Dane Thorson, Cargo-master-apprentice of the Solar Queen, Galactic Free Trader spacer, Terra registry, stood in the middle of the ship’s cramped bather while Rip Shannon, assistant Astrogator and his senior in the Service of Trade by some four years, applied gobs of highly scented paste to the skin between Dane’s rather prominent shoulder blades.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton) is one of the 130 novels the author wrote, so we may be able to excuse an opening sentence as dreadful as the one above. Maybe she was having an off day. Plague Ship is pulp, as one can tell from the cover, and probably not very good pulp at that. It’s a rather mundane story, frankly. A ship full of traders travel to a newly discovered planet, exchange goods with the cat-like natives who live there, and head home only to discover they have picked up a strange virus which makes them officially a plague ship, unable to land on earth (Terra) or any other planet inhabited by humans.
But it’s in the book’s mundane aspects that one can find something fairly interesting. Take away the rockets and the aliens and Plague Ship becomes a novel about business, about work. Not a glamorous, soap opera kind of story full of beautiful, backstabbing people, but a story about how business deals are actually transacted; the negotiations, the problems with delivery, the interpersonal struggles to please all of the parties involved, the squabbles with the competition. Real everyday life buried inside a piece of interplanetary pulp fiction.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has written about the overall disappearance of work in modern fiction. There was a time when books about work were commonplace. Horatio Alger stories come immediately to mind, but descriptions of people trying to be successful in the workplace, trying to do their jobs well, used to be a regular feature in all sorts of fiction. Even a novel about psychological breakdown like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) has long sections about how to become successful at work, in Ms. Plath’s case as a magazine writer. Ms. Corrigan believes that the last bastion of work in modern fiction is the detective story. Detective novels are about work above all. They may feature exciting scenes and exotic characters, but the main focus of the novel is how the detective does the job. It surprised me to discover that this is basically what science fiction, especially 1950’s pulp science fiction is about. How will business men go about their business in the future, when we can travel to and trade with distant planets? Plague Ship provides one possible answer.
Is it an undiscovered gem? Not in my view. But it does provide a window on the past which may be strange for a novel about the future. By projecting the concerns and interests of her contemporary readers on the question of what their futures may be like, Ms. Norton gives us a glimpse into the psyche of her own time.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. I recall that I just wanted to read something by Ms. Norton, whose name I had seen on the shelves in used bookstores for decades but never read. While Plague Ship was not a great book, I enjoyed reading it. I always intended to read others by her, but still haven’t. However, I do still see many of her books on the shelves.