Star Gate by Andre Norton
Star Gate, by (Alice) Andre Norton, has nothing to do with the Stargate you’re familiar with—unless, of course, Star Gate by Andre Norton is the Star Gate you’re familiar with. The Stargate of television and film transports those who wander through it across the cosmos; the Star Gate of Andre Norton’s imagining transports people to the exact same location, albeit in a different dimension.
And dimensions are a big deal in this book. The premise—clearly and neatly laid out in a preface by an unknown narrator—is that from every significant decision made, a new dimension is spun off that correlates to the unchosen path. So, for example, if I’m debating between becoming a primatologist or a craft-brewer, and ultimately decide my passion lies more with apes than brew, another dimension is born in which I choose the path of beer.
Thankfully Star Gate does not cover the ramifications of that decision, rather, humans have reached a planet called Gorth and attempted to help the natives by granting them advanced technology and knowledge. Of course, this isn’t a great idea. And while it doesn’t plunge the world into an utter hellscape, the humans decide the Gorthians would be better off without their meddling. Thus, they decide to leave through a Star Gate to a dimension where Gorth is uninhabited.
Except—what if, by accident or some divine, cosmic will, instead of landing on a deserted Gorth, they step through the Star Gate to a Gorth where humans hold the Gorthians as slaves? Where the same loving, self-sacrificing humans from their own dimension are cruel and twisted?
If you’re anything like me, you’re right now wondering about net cosmic suffering across all dimensions. If these Good People™ are interested in reducing suffering, and it doesn’t matter to them which dimension this suffering resides in, and a new dimension will spin off with every good decision they make, and that new dimension will likely be the opposite of their good decision, you kind of start to wonder if their best path forward would be to take a hard-neutral stance and try to make no big decisions whatsoever.
As it stands now, in their original dimension they tried to do good, and instead hurt the Gorthians. And in an alternate dimension, where they intentionally tried to do harm, they also hurt the Gorthians, albeit on a much larger and more heinous scale.
I started typing out some math to prove how the Good Humans™ ‘good’ decisions and actions would only compound and that the limit of net cosmic suffering wouldn’t exist, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say, in the world of Star Gate, there’d be no possibility to truly right wrongs, because if in this dimension you put a tyrant to death, well, in another, you probably just reinforced his power tenfold.
Once I was finally able to bury the existentialism and endless loops of dimensional plotlines, and dear cod thanks to how my mind works that was a struggle, I found Star Gate to be an enjoyable, quick read. It was delightful to see what is now regularly considered kitschy written in earnest.
At one point a fellow fights with an evil version of himself! I think the last time I saw a serious attempt of that that was in Deep Space Nine* and even there the plot device was past its prime. These days the only place you could hope to see a man fighting an evil version of himself it is in something like Rick and Morty, and, well, the point there would be that there is no good or evil, and that everything is meaningless. So the plot device would have an entirely different point.
Anyway, the point is that Andre Norton could approach this plot-point with a sincerity and earnesty that can’t be matched today, or, well, most decades after the 1960s. And that is delightful. Also delightful was the writing, which has a certain quality often missing from modern fantasy and sci-fi.
“Time in the dark was not a matter of minutes and hours. It was a thing of cold, and growing hunger, and cramp in his pinioned arms, aches in his bruised body.”
Isn’t that great? It sets a tone like a mother, and is beautiful besides.
My favorite part of Star Gate, by and large, are the main character’s helpful animals. Vorken is, essentially, a falcon-like miniature pterodactyl, and Cim is, essentially, a battle-llama. They’re not a huge part of the story, either of them, but they are such a tremendous addition. They toed that perfect line of being just barely larger than life, while still representing what we tend to expect of domesticated animals.
I also love that in this book, published in 1958, the main character explicitly attributes intelligence to his animals and worries about their comfort and, especially, their pain. At one point he puts his life in jeopardy to save one of his beasts.
That might not sound revolutionary to you, but in 1958, “officially”, they didn’t even really believe that animals felt pain. Hell, vets up until very recently were taught that animals didn’t really feel pain, and were told to ignore signs of it in their patients. So, even though animals lovers have, since the dawn of animal companionship, realized that animals are valuable, sentient, and possess an inner world all their own, by the standard accepted ideas of 1958, this was pretty revolutionary. So props to both Andre Norton and her protagonist.
If you’ve noticed that, aside from the animals, I’ve haven’t used any character names. That’s not on accident—I’m having a damn hard time remembering them. Our protagonist, Kincar? I think that’s his name. Anyway, Kincar is unique only in the circumstances of his existence and his relationship to his animals. And the rest of the characters are so secondary that, at one point, when Kincar worries that one is missing, I didn’t know who he was talking about. The book is roughly 180 pages long, and I read it in about a week. I should remember these people.
Essentially, the characters feel like they exist to serve the plot. The plot doesn’t feel born out of the lives of the characters.
My other character-related complaint is that there is only one woman in the book, and she’s a standard mystic/healer sort. I mean, she’s pretty cool, but also pretty stereotypical. If she were one of many female characters, I wouldn’t think twice, but as-is, I worry the only reason she exists is because Andre Norton didn’t feel comfortable filling her role with a man.
I’m glad I read Star Gate, I genuinely enjoyed it, but, largely due to the missteps with the characters and characterizations, I don’t think it’ll stick with me like other novels do—which is fine. Star Gate is really high-quality popcorn. I ain’t complaining.
Cover art by Ed Emshwiller
Available as a physical book; no ebooks or audiobooks.
You might like this book if you like:
An easy read
Stories without romance
* Yes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer used the evil twin from a different dimension trope, but I'd argue the inherent and intentional campiness of the show meant they approached the topic with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.