It seems at first that the venture will be a bust. Limbo has no apparent intelligent life, and has mostly been burned to the bare rock in one of the Forerunners’ ancient wars. The crew tries to unload the planet for at least enough funds to get off the world where the auction was held, but no one wants it.

Then comes luck, and possible salvation: a mysterious Doctor who claims to be an archaeologist, and who declares that Limbo contains potentially valuable Forerunner remains. He charters the ship, boards with his extensive luggage and his staff of three, and they all jet off to Limbo.

Limbo has indeed been blasted to slag, but parts of it are alive—and more, as Dane discovers. Something plants small oblong fields, and must be tending them at night; during the day, there’s nothing to be seen but the regular rows of plants. Dane sets out to discover what, or who, the farmers may be, and hopefully trade with them.

In the meantime the Doctor and his crew depart for the luridly colored Forerunner ruins, and the Traders begin to explore this planet they’ve bought. They quickly discover that all is not as it seems. One of their crewmen disappears; they begin to find downed spaceships, some quite new and some unimaginably ancient. And one of the Traders, Dane’s fellow apprentice Rip, declares that the doctor can’t be an archaeologist: he’s ignorant of one of the key texts in his field.

Dane, for his part, discovers that the planet has a pulse, a deep resonance that comes and goes. This turns out to be a massive subterranean installation of tremendous antiquity—and the false Doctor and his men have taken control of it.

There’s no sign of the builders, but their geometry and color sense are alien enough to make Dane severely uncomfortable. He surmises that they weren’t human. And, as he and his fellow Traders discover, they built this place as a trap. Hence, the title: a reference to the Sargasso Sea on Terra, where sailing ships used to be trapped and becalmed, and many never managed to escape.

Limbo’s installation has been luring and downing ships for apparent millennia. The Doctor who is now in control is part of a large contingent of interstellar baddies, and they’re using this installation to pull in ships and loot them. The Queen is part of their nefarious plan; once it’s lured it, it can’t lift off without being destroyed like all the rest of the ships that litter the planet.

Dane and his fellows, notably Rip and the inscrutable Japanese steward, Mura, penetrate the alien installation (which is one of Norton’s very most favorite things, a vast underground maze full of incomprehensible machinery), overcome the Doctor and his evil associates, and shut down the machinery that has turned the planet into a death trap. The Patrol arrives in the nick of time and arrests the bad guys; and the Traders work out a deal that leaves the Queen in considerably better financial shape than she was when she landed on Limbo.

In the meantime they discover but don’t do much with the planet’s natives, who are profoundly alien and justifiably hostile. They don’t even have faces, just transparent globes. Norton had a thing for featureless spheres; her nightmares must have been full of them.

This is classic mid-Fifties science fiction, with a touch of Nortonesque subversion. The protagonist is a white person of Nordic extraction, but the crew is fairly diverse. Rip is black, Mura is Japanese—though there’s some residual animus from World War II in that Japan is no more; it was wiped out by an earthquake and a tsunami. Another of the crew, and Dane’s least favorite, is the slickly handsome Ali Kamil—stereotype alert; but he turns out to be just as plucky and loyal as the rest. Norton’s future, as we’ve noted before, is not universally white or American.

What made it really fun for me was playing the movie in my head, with the characters in space boots and bulgy helmets, the weird inhuman inhabitants of Limbo, the proto-Star Trek Rigellians with their blue skin and reptilian traits, and the bare-bones, rattletrap, submarine-like rockets. A dozen years later the world would see the wide corridors and luxurious accommodations of Star Trek’s ships with their artificial gravity, but in 1955, space travel was all about tin cans with hyperdrive.

The tech is deliciously retro. Computers exist, and have decent capability considering, as witness the Psycho, but records are preserved on tape, and astrogators keep actual paper logs of their routes, apparently hand-written. Communications are radio-based, and planetary surveys depend on short-range aircraft—no satellites. Faster-than-light is a thing, and there are ways to communicate across vast distances as well, but when an explorer is on a planet, he doesn’t have much more technological capability than your basic Fifties military pilot.

In 2018, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone making it into space with tech that basic. How did people survive in ships so poorly shielded that spacers got a tan? And what about the radiation our heroes trek through on the planet, and the toxic mist that leaves everybody coughing and wheezing? There’s no apparent awareness of environmental dangers—just a lot of gee-whiz and gosh-wow and here we are in space! On an alien planet!

But that’s the world of 1955: the heyday of atomic testing, before Silent Spring, when the universe didn’t seem nearly as dangerous—or as fragile–as it turned out to be. The greatest danger then, as Norton saw it, was men, and war was natural and inevitable, if also deplorable. If a man was lucky, he survived. If he was even luckier, like Dane Thorson, he had good friends and crewmates, and he managed in the end to turn a profit, though he had to work for it.

I’m off to Plague Ship next. That one, I’m told, has some issues. We’ll see what I find when I get 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 year 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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