Andre Norton: Loss of Faith pt. 2

by Rick Brooks


Original in The Dipple Chronicles, November/December 1971
Reprinted in: The Many Worlds of Andre Norton 1974 (p.178)


Continued from Andre Norton: Loss of Faith pt. 1


      Two of the most extreme nature vs. technology novels are Judgment on Janus and its sequel, Victory on Janus. In this story the Iftin race have left “traps” that change humans sympathetic to nature into Iftin. Their lives are bound with nature and the massive trees. Technology becomes very distasteful. The chief villain turns out to be an alien computer.

     The same type of villain turns up in Star Hunter, while a human built computer is the main evil in Ice Crown. In both The Stars Are Ours! and Dark Piper where the computer performs a useful function, it isn’t allowed any more scope than yesterday’s model. In Star Rangers, a city computer directs a robot to destroy the heroes.

     No, Norton does not like computers. Which is really a pity. Out of all the tools that man has created, the computer may well prove to be even better than the scientific method. Its potential is barely scratched today.


     In Florida, Miss Norton lives on the border of two counties. She has been charged by both for local taxes due to a “computer error” (a term used to cover a computer operator or computer programmer error). She was told that it was too much trouble to correct the programming and to ignore the wrong tax. Which could have led to legal problems. “… It is this sort of thing which arouses hatred of having a machine in control.”

     But the point is that the machine is in control only in the way that it is told to be. In Star Rangers, the computer was programmed to shoot any trespassers (Ace, 1955, p. 68). All that people blame on the computer, which is getting to be a symbol of technological oppression, is due to lazy programming. A computer can be made responsive enough so that every child can have a private tutor to supplement his teacher. But the programming barring a breakthrough would take a vast effort. Is the machine to blame for our refusing to take the time and expense to make it responsive?

     Miss Norton sees no marriage of science and human powers. “One had to be anti-tech to be a Beast Master.” (Lord of Thunder, p. 120) “But even so much a modification as a dart gun--that meant careful preparation in thinking patterns. We could not ally with a machine!” (Sorceress of the Witch World, p. 126) So it should not be a surprise after traversing all the magical horrors the Witch World universe has to offer to find that the ultimate depth is a world from an environmentalist’s nightmare where a degenerate humanity fights against men incorporated with machines both using weapons of advanced technology.

     An interesting treatment of the theme occurs in Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows where technology is relatively untainted and human powers largely harnessed to evil ends. Jack of Shadows runs afoul of the Lord of Bats and he retreats to tap dayside technology (again, a computer) and harness it to his magic. In doing so, he destroys his world so that a better one can be rebuilt on its foundations, utilizing technology.

     Even the biological technologies are usually not for Miss Norton. In Three Against the Witch World, delving too deeply in magic (?) to create humanoid races and to gain knowledge is condemned. In Warlock of the Witch World, one of the characters is still considered within the pale since he “… had for a tutor in his childhood one of the few remaining miracle workers who had set a limit on his own studies.” (p. 27) But Dinzil went on from there and he turns out to be the chief villain of the story.

     In her only fall from grace, Star Guard (I955) has the bodies of the mercenary group being adapted to the conditions of the Planet Fronn while in flight to that world. Yet they show no discomfort on returning to Terra, despite no mention of reverse conditioning. After this, she ignores adverse planetary conditions.

     After considering the possibilities set forth in Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb, one is tempted to agree that there are things the human race shouldn't mess with at its present level of maturity.

     Science and our social habits are out of step. And the cure is no deeper either. We must learn to match them. And there is no way of learning this unless we learn to understand both...So however we might sigh for Samuel Butler’s panacea in Erewhon, simply to give up all machines, there is no point in talking about it...It is just not practical, nationally or internationally. (Science, the Destroyer or Creator (essay) by J. Bronowski in Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society, edited by Eric & Mary Josephson, p. 284)

     Going back to nature has its temptations. But it would mean that at present 2 or 2 ½ billion people would probably starve--most of them in the cities. That is a rather high price to pay. Miss Norton’s reasons for disliking machines tie in with her liking for medieval settings. In her words:

   Yes, I am anti-machine. The more research I do, the more I am convinced that when western civilization turned to machines so heartily with the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, they threw away some parts of life which are now missing and which the lack of leads to much of our present frustration. When a man had pride in the work of his own hands, when he could see the complete product he had made before him, he had a satisfaction which no joys of easier machine existence could or can give.

    Why all the accent on hobbies and do-it-yourself projects now--so many of them futile? Simply because in his productive work a man can no longer take any pride. Read some of the accounts of the old Guilds and I think you can see what I mean. Before a man could practice any trade then, he had to prove to his peers that he could do it. Very few people now have any pride in what they do--they are slip-shod in a piece of labor because they cannot see that good worksmanship in the day of the machine means anything more than poor.

