The title of Victory on Janus is a pretty big spoiler, but the fun of reading a Norton adventure novel is in seeing how her characters navigate the plot to the inevitable (and usually abrupt) conclusion. Here as well, we’re joining characters we’ve met before, so we’re rooting for them from the first page.
The opening gives us a nice little bit of worldbuilding and a touch of surprise: Naill Renfro, now Ayyar of the Iftin, has been hibernating through the winter, along with the rest of his small band of changelings. They’re aroused early and suddenly by imminent disaster: the offworld colonists are destroying the forest, and the destruction is approaching the tree-city.
The religious-fundamentalist inhabitants of the garths have never cleared forest in the winter before, nor have they ever used offworld machines to do it. This is an escalation, and it’s a threat to the entire ecosphere of Janus. It also appears to be revenge against the Iftin specifically, hunting them out and killing them wherever they can be found.
None of this makes sense. Ayyar and his companions set out to discover what is happening, and quickly find that something or something is deceiving the humans with robot Iftin and robot human women. The ancient enemy of their species is at it again—the entity referred to as It or That or, more and more as the story goes on, the Enemy. Nobody knows what else to call it.
The few surviving Iftin have a mystery to solve: who is the Enemy, what is it, and what does it want? They’re already clear on the concept of their own origins: the treasure-troves that transform suitable humans into hairless green aliens were set down by the last survivors of the Iftin in an attempt to revive the species, and subsequent changelings have continued the practice. It’s been a long labor with very indifferent success. They’re nearly immortal—some of them are hundreds of years old—but their numbers are extremely small.
As the offworlders set about destroying forest and the robot impostors continue to throw blame on the Iftin, the real Iftin come up with a plan to contact the spacemen and convince them of the truth. This doesn’t get much of anywhere, because as soon as they capture a handful of humans, the humans turn the tables and capture them instead—and then the Enemy mind-captures the humans and draws them toward its lair.
The Enemy has seriously ramped up its operations. It’s pulling in machines as well as humans, basically anything that can be used for whatever its purposes are—world domination, more or less.
Ayyar and company, all six of them at first and then a few more who sail in from overseas, somehow have to find a way to save the world. They have help: the mysterious Mirror of Thanth, which the lone living female of the species, Illylle, and the former First-In Scout, Jarvas, have the power to manipulate, to a degree; their Iftin personas are fragmentary and their memories are incomplete. Ayyar the warrior however discovers that he has powers, mostly manifested through his sword, and with these he’s able to short-circuit the Enemy’s robots and, ultimately, the Enemy itself.
This entity turns out to be a computer of unimaginable antiquity, programmed to be hostile to the Iftin and to protect their bestial enemies, the Larsh. It has expanded its operations toward the humans and mentally taken over the spacemen. It has been creating bionic robots using living templates which it stores in its vast underground lair—and these templates are numerous and varied, including hundreds of Iftin, Larsh, humans, and animals. It’s been creating an army.
Ayyar and company defeat it after many twists, turns, reversals, losses, and disasters both partial and complete, and that’s the victory of the title. We learn that Illylle is not the only Iftin female who ever existed, though from what we can see, their numbers are extremely low—one wonders if they reproduce in litters or by laying multiple eggs, because otherwise their population would have a great deal of trouble sustaining itself. Though since Iftin appear to be extremely long-lived, they wouldn’t need to be terribly fertile or the planet would be overrun. So maybe that makes sense after all.
In any case, the Enemy is destroyed in the end and the Iftin are free. We’re left with expectations of a sequel that was never written, and which I would love to have seen. There are so many loose ends, so many paths not taken while our heroes (and heroine) circle around and around the same sequence of Iftin hibernating, Iftin wakes up, Iftin in danger, Enemy is evil, Iftin escapes evil Enemy, Iftin passes out, Iftin comes to, Iftin in danger, Enemy is evil again, and so back around. And of course there has to be a subterranean quest or two or three, because Norton truly did love her underground adventures.
What we never get is the contact between Iftin and spacemen that we’re set up for in considerable detail. As soon as it starts to happen, the spacemen are mind-captured by the Enemy and it’s all about that. The ending doesn’t even try to address what has to happen next: when the supply ships come in and find the port either deserted or picking up the pieces after the abduction of all the port staff and anyone else who happened to be handy. What about the garths that were stripped of people? What about the fact that the planet belongs to a race the humans didn’t even know existed, and which Ayyar and company were all set to reveal? That’s the point of the whole first section of the book, but it never goes anywhere.
There’s a whole book’s worth of plot left. Do the Iftin overcome their overwhelming and literally visceral xenophobia? Do they negotiate with the humans and get control of the planet?
And what about all the bodies in vats? There’s a whole nation of Iftin in there, who might be resuscitated, and it seems that’s the plan. What happens to the Larsh—who pretty obviously devolved from spacemen into animals, though it takes Ayyar and company an endless amount of time to figure it out? What about all the other creatures in storage?
I could imagine the spacemen might have questions about what to do with the non-Iftin, especially the Larsh. Destroying them would be genocide. And yet if they’re diehard ancestral enemies…
I get the feeling Norton wove a web more complex than she wanted to deal with, and so she dropped it and moved on. It’s pretty clear she had more interest in the Ift-versus-That conflict than in Iftin-human relations, and she was captivated by the concept of robots and computers.
The computer is so very quaint, and so classically Sixties. We’ve all seen multiple Star Trek episodes with exactly that plot: the planet with a mysterious force that turns out to be a machine buried underground, the machine programmed to destroy the good guys, and even the robots who take the place of human and alien characters. And of course once the machine is revealed, it’s this huge honking installation with lots of flashing lights. Because computers are all about the flashy lights.
What makes this iteration indubitably Norton is the way the good guys are dominated by an incalculable force which is not mechanical at all. It moves the characters around and uses them for its own ends. They accept it willingly and call on it when they need it. They don’t know or care about this thing called agency. They just want, and need, to destroy the Enemy and save their world.
There’s a lot of Witch World-like science fantasy going on. Evil machines, good forces of nature. Bad crystals and rocks, good wood and water. The message is clear: machines evil, nature good. Technology destroys, biology saves.
1966, when this book was published, had seen the start of the movement against machines and toward preserving the earth. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had called out the dangers of pesticides to the environment. The happy technological future of the Fifties was gone; people were waking to consequences, and fearing that they would be dire.
So here we have the Iftin, who are completely bound to their planet, to the trees in which they live and the earth from which the trees grow, and the terrible machine that has spent millennia trying to destroy them—and nearly succeeded. They only care about the spacemen as allies against the Enemy. Once that fails, all their focus is on using the forces of their own planet plus their own innate powers to get the job done.
Still, once it’s over, they will have to deal with the humans. I wish we could have seen how that turned out.
Next time I’ll be rereading another novel set in this universe, Catseye. More planetary adventure—and another one of Norton’s specialties, a cool animal companion. I’m looking forward to that.
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.