Although a decade passed for Norton’s fans between the third Solar Queen novel (1959’s Voodoo Planet) and the fourth (1969’s Postmarked the Stars), for protagonist Dane Thorson, the events of this book Postmarked the Stars, follow right on the heels of the earlier three.
Dane’s appointment as temporary cargo chief on the Solar Queen, replacing a superior on holiday, seems like it should be a good thing. All it does is paint a great big target on poor Dane. Ne’er do wells are plotting to use the ship for nefarious purposes. This becomes obvious when Dane, having set out to pick up a parcel for transport, wakes up from a drugged stupor in an unfamiliar room. When he staggers back to the Solar Queen, he finds that he has been replaced by a look-alike.
Temporarily. The look-alike in fact was in such terrible health he had no business trying to travel; he dies of an unexpected heart condition even before Dane gets back to the Solar Queen. There’s no way to ask him what he was up to. But that’s OK; the results of the doppleganger’s shenanigans are revealed in short order.
Solar Queen’s cargo is animals, which are being shipped to the planet Trewsworld. The doppelganger installed a device in the hold, one that emits an odd, unfamiliar kind of radiation. The animals bathed in that radiation regress to older, extinct forms. For the brach being shipped, this isn’t so bad. It turns out that they are the degenerate descendants of intelligent tool-users. The device has restored abilities they had lost. Other animals revert to their large, carnivorous, dangerous ancestors. Not quite the cargo you want on a starship.
Once they arrive at Trewsworld, the crew of the Solar Queen have to decide how to handle these developments. They need to figure out who was behind the stolen identity and the radiation device; and more importantly, they need to know what long term goals were being served if they are to prevent future entanglements. The criminals had doped Dane with a drug that would have killed most humans (he’s an outlier, thanks to a previous adventure). The black hats clearly won’t hesitate to kill to protect their secrets.
Dane and other will have to work fast; if they cannot figure out who and why, Trewsworld itself may be lost.
I wonder if the ten year gap was less because Voodoo Planet sold poorly (I have no idea if it did; it has aged badly but wasn’t especially racist by the standards of the time) and more because Norton had run out of ways for the Solar Queen’s arch enemy IS to screw with the Solar Queen. Norton clearly took another tack in this novel. While Dane and company do speculate that IS might be messing with them again, they have to conclude that, for once, IS is not at fault. The new enemies have grander ambitions. These black hats aim to exploit a loophole in colonial law to take over entire planets. The Solar Queen got entangled in the scheme fairly late; while things don’t go exactly to plan on Trewsworld, the scheme has worked well enough elsewhere.
Despite this new tack, Norton would not return to the series until the 1990s, and not without a writing partner.
At one point the crew raises an interesting question: once the authorities know that the brachs are a fallen race and that the radiation can revert them to their old, intelligent selves, should the government then use that knowledge to return the brachs to their old glory? I don’t think we ever find out what happened with the brachs, which is a pity. We also don’t get to see any public reaction to the revelation that at least one intelligent species has somehow declined to animal status. One more answer to the Fermi Paradox in this particular universe, I guess.
I didn’t see the earlier Solar Queen novels until I had begun reviewing books for Bookspan, so it wasn’t until comparatively recently that I discovered that almost no time passes between novels. Each calamitous cargo leads to the next. I don’t think the Solar Queen ever manages to fulfill a contract without some horrific complication. Their reward for surviving is to receive another assignment fated to blow up in their faces. I question the wisdom of this business plan.
This is one of the Nortons that Wilmot Senior Public School had in its-reasonably-sized-for-a-rural-school-but-not-huge library. I encountered this early and read it often. Even as a teen, I doubted Norton’s grasp of biology; evolutionary reversion rays seemed somewhat unlikely. But Norton sure had fun imagining the results rampaging across Trewsworld.
I guessed that this might be found in the Tor omnibus that came out in 2003 but no such luck. As far as I can tell, this has been out of print for thirty years.