When It All Goes Wrong: Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents

When I read the cover copy for The Defiant Agents, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a comfortable read. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, but I was glad to get through it, and I won’t be going there again. Of all the Norton books I’ve read and reread for this series so far, this for me was the most cringeworthy.

We’ve talked at various points about how some of Norton’s works have held up better than others. Some manage to entertain in a cheerful retro way, with their tin-can rockets and their recording tapes and their female-free universe. Others are a little too much of their time, as we’ve taken to saying around here.

It’s not that Norton isn’t trying to respect her characters. She is, very much so. She’s done a whole lot of research. She’s studied the Apache language and tried to study the culture. She talks about the deep systemic problems of white supremacy, colonialism, and one very topical subject for the fifties, mind control. She wants to do it right.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the heart of the story, and she makes choices that don’t help.

Travis Fox, Apache time agent and college-educated archaeologist, is back. His inadvertent flight into space along with Professor Ashe, Ross Murdock, and a tech named Renfry has brought back a trove of navigation tapes, and the agency is busy setting up space voyages using alien ships and technology. There’s a space race on with the evil Reds, complicated by political machinations within the western alliance.

One crucial debate is whether and if so how to use something called Redax. This device awakens a human’s racial memory, and superimposes the memories of a particular set of ancestors over his own. This, supposedly, makes him more fit for life on a primitive planet, and gives him natural skills that would require months or years of training if he were to study them in a more normal way. It’s a short cut, designed to mass-produce colonists for worlds which, the agency hopes, are no longer occupied by the alien empire of twelve millennia ago.

There’s fierce debate about the morals and ethics of this, which is why it isn’t quite as bad as it might be, but the whole idea is still…no. Just. No. The idea of racial determinism, that you can mind-control an Apache and turn him into one of his ancestors from the 1800s, not just by installing false memories but by assuming that he has some sort of instinctual tropism toward hunting, scouting, and waging war against the white man, is unbelievably, irreparably racist.

And then she doubles down by having the Reds do the same thing to a shipload of Mongols and Tatars. But their mind-control devices are more numerous and more portable, and don’t work on Apaches, so Travis and company get to exploit a few loopholes and ultimately defeat the Reds. In the process they find a patented Norton Ancient Ruin Full Of Terrible Technology That Must Not Be Revealed To The Human World, and from there it’s all about keeping the secret and blowing up the Reds’ devices and exiling themselves to this alien planet forever. Which is very noble and they’re very smart and very resourceful, and Norton is trying. She really is. But.

To make this even more squirm-inducing, we get an actual female speaking role. She’s a Mongol, and sometimes she’s a Tatar, very plucky and smart, whom Travis comes across on a scouting run. Through her he learns about the Mongol (Tatar) colonists and the Reds’ devices, and the Apaches and the Mongols eventually form an alliance, though the process is uneven and full of reversals. The ultimate foray against the Reds involves capturing the girl and exposing her to a severely malfunctioning Redax machine that induces irrational panic, then turning her loose to run back to her people and lure the Reds into a trap. She’s clever and resourceful and by no means a pushover. And yet. And yet.

Travis voices some mild objections, but manages to convince himself that she won’t be really hurt or at least not really for very long, and anyway it’s for a good cause. Never mind that his people are doing to her exactly what the agency—most of whom are white—did to the Apaches, and with the same rationalizations.

I had to stop reading at that point. If I hadn’t been reading on a tablet, I’d have thrown the book at the wall.

I did get through the rest, and my blood pressure came down eventually. I managed to concede that the story is a nice fast-paced adventure and Norton throws in all sorts of Apache words and little infodumps about their history and culture. We don’t get nearly as much about the Mongols (who are also Tatars), but she talks a little bit about how they dressed and what kind of horses they rode and what their weapons were like. So that’s nice.

But no matter how often she goes on through Travis about how Apaches are “more than just beads and feathers,” she still constructs a story that relies on the idea that Apaches are just barely removed from savagery. All you have to do is flip some switches in their brains, and presto! Instant warrior-hunter-scout.

She makes this worse by having them speak Movie Indian, with a line or two about how at one point they give up on it and just talk straight. And the Mongols speak Movie Asian, which gave me flashbacks to Fifties film epics. John Wayne in brownface as Genghis Khan.

Thank goodness it’s 2018 and there’s an Own Voices movement and there are people like Rebecca Roanhorse writing from real knowledge of Native American culture. Her multi-award-winning story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” is a fiercely satirical takedown of a whole lot of things, including novels like this.

Norton did try. I give her credit for that. She wanted to show what happens when people treat other people like objects, tools to be used for a purpose. She shows how much harm that does to both the victims and the perpetrators. The Reds are killed, and so is the white American who subjects the Apaches to Redax without their knowledge or consent—he dies when their ship crashes.

Even so. The fact that both Apaches and Mongols are depicted as being only marginally civilized, that all anyone needs to do is flip a switch and suddenly they turn into savage warriors, is seriously racist. All I could think of as I forced myself to keep reading was what a friend’s mother used to say: “We in China had a thriving civilization while you Westerners were still hacking at each other with sticks and stones.”

There’s not even the suggestion that any of these white people would take, say, Ross and Ashe and regress them to their ancestral selves. Of course not. They had to be taught. White people are just naturally civilized. No racial memory to see there, move along, move along.

Ross does at one point in The Time Traders get hit on the head and mistake his cover identity for his real one, and that’s one of the inspirations for the Redax machine, but it’s not real and he quickly gets over it. We’re not told that he has a racial predisposition toward it.

I mean, if she’s going to go there with induced racial memory, why not regress Ashe or Ross (who doesn’t even need racial memory–he’s a street tough)? Or get a bunch of Scots together, or Irish, or Cossacks for the Reds? Sure, Norton is trying to honor non-white cultures, but the way she does it, and the way she talks about what happens to them, is full of unexamined assumptions and Hollywood stereotypes. It just doesn’t work.

Let’s see how I handle the last of the Time Traders novels, Key Out of Time. We’ll be back with Ross and Ashe, and hopefully with less racial determinism.

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 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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