1963’s Judgment on Janus returns to the Dipple, that oubliette for refugees. Life in the Dipple is so wretched and horrible that young Naill Renfro considers it only sensible to sell himself as a contract labourer—a slave—so he can earn enough money to buy his dying mother a fatal overdose of drugs. Naill can do nothing to make her life in the Dipple bearable; dreaming herself to death is the only escape possible for his mother.
Naill at least manages to trade the Dipple for a new life on Janus, although given what he finds on that backward world, it’s not clear he got the better of the deal.
The Sky Lover theocracy that owns most of Janus restricts citizenship to cult members. The sour-faced extremists do not permit outsiders to convert, lest they contaminate the true believers with foreign, worldly ways. Anyone who is not a member of the religion is relegated to second class citizenship and worked until no longer useful.
Indentured servitude is bad enough but there are worse things on Janus. The planet is home to a poorly understood malady called Green Sick, a disorder thought to be fatal. Lacking much in the way of advanced medicine, the superstitious Sky Lovers deal with the threat of contagion by dragging those infected with Green Sick deep into the vast woods surrounding their plantations. There the sufferers are left to die.
It doesn’t take long for poor Naill to contract Green Sick. Abandoned out in the wilds, he makes a remarkable discovery; the long-term effect of the Green Sick isn’t to kill its host. Instead, Naill wakes to find his body transformed: his head is now hairless and his skin is green. His mind is changing too. The memories of a long-dead Janusian warrior, Ayyar of Iftcan, Lord of Ky-Kyc, are crowding out the memories of the boy from the Dipple.
The natives of Janus may have vanished ages ago, fallen to successors who are themselves long extinct, but they have left behind what one might call a biological backup. They invented the Green Sick to commandeer other life forms, reshaping them and infecting them with new personalities. All the natives needed was unwary hosts and thanks to the Sky Lovers, they have those now.
A literary note: while reading, I was struck by the parallels between Judgment on Janus and David Lake’s 1977 duology, The Right Hand of Dextra and The Wildings of Westron. That pair of now obscure books and this Norton are enough alike that I wondered if Judgment on Janus had inspired Lake. There is a link between the authors, in that Norton and Lake shared an editor in Donald Wollheim.
A minor positive: unusually for an early Norton, not only does this book acknowledge that women exist, there’s even a love interest for the lead. Of course, when Naill sees Ashla in her human form, he dismisses her as unattractive—but attraction is only a terrifying, body-horror-drenched make-over away.
Norton always got good use out of atmosphere. Some Norton novels can be downright spooky … but this one may be her spookiest. The victims of the Green Sick not only cannot escape being turned into aliens, but come to embrace the transformation. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Norton considered conversion into tree-hugging aliens to be a beneficial outcome. It’s not as if the humans in this book (Sky Lovers, the masters of the Dipple) are all that lovable. Nonetheless, I could not feel that Naill was better off transformed. I found myself thinking of various behavior-modifying parasites and the fates of their hosts.
Norton’s works are generally filed under either science fiction or fantasy. This is clearly SF but I would argue that it works even better as a horror novel, beginning with Naill’s judgment that the only way to help his mother is to find the least painful way for her to die. Before I had read much further in the book, I would have guessed that the author wanted to make Naill’s new life (won after hard struggle) look that much better by contrast. But it seems to me that Naill never stops being the victim of forces beyond his control (interstellar war, exploitative employers, and the dead, desperate to live again). I couldn’t say how this would read if interpreted as a conventional juvenile SF novel, but read as horror, I found it effective. Just not terribly comfortable reading.