Twists and Turns in Andre Norton’s Android at Arms

This book did not go where I expected it to go at all. The title, to start with: I expected something like Forever War meets I, Robot. Protagonist finds himself kidnapped and hauled off into space to fight. I just read a Norton novel that did exactly that, Secret of the Lost Race.

For a fair few chapters I kept expecting this to happen. Planetary prince Andas expects to be chosen as the Emperor’s heir, but wakes up on an alien world with an assortment of other, more or less equally royal, noble, or politically powerful people. Or are they people? There’s been an interplanetary conspiracy to replace influential personages with android doubles.

So then the question becomes, Is Andas the original or an android? What has happened on his own world, if he hasn’t been there to take the throne? The other question that might have interested me, What about the people who did this in the first place?, doesn’t really get answered and doesn’t seem to concern Norton overly much.

Almost immediately after Andas comes to and gets to know some of his fellow prisoners or doubles or whatever they are, a massive power failure takes down the prison’s defenses and lets them escape. They’re in the middle of a wasteland, but they manage to liberate a transport with just enough capacity for the handful of escapees.

This handful drops down fairly quickly to just six, five humans (more or less) including Andas, and one catlike Salariki named Yolyos. By this time they’ve managed to capture a spaceship and rig it to get them offworld—after drawing lots as to which of the navigation tapes to plug in. The one to Andas’ world wins.

But! Not so fast! One of the escapees is a major player in the Thieves’ Guild, and he’s conspired with some of the others to swap the tapes. The ship lands on a Guild outpost, but it’s in ruins. It’s been decades since any of them was kidnapped. Nobody really knows how many, or why, or how, and again, it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that Andas, Yolyos, and two of the humans manage to get away and plug in the real tape, and finally land on Andas’ planet, Inyanga. But the plot has only just begun to twist. Not only have forty-five years passed, another Andas is now Emperor, and his daughter is a devotee of an ancient and horrible, female-presenting evil.

The other two humans, the nasty fat one named Grasty and the excessively girly, conspicuously helpless, manipulative fish-girl Elys, betray Andas and ally themselves with his enemies. Andas manages to liberate the key to the Emperor’s ancient and secret weapon, and he and Yolyos escape through a portal into an alternate reality.

As I said, the twists keep coming. Andas’ plan is to hide out until he can re-emerge and use the key to claim his rightful throne, but since no one has ever returned alive through the portal, that seems a little optimistic.

Sure enough, he’s called through the portal by someone on the other side, the rebel and refugee Shara—and Shara’s lord and Chosen partner, the badly wounded and dying alternate-Andas. This Andas is the head of a dying resistance, fighting the devotee of the evil female-presenting power, who in this reality has seized the throne. He manages to persuade our Andas to take his place and his cause, before he dies and Andas swears the oath that makes him, for all useful purposes, Emperor.

Now Andas is bound to save this world from evil. Which, with Yolyos as his loyal sidekick and Shara as his guide and protector, he proceeds to do. This includes an adventure with night-crawling horrors controlled by machines manufactured by, more or less, magic, a truce with a company of offworld mercenaries, a quest into a Chernobyl-like (if Norton had only known what would happen fifteen years after this novel was published) radiation sink, and a final (or so he thinks) sacrifice that destroys the evil and—in one last twist—saves Andas.

Which makes him think he must be an android after all, or why didn’t the radiation kill him? Because, says Yolyos, who plays the role of Wise Sidekick, the ancient weapon he liberated from the radiation sink canceled out the radiation and healed him and now he gets to rule with Shara and not even stop to think about going back to his own reality. And yes, he’s human; the medics checked him out, and he’s not a machine.

That still doesn’t explain how middle-aged false-Andas, if he is an android, managed to produce three daughters, unless androids are really some form of clone. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the adventure, in the end.

The first half of this novel had me grouching a lot about its gender roles. Women are either evil sorceresses, evil girly-girls, or dead. And let’s not even talk about the fat-prejudice.

The latter is A Problem, and not one that’s resolved. But the former transforms once Andas meets Shara. She’s skinny, filthy, unattractive, and awesome. Andas grows into that realization, in so many words. He’s had zero experience of women in his life, all he’s ever known of them is a set of stereotypes, and it dawns on him gradually that Shara is amazing. Not only that, she’s at least his equal.

Norton, in short, gives us the stages of a feminist awakening. Especially after reading a series of novels from the Fifties, with their all-male universes and their unexamined gender stereotypes, I really appreciate what she did there. It’s like a direct response to all of my commentary through this series, addressing a whole range of problematical depictions of women in her early novels. She knew. She thought about it. And she did something about it.

There’s something else, too. Her early novels are pretty much not there when it comes to characters’ inner lives. But Andas, here at the dawn of the Seventies, stops to think about who and what he is, what he knows and assumes, and what it all means. It’s not what I’d call great characterization; it doesn’t go very deep. But for Norton it’s significant.

She’s going there with diversity, too; not terribly successfully in the sense of 2019, but for 1971 it’s really not bad. Andas and his fellow Inyangans are part of the African diaspora from Terra, and their culture tries hard to reflect this. There are white people here and there but they’re not central to the story. The center is brown and black people, and they’re written as accurately as, at the time, she knew how.

Next up: Wraiths of 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 and Canelo Press. 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.

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