Star Rangers, first published in 1953 as The Last Planet, is one of Andre Norton’s earliest science fiction novels, but in terms of the chronology of her various universes, it’s one of the last. It’s a novel of the end of empire, a theme that she came back to again and again through the Fifties, and revisited in different ways through the rest of her career. It’s also a novel about human diaspora and lost Earth, and perhaps most timely of all for 2019, it’s a novel about refugees and racism.
The galactic union under Central Command has broken down after thousands of years. Its enforcers, the Patrol, are breaking down even faster. One Patrol ship with a small contingent of Rangers has been sent on an essentially useless mission to a planet so remote it’s barely on the map. The ship is on its last legs, and the captain and crew likewise.
The ship crashes for the last time, marooning the survivors on a surprisingly green and welcoming planet. The only functional crewmembers are a handful of Patrolmen and four Rangers, two of whom are nonhuman. The Patrolmen are strongly anti-“Bemmy,” which reflects the overall climate of “civilized” humanity in space. (BEM = Bug-Eyed Monster.)
Our protagonist is a bit of a misfit in what would become the standard Norton mold, a human Ranger named Kartr (no doubt in homage to John Carter). Kartr comes from a “barbarian” planet which has been slagged in the latest of the endless wars. He’s also a psychic sensitive of considerable strength, though he’s very sparing in the use of his powers.
Just about as soon as the survivors are forced to accept that the ship will never fly again and start making their way to what they hope is the shelter of an ancient city, the plot shifts. There’s another crashed ship, this one full of civilians, and it’s under the control of another sensitive, an aristocrat named Cummi (one of Norton’s many names with…unfortunate connotations). Cummi is a man who would be king, and his subjects are all human. They’ve moved into the city and taken it over.
The Patrolmen insist on joining forces with Cummi. Kartr is not in favor, at all. The two nonhuman rangers, a birdlike alien and a lizardlike Zacathan, are in danger from Cummi and company—there are rumors of what happened to the few nonhuman passengers on the ship, and they’re not reassuring. But Kartr isn’t in command, and he has to accept the Patrolmen’s decision. He does however make sure to keep his tiny unit together and house it in a tower that can be easily defended and also easily escaped.
It isn’t long at all before they have to do just that. There’s a revolution brewing among the cityfolk, and the new arrivals have brought it to a head. Cummi blows up the tower, but the Rangers escape just in time, assisted by knowledge Cummi doesn’t have, of deep tunnels under the city. (More classic Norton there—she loved her subterranean adventures.)
Our heroes may have escaped sudden death, but they’re still not safe. Cummi has a mind-slave called a Can hound which he sends after them, and he overcomes and captures Kartr. But Kartr has an unexpected ally: the Zacathan, Zinga, turns out to have enormous mind powers of his own, which he (and by extension his whole species) has been concealing from humans.
Once Kartr is free of Cummi’s influence, he and the rest of the Rangers, along with the surviving Patrolmen, head out of the city and into the wilderness. Almost at once they meet yet another group of refugees, a Zacathan nuclear family who had managed to escape Cummi’s ship before it crashed.
With these powerful and benevolent allies, Kartr and company go in search of a possible spaceport. On the way they encounter indigenous humans, a “primitive” tribe of blond people who believe the refugees are gods from the sky.
This tribe turns out to be under Cummi’s influence. Cummi was driven out of the city during the rebellion precipitated by the Patrolmen’s arrival, but he’s been very much up to his old tricks. He tries to destroy Kartr and company through the chief of the tribe, and nearly succeeds. But it turns out he’s contracted a fatal disease called “emphire,” which maybe is meant to suggest that the whole galaxy is suffering from a disease called empire.
Or maybe not.
Cummi is dying, and he’s managed to infect the natives. Kartr and company, good souls that they are, try to find a supply of the antidote to this familiar offworld plague and cure Cummi, but there’s none to be had. Cummi is doomed. So are the natives. And Kartr and company conclude that they need to stay far away from these people not just for personal safety but to avoid exchanging potentially fatal pathogens.
