Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review of Witch World by Andre Norton

Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly his Princess of Mars books, are often given credit as having a pervasive influence on the science fiction and fantasy field. While the influence is certainly non-existent in a wide swathe of works qualifying as such, there is perhaps a wider swathe where a case, big or small, can be made. In the case of Andre Norton’s Witch World (1963) a trial is not even necessary. Guilty as charged. But does Norton add something more?

Simon Tregarth is a man on the run. Having gotten involved with the wrong people in post-WWII activities, it’s not strange for attempts on his life to take place. Contacted by the mysterious Dr. Jorge Petronious late one evening, a solution to his problems seems available: be transported to a fantastical planet with a touch of the Siege Perilous stone. With seemingly no other option, Tregarth touches the stone and is whisked away to the land of Estcarp. Landing in an open field, he is witness to two men hunting a woman. Helping the woman, a witch named Jaelith, the pair escape, and he is introduced to her tribe. Martial prowess learned in the Civil Wa—sorry, WWII—called into need thereafter, war among Estcarp’s rival factions has a new twist, a John Cart—dammit!—Simon Tregarth twist.

Yes, replacing a few names in that plot introduction would lead one directly to A Princess of Mars. Norton, undoubtedly aware of the history of science fantasy given her own deep involvement with the medium, couldn’t have been trying to do anything but borrow a premise from, or pay tribute to, Burroughs. (Ironically, Witch World is her most popular novel for it.) Thus, if there is anything to address further in Witch World that wouldn’t lead to rehashing commentary on A Princess of Mars, it would be gender dynamics.

Sure to set SJWs atwitter, Witch World presents a society wherein women have power, and control things with their minds. For 1963 mainstream science fiction, this could be considered daring, even challenging. Put alongside works by other writers of the time, Ballard, Sturgeon, Bradbury, etc., writers who used science fiction for deeper examinations of humanity, however, reverts Witch World to simplicity—to put it politely. The vapid space opera setup, the limited functionality of ‘women’s power’ in the societies portrayed, the relative lack of concept development, and the overall distance to actual humanity fail to imbue Witch World with any larger sense of gender sophistication or complexity.

Mundane, Earthly beginning, magical transportation to a land of aliens and the supernatural, battles for power, cruel captures and daring escapes, an Earthman who uses his knowledge of military affairs to organize the natives into war (not to mention Earthman romancing a native)—all point at Burroughs. Norton adds something with the portrayal of Jaelith and her fellow witches, but it’s not enough to start the Burroughs’ train from rolling to a different station. For readers who enjoy such dynamic stories shaped according to familiar genre curves, Witch World will undoubtedly scratch the itch for more. For all others, it remains pulp with a slight twist.

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