Sargasso of Space (Book Review & Analysis)
by Andre Norton
Classic Science Fiction
3 / 5
A fascinating premise with well-developed worldbuilding, Sargasso of Space is a prime example of what classic sci-fi strove to be.
Dane Thorson has just received his first commission as a cargo-loader apprentice aboard the spaceship Solar Queen. After purchasing trading rights to the mysterious planet at the auction, they head towards the planet to see if their gamble paid off. There are 3 sequels: Plague Ship (1956), Voodoo Planet (1959), and Postmarked the Stars (1969).
The novel starts very strong, where Dane and how the universe operates is well-described and understandable. The mystery of planet Limbo is entrancing - I, for one, love forgotten alien relics as a plot device. Likewise, Limbo is technically a post-apocalyptic world, as it was abandoned after destructive war centuries past. This premise and setting are super cool. I was very much entranced by the novel until about halfway through.
Unfortunately, the characters are lacking. Dane makes a few mistakes as a new recruit but doesn’t struggle much with anything mentally. Homesickness? Worry about being trapped on Limbo? Nope, none of that. And while the cast was diverse (in terms of race) the men are barely distinguishable from one another in terms of personality. Dane also has a mild issue with one of the men, Ali, but it never goes anywhere. I’m not sure why it was even mentioned as nothing came of it. I was really disappointed that we learned nothing about the reptiloid alien man in terms of culture - he acted like a regular dude.
The last third of the novel grows increasingly less interesting, as it’s a lot of running around in fog and mazes - there is no attempt to explain the science behind the discovery, and the antagonist’s rationale was mentioned so briefly it was pretty much in passing.
Aside from these issues, the novel also suffers greatly in terms of gender. In this novel, women have been wiped out and men propagate based on cloning. At least, I assume so, as there are no women in this novel. No women whatsoever. Sure, they call the ships “her” (because ships are possessions, to be shown off like trophy wives), but there aren’t any women in the cast. I have no idea why, if Norton could imagine a world of racial diversity, she couldn’t have put women in the cast too? I kept waiting for one to show up, whether it was with Salazar’s group or just hanging out on Limbo somehow. This was extremely frustrating to me. Time period is no excuse - there are many many classic sci-fis from the 50s that include women on space ships.
There is a cat on the ship, called Sinbad, which sparked a funny passage:
“Cats took to acceleration, to free fall, to all the other discomforts of star flight, with such ease that there were some odd legends growing up about their tribe. One was that Domestica Felinus was not really native to Terra, but had descended from the survivors of an early and forgotten invasion and in the starships he was only returning to his former golden age.”
I also enjoyed that my version has an ad for cigarettes in the middle of it. What a time to be alive.
Check out my Booktube Review for more fun!
Warning: here be Spoilers!
As usual, I’m going to do a deep dive into this novel. I’m going to talk about the title, the diversity, the technology, the cool alien stuff, and my theory about Dane being gay.
What’s with the title? Well, it’s named after the Sargasso Sea, which is a region of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by four currents forming an ocean gyre. It has this special seaweed called Sargassum that floats across the surface. Until we could study it more scientifically, it was known as a mysterious place where ships are mired in seaweed for centuries, unable to escape (this isn’t true). Therefore, based on the revelation that there is a machine on Limbo used to pull ships in to their deaths, this name makes a lot of sense.
Women I already mentioned the lack of women, so I can’t really say anything else about it, except that it sucks.
The racial diversity is great in this book though. True, the main character and the Captain are both white, but there are men of other races (I think they make up at least half, which is way better than the token one or two I was expecting) who all play important parts and there is nothing stereotypical about their behaviour. This was really well done (despite use of two rather outdated, but not racist, terms for someone of African descent and someone of Asian descent).
This was also the third book I’ve come across which describes how Japan was wiped off the map by a natural disaster.
Technology There’s a lot of tech mentioned in passing in the novel but not explained in detail.
There’s “under-surface transcontinental cars”, “force-blades”, “the crater war on Mars”, the navigator is called an “Astrogator”, and, OF COURSE, “small packets of micro-film” were how the surveyors recorded their scans of the planet, which were given to the purchasing party to be used on none other than the microfiche! I also like that they call their police spaceships “patrol battlewagons”.
There's also “Psycho”, a tool that psychoanalyzes a person in order to assign them to a job. Apparently, it picks a crew that would work well together on long journeys. There is also an explanation of “Plague Ships” which is quite cool. Given the sequel is called Plague Ship - I’m intrigued.
This breaches into the “Alien Stuff” next, but the Maze and the Weapon aren’t explained very well. From what I understand, the maze was simply a place that’s hard to navigate and the machine that brings ships to earth works on some kind of magnetism? Is it a tractor beam? Who knows.
We have Forerunners!
These are aliens that have disappeared centuries or thousands of years before, but have left remnants of their society and technology behind.
I complained about this in my review proper, but there is a “Rigellian” character in this book. These are described as green-tined, scaled, and hairless (but otherwise human), though later we find out he has “cat-like” eyes.
The Twin Towers
On planet Corvo - standing right in the centre of a silicon desert - two hundred feet high, looking like two big fingers pointing into the sky. They are solid but are composed of neither stone nor metal.
“Its body consisted of two globes, one half as large as the other. There was no discernible head at all. From the larger globe protruded two pair fo very thin, four-jointed limbs which must have been highly flexible.”
It sucks we don’t learn what these things are or what they’re doing.
There's also lots of references to small alien creatures or people, like the Hoorbat - the captain’s pet, as well as “X-Tees” such as: “Sliths are reptilian, Arvas remotely feline, fifftocs brachiopod, Kanddoyds and Minsis are insects.”
So, I have a sneaky suspicion that Dane is in the closet. While not mentioning a girlfriend doesn’t mean you’re gay, when compiled with my other examples it helps prove my theory.
Dane has a “problem” with this guy named Ali. There are many instances like this:
“And he was thinking of Kamil, trying to analyze why he so much disliked the engineer-apprentice. Ali’s spectacular good looks and poise were part of it.”
“Never before had been seen such a handsome, daredevil face.”
As such, I think he’s subconsciously masking his attraction to the man with a dislike he doesn’t understand.
And then we get: “Ali breathed close to Dane’s ear”. Yes, whispering in this context makes sense, but the way it was framed seemed rather intimate. So yeah, I think there’s something sexy going on between the lines, even if it’s just one-sided on Dane’s part.
On my Old School Sci-Fi ranking, it gets a 11 / 20 for diversity/inclusion/stereotypes, 11 / 15 for awesome sci-fi elements, and 5 /5 for the cover (because it's bangin').
*I will give a novel a 1 if there is no representation at all. A book would get a 0 if there was disparaging characterization or horrendous stereotypes.