Andre Norton

Prolific novelist who created worlds of wonder and escape

Andre Norton lived long enough to enjoy more than one writing career, and came to prominence in at least two of them. Perhaps because her early young-adult novels turned many thousands of readers to science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, her death at the advanced age of 93 still came as a shock to those who thought of her as essentially ageless, as an almost impersonal portal to worlds of wonder and escape.

Alice Mary Norton (Andre Norton), writer: born Cleveland, Ohio 17 February 1912; died Murfeesboro, Tennessee 17 March 2005.

Andre Norton lived long enough to enjoy more than one writing career, and came to prominence in at least two of them. Perhaps because her early young-adult novels turned many thousands of readers to science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, her death at the advanced age of 93 still came as a shock to those who thought of her as essentially ageless, as an almost impersonal portal to worlds of wonder and escape.

She was born Alice Mary Norton in 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, and began to write as a child. Before the Great Depression forced her to go to work, she attended Warren State University between 1930 and 1932. For the next two decades, she worked primarily as a librarian for the Cleveland Public Library, with a short interlude during the Second World War when she was seconded to the Library of Congress.

In 1934, on the advice of her publisher, who argued that women writers did not sell well, she changed her name legally to Andre Alice Norton, and under that name - which was never technically a pseudonym - she published her first novel, The Prince Commands, in 1934, at the age of 22. This adventure tale, and its immediate successors, are of only moderate interest today. But in 1947, under the name Andrew North, which she used occasionally for a few years, she published a science-fiction story, The People of the Crater. Its publication effectively marked the end of her first publishing career.

Her second - she soon became the most successful young-adult science-fiction writer except Robert A. Heinlein - began in 1952 with Star Man's Son 2250AD, whose success was immediate. In a style whose common-sensical straightforwardness winningly exposed the sheer romantic joy of living in the galaxy-spanning civilisation that was the backdrop to almost all her work during these years, she created tale after tale featuring protagonists who are initially alienated or oppressed, but who find themselves in the stars. She was not much interested in technology, although entirely competent in her deployment of the "power chords" of traditional science fiction: the space ships, the gear, the unending tapestry of new worlds.

The influence of writers like H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs could always be detected; she inherited their almost mystical sense of the imminence, and the immanence, of romance; her exuberant sense that the human need for life-shaping quests was innate. About one thing only was she adamant: at the heart of anything she wrote was a story to be told, which she described, more than once, as "the only reason for writing fiction".

From the beginning of her first career, Norton was reticent about her private life, giving a sense that she was nothing but the stories she told. Her decades of work as a children's librarian were never emphasised; and about her intimate life nothing was known except for the fact that she had not married. There is some sense, however, that around 1960 she felt the need to change her life, to strike into new territory.

She had already published a few dozen successful books, and it may be she thought that her room for creative manoeuvre as an author of young-adult fiction was beginning to narrow. In any case, in 1963, a few years after the release of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in America, she published Witch World, and began a third career which made her famous and which closed only with her death.

Witch World was the first of a series which would eventually extend to 25 volumes or more, the early titles authored entirely by Norton, the later, less compelling, instalments co-authored with various collaborators. The eponymous planet is essentially a wish-fulfilment expansion of the complex, balkanised, almost Ruritanian, medieval land of Outremer, a congeries of petty kingdoms carved out of Middle Eastern lands by Christian Crusaders.

With the addition of magic, and intricate family romances, and dynastic conflict, the long and intricate sequence of interlocking tales gained a remarkably faithful and large readership. During the years of her greatest fame, Norton won several of the highest awards given within the field of the fantastic: the Grand Master of Fantasy award in 1983, 1987; the Nebula Grand Master Award in 1984, and a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1997. All seemed well.

There is, however, an understory to her life's work. As early as 1966, she moved to Winter Park, Florida, for reasons of ill-health, moving to Murfeesboro, Tennessee in 1997, where she founded the High Hallack Genre Writers' Research and Reference Library. In 2003, however, High Hallack was closed and its assets disbursed. It had been the most prominent of a series of sponsorships and awards, most of which she funded anonymously. But her career was slipping out of control.

Because of her ill-health, and because of her need to keep funds coming in for her sponsoring enterprises, Norton began to issue most of her titles in the form of collaborations with a series of junior writers. It seems clear that she maintained a strict overview, and often a hands-on control of detail; but it does also seem that most of these co-signed works were not in fact substantially written by her.

Norton signed well over 100 volumes between 1934 and 2005. But no one can pretend that the flood of titles in the last few decades enhanced her reputation. They are respectable hack work; but they do not have the Norton glow.

Now that her career can be seen as a whole, her vast readership may now be able to rediscover the Andre Norton who brought so many young men and women into the dream of a world of tomorrow which was also a home.

John Clute



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