Janus by André Norton
Cover art by Larry Elmore
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Over her long career, André Norton wrote a number of stories relating to the notorious Dipple of Korwar. Short for "Displaced People," it's a refugee camp little better than a prison, an embarrassing blot on an otherwise beautiful pleasure planet. Because the locals don't want the tourists to see these miserable people in their poverty and hopelessness, the inmates experience harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement beyond those imposed by their poverty.
Niall Renfro came to the Dipple as a boy, after his family's spaceship was caught in the crossfire of a battle not of their making and destroyed. When the lifeboat in which he and his mother were drifting was recovered, it proved to be a less than satisfactory rescue. They had gone from Free Traders, owners and operators of their own tramp merchant ship making their living wandering from system to system handling the cargoes too small and minor for the big corporate interests to bother with, to beggars beholden to the charity of others for the clothes they wore and the calories by which they sustained metabolism.
When the first book of this omnibus volume begins, Niall's mother is dying of despair and he's struggling to find some way to ease her passing. When the doctor to whom the refugees have access declares her untreatable, Niall turns to the black market to purchase a drug that will ensure that her final days will be passed in illusions of the happy life she lost rather than the ugly realities of the present.
But such things come at a price, and the only way to do it is to sell himself. He indentures himself to be taken to a distant frontier world about which he knows nothing except that it is sufficiently primitive to have no support industries for technological civilization and thus needs human labor. Some of them may be places where a clever and industrious young man can make a life for himself, but others are hell worlds where a quick death is often a mercy.
When he arrives on Janus, Niall quickly discovers that he's rolled snake-eyes when he agreed to be shipped out to an unknown world. Janus is owned by the Sky Lovers, a dour puritanical sect obsessed with sin and its punishment, which they call "lessoning." The Sky Lovers reject all powered technology, instead clearing the forest to make their garths entirely by manual labor. It would be a hard and brutal life even without the continual focus on sin, which can lie in a wide variety of normally innocuous activities, but especially any interest in the forests, which the Garthmen hate as an enemy of the Sky.
Furthermore, Niall's new masters make a special point of mentioning the little shack on the edge of the garth's clearing. Here a particularly wicked sinner died after being stricken by the Green Sick, a mysterious and inevitably fatal malady which is associated with the worst sort of sin that one can commit. Namely, having anything to do with one of the mysterious caches of treasures that show up from time to time.
After the enforced idleness of the Dipple, Niall finds it difficult to adapt to the brutal labor regimen of the garths. Soon he begins to inquire about what it takes to buy oneself free, and receives a disturbing answer: it's virtually impossible. By the terms of their colonial agreement, the Sky Lovers have title to the entire planet, so outsiders cannot claim any land. And there is no possibility of conversion, even if anyone were to actually want to become a member of their grim faith: the Sky Lovers have declared that the only way to become one of their number is to be born into their community.
However, if one were to be able to hide one of the forbidden treasures and somehow escape to port with it, one might just be able to buy one's passage offworld and make a new life for oneself elsewhere. Of course that assumes that one can find a pilot dishonest enough to accept a bribe, but honest enough not to turn around and betray the would-be escapee to the authorities and keep the treasure for himself. Not to mention the problems of evading detection long enough to connect with such a pilot, for the Sky Lovers keep a very close watch for any hint that one of their unwilling workers might have found one of the forbidden artifacts.
Shortly thereafter, Niall gets a dramatic demonstration of just what happens when such a treasure cache is found. Not only are the priceless alien artifacts destroyed, but the entire community must endure a period of fasting and penance to cleanse it of the sin of contact, however fleeting, with the forbidden. Yet painful as this "lessoning" is, Niall finds the artifacts alluring, to the point of physical anguish at the sight of them being smashed to bits.
When the next cache is discovered, he resolves to preserve one particular bit of treasure for himself -- an opalescent tube in which flashes mysterious colors. Except he underestimates the greed of his fellow bondsmen, and as a result is betrayed to the brutal punishments of their masters. Punishments which include being cast from the community when he begins showing symptoms of the Green Sick.
