It’s a Boy’s Universe After All: Andre Norton’s Plague Ship

The second installment in the Solar Queen series reads as straightforward young-male-adult adventure, vintage 1956. It’s got all the elements: Rocket ships with fins and shiny hulls. Weird alien planets with equally weird alien life. Desperate crisis that only the kids can solve. Plenty of action and derring-do.

Plague Ship is one of the most tightly plotted Norton novels I’ve reread so far. It canters along at a good clip, each action and reversal following in logical fashion. It’s clear how it will end, but it’s great fun along the way.

The story begins shortly after the adventure on Limbo. The captain has negotiated an upgrade: they’ve taken over the trade rights of one of the crashed pilots, to a planet called Sargol, which has intelligent life, a whole lot of exotic perfumes, and a potentially rich gem trade.

Protagonist Dane Thorson is a little more experienced but still as endearingly dorky as ever. The Solar Queen from his point of view is a nice, tight little ship, and he hero-worships Captain Jellico and lives in awe of his superior, Cargo-master Van Rycke. He’s working hard to learn all he can about Trade (that’s how he thinks of it) and his own specialty, cargo handling.

The first days on the “Perfume Planet” are not encouraging. The catlike aliens, the Salariki, are taking their overpoweringly sweet-scented time getting around to trade. What’s worse, one of the large and well-heeled trading Companies, Inter-Solar or I-S, has shown up to poach on the Solar Queen’s territory.

This is illegal, but big Companies don’t care. They expect to bully the little Free Trader ship until it gives in and leaves I-S to make a fortune on the rare and valuable gems which the natives gather from the sea. A sea that happens to be infested with vicious, deadly, and intelligent reptilian creatures called the Gorp.

Norton’s sometimes dire naming sense pulls me up short here. These ghastly monsters bear no resemblance to our favorite trail mix, Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.

Dane semi-accidentally finds what he thinks is a solution to the alies’s lack of interest in trading with the ship. The ship’s cat has been escaping daily, enthralled by the scents of the planet. Every night one of the local kids brings him back spitting and screaming. It’s become a thing.

One night, two kids show up, and one of them wants to come on board. Dane opts to allow it. The kid (or more properly cub) heads straight for the hydroponic section and zeroes in on the ship’s small supply of catnip.

Dane gives the cub a few leaves. He thinks he’s done a wonderful thing: he’s found a trade item that the natives are sincerely interested in.

He is quickly set straight. There are tight restrictions on trade in plant materials. And catnip is a drug for terrestrial cats. No one knows what it might do to the Salariki.

Dane is in deep trouble. Until suddenly the whole planet wants to trade—and it’s offering gems for catnip. Despite Dane’s fears, local experts, together with the ship’s medic, have declared it to be harmless. It’s a valid trade item, and the natives are wild for it. The only flaw in the plan is that the ship has so little of it.

In the meantime they have, they think, prevailed on the I-S interlopers to leave, and they’ve won over the natives in a big way. So much so that several of the crew are invited to accompany one of the most powerful native clan chiefs on an expedition to gather more gems.

This is a major undertaking. The Gorp will attack, and the natives are prepared for battle. That means the humans will have to fight—but they’re barred by law from carrying lethal weapons. They have to settle for stunners, and hope that will be enough.

It’s a huge honor to be asked, and the three youngest members of the crew, plus a young-looking, small and slight older man, are selected. The expedition is even more adventurous than Dane and company expect. The clan chief is killed, but the humans acquit themselves bravely and are accepted into the clan.

So much so that the chief’s heir invites them to accompany him on another mission, one of revenge. That also succeeds, and the new chief is elevated to power. The upshot is that I-S is (they think) solidly frozen out of the planet, and they sign a contract to take a load of gems offworld on behalf of the natives and bring back the proceeds in catnip.

Contracts of this sort are inviolable, and the deadline is very tight, but the Traders think they can do it. It’s definitely worth the gamble.

In addition to gems and perfumes, Dane has found a particular kind of alien wood that he thinks will sell well offworld. He talks his superior into allocating cargo space for a load of it. While that’s being loaded, he catches a faint, odd scent, but since the whole planet is a cacophony of smells, he doesn’t think much of it.

The Solar Queen takes off with an air of satisfaction. But that doesn’t last. Crewmen start dropping. It appears to be a disease that begins with a red spot, followed by a splitting headache and then a lapse into a coma from which they can’t be aroused.

