(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for the 1964 edition)
Andre Norton’s Sargasso of Space (1955), the first installment of her Solar Queen sequence of novels, delivers everything a 1950s juvenile science fiction adventure should. Sargasso of Space is not only blessed with genuine tension, intriguing situations, heroic young adults, but also a multi-racial cast (an African-American apprentice engineer and two crew members of Asian descent). This is my first of Andre Norton’s massive body of work I’ve read — Secret of the Lost Race, Star Born, Daybreak-2250 A. D., and Witch World are all on my shelf waiting to be devoured — and I will be looking to add more to my collection. There’s something so appealing in the classic archetypal trope of the young hero–with the help of loyal friends–solving an intriguing (and dangerous) puzzle.
Brief Plot Summary
Our young/intrepid hero Dane Thornson is an apprentice Cargo-Master recently graduated from the Training Pool that divvies out spacemen for the various large space companies and independent spaceships. There are multiple gradations of service: the big companies which have prestige and guaranteed profit, interstellar transports which offer little in the way of prestige or wealth, and the Free Traders — small ships which go where the companies will not go, i.e. the dangerous planets with big risk (and potentially great profit). The computer assigns our hero to a Free Trader named Solar Queen.
The Solar Queen seeks to purchase trading rights to the Planet Limbo — charted by surveys, but, for a mysterious reason, deemed not worthwhile or too dangerous for one of the big companies. An auction is held and the Solar Queen wins the bid but the crew has to contribute their entire salaries for the voyage to table enough money. If the mission isn’t a success they’ll be unable to buy fuel yet alone restock for another trade mission. We also learn how infrequent it is for Free Traders to win trade rights to any planet — the crew is risking everything on this chance in a lifetime expedition. When the crew opens the sealed packet with the planet information, they learn that the planet, named Limbo due to its unknown status, appears completely worthless. The world is mostly burnt and wrecked due to a war waged by the Forerunners, a group of spacefaring people whose presence stretched across the galaxy before wars destroyed them. The crew feels dejected until a man named Dr. Slazar Rich, who claims to be an archaeologist, asks for passage to the world. Also, they believe that there has to be something on the planet if the survey would have put it up for auction. Any Forerunner technology amongst the ruins would be a great boon.
Norton uses the time before the crew’s arrival on Limbo to discuss Dane Thornson’s job on board. He’s the apprentice to the Cargo Master who is in charge of stocking the vessel for long voyages, bringing all the trinkets and objects to initiate first contact (and trade) with potential alien beings. Dane’s interaction with the crew is not discussed at length. As with many juveniles, the main character is the only one who is developed to any degree. Dane does resent the spacemen of the more heroic movie-like mode, I assume due to his own more blue-collar position as an apprentice Cargo-Master.
Norton includes other interesting tidbits of societal information. For example, Free Traders of any mold are reluctant to wear weapons when they embark on a new planet. Only when they are confronted with danger do they break out the blasters. Norton clearly wants to present the Traders, although they bring trinkets and other worthless gifts for natives, as not engaging in trade at gunpoint as European explorers did with Native Americans, Africans, Indians, and other people they encountered.
When they land on Limbo, Rich and his assistants (who are all very suspicious) quickly depart for their camp. In exploring the planet, the crew discovers unknown vehicle tracks and a group of injured translucent globe-like aliens who have clearly been attacked. Adding to the mystery are the remains of many crashed spaceships, including the recent Federation survey ship! And Dr. Rich is nowhere to be found!
I read this in one sitting — while it rained, in a tent, after a long hike — and I couldn’t put it down. Not only does the final mystery resemble one of my favorite (conceptually) episodes of Star Trek Voyager (I won’t give away which one but it involves spaceships crashing on planets) but I found Norton’s inclusion of a multi-racial crew admirable. Remember, this is before Star Trek: the Original Series with Uhura and famous African American scientists… At first Dane does dislike the black crew member Ali Kamil (the apprentice engineer), but it’s because he is the “Video idea of a spaceman” (13). The fact that Norton has a society where a black man is the ideal spaceman seems very progressive for the 1950s! In addition to Ali there is Frank Mura, the cook, who is of Japanese descent. Despite being a cook, Mura, like all the members of the Solar Queen’s crew, has a vast variety of skills and becomes one of the main characters in the second half of the novel. In addition, there’s the Com-tech Tang Ya, another of the more important members of the crew, who is of Asian descent. Clearly, Norton’s vision of the future includes men of all different races.
That said, there are no female characters. Unfortunately, juveniles from the 1950s rarely include women. If they do, they are the love interest of the youthful hero or an intrepid young news reporter-type figure.
If you are a fan of naive, but delightfully fun, 1950s science fiction adventures then Sargasso of Space is one of the best I’ve come across lately — my favorites are still Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953) and Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).
(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for the 1955 edition)
(Jeff Jones’ cover for the 1971 edition)
(Don Brautigam’s cover for the 1978 edition)
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