Thanks to James Nicoll and fellow commenters, I am very happy to have found this late entry in the Solar Queen series. Postmarked the Stars was published in 1969. In the years between it and Voodoo Planet, the Sixties happened—including “Star Trek” and, in Norton’s own personal world, the first few volumes of the Witch World series plus my beloved Moon of Three Rings. A whole lot had changed, and the science-fiction genre was a different place.
The Queen’s universe is still persistently male and its characters have no perceptible signs of hormone activity, but there are slight cracks in the facade: not just an actual female alien with a speaking role AND a secondary female alien with visible agency though she doesn’t speak to the humans, but actual living human women. Admittedly they’re an amorphous blob of women-and-children who exist to provide incentive-to-rescue. Still. Live women. In the Queen’s universe, that’s radical.
As boys’ adventures go, this one is great fun. The action is nonstop and breakneck. We open with Dane Thorson waking up in an unfamiliar location with unfamiliar clothes, drugged and struggling to remember what happened, and having to get out of there and make it back to the ship before it takes off. Once he makes it, he discovers that his identity was stolen and there’s something funky about the package he was supposed to be picking up—and the thief, who wore a mask of Dane’s face and had a forged ID, is somewhat conveniently dead. He had a heart condition, and the rocket’s launch killed him.
The ship is on a mail run to a planet called Trewsworld, transporting a largeish shipment of alien bird embryos and a pair of live mammalian(ish) creatures called brachs. In fairly short order Dane finds the missing package, which turns out to be producing radiation—and it’s having weird effects on the cargo. For one thing, the brachs, who are supposedly not very bright, turn out to be very bright indeed. And the bird embryos are turning into dragons.
Trust Norton to find a way to get dragons into a space adventure.
The box’s rays, it seems, are causing genetic regression, which turns the birds into dinosaurs (did she know what we’d discover about Terran birds?), but reveals that modern brachs have devolved from high intelligence. So much so that once Dane figures out just how smart the ship’s brachs are, he rigs up a translator and starts talking to the male. The female is busy having babies who are seriously Not Your Usual Brachs. (Shades of Hosteen Storm’s meerkat momma, who disappears from his series because she has gone on the mommy track.)(But in this case, mama brach doesn’t stay there. Go mama brach!)
When the Queen finally arrives on Trewsworld, the captain decides to isolate the dangerous box and the ship’s live cargo by loading it on the ship’s lifeboat, crewed by Dane, his friend Rip as pilot, the engineer Ali Kamil in charge of the box, and the medic whom we’ve come to know well, Craig Tau, for backup, and hiding both lifeboat and box in the wilderness. Meanwhile he’ll land the ship in the port city and get to work negotiating his way out of the mess.
The lifeboat immediately runs into trouble. The brachs get loose, then one of the little ones lets the dragons out, and it becomes clear that these aren’t the only regressed wildlife in the area. Nor is their box the only one. There’s another nearby, and it’s been regressing a whole lot of dangerous monsters that are out to get our heroes. On top of all the rest, a Ranger named Meshler shows up to arrest everybody and take them back to the port. But that’s not nearly as easy as he might hope. In the end he becomes their ally rather than their jailer, and helps them find and capture the real villains.
There’s a lot more going on on this supposedly thinly populated planet than anybody guessed, and it’s related to an experimental installation bankrolled by a famously reclusive philanthropist named Trosti. Our heroes’ efforts to escape the monsters brings down a force barrier that has been protecting outlying settlements, which are now threatened by those same monsters. There’s also communications trouble—radio signals are jammed by unknown forces, and their only hope is to get to one of the settlements and use their stronger device. It’s a race against time, weather, and monsters. To add to the fun, interstellar bad guys or “jacks” (as usual) are out to get the good guys, with help from the monsters.
In short, a typically convoluted Norton adventure plot. The boxes turn out to be a Trosti experiment gone wild, and Trosti isn’t anything like the good guy his PR has made him out to be. But that’s not all. Trewsworld has a hitherto unknown resource, a mineral called “esperium,” which enhances psionic powers. And that’s what the jacks are after, with Trosti’s help. The plan is to cause the colony to fail and get control of the planet, then make a huge profit mining esperium.
