Ticking Off the Boxes: Andre Norton’s Star Hunter

This more or less standalone novel first appeared in 1959, which puts it right in the middle of Andre Norton’s Golden Age science-fiction adventures. It seems to be written more for adults than for younger readers: the first viewpoint character we meet is an injured space pilot, and we travel along with him for a while before the narrator shifts to a person of young-adult age. The edition I have is an Ace Double with an abridged version of Norton’s The Beast Master, but at least one commenter has mentioned another Double-ing up with Voodoo Planet.

Either one works as a pairing. Star Hunter shares with Beast Master the somewhat older character whose service—military or quasi-military—appears to be over, and like Voodoo Planet, it depicts a young orphan with few prospects, dealing with danger and adventure on an alien world.

They all feature mysterious, ancient alien installations and inimical alien life, and none of them provides any real answers. The ancient aliens remain a mystery, and the humans fight their way through to a sort of standstill.

In this particular iteration, former pilot and current safari guide Ras Hume, who lost an arm in a space disaster caused by a rich idiot and is now making do with an unsatisfactory prosthetic, shows up on the planet Nahuatl to close a deal with a criminal mastermind named Wass. Wass has set his sights on a billion-credit scam. The heiress to an interstellar fortune and her young son crashed on the safari planet Jumala and have not been heard from since. There’s a huge reward for the person or persons who may bring either of them back alive.

Hume has revenge on his mind, because this wealthy pair came from the same family as the idiot who destroyed his career. It just so happens that Hume discovered the wreck, but no survivors. Wass has a solution for that: an impostor brainwashed to impersonate the son. Hume will supply the warm body, Wass will take care of the indoctrination tapes and help set up a safari to Jumala, and Hume the safari guide will “find” the “survivor.”

The person Hume selects is Vye Lansor, a young man who has more or less hit bottom. He has no family, he’s washed out of any respectable career, and he’s now a busboy/janitor for a dive bar. Hume tricks him by offering him a job as his “gearman” on the safari. When he consents to this (all excited to finally have a decent job), Hume drugs him and hands him over to Wass, who brainwashes him and dumps him on Jumala with a set of false memories and some suitable set-dressing. Hume meanwhile sets off with a trio of clients and his actual gearman, who is Wass’ agent.

The clients are a rich idiot, a well-meaning rich idiot, and an inscrutable non-white rich maybe-not-idiot. The expedition quickly goes off the rails as the planet reveals a whole set of hitherto unsuspected dangers. It seems there’s an alien intelligence there after all—safari planets are not supposed to have any intelligent life, but the scans seem to have failed here—and it uses weird mechanical orbs, native wildlife, and large apelike aliens to drive invaders to a force-shielded valley where they starve to death.

Vye meanwhile starts off believing he’s young Rynch Brodie, former heir to an interstellar fortune, now surviving alone on Jumala. But the programming breaks down almost immediately, and his original memories return. By the time he finds Hume, he’s in no way willing to play along with the scam.

Human plans, even criminal ones, quickly take a back seat to the mysterious power that controls the planet. It drives Vye and Hume to the valley and nearly kills them, until Vye accidentally discovers that an unconscious human can bring down the forcefield—but only for himself. He is all set to escape, but being a basically good person, goes back for Hume. Wass comes to the rescue, but there are complicated games afoot.

The upshot is that the Patrol comes in to rescue everybody, Wass is arrested for his numerous crimes, the inscrutable non-white rich client turns out to be a Patrol agent, Hume has also been working as an agent to bring down Wass, and there’s a job for Vye if he wants it, as a member of the Out-Hunters’ Guild to which Hume belongs. And Vye is good with that.

This isn’t by any means the only Norton novel with a plot that flails a bit, but it has an unusually perfunctory feel to it. It starts off rather dark, with the down-on-his-luck pilot and the nasty crime boss and the even nastier scam, shifts viewpoint to the plucky young hero having dangerous adventures on an alien planet, and then ratchets back to secret agents fighting crime.

The brainwashing scheme never amounts to anything, which made me wonder about the basic competence of the crime lord and his minions. The system that certifies planets free of intelligent life doesn’t work all that well, either, though in this case the intelligence seems to be more or less artificial and on the verge of breakdown from old age. Its deadly trap has a totally easy out: all a person has to do is pass out and fall into the forcefield to turn it off—and then it’s off permanently for that particular person.

That doesn’t make sense. Why have a trap if the prey can come and go at will after it’s sprung the trap? Is it an intelligence test? What’s the purpose?

There’s no answer—as frequently happens in Norton novels of this era. Just mysterious alien installations that humans manage to jailbreak after Having Adventures, and at the end, “We’ll go back and explore some more!”

As I read these novels, I keep seeing them as movies or TV shows (in black and white on a tiny screen), with shiny rocket ships and Jetsons-style costumes and backlot planets and Generic Monsters. Norton had a thing about large blobby creatures with globular heads, either featureless or with minimal features in the wrong places—they must have been favorite nightmares. Here she has a whole thing about how humans should stick together against the alien monsters even when they’re enemies, though that evolves fairly quickly into the idea that humans who are good at heart (even if they seem to be bad at the moment) should help each other out and bring down the bad guys, both alien and human.

She always puts a little something subversive in there, even when she’s phoning it in. Non-white characters are very much a thing, and here she has a quiet but ongoing theme of the failings of a system that tries to enforce conformity on its young. Vye does not fit into any of the boxes his planet tries to force him into. Luckily he finds a way out—but only through being kidnapped, brainwashed (however ineptly), and used by law enforcement to bring down a master criminal.

In contemporary terms, this is kind of repellent. Everything that’s done to him is For His Own Good—both by the system that’s depicted as bad, and the “rescue” that tricks him and violates his mind and body, even if it turns out all right in the end. It’s not a universe I would care to live in, even if it weren’t 99.99% male.

Usually it’s 100%, but as with the Hosteen Storm books, there’s evidence that at least some humans have a female parent; in this case, the real Rynch’s dead mother. Live women don’t exist in this future. I’m starting to wonder if the Witch World books weren’t born at least in part out of Norton’s frustration with the utter obligatory maleness of the genre she loved so much.

I’m back to the Solar Queen for a bit after this, thanks to the commenters who pointed me to the sequels I’d missed. Thank you! I am happy! Next time, therefore, we’ll tackle Postmarked the Stars.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published 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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