Thursday, February 16, 2017

Apprentice Cargo-Handler.... IN SPACE!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #77

According to science fiction, there are essentially two kinds of merchants plying the space lanes between the stars. You have the Han Solo-types, who take jobs without worrying too much about legalities as long as there's a likely profit.

Then you have the legitimate merchants, who obey the laws has they conduct legitimate trade.

It's not surprising that writers most often turn to the "half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherders" as the character-type most likely to have real adventures. Heck, writing that last sentence makes me want to watch The Empire Strikes Back for the umpteenth time.

But in 1955, the prolific Andre Norton wrote the first in a series of novels that would clearly show that those staid, organized & law-abiding merchants can have some pretty thrilling adventures of their own.

The main character in Sargasso of Space is Apprentice Cargo-Master Dane Thorson, who has just finished his training and is waiting for his first assignment on an interstellar merchants. Most of his classmates hope for a berth on one of the ships owned by a big company--they travel the safest but most profitable established routes. Dane wouldn't have minded such a berth either, but he is sent to The Solar Queen, a small independent merchant.

When he boards the ship, though, he's not at all unhappy. The Solar Queen is a little beat-up looking on the outside, but it's clean and in good repair. It is soon apparent to Dane that the experienced crewmen are good at their jobs.

Which is a good thing. The Queen's captain wins the rights to a newly discovered planet in an auction. The planet, though, turns out to be a "burn-out," a planet destroyed millennia ago in a war that destroyed a pre-human galactic civilization referred to as the Forerunners.

But there are some areas on the planet that can still support life. So the crew of the Queen, after dropping off a group of scientists who want to explore some ruins that might have been part of the Forerunner civilization, take a look around.

But events do not unfold smoothly. There are reasons to believe the scientists are not scientists, there are wrecked spaceships--some of them centuries or even millennia old--all over the place, and a mysterious force prevents the Queen from taking off again. A crewman goes missing and a band of armed men surround the Queen and demand its surrender.

What the bad guys don't realize is that a few of the Queen's crew are not on the ship. This includes Dane. They soon realize that the bad guys have found some sort of Forerunner technology and are using it for nefarious purposes. This means Dane and his fellow merchants will have to play commando, avoid capture, find a hidden Forerunner installation, and figure out how to put a stop to those nefarious purposes.

Andre Norton was a wonderful storyteller. In Sargasso of Space, she gives us an exciting and well-constructed Space Opera tale, built around a mystery to which she eventually provides a satisfying answer.

Dane is our point-of-view character. He makes a few rookie mistakes, but performs intelligently and contributes to the eventual good-guy victory. But he's still the newest and least experienced member of the crew and Norton makes no effort to artificially thrust him into "the hero who saves the day" mode. He's one part of a team.

This is exactly the right decision on Norton's part to make Dane work as a character and for the novel to work as an adventure story. It allows us to believe that the Solar Queen is a real ship that functions successfully because the entire crew is competent.  It makes for a great start to a series of books that will eventually bring Dane into the captain's seat.

We'll look at at least the next two books in the series--frankly because these are the two that have fallen into the public domain and are easily available. There are four more books after that, so whether I continue to review the series depends pretty much on whether I can dig up inexpensive copies or get them via interlibrary loan.

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