Andre Norton’s World

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    In the introduction (pg. xxii) to Andre Norton: a Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Roger C. Schlobin and Irene R. Harrison (NESFA Press, Framingham, MA, 1998, ISBN 0-915368-64-1) the authors quote Ms. Norton (1912 Feb 17 - 2005 Mar 17) as having once said,

"Yes, I am anti-machine. The more research I do, the more I am convinced that when western civilization turned to machines so heartily with the Industrial Revolution..., they threw away some parts of life which are now missing and which the lack of leads to much of our present frustration."

Yes, indeed, one of the leading science-fiction writers of 1950's America was a Luddite. As hilarious as that fact may be, it’s not unreasonable. Ms. Norton doesn’t seem to have hated the machinery itself so much as she disliked what use of the machines did to people (and that’s perfectly appropriate for a science-fiction writer). So what kind of world might she have wanted to live in?

    Let’s conduct an imaginary experiment to devise a criterion that will enable us to draw a line that industrial development cannot cross in Norton’s ideal world. Note that machines have been with us since the dawn of civilization, so we don’t intend to eliminate machines altogether. To understand why we shall consider a machine that was ubiquitous in America through the colonial period, the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

    For most of history the production of cloth was a labor-intensive enterprise. The production of thread or yarn was a more or less continuous process. Women would often carry bags full of some fibrous material (such as wool or cotton) and a spindle attached to a whorl. At idle moments a woman would take out her spindle, set it to spinning, and draw out some of the fiber and let the spindle twist it into thread or yarn. Over time the woman would accumulate enough thread or yarn to put on a loom to make cloth.

    In Colonial America the spindle was improved in that stereotypical appliance, the spinning wheel. The device consisted primarily of a tripodal stand holding a spindle in a bearing and a flywheel connected to the spindle by a cord. The flywheel was connected to a treadle through a rod and crank arrangement that enabled a woman to turn the flywheel and, thus, her spindle by tapping her foot on the treadle. We would find one of these simple machines in almost any colonial home we could visit.

    In particular we would likely find one in the creekside cabin occupied by Goodman Roger Svensworth and his wife Rebekkah. Certainly in the beginning of her married life Goodwife Rebekkah had a spinning wheel. But she had great difficulty in using it. Only moments after she began tapping the treadle the muscles in her foot and leg were wracked by powerful cramps and spasms, obliging her to stop her spinning of thread. This vexed her sorely.

    Fortunately Goodman Roger was quite handy in the craft of carpentry and he possessed a wondrous imagination. He cut a small hole in the wall of their cabin and in it mounted an axle, like the axle of a carriage. At one end of the axle he affixed a paddlewheel that dipped its blades into the creek and he mounted the other end on a tripodal support through a bearing and attached a wheel with a cord that turned a spindle mounted on the support. A brake enabled him to stop the device’s motion when the spindle was not in use, thereby quieting its noise for the peace of the household.

    Goodwife Rebekkah’s automatic (from the Greek for self-moving) spindle astounds the neighbors. By simply releasing the brake, Rebekkah can sit for hours on end and spin thread with no discomfort to hinder her ability to work at that task. The automatic spindle was so good that it aroused in the neighbor women a strong temptation to the deadly sin of envy.

    Goodman Roger was wise enough to understand that latter fact and he responded to the occasion for sin by building a small barn by the creek and building onto it two waterwheels turning axles that turned a dozen spindles, enough for all of the Svensworths’ neighbors to come and enjoy a spinning party. He also included a new feature, a device that enabled the user of a spindle to tighten or loosen the cord that drove the spindle, thereby enabling the woman to pause her work while the others continued spinning. Several days a week the women from the neighborhood gathered in the barn to chat, enjoy refreshment, and spin thread. The sin of envy was banished and the women enjoyed the virtue of conviviality. Thus was life enhanced.

    Of course, the news of the spinning barn spread and other people wanted spinning barns in their neighborhoods, so Goodman Roger was kept busy helping others build them. In the nearby town of Bechemesh Goodman Elijah Tannington conceived a wonderful idea. He would engage workers to erect a giant spinning barn on the river that ran through town, one that would contain over one hundred automatic spindles. He would then buy fiber from farmers (cotton or flax) and sheepherders (wool) and hire women to come in six days a week to spin the fiber into thread and yarn, which he would then sell.

    In concept Goodman Elijah’s plan seems like a good one. But it contains a subtle moral flaw that plays on the virtues of diligence and industry. In order to maximize productivity and profit (bowing to the deadly sin of avarice), the rules of the giant spinning barn will forbid the women from socializing while they work. They will be obliged to attend to their spinning and to nothing else. Thus, instead of using the machines, the women will become, in essence, mindless cogs in a machine. In that situation a good part of life will have been thrown away.

    We can define evil as anything that diminishes a person and few, if any, will contradict us. Transforming people into mindless toilers is certainly a diminution, so that transformation is something we want to avoid in Norton’s world. We draw our line, then, to exclude from this world anything that dehumanizes people.

