• Yehoshua Paul

1956 - The Crossroads of Time

1956. Stalin’s crimes are publicly revealed. The USSR embarks on a new course. Andre Norton writes The Crossroads of Time.

O kulcie jednostki i jego następstwach, Warsaw, March 1956, first edition of the Secret Speech, published for the inner use in the Polish United Workers Party.

“As for courage and will – we cannot measure how much of each lies within us, we can only trust there will be sufficient to carry through trials which may lie ahead” (Andre Norton).

On February 25, Nikita Kruschev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) delivers a secret speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to a closed session of the 20th Party Congress. For over four hours, Kruschev denounces Stalin and the crimes he committed as the opposite of everything the party stands for.

The crimes he mentions include:

During the speech, several people become ill and are removed from the hall. No record of this closed session exists. However, shortly afterwards, parts of the speech are publicly read at thousands of Communist meetings throughout the Soviet Union. Eventually, thanks to the Mossad, the full speech is published in The New York Times, Le Monde and The Observer, devastating the organized left.

As a result of this speech, the Communist Party USA loses over 30,000 members. In Georgia, Stalin’s homeland, tens of thousands take to the streets to protest (until the army steps in). And China is also upset, eventually severing its relations with the Soviet Union. However, Kruschev is determined to change his country’s course.

In October, the CPSU declares that the Gulag labor system is “inexpedient”. Prisoners are now allowed to send letters home to their families, and family members can mail clothes to prisoners. By 1960, the entire institution will be closed.

When it comes to foreign policy, Kruschev is open to the idea of neutral countries, a concept that Stalin had fiercely rejected. Kruschev also develops a theory of peaceful coexistence, which leads to a temporary warming of relations between the United States and the USSR.

Culturally, the sixties arrive early to the Soviet Union when censorship is weakened for poetry, songs, and publications. There are now popular music stars, such as Vladimir Vysotsky, and the masses gain access to guitars and tape recorders.

Finally, thousands of places bearing Stalin’s name are renamed, and monuments to the former tyrant are destroyed or replaced. The climax of these measures will occur in 1961 when Stalin’s body is transferred from Lenin’s Mausoleum and the city of Stalingrad is renamed Volgograd.

It’s sad that more than 14 million people were sent to the Gulag before these changes are brought about. Who knows, maybe on some alternative Earth, Stalin suffers his stroke several decades early? Or, the Tsar is never assassinated? Maybe there is an alternate earth in which the United Kingdom colonises Russia instead of America, and the Russian Revolution ends up producing a functioning democracy? If you read Andre Norton’s The Crossroads of Time it’s almost certain that such Earths exists.

"The Gifts of Asti", published under the "Andrew North" byline, took the cover of the third issue of Fantasy Book in 1948.

“Who seeks may find, who lives may learn, who loves is blessed” (Andre Norton, Beast Master’s Quest)

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005), The Grande Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy, was an American science fiction and fantasy author who also wrote crime fiction, historical fiction, romantic fiction, and other works that don’t fall into a specific genre.

Her impact on the science fiction and fantasy genres was immense. During her lifetime she managed to produce over 300 published titles read by at least four generations of science fiction and fantasy readers and writers. The list of authors who cite her as a major influence is long, and include such notable names as: C. J. Cherryh, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey and David Weber.

Norton was the first woman to:

She was also the first person to write a D&D novel. In 1976, Gary Gygax invited Norton to play Dungeons and Dragons in his Greyhawk setting. She subsequently wrote Quag Keep, which tells the story of a group of roleplaying gamers who travel from the real world to Greyhawk.

In the fifties, Norton was just beginning her career and publishing under her own name. Most of her work was published for the young adult market. Her first fantasy novel was Huon of the Horn (1951) and her first science fiction novel was Starman’s Son, 2250 A.D (1952). By 1956, she had published over a dozen novels, and received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews for four novels – The Crossroads of Time was not one of them.

First edition cover

“If Kartr had an instant picture of what it meant to dangle so precariously over the edge of a sheer drop he did not betray himself.” (Andre Norton, Star Soldiers)

The book is a straightforward science fiction adventure story for young adults that introduces a new concept – parallel worlds. The protagonist is Blake Walker, a young man whose life has been frequently punctuated by forebodings that warn him of danger. One of these forebodings leads him to rescue a man from being captured: Mark Kittson.

Kittson, and his team, are wardsmen, law enforcement agents with psi powers from an alternate earth. On their Earth, humanity managed to create a mechanized society several thousand years early, and then trigger a nuclear holocaust which levelled the planet and transformed the survivors into mutants. After everyone recovered, historian-scientists discovered the alternate earths, which are called levels.

Kittson’s Earth took it upon themselves to police travel to these levels. Many of them are tempting targets for mutant criminals who want to use their psi powers to set themselves up as dictators. That’s pretty much the entire story.

Walker joins Kittson’s team who are in pursuit of a mutant criminal, Pranj. He ends up getting lost on a handful of alternate earths, helps the team capture the villain, and joins the agency. The end.

This is not one of Norton’s better works. I’d been wanting to review one of her books ever since 1938 when she published her first novel, Raleston Luck (it came in third after Ayn Rand’s Anthem and an Isaac Asimov short story, “Trends”). When I discovered the book, my interest was piqued by the relatively new concept of many Earth’s. Hugh Everett had not yet popularized the idea, so the theory was still mostly unknown. Also, the book has good ratings on Goodreads. Unfortunately, a good premise does not equal a good book, and I ended up being disappointed.

Andre Norton has many amazing works, such as The Stars are Ours, The Time Traders, and The Beastmaster. Her reputation is more than justified. I strongly recommend exploring her further (especially if you enjoy young adult novels), and she is on my infinite list of authors I want to further explore. Every author is allowed a few duds, especially if they have over 300 published titles. Unfortunately for me, The Crossroads of Time ended up being one of them.


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