1970’s Ice Crown is one of Norton’s standalones, though it shares one background element with many other novels: the forerunners, the long vanished alien civilization whose fall foreshadows humanity’s fate. Oddly enough, what came to mind when I read this novel wasn’t other Norton books (like Forerunner Foray or the Warlock books), but a very well known television series of the 1960s.
Clio is a closed world, protected from all contact with the surrounding galactic civilization (a civilization of which it is utterly unaware). Or almost all contact; Offlas, his son Sandor, and Offlas’ niece Roane are allowed to visit Clio for research purposes, to search for rumoured Forerunner relics. Not that either Offlas or Sandor see much value in Roane’s potential contributions to the mission.
Access to Clio is a rare privilege, but one with a price: there is to be absolutely no contact between the scientists and the locals. An offending off-worlder pays a steep price for violation of the rule: essentially an end to their career. For the unfortunate local who encounters an off-worlder, the cost is much higher: they are to be memory wiped. This is intended to preserve the great secret: Clio is just one world among many.
Any guesses as to how long it takes for Roane to break that cardinal rule?
Clio has been sequestered because it was a project of the now-vanished Psychocrats, rulers who shaped minds according to their whims. The Psychocrat who created Clio’s culture had a fondness for feudal Europe; Clio (or at least the part of it Roane and her family are studying) is a patchwork of kingdoms similar to those of old Europe. Or at least superficially similar; there is one vital difference.
Taking shelter from a storm, Roane happens to pick as her refuge the very structure in which kidnappers decide to store Princess Ludorica of Reveny, victim of an ongoing dynastic struggle. Roane is too kind hearted to leave Ludorica to whatever fate her kidnappers have in mind for her. Unfortunately, rescuing Ludorica requires breaking the no-contact rule; Ludorica is now a prime candidate for mind-wipe.
It’s bad enough for Ludorica that she faces both ambitious rivals and the possibility of mind-wipe. An even worse danger looms (not that she realizes it).
Each of Clio’s kingdoms cherishes a distinctive crown of office. If Ludorica avoids mind wipe and survives long enough to take her throne, she will be crowned with the Ice Crown. But the Ice Crown is no mere decoration. It and all the other crowns answer to mysterious, still-running machinery beneath Clio’s surface, the very machinery that the long dead Psychocrat used to make the people of Clio behave as he wished.
Whether or not they want to play out his fantasies….
A Norton fan could be forgiven for expectin this book, at least at first, to be another one of Norton’s science-fantasy novels, a book like the Warlock books or Dread Companion, a book in which futuristic rockets coexist with a medieval fantasy setting complete with working magic. But it turns out that that there is no magic in this world, only a warped technology.
This plot inescapably reminds me of several classic Star Trek: Original Show episodes: there’s the no-contact policy that gets violated in amazingly short order, the backward society oddly similar to a terrestrial society (good news for the costume department), the planet that turns out to be languishing under the rule of a computer, and so on.
There are a few details that mark this as middle-period Norton and not Old Trek. Had Kirk materialized on Clio, he would have been confidently breaking the no-contact policy and saving the poor natives from the computer as soon as he twigged to the situation. Norton’s protagonist, the insecure Roane, has a little more respect of (or at least fear of) the law she’s forced to violate. Kirk would have had the support of his crew, while Roane is continually undermined by her relatives.
Norton also manages a considerably creepier atmosphere than any STOS ever managed. It gradually becomes clear just how pervasive the effects of Psychocrat mind control can be. Its victims can only see that which they are allowed to see, which ensures that they cannot break free of the machinery. As Roane discovers, to her cost, it is all too easy to fall under the influence of the Psychocrat’s devices. Once controlled, escape is unlikely; the machines have, after all, ruled Clio for three centuries.
This is one of Norton’s shorter novels, but perhaps for that reason it is quite effective. Used copies should be easy enough to track down.