About five years ago, I reviewed all of the Heinlein Scribner juveniles (plus the two associated novels). Immediately thereafter, I reviewed fifty Andre Norton novels. This was not a coincidence. It just so happens that back in the 1970s, Ace re-published most of the Heinlein juveniles. Those editions usually contained a full-page ad for Heinlein’s Ace books and right next to it, an ad for fifty Andre Norton novels. Clearly someone at Ace thought the market for Heinlein and Norton overlapped.
So, how do their YA books compare?
Heinlein’s books are easy to read; the prose is fluent, if frequently halted for folksy lectures. Norton’s prose…well…it’s functional but stilted.
In the books written between Rocket Ship Galileo and The Rolling Stones, Heinlein was careful to make sure that his setting was plausible. Most readers might not notice this, but I did: he cared enough to get his orbital mechanics right. This was much less the case after Starman Jones; the settings were interstellar and sketched with a lot of handwaving.
Norton was not at all concerned with scientific plausibility. She adopted the SF tropes that others had created and used them in the service of her plots. How did FTL and interdimensional portals work? No info. What we see is how her protagonists use the tech.
Something about Heinlein’s characters that eluded me when I was an idiot teen: some of his protagonists (in particular Rod from Tunnel in the Sky) were not necessarily the sharpest pencils in the box. They’re always good-hearted fellows, but also naive enough to justify folksy lecturing from mentors. This also allows readers to feel just a little superior to the fellow who, for example, can’t seem to work out that another character is a girl even after he wrestles with her, then partners up with her (leading a third party to inquire, “Rod…were you born that stupid? Or did you have to study?”).
Speaking of women, none of the Heinlein juveniles first published by Scribner ever featured a woman protagonist. When women were mentioned, Heinlein’s treatment of them could be problematic. He could dismiss them as pesky (as he does with the domineering, not-so-bright matrons in several books). He could condemn them to domestic servitude (Meade in The Rolling Stones gets a lot more household work and lot less education than her dimwitted twin brothers). But at least Heinlein mentioned women. In his later books, women could even be super-competent and boss the boys around.
Early Norton novels featured male protagonists and male major characters. Women were often missing, or if present, confined to extremely minor roles. One might think that human reproduction was carried out by budding. But Norton was writing what publishers wanted; she knew that there was a dearth of significant women in SFF. She wrote in 1971’s “On Writing Fantasy”:
These are the heroes, but what of the heroines? In the Conan tales there are generally beautiful slave girls, one pirate queen, one woman mercenary. Conan lusts, not loves, in the romantic sense, and moves on without remembering face or person. This is the pattern followed by the majority of the wandering heroes. Witches exist, as do queens (always in need of having their lost thrones regained or shored up by the hero), and a few come alive. As do de Camp’s women, the thief-heroine of Wizard of Storm, the young girl in the Garner books, the Sorceress of The Island of the Mighty. But still they remain props of the hero.
Only C. L. Moore, almost a generation ago, produced a heroine who was as self-sufficient, as deadly with a sword, as dominate a character as any of the swordsmen she faced. In the series of stories recently published as Jirel of Joiry we meet the heroine in her own right, and not to be down-cried before any armed company.
Norton started writing women protagonists in 1965’s Year of the Unicorn, to which women readers responded to quite favourably. However, “[m]asculine readers (…) hotly resented (Gillan),” according to the author.
Which brings me to the misogyny evident in the relative fannish regard for RAH and Norton. When Alexei Panshin wrote a book about RAH, no one seems to objected to the notion that Heinlein deserved some critical attention (though there were certainly objections to the critique). But when Lin Carter wanted to profile Norton, he had this experience:
When it first became known in the science fiction field that I was doing some research and gathering information towards a brief and informal study of Andre Norton, some people—both readers, and I am sad to say, a couple of “important” professional science fiction writers— asked me why I was wasting time on the work of a writer of “minor or peripheral value, at best.”
Has anyone ever written a book about the systematic erasure of women’s writing?
Oh, well… If such a book exists, no doubt someone will point it out.
There are, however, a couple of aspects in which Norton could be deemed Heinlein’s superior.
The first is that if one is the sort of reader who inhales books, Norton’s prolific habits are definitely a plus. Ace, after all, had eleven Heinlein novels for sale and fifty Nortons. Quantity has a quality of its own, and Norton was usually readable at the very least.
More significant: inclusivity. Heinlein was prone to carefully coded, deniable gestures of inclusivity—a character who was clearly Jewish, say, in a novel where the word “Jew” never appears. Careless readers could overlook their presence entirely. Norton, on the other hand, wrote books like Galactic Derelict and The Sioux Spaceman where the leads were explicitly not white. In the case of The Sioux Spaceman, white people were entirely absent, thanks to their enthusiasm for nuclear warfare.
Norton was also more inclusive when it came to class. Heinlein for the most part preferred to focus on middle-class boys who would grow into sensible middle-class men. Norton preferred to write about outcasts and the desperately poor. A Heinlein character might become a community leader or a promising officer. Norton protagonists like Troy Horan (Catseye) and Nik Kolherne (Night of Masks) do well to graduate from hunted criminals to marginal respectability. This may be due in part to Norton’s choice of settings: hers tended to be bleak. Sometimes there is no middle class—just the elite and the oppressed.
Did Heinlein read Norton? No idea. Still, I can think of two of his juveniles that border on Nortonesque. The protagonist of Citizen of the Galaxy starts off as a slave. He ends up as a man of wealth, but this is due to an unsuspected lineage, not to pluck and determination, and it is a very mixed blessing. If Norton had written him he probably would have been happy to stay on the Sisu. The other Nortonesque Heinlein novel is Starman Jones. Jones is born into rural poverty; by dint of hard work (and a bit of underhanded dealing, of which he later repents), he rises to a responsible position as an astrogator.
Did Norton influence Heinlein? Or are any similarities in their works merely parallel developments (like those beanstalks I mentioned a while ago?) What do you think?
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.