Sunday 19 March 2017

Judgment on Janus, and Victory on Janus, by Andre Norton

These 1960s books form a duology (with links to other stories as well). I first read Judgment on Janus as a youngster and was delighted with the story, which pressed a lot of my buttons. So much so that I bought a copy decades later, and discovered that it had a sequel which I also purchased. This is the first time I have read them for many years. Warning: there are spoilers in this review.

The story starts off in a dystopian fashion with a young man, Niall Renfro, trapped on the dumping ground of the Dipple on the planet Korwar, having been made homeless by an interstellar war. He signs up with the Labor Agency and is despatched to a harsh frontier planet largely covered by forest – Janus. The owners and only settlers on the planet are a fundamentalist religious group, the Sky Lovers, who refuse to use technology and impose a grim, patriarchical rule. They only occupy a small area around the spacecraft landing field, living in small family groups – garths – each of which slowly clears the area of forest around them using hard manual labour. Imported workers, like Niall, are effectively slaves.

One of the warnings given to new arrivals is to avoid the forbidden "treasures" which are sometimes dug up and must be reported and destroyed immediately.  One is found by Niall; a collection of miscellaneous glittering objects which he finds irresistable, so he keeps one when the rest of the cache is destroyed.  Shortly afterwards, he falls ill of the dreaded "green sick" and, as the Sky Lovers' law dictates, is abandoned to die in the hostile forest.

Except that he recovers, only he is no longer entirely human. He has acquired memories of a distant time in which his people – the Iftin – lived in giant trees deep in the forest. They were attacked by the barbarian Larsh, who were aided by a mysterious, hostile power. At this point the tone of the story slips from SF to epic fantasy in the Tolkien mode as Niall (now Ayyar), and the other revived Iftin he encounters, desperately try to recall what they need to know to survive, from the fragments of memory of a glorious past that each possesses.

The ending is clearly no more than a temporary pause in hostilities, until the sequel comes along.

Victory on Janus is that sequel, and follows on directly. A new threat to the Iftin has emerged, powerful enough to destroy the last of the great trees in the forest. The old enemy – the hostile power of the first book – is re-emerging in new forms. Renfro/Ayyar and his fellow transformed Iftin have to combine their human knowledge with that of the Iftin to stand any chance of survival. As the story develops, so the flavour changes again, from high fantasy back to SF.

These books contain one continuous story, so must be read in the right order. They are very much of their time: short, fast-moving page-turners that keep the reader so caught up in events that there is little time for the characterisation or deeper plotting which we have since become used to. I finished each one in a single sitting and enjoyed them due to nostalgia as much as anything else. Do they still have a place on the modern bookshelf? Yes, they would make a great introduction to SFF for younger readers, to enthuse them and give them that sense of wonder and possibility, before they are ready to move on to the modern heavyweights – literally as well as literary!