     This extends on now from the work itself--there is a wave of bad manners, of outright discourtesy in stores and businesses--no worker identifies with his job enough to actually want to produce something better--he feels a part of a machine, vast, impersonal, not the master of it. And the more we deal so with machines--for example the more computers are brought in to rule our lives--with their horrible mistakes and no one to appeal to to correct them--then the more alienated man will become.

     So I make my machines the villains--because I believe that they are so; that man was happier--if less geared to a swift overproductive life--when he used his own personal skills and did not depend upon a machine. And I fear what is going to happen if more and more computers take over ruling us.

     This will doubtless seem like rank heresy to you who are training to use such machines--but with the growth of the impersonal attitude towards life which these foster, there is going to be more and more anger and frustration. And where it will all end perhaps not even a writer of sf can foresee.

     This is indeed a damning indictment of our age, and there is enough truth in it so that it bites deeply. It is over-reacting and placing the blame in the wrong place. We have definitely lost something, but this is the fault of those who lacked foresight and took the easy way of fitting the much more adaptable man to the machine. “Now some men….have made better tools, tools so good that they can turn and cut the maker. But that is not the fault of the tools…” (Catseye, Ace, p. 141)

     “The enemy is not a devil out there called technology—He is Man, the creature we are trying to save. Only because he has become more conscious of his powers is he capable of so much folly and evil.” (The Children of Frankenstein: A Primer on Modem Technology and Human Values by Herbert Muller, p. 331)

     The Third Force by Frank Goble concerns the theories of “humanistic psychology,” mainly those of Abraham Maslow. Behaviorism and Freudian psychology are both looks at a limited part of man; humanistic psychology tries to view the whole man. Instead of studying people who have mental problems, Maslow started with “self-actualizing” people whom he felt had adjusted the best to living. The second part of this excellent popularization is concerned with proof of these theories.

     The President of an electronic manufacturing company challenged Dr. Argyris to prove his contention that the average worker was giving the company only about a third of his full capability. Argyris set up a one year experiment in which twelve female electronics assemblers were given individual responsibility for assembling an entire electronic unit. Instead of efficiency experts telling the assemblers how to do the job, they were free to develop their own methods. Furthermore, each of the twelve girls was to inspect the finished product, sign her name to the product, and then handle related correspondence and complaints from customers.

     The first month of the experiment was not encouraging. Productivity dropped 30% below that of the traditional assembly-line method, and worker morale was also low. It was not until the end of the eighth week that production started up. But by the end of the fifteenth week production was higher than ever before, and overhead costs of inspection, packing, supervision, and engineering were way down. Production continued significantly higher than that of assembly-line methods for the balance of the one year experiment. Re-work costs dropped 94%, and customer complaints dropped from 75% a year to only 3%

     …When the twelve girls were returned to the routine assembly line, three of them were relieved by the decrease in responsibility. The remaining nine found it hard to adjust to the old routine; they missed the challenge of greater freedom with greater responsibility. (Pocket Books, p. 186-7)

     Other cases with about the same results were also covered. The most significant point is not the economic factors--our culture vastly overstresses economic values--but the improvement in workmanship. With almost complete control over what they were doing and the faith in them showed by giving them responsibility for the product, the women seemed to care about what they were doing and felt that it--and they--were of value. Of course, this will not work with very complex products. But they can and probably should be broken into sub-assemblies. One auto plant is totally automated at the moment. All should be.

     While the Society for Creative Anachronism wastes most of their energy on costuming and mock duels, they have the right idea in trying to select out of that bygone era what we need today. “Time was and it was all time up to 200 years ago, when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.” (The Worlds We Have Lost (essay) by Peter Laslett in Man Alone, p. 93) (While overstated and overlooking the brutality of the period, and “tyranny of the family,” the point is certainly valid.)

     In a society of hereditary privilege, an individual of humble position might not have been wholly happy with his lot, but he had never had reason to look forward to any other fate. Never having had prospects of betterment, he could hardly be disillusioned. He entertained no hopes, but neither was he nagged by ambition. When the new democracies removed the ceiling on expectations, nothing could have been more satisfying for those with the energy, ability and emotional balance to meet the challenge. But to the individual lacking in these qualities, the new system was fraught with danger. Lack of ability, lack of energy or lack of aggressiveness led to frustration and failure. Obsessive ambition led to emotional breakdown. Unrealistic ambitions led to bitter defeats.

     No system which issues an open invitation to every youngster to ‘shoot high’ can avoid facing the fact that room at the top is limited. Donald Paterson reports that four-fifths of our young people aspire to high-level jobs, of which there are only enough to occupy one-fifth of our labor force. Such figures conceal a tremendous amount of human disappointment. (Excellence: Can We Be Equal an Excellent Too? by John Gardner (now head of Common Cause}, pp. 19-20)

     Here is a major social problem that has little to do with machines. Worrying about machines is worrying about an effect rather than a cause. The answer is remodeling society. Gardner’s solution to the problem he stated above is for our society to cultivate excellence in all walks of life.

