Friday, May 02, 2008

Crosstime by Andre Norton

Crosstime is a compilation of two stories by Andre Norton, "The Crossroads of Time" and "Quest Crosstime". Both stories follow the main character of Blake Walker. In the first story, Blake's foster father, a cop, has died, and Blake is going to be attending college for an art degree. While he is waiting to move on campus and the semester to begin, he is staying in a hotel. One day, he gets a feeling of danger, and that he must open the door to his room. He does so, to see a goon forcing another man to open the door across the way. Without even thinking, Blake knocks out the goon and drags him into his room.

The man who he helped, named Kittson, thanks him and shows him a card proclaiming him a Federal Agent. He tells Blake that he may be in trouble for helping him, and convinces Blake to come with him when a man claiming to be Hotel Security tells Blake that he is in big trouble. Blake is told to go downstairs and get into a certain cab, which takes Blake on a madcap ride and lets him off at a nondescript building.

While there, Blake is introduced to Kittson's associates, two very unusual individuals. Blake is a bit unusual himself, having fairly dark skin and bright red hair. Blake was found in an alley by his foster father, alone and naked, and Dan Walker, policeman, adopted and raised Blake. With his father's death, Blake is alone in the world, not knowing anything about who he really is or where he comes from. One of the more unusual things that Kittson asks Blake to do, is to pick up a small crystal ball. When he does, it turns blue. Not explaining, Kittson says they will protect Blake from the men who are now trying to kill him for associating with them.

Then, while the other men are out of the office, Blake undergoes some kind of mental assault from someone he can hear in the outer office, but never sees. Blake is hurt by the assault, but manages to beat it off. Not only once, but several times. Afterwards, he crashes on the couch.

When he wakes, the other men are there, and they level with him. They are not Federal agents, they are from another place, called Vroom. It's not really another planet, but the same planet, only much more mentally and technologically advanced than Blake's Earth. They are there to apprehend one of their own who has become a criminal, stealing a platform that can send people between the worlds, and using it to trade wealthy but primitive societies advanced weaponry. He also uses his formidable mental powers to take over those same societies, ruling them like a dictator using his powers.

Blake, it seems, has some kind of mental powers himself, a kind of mental barrier that leaves him unaffected by some kinds of mental powers, such as memory-wiping. While that's what Kittson planned to do to Blake, to leave him without knowledge, Blake's own powers mean that isn't an option. So instead, Kittson asks Blake to work with them to deal with the criminal Kmoat Vo Pranj and help them return him to Vroom.

Blake agrees, not liking the idea of being stuck in the building on his own, and is captured by goons working for Pranj. Thrown in with a man who claims to be working for a rival criminal organization, he and Blake somehow work the device to travel between "levels" or worlds, and Blake eventually ends up on a world devastated by Hitler, who in this world, won WWII. Falling in with a group of resisters, Blake must survive to be rescued and help bring in Pranj.

The second story is "Quest Crosstime". In it, Blake now works for Vroom as an Aptwardsman, kind of a guard-cum-messenger. He is taking a message to the governor of a colony on one of the many levels empty of humans, and worried about the Limiters, who want to limit Vroom's contact with the other "levels", thinking that it is damaging their society. However, since Vroom's planet was mostly devastated by a cataclysm many years back, in truth, it is the trading with other levels that keeps Vroom alive.

On the level Blake is headed for, he is asked to search for Marva, a woman from Vroom who had been visiting that level with her twin Marfy. Nobody else seems to believe that Marfy has gone missing, except for Marva, because the twins have been in touch mentally since they were born, and now Marva cannot reach her. When Blake finds Marva, she convinces him that her sister is missing, and has gone somewhere else. But they are prevented from pursuing her sister right away by a series of unexplained disasters at the colony camp. When Blake and Marva do attempt to return to Vroom, they discover that the platform that allows them to move between levels has been sabotaged, stranding them on an unexplored, unknown level.

Luckily, despite interference from the dominant lifeforms on the planet, Marva and Blake manage to get a message out to Vroom and are rescued. Marva convinces her father to send Blake, Com Varlt (the man who called himself "Kittson" in the first book), and his team to the level Marfy may have been taken to, based on evidence they find in Marfy's room. Marva must also go along for the ride, because of her mental link with her sister. This normally wouldn't be allowed, because women are rare on Vroom. The Cataclysm that happened there apparently killed many more women than men, and women are therefore still protected and kept from the "dangers" of other levels.

Although it is hard to brainwash Blake with a new identity because of his mental talents, they pose as British merchants travelling to the native American communities in the Central Americas. Blake is attacked and dives overboard to escape being lasered, and then is captured by Aztec warriors. They take him for a spy and bring him to the metropolis he was heading for to try him, but he is saved by a nobleman who knows that Marfy is being groomed to be a sacrifice to the sun god. In this world, sacrifices of humans had been replaced by sacrifices of fruit and flowers, but a certain group of priests and noblemen want to revive them, purge foreign influences, and make war with the British who have just begun to colonize North America.

The nobleman who helps Blake wants to stop their plans, and helps Blake and Marva find where Marfy is being held. Once they have rescued her, they find the outpost on this level has been attacked, and the workers inside slain. Troubles on Vroom have reached out to find them, and Blake and the others must fight their way back to Vroom if they ever want to go home again.

Andre Norton is the past master of speculative sci-fi, and these stories show why. Even though these stories were written in the 1950's, Andre Norton (who was a woman, despite a attitude that "Women didn't write Science Fiction" and that "no one would read sci-fi written by a woman". She used a male (or at least androgynous) pen name to write the stories she wanted to write) incorporated female characters into the stories as something more than just set dressing and more than "poor fainting things who must be rescued by the hero". At least in the second novel (the first is female-free), Marva serves a purpose in the story and comes off looking as good as the male characters in bucking up to adversity. In fact, she is portrayed as actively looking for adventure and isn't satisfied waiting at home, hearing stories about the adventures the men all around her are having. This was a fairly advanced idea for the time, not to mention a welcome one.

Reading stories this old, however, one has to deal with the kind of style that was prevalent back then, too. The characters are pretty much nigh-emotionless. They persist and soldier on, but never really seem to have experienced emotion. In truth, I'm not sure if that was just the writing style back then, or if it was informed by the popular image of how men felt they should act and be percieved (i.e. no wussy men around here!) It seems curiously flat to more modern readers, as if something is strangely missing. The endings, for example seem rather abrupt. The story reaches a certain point and it's "Bing! The end!"

For adventure stories, the stories in this volume definitely deliver, filled with strong heroes and heroines fighting nearly impossible odds to triumph over their foes. The world-building is sparse in words, but conveys a real sense of incredible places and situations. With only a few words, Andre Norton can paint a world that comes alive in your mind so that it seems almost real. I really enjoyed reading these stories again.

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