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Book review: “Daybreak 2250 AD (Star Man’s Son)” by Andre Norton

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Andre Norton’s 1952 novel Daybreak 2250 AD.  In an essay about the book that I wrote for the Chicago Tribune six years ago, I said I was 10.  Now, though, I’m thinking that I might have been 11 or 12.

I know that I got the book at a school book fair — actually, it involved sending some money away and, some time later, the book showing up in the mail.  I remember the flimsy piece of paper on which I had to put my name and address and check off the book or books I wanted.  (Or maybe we gave our money and checklist to the classroom nun….)

If it seems I’m a little cloudy about the circumstances, all I can say is that it was sixty or more years ago.

The book, though, has stayed with me.  I mean, literally, I’ve had one or more copies of it during nearly all of the intervening six decades.  I’ve read it several times.

I can’t think of another book that was more important to me at that particular stage in my life.  And it has remained a link to that pre-teen me who was about to venture out into the wider world.

Not so academic

Now, at the age of 72, I’ve re-read it yet again, this time in its original hardcover edition which was titled Star Man’s Son 2250 AD.

And, for the first time, I realized that, based on the text, the Great Blow Up — the nuclear war that ended the world of the Old Ones and gave birth to the dangerous world of the novel — occurred around 2050 AD.  Maybe, when I was a pre-teen, I figured out that date, but I know the story seemed to be eons in the future, nothing to do with me.

Now, though, I know that, with a lot of good health and luck, I could live to 2050.  My newborn grandson Ulysses will be just 28 then.  For the first time, the year doesn’t seem so academic to me.

Norton’s novel was one of the first to face what a nuclear war would do to the earth.  It was published just six years after atomic bombs were dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And it has been followed by hundreds of books in a genre called nuclear holocaust or post-apocalyptic.

The first test of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union took place in mid-1949, and, from that moment, the possibility of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR was real, not only to Americans and Soviet citizens but to everyone in the world.  It was clear very quickly that nuclear attacks by the two superpowers would devastate the entire globe. 

Two years later, Star Man’s Son appeared in bookstores.

“Mutant!”

The world of Norton’s novel involves widely dispersed tribes of people who, for two centuries, have been doing what they need to survive and trying to collect and decipher the learning of the Old Ones.  They’re clannish and distrustful of strangers.

As the book opens, Fors of the Puma Clan of the Eyrie, a colony in the mountains, is standing in a night mist outside of the Star Hall.  He is about 17, and he is angry in the way only a teenager can be.  For the sixth and final time, he has been passed over for admission to the fellowship of the Star Men, those who go out to explore the lost lands and gather knowledge, particularly the learning of the Old Ones, to bring back to the clan.

It might have been different if his father Langdon hadn’t been killed on one such exploration.  Langdon hadn’t been one to stand on tradition.  Indeed, against the clan practices, he had married a Plainswoman, the mother of Fors.  Fors fumes that his father might have been able to convince the Star Men to accept him even though he was clearly different.

His hair was the worst! They might have forgotten about his night sight and too-keen hearing.  He could have concealed those as soon as he learned how wrong it was to be different.  But he could not hide the color of his close-cropped hair…He had silver white [hair], which showed to all men that he was a mutant, different from the rest of his clan.  Mutant! Mutant!

Serious business

Mutation, the result of radioactivity from the bombs, is serious business in the world of Star Man’s Son. There are the Blow Up Lands which have been avoided for two centuries because of their radioactivity.  Some plants and animals have mutated, as have some humans, like Fors.

The worst mutations, though, are the Beast Things, ugly gray creatures who live in cities, keeping to dark underground places.  It’s not clear if they are descendants of human beings or maybe rats.  But they are rat-like and, as one character later says, “make war against all humankind!”

That word “humankind” was not one in wide circulation in 1952.  There was a writer’s reason for using the word: Norton’s story was focused on the need of humans to band together to fight off the Beast Things.

But there was, perhaps, a personal reason.  Andre Norton was a woman, Alice Mary Norton, who employed a male pen name — actually three of them — so she could be taken seriously by the readers of science fiction. 

