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Last night I learned that an old woman in a distant country whom I'd never met had died.

Catseye

I wept. Her passing meant that part of my childhood was gone.

Andre Norton: a personal memorial

The Time Traders

When I was seven, I picked up a book in our public library called Victory on Janus. I read it, but I didn't really understand it. It didn't help that it was the second of a pair of novels. But something about the characters and the strength of the plot caught my seven-year-old imagination, and I looked for more books by the same author.

Over the next seven years, I devoured everything she had written that our local libraries stocked. She wasn't the only author I hunted down, but her stories had a clarity and a reality that made the distant future and far-off worlds seem alive and vibrant. Perhaps more than any other writer, Andre Norton hooked me on science fiction.

Sargasso of Space

But I grew up. I set aside childish things, and at 15 I moved up to the adult shelves in our library. It was a couple of years before I found more novels by Miss Norton on the adult shelves. Witch World was unlike anything I'd read before.

Over the years that followed, I began to collect books. Re-reading her novels with an adult eye made me realise how strongly written the stories were. Her worlds had a solid certainty and practicality. Her central characters were sympathetic, often the underdog, and I could identify with them. And the technology was understated but practical. She avoided technobabble, using simple terms to bring the hardware into relief. I still think of aircars as flitters and groundcraft as crawlers. And yet she also could describe alien vistas and unhuman technology in ways that gave them gravitas and awe, that indefinable sense of wonder that made these images extraordinary and gripping.

The night before last, by purest coincidence, I had begun reading Sargasso of Space to my seven-year-old son. The world comes full circle.

The Beastmaster

So who was Andre Norton?

Garan the Eternal

She was born Alice Mary Norton, but to break into writing (still notoriously male-oriented in the 30s) she changed her name to Andre Alice, and later used the pseudonym Andrew North. Her early novels were in a range of areas, but in the early 50s she began to write the far-future novels that became her trademark. The early novels include many that are still in print, and are still strong enough to stand up now. They show their age to some extent. The Solar Queen crew includes no women, and the Time Traders show their birth in the cold war era. And yet… and yet they still work. They are set so far in the future, and the technology is handled in so blasé a fashion, that they have not dated badly. Some, like the Beast Master series, echo modern concerns about the ecosystem and the environment, before such ideas were prevalent. Breed to Come and Iron Cage both look at the fates of animals and Iron Cage particularly championed animal rights before it became fashionable to do so. And a multitude of her characters were of ethnic cultures, rather than being automatically white Americans.

And then, in 1963, she wrote Witch World. Suddenly she presented a world where a strong female protagonist stood alongside the male hero. Fantasy until then was either Conan, Cthulhu or hobbits. Female heroes were virtually unknown. Here, Miss Norton created a living, breathing world that was unique and uncompromising. Little wonder that it became an instant success, and that over the years that followed it was joined by over 30 more volumes.

Witch World
Judgment on Janus

She continued to write throughout her life. Her last book, Three Hands for Scorpio, was published after her death. Her contribution to science fiction and fantasy were rightly recognised by numerous awards and accolades. To name but two, in 1977 she was the first woman to be awarded with the Grand Master of Fantasy (Gandalf) Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and in 1998 she received the World Fantasy Convention Life Achievement Award. She wrote over a hundred books. A quick search on Amazon reveals that the vast proportion are still available in one form or another (publishers seem to love putting two or three novels into one volume).

She described herself as an old-fashioned storyteller. Perhaps that was her greatest strength - the power to create effective, straightforward action adventure yarns, in settings that seem real and solid despite their distance in time and space from now.

Andre Norton: 17-2-1912 - 17.3.2005


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