A Trip into Our Past, Via the Future

I was over at Book View Cafe blog reading one of Sherwood Smith‘s posts when I realized she had written a whole slew of books I’d never heard of, including some collaborations with Andre Norton. Since I’ve been having trouble finding anything to read (I hate when this happens, argh) I thought I’d give it a try. I found Derelict for Trade (1997ish) at my local library and it was entertaining. But it was also clearly not the first in the series as I had thought. Investigation led to the fact that Andre Norton had first written several books in the series way back in 1955 and my library had an omnibus version of the first two on the shelf — not even in storage, which is where I had found the later volume. Sargasso of Space.

I haven’t read much classic sci fi since I was a kid reading some Heinlein, and I thought it might suit my hard-to-satisfy reading appetite (I’ve been in a reading funk). This is one of the first books Andre Norton published. I think she was still writing under the name Andrew Norton at the time, and clearly her gender was under wraps. And 1955 was a long time ago, but, aside from the very datedness of the technology, what has struck me is how much the story reveals about our current-time cultural assumptions.

(I know that this was probably a light-hearted adventure story targeted to adolescent males when it was first written, however, even a similar story written now would not share the same cultural assumptions — it would have very different cultural assumptions — that’s my point.)



The diversity of the cast of characters was probably surprising back then, and it is still surprising now: although the POV character is a young white male  (of Scandinavian descent), his peers are a black man (a negro in the terms of the day) and young man with a name that identifies him as either Middle Eastern or an Arab or North African or from Western Asia, at least two Asians (Oriental, back then) — which includes one man specifically identified as of Japanese descent and another man I thought was Asian based on his name.  The diversity in this book is another example of how much things have not changed and how earlier books/TV shows sometimes did much better than we manage to do now (21 Jumpstreet anyone?)


The gender side of this is the absolute assumption that all of this is a man’s world: trading, space travel, business, danger, making a living. There isn’t even a need to explain why there aren’t any women, because of course it was perfectly natural that there wouldn’t be any women doing these kinds of things. This is not a criticism of Andre Norton, but it is a spotlight on how much our society has changed in the last 56 years so that this glimpse of a past/future era is incomprehensible for our present North American minds to accept: What do you mean there are no women? Why wouldn’t there be any women? Of course there would be women!

Colonialism/exploitation of aboriginal cultures/peoples:

In this 1955 book there is no concern about the exploitation of non-space faring peoples/aliens — their worlds are wide open to traders who can go in with the kind of trinkets given to American Indians in the US’s colonial history (beads, shiny things, low-value crafts) to get goods that can then be sold at profit among the other worlds. Most sci fi books today have some kind of post-colonial take on trying to protect/failing to protect “pre-contact” peoples. Not so here.

Concern about invasive species/epidemics:

I know from reading the later book first that at some point there is a plague and that plague is a serious concern for space traders. However in this first book, you wouldn’t know it from the lack of precautionary measures: they’re not even as careful as I am going to Mexico –i.e., don’t drink the water, and they’re not even as worried as the border authorities between Costa Rica and Nicaragua — where your bus (but thankfully not you) is sprayed down with pesticides on the border. (Update: I just traveled between Europe and Africa and they do sanitize the inside of the plane! They tell you to cover your eyes and nose if you are pregnant or concerned about chemicals — the mind boggles attempting to determine if the chemical is so ineffectual that covering your nose will protect you or if they are so blase about spraying dangerous chemicals on people).

In Sargasso of Space they blast off from one world to another with no more concern about microbes or invasive animals, insects or plants as I have getting on the subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan (or in this bed bug age, actually, less). In fact — and I can’t quite decide what I think about this — they do mention the kinds of beasties that hitch rides in (interstellar) cargo, and their solution? Cats! Now that’s either endearingly “think local act global of them” — non-tech, low impact response — or, from our “all technology is good and can solve all of humankind’s problems” viewpoint, endearingly naive. The cats themselves might be an invasive species!

These days, SARS, multi-drug resistant TB and invasive plants and animals are a fact of life, and all our best efforts don’t seem enough to contain any one of them to one continent or city, never mind one planet.

The Sargasso Sea was a fun trip, more into our own current attitudes than into the wild of outer space. Derelict for Trade was an easier read because I wasn’t as constantly coming smack up against my own expectations and even confusion about this world that I didn’t understand. Though I have to say, the inclusion of a token woman made the absence of other women even more noticeable; and without having read the prequels the subtext of reactions to her presence were pretty bewildering. That can only be a good thing.


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