Originally published as Starman’s Son, 2250 A.D., Norton’s first science fiction novel has been also titled Daybreak — 2250 A.D. (the version I have) and Starman’s Son. Ace seems to have preferred the Daybreak variant and I think it is because they were worried readers might be misled by the title. This is not a world where young men  find their destinies between the stars. It is one where they struggle to find a better way of life on the radioactive ruins of Earth.
Life two centuries after atomic war is hard enough, but orphaned Fors of the Puma Clan of the hidden city Eyrie has it worse than many. His silver hair and enhanced senses mark him as not just the product of out-breeding, itself scandalous by Eyrie mores, but as that most despised kind, a mutant. Although the Eyrie has been charitable enough not to simply dash his brains out, those who rule have also made it clear Fors will never be allowed to become a Star Man, an adult male with full rights.
Affronted by the slight, Fors gathers up some of his late father Langdon’s effects and heads out on an unsanctioned mission of exploration, hoping to prove himself. He is searching for the remains of a city that Langdon believed he was on the cusp of finding. Fors’ actions mark him outlaw, but he hopes that if he can present the Eyrie with a new city to sift for useful relics, he will be forgiven.
Fors is accompanied by a giant, semi-telepathic cat named Lura because Norton , but even with such a companion, the wilds are a dangerous place. Predators abound and some walk on two legs. Not only are all strangers enemies by default but there are stranger and more terrible beings than mutants like Fors; Langdon himself fell to the Beast Things that lurk in the ruins of cities.
Fors finds his lost city. He also finds Arskane, whose people are the dark-skinned descendents of a Great Blow-up bomber crew. In a moment of charity entirely atypical for this era, Fors rescues the trapped Arskane from a pitfall; although strangers are by rights enemies, the pair of explorers become close companions.
Fors and Arskane picked a good time to transcend the taboos of their era, because while the tribes and clans of man may kill each other while jostling for position, they seldom engage in genocidal war (at least not since the Great Blow-up). Now, deep in the remains of Old One cities, someone—something—has transformed the monstrous Beast Things into an army, an army that will sweep all human life from face of the planet. All humans — Eyrie, Plainsmen, and others — must learn from Fors and Arskane’s example, or die.
I would not be surprised to learn that Norton, along with so many others, was influenced by Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 classic short story, “By the Waters of Babylon.” To Benét’s hauntingly prescient depiction of post-apocalyptic collapse, Norton adds a healthy dollop of post-atomic anxiety, as well as many of the themes and tropes one learns to expect in later Norton novels. Fors’ world isn’t just smashed flat and depopulated; it has been bathed in mutagenic radiation. As Fors points out, it is not at all clear that the Old Ones responsible for the Great Blow-up and modern humans are the same people any more. Perhaps all people are mutants.
Given that the Beast Men come from the cities and having encountered Ralestone Luck’scasual racism, I was somewhat worried that I was about to encounter Slum-Dwelling Mutants: They Want Welfare! I should have trusted Norton. She goes out of her way to introduce dark-skinned Arskane as an explorer equal to Fors (right down to the tendency to walk into plot-enabling traps) and to describe him in terms like “intelligent, pleasant face”. Norton drops this disapproving reference to 1952’s race relations:
The flying men who founded my tribe were born with dark skins — and so in their day they had endured much from those born of fairer races. We are a people of peace but there is an ancient hurt behind us […]
It’s a bit unfortunate that later on when Fors and Arskane compare the peoples of the world, Arskane says:
“It seems to me,” he said slowly, “that we are like the parts of one body. My people are the busy hands, fashioning things by which life may be made easier and more beautiful. The Plainspeople are the restless, hurrying feet […]. And your clan is the head, thinking, remembering, planning for the feet and hands.”
At least both the elite Eyrie and the Plainspeople are white, so this isn’t a case of “white people make all the decisions and black people carry them out.” Not quite.
Although it is widely believed that the Beast Things are descended from humans, the description we get makes me think they are giant, bipedal rats. They would not be the only new species of tool-user created by the Great Blow-up’s radiation; there is also a race of intelligent lizards. Norton wasn’t exactly inhibited by ideas about realistic mutation and selection rates or, as I recall, any particular need to have radiation-induced mutation wait until the kids are born to manifest.
Speaking of influences, I don’t know if James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet’s old roleplaying game Gamma World came with a list of recommended books but if this novel wasn’t in the back of their minds, I would be very, very surprised.
This short novel is rough around the edges but this is very clearly a Norton novel in ways that Ralestone Luck was not. Almost a generation of experience armed Norton with the tropes, empathies, and obsessions she would embrace in her later works: the focus on the people at the bottom of the pecking order, a fascination with nature and wilderness coupled with tension between the benefits and corruptions of civilization, a distaste for prejudice, and, of course! that weird obsession with cats.
1: Early Nortons didn’t tend to feature women. Some may not have mentioned them at all.
2: I’d say that it’s interesting that, so early in her career, Norton had already adopted many of the tropes characteristic of her later novels, but … 1952 is eighteen years after the publication of her first novel, 1934’s The Prince Commands, being sundry adventures of