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Star Ka’at World

Star Ka’at World by Andre Norton and Dorothy MadleeStar Ka'at World
Pocket Books, 1979
Price I paid: 35¢

Jim and Elly Mae travel to a distant planet as guests of Tiro and Mer—members of a super-intelligent race of Ka’ats. On this strange world, work is done by machines, which are controlled by thoughts from Ka’ats. But Jim and Elly cannot learn this power and become dependent on their hosts for everything—even meals! Determined to find their own food, Jim and Elly explore a nearby city where human-like beings once lived. But fierce robots now march down the streets. Tiro and Mer rush in to protect their human friends and are kidnapped by the robots. Jim and Elly must use all their courage to find a way to rescue the Ka’ats!

Thomas,

(I hear you asking)

did you just read a children’s book?

And the answer is yes, yes I did.

I have reasons.

I picked this one up on my friend John’s prompting. I can’t remember his reason but I agreed with it.

And I read it this week because I had a short weekend and wanted something simple and easy to knock out. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Plus the premise just seemed goofy enough to be fun.

I felt somewhat bad, because Andre Norton is a pretty well-known writer, but I also wanted to see what a children’s book by her would be like. How would it stack up against, say, some of the Heinlein juveniles?

Admittedly I haven’t read a Heinlein juvenile in years so it might be an unfair comparison.

What I don’t remember about Heinlein’s juvenile books is being treated like an idiot. At least not any more than he treated everybody in his adult novels too. Star Ka’at World, on the other hand, was written by somebody who seems to think that children are stupid. Maybe that was Norton, maybe it was the co-author, Dorothy Madlee.

I have a love/hate relationship with children’s literature for this reason. Some books treat children like the intelligent-but-inexperienced people they are. Sometimes they even leave out the “inexperienced” part and just write a book that, for some reason, children seem to latch onto. In this case I feel like the only thing that distinguishes a children’s book from an adult one is whether there is sex, violence, or swearing.

Take the Harry Potter books, which enjoyed a lot of cross-generational success. Kids like it because it’s about kids doing magic. Adults like it because there’s a pretty decent story there and some themes that you can appreciate regardless of age. You can throw in some escapism and nostalgia and whatnot, which is fine too. I haven’t read the Hunger Games or Divergent books, but I get the feeling that this applies to those as well. I may be wrong.

Heck, you could even go younger. I still love Dr. Seuss. The man was a genius. You read the books (or have them read to you) as a kid and think “Haha, it shouldn’t matter if the sneetches have stars on their bellies or not.” Then, as an adult, you read it again (maybe to a kid) and realize that Seuss was telling you that racism is stupid.

But then there’s something like this book. All it did was take some standard science fiction tropes and dumb them down, all the while making it so that kids are the protagonists. This is supposed to appeal to children. I think it just makes them stupid.

Our heroes are Jim and Elly Mae. They are kids. I think they’re about nine or so. Their friends, Tiro and Mer, are cats. Sort of. Really they’re Ka’ats.

Ka’ats are aliens that came to Earth long ago. They associated with humans to discover whether humans are worth getting to know. For the most part, the answer was no, but a few people, like our heroes, are exceptions.

One thing I thought was pretty neat is that Ka’ats aren’t aliens masquerading as cats. Cats are aliens. All of them. Some of them have regressed to a feral state and become regular cats, but a few are still intelligent psychics.

Apparently we learned a lot of this in the previous book. I was given no sign that there was a previous book until the end of this one. It was called Star Ka’at.

So Jim and Elly Mae are friends with these Ka’ats and they’re taken to the Ka’at homeworld, Zimmorrah. Where they meet lots of other Ka’ats and cats and robots. The Ka’ats use robots to do all their work. These robots are controlled via telepathy.

Jim and Elly aren’t able to use the telepathy. They try, and they make a few strides, but since all the machines on the planet are telepathic the kids aren’t able to feed themselves, for example. This leads to complications.

The kids themselves feel like they’re being burdensome on the cats because they have to find somebody to make the replicator-thing make food for them. Their friends, Mer and Tiro, keep disappearing on mysterious business, so they aren’t helpful. Some of the Ka’ats get annoyed at the children for being less self-sufficient than even the youngest Ka’at, which are called cublings and not kittens for some reason. I’d’ve settled for kitlings. Or K’t’ns.

What’s the deal with apostrophes, anyway? I know they’re supposed to represent glottal stops, but there are a lot more sounds the mouth can make and punctuation to apply to them. Heck, even here on Earth the IPA uses ! to represent a tongue click. There’s a group of people in sub-Saharan Africa called the !Kung. That’s more alien-sounding than Ka’at.

This complaint is not constrained to children’s books, either. It’s ubiquitous.

Writer’s prompt: a magical world where there is a sound audible only to people who can use magic. It is represented by @. Wizards prefix this syllable to the beginnings of their names to indicate their wizardry, so all their names are like @Dave and @Neil.

So one day, on a field trip, Jim and Elly are shown a vast city somewhere. They are told never to go there, because only death awaits them.

Ka’ats don’t know anything about children, do they?

Finally Tiro gives in and explains why. Why didn’t somebody explain at the beginning? Is it because, I dunno, children are stupid?

So it turns out that the Ka’ats are not, or at least were not at one point, the only intelligent species on the planet. There was another species, the Hsi, who were the ones who built robots and cars and all that fun stuff first. The Ka’ats and the Hsi got along okay, although the Hsi forbade any knowledge of their technology falling into Ka’at, um, paws. They also tended to fight among themselves and were, yeah, just humans basically.

