“One of the women wasn’t dead yet. Her ravaged body hung naked from a broken billboard. Her legs were splayed wide and anchored with ropes; legs and belly were bloody, there were heavy bruises on her face and breasts, and she had been branded with a large “M” for mutant” (1).
Before there was Mad Max (1979) dir. George Miller there was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s False Dawn (1978)… In 1972 she published her brutal and terrifying short story “False Dawn” in Thomas N. Scortia’s anthology Strange Bedfellows (1972). A few years later the work was deemed important enough to be included in Pamela Sargent’s famous anthology Women of Wonder (1975). This story forms the first chapter of her post-apocalyptical novel False Dawn (1978).
In the 60s highly inventive post-apocalyptical stories flourished: for example, J. G. Ballard’s masterpiece The Drowned World (1962) filled with images of uterine spaces and encroaching waters, Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) where the elderly are the inheritors of the earth, and D. G. Compton’s The Silent Multitude (1966) where conversations drift amongst the decaying cityscapes.
Yarbro pursues a somewhat different tack in False Dawn. She seeks to tell an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a world gone to hell due to environmental devastation. I suspect this novel, along with John Brunner’s masterpiece The Sheep Look Up (1972), were influential for later SF.
This is not a cozy apocalypse. This is a world where deranged individuals both male and female who have managed to survive prey on travelers, where roving bands of Pirates loot, rape, and destroy under some tenuous ideology of “survival.” A world where most births produce deformed children, the wandering diseased transmit horrific illnesses, and religious fanaticism of the most virulent sort abounds… A few enclaves manage to eek out a semblance of civilized (rural) existence in the face of these threats. And the promise of more pristine environments that must exist over the next range of mountains, motivate some to keep searching for a better life.
Before society completely collapse groups of scientists experimented on humans in an effort to create bodies that would survive the ravishes of the environmentally destroyed landscape: “they had decided to adapt. They adapted their children. Viral modification, they called it, when it worked” (71). Our heroine, Thea is one of these designed “mutants” although her mutation does not play a major role in the novel.
Unfortunately this hyper-realistic recasting is not entirely successful despite its admirable intentions. Recommended only for fans of 70s post-apocalyptical SF.
Brief Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)
False Dawn‘s central protagonist, a “mutant” woman named Thea, is remarkably resilient. The novel stars off with her winding her way through a scene of incredible destruction caused in part by the Pirates: dead bodies, a raped woman splayed on a billboard, packs of wild dogs, dead animals whose decayed bodies show the signs of viral infections. Her objective: Gold Lake, where civilization might still exist. Her trek takes her across Northern California: a vast expanses of mutilated landscapes, dying peoples, and horrific surprises.
However, her solo journey ends when she encounters Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates. Evan is dying, his men, increasingly radicalized, turned on him and cut off his arm. The Pirates will stop at nothing to kill their ex-leader. Thea, against her gut feeling and desire to remain alone on her journey, joins up with him on her quest.
A third character “joins” Thea and Evan, an unstable man named Lastly who fought for the C. D. militia. Thea and Evan are disarmed by Lastly at rifle point and forced to march with him. Lastly lusts after Thea and rapes her as Evan collects fuel for their fire: no punches are pulled, the scene is devastating. Evan returns and kills Lastly.
As their journey becomes increasingly difficult for a one-armed man, Yarbro strategically has his “mutant” modifications manifest themselves: “Evan’s arm grew back as fall came on. It sprouted slowly as they left the contamination behind them, beginning as a tawny spatulate paddle below the angry cicatrix marking the path of the saw [...]” (38). The majority of the story’s plot concerns the daily survival of the pair—investigating abandoned houses, building crossbows, avoiding the Pirates—as they make their way across snowy mountains towards Gold Lake.
The more thematic arc of the novel novel follows Thea’s slow recovery from the mental trauma she experienced. I found Yarbro’s treatment of the Thea’s extreme difficulty of recovery from such an experience is admirably conveyed and believable. As she recovers, Evan rekindles her memories of the past—they often reminisce about food, remember fragments of music. Also, she slowly begins to overcome the more general trauma generated by the virtual destruction of the world.
The end is bittersweet.
False Dawn attempts to be a realistic story with an exciting plot and careful character development. I remained unconvinced by some elements of the second point. As soon as Thea meets Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates, the novel tends to slip into very common gender dynamics (he is much older than her and falls in loves, he kills her rapist, he awakens her earlier memories of music and culture, etc). Evan is also completely unconvincing. How can a man who once lead the Pirates–i.e. a force of incredible destruction—suddenly transform into a caring, loving, and tender individual? Yes, he attempted to stem the tide of the Pirates’ increasing radicalism and was nearly killed for his actions…
The sweeping scenes of devastation are well-wrought and terrifying. The horror elements are predictable but effective. I prefer 60s/early 70s post-apocalyptical experimentation over hyper-violent realism.
Vaguely recommended for fans of post-apocalyptical SF.