The more of Andre Norton’s novels I read and reread, the clearer it seems to me that she was at the peak of her powers between 1965 and 1975. She’d been a published writer for some thirty years and would continue for another forty—which is a truly remarkable career—but during that decade she published some of my all-time favorites, including Moon of Three Rings (1966) and The Crystal Gryphon (1972).
I wouldn’t list Dark Piper (1968) as a favorite, but it’s the work of a strong and confident writer who knows her fictional universe well.
It does depart from her usual pattern of breakneck action coming to an abrupt halt and, often, a sudden hookup between the male and female leads. Dark Piper loses focus toward the end, dribbling off into “and then everybody went on living, if not exactly happily ever after, and the leads got married because they were the only opposite-sex couple of the same age, and this happened and that happened and nothing really ended, it just went on and on.” But up until then, it’s classic Norton, mid-apocalypse style.
Even the non-ending has a certain realism to it, which goes along with the overall theme and direction of the book. Dark Piper is about the end of an era. In the wake of a devastating interstellar war, the political system has collapsed. Individual planets have been cut loose; soldiers and survivors come home if they can, and shiploads of refugees take asylum wherever they can find it.
The planet Beltane reminded me of the islands in Sea Siege. It’s a scientific colony, with multiple reserves stocked with mutants—animal experiments turned loose to survive as they can, with help from humans who provide food and monitor their progress.
Our protagonist is another of Norton’s war orphans with survivalist training, the young apprentice Ranger Vere. His father went off to fight and never came back. His mother died as Norton protagonists’ mothers so often do. He’s been living with a foster family in a tight-knit community with a number of younger kids as well as adults.
When the novel begins, the veteran solder Griss Lugard has come back to Beltane to claim the reward for his service, a former security installation called Butte Hold. (In a couple of places, apparently as the result of scanning errors from print to ebook, this appears as as Butte Hole, which, um.) Lugard is the Dark Piper of the title. He has a pipe on which he likes to play alien tunes that can influence the mental state of animals and children.
I was expecting him to turn into a villain à la the Pied Piper, lure all the kids away from their families, and do dire things to them and/or the planet. All he ends up doing is showing the kids some ancient alien weapons hidden in an ice cave, letting them run loose through the Hold and eavesdrop on council meetings in the capital, and then when the bottom falls out of everything, showing them the way to an underground sanctuary. He dies on the way there, heroically and tragically, and his pipe is broken. So he’s a hero rather than a villain, and he’s a kind of Cassandra.
Beltane is a pacifist planet, even though the space empire/federation/whatever-political-variation-it-is is shaking itself apart in a devastating war. The adults in charge persist in believing that people are basically good and well-intentioned, and take in a refugee ship despite Lugard’s warnings. Sure enough, once the ship has been let in, two more show up and declare that they’re part of the agreement, too. These are not good people at all, and their intentions are not good, either.
As this is going down, Lugard has invited Vere and his fellow late teen Annet and the younger kids to the Hold for a work party—hunting treasures in the ice caves and reopening the old underground refuge. The kids’ parents are fine with this; they suffer severely (and in the end fatally) from nice-liberal syndrome. Lugard is severely injured in a cave-in and dies, leaving Vere and Annet in charge and no easy way to get back out.
Vere quickly figures out that the tremors that brought down the caves are not natural. Something catastrophic has happened up above. Annet refuses to believe this, and causes various degrees of trouble because of it. She just wants to go home. Vere is pretty sure there’s no home to go back to.
Sure enough, when he finally finds a way out of the caves, he finds a planet of the dead. The refugees brought an experimental plague with them, a virus that kills humans and higher sentients within hours, is highly contagious among the living but harmless once they’re dead, and clears a world for occupation.
Unfortunately for the invaders, the virus escaped their control and killed them as well. The only survivors, in the end, are Vere and Annet and a handful of kids, and hordes of mutant animals, most of them hostile and many of them with enhanced intelligence.
After the bombs fall and the plague hits, the plot rambles around for a while as Vere and the kids try to figure out what happened. Once they’re clear on that, they fortify themselves against the mutants, program the nearby and very convenient robot farms to grow and harvest food crops, and hunker in for the duration. The story doesn’t so much end as wander away into an uncertain future.
The depiction of refugees as dangerous and hostile and out to take over the world is uncomfortably apt for 2019. Vere’s refusal to treat with the refugees at all, even when they point out that everybody is in the same predicament and survivors ought to work together, matches his resistance to finding any kind of common ground with the mutants—though he does help out one pair of alien animals, and helps free others that have been caged and abandoned. He trusts animals slightly more than humans, though ultimately he doesn’t have much use for anyone except the tiny handful of kids from his own town. There’s a certain resonance there with what’s been going on with refugees and migrants around the world and particularly in the United States.
And yet other aspects of the story and characters are vintage 1968. The boys are in charge, with Vere in the lead. Annet and the girls do all the cooking and the domestic chores, and Annet is downright boneheaded in her denial of reality. I kept seeing her as that icon of Sixties beach-girl culture, Annette Funicello, with her rigidly lacquered, teased hair, her wholesome all-American beauty, and her complete acceptance of the woman’s role as wife, mother, and helpmeet to the dominant male.
Equally of-her-time is the young child Dagny, who turns catatonic when faced with emotional trauma, becomes a constant drag on the party as they struggle to find a place to live safely, and eventually curls up and dies. She’s the weakest link, and of course she’s a girl. Her brother is perfectly capable and functional.
There is one girl, Gytha, who shows actual backbone. She’s the bookworm, and she objects when the boys try to put her in her place. Occasionally she prevails. Mostly the boys stampede over her.
It’s a man’s universe, though there are hints of change. Women scientists doing actual effective science. Working mothers doing their thing away from home and kitchen. Still, the people in charge are all male, and there’s no thought on anyone’s part that this might change.
It’s not that Norton didn’t think those thoughts, either—she wrote the Witch World novels, after all, and the Moonsinger series with their powerful women characters—but in this particular Norton universe, with reference to Forerunners and the Patrol, it’s all patriarchy, all the time.
Next up is a novel in the same universe, Dread Companion, published in 1970. More golden-age Norton. Will it also be of-its-time?
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.