Crossroads of Time (Crosstime, volume 1)
By Andre Norton
1956’s Crossroads of Time is in many respects another straightforward, serviceable little adventure novel that I would have found unremarkable except for an interesting choice of protagonist and a date of publication that makes the previous even more interesting. These two points cause me to stroke my beard in a thoughtful manner, which I believe makes me look intellectual rather than itchy.
When policemen Dan Walker and Harvey Blake found an abandoned baby boy in an alley, it was Dan Walker and his wife Molly Walker who took the child, now named Blake Walker, for their own. Decades later, Dan and Molly have passed away, leaving Blake to find his own way in a world that feels oddly alien to him. It is in no way helpful that Blake seems to belong to an ethnicity all his own:
From the mirror his own eyes, tired and dark, stared back at him without curiosity or interest. In the artificial light his thick cap of hair appeared as black as his brows and lashes — but in the sunlight it would be red, so dark a red as might rightly be termed mahogany. Only his skin was not fair, but a smooth and even brown, as if before birth he had acquired a permanent sun tan.
Shaving was a perfunctory business, conducted mostly from force of habit, since his area of beard was small and grew slowly. His black brows twisted together now in a familiar frown as he wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, if he did have Asiatic blood. Only, who had ever heard of a red-haired Chinese or Hindu?
Blake intends to study art at a local school but this reasonable plan is derailed when Blake’s peculiar sixth sense alerts him to some kind of crisis in the corridor outside his rented room. Quietly opening the door, he sees a stranger holding another stranger at gunpoint. It’s the work of an instant to rescue the man being held at gunpoint, a charitable decision that will completely alter the course of Blake’s life.
The man Blake rescued claims to be Federal Agent Kittson. He is an oddity, a man whose catlike yellow eyes mark him as outside the North American norm, just like Blake. Kittson’s pose as an FBI man is abandoned fairly quickly once it becomes obvious that Blake’s rescue has left Blake inextricably entangled in Kittson’s affairs. Kittson is a cop of sorts but nothing so local as FBI; he is a Wardsman, one of a corps of otherworldly guardians charged with making sure that crosstime technology, which allows access to all possible Earths, is not exploited by would-be world-conquerors.
Blake’s timeline is threatened by Kmoat Vo Pranj, an ambitious megalomaniac who plans to leverage the advanced technology and awesome psi powers of his home timeline (the same one that produced crosstime technology as well as the Wardsmen). Neither Pranj nor the Wardsmen care to tip their hands to the local authorities. Pranj seems to have an edge, thanks to his lack of ethics and his mighty mental powers. It’s pretty easy for Pranj to acquire a network of minions, many of whom have no memory at all of their service to Pranj. Fortunately for Blake’s Earth, the Wardsmen have teamwork and experience on their side.
So of course it’s the inexperienced Blake who manages to figure out how to track down Pranj. Add a few other bold actions and Blake finds himself careening alone across the timelines, carried away from his natal timeline to worlds whose histories are so peculiar as to defy conjecture.
Norton firmly underlines the fact that her protagonist isn’t white as Americans of the 1950s would have defined white, even more firmly than she did when writing Star Guard one year earlier. If Blake is, oh, eighteen, and the book is set in the year of publication, he would have been an infant in 1938. Growing up brown in the Depression Era and then the post-war era of the USA must have been interesting. After a moment’s thought, I began to wonder if the reason it was Dan Walker and not Harvey Blake who adopted the lost boy was because Walker was the one of the police pair who was African-American. Of course, Blake is not really African-American; it’s not at all clear what his background is, although the Wardsmen think that he may be a foundling from yet another timeline. (If he is, I bet the issue is resolved in the other Crosstime novel, Quest Crosstime, which I have not read.)
I am happy that I am reading these books after rereading so much Heinlein, because Norton makes Heinlein’s attempts at sneaking diversity into his books look like weak tea1.
Once again, this is a Norton that doesn’t feature many women. Of the few who do appear, one, Molly, dies before the story begins. The others are strange, predatory hags whom Blake encounters in a bizarre timeline.
I said in my review of Star Guard that “I will return to subject of Norton and Piper, although not in this review and not soon.” I was half-right. Let me just note that there are a lot of similarities between Norton’s Crosstime books and Piper’s Paratime books. Both series involve a timeline that is anomalously advanced compared to the others, one that has what seems to be a monopoly on crosstime travel technology. Both feature a police force determined to prevent illegal exploitation of other timelines. The major difference between the two series (such a Norton difference) is that the Wardsmen’s civilization does not exploit other timelines, whereas the Paratime home timeline is dependent on covertly exploiting other timelines (having used up all of their own resources).
This is how the Wardsmen define their mission:
Then one of our historian-scientists discovered the levels of ‘Successor Worlds’ as we term them. Travel, not backward or forward in time, but across it, became common. And, because we are human, trouble developed too. It was necessary to keep a check on irresponsible travelers, prevent criminals from looting on other time lines where their powers gave them vast advantage. Thus the organization we represent came into being.
The Wardsmen are not exploiters (or so they say, and there is nothing in this book that would prove them wrong); they are protectors.
I have no idea if Norton is reacting to Piper here2 or if she just arrived at a similar idea independently. This is something that happens with fair frequency in speculative fiction. Either way, it’s interesting to compare and contrast how Norton and Piper used the same basic setup3.
Baen does a stellar job of keeping Norton in print and this is one of the Norton works they publish.
1: I wondered if editorial pressure had forced Heinlein to adopt such subtle methods, but then there’s this gem of a quote:
I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm.
While it’s very clear from various details that Art is Jewish, I don’t think the word “Jew” ever appears in the text of Rocketship Galileo. Given Heinlein’s firmly stated resolve above, that has to due to a decision by Heinlein, not pressure from his editor.
2: The earliest Piper Paratime stories predate this novel by eight years, so if someone was reacting to someone else’s fiction, it had to have been Norton reacting to Piper.
3: Which I guess commits me to rereading Paratime and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.