The X Factor (1965) is the third short novel contained in The Game of Stars and Comets (2009), Baen’s omnibus of Norton stories that also contains The Sioux Spaceman (1960), Eye of the Monster (1962), and Voorloper (1980). Tantor Media has recently published an audio version of the omnibus, but I’m reviewing the books separately because that’s the way they were originally published. I love that Baen and Tantor have reprinted these old novels for new readers in these formats.
Diskan Fentress thinks of himself as a brute, not too bright, clumsy, and good only for jobs that require heavy lifting. At least that’s how everybody else sees him, so that’s how he sees himself. He’s self-aware, resentful, and unhappy. His mother died giving birth to him and his father, an explorer who has another family on another planet, only recently discovered Diskan’s existence and brought him to live with his new family. They are good to him, but he still feels like an idiot and wishes he could be beautiful, competent, and confident like they are. But Diskan has a power that he doesn’t tell anybody about. He can communicate telepathically with animals.
One day, fed up and feeling out of place, Diskan steals a travel cube from his father’s office and takes off in a spaceship to Mimir, a planet that he knows will be habitable but dangerous. The place is extremely cold and it takes all of his wits to survive. As Diskan travels this frozen lonely planet, searching for food and shelter, he has strange dreams of ruined cities, meets some friendly and unfriendly animals, and finds evidence that he’s not the only human on Mimir. Eventually, he realizes that there are secrets on this planet and there are hostile humans hoping to discover them.
The X Factor features the best protagonist so far in this omnibus of Norton stories. Norton spends more time than usual letting us get to know Diskan, describing him with great care and giving us much insight into his thinking process. There is some pretty good writing at the start of this novel. I liked Diskan immediately, felt sorry for him, and wanted to see him succeed. Norton shows us that when he’s allowed to go at his own pace, Diskan can think straight and accomplish things.
Young men who are non-conforming outsiders and animal companions are common in Andre Norton’s stories and she uses both effectively here. Diskan is a hero who I’m likely to remember, but I have a feeling that at this time next year, I won’t remember the plot of the second half of this story, once Diskan meets the other humans on Mimir. It’s just not that interesting.
As I mentioned in my reviews of the previous books in this omnibus, Tantor Audio’s edition of The Game of Stars and Comets, narrated by L.J. Ganser, is excellent. I’m onto the last book in the omnibus: Voorloper.