Andre Norton, gender, and The Zero Stone

I was a big fan of Andre Norton’s work when I was a kid.

(Yes, I do feel a little guilty that I’m writing this post when I still haven’t finished the Le Guin post that I meant to write last week. I hope to do that soon. But this post is easier to write.)

Norton wrote a lot of books. When I was a kid, I read, I dunno, maybe a dozen of them? And there were lots more on my library’s shelves, with evocative and memorable titles: Quest Crosstime, The Beast Master, Judgment on Janus, The Zero Stone, Moon of Three Rings, Key out of Time, and plenty more.

I’m not sure why I didn’t read all of them; I liked all the ones I read. (I do know why I never read the Witch World books: because I wanted to read them in order, and in those benighted pre-Internet days, I wasn’t sure what the first one was.) Eventually I bought half a dozen of her books, but I don’t think I read most of those either. So I’ve been reading them as they come up in my read-all-my-unread-books project.

I’m currently a third of the way through The Zero Stone. I’m finding it fairly readable, and I’m learning some things about storytelling from it—for example, it does a good job of starting in media res, with the protagonist, Murdoc, fleeing for his life through the dark streets of an unfamiliar city, and then of pausing to fill in backstory. But I’m also noticing some things about it that I’m less pleased by.

One of those things is plausibility, especially around unlikely coincidences; there’ve been several bits that seemed implausible to me so far, and I’m normally fine with coincidence in sf, especially in action-adventure sf like this.

There’s also occasionally a certain sloppiness of writing and editing. For example, Murdoc explicitly narrates that the Free Traders that he’s traveling with use their own language (that he doesn’t understand) when talking with each other, and that the Traders are immune to most planets’ diseases; but when a little later he comes down with the plague, he finds out super-important plot things by overhearing a conversation among the Traders, and one of the things they indicate in that conversation is that they’re afraid of catching the plague from him.

Anyway, the plot holes aren’t really a big deal. Nor is the other thing that I’m noticing, which has to do with gender.

I should start this section by noting that I knew that Norton was a woman from an early age; in fact, when I later heard about a man named Andre, I was confused because I knew it only as a woman’s name. At which point someone explained to me that Norton published under that name in part to sound more male, because her expected main audience was teenage boys.

Her first novel was published in 1934, and even by the time she wrote this book, in 1968, action-adventure was still mostly focused on male characters. (Alyx et alia notwithstanding.) So it’s no surprise that Murdoc is male, nor that there’s a strong emphasis on his relationships with his father and his male mentor. He has a brother and a sister, but the sister doesn’t get much narrative attention. (The brother inherits their family’s shop; the sister gets married.) Murdoc has a father and a mother; the father has a name and a character and a backstory, while the mother is never named and doesn’t have much character or backstory. It turns out that Murdoc has reason to dislike his mother, which might explain some of his de-emphasis on her; and of course the action-adventure plot is focused on stuff having to do with his father, so of course that leaves less room for his mother in his fairly brief backstory narrative. But even so, it seemed weird to me that she doesn’t even get a name.

But although I was musing about all of that while reading, none of it would’ve led me to write and post this entry. What led to that was a sequence in which Murdoc is interacting with a mysterious telepathic catlike alien named Eet. After a couple of adventurous episodes together, Murdoc refers to Eet as he in narration, and then adds:

I say “he,” for while he never stated his sex, if he had one, I came to think of him as male, and since he did not correct that assumption, I continued in it.

The Zero Stone, pp. 78–79

And I’m thinking that either Murdoc is making unwarranted assumptions, in which case this is a super-subtle undermining of reader assumptions about Eet, or Norton was following the standard path-of-least-resistance convention of making all the important characters male, and didn’t notice the parallel with her own real-life situation.

I initially assumed the latter. This passage makes briefly explicit what’s implicit in the rest of the book and in most sf written before the 1960s (and, for that matter, in a great deal of fiction written in English up to today): male is what Delany calls the “unmarked state,” so both writers and readers are likely to assume that a given character is male unless explicitly told otherwise. By this point in the book, only four female characters have appeared or even been mentioned: Murdoc’s mother and sister (neither of whom get to say or do much); the woman who Murdoc’s brother hopes to marry (who doesn’t appear on-camera and is only mentioned once in passing); and the ship’s cat, Eet’s mother, who’s just an ordinary nonsentient cat. All the other characters are explicitly or implicitly male. So I figured that Eet was also probably male.

But on further thought, I’m not so sure. Norton didn’t have to include that sentence in the book; she could’ve just referred to Eet as he and never explicitly discussed gender, and that would’ve been so standard that few readers would’ve thought twice about it. So now I’m wondering whether this was indeed a subtle undermining. Eet remains silent on plenty of topics; it’s entirely possible that gender just isn’t something they know or care about.

Anyway, I have no conclusions. And this is a tiny throwaway moment in a book that’s about other topics; I don’t want to make too big a fuss about it. But I thought it was interesting.

(I should note that it’s also possible that there will be more on this topic later in the book.)

PS: A while later, p. 99, Murdoc refers to a new alien as “him, her, or it,” but by the end of the page, he’s referring to that alien with male pronouns, with no discussion about why.

PPS: Something related is going on with skin color. On pp. 83–84, Murdoc examines his own hand, which had been blemished with purple splotches of plague but is now healing:

My flesh was pink and new-looking in unseemly splotches against the general brown of my skin. Though I was not as space-tanned as a crewman might be, my roving life had darkened my skin more than was normal for a planet dweller.

I gather that Norton wrote a fair number of Native American characters in various books, and that she said she had a small amount of Native American ancestry; which makes me even more disappointed at her framing things in terms of any given skin color being “normal for a planet dweller.”

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