Andre Norton was never known for bright shiny futures but 1965’s The X Factor is a gloomier novel than most of her books. Protagonist Diskan Fentress is a large, clumsy man who feels like a subhuman; he sees himself as suitable for nothing save brute labour. He has recently been reunited with the Scout father who left before he was born. Diskan believes that he falls far short of his father, Renfrey Fentress, in every conceivable way (a belief that Renfrey does nothing to correct). To rub more salt in the wound, the aliens with whom Renfrey has made his home are to Diskan’s eye without fault. Their perfection only highlights Diskan’s flaws.
Better to turn criminal than suffer under the lash of charity. Diskan steals a starship and a navigation tape (to a world his father had marked as anomalous) and heads up and out. He is lucky enough to reach his destination and survive a bad landing whole and largely unharmed. His luck would seem to have ended there. He is alone, poorly equipped, and trapped on a planet whose mysteries even his talented father was unable to unravel. What hope is there for poor, dim Diskan?
(This will get somewhat spoilery.)
Things aren’t quite as gloomy as they could be. Diskan does have one rare talent; he is a telepath of sorts, although only able to contact animals. Happily, there are animals on this world, including beasts oddly interested in helping Diskan. Diskan also discovers that some previous explorers have left a supply cache, one he quickly raids.
While short term survival seems assured, the mysteries begin to accumulate. Why are Diskan’s animal allies, the brothers-in-fur, so interested in him? What forgotten race once built a mighty civilization on Diskan’s new home? Why is Diskan having visions of the ancient city of Xcothal? How is it that he knows the name of an alien city of whose existence he had no inkling until he came to this unfamiliar world?
All Diskan’s questions may have to be back-burnered for the moment. He makes contact with the survivors of a Zacathan scientific mission, a mission that has run afoul of the hardened space criminals known as Jacks. Only two members of the mission, Julha and High One Zimgrald, survive … and they may last only as long as it takes the Jacks to hunt them down. Diskan is basically a decent man and throws in his lot with the fugitives. Their resources are few and the enemy is heavily armed … but the greater danger may be the lost city Xcothal and its enigmatic guardians.
IMHO, Diskan’s unfortunate childhood is one hundred percent the fault of the Scouts, whose regulations require Scouts to father children whenever possible as part of a eugenics program aimed at creating more scouts. The Scouts do marry their brides, but divorce seems to be automatic (The Decree of Departure) as soon as the Scouts are assigned off-world; I guess that’s a real timesaver. The Scouts at least see to the education and care of the children who result, but only, as far as I can tell, until they can determine if the kids are Scout material.
It’s better than punting the kids into the nearest Dipple, but as least as far Diskan is concerned, not much better.
I have to wonder what was going through Renfrey’s mind when he courted his bride. He had to have known that the marriage could only last as long until his next assignment, that any child would be consigned to a government crêche. Did he make that clear to her?
The X Factor is filled with Norton’s favourite tropes: the wise and good Zacathans, ancient worlds whose fallen civilizations none—well, few—now remember, helpful animal companions, psychic powers, self-serving criminals, a government with very little concern for the little guys, and more. But in The X Factor these all add up to something a bit darker than usual for Norton.
At first glance, Diskan looks like the characters we have met in other Norton novels: an outcast character, friendless, possibly an orphan, trapped at the lowest level of society for reasons outside their control. The protagonist undertakes a criminal enterprise for what seem like good reasons at the time. Fortunately, the protagonist has special gifts—courage, determination, intelligence, perhaps psychic powers and a special bond with animals—that pave the way to a new, better life. Sometimes the protagonist even gets a possible love interest (played by Julha in this novel).
However, at the end of this novel, Diskan doesn’t return, redeemed, to mainstream society. He turns his back on the stars, on Julha and the benevolent Zacathans, in favour of the dream world of Xcothal. Even he admits that his dreams may conceal a terrible reality:
”But what you saw there was all illusion!” she cried. “An empty ruin is what it really is. You will die there of cold and hunger.”
“Perhaps you are right and I am walking into a hallucination or dream. But it is mine, far more mine than this world of yours in which I now stand.”
For Diskan, better the dream of a lost world than the reality of one he has within his grasp. It’s an oddly downbeat, even nihilistic ending, atypical of Norton.
The X Factor has seen many editions over the years. Libraries and used bookstores of various kinds are your friend in this matter.