I wish I could say that Daybreak – 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton has great literary merit. But it doesn’t.
It was one of the first novels in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to grapple with the idea of what the world would look like after a global nuclear war. But it’s overlooked and ignored now, although it helped pave the way for scores of books and films that came after, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
I could tell you that, to my mind, it’s the best of the more than 200 novels that Norton published during her 93-year-long life. But that doesn’t say a lot. She was never much of a stylist.
No, I love Daybreak – 2250 A.D. because it’s a captivating adventure story with psychological themes that resonated deeply with me when I first read it in 1960 at the age of 10 and that still resonate with me when I re-read the book every few years or so.
I refuse to call this a guilty pleasure. Although no literary gem, it’s not a bad book. It’s a good book.
Opened a door
Maybe you have a book like this. Maybe all readers do. A book that touched you at some key moment in life, one that opened a door or helped you understand your place in the cosmos.
Daybreak – 2250 A.D. was originally published in hardcover in 1952 as Star Man’s Son: 2250 A.D. The copy I originally read — which I got through a school book fair (all hail school book fairs!) — was a paperback from Ace Books with a cover that showed the central character Fors riding a raft through a ruined city, accompanied by Lura, a large telepathic cat.
Although the book was, in the manner of sci-fi, republished many times over the last half century with different covers, no stand-alone version is in print at this point. However, it is available in Darkness and Dawn, a paperback and Kindle book that also contains a second similar Norton novel, No Night Without Stars (1975).
Daybreak wasn’t written for 10-year-olds. Norton’s target audience for her science fiction was always adolescent boys and men who somehow remained in touch with their teenage selves. That’s partially why I can re-read Daybreak, as well as many of Norton’s other novels, with such enjoyment.
They’re about facing danger, going into scary situations. And they almost always involve a search for identity.
That’s why Fors was so important to the 10-year-old me. He is a mutant. His father was a Star Captain, one of the leaders of the Puma Clan in the mountains of what was once the western United States. But on a trip in search of a lost city in the wilderness beyond the clan’s territory, he was killed.
And the clan turns against Fors — “Mutant!” — because of his silver hair, night vision and ability to communicate with Lura through telepathy. Norton writes:
For more than two hundred years — ever since the black days of chaos following the Great Blow-Up, the atomic war — that cry had been enough to condemn without trial. Fear caused it, the strong, instinctive fear of the whole race for anyone cursed with a different physique or unusual powers.
A kind of roadmap
So he sneaks away from the village and goes off to retrace his father’s tracks. He finds the city his father sought. He makes friends. And he faces the nightmare mutants called Beast Things.
They were probably no taller than he but their emaciated bodies perched on stick legs made them seem to top him. The grayish skin which was stretched tight over their sharp bones was deep grained, almost scaly, and their bodies were bare save for strips of filthy tattered stuff worn about their loins. But their faces — !
This was all powerful stuff to the 10-year-old me. On some level, I suspect, every pre-teen and teenager feels like an outcast and a mutant. I certainly did. I could look out on the world, and it was an unknown and scary place. I could look out into my future and see that I would have to go into that world and become — who?
In Daybreak, Norton provided me with a kind of roadmap. It wasn’t one that I could follow. But it showed me that, in facing the risk of life in the world like Fors, I could find my way and find myself.
The power of literature
One other thing: Daybreak also showed me the power of literature. Through Norton’s novel, I learned that books can be life-shifting, in big and small ways. A book, I found, can adjust my perspective, can light up dark places, can open new vistas.
So every book I read, I’m open to how it will change me, and rarely am I disappointed. All thanks to Andre Norton and Daybreak – 2250 A.D.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune Printers Row book section on April 10, 2016.