For a long time after I first read Daybreak 2250 AD and started reading other Norton books, I thought the writer was a French guy — I was a teenager, after all, not very sophisticated.  I suspect I didn’t learn who Norton was until my 30s.

In any case, it makes sense that she would be more likely to employ “humankind” as a term to cover men and women and, for that matter, children.

And, in doing so, she anticipated by seven decades its wider use today.

“Ancient hurt”

Norton’s status as an outsider — as a female in a male-dominated genre — probably had something to do with how resonate her depiction of Fors was for me.  (Fors was only the first of dozens of central characters in her novels — most of them male — who were different in some way.)

And it had something to do with her inclusion in the novel of a person of color as a major character: Askane, a young dark-skinned man who travels with Fors and becomes his closest friend.

Askane’s tribe is made up of the descendants of airplane pilots who, after the short, horrible nuclear attack, landed their planes in a remote area and carved a living out of the land.  The founders of Fors’s tribe were scientists.  There is a third tribe of humans, the Plainspeople — note the inclusive word — who wander the prairie as hunters like the Native Americans of old.

These are the three tribes that Fors and Askane realize need to unite to overcome the Beast Things.

When the two first meet, Askane explains that he and others like him are searching for a new homeland for their tribe. The young mountain man tells of being outlawed after leaving his clan to find his own way in the world.  He is hoping to make discoveries that he can bring back to his clan to prove his worth.  When he suggests that Askane come back with him, the dark-skinned youth says:

“This is a world in which hate lives yet.  Let me tell you of my own people — this is a story of the old, old days.  The flying men who founded my tribe were born with dark skins — and so they had in their day endured much from those born of fairer races.

“We are a people of peace but there is an ancient hurt behind us and sometimes it stirs in our memories to poison with bitterness.”

Spurring societal change

In the early 1960s, when I first read Daybreak 2250 AD, the vast majority of American novels of all sorts had few, if any, African-American characters, certainly not as important figures.

So, Norton’s use of a black character struck the young me as an interesting storytelling wrinkle.  But it wasn’t hugely surprising since this was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and newspaper front pages and television newscasts routinely featured sit-ins and protests and marches against discrimination.

The thing I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that Norton published her novel in 1952, two years before the start of the great movement for equal rights for blacks, a movement that stretched from 1954 through 1968.  Of course, there were efforts that predated the great 14-year effort and followed it as well.

But here, as with “humankind,” Norton was anticipating and, in a way, helping to spur societal change by depicting in her story an equality between Fors and Askane.

Odd, weird and strange

In that Tribune essay I mentioned above, I said that Daybreak 2250 AD didn’t have great literary merit.  And that’s true.  And not true.

There is a hokeyness to a lot of the dialogue.  For instance, at one point, Askane exclaims, “By the Great Horned Lizard!”  At another point, a leader of the Plainspeople, says, “Only outlaws and evil livers wander far from their clan brothers.”

OK, “evil livers” isn’t very mellifluous or elegant.

But give credit to Norton for being one of the first to depict life after a nuclear holocaust, for making the imaginative leap to envision a world in which modern people have had to go back to the basic and unforgiving clarities of simple survival.

Daybreak 2250 AD is an adventure story, and, like great adventure stories through the history of literature, its central character Fors faces many dangers and challenges, and, through Fors, so does the reader.

OK, it’s not the Odyssey or Gilgamesh.  But, in mid-20th century, it spoke to my pre-teen self, and I suspect I’m not the only kid — boy or girl — who read Norton’s novel and drew comfort and inspiration from the story of a mutant who makes his way through a hostile world.

After all, don’t all pre-teens and teens think of themselves as mutants? As people who don’t fit?  Who are odd and weird and strange? 

For me, this is still true.  More than seven decades old, I still feel odd and weird and strange, and, while I have learned a lot and gotten more comfortable with myself, I still find it helpful to bond again with Fors as he searches to find himself.

All of life is this kind of journey. 

Patrick T. Reardon

10.17.22

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