Star Soldiers (2001 Baen Books, 2021 Tantor Media) contains the two related stand-alone stories Star Guard (1955) and Star Rangers (1953) which together are known as the CENTRAL CONTROL novels. I’m reviewing them separately since that’s how they were originally published. I’ve read more than 20 Andre Norton novels and these are some of my favorites. Like most of her work, they’ll be enjoyed most by teenagers, especially those new to science fiction.
In Star Guard we discover that the galaxy is policed by an organization called Central Control. Earth is part of the galactic league, but humans, who are uncivilized barbarians, are thought to be fit only for military service. Thus, they’re hired out as mercenaries when needed and are only allowed to travel the stars when they’re on assignment.
Kana Karr resents the ways humans are treated by Central Control. After years of training, he’s being sent on his first assignment. It’s supposed to involve patrolling a border on a backwater planet, but Kana and some of his team worry that they are helping a rebel warlord commit a coup against his cousin. As they uncover evidence of a conspiracy which must originate at the top, they begin to suspect that the galactic league is not as civilized as it claims to be.
The knowledge that Kana and his team have acquired is so dangerous that they fear they may be hunted down and killed or simply abandoned and left to die on that backward planet. Can they escape and expose the evil deeds they’ve witnessed? They will have to brave dangerous mountains, flash floods, booby traps, treachery, and the notice of unfamiliar aliens.
Star Guard is an exciting story with some great scenery, appealing characters (though no women, ugh!), sweet friendships, courageous displays of loyalty, several surprisingly emotional scenes, and a totally unforeseen clever twist at the end.
The audio version by Tantor Audio is narrated by Eric Michael Summerer who gives a great performance. The entire audiobook version (contains Star Guard and Star Rangers) is 14.5 hours long.
Like a lot of people my age, Andre Norton was a huge part of my early science fiction reading. She wasn’t my introduction to the genre; that came via series books like Tom Swift, Danny Dunn, and a few others like the Mushroom Planet books. But Norton opened up my world to the full possibility of the genre, and I went through her books one by one by one, and then did so again. And again. But three in particular I reread literally dozens of times — I’ve long ago lost count — and continue rereading to this day: The Stars Are Ours, Star Rangers, and Star Guard.
Star Guard is the military sci-fi out of the trio, but as is usual Norton adds her own originality and depth to a well-worn tale (really well worn, as it’s actually based on an old Greek epic). One way is how, or why, we’re even in the military sci-fi genre. As both the introduction and several characters tell us (we probably didn’t need so many explanations), when humanity first made it to the stars, the already established galactic community (most of them) boxed Terrans into the role of mercenaries, “until such a time as these too independent and aggressive creatures would develop for themselves some less dangerous calling.” Ostensibly this was to prevent humans from causing all sorts of mayhem, “tear[ing] asunder the peace of the stellar lanes,” but really, the Terrans suspect, it was because the older species feared humanity’s youthful energy, along with their “curiosity, daring, and technical skill,” would overthrow the old order. And so humans don’t choose the soldiering life (on a macro scale at least); it is imposed on them. If humanity wants to see the stars, they can only do so as hired guns.
The second twist on typical military sci-fi is that the human forces are split into “mech legions” and “arch hordes,” the former using military tech like blasters, airships, flamers, crawlers, etc., and the latter limited to low-tech hand weapons like rifles and swords. Archs can only serve on primitive worlds, while mechs are expressly forbidden from doing so.
A lot of books, of course, are predicated on showing what happens when the “expressly forbidden” actually occurs, and that’s what we have here. Young Kana Kartr, a typical Norton protagonist, is on his first Arch enlistment, his Horde hired by a native Llor on the planet Fronn for what was supposed to be a “police action” but instead turns out to be an attempt to become a local sort of king (who inherits is in dispute). Things, though, quickly go south, and the humans find themselves forced to retreat through inhospitable lands, fighting not only the Llor but other native species as well, as the Horde tries to return to the spaceport and get off-planet. Things turn shockingly more dangerous when they learn of a rogue Mech Legion on the planet and of a conspiracy that may originate at the very top of the galactic power center. A conspiracy that makes it all the more important for them to find a way off Fronn and back to Earth.
Star Guard is episodic in nature. We move from Kana’s “job search” and settling in as a “greenie” with a surprisingly veteran-heavy Horde to the Llor civil war to the contested retreat to a lull in the action as the Horde regroups and plans their next action, to the shocking discovery of the conspiracy and an escape from Fronn, to a chase scene and climax on Earth. It’s almost a series of mini-stories, and the story is episodic not just in plot but also in tone and genre.
The early part is typical coming-of-age, with a young protagonist who doesn’t really know what he’s doing having to learn some confidence and some leadership skills, even as he is both aided and hindered by older men. There’s a bully scene, a collect-a-mentor scene, a first kill scene, etc. The Llor war and retreat offer up the military part of the “military sci-fi”, but in varied form, as we see formal engagements, group battles, ambushes, betrayals, spy games, guerrilla warfare, and so on. And just to spice things up even more, Norton throws in some man vs. nature themes (and I mean “man” — there are, I believe, literally no women in this book; more on that later): cold, heavy snow, tough river fordings, tough mountain climbing, hurricane-force winds. The Horde is facing true danger here, as evidenced by the constant whittling away of their number: twenty lost here, fifty lost there, three here. Finally, the last section is made up of several classic chase scenes, all culminating in a major twist at the end, albeit one that Norton has carefully prepared the reader for by a number of earlier clues.
I love the varied aspects of this book, how we move seamlessly from one type of story to another. And if the twist at the end isn’t quite as “shivery” as the one at the close of Space Rangers, it’s still pretty thrilling and inspiring. Star Guard is not as nonstop action as some Norton works, like Star Rangers, and some might wish she spent a little less time on descriptions of climbing, fording, buildings, and the like. But for me the details, whether of setting or action, added to the sense of a fully realized world.
Thematically, Norton, as is true in many of her books, explores themes of prejudice and hierarchy in ways both subtle and overt. Humans are looked down upon as uncivilized, barbaric, as are other “younger” species. Kana himself is non-white (Malay-Hawaiian), another main character is Afro-Arab, and we learn that long ago much of North America and Europe (i.e. the colonizers) were devasted by nuclear war, with survivors being from, or fleeing to, Africa and the Pacific Islands. We’re also told via a Kana interior monologue that after the war, “the old intolerance against ‘the different’” had been broken, while later, “out in space, thousands of intelligent life forms, encased in almost as many shapes and bodies, had given ‘shape prejudice’ its final blow.” And of course, the whole idea of pigeonholing an entire group and disallowing them the chance to achieve their full potential is a direct challenge to the idea of prejudice.
Star Guard isn’t flawless. As noted, women are notably absent. As in utterly so. It never fails to amaze me that writers who could imagine star drives, and a gazillion alien races somehow couldn’t imagine that women might do more than take care of children or the home. It’s even more depressing when the writer is a woman, and I can only guess (hope) that Norton could imagine that scenario but couldn’t imagine a publisher accepting it. And despite the anti-prejudice theme, oddly enough the word “primitive” gets tossed around an awful lot. But honestly, I take those as minor issues being as they are “product of the time” aspects. And they are passively annoying as opposed to out and out offensive. I hadn’t planned on rereading Star Guard at this time (my last reread was maybe two years ago), but then I saw Kat’s review of Star Rangers, picked up my copy just to “refresh” my memory so I could add “a paragraph” to her review, then of course read the entire work cover to cover. And I simply can’t read that one without reading Star Guard.
And yes, I’m now eyeing my copy of The Stars Are Ours.