Except it isn't as fatal as he has been told. Although there is agony and delirium, Niall emerges from it alive, albeit transformed. All his hair has fallen out, his skin has taken on a greenish hue, and his ears have grown long and pointed. Daylight has become painful for him and he instead prefers the dimness of twilight.
Moreover, he now has within his mind memories that are not his own, the memories of someone known as Ayyar of the First Circle of Iftcan. A warrior making a desperate last stand on the behalf of his people, the Iftin, who finds distasteful all the works of humanity.
In the Iftan we have elves seen through the lens of science fiction rather than fantasy. They are attuned to nature, they construct their cities within the great trees of the forest, and they have mysterious powers and abilities. Yet at the same time they are the native people of a distant planet to which Terran humans have come to settle. However, it's not quite a retelling of the dispossession of the Native American peoples by European settlers, for there was no sign of the Iftin when the first Terran scouts arrived -- or at least no visible sign, for as we later learn, at least one of the First-In Scouts was caught and transformed by a treasure such as Niall found.
As the story proceeds, Niall gains a companion in a young garther woman whose obsession with the native life of Janus leads her to find a treasure trap and contract the Green Sick. When she is left to die, Niall rescues her and helps her through the delirium of the transformation, enabling her to make peace with her new form.
However, when she tries to go back to her home garth to help her sister who had attempted to give her secret aid, she instead attracts the wrath of the people she left behind. When they contact the port officials, Niall and Ashla, who bears within her the memories of Illylle of the Mirror, suddenly become the hunted.
In their flight from the humans they encounter the White Forest, the domain of That Which Awaits. Here we have not only elements of fantasy, but of cosmic horror -- That is as alien and terrible as any Eldritch Abomination out of H. P. Lovecraft and his various imitators. Ages ago, an Iftin hero was able to enter That's domain and impose a truce upon It. But That's word was only as good as the Iftin's strength, and as they weakened, It began to press the boundaries, and may have had a hand in the fall of Iftin society that Niall's Iftin alter-ego Ayyar recalls.
Now it appears to control a spacesuit of antique type that patrols like an automaton, forcing them to take refuge in a hidden place where several other of the New Iftin have hidden. They tell of a colony of their kind on the other continent, among whom children have been born, and their hope that if they can reach sufficient numbers, they can appeal to the interstellar authorities as an indigenous civilization and have the Sky Lovers removed.
But first they must escape the White Forest, and in that task Niall draws upon his Free Trader past, even as it becomes steadily harder to function as a human rather than an Iftin.
The second part of this omnibus volume, Victory on Janus, takes place sometime afterward. Niall/Ayyar and his compatriots are awakening after an unknown period of hibernation in the heart-chamber of Iftscar, the final redoubt of the tree city of Iftcan. They should not be awakening from hibernation so early, but the Great Crown is under attack.
After hurrying to hide the precious seeds by which new Iftin cities may be grown, Ayyar and his compatriots emerge to discover that the forest is under attack by machines from the port. As Ayyar goes to investigate, using Niall's ever-dimming memories of his life among the star-traveling people of the galactic civilization, he discovers that this attack is not merely at the behest of the Sky Lovers. Rather, there is growing evidence that it is in fact the work of That Which Abides, that ancient eldritch horror which lies in the center of the White Forest and which may well have been the architect of the downfall of the original Iftin civilization.
Thus Ayyar and company must brave the horrors of the White Forest once again, this time to find the lair of That Which Awaits and defeat It once and for all. A task which will require both Ayyar's uncanny Iftin powers and Niall's technological know-how.
In all, it's an interesting look back into a time when fantasy was often presented in the guise of science fiction because that was the only way it could reach a market, and there had to be at least a semblance of a rational, scientific explanation for the wonders encountered in the course of the story.
Review posted March 31, 2011.
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