Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Purple Prose

In The Language of the Night, one of the best books I've ever read about writing, Ursula K. LeGuin says of one of her own early novels, "But of course fantasy and science fiction are different, just as red and blue are different; they have different frequencies; if you mix them (on paper--I work on paper) you get purple, something else again. [This book] is definitely purple."

The first "science fiction" novel I ever read - when I was in seventh grade - was Andre Norton's The X Factor, and I loved it, even though LeGuin would classify it as purple.  I still own a copy and periodically reread it.  I spent much of my adolescence tracking down Norton's other "young adult" books but never located them all (she wrote well over 100 volumes), so I was pleased last week to find at our local library a new collection of her works that contains two short novels I'd never seen.  The book is The Game of Stars and Comets; it comprises The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), The X Factor (1965), and Voorloper (1980).

Alice Norton was a Cleveland librarian who started writing books in 1934 under several male noms de plume in order to appeal to the boys who were the primary market for science fiction and fantasy at the time.  Her early works were mostly fantasy.  Her mid-career writings, on the other hand, were full of pseudo-scientific gadgets, but over time the rockets and blasters again became secondary to mental powers, alien artifacts, and outright magic.  Perhaps her most famous works are Witch World and its sequels, which are pure fantasy.  The books in The Game of Stars and Comets were written in the middle of her career and are all quite purple.  Sonic shields and stunners are still in evidence, but telepathy and its relatives are ultimately the most important weapons.

The typical Norton book is written in third person.  The protagonist is a young man (some of the later books featured young women) who doesn't fit in to his surroundings.  Frequently he's an orphan, stuck on a hostile alien planet.  Some of the language is deliberately stilted to convey the "otherwhere" atmosphere.  The hero must face a variety of physical dangers and mental challenges before he eventually comes to terms with himself and his new environment.

The fantasy books are more successful than the science fiction because they aren't as dated, but I would still recommend even the early science fiction for young adolescents.  The stories are absorbing, the characters are attractive, and the underlying messages about honor, persistence, and self-reliance don't hit the reader over the head.  Andre Norton doesn't moralize; her characters agonize over the right thing to do, and occasionally take little moral detours, but eventually they pull up their socks and get on with it.  Looking back, I can see that they served as role models for my early life, and did a fine job of it, too.  I'm glad to have had the chance to meet two more of them over the last week.

"As for courage and will - we cannot measure how much of each lies within us, we can only trust there will be sufficient to carry through trials which may lie ahead." ~Andre Norton

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