Sunday, April 22, 2012

Forerunner - Andre Norton

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award clearly shows signs of the imbalance between men and women in science fiction. Of the 28 winners, only 4 are women. The first woman ever to win this award was Andre Norton (1912-2005), who was thus honoured in 1984. Ursula K. Le Guin, Ann McCaffrey and Connie Willis have followed since. Norton had a long career as an author. She started publishing in the 1930s and kept on writing until her death in 2005. I have only read one novel by her, Black Trillium, which she co-wrote with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Julian May.  A book that is in my opinion a disaster. Forerunner (1981) is not one of her best known works, but apparently it is the first novel published by Tor, a publisher that had a great impact on American Science Fiction and Fantasy in the past few decades. Tor has reissued it recently.

Orphan girl Simsa grows up in the ancient city of Kuxortal. A place that has so many layers of buildings on top of each other that the founding of the city is lost in time. It is a place of commerce and antiquity and a place the space traders visit during their endless travels across the universe. For Simsa the universe is a lot smaller however. She ekes out a living among the burrowers. The city's poorest, digging though the layers of ancient civilization for items worth trading for. Under the guidance of a woman Simsa refers to as the Old One, she has learnt to survive but now that her mentor is gone, she has to face the world alone. Simsa is different form the people around her, something of which she is very well aware. To keep her independence and find her origins, she will have to find a way out of the poverty of the burrower's community.

Forerunner is a novel with one leg in Fantasy and the other in Science Fiction, as we would see things today. Kuxortal is a city that doesn't seem to have developed much beyond the renaissance technological level. On the other hand, right outside the city, space ships land regularly. The city is a hub of both planetary and galactic trade. A place with a long history but also one that clearly has origins elsewhere in the universe. The author probably wouldn't have thought much of the distinction but if I had to put it in one genre, I'd say it is definitely more fantastical.

We see the story entirely through the eyes of Simsa, who goes through a lot of personal growth over the course of the story. She is suspicious and rude throughout most of the novel. Trust is dangerous in her world and so she is very reluctant to grant it. It leads to a number of situations where she is very rude and clearly shows her ignorance of the world beyond Kuxortal. What bothered me a bit about this story is a revelation at the end of the book that changes her from ignorant to having at least some idea of how large the universe really is. It not only felt forced, it was also imposed on the character in what was almost a religious blending of spirits, rather than through her (quite harrowing) personal experiences during the story.

That being said, the interplay between Simsa and the start trader named Thom T'seng, to which she sees here fate tied, is comical at times too. Simsa doesn't recognize it, but the star trader is being very patient with her. His plans to do things that she knows are impossible or go to places that she knows mean certain death. She is proven wrong repeatedly of course, but none of it seems to disturb the star trader. He ploughs on, regardless of how stupid and naive Simsa seems to think he is, occasionally producing a small technological miracle to save the day. It would have been nice to see it from the other side as well.

A lot of Norton's works are what would be considered young adult these days. In terms of themes, plot and complexity, this novel would certainly fall in that category these days. The language Norton uses is interesting though. She has a distinct preference for long sentences with lots of commas. Some of it is quite overwritten and I found myself rereading lines a lot early on in the novel. It takes a few pages to get used to it.
Kuxortal was old but it did not die. Its citizens had become an incredible mixture of races - sometimes of species - or mutations and new beginnings of life forms, springing out of old. Kuxortal had been favored ages ago by the fact that it had come to birth at the meeting of the river Kux (which drew upon the trade of a full continent, wafting boats and rafts to the western sea) with that same sea. The harbor was a safe one even during the worst of the wet-season gales, its natural protections added to by the ingenuity of generations of men who knew all the perils of sea and wind, of gale and raider attack.

Description of the city of Kuxortal - Chapter 1

I guess you could say some of this novel is reminiscent of the golden age pulp magazines for which Norton wrote earlier in her career. Not generally a part of the genre I enjoy most.

Despite all the negatives I did enjoy Forerunner. It is not a memorable novel but certainly a lot better than my first encounter with Norton's writing. Simsa is a character you can really root for, even if she is too stubborn for her own good sometimes. If you are willing to overlook Norton's prose and the occasionally illogical plot in favour of a good adventure, this book might be a good read. Norton published a sequel named Forerunner: The Second Venture in 1985. I won't rush to the nearest book store to get it but I won't rule out reading it at some point either.

Book Details
Title: Forerunner
Author: Andre Norton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 272
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3191-5
First published: 1981


  1. I have to say, from a hugely shallow perspective, it has a beautiful cover! :)

  2. It is, very much like she is described in the books too. Tor put a lot of effort in the artwork.