Friday, April 08, 2005

Andre Norton RIP

Andre Norton passed away March 17th of this year. Born Alice Mary Norton she took the name Andre Norton at the suggestion of a publisher who though it would make her young-adult writing sell better to boys. She also wrote occasionally as Andrew North. She was working as a children's librarian at the Cincinatti Public Library when she started writing in the 1940s and for over a half century she was an extremely prolific and influential writer of science fiction and fantasy books and stories.

It is simply impossible to overstate her contribution to women writers in the fantasy / science fiction world, both as an inspiration and as a mentor and facilitator. A list of the women fantasy writers who have collaborated with Andre reads like a Who’s Who of the field -- Marion Zimmer Bradley, A C Crispin, P.M. Griffin and Mercedes Lackey to name a few, chosen at random, in alphabetical order.

If you look back half a century at the SF trade you will find a whole lot of nerdish guys with slide rules and Andre. She pretty much invented the role of female SF writer and she created the sub-genre in which they could excel. Andre has won the Grand Master award for lifetime achievement in Science Fiction and the Gandalf Award for fantasy. Speaking of the body of Andre's work, C. J. Cherrych said

"I've seen a complete collection of Andre Norton's books and it haunts me to this day, sort of like the sight of an unscalable Everest."

I have been a fan her writing since not long after I learned to read. I first met her in person quite some time ago (God, has it really been 35 years?) when a friend and I were invited to her house in Florida where she made us tea, showed us her formidable library and introduced us to her cats. She was very gracious and we had a nice chat about her work. I can't claim to remember the conversation in any great detail but three things do remain to me -- two specifics and one general impression. The specific things I remember her saying are these:

1) When she was writing science fiction she would always structure her stories so that the characters would climb into their spaceship, take off, and immediately land at their destination. She knew that if she provided any details of the actual flight she would get stern notes from Isaac Asimov telling her what she had gotten wrong.

2) before she would start writing she would read widely about the subjects that formed the background of her story but, once the actual writing had started she was careful to read only mysteries for fear that, if she read a science fiction or fantasy story, something would stick in her head wind up in her story without her being aware that she had borrowed it. I believe she mentioned Agatha Christie as a favorite writing-time diversion.

The general impression I received was that she did a remarkable amount of research for a writer of fantasy and soft science fiction. If you mentioned a favorite book she had written she could show you a shelf of books on history, archaeology and religion that had she had read to get the background right.

I have met her several times since on those few occasions when she could be convinced to attend a science fiction convention but those meetings were always brief and formal. She was a very private person and was never comfortable surrounded by large groups of people, even her fans.

As to her writing, I must confess to a difficulty in describing it. If you have read much of her work, and are thus a fan as I am, there is no need to describe it. If you have not read her work it is maddeningly hard to describe it without making it sound like the sort of fiction that slightly precocious thirteen-year-olds post on fan websites. Many of the subjects she touched on would appear a few years later as pretentious fads. As an example, she had an interest in some of the non-Christian and pre-Christian legends and belief systems of the British Isles and many of them inspired and informed her work. While her work may have inspired many of the people who describe themselves as Wiccans it is not altogether fair to blame Andre for the undeniable fact that, not satisfied with admiring Andre's work as storytelling, many of her fans decided to simply move in and live there. The same difficulty presents itself with other themes in her writing -- American Indian lore, Animals and UFOs, to name a few that stand out. Andre may, for instance, be the only modern writer to write genuinely interesting stories where the main characters are cats.

From a certain point of view Andre never wandered very far from her beginnings as a children's librarian. She had no literary pretensions. She wanted to be remembered as a storyteller, not a literary figure, and for the most part the world has granted her wish. Her books continue to sell -- novels she wrote 50 years ago are still bought and read by readers of all ages. Many of her tales are romances but none of them contain the least bit of sex. Characters in her books do manage to reproduce but tend to do so in the gaps between the books in the series. Not, mind you, that she avoided the subject, just that it was never what her books were about.

You can read more extensive (and better) pieces about Andre at the SFWA Web Site and at CNN.

I will close with a bit from Mooncalled -- one of her most explicitly Wiccan novels. The gender is wrong and, given the fact that Andre never married, the bits about procreation are odd -- but given Andre's ladylike androgyny it seems to fit.

Blessed be, Oh, Mother, for this one was
Thy child-
Blessed his eyes that he saw Thy path and
walked therein.
Blessed his mouth that he praised Thee in
the day and the night.
Blessed his heart that it beat with the life
which Thou gavest him.
Blessed his loins which were fashioned to
bring forth life in Thy honour and to Thy service.
Blessed his feet which walked in Thy pathways.
Reach forth Thy loving hand to draw him
into Thy own fair
place where he may rejoice in Thy beauty
and wait until it is
Thy wish that his essence embody again.
Blessed be - in Thy name.

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