Secret of the Lost Race is one of Norton’s future-noir novels, set in a universe of extreme income inequality, toxic capitalism, and planets occupied by inimical native life, rebels and outlaws, and predatory corporations and their enslaved workers. In a rare twist, the action begins on the mean streets of future New York, but it moves quickly to a barely habitable but economically viable hell planet.
Joktar is another classic Norton protagonist: an orphan of unknown but offworld origin, whose mother curled up and died soon after arrival and whose memory of his previous life has apparently been wiped. As is usually the case, he’s more than he seems: he’s much older than he looks, and he has serious martial-arts skills. He makes a decent living as a dealer in a questionably legal casino, basically working for a Mob boss. Press gangs make frequent raids and kidnap the young and the healthy as labor in offworld farms and mines.
One such raid sweeps up Joktar. By this time, thanks to interpolated conversations between persons-in-the-know, we’re aware that there’s even more to him than he knows. He’s somebody important—and he has enemies. One of these prevents him from being bought back by his boss and has him beaten nearly to death, then throws him into a cold-sleep capsule and ships him out to the arctic hell called Fenris.
There’s a great deal of political maneuvering going on behind the scenes, but Joktar only gradually becomes aware of it. First he’s sold at auction to a mining company, then an avalanche destroys the vehicle he’s traveling in and kills its crew. He scavenges what clothes and weapons he can and heads out across country, looking for some form of sanctuary.
What he finds is a rebellion against the companies. Nobody trusts anyone, least of all the rival rebel leaders. One way and another he joins one of these, and manages just about instantly to become one of the leader’s most trusted associates.
The rebels have a plan: to steal a ship and head to Fenris’ sister planet, where a government councilor who opposes the companies is arriving for an official visit. Here as everywhere else, nothing is as it seems, with spies and plants and double agents all over the place. Finally, at the very abrupt end, Joktar learns the truth about a persistent rumor that not only are humans far from the first species to venture into space, but another, much older species has been trying to make contact for generations. A few brave scouts have even lived with them, but overwhelming forces of bigotry and hate have blocked any further interactions, sometimes with deadly force.
It goes beyond simple human hatred of the Other. This Other is a dying race; they’re all female, and can only breed with alien males. The offspring of these breedings are always male, and can breed with both species.
Joktar of course is one of these first-generation crosses—that’s been apparent to the alert reader for quite some time. The bigots and the haters are out to kill him. The non-haters are trying to save him. He has exactly one page at the end to realize who he is and decide to trust the humans who are on his side. And that’s it, that’s all she wrote.
I can see why Norton told the story she did. She was writing boys’ adventure for publication in 1959. She wanted it to be a thriller—she seems to have been in that head space along about then; the first Witch World book, a couple of years later, starts off with a reluctant criminal on the run, and others of her space adventures then and later featured similar situations. There’s only one onstage female in the whole thing, an unnamed television-watching “girl” who exists solely to be avoided. Joktar’s trials and tribulations are constant and rapidly paced, and he never fails to come out on top, even when he’s being kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with death.
But for me, all the really interesting story-stuff happens elsewhere. I wanted to know about the lost race of the title. I would have loved to read about the spaceman who met the alien woman and fell in love, and then he was killed and she had to run and try to save their child. And then there were the people hunting for him—both those who wanted to destroy him and those who were trying to save him. There’s a whole novel there, or even a series of novels.
Joktar just isn’t very interesting. He’s flat even for a Norton character. He doesn’t spend much time thinking about what it means that he’s so slow to age, or that he’s unusually impervious to heat and cold. He almost never uses his martial-arts skills, and much of his progression through the plot is more or less random, driven by coincidence. He doesn’t have a lot of agency, or a lot of inner life. He goes where the plot pushes him.
The story I wanted was probably beyond Norton’s capabilities at that time, even without the strictures of the genre: rapid action, no introspection, and especially no girls. Characterization was never her strength, though she did grow that skill over time, and managed something like what I was wanting here with Simsa in Forerunner. I would have liked to actually meet the “lost race.” I would definitely have traded that for a chunk of political intrigue.
I do have to admit that that part was remarkably timely for 2019. Rogue corporations, drastic income inequality, rampant corruption, extreme bigotry and lethal hate—Norton would have been deeply saddened to see how accurate her predictions of the future were.
Next time I’ll be moving back up to the Seventies with Android at Arms.
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.