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Star Flight by André Norton

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the 1950's American began to really grapple with what it meant to live in a world where the superpowers were armed with nuclear weapons. The American bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had provided visceral proof of what these weapons would do to both individuals and to human civilization as a whole. So long as the US remained the sole nuclear power, it remained something abstract, something that would befall only Bad Guys. But once the Soviet Union got its own nuclear weapons, the specter of mushroom clouds erupting over cities was something that could happen here too.

The most obvious response was the building of bomb shelters and the duck-and-cover drills that are now frequently mocked as naught but whistling in the dark. At the same time, writers were struggling to find ways to portray the horrors of nuclear war. Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon was probably one of the earliest and best mainstream portrayals, giving us a small Florida town that misses the direct effects but has to survive the social disruptions that follow. But many science fiction writers also weighed in with their own personal visions, including Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, a story in which the bombs were only the first wave of destruction, and the survivors' mad turning against science and technology destroyed what little remained of civilization, resulting in a centuries-long Dark Age of ignorance in which scattered monasteries preserve fragments of books and learning no longer understood.

Although Andre Norton did not choose to portray such extreme destruction in her own literary take on nuclear war, she was not quite so hopeful as Pat Frank about people's rational side prevailing in the aftermath of a major destructive war. In the beginning of The Stars Are Ours, the first of the two novels which have been combined in this omnibus volume, scientists are a suspect group, enslaved by the anti-technology Company of Pax who blamed them not only for the disastrous Burning, but also for the assassination of their first leader (an event that is broadly hinted in the prolog to be a propaganda piece, with no hard evidence for the assertion that the assassin was in fact a member of the outlawed Free Scientists).

As a result the protagonist, young Dard Nordis, lives on the very margins of society, struggling to survive and keep his small family alive. His brother Lars was crippled during their escape from a purge of suspected Scientists, meaning that his ability to contribute to the family's survival is harshly limited. Lars' daughter Dessie, Dard's niece, tries to help in foraging expeditions, but she's just a kid and can do only so much.

However, she has another talent -- the ability to see rhythms and patterns in sequences of words, which Dard can translate into visual symbols. And Lars sees something else in them, which he tells in the form of a series of numbers they must memorize.

It seems like nothing more than a game -- until the Paxmen's police come hunting for them and they must flee as best they can with one of their number hobbling on crutches from his old injuries. For Lars has been continuing his own scientific work in secret, helping a small group of Free Scientists who have a desperate plan to escape the hated Pax once and for all. They are building a starship, and Lars' latest bit of work provides the key to make it possible for the refugee community to fly to the stars -- cold sleep, so that they can pass the slow centuries of subluminal travel between the stars and awake unaged in a new system.

But it's not quite enough -- they need to do some serious number-crunching to make sure that their formula actually works. And the only computer is in the Temple of the Voice, a holy place of the Paxmen (which makes them quite the hypocrites, condemning technology for the ordinary people but secretly using it themselves -- quite typical of such elites, rather like the people who want harsh restrictions on carbon emissions for the common herd but consider themselves quite entitled to go jaunting about on hydrocarbon-gobbling jets because they're Doing Important Work).

So now our heros have to hack the villains' computer -- but Andre Norton was writing at a time before modern networking, so getting access means having to sneak into the Temple and actually push the buttons and pull the levers. Which of course means an enormous risk of betrayal. It's a daring plan, and it succeeds -- to a point. While they've gotten their information, they've also revealed their existence.

Now it's a race against time to get the starship ready even as the armed forces of the Pax are bearing down on them, willing to kill as many as necessary to snuff out any community not under their control. And that's just the first half of it.

The second half takes up at the other end of their voyage. Centuries have passed while Dard and Dessie have been in cold sleep with the rest of the passengers of the Free Scientists' ship. Now they have arrived at last upon a new world, green and beautiful.

However, there are disturbing signs that it is not untenanted. Ruins are soon discovered, with evidence that their last inhabitants came to a violent end. Among the ruins the intrepid explorers discover markings like bands of color which appear to have been the writing of the lost race, but it resists decipherment. However, they also discover a capsule full of artifacts of rich craftsmanship and wondrous beauty, which gives hope that at least some of the people who once inhabited this new world were people who valued the finer things in life, not just brute force.

Those hopes last only until the Terran refugees encounter the otterlike sea folk and establish communication with them. The sea folk's telepathic ability can pass images and emotions as well as purely abstract information, and they have carefully kept alive the memories of their ancestors' sufferings as experimental animals at the hands of the city-builders. Although those people may well have delighted in beauty, they were also arrogant and cruel toward species they regarded as lesser than themselves.

Furthermore, their minds clearly worked in manners much less akin to human minds than those of the sea folk. When a Terran search team discovers a film-book left by one of the city-builders and tries to examine it, the very act of looking at the twisting bands of color causes some of the observers (particularly those with strong empathic or telepathic potential) intense psychological distress. Apparently those patterns of color are somehow forcing the human brain to process information in ways it is simply not capable of handling.

And that's where the first book ends, with the grim discovery that they may well be sharing their new home with a race with whom it is impossible to treat or reach common ground. And it's quite possible that the war which left their cities a ruin did not wipe them out everywhere.

The second book, Star Born, takes up three generations later. A mysterious plague swept through the small colony shortly after the landing, wiping out many of the trained scientists and leaving the survivors with a population too small to have specialists and preserve the technologies of their ancestors. However, one knowledge they have gone to a great effort to preserve -- that they are not the first people on this world, and Those Others who build the ruined cities and left mysterious artifacts dangerous to human minds were perilous indeed. And some pockets of them may have survived.

As the story begins, Dalgard of the Colony and his merfolk friend Ssuri are going to explore the nearby ruined city as part of a rite of passage Dalgard must complete in order to be regarded as an adult citizen. And in doing so, puts himself into a collision course with two other groups who are trying to recover that which is lost.

One is the RS 10, a ship of the Federation of Free Men that overthrew the hated Pax and restored technological civilization. Upon it is Raf, a young man of low status but strong curiosity -- which leads him to be less likely to take things at face value when his commanding officers discover the other group in the city.

And that's a group of Those Others come from a continent across the sea, trying to recover lost information from their old civilization that was destroyed in some kind of fratricidal war. They're tall, slender folk with an air of fragility that's only enhanced by their habit of powdering and painting their faces in elaborate patterns which indicate their rank and status.

The officers of the RS 10 almost immediately cozy up with Those Others, and never question their characterization of Dalgard as a barbarian and Ssuri as a mere beast. But Raf feels an intense suspicion of their motives, to the point that he's willing to break discipline and make contact with Dalgard, even place himself at risk of being condemned as a traitor, and strike a blow for the weak even as his superiors ally themselves with fellow authorities, not even noticing that Those Others are more akin to the Pax the Federation of Free Men fought against.

There is a sort of bittersweet poignance to the ending, an acknowledgment that things have changed for both human cultures in ways that have taken them apart, and that cannot be immediately be mended without doing disastrous harm to the less technologically advanced Colonists. Yet the door is left open for future adventures, perhaps even a complete reunion (particularly when taken in tandem with the prolog of the first book). Although Ms. Norton never wrote a direct sequel to these two novels, there are hints here in there in her other science fiction writing that perhaps the Astrans, both Terran-derived humans and native merfolk, eventually found their way into the galactic mainstream and didn't remain backwater primitives forever.

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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