Three decades ago, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This is one of the novels they sent me.
I have no idea why I chose this novel as one of my four selections. The other books I chose were collections, and the author of each would become important to me in the decades to come. That's not to say that I've ever regarded False Dawn, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, as unimportant. But I never read any of her other novels until recently. And unlike the other novelists--Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey, and Harry Harrison--Chelsea Quinn Yarbro never wrote any follow-ups to this story.
This has been a big reading month for me, at least in terms of the books I've finished. (Some books, such as Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, are longer, and necessarily take longer to finish). Nor have I finished False Dawn: I've only gotten fifty pages in thus far, about a quarter of the book's length. As you can probably tell by the cover, it's a tough, gritty novel, which paints a decimated future akin to those depicted in the Mad Max films. In this future world, genetic engineering has cause mutations that have destroyed governments (at least in the United States), agriculture, and the human race. It follows two protagonists: Thea, a woman who was raped by one of the roving motor cycle gangs, and Evan, a man who once ruled the motorcycle gangs, and seemed intent on killing mutants like Thea.
Instead of giving us the history of the characters and this future world, Yarbro makes us assemble a picture of this devastated world from sparse clues. Thea understandably can't stand being touched by a man, yet she builds crossbows and wields them with deadly accuracy. Evan carries his weight as her companion, despite having lost an arm, and does most of the cooking for them. Both are touched by the effects of genetic engineering. Thea has nictating membranes, a translucent or transparent eyelid that protects and moistens the eyes while maintaining visibility. The motorcycle gang that kicked Evan out might have cut off his arm with a power saw, but his arm and hand gradually grows back as the weeks of their journey pass. Both these mutations are thoughtful, perhaps even desirable adaptations to the human body, which have their presence in existing animals, reptiles, and birds. But other humans aren't so lucky. They're called the Untouchables, and even the motorcycle gangs avoid them. Many regard these Untouchables as lepers, but they're really people who bear undesirable mutations, and end up looking like their molecules got reassembled incorrectly in one of the transporters in Star Trek.
The plot of False Dawn unfolds as a great land-journey. Unlike Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Thea and Evan are not setting out to destroy a magical talisman. They simply wish to survive. They've heard of a place of sanctuary near Gold Lake, the largest of a series of lakes in Plumas County, California. They unite in Chico, shortly after Thea shoots a dying rape victim to prevent her from being eaten alive by wild dogs. They follow a route of power lines, across terrain so difficult to traverse it prevents the wild dogs and the motorcycle gangs from following them. Then skirt what would be the scenic cliffs above Feather River Canyon, were the land not so blighted. We're only gradually learning about Thea and Evan, and both have reasons to pull back from each other. Yet necessity drives them to travel together, on foot, through the Northern California wilderness. What will occur when they reach Gold Lake? Will they choose to stay together? Will they find the community they seek? Evan after all this time, I seem to remember how the novel ends. But my memory has played me false before, so I read ahead, wondering what will happen next, and learning more about Thea, Evan, and this future world with each new page.
This grand adventure I'm sharing with Thea, Evan, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was prompted by charting out the birthdays of authors I've read in the past few years. Ironically, Yarbro shares her birthday, September 15, with Agatha Christie. Unlike Christie, it's doubtful that I'll ever create a blog dedicated wholly to Yarbro. But then, you rarely know what stories will become significant to you in the future. I read Agatha Christie in my youth, yet her stories gradually grew more important to me as time rolled on. With False Dawn, even though the story falls outside (Far outside!) the realm of the stories I usually inhabit, I kept that novel, while getting rid of many others, because I wanted to read it again. And now I am! I'm returning to that grand adventure Chelsea Quinn Yarbro took me on three decades ago.
I couldn't be happier.