Much of Golden Age science fiction is bound up in the pseudo-scientific, quasi fantastic renderings of heroic frontier stories set in space. The market demanding a large quantity of such stories, sub-genres split off—planetary romance/adventure, lost in space, alien attack, among them. Another branch which sprouted was in the world of merchants and traders of extra-terrestrial goods. It is in this minor vein that Andre Norton published her Solar Queen series. Planetary adventure mixed with the legalities, economies, and rivalries of interstellar trade, the second of these books Plague Ship (1956) is the subject of this review.
Plague Ship is the story of the freighter Solar Queen and the trouble she gets into on the planet Sargol. Part of the Free Traders union, the crew establish initial contact with the clan-like Salariki, and thus claim the right to be the only group allowed to trade for their precious Koros stones and valuable timber. But when a rival merchant illegally butts in, tempers flare. A Salariki family drama playing out simultaneously, dragging the Free Traders and their rivals into a fray, Dane Thorson, Ollie, Rick, and other crew of the Solar Queen are lucky to get off planet with the hold full of the valuable wood. But as crew members start to come down with symptoms of illness and drop into incapacity, it seems their troubles are only beginning.
Plague Ship is, if anything, a neatly plotted interstellar adventure. Moving unpredictably, Dane and his fellow crew are continually moving from the frying pan and into the fire. If it isn’t trouble with rival traders, then it is illness onboard ship. If it isn’t illness, it’s being classed as a plague ship, and if it isn’t being classed as ‘destroy on sight’, then it’s the trouble of finding the source of the disease on board. And if it isn’t… One scene bleeding into the next, Norton at least keeps the reader turning the pages—a simply presented adventure, yes, but briskly told.
But overall, Plague Ship is, for lack of a better expression, an average work of science fiction. A product of post-Golden Age genre that may as well be Golden Age genre for said simplicity, it is (slightly) notable for three things. Where most pulp era sci-fi was bound up in male heroes conquering the universe, Norton portrays the universe threatening mankind; for as many advances we may make among the stars, mortality through microscopic diseases can still cripple and kill the mightiest man. Second is the lack of said hero. Though the story is told largely through the eyes of Dane Thorson, he is not allowed to stand apart or take over the narrative in larger-than-life terms. Part of a team, the crew of the Solar Queen do things collectively—even as their numbers drop off—making for a refreshing change from the standard one-square-jawed-man-in-a-jumpsuit-wielding-a-blaster-conquers-all type of story. And thirdly is the ending. Again eschewing the pulp norm (what I would term a flash-bang curtain closing), Norton both subtracts from and adds to the Solar Queen’s plight upon the conclusion of the episode/novel. Of course the freighter ship escapes, that is never in doubt, but the manner in which she does, does not involve great balls of blazing fire, rather something more tempered (if the word can be applied to such a story).
In the end, Plague Ship is an innocuous adventure telling of a group of interstellar traders after they are the first to discover prize resources on an alien planet. Intrigue and teamwork the name of the day, when a mysterious ailment breaks out on the ship, its crew must work together to not only find a way to remove the disease, but stave off the destruction that detection would entail. Neither flashily or poorly written, Norton competently if not simply keeps a steady hand on the tiller, guiding the short novel through it turns at an even pace to a calm, realistic ending.