    Manufactories would be craft-scale, rather than industrial-scale. Businesses would employ several dozen people or fewer. In that case how would the United States have developed?

    Politically, we would see little difference. The forty-eight states of mid-continental North America would be almost the same as they are on our timeline. West Virginia would likely still be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia (so we would have forty-seven states), because there would have been no Civil War/War Between the States (a nation that did not allow the degradation of people would not have adopted slavery). Hawai’i would not belong to the United States, because the sugar companies would be smaller and less able to wield the dominance necessary to instigate the annexation of the islands. We would still have Seward’s Folly (aka Alaska), but it would remain a far distant outpost of American culture.

    Government would still be big, though not nearly as big as it is today. It might more resemble what we had in the 1920's and it would be organized more like the army; that is, we would see each department as organized into platoons, each one containing several dozen people. The platoons would be organized into collectives that would provide direction for them. The whole organization would adhere more closely to the doctrine that government, accountable to the people, only properly does those things that cannot or should not be done by individuals or private organizations.

    Science and technology would advance much as they did on our timeline up to about 1940. Up until the advent of the Manhattan Project in 1942 scientific research was a craft-scale endeavor carried out by small teams of scientists in one-room laboratories. Great inventions were created in people’s kitchens and garages. Medical research would have continued at the same pace we saw on our timeline, so we would have had modern medicine (albeit with some pieces missing). Indeed, if we want a punchline description of this world, we could reasonably call it 1850 with penicillin.

    Machines would still be with us, the steam engine in particular. The machines would exist only to the extent that they enable people to accomplish more, but not to the extent that they come to dominate people’s lives.

    We would still have railroads, for example. They would be small, equivalent to what today we call a short line. The tracks likely would not extend more than fifty miles from the base of operations, making the railroad sprawl over one hundred miles of landscape at most. The largest single groupings of employees would be the section gangs, each comprising half a dozen to a dozen men whose job consists of laying, maintaining, and repairing track. The trains themselves are small: locomotives are about the size of the Stourbridge Lion and carriages the size of stagecoaches (indeed, the first carriages on the newly invented steam railroads in the 1820's and 1830's were stagecoaches fitted with flanged wheels). Because the trains are smaller and lighter than on our timeline, the rails are lighter as well: they won’t need as much iron or steel. Railroads in this alternate world are amusement park scale.

    Local travel would be quick and convenient, as we expect, but long-distance travel would be more difficult. If a businessman, Mr. Howie Doone, wanted to travel from New York City to San Francisco, he might use thirty or forty different railroads, transferring from one to another as he makes his way across the continent. The trip might take from a couple of weeks to a month, depending on the train schedules. And that statement assumes that there is a continuous network of railroads that he can use without resorting to the stagecoach.

    To be viable a railroad, like any business, must be profitable. In a world that eschews the economies of scale that come with industrial-scale production, goods and services would have been more expensive than they were on our timeline. So we would not expect, for example, to see any railroad linkage between railroad companies on opposite sides of a substantial obstacle, such as the wide desert between Phoenix, Arizona, and Riverside, California. The inhabitants of this world might accept this situation and devise various work-arounds or the federal government might establish its own railroad company, as a office of the Department of the Interior or the Department of Commerce, to fill in such gaps. The office would provide funding and oversight while small companies of men and women would carry out the construction and operation of small segments of the Federal Railroad.

    These people would treat the electric telegraph in the same way, covering large areas of the country with small networks that would merge in shared offices at their boundaries. Telegraph lines are easier and less expensive to build than are railroads, so some companies may have extended their lines across the barren wastes. The Phoenix Telegraph Company and the Riverside Telegraph Company might have had a joint office at a point on the Colorado River occupied by the town of Blythe, California, on our timeline.

    If Howie Doone wanted to send a telegram from New York City to Los Angeles, he would have to pay, let’s say, twenty-five different telegraph companies to relay the message. He pays a fee of two dollars and fifty cents to the New York Telegraph Company so that each telegraph company that relays his message gets ten cents (a substantial sum in the Nineteenth Century). That fact will necessitate the existence of a nimble interstate banking system.

    It would work much as banking systems worked on our timeline before banks could operate across state lines. Once a week or once a month the New York Telegraph Company would send checks to all of the other telegraph companies that had been the destination or first step in the relaying of long distance telegrams. Of Howie Doone’s fee, two dollars and forty cents would go to the Philadelphia Telegraph Company, which would send two dollars and thirty cents to the Baltimore Telegraph Company and so on until the Los Angeles Telegraph Company gets its ten cents. Each company deposits the checks it receives in its local bank, which sends the checks to a clearinghouse. The clearinghouses, operated as part of the federal Department of the Treasury, would carry out the actual transfers of cash, presumably in a national currency mandated by the National Bureau of Standards.