In the end they make it to the spaceport, discover the true name and importance of the planet, and make a choice not to return to the city and its population of racist humans. But that’s not the end even yet. Another ship is on its way in, hotly pursued by pirates.
The ship is Patrol, and not only Patrol but Ranger. Kartr and company manage to activate the communications device in the port and talk the ship in. It just squeaks to a landing before the pirates can destroy it; then they send it back up with a single hero-pilot, to destroy the last of the pirates.
And now there’s a new population of non-bigoted humans, including women and a couple of aliens. They’re all marooned; nobody has a functional ship. But that’s not a bad thing. Everybody including the Zacathans is just fine with staying on this nice hospitable planet away from the chaos of the collapsing empire, and building a world and a non-bigoted culture of their own.
That’s what Rangers do, after all. They explore strange new worlds. It’s distinctly proto-Star Trek, and the novel reads like an episode of Trek Classic, which wouldn’t begin airing for another thirteen years.
Considering the size and scale of the galaxy, it seemed kind of unbelievable to me as I read that this remote, off-the-charts, long-forgotten planet could see so many different spaceship crashes in so short a period. But once I got to the end, I started to think maybe somebody somewhere writing navigation codes must have known what the planet was. Hence all the ships defaulting to it.
Though if that’s the case, Kartr and company are going to spend the rest of their lives mopping up new crashes and fighting off pirates. Or else the pirates are the ones driving ships there, and they’ll come down at some point and rob everybody and take over the planet.
But that’s just my head canon. In the novel itself, the Ranger ship seems to be the last one to come down, and it’s fortuitous. We’ve gone from an all-male and therefore unsustainable crew to a city full of bigots to a tiny group of rebels that’s only sustainable (barely) if it’s Zacathan to a nice seed stock of non-bigoted, planetary-adventure-positive, intrepid Rangers.
The message of course being that diversity is a good thing, racism and speciesism are shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive, and colonialism isn’t just about conquering “primitive” peoples, it’s literally fatal as the colonists bring in their diseases. Norton was paying attention when she read about the real conquest of the Americas, not by war or technology but by the introduction of European pathogens to populations without the requisite immunities.
There’s quite a bit of politicizing, too, about mind control and authoritarianism. And a classic American narrative of bold pioneers in the wilderness versus cowardly city folk clinging to their nice safe “civilized” institutions—with some rather unfortunate, inadvertent culture-ism in her portrayal of the “primitive” tribes. All in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War, with the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the horrors of the concentration camps, the waves of refugees both before and after the war, the very real and immediate threat of nuclear holocaust, and the growing movement for racial equality in the United States.
So much of what was happening then is happening again now. The threats Norton saw and addressed are just as real in 2019, and the stakes are if anything higher, with the planet itself in meltdown.
The one major thing she missed was the movement toward gender equality (across a full spectrum of gender rather than strict binary). Women are of no importance in this universe. They don’t hold command, they don’t make decisions. They’re breeding stock and low-level servers and that’s it. Even the Zacathan females are subordinate to the males, and Kartr’s only judgment of them is that they are, by Zacathan standards, pretty. When he has to deal with human women, he dumps them on the nearest female service staff and then, in so many words, forgets all about them.
I do note that at least there are women on the planet, and one or two get actual lines of dialogue, which is not often the case in 1950s Norton novels. But a novel that bends over backwards to be racially egalitarian completely blows off half of every species, diminishes and disappears them. Which is of its time, and of its genre at the time.
But it doesn’t make the rest of the novel any less timely or any less apropos. There are lessons for us here, and warnings. We’d do well to pay attention.
Next, thanks to the always helpful Marron4Gateau, I’ll be reading another space adventure from this period, The Stars Are Ours! Exclamation point and all.
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.