They try desperately to find the cause, with no luck. The only men who seem to be immune are the four who went on the expedition with the clan. When the new chief was installed, he insisted that they drink a ceremonial brew that made all of them violently ill. They figure out that this has somehow given them immunity, but they still don’t know what the plague is or how to cure it.

Meanwhile I-S is still out there and still scheming—and Dane and company find out that the Solar Queen has been declared a plague ship. This is essentially a death sentence. They can’t land anywhere or replenish their supplies. If they don’t solve the mystery and cure the plague, they’re done.

And there’s still the deadline. Somehow they have to find a cure, escape the plague designation, get their trading done, and make it back to Sargol or lose their honor as Free Traders.

It’s up to Dane and his three shipbrothers. In desperation they invade an I-S emergency station under a false flag and appropriate the supplies they need, leaving behind a voucher as payment. This is legal, but gets them in even worse trouble.

They have, by that point, discovered that the “sickness” isn’t a plague. It’s a pest infestation. A weird, chamelelonlike creature came on board in the load of wood, and it’s been sneaking invisibly around the ship. The telltales are the cat’s adamant refusal to enter any space occupied by the creatures, and the captain’s weird alien pet, the Hoobat, who goes screamingly wild around them, and hunts and kills them.

Between the cat and the Hoobat, they have the pests under control, but they’re still condemned as a plague ship, and the rest of the crew are still in a coma. All they can think of to do is head for Earth itself and try to find a medic who can help them revive the crew. That’s completely crazy, but they don’t think they have a choice.

Even crazier, they set a course for Earth’s dead zone, the atomic wasteland that’s been abandoned for generations. If they land there, no one will detect them, and they can, in suits and a shielded shuttle, get to the border and kidnap a medic.

It’s a very kid-like plan: desperate and seriously out of the box. And it succeeds. They find a medic, who almost immediately figures out what the toxin is and how to counteract it. But there’s still the deadline, and the plague designation.

That calls for one last gamble, straight into Terran central, literally crashing the main news center and sending out a broadcast that explains everything. Dane gets nominated to do the talking, since that’s one thing a Cargo-master does. He talks to the natives.

In the end, of course, the ship is saved, the rest of the crew comes to, and the kids get demoted but that’s as serious a consequence as they have to suffer. The contract gets fulfilled, too, thanks to the Patrol and a deal, made by the trader genius Van Rycke, with one of I-S’s worst corporate rivals. Van will take a fast cruiser back to Sargol, while the Solar Queen makes yet another trade swap and lands a nice, safe, quiet, easy two-year postal route.

All’s well that ends well, or so Dane thinks. Until the next time.

This is great fun, in a headlong, boy’s-adventure way. I didn’t find the underlying problems that commenters mentioned. The racial stereotypes are minimal here. The complete lack of human females is characteristic of the genre. The drug angle seems sensible enough—Dane gets slapped for not checking the rules, but it turns out all right. The rest of the kids’ criminal career is well-intentioned and succeeds in saving the ship and the crew; they pay for it in loss of rank, which is not trivial. No one is fatally harmed, and the outcome is positive.

I did find a big technological hole, but again, that’s characteristic of Fifties Norton. There’s a complete lack of aerial surveillance. Surveys are strictly land-based. Earth itself has no knowledge of the huge wasteland smack in the middle of one of its continents. There are no eyes in the sky to spot a ship landing in the badlands. It’s all “Ooo, radioactive, bad, bad.” And yet a rocket can land there without irradiating its contents, and spacesuits are enough to keep the crew safe.

You would think someone else would have had this thought, explored the territory, and found ways to exploit it—or better yet, clean it up. Big hole in the worldbuilding. Very big. And only a couple of years before Sputnik, and then the advent of manned space flight. And not long after that, the full implications of the Atomic Age came clear.

This is science fiction in its age of relative innocence. No girls. Navigation solely by human brainpower (at considerable cost to the navigator’s stamina). And nothing in orbit; rockets zip and skip and pride themselves on four-point fin landings. It’s very much an artifact of its time, but it’s an enjoyable one. There’s a brightness to it. It’s fun.

Next up is Voodoo Planet. I have a feeling, from the title, that there might be issues there that I managed to miss here.

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 recently 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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