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Star Guard by Andre Norton

star_guard_1.jpgI've probably written before that when I was the golden age of science fiction (twelve) I worked my way through the shelf of Andre Norton novels at the Salem Public Library, and that was my introduction to science fiction. The thing I've realized recently is that none of her earliest SF novels were on that shelf, probably because the original hardcover editions of those '50s books had worn out by the time I got to my reading project in 1972. So I've decided to go back to those earlier novels, starting with this one because a friend had a copy I could borrow.

Star Guard was published in 1955, and of course now that I've read it I discover there was an earlier novel in what is called the Central Control sequence, which concerns a point in Norton's rough Future History in which humanity has reached the stars only to discover an existing galactic federation that finds humans to be militaristic savages and thus forces them to serve as mercenaries in the rare instances where military endeavors are still required. So this is a military novel focused on Terran mercenaries, but it is also an adaptation of Xenophon's Anabasis or The March Upcountry, which is a non-fiction account of an army of Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus of Persia to dethrone his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 BC. As in Xenophon's historical account, the alien leader who hires the Terran mercenaries is killed, followed by the leadership of the mercenaries, and then the survivors have to fight their way through hostile alien territory to try to get back home.

Norton adds a backstory about humanity's grudging subservience to their alien overlords, with additional speculative history about how Terrans may have previously reached the stars before they met the aliens, as well as deeper history regarding a thousand years of nuclear war on Earth that nearly wiped humans out and largely drove them underground. Clearly in 1955 Norton was still thinking about World War II, militarism, and Hiroshima, and as so often her sense of human savagery is refreshingly bleak. But she's still an idealist, and you know her heroes aren't going to be subservient forever.

On one level this is just another variation on the Galactic Patrol or Legion of Space story, but bending it to the story of Anabasis plot makes it more interesting than the run of the mill variety of these kinds of stories. Since I had recently reread Ordeal in Otherwhere I was struck by some similarities in the marine-based alien races and environments of the planets in the two books. Norton's world-building always feels as though it's borrowed from other books, but the details are re-aggregated in fascinating ways. The plot is clean and well-structured and moves right along, with lots of good action, factional intrigue, and political maneuvering. There may not be a conceptual breakthrough (cf. Clute's remark about the lack of such in Norton in his article about her in the SF Encyclopedia), but it's a coming of age novel about the young protagonist in which he comes to a new understanding about his purpose and goal in life. There's also a transformation of political reality in the end that feels a little like something out of van Vogt. It all feels thoroughly familiar, but it's handled with supreme skill and confidence.

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