Tiro goes on and on about how these people, who are just us, were bad.

The Hsi were able to travel through space and a few made friends with some Ka’ats. One of them, long ago, was named Kindarth and he was able to “mind-send” a little bit with his friend, a Ka’at named Ka-ten. They had some adventures until an accident happened. The only way Kindarth could save his friend was by teaching him the secrets of Hsi technology, which Ka-ten used to get back home and taught it to all the other Ka’ats.

This caused the Hsi to go crazy and pollute the air and try to kill the Ka’ats and all that kind of stuff like you’d expect, I guess.

They wound up destroying themselves, but one city survived, patrolled endlessly by Hsi robots.

So now that the children have some good reasons not to go to this city, Jim decides that he’s going to go to the city.

He drags Elly along. They get captured by some robots. Mer and Tiro come along to help them. They get captured even worse. So now it’s up to our genius heroes to save their friends.

At some point Jim finds out that he’s able, just a little bit, to control some robots. The robots don’t respond to mental commands like Ka’at ones do, but they’re also not purely vocally commanded? I didn’t get this, I’ll admit it. Sometimes this book contradicted itself. The upshot was that Jim was able to stop the robots from killing everybody, but not able to use them to end the book.

What’s Elly doing this whole time? Generally speaking, she’s crying.

Mer and Tiro are trapped in boxes with forcefields on them. Jim figures that if he can cut the power he’ll be able to help them escape. This is accomplished when he and Elly find what appears to be the power plant for the entire city.

It’s a bubble with a lot of swirling colors in it. I think a computer terminal helps them figure out that this was the power source. There doesn’t seem to be a direct way of shutting it down, so Elly gets frustrated and just bashes it open.

This is not a good lesson to be teaching children. There’s no indication of what this thing is using to generate power. Breaking the thing open should, by all rights, end up leaving a gigantic crater where the city used to be. Instead it just turns off the lights, the robots, and the forcefields.

The Ka’ats are freed and we end with Jim and Elly being awarded honorary Ka’at status or something like that. I think they’re declared “Ka’atkin.”

So the book was pretty straightforward, as you’d expect. There wasn’t a lot of complication. I can deal with that. The book is written for children.

Except there could have been some complication. Maybe some moral ambiguity. Maybe revealing that the Ka’ats weren’t all that nice to the Hsi back in the past and so Jim and Elly have to come to terms with that.

The book was judged “Middle Grades” by my used-book store, but I would judge it to be more appropriate for first or second graders, especially if they’re into science fiction in the first place. As a starter to the genre, Star Ka’at World wouldn’t be bad. But there are better options.

The book had typos, for one thing, which just made it feel sloppy. “Kids won’t care,” I hear some proofreader say as he or she checks the book off of a list without reading it. I mentioned that sometimes it felt like it contradicted itself. There’s a bit at the beginning where the kids are learning to “mind-send” like the Ka’ats do. At first it seems like they’re actually doing okay. Elly takes to it quicker than Jim, and eventually they’re both able to project their thoughts onto a screen. But then it turns around and says they’re both hopeless at it. That kind of thing.

The book had some illustrations in it that weren’t bad. Most notable is the fact that Elly is black. She doesn’t look black on the front cover. She’s maybe a little darker than Jim, but you could attribute that to the lighting. She’s a lot darker in the illustrations. There was never any commentary on her race in the text, which I liked. It was never touched upon. Her speech patterns were different from Jim’s, she seemed a bit more Southern or rural or something, but that was all.

As a girl, though, she was bothersome. She spent a lot of the book crying and worrying and saying things like “Mer will come back and help us.” I didn’t like that. True, she was the one who took initiative at the end and blew up the power plant with a metal pipe, but up until then she felt like a stereotypical girl. She could have been written better.

And as for the Ka’ats, well, they were mostly just dicks. Which is in keeping with their behavior on Earth. They bring these human children to their planet and practically abandon them when it turns out that, surprise, human children don’t have the same mental capabilities that they do. There’s no attempt to compensate for the fact that they are an entirely different species. There’s just a bunch of “Ugh, even Ka’at cublings can do that at a few months old. What’s wrong with you?”

So Andre Norton’s foray (or at least one of her forays) into children’s literature did not leave me inspired to gift this book to a child somewhere and say “Here, you’ll like this.” At many points I felt like someone, somewhere, underestimated the capabilities of children to read and understand what they’re reading. I’m not a parent or an educator. Maybe I’m overestimating children. Maybe I’m (and I’m trying to be modest here) unfairly comparing all children to my own memories of childhood. I do wish that someone would go back to my elementary school and stop me from reading all those Goosebumps books, though. They did not hold up.

If I had a kid and he or she wanted to read this book, sure, I’d let them. But I’d encourage them to read something a little more challenging when they were done. Something that didn’t assume they were dumb.

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2 Comments

  1. My biggest complaint about Norton is that she talks down to the reader—because we can’t stretch the kiddies’ vocabulary/imagination, it may scare them away from books. I disagree with the notion, probably because I was always trying to read several steps above my grade level.

    I’ve read 3-4 of Norton’s books, and they’re all pretty much like you make this one out to be… SF tropes and animal sidekicks dumbed-down and underestimating children’s reading capacity. Really kind of a shame, especially since I’ve seen so many people praise Norton.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you read a different version than I did. In mine, Jim is the one to shut down the power. by throwing this crystal he got from a robot (seen on the cover) at another crystal in the power room.

    Like

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