It’s a fairly sophisticated plan, developed over a number of years, systematically constricting the colonists’ agricultural options until they’re unsustainable. Once the colony falls below a certain level of profitability, it will be shut down and the planet auctioned off. Then the villains can move in and make a killing.
The Queen is more or less randomly pulled into this—there’s no larger, more personal vendetta, as we’re reminded more than once, as if it were important to Norton (or her editor?) that this be the case. The ship and its crew are a convenient means to get the box onto the planet; it’s just the bad guys’ bad luck that their agent had a weak heart and his target didn’t die the way he was supposed to—thanks to the changes in Dane’s metabolism caused by his adventures on Sargol in Plague Ship. So Dane made it back before the ship took off, and the crew realized it had a ringer on board.
Personally I don’t buy this plotline, though it makes for some enjoyable reading. Why go to all this trouble when there’s the whole Trosti operation on the planet, with the capability of building a device like this? And why kill a crew member and impersonate him, with a high risk of being caught? Is this how the other boxes got to Trewsworld? Wouldn’t someone have caught on to disappearances among postal-service crewmen? Why couldn’t the jacks have shipped the box? Or a Trosti transport? For that matter, why go to all the trouble of hiding the box instead of just loading it up in a shielded mailer and leaving it in regular cargo?
So many Whys.
In the further category of highly coincidental bad luck for the bad guys, the box just happened to be hidden in a spot where it inadvertently affected both the bird embryos and the brachs. Instead of a safe and clandestine transport and an agent who quietly up and disappeared into the landscape, both box and agent were outed and the whole plan began to unravel. Not without some serious discomfort for the crew of the ship, and some significant casualties among the colonists, but in the end the good guys win. The colony is saved, the monsters are defeated, the jacks are handed over to the authorities, and the Solar Queen achieves a rare feat for a Free Trader: it wins itself a second ship.
Although we’re told at the end that this won’t be an unalloyed delight, it’s pretty clear that the Queen will always overcome any adversity and manage to come out ahead. It plays itself as a hard-luck operation, always getting into more trouble than it bargained for, but it never fails to prevail.
Just look at what it’s done since the series began. On Dane’s first run the ship ran into a Forerunner mess with lots of evil jacks, then when that adventure landed it a brand-new and shinier deal, it got labeled a plague ship and the junior crew had to run all the way to Earth itself, committing some high crimes and misdemeanors along the way—but they came out of that with a nice, safe postal run, aftera brief diversion to the Voodoo Planet, where the skills of its Dane and Tau and Captain Jellico prevailed against serious opposition. Same happens to the postal run: big trouble, unforeseen complications, and a nice payoff.
The Queen’s superpower is to land feet-first in the nastiest situation imaginable, make (sometimes literally) unbelievable quantities of trouble for its adversaries, and still manage to come out ahead. That’s its gift and its charm. Captain Jellico is a classic steely-jawed hero, Dane is the wide-eyed ingenu who keeps making right decisions even when they seem terribly wrong, and the rest of the crew works together like a well-oiled if sometimes opinionated machine.
In this last entry in the solo-authored series), we get a nice bonus: the brachs. Norton’s animal companions are some of her best characters, and these are well up there on my list of favorites. They’re smart and self-aware, and they don’t submit tamely to being used for human purposes. When they cooperate with humans, they do it for good and sufficient reasons, and they negotiate the terms.
The best part for me was when the female brach showed up, riding to the rescue—because she wasn’t just a mom, thankyouverymuch. She had a job to do and she did it.
I wonder if she and her mate appreciate just how much of a spoiler their existence is, considering that the planet they come from supposedly has no indigenous intelligent life—but the brachs were once intelligent and will be again. That’s a nice dilemma for the human colonists, and a fairly frequent Norton trope: if you have a rule against colonizing planets inhabited by intelligent life, what happens when you didn’t recognize that intelligence until after colonization? It’s her version of the Prime Directive, with a twist.
All in all, as I said, this is lots of fun. I’m glad I was pointed to it, and you all were right. I love the brachs.
Next time I’m headed off to a different universe, with Sea Siege. More Fifties boy’s adventure. And more nuclear holocaust. I’ll be interested to see if this is the one I thought I was remembering when I reread Daybreak/Star Man’s Son.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published in 2016 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.