It’s an interesting experience to go back fifty years in the timeline of Norton publications, from her last solo publication to one of her first science-fiction novels. Star Guard was published in 1955, and it’s purest Golden Age military SF. There is not one single female character, and just one lonely reference to women at all, at the very end. The universe is male from end to end.
And you know, I had fun reading this classic boys’ adventure. Probably rereading it, but I don’t remember it at all.
Though I’m too young to have read it the year it was published, by the time I discovered science fiction, these were the kinds of books I borrowed from the library by the armload. Boys were default for adventure fiction—if you wanted girls, you turned to Nancy Drew or girl-and-horse books. I wouldn’t have noticed the absence of people who were shaped like me. I was there for the spaceships, the distant planets, and the alien species.
Star Guard delivers these and then some. It has the feel of a classic Star Trek episode in the way it depicts humans as compared to alien species, and I’m willing to bet some or all of the writers of that series had read this book. It’s dyed-in-the-wool, set-in-the-bone military SF, too, with its legions of interstellar mercenaries, its doomed campaign on a hell planet, and its celebration of human cussedness.
It’s also deeply subversive. We often talk in this Reread about how Norton’s books can sometimes be “of their time,” as in problematical. In this case, I mean it in the opposite sense. The themes and philosophies expressed in the novel are strikingly timely in this long, hot summer of 2019.
Myths of the US in the Fifties tend to concentrate around rock and roll, white teen rebellion a la James Dean, and women locked into painfully restricted roles as wives and mothers. It was a very white, very conservative, very narrow-minded era. If politics enters into it at all, it’s the McCarthy hearings and the Red scare, and kids cowering under desks in classrooms, terrified of nuclear war.
What gets lost is the fact that this decade was also the time when US racial inequality was dragged out into the light. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 is still reverberating through US politics today, as was the radical idea that people who are not white might actually be equal to white people in all ways including intelligence and essential humanity.
Star Guard faces this head-on. Its protagonist, Kana Karr, is part (white) Australian, but the rest is a combination of non-white ethnicities, notably Malaysian. Terra has recovered from nuclear holocaust, and white people did not do well in the wars. Most of the survivors came from the Pacific Rim and Africa. They managed to rebuild and aimed for the stars.
We’ve seen a sort of prelude to this in other novels of this period, including Daybreak—2250 AD and Sea Siege and, in a sideways fashion, the Time Traders series. Here, when humans managed to escape the planet, they ran into a major obstacle, a long-established galactic empire called Central Control. CC refused to admit humans as equals; were horrified by them, and only reluctantly allowed them to serve as mercenaries. They’re much too barbaric and violent for anything else.
Now, three centuries later, there’s a military caste that trains from childhood to fight alien wars. What anybody else does, including the entire female population of the planet, we don’t know, because Kana doesn’t know. He does run into a few civilians at the end, a couple of long-haul truckers and a few laborers. That’s all we see. Everybody else is a soldier.
Combatants, as they’re called, are divided into two types, Mechs and Archs. Mechs are high-tech fighters. Archs are swordsmen with rifles, assigned to low-tech planets where anything more sophisticated than a rifle is banned. Kana is an Arch, and he’s fresh out of training when he’s hired to join a unit on the remote and icy planet Fronn.
Since Kana is a Norton hero, he has a little something extra to help him along: he’s a rarity, a trained Alien Liaison. This is why he’s hired into a unit that consists almost entirely of veterans, and how he ends up playing a key role in unmasking a complicated plot against his legion. CC has set it up to be betrayed, and rogue (or are they?) Mechs are involved. Kana ends up on Terra itself after dangerous and deadly adventures, where he discovers the real reason behind both the mission and its betrayal.
Terra isn’t submitting tamely to systemic racial discrimination. It’s been using CC’s infrastructure to build its own network of alliances and planetary colonies. CC has started to catch on, but it’s already too late. The rebellion is too extensive and too deeply entrenched.
Here, in 1955, Norton wrote about colonialism as seen from the inside, about how colonized peoples perceive their colonizers, how carefully they curate the way the colonizers see them, and how they work from within to secure their independence. Closely tied in with this is how racism works, how racists act and react, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end. She writes in so many words about racism, speciesism, and how humans after the nuclear war let go of their racial prejudice and applied that to the aliens they met.
There’s still prejudice. Kana has to rationalize his feelings about the aliens he meets on Fronn. The hairy ones smell bad and turn out to be treacherous. The froglike Venturi look and to a large extent think weird, and humans are naturally biased against reptiles and amphibians. But there are the Zacathans, who are wise and kind and scholarly, and Kana’s experience of them disposes him to see the Venturi in a positive light.
The message here is that all shapes and sizes of sentient beings deserve at least the benefit of the doubt. Non-sentients (as perceived by humans) not so much—the native transport critters, the guen, are treated with a signal lack of concern or compassion—but the acceptance of diversity among sentients is pretty radical for its time. So is the idea that white people won’t be in charge in our interstellar future. We had our chance. We blew it up.
That’s as apt for 2019 at it was for 1955. We can see it happening right here and now, on our borders, in our cities and towns. The world is literally melting down. And here’s a book that looks directly at us and sees where we may be going and how we might get there. It’s doing what science fiction does best, and giving us a solid adventure story along the way.
Up next is the chronological sequel to this book, though it was published first, in 1953: Star Rangers.
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.