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The X Factor by Andre Norton

Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.

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