     An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. (Excellence, p.86)

     Our culture is also burdened by what Alvin Toffler called “Future Shock” in the book of the same name. Just the rate of change that an individual faces will have an adverse effect on his health if it increases (pp. 291-6). He also points out that technology can free man. “This is the point that our social critics--most of whom are technologically naïve--fail to understand: It is only primitive technology that imposes standardization. Automation, in contrast, frees the path to endless, blinding, mind-numbing diversity” (p.236). For example, the computer designed apartment house, Watergate East, in Washington, D.C., has no continuous straight lines, no two floors alike and 167 different floor plans for 240 apartments (p. 237).

     Just as Norton's computers are a parody of the ones we now have, so are the people of the future’s attitude toward machines.

     The assigner sent him and it was supposed to be always right in its selection (Troy Horan in Catseye, p. 9)

     All his life, he had relied on machines operating, of course, under the competent domination of men trained to use them properly. He understood the process of the verifier, had seen it at work. At the Guild headquarters there were no records of its failure; he was willing to believe it was infallible. (Ras Hume in Star Hunter, p. 29)

     Naturally with that kind of build-up, the verifier fouls up royally.

     Star Hunter, while just apparently written so that Ace would have a short novel to fit opposite the abridged The Beast Master, is a meaty book for attitudes. Besides rubbing our noses in the fallibility of “infallible” machines, we get her feelings on computers. Such phrases as “Mechanical life of a computer tender” (page15) and “but to sit pressing buttons when a light flashed hour after hour--” (page 85) bring out her limited view. There is another reference to button pushing in response to flashing lights in the ultra-scientific hell of the Witch World. (pp. 131.-2)

     Star Hunter also has the Patrol winking at the mental conditioning of Vye Lansor so that they can net the Veep, Wass. Afterward, of course, he is offered Compensation. In Ice Crown, morality extends to not interfering with the conditioned people of Clio, but no attempt is made to release them from conditioning. In this the successors of the Psychocrats are as bad since they also keep the people of Clio for observation. In The Zero Stone, Murdoc Jern notes that “the Patrol ever takes the view that the good of many is superior to the good of the individual.” (Ace, p.155)

     Norton Consistently views the future as one where the complexity of science and technology have reduced the value of the individual. But the good of many is in the long run the good of the individual. As John Gardner points out in Self-Renewal: The Individual and The Innovative Society, our cultures become rigid and decay when they cease to allow a wide range of freedom to the individual.

     So Miss Norton is actually wrestling with the prime problem, that of human worth and purpose. The question of human purpose has led to reams and reams of prose, most of it junk. Miss Norton’s right in saying that it is not to be machine tenders, but she is vague on what human purpose should be. Arthur C. Clarke in his “beautiful vision” of the future in Profiles of the Future feels that “ the long run the only human activities really worthwhile are the search for knowledge, and the creation of beauty. This is beyond argument; the only point of debate is which comes first.”(Bantam, p. 87)

     Margaret Mead would certainly disagree. She states that automation should result in people doing only “...Human tasks--caring for children, caring for plants and trees and animals, caring for the sick and the aged, the traveler and the stranger.” (The Challenge of Automation to Education and Human Values (essay) in Automation, Education, and Human Values, edited by W. W. Brickman and S. Lehrer, p. 69)

     And I have little doubt which Miss Norton would side with. But either is too restrictive; we need a synthesis of the two. The important thing is to establish a society where all individuals can realize as much of their potential as possible. Since our society comes the closest--despite its many faults--we should start improving it.

     As Herbert J. Muller points out (The Children of Frankenstein, pp. 369-83], utopias are out of style in this era as they tend to be too simplistic and too rigid. We get glimpses of a Norton utopia in Judgment on Janus and Victory on Janus as well as scattered places throughout her books. The most appealing might well be the Valley of Green Silences which we see very little considering that parts of three Witch World novels take place there. While all her desirable places are those of nature, it is well to remember that man might not be man as we know him without his links to nature.

     In Star Rangers, they ponder the reason why the cities are deserted.

     “It seems to me," began Fylh, “that on this world there was once a decision to be made. And some men made it one way, and some another. Some went out”--his claws indicated the sky--“while others chose to remain--to live close to the earth and allow little to come between them and the Wilds--”

     "Decadence—degeneracy--” broke in Smitt.

     But Zacita shook her head. “If one lives by machines, by the quest for power, for movement, yes. But perhaps to these it was only a moving on to what they thought a better Way of life.” (Ace, 1955, p. 169)

     The question today is not whether we can do without technology, but how much we can compromise with nature. Like the Orbsleon in Uncharted Stars (p. 165), we shall have to learn to live by using technology to assist nature.

