1955’s Sargasso of Space, which Norton originally published under the pen name Andrew North, is memorable because it is the first of the Solar Queen novels. These form a seven-book series1 about Dale Thorson and his fellow Free Traders, who ply their trade between the stars and scrabble for a living despite the fact the game is rigged against them.
The book is notable for me because it just so happens that I caused the text of the 2003 omnibus to be very slightly amended, a story I will tell later on.
Dane Thorson is a merchant trainee who, despite the singular disadvantage of having been raised in a state facility [the impression given is of a Dickensian orphanage], has managed to claw his way to a certificate as Apprentice Cargo Master. Unlike his schoolmates, he lacks family connections and so has been forced to get along on mere merit. Now, schooling completed, he waits for his first duty assignment. Trainees are told that assignments are based on computer analysis and that the computer is neutral and above corruption, Yet … Dane’s well-connected chums get plum assignments while Dale is consigned to the Free Trader starship Solar Queen.
The larger interstellar companies like Inter-Solar and the Combine have a stranglehold on the most lucrative trade routes, forcing the Free Traders (essentially, one-ship companies) to make do with lesser routes. Free Traders are the bottom of the barrel as far as interstellar shipping goes but … interstellar is more glamorous than mere interplanetary work. Dane resolves to make the best of it and be happy with his new home.
The Solar Queen gets lucky (possibly) when it bids on exclusive trading rights to one of four planets just opened up for trade. The Solar Queen wins the rights to a world called Limbo.
The crew is somewhat dismayed to discover that Limbo shows the scars of a terrible war fought by an ancient and now-extinct race called the Forerunners. Unlike most such worlds, this one still supports life, which means both trade possibilities and … danger.
The Solar Queen sets out to find if any Forerunner relics have survived. The crew of the Solar Queen is fully aware that Forerunner artifacts can be dangerous in human hands. The Crater War on Mars is still within living memory and the crew worries that Forerunner weapons in human hands could leave
Sol (…) a dead star, circled by burnt-off cinder worlds
but business is business and artifacts could be worth a lot of money.
The Solar Queen carries more than just cargo; it carries passengers as well. Dr Salzar Rich, allegedly an expert on Forerunner sites (there are some curious gaps in his knowledge of the Forerunners), has hired the Solar Queen to take him to Limbo, which could well be the only Forerunner world where the burn-off didn’t destroy absolutely everything of archaeological significance. Once on Limbo, Rich leaves the crew of the Solar Queen to its own devices as he heads out on a mission of his own.
Dane and his chums soon discover that Limbo has its own natives, natives who are very hostile to the humanoids invading their world, natives who have been victims of mass slaughter carried out by previous visitors. If that was not bad enough, not only are there surviving Forerunner artifacts on Limbo and not only are some of them still in working order, someone knows how to operate those ancient machines.
And that while that someone has a use for the Solar Queen, the same cannot be said for the Solar Queen’s crew.…
My brush with Andre Norton was through her editor at Tor; reading an early version of the MS as I do, I asked about an inconsistency between the novel’s list of known aliens and the fact that Rigelians were non-human, known (in the series world), and not on that list. Turned out I was the first person to ask about that in the fifty years Sargasso of Space had been in print and I was told — although I never thought to check — that inconsistency was going to be fixed in the omnibus.
I do not believe there is any evidence women exist in this particular Norton.
In stark contrast to the glorious and fair law enforcement forces seen in other people’s books, the interstellar Patrol in this is pretty clearly a collection of monumental dicks who are, if anything, even worse than the big companies. The big companies don’t have the power to toss entire crews into indefinite lock-up for inconveniencing or embarrassing the Patrol. The Solar Queen manages to come out OK in their dealings with the Patrol but that’s only because Captain Jellico is a canny man who manages to convince the Patrol it would be easier to pay off the Solar Queen2 than to imprison its crew.
Survey, who knowingly put up for auction a burned-off Forerunner world when all past burn-offs were total, also seem to be jokers.
Anyone who has ever played the venerable role-playing game Traveller will find Thorson’s adventures very, very familiar. Though, as I recall, none of my campaigns ever had the cards stacked against the little guys as much as they are in the Solar Queen series. The major companies monopolize the good routes and as I recall, they have enough to pull to commandeer any unexpectedly profitable routes Free Traders stumble across. The scraps that are left are not only marginally profitable (if at all), but likely to be dangerous.
The benefit of this background, at least from a reader’s point of view, is that if adventure is defined as someone else having a terrible time a long way away, then Dane and his crew mates are pretty guaranteed an endless sequence of adventures.
1: Four novels—Sargasso of Space, Plague Ship, Voodoo Planet, and Postmarked the Stars—between 1955 and 1969, and then a second burst of three—Redline the Stars, Derelict for Trade, and A Mind for Trade—co-written in the first case with P. M. Griffin and in the latter two with Sherwood Smith, in the 1990s.
2. With more poisoned fruit, as it turns out. That’s not a spoiler except in a very general sense; my 2003 report on the Tor omnibus speculated that the Solar Queen was cursed.