Voorloper (1981) Book Review and Analysis
by Andre Norton
Pastoral Science Fiction
There’s not a ton to say about Voorloper, at least nothing that provoked me to any sort of emotion. It’s a fairly hum-drum book. I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t entirely engaged with the story or the characters. Part of the issue might have been that the book has quaint pictures included throughout. I’m not trying to use "quaint" as an insult, as I am the last person who should insult someone's art, but I didn’t see why the novel needed these pictures. I almost wish they were terrible so I could laugh at them, but they aren’t bad, just mediocre, like the story.
We’re on a new planet. Voor. Bart is a second-gen settler and his dad is a Voorloper – someone who travels around the countryside. I’m not entirely sure what he does. He’s a trader, somehow? But if we’re in the future, and Bart talks about “flitter” planes, this doesn’t seem like a valid job. And he’s not the only Voorloper, so maybe there is some internal economy that is never really discussed. But, whatever. It gives the book a very frontier feeling. All the settlements are set very far apart.
So, we have Bart and Daddy wandering around. They are joined by Illo, a Healer (who has mild mystical powers). They are compelled, by politeness, to accompany her to her destination as it's in the same direction. We’re also accompanied by some Gars, which are like … oh here’s a picture:
After a crazy flash floor, Daddy dies, sending Bart and Illo on a journey to discover what killed a bunch of settler towns when they were children. Oh, I forget to mention there is a thing called the Shadow Doom that wipes out entire settlements leaving only 1-4 children and the occasional mad adult. Bart and Illo were both Shadow Doom survivors. Bart’s dad only lived because he was Voorloping around when it happened.
The reason the plot is so mundane is because of the way it’s told. It’s in first person, which is fine, but the style is very didactic and there is so much telling and not showing. Bart is always saying, “I was angry. I was scared,” but there’s no tension behind it. Likewise, if there is supposed to be romantic or sexual tension between Bart and Illo, it’s entirely missing. Normally I’d find it refreshing when two characters aren’t forced together, but a romance would have made the story more interesting.
Without going into any spoilers, the final explanation of what occurred on Voor is a very thin critique of colonialization and environmentalism, which felt less like an allegory or warning than something she thought up to suit the story. According to Wikipedia, plant life having a major part in her books is common.
What would have made the story better: a less detached style, given we’re in Bart’s head the whole time; get rid of the distracting pictures; and, make Bart and Illo have some sort of tension, whether it’s sexual or their personalities clashing. Bart respects Illo and she has no issue with him. It’s very boring.
1. Ah yes, a favourite Sci-Fi trope of mine. There are mentions of “Forerunner” technology. Granted, there are only a few phrases you can use to describe alien technology from centuries or millennia past (Ancients, First Ones, etc), but all I could think of was Halo every time they mentioned Forerunners.
2. Daddy is obsessed with listening to “tapes” about the history of the planet and recording his excursions into ancient ruins on other tapes. I’m assuming these are just elevated tape recorders, as we never get a picture of them. There are also “coms” which seem like slightly more advanced radio transmitters running on “mike dics”. I have no idea what these are supposed to be – CDs? But apparently they are very flimsy. Flitters are gliders or perhaps small airplanes? Like in Naussica?
3. Mungo. It’s a place. All I think of is Fallout 3.
There’s my review. It’s a mediocre story. Not the last book I’d want to be trapped with somewhere, but not one I’d read again.
So, I give it 2.5/5 stunned man pictures
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
There are no people of colour or LGBTQ characters in the novel. There are barely any characters in the novel, but still should be noted.
I was honestly surprised by the women in the novel, though I shouldn’t have been, given Andre Norton is a woman who often wrote under a male pseudonym. I find with sci-fi authors in this situation, they often have strong female characters.
Illo is a great female character is that she is strong, self-reliant, self-assured, and doesn’t fall into the usual traps of these older books where the women sit around being rescued or contribute one thing to the story. Illo and Bart are equals though with different strengths. Bart is rather biased against Illo’s healing magic at the start, but eventually learns she’s not making it up. Illo seems very detached, but that might be a healer thing (and because she was dealing with her friend Catha being a murderer). It actually sucks that both of them are so bland because Bart doesn’t seem to harbour any sexist mentalities at all. Neither did his dad.
I don’t understand why only women are healers. That in itself raises some stereotypes about women being naturally nurturing. It also brings up the whole idea of gender differences based on biology. Granted, they didn’t think like this in the 80s (hell, today a lot of people still refuse to see gender as a construct or at least on a spectrum), so I let it pass.
As I said, their lack of a relationship was refreshing, but it also was a little boring because there wasn’t a lot of tension anywhere else.
But for women in the novel? I’d give it like 4.5/5. Illo was great. There was one weird line that I think is more funny than anything, where a woman’s body is described as “having nothing about it of the ripeness of a woman bred to mother a child.” So, she’s thin? I’m not really sure what this means.
The entire reason why the Shadow Doom happened was centuries before one group of aliens landed on Voor. At this time another group lived there too. The latter group had a way of interacting with the planets and nature, but the new-comers pulled a Colonial on them and got greedy. They used the plants to create drugs, which led to a war over drugs, and various other negative results. Apparently, the newcomers did all sorts of experiments on the plants – fed them other plants, fed them meat, etc, and they eventually mutated into “shadows” that floated around the world, eventually stopping in villages to eat everyone down to the bone. Yum.
So, yeah, don’t colonize planets like Europeans did North America. Don’t kill the locals. Don’t mess with the environment. It’s all explained in like two pages, which ruined the poignancy of it. Had we been given hints all along it might have resonated more, but to me it felt like an obvious allegory. Still, plants gone mad are always fun.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about this book. Except to complain that the bad-ass dinosaur thing on the cover is only in one scene and it’s not even in an ocean. It’s in a river. Lame.