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  • Andre Norton:Feminist Pied Piper in SF
  • Virginia L. Wolf (bio)

Andre Norton has never to my knowledge called herself a feminist. In fact, Fred Patten has judged her science fiction sexist; and her male pen name, her apparent preference for young male protagonists, and her willingness to portray female characters in stereotyped and secondary roles have all generated feminist ire. As she herself relates in "On Writing Fantasy," she wrote only of heroes in her early work, her females serving merely as props. But in the nineteen-sixties, inspired by C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, Norton broke the old pattern. Roger C. Schlobin would reject the strong, independent female characters of the Witch World, Moon Singer, and Forerunner novels as a breakthrough for science fiction because he identifies them as fantasy. In 1970, however, with the publication of Ice Crown, Norton made a female the protagonist of what is indisputably an sf novel; and since then, most of her science fiction has offered strong female characters, although only one other novel, Outside, has featured a female protagonist. Norton, it would seem, is not a sexist.

But does she qualify as a feminist—could she be considered a pied piper of feminism in sf? My title originated in my fascination with Norton's use of a pied piper character in Dark Piper, "London Bridge," and Outside. The Pied Piper, of course, leads the children out of the city, wooing them away from adults who have refused to pay him for ridding the city of mice. Norton's variation on this old story led to my understanding of her as fundamentally—if not obviously—a feminist. The city in all three stories is dying and unsafe, controlled by a faltering technology which can no longer protect the children from a dangerous environment. The pied piper, the only adult in all three stories, entices the children into a green world where feelings, belief, imagination, and communication are valued over the science, machinery, and hierarchy which governed the city. The city is an obvious symbol of patriarchal culture and its values; the green world, of a feminist alternative. Moved by the power of these images, I discovered variations of them in all of Norton's work—even in those early novels exclusively about males. Indeed, I began to see Norton as a pied piper, covertly appealing to her readers—largely male adolescents. Her steady reliance on the stereotypes of juvenile sf now struck me as more than a crass acceptance of the requirements for commercial success. Her preference for male protagonists, the focus on their bravery in the standard adventure plot, and their never-failing triumph seemed rather the means whereby she wooed her [End Page 66] readers away from patriarchal values to a consideration of feminist alternatives.

Substantiation of such an impression about Norton, of course, ought to require careful analysis of her many sf novels. But Fisher, Wollheim, and Yoke correctly argue that Norton's essential story has changed little over the years; and the slight differences after 1970 seem especially significant to understanding Norton as a feminist. So I will restrict my attention to the sf novels published since then.

Not only has Norton's increasing female emphasis enriched her one story; so has what Rick Brooks calls her "loss of faith" in the future. Her novels since 1970 may be seen as her search for imaginative solutions to her fear that patriarchal culture, relying on technology, will destroy life. Dark Piper (1968), which John Rowe Townsend identifies as her best novel (147), and which Brooks suggests first reveals her despair about our destiny, marks a turning point in her career as a writer of sf. From 1970 to 1975, she confronts a variety of characters with technological traps and allows them to achieve solutions that repudiate technology and the men who created it or, beginning in the mid-seventies, that offer some kind of compromise regarding machines and the future city they may build and run. Norton has always hated man's obsession with dominating others and pointed out that technology may enable such behavior, but before Dark Piper and again since 1975, she has also evoked...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 66-70
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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