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A Mind for Trade by Andre Norton and Sherwood Smith

Cover art by Peter Peebles

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

A Mind for Trade is the sequel to Derelict for Trade, which continued André Norton's Solar Queen series. The process of bringing a junior collaborator in to continue an older author' series was just becoming common when these novels came out, but the publishers were sufficiently pleased by the success of Derelict for Trade to sign Sherwood Smith on for additional books, not just in the Solar Queen series, but also in the Time Traders series.

In Derelict for Trade, the Solar Queen was running on the fraying ends of a shoestring, facing the very real possibility that if they failed to make their run successfully, they could lose their ship and be reduced to hired hands on the big corporate ships, never again to know the freedom of the spaceways. When they found a derelict spaceship, they were able to successfully refurbish it and bring it to safe harbor -- only to have to face a maze of hostility in claiming their salvage rights.

In this novel, the crew of the Solar Queen and its sister ship the North Star have landed an excellent mining contract that would seem to promise their future fortunes. However, things may not be nearly easy for them, for it turns out that there is already a mining colony on the planet. These people are the survivors of the original crew of the North Star, which was attacked by pirates. Suddenly a lot of the trouble our protagonists had with salvage rights back at the City of Harmonious Exchange in Derelict for Trade starts to make sense -- Starvenger wasn't the ship's actual name, but a false name painted into the hull by the pirates in order to obscure issues of title.

However, the discovery of the original crew of the North Star, or Ariadne as they called it at the time, is not a complete disaster. They already have amassed a substantial amount of the vital ore cielanite, using a biotech system (the mining slugs). However, their efforts have been hampered by mysterious creatures which move amidst fogs during the day and whose touch is lethal.

Meanwhile Tooe, the young Rigelian hybrid who had been living as a pariah in the lower levels of Exchange in Derelict for Trade and joined the crew at its conclusion, is trying to earn her place among them. It's a difficult process for the simple reason that there's so much she needs to learn, and she's constantly wondering whether the crew is disapproving of her efforts or if they're simply so busy they don't have any time to spend with her. Although she tries to show how good she is, sometimes her very exuberance and enthusiasm betrays her, since she often doesn't know the whys and wherefores of established procedures.

And then she pushes herself too hard and goes into a medical crisis. Although her hybrid metabolism can shift in response to changes in gravity, it cannot do so instantaneously. As a result of her determination to show herself to be a good worker, she depletes the calcium in her nervous system to the point she passes out, which means that she collapses in front of everyone.

While the crew of the Solar Queen are sorting this out, their compatriots aboard the North Star in orbit are dealing with another group of pirates. Using orbital mechanics and the ever-growing activity of the system's primary, they work desperately to elude their pursuers.

On the planet's surface, the intrepid heroes discover that their troublesome fits of intermittent telepathy can actually enable them to survive contact with the elusive native lifeforms -- and that while they are beings of a very different nature, with no independent identities and a consciousness that blurs across bodies, they are most definitely conscious, self-aware entities. However, this means that everything has changed. Now that the planet has sapient natives, our protagonists no longer have a contract to mine ore. They must then find a way to save the Floaters from the hostility of those who would resent the loss of a very profitable venture and get themselves safely off the planet. The pirates are back, and this time they intend to exact their revenge.

As I read the novel, it's interesting to see how the writers have incorporated advances in astronautics since the original Solar Queen novels were written. At that time, it was assumed that adapting to freefall conditions would be extremely difficult, and that crews would use magnetized boots and metal floors to provide a substitute for gravity, and that everyone would follow strict conventions about what surfaces constituted floor, walls, and ceiling in a pressurized volume under microgravity.

As it turned out, humans adapt to freefall conditions far better than any of the early sf writers anticipated, perhaps as a result of our fondness for swimming and other water activities. Even as early as the Apollo lunar missions, the astronauts found it easy to use handholds and other suitable surfaces to move around their spacecraft with swimming-like motions. In Skylab, with its greater pressurized volume, the astronauts found that they could work in whatever orientation they found convenient for a given task, and did not find it disorienting to have a colleague working on what would be the ceiling in an accelerated frame of reference. There is a wonderful photograph illustrating this, in which Skylab 2 mission commander Pete Conrad is floating upside-down in relation to Dr. Joe Kerwin, who is giving him a medical examination.

Thus we have in this novel the strong contrast between the Solar Queen, where the crew use magnetized boots as was established in the pre-Apollo-era original Solar Queen novels, and the North Star, in which the crew swim around using handholds and other convenient surfaces as actual astronauts do in the Primary World. It's an interesting compromise which avoids throwing out the old that might otherwise seem dated to anyone who follows NASA crewed space activity with any level of frequency, yet was so established in the original that simply discarding it in favor of methods more in line with actual astronautics would be jarring to long-time readers of the Solar Queen stories. It may not work for all readers (for instance, someone may wonder why anyone would go to such inefficient methods when we know people can work in microgravity environments without such cumbersome equipment to hold themselves down), but at least it avoids the problem of writers simply abandoning continuity whenever they find it inconvenient to the story they want to tell.

On the whole, this novel is another excellent addition to the Solar Queen saga, with complex interactions between the two groups and misunderstandings based upon presuppositions that couldn't have been corrected if everyone would slow down and ask a few obvious questions. Instead, many of the misunderstandings grew out of root assumptions so deeply embedded in each side's culture as to be invisible, like the air one breathes.

There are also some neat little humorous touches.Ms. Smith has slipped in some in-jokes referring to names in her own Sartorias-deles universe, but they are subtle enough that nobody who hasn't read those novels will even recognize that a reference is being made (after all, a space-opera universe is going to be full of obscure planets that might merit a single passing mention in the course of a novel such as this one).

The ending leaves open the possibility of additional novels, perhaps developing Tooe's role in the crew as she learns more of the skills a Free Trader needs to run a profitable operation. However, instead of writing a third Solar Queen novel, the Norton-Smith partnership then moved on to write two novels in the Time Traders universe. After the second of those, Ms. Norton's health was fading rapidly, and Ms. Smith was becoming involved in other projects which limited her time. Later, Ms. Norton's estate approached Ms. Smith with the possibility of doing further Solar Queen novels on her own, continuing the storyline and characters she had developed so deftly in these two books. However, she declined, saying that she did not feel comfortable working in another author's universe without that person's guidance to make sure that everything stayed within the bounds of the original author's vision of that world.

Review posted October 31, 2012

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