     As Charis Nordholm explains to the Wyvern Gidaya in Ordeal In Otherwhere,

     Four have become one at will, and each time we so will it, that one made of four is stronger. Could you break the barrier we raised here while we were one, even though you must have sent against us the full Power? You are an old people, Wise One, and with much learning. Can it not be that sometime, far and long ago, you took a turning into a road which limited your power in truth? Peoples are strong and grow when they search for new roads. When they say, “There is no road but this one which we know well, and always must we travel it,” then they weaken themselves and dim their future.

     Four have made one and yet each of that four is unlike another. You are all of a kind in your Power. Have you never thought that it takes different threads to weave a real pattern--that you use different shapes to make the design of Power? (Ace, p. 188)

     It is impossible as far as we are along the way of the machine to leave it without untold human misery and suffering. But we must traverse the byways that will make the most of our humanity.

     In her horror at the machine forcing men to be its tenders, she overlooks that machines have taken much drudgery off our shoulders and can free us from much more routine labor. When she turns her back on the machine, she ignores all the potential good that it can do us.

     The point was brought home to me recently when I visited an academic friend. He sat in an air-conditioned study. Behind him was a high-fidelity phonograph and record library that brought him the choicest music of three centuries. On his desk before him was the microfilm of an ancient Egyptian papyrus that he had obtained by a routine request through his university library. He described a ten day trip he had just taken to London, Paris and Cairo to confer on recent archaeological discoveries. In short, modern technology and social organization were serving him in spectacular ways. And what was he working on at the moment? An essay for a literary journal on the undiluted evil of modern technology and large-scale organization. (Self-Renewal, p. 62)

     We must face the fact that while much of what we have is tainted, it is also much more on the positive side than any age before us has had. The potential is almost limitless. If we fail, it will not be because “, too, had its demons and dark powers,” (Victory on Janus, Ace, p. 190), but because our nerve has failed us and we let technology run wild.

     Even Arthur C. Clarke pauses in his optimistic view of the future to admit that

     ...Sir George Darwin's prediction that ours would be a golden age compared with the aeons of poverty to follow, may well be perfectly correct. In this inconceivably enormous universe, we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can all too easily run out of brains. (Profiles of the Future, Bantam, p. 155)

     And just as the potential exists for a heaven beyond our wildest dreams, so does the potential for a hell worse than our bleakest nightmares. Science and technology are amoral and we must fit the morals to them. If we fail, not only we will foot the bill but many generations to follow.

     If there is a long chance that we can replace brutality with reason, inequality with justice, ignorance with enlightenment, we must try. And our chances are better if we have not convinced ourselves that the cause is hopeless. All effective action is fueled by hope. Pessimism may be an acceptable attitude in literary and artistic circles, but in the world of action it is the soil in which desperate and extreme solutions germinate, among them reaction and brutal oppression.

     It is not given to man to know the worth of his efforts. It is arrogant of the individual to imagine that he has grasped the larger design of life and discovered that effort is worthless, especially if that effort is calculated to accomplish some immediate increment in the dignity of a fellow human. Who is he to say it is useless? His business as a man is to try. (The Recovery of Confidence by John W. Gardner, Pocket Books, pp. 84-5)

     But no matter how deeply Miss Norton's despair in the present and the future is germinating, she never councils quitting or even considering it. “It is better not to he met by pessimism when the situation already looks dark.” (Uncharted Stars, p. 230) Her heroes and heroines do not tamely bow their heads and accept their lot in a society that does not fit them. Some, like Diskan Fentress, may not seem to be concerned with others, but come through when the chips are down. Even if Norton’s future societies do not value the individual, her sympathetic characters do.

     Norton's future societies usually combine high ideals with a lack of concern for the people in it, an extrapolation of today’s society that seems to be more comfortable treating men largely as interchangeable parts. And as our society worsens, so does her view of the future. Catseye (1961) marked the rise of organized crime. By Night of Masks (1964), crime syndicates had gone inter-stellar. The Zero Stone, (1968) and Uncharted Stars (1969) show the Patrol reacting by trampling individual rights in their efforts to stamp out crime.

     In Sargasso of Space (1955), the Free Traders were recruited from the trainees that the Combines depended upon, too. By Dread Companion (1970) and Exiles of the Stars (1971), the Free Traders are almost a separate race, rigidly controlling themselves on the planets, with their women and the declining feline race kept on their asteroid bases. It is almost as though the cats began to die out as their masters became less human, less linked to nature.

     In the future, most of Miss Norton’s work will probably be mainly the more aware and less hopeful novels such as Dark Piper and Dread Companion. But I shall miss seeing more light-hearted optimistic adventures. After all, anyone can be aware. But few can give us an Astra or a Witch World.



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