Derelict for Trade by André Norton and Sherwood Smith
Cover art by Nicholas Jainschigg
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Over her long career as a science fiction writer, André Norton wrote a number of novels set in a loosely connected future history in which humanity spread into the stars only to discover them already inhabited by a wide variety of species and cultures. Not only were there a multitude of extant cultures that had to be dealt with, but there were also traces of many ancient peoples, traces ranging from fragmentary artifacts to entire worlds full of echoing ruins. In such a universe, there was plenty of room for traders to roam, moving goods that were nearly worthless in one system to a place where they could be worth a fortune. As a result, an entire culture of Free Traders grew up, somewhat like the Merchanters in C. J. Cherryh's novels of Alliance and Union or the Free Traders of Robert A. Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.
Often the Free Traders were a relatively minor bit of local color that the protagonists of a story would encounter in the course of their adventures. Sometimes they might have important bits of information or an artifact that the protagonist would purchase, and would later prove to be important. In a few stories Free Trader characters played fairly major roles, perhaps giving a character a ride, or providing a qualified pilot for a starship owner who lacked the necessary certifications. But in the Solar Queen stories the Free Traders were front and center, the protagonists of the story.
André Norton wrote several novels of the Solar Queen and its heroic crew before she turned to other projects. However, her fans wanted to read more stories of their adventures, and as a result, by the 1980's there was some interest in reviving the series, much as Isaac Asimov was persuaded to return to his long-abandoned Foundation universe and write further novels. However, by the 1990's Norton's health was becoming increasingly frail and she really didn't have the energy or the interest to tackle a return to an old series she hadn't worked with in years. Not to mention that the market had changed in that period, and as a result novels were typically about twice as long as had been expected back in the 1950's and 1960's.
As a result, it was eventually decided to bring a younger author on board as a collaborator who could take an outline or even just a basic idea and expand it into a full-fledged novel. At that time Sherwood Smith was one of Tor's rising stars, having co-written several volumes of the Exordium series with an old friend of hers, Dave Trowbridge. Exordium was space opera in the grand old style, albeit written with an awareness of modern technological development, particularly in the field of computers, so Smith would be a good match for Norton.
Derelict for Trade by begins with the Solar Queen low on fuel and making a very risky approach to a system when they are suddenly forced into snapout, the emergence from hyperspace, by an unexpected mass. As a result they don't have enough fuel to reach any destination, and they know that the salvage fees will bankrupt them if they have to abandon ship and go for help. It really looks like it's the end of the line for a ship and crew that have been running on a fraying shoestring for far too long. And the prospect of having to work as hirelings on a big commercial ship is about as appealing to Free Traders as becoming planetbound.
However, the mass proves to be an abandoned ship, and they can read its name in human letters on the side: Starvenger. Although some of the crew fear that it may be contaminated with whatever killed its original crew, the rest see it as an opportunity. If it still has fuel, and if that fuel can be transferred aboard the Solar Queen, they'll be able to travel to safety on their own power. Their future as Free Traders will be saved, at least for the moment.
It's a risky maneuver, particularly when they're operating on the last dregs of their fuel. They have to spacewalk over to the other ship and get inside without setting off any booby traps that might have been placed by whoever abandoned it. However, they find no signs of trouble, just the ship's cats shut in a greenhouse, having survived on water licked from the leaves of the plants. Several of which show tooth-marks, evidence that the cats tried in desperation to eat them.
Our protagonists take the cats across to the Solar Queen to be nursed back to health, and then set about transferring fuel to their own engines. It's not a precise match for their systems, but with a little improvisation they'll be able to use it. Since there's enough fuel, they decide to go ahead and salvage the Starvenger, although that will mean dividing their crew between the two ships. If the cargo in the Starvenger proves valuable, they may be able to sell it for enough to fully equip and crew both ships and increase their long-term profitability. If not, they can always find a buyer for the second ship and plow the proceeds of the sale back into their original ship.
Their destination is the City of Harmonious Exchange, an artificial world created specifically to facilitate interspecies trade. Humans share Exchange with two other species, the insectoid Kanddoyd and the elephantine Shver. Kanddoids are excruciatingly polite, so much so that they drown everything in flowery chatter to avoid risking offense. They also create a constant buzz of sound with the stridulations of their carapaces, the notes and harmonics adding meaning to their words in complex ways that are well-night impossible for humans to follow. Shver are a militaristic species with a complex structure of clans and a tradition of duelling, and they prefer the outermost edges of the habitat, since it gives them an acceleration comparable to that of their homeworld -- which indicates they are capable of feats of tremendous strength in less demanding gravity. Not exactly somebody you want to get crosswise of.
At first everything seems to be fine, and papers on the salvaged ship arrive quickly. Still, it seems too good to be true -- and anyone who's done business for any length of time becomes wary when a process that usually proceeds only with difficulty should suddenly go smoothly. Who stands to gain from smoothing the way, and at whose expense? Our protagonists notice a few odd discrepancies about the papers, and when they question the problems, the bureaucracy suddenly turns against them. Nobody wants to deal with them, and the delaying tactics put them at risk of bankruptcy through docking fees. Worse, somebody is spreading rumors that they're not Free Traders at all, but pirates who hijack ships and then pretend to have salvaged them.
While they're trying to fight their way through a maze of lies and bureaucratic obstructionism, a simple visit to a restaurant turns into an ugly attack. They successfully fight it off, but when they return to the Solar Queen they discover a stowaway. Tooe is a Rigelian, and loudly protests against being called a thief or a saboteur, insisting heavily accented Trade Talk that she is in fact a Trader. A hybrid who was rejected by the purist Rigelians, she lives with her family group in the Spin Axis. When the crew of the Solar Queen become interested in the situation, she leads them to a whole society of outcasts living in the least desirable part of the station. Some deft questioning by the ship's doctor, who tries to help them, soon uncovers a sordid tale of piracy and near-slavery. She realizes that the Solar Queen might well have become a target. Which means that they now have a very personal reason to cut through several layers of secrets and expose just who is responsible for the intermittent disappearances of independent ships.
Norton and Smith draw all the threads together into a satisfying conclusion which still holds out the possibility of future volumes in this series. As it turned out, only one more was written, A Mind for Trade. Although the executors of the Norton estate were open to the possibility of Sherwood Smith writing additional Solar Queen novels, Ms. Smith declined, saying that she did not feel comfortable writing in that universe without Ms. Norton's input.
Review posted December 22, 2011.
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