Thursday, June 29, 2017

Interstellar Package Delivery

Read/Watch 'em In Order #82

A mail run was supposed to be easy. Pick up mail and packages on the planet Xecho, along with some cargo (including a few live animals and some frozen embryos) and deliver then to the planet Twesworld. Xecho is a crossroads planet with a small space port and not much else. Twesworld is sparsely populated planet with an agricultural economy. There's nothing about the job that can cause trouble.

Postmarked the Stars (1969) is the fourth novel about the Solar Queen, an independent merchant ship that plies the stars and got the contract for this simple mail run at the end of a previous adventure. Andre Norton had already given us three exciting and well-plotted Space Opera adventure. With this novel, she's at the top of her game. The story is exciting and complex science fiction, full of mystery, adventure and super-science.

Our point-of-view character is still Dane Thorson, the assistant cargo master on the Queen. Just before the Queen is scheduled to take off from Xecho, he gets word that there's one last package to be picked up. When he hurries into port to pick it up, he's poisoned and left for dead. Someone wearing a Dane mask brings the package aboard.

Dane, though sick as a dog, manages to get back to the ship before it lifts off. The fake Dane turns out to have a heart condition and dies under the stress of lift off. The package he brought aboard is--at first--nowhere to be found.  In fact, it's not found until the strange radiation it's emitting has caused the animals being transported to regress to earlier, extinct versions of themselves.

In one case, to the surprise of everyone, this gives the animal human-level intelligence, meaning it was once an intelligent species in the distant past. The situation is so odd and inexplicable,that the captain decides that the animals and the box emitting the retrogressing radiation be landed in a remote area until he has a chance to explain everything to the authorities.

Dane and two other junior crewmen take the Queen's landing boat down to an uninhabited section to Twesworld. But they are soon facing unexpected dangers themselves, stumbling across several recently murdered men and getting attacked by a prehistoric version of an animal native to yet another planet. Someone has already been transplanting creatures from other planets to Twesworld and regressing them to more dangerous versions.

What follows is both an exciting adventure and a well-constructed science fiction based mystery.

Who are the bad guys? Why did they initiate the complex plan of replacing Dane and smuggling the box aboard? Why are they making an army of prehistoric monsters from different planets? Before those answers can be found, Dane and another Solar Queen crewman (along with a local law enforcement official) will spend time as prisoners, manage a wild escape with the help of one of the now-intelligent animals the Queen had been transporting, witness a battle to the death between two bizarre monsters, and find themselves obligated to launch a make-shift rescue effort to save some settlers besieged by a combined force of outlaws and monsters.

The action is non-stop, but each set piece logically follows the one before it and the information needed to figure out what is going on is gradually and expertly fed to us. As much as I  enjoyed the first three novels, this one has instantly become my favorite.

We see Dane continuing to mature as a competent crewman. This time around, he has opportunities to be much more proactive than in the previous novels, contributing intelligent ideas and coming up with workable plans. His character arc throughout all four Solar Queen books is believable and realistic.

There were three more Solar Queen novels written in the 1990s, but these were mostly written by someone else. I believe I mentioned last time that fan reaction to these was mixed. I believe I will thus end the In Order look at the series here. We still have a couple of Nick Carter films to go, as well as the sequel to Parnassus on Wheels. Then we'll move on to something else.

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