    In a technologically advancing society such a bureau quickly becomes necessary through the need to ensure a smooth flow of commerce. Financial transactions become much simpler and easier if everyone is using the same dollar, so businesses need fewer people in the accounting department. The long-distance shipping of goods requires fewer people if all of the railroads build their tracks to the same gauge: instead of men transferring goods from my freight wagon to yours where our railroads meet, my freight wagon can simply roll onto your track. Universal standards make for a very efficient society, even if that society eschews mass industry. Indeed, that kind of efficiency would be necessary in a society based on craft-scale manufacturing.

    Imagine going to this world in the 1950's, when Norton was writing most of her best-known science fiction. The United States would still be a largely agrarian society, much as Thomas Jefferson desired. In many ways it would be smaller than what we had and simpler.

    Few roads would be paved and there would be fewer highways. There wouldn’t be enough automobile traffic to justify the expense of such things. Without industrial-scale petroleum production, there would not be enough gasoline to fuel a large number of Otto-cycle engines: those would likely be reserved for emergency vehicles, such as fire engines, that need to start quickly. We might also see coal-burning road locomotives pulling wagons or carriages, much in the manner of the road trains we see in Australia. But primarily America would still be a horse-drawn society.

    Our cities would be smaller and shorter. Even with Mr. Otis’s safety elevator available, few buildings would exceed three storeys. There simply would not be a need or desire for anything bigger and steel frames would be much too expensive. New York City would not sprawl as it does on our timeline nor would it be as densely populated. Some parts of northern Manhattan might still be rural. We certainly would not see vast subdivisions, like Levittown.

    Infrastructure would be simpler. There would, for example, be no giant suspension bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge. People would still use ferries. If a bridge became necessary, we might see a floating bridge, much like the Hood Canal Bridge in Washington State, extending between Long Island and Manhattan. Built in the form of an arc, it would have center sections that could be pulled apart and slid along the shoreward sections to enable ships to pass (and there wouldn’t be many of those). The bridge company, which operates and maintains the bridge, wouldn’t build the bridge itself. Instead it would hire other companies, mostly boat builders, to produce the parts and assemble them. By subcontracting the work, the bridge company could, temporarily, act as a much larger entity.

    That idea, of bringing companies together in impromptu consortia, would enable the people of this society to carry out some moderately large projects, such as providing electricity to a city. One company would own and operate the generating plant and sell the electricity to distributors, who would set up the wires and get paid by the end users of the tamed lightning. And, as bizarre as it may seem, this horse-drawn society would have nuclear power.

    We usually think of nuclear power in terms of huge industrial-scale plants, such as the one at San Onofre in Southern California or the ill-starred Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. But the first working reactor was a small thing built by fewer than a dozen men, under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, in 1942. The laws of physics do not require nuclear reactors to be large or complex. A reactor is just a fancy firebox that generates heat to create pressurized steam that spins turbines connected to electric generators. A typical nuclear power plant in Norton’s world might generated one to ten thousand kilowatts and it would be built by a temporary consortium of subcontractors.

    Houses wouldn’t use as much electricity as ours do, because they would have fewer electric appliances. In a typical home we would see incandescent lights, a water heater (if it’s not gas-heated), and possibly a radio. The refrigerator, if there is one instead of an icebox, would likely be gas powered using the ammonia cycle for cooling.

    Yes, these people might have radios, especially after the advent of the transistor. They would certainly possess the knowledge needed to make them. From James Clerk Maxwell, through Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi, to Lee de Forest, the invention of radio was a craft-scale enterprise. It just won’t be commercial in this world.

    The federal government, striving to govern a continent-wide society, would certainly use radio and we would see the obvious application on ships. But commercial radio could not come into existence in a society that remains small-scale partly because it has not been infected with the disease of consumerism. The society would not be defaced by the pustulence of mass advertising, so there will be no basis for commercials on the radio. If this world has home radio, it will be operated more like the BBC: when a person owns a radio they will pay an annual tax that will be used to support the production and broadcasting of programs. If the radio stations broadcast from universities and colleges (themselves consortia of their various departments), they will be able to take advantage of those locations to tap the best talent in the country and, as a result, this will be a highly-educated society.

    The consortium idea would spread throughout this society and bring improvements to their ways of doing things. They would, for example, have an analogue of the modern supermarket. It wouldn’t belong to a chain: it would be what we would call a stand-alone. It would be a large building constructed at the behest of the owners and occupied by rent-paying tenants - a butcher shop, a deli, a bakery, a produce stand, a pharmacy, and so on - all operating independently and giving the housewife, in essence, one-stop shopping. The equivalent of a department store, with the departments actually independent businesses, would operate much like the modern shopping mall.

    It would be a good and decent society and the people, for the most part, would count themselves happy. As far as they could see, their happy state could continue forever. They would have full confidence in a bright future, until....

... until the lovely day when a Japanese squadron steams into San Francisco Bay and the crews show the flabbergasted natives the products of a fully-industrialized society.


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