Friday, November 27, 2009

Darkness and Dawn

Andre Norton's Darkness and Dawn (2003) contains two unrelated but thematically similar novels published in one volume. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic world disfigured by catastrophe in which humanity has been reduced to a pre-industrial existence. They are each rite of passage stories relating how a young protagonist comes to maturity. Yet for all their similarities, each novel treats the topic in a different way and comes to very different conclusions.

The first novel, Daybreak—2250 A.D. (aka Star Man's Son, 1952), introduces us to young Fors of the Puma Clan. Fors and his mountain tribe are descendants of survivors of the Great Blow-up, a nuclear war that wiped out industrial civilization and unleashed mutations hundreds of years ago. Fors himself is just such a mutant, marked by his white hair and ability too see in the dark. The orphaned son of a Star Man, one of the brave and privileged members of the tribe who venture forth to seek the knowledge and relics of the Old Ones, Fors hopes to gain entry into that organization himself. He has already bonded with Lura, one of the giant mutant cats that live among his tribe. But because of the stigma of being a mutant he has little chance of being accepted into the order. So he sets off on his own, determined to retrieve the secrets of the past and prove himself worthy of entrance into Star Hall. He soon befriends Arskane, a black-skinned warrior whose people are descendants of the flying ones who found refuge in the desert after the Last Battle. Together they must survive the threat of both rival tribes, like the nomadic, horse riding Plainsmen, and the Beast-things, vicious, mutant humanoid rats.

The novel unfolds with a straightforward and competent vigor. Norton is a natural storyteller and she sweeps you into the book quickly and keeps the plot moving at just the right pace to ensure that the momentum never lags. The chapters of this book are short to the point of terseness, recalling the clipped delivery of the old pulp magazines. Norton does a good job of depicting tribal societies, especially that of the Plainsman. The characters are conveyed well, with Fors and Arskane being the most detailed. To begin with it is Arskane and his fervent idealism that stands out as Fors is still striving to find himself, but by the novel's climax Fors comes to his own. And while women only feature in the background of the book they aren't just decoration and have an important say in tribal matters. Perhaps the most striking thing is the human dimensions in which the main characters are drawn. Fors and Arskane are not macho action heroes capable of superhuman feats. They spend most of the book wounded and exhausted, making their eventual triumph all the more impressive. And while that triumph may be a trifle pat it makes for a satisfying conclusion to the tale.

The second book is No Night Without Stars (1975). Like the earlier novel the story is set centuries after a catastrophe has destroyed industrial society, but in this case it was not a nuclear war. There was a Dark Time when volcanoes burst forth, continents shook and rent, and the seas alternately racked the land and receded to form new coastlines. While Norton never explains the cataclysm in so many words, it's clear from the clues she gives that some sort of massive celestial body passed near the Earth and the resulting tidal strains caused devastating geological disruptions. Civilization fell and the remnants of humanity reverted to tribalism and sunk into illiterate superstition.

This is the world of Sander, the smith. He has left his tribe, the Mob, after his father died and they refused to recognize him as a fully qualified smith. Accompanied by the huge mutant coyote, Rhinn, he hopes to rediscover the lost secrets of working the hard alloys of the Before People. They come upon a destroyed fishing village that has been laid waste by the Sea Sharks, vicious pirates that prey on the coasts. That night they are confronted by someone they soon learn to be Fanyi, the Shaman of the fishers who was away at the time of the slaughter. With her two large, mutant otters, Kai and Kayi, she has vowed revenge. The two of them soon join forces and set out to find a lost city of the Before People where they hope to discover the knowledge they will need to accomplish their ends.

Although they encounter strange mutants during their odyssey, the greatest threat to them comes from their fellow human beings. There are Traders who have laid claim the the ruins of the Before People and are ready to kill in order to keep others from their finds. Even more menacing are the White Ones, ferocious light-skinned warriors from the north who ride into battle on huge mutant deer. The White Ones raided Sander's Mob when he was a child and he has never forgotten the terror of that fight.

This novel finds Norton a noticeably more assured and mature writer. While she's lost none of her storytelling panache, she brings a more practiced hand to bear on the material. The result is a book with more texture than the earlier work. The only false note struck is the complete lack of any sexual tension between Sander and Fanyi. Despite sometimes sharing cramped sleeping quarters and occasionally stripping off wet cloths in front of one another neither evinces the slightest sexual curiosity about the other. In fact, despite all they go through they never develop any real intimacy, physical or otherwise. This is somewhat understandable on Fanyi's part, as she is a Shaman and therefore a bit aloof form mundane concerns to begin with, but it is a puzzling lack in Sander.

Having these two novels in one volume allows them to be contrasted one against the other. While both evoke a strong sense of loss, of the vanished accomplishments of the destroyed civilization, they each present it very differently. In the first it is humanity's own militarism and folly that has doomed it. It is hoped by some, like Arskane, that people can remake that lost world, but this time learn from their mistakes and outgrow the warlike tenancies that doomed their ancestors. In the second, however, the catastrophe was a natural disaster beyond humanity's ability to avoid or even influence. The world that follows is one where overgrown animals abound, where humanity is dwarfed by nature (and perhaps even the supernatural). The animal's stature is increased even as humanity's figurative stature is decreased. And now the past and it's accomplishments, while initially sought out, are ultimately something to be rejected.

Both of these books are fine accomplishments by Norton. Despite the similarities of general plot each gives the subject matter a distinct and interesting treatment. There is no sense that the second novel is a pastiche of the first, as one might expect. It casts the subject in a different light and draws conclusions that stand in contrast to the earlier work. It takes a talented author to cover the same ground twice and pull it off, but in these two books Andre Norton has achieved just that.

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