While my PC was down I picked up an unread pb at random:
The Forerunner Factor: Andre Norton
Baen Books (trade pb) ISBN 978-1-4516-3808-0
purchased 05/05/12 from Waterstones, Deansgate, Manchester.
Forerunner Factor was originally published as two books ¹. These chart the coming of age of an outcast: Simsa. In the first we learn that Simsa is humanoid but non-human. Her parentage is uncertain and she lives a borderline existence among the dregs of an off-world society beneath the ancient city of Kuxortal. She knows she’s different but doesn’t know her birthright or heritage. Offworlders land. They rarely trade with the underclass of Kuxortal but Simsa takes a risk and makes a deal with one of them which has profound consequences (for both).
In the second book, Simsa has discovered that her lineage is ancient, however, those of her kind – forerunners – were gone long before humanity appeared. Once off-world she encounters the underside of the Galactic Empire. There’s a big market in ancient, weaponisable technology and she becomes prey to those who would dissect her to harvest lost secrets from her body – without her consent of course. She flees, hoping her captors don’t give chase, and lands on a world that was blasted into desolate ruin when her kind were still extant.
This is an adventure with an eye for outdoor detail. ‘Forerunner’ in the title refers to the idea of extinct alien civilisations (a concept I first came across in the early 70s). The technology isn’t there as gaudy wrapping paper or on the author’s whim, rather it enables the plot. Sometimes it provokes a challenge, to which both protagonist and other characters must respond. Ancient technology is something that can be used to either enslave or cause great harm. Simsa is one of the downtrodden, living in the Burrows that riddle the foundations of Kuxortal. It’s difficult for her to find a way to fit in but she is determined to be self-reliant realising that unless she takes some measure of responsibility for her situation, she has no hope of escaping it. She doesn’t look human so she does what she can to conceal her differences. As she’s an outcast, she’s street-wise, taking care to keep out of the trouble that comes from those she lives among. This keeps her alert for other troubles when they come, which they do.
Simsa discovers that, no matter the price, knowledge gained is merely another perspective. There was a satisfactory ending and I got out of it both more and less than I expected.
The SF of yesteryear is constantly undermined by changes in technology – for example new areas. That aspect of the tale had weaknesses as did the portrayal of non-humanoid aliens, which felt clumsy. The interactions with ancient technology sometimes worked well but not always. These were areas where I had to work to suspend disbelief. The style of grammar sometimes made it difficult to unpack meaning. In some respects this work falls into the area described as Space Western, however, in typical Andre Norton style, the protagonist is more Indian than Cowboy.
No sex. 🙂
Andre Norton (born Alice Mary Norton) wrote many SF and Fantasy books. She wrote convincingly of the outdoor aspects of adventures. Cities, if mentioned, are like as not, long fallen to ruin. I read many of her books as a teenager and admit to her influence (esp. The Tau Device) In retrospect, her works bring to mind an appreciation of the position faced by American Indians ². She had American Indian blood.
¹ Forerunner (1981) and Forerunner: The Second Venture (1985)
² eg the five civilised nations in Angie Debo’s And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton University Press 1940)
Xeno-archaeology has fascinated me for some time. For more on Forerunner Factor, and my take on xeno-archaeology try this blog post.