Friday, October 29, 2021

Star Soldiers (Central Control #1 & 2), by Andre Norton (author), Eric Michael Summerer (narrator)

Tantor Audio, March 2021 (original publication 1953)

This is an omnibus of two of Norton's science fiction adventure stories. They tell the stories of the start of human space travel and interaction with established, intelligent, alien civilization, in Star Guard (1953), and, four thousand years later, a story that reflects the spreading collapse of that same galactic civilization in Star Rangers (1953), later reprinted under the title The Last Planet (1955).

In Star Guard, humans have achieved star flight, but found an exiting multispecies polity in which the government, "Central Control," deems humans too aggressive for full membership, and assigns them the role serving as mercenaries in the on-planet conflicts of other species. For more technologically advanced cultures, Terra provides "Mech" units, using things we'd recognize as really advanced tanks, airplanes, missiles, and energy weapons. For lower-tech cultures, they provide "Arch" units, using swords, spears, nothing more advanced than rifles, and some form of radio communication between units. Kana Karr, Swordsman Third Class, arrives at Prime to enlist for his first assignment off world. The first assignment offered him is allegedly a simple police action, a good way to get some basic experience without jumping in the deep end. It's on a planet called Fronn, and it's apparently his somewhat eccentric choice to take all the course he can on X-Tee, Alien Liaison service.

When he joins up with his unit, he soon learns that it includes an improbably high number of highly experienced, highly ranked Arch soldiers than there should ordinarily be any reason for on a simple police action. When Kana and his unit arrive on Fronn, at first things seem to be going fairly well, despite the fact that they've learned they're in fact supporting one side an dynastic struggle. Then strange things start to go wrong, and they find they are opposed not just by native troops or another Arch unit, but by a Mech unit, which legally shouldn't be on a planet like Fronn at all.

There's a dark conspiracy, or perhaps just a malicious plan, to slowly reduce the "problem" of these "aggressive" humans. That plan seems to be inside Central Control And perhaps there's a counter-conspiracy, if they can connect with it.

In Star Rangers, the previous great civilization is decaying. There have been sector wars, and some planets burnt to cinders, and the Galactic Patrol is underfunded and increasingly crippled. One particular Patrol ship is given the somewhat suspect order to go explore a particular, rather remote sector, with the supposed goal of reinvigorating the Patrol and its government. After the ship makes some rather challenging stops on its mission of reconnaissance, the reach a planet clearly habitable by humans and the few non-humans, or "Bemmys," who are part of the crew. They land, but part of their landing gear collapses, turning the landing into a crippling crash.

The ship's complement is composed of Patrol crewmen, and Patrol Rangers. The crew consider themselves the real Patrol, many of them from longtime Patrol families. They are the command staff, the pilots, engineers, other technical specialists, as well as the armed security. The Rangers, on the other hand, do their job when they reach a new planet that needs to be explored and assessed. They have different skills, on planet survival skills and related specialties, and one in particular, Ranger Sergeant Kartr, is a sensitive, a telepath. Kartr and Rolth, from a dimly lit planet where humans have developed exceptional night vision while being very vulnerable to the full daylight of most worlds, are human. The other two Rangers are "Bemmys," non-humans. Fyhl is of a species descended from birdlike ancestors, while Zinga is of reptilian ancestry.

We soon learn that there's real hostility among the Patrol crew toward Rangers in general, and Bemmys in particular.

They soon find that this planet is perfectly habitable for humans and their environmentally-compatible Bemmy Rangers, yet there are, at first, no signs of civilization. This doesn't last, of course, and they find themselves confronting an offshoot of the sector wars, and a stranded sector lord and the passengers and crew of the passenger ship that stranded him here. He's got plans of making himself the absolute ruler, with the hidden, surviving technology of this apparently abandoned plan et to make him powerful and his life comfortable.

In both stories, there's solid adventure and interesting characters, and also  Norton's values of decency, honor, fairness, equality, and equity. She doesn't shun violence; she does dislike unnecessary violence, cruelty, and oppression. We don't see many women in her writing from this period, because she chose not to portray women in the way considered commercially viable in sf at the time. That changed later.

I love Norton's fiction, and have since I first discovered her in the local library. And in rereading her work recently, I'm finding that it still holds up.


I bought both the audiobook and the ebook, and flipped back and forth between the two based on convenience for this reread.

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