Imperial collapse, as seen from the bottom
Star Rangers (Central Control, volume 1)
By Andre Norton
1953’s The Star Rangers takes us to a First Galactic Empire three thousand years old, just past the point where slow decline becomes rapid collapse. Central Control is no longer so central or so in control but the Patrol remains loyal to its former master. This makes the Patrol an impediment to Imperial functionaries trying to transition from regional bureaucrat to local warlord and so the Vegan registry Patrol ship Starfire finds itself ordered to chart uncharted worlds, a long term exploration mission whose real purpose is to keep the men of the Starfire occupied long enough to be killed in the course of their duties.
The story proper begins with the Starfire’s final landing, a crash-landing that kills or mortally wounds a number of the lucky few who have survived the years of the mission. The survivors are confronted by the obvious fact that they will never leave this unknown world that they have been marooned on; luckily, the planet is an “Arth” type, exactly the sort of planet on which the primarily human crew can survive.
The Patrol has not escaped the corrupting forces that have shattered the Empire. Not only does the Patrol draw an uncrossable line between them and their “Rangers”, their planetary survival experts, the Patrol is also very cool on the non-humans among them, the so-called Bemmys (who despite having one shared pejorative are in fact from a number of species). Even come from one of the more unusual human races is frowned on, which is why Ranger Sergeant Kartr has been careful to conceal from his co-workers that he is a telepath of some power.
While the unnamed world is habitable enough, the ship had the bad luck to come down in an inhospitable region. There is an ancient, crumbling road nearby but its poor condition suggests that whatever communities lay along it in ages past are now long gone. The survivors cannot even be sure whether the road leads to greener pastures or if it just connects one part of the desert to another.
If internal divisions were not bad enough, exploration turns up a second set of Imperial survivors, the passengers and crew of the X451, a ship attacked by pirates. This is a purely human group but it didn’t start off that way; where the Patrol is bigoted, Cummi, the Altarian who has taken command of the X451 survivors, is openly murderous and under his command, all of the X451’s aliens were quietly massacred.
Not only are many of the Rangers Bemmys but Cummi is himself a telepath and he has no intention at all of tolerating the potential challenge to his personal power that Kartr represents.
I remember where I encountered this for the first — Waterloo Public Library’s children’s section — but oddly not which edition. Since it was in hardcover it must have been the 1953 Harcourt, Brace & Company but the cover art isn’t familiar. I do remember that I found it a tremendous downer: not only do Kartr and his companions not do a jot or tittle to slow the fall of the Empire, what we learn of terrestrial history between now and the year 8054 A.D. isn’t exactly up beat. In the end the victory Kartr and company win is to stay alive a while longer, with the struggle for survival on a backwater as their only possible future. I was used to that sort of moody ending in historicals like The Lantern Bearers but I wasn’t prepared for it in my SF.
Norton has a pretty good idea how big a planet is so it’s too bad she didn’t really seem to have any grasp how big the Milk Way is. It matters to the plot that the Galactics not immediately twig to which well known (to us) stellar system they are in but many of the stars she names are local to that system. I can think of ways to salvage that but I should not have to.
It’s interesting that Norton drives part of the plot with the danger the Galactics, exposed to the combined disease pools of many worlds, present to the local natives. Isolated from their stellar cousins for millennia, the native have no resistance to common diseases. What is merely life-threatening to the Galactics is apocalyptic to the locals; the best hope is that the tribe encountered in the book didn’t manage to spread the new diseases to their neighbors. It’s not clear that there is a good fix for this; just by arriving on the planet, the Galactics may have set in motion events that will doom most of the planet’s human population.
Norton has a moral here and one she isn’t subtle about; prejudice is bad. The Ranger Bemmys work just as hard as anyone else to keep the survivors alive but the reward that they get is to that their human crew mates despise them and Cummi has the Bemmys on his “kill as expeditiously as possible” list. The other humans from the X451 may not be as determined to commit racially-motivated murder as Cummi but they certainly are not going to risk their skins to save non-humans.
The Bemmys get two scoops of excrement in their crap sundae because not only are they surrounded by humans, each Bemmy tends to be the only one of their kind on the Starfire. Kartr’s world was burned off but he can still hope to find a human wife and leave some form of legacy. The only legacy the Bemmys can leave is cultural.
This has more women in it than Daybreak — 2250 A.D. but only just. There are some women and at least one gets a line. They aren’t allowed to participate in the plot to any degree. Given the general theme of the novel it is a shame Norton didn’t also tackle sexism. Oh, well.
Star Rangers is available as part of an omnibus from Baen Books.