Plague Ship — Andre Norton, as Andrew North (1956)

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Publisher: Ace Books

Second Ace Edition, 1964

Cover Art: Ed Valigursky

Plot Synopsis (of cover): “Cleans, disinfects, deodorizes! Awrk!” squawked Mr. Big’s parrot, Pablito. Pablito was a constant companion to Mr. Big, who often spent the late-evening to early-morning hours sifting and combining various filler agents with bricks of cocaine. Awake at odds with regular network programming, both Mr. Big and Pablito regularly consumed the sort of late-night infomercials that lent themselves well as background noise. While this inspired in Mr. Big only a subconscious desire for Ronco products, the parrot Pablito had experienced a marked augmentation to his vocabulary. “Oh my gosh! I don’t even buy paper towels anymore! Awrk!” the bird would screech, to Mr. Big’s chagrin. Pablito, admittedly, was starting to get on his nerves, which were already fraying. His was one of the few outfits shipping cocaine to the Lunar Colonies, though it was certainly not the biggest or flashiest. He was largely relegated to working in the bowels of his one remaining transport rocket in order to keep himself mobile and cut down on overhead. Still, government crackdowns had wreaked havoc on his supply, and these cost-saving measures left a bad taste in his mouth. For the evening, however, the nefarious business of coke dilution was complete. He placed the ten single-kilo bags into his safe and locked it. Suddenly, the door behind him crashed in, startling him, his two guards, and Pablito. When Mr. Big saw who it was, he let out a sigh. “I’ve got you now, Mr. Big!” announced the handsome intruder. As Mr. Big was all too aware, this was the private detective, Spaff Dungo. Spaff fancied himself something of a rogue agent, but was actually thicker than an Antarctic milkshake. “Spaff,” Mr. Big said, shaking his head, “the last time you broke in here, we got a restraining order against you, which is really embarrassing for someone in my position. I don’t understand how you manage to keep finding this ship, but please, for fuck’s sake, go away.” Spaff raised his laser pistol and smirked. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he said. “You’d like it if I just left you to your evil deeds.” “Yes, I would,” replied Mr. Big. “One-nine-hundred-hot-love! Awrk!” said Pablito. “What was that?” asked Spaff. “Was that some kind of code? Is ‘hot love’ the code name for your newest plot? I knew you were up to something! Spaff Dungo can smell deception from orbit!” Mr. Big, sensing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, adopted a theatrical tone. “Oh, no!” he intoned. “Pablito, how could you reveal my secrets? Please, mighty Spaff, do not steal away with my Pablito! He is the linchpin of all my shady dealings!” The ruse worked. Somewhat out of character, perhaps out of desperation, Spaff grabbed Pablito’s cage and bolted out of the room. The guards stood dumbfounded. Mr. Big screamed, loud enough for Spaff to hear, “After him, men!” and then, quieter, said, “Look, guys, Spaff couldn’t shoot you if you laid down in front of him. Just chase him off the property, and then you can go home.” Mr. Big then kicked off his shoes, and wondered how much money Spaff would spend on 900 numbers before he quit. Mr. Big figured it would be a lot.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Apparently, it is my fate to be blindsided every five reviews or so by a book that’s part of a series that I didn’t know about. This particular one was sneaky enough that I didn’t figure it out until I was finished and looking up cover info. It sure doesn’t say so anywhere in or on the novel, and I didn’t need any background info to get into the story, so screw it. Insofar as the fare, it’s pretty standard, though it’s a good standard. It’s a sort of space cowboy thing, focused on the frontier of newly-explored space and trade-route establishment. It could be an episode of Firefly, if it were more clever, or of Star Trek, if it were less antiauthoritarian. The book is solid, well-crafted, well-written, and, though it won’t shatter any conventions, clever enough within its scope to fascinate. In retrospect, it makes sense as part of a series, and I’d be interested in reading more of it. Mildewed copies of Andre Norton, beware—I’m on the hunt for you. There’s no shelf too high, no bookshop too far… actually, my local bookshop is right across the street (as populated by its wares as it is, I refer to my apartment as “The Armadillo’s Pillow, Northwest Annex”), so there may very well be a bookshop too far, but I wouldn’t know.

Rating: 8.5 Integral Ship Cats

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • At what point in future history do we cease to identify ourselves by nationality and start to rally behind basic geometric shapes?
  • Have you ever seen a parrot so pissed off for want of a cuttlebone?
  • When man finally embraces his desire to reach for the stars, what strange cultural climate will rekindle love for the rocket design schemes of Wernher Von Braun?

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