Before the fall

Star Guard — Andre Norton
Central Control, book 2


1955’s Star Guard is a prequel to Star Rangers. Although this book is set thousands of years before Star Rangers, Star Guard’s galaxy is ruled by the same Central Control that is in the process of falling apart in Star Rangers. The difference is that Star Guard’s Central Control is dominated by the galaxy’s elder races and humans are an ill-regarded junior race. Humans struggling for freedom in a galaxy set against them is a familiar story, but Norton provides a fascinating, if very dark, twist by placing this in the same universe as Star Rangers.

The elder races see humans as too violent to be allowed free run of the stars; humans are therefore confined to a few minor worlds. However, the supposed human talent for violence prompts Central Control to make one exception to this quarantine. Humans can be hired as Combatants, that is, mercenaries.

Kana Karr has no love for violence but the only way he can visit the stars — something he desperately wants to do — is to be a Combatant. There are two kinds of Combatants: Legions (who fight with a modern toolkit on advanced worlds) and Hordes (soldiers who fight on backward worlds with a deliberately primitive toolkit). Karr is a Horde Combatant, a swordsman.

A very junior swordsman, just out of training, Karr is assigned to Yorke Horde shortly before that Horde is sent to the planet Fronn to intervene in a civil war. CC does not necessarily believe Prince Skura (one of the two claimants to the throne) has a more legitimate claim, but he is more convenient. Intergalactic Trading believes that Prince Skura will give them access to Fronn’s mineral rights and has pushed CC to support their guy.

Even before Yorke Horde reaches Fronn, Karr realizes that there’s something odd going on. The soldiers of the Horde are more skilled than the assignment appears to demand. Karr himself has considerable training in XT relations, and he is by no means the only member of the Horde with unusual skills. It’s odd to see such a concentration of ability, particularly since Yorke isn’t a particularly senior officer.

Once embroiled in the civil war, Yorke Horde discovers that someone is trying a fast one; whereas Yorke’s men are armed with strictly low-tech weapons, someone on the other side has imported flamers, advanced weapons strictly forbidden on a world like Fronn. A bad situation quickly becomes worse when Karr and his companions realize that not only is the other side not playing fair, there is a grand plan underway to frame Yorke Horde for the crimes of Yorke Horde’s enemies.

A plan that will succeed best if none of Yorke Horde are left alive to testify in their own defense….

As I was reading this, I was reminded of David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze (with a hint of his Forlorn Hope). The parallels between Ranks of Bronze and Star Guard are in no way accidental. Not only were Drake and Norton drawing on similar historical sources but Drake, a Norton fan1, explicitly credited Norton:

I got that notion (of low tech mercenaries serving alien masters) from Andre Norton; one of many things I got from that fine writer.

In past reviews, I have made a big deal over how Heinlein liked to slip non-WASP characters into his juveniles but I cannot help but notice that where Heinlein was often … subtle… about hinting that character might be African-American or Filipino, Norton tells her readers up front that Karr is Australian-Malay-Hawaiian and it is pretty clear from what we see of North America that white people not resident in the southern hemisphere at the time of the Big Blow-up probably did not have many descendents.

Norton is not as egalitarian with respect to the sexes. Once again we have a Norton where we have to take the existence of women on faith, because they don’t appear on stage much. If at all.

It’s disheartening to realize that Star Rangers showed that not only will the humans learn nothing from their time at the bottom of Central Control’s pecking order (except how to be as bigoted and oppressive as their former masters), but that Central Control’s fear that humanity uncontrolled would give their destructive tendencies free reign appear to be correct. For all its faults, the alien-run Central Control had strict guidelines concerning warfare, while the human-dominated Central Control is said to have burned off whole worlds2. Humans as a whole often come off very poorly in Norton’s books, however heroic individuals might be.

Taken on its own, this is a straightforward, engaging adventure novel any young person would enjoy. In the context of 1953’s The Star Rangers and the fact Karr and his comrade’s heroic efforts will help unleash unprecedented violence on the galaxy3, Norton plays with more complex ideas.

Of course, Karr and his comrades cannot know what will happen millennia down the line. It’s Central Control’s efforts to control humans that lead the humans to struggle free of that control and eventually replace their former masters. During the centuries that Central Control had humans under their thumb, they were content to settle for simple exploitation of the human subject peoples. It’s a sadly familiar story … and odd to see it presented without the usual colonialist excuses.

This isn’t my formative Norton but I could easily see how it could be for someone else. Both books are available together in omnibus form from Baen; I recommend the omnibus but in contrast to my usual custom, I would recommend publication order over internal chronological order.

1: As Drake explains here, Norton was one of the two authors who introduced Drake to science fiction, the other being Van Vogt. Readers interested in Drake’s views about Norton will find this podcast of great interest.  

2: Humans actually got worse in the period between Star Guard and Star Rangers; in Star Guard, the Big Blow-up is recent enough that Terrans find the idea of using atomics on planets repellent.

3: This “short term victory, long term tragedy” reminds me of H. Beam Piper. I will return to subject of Norton and Piper, although not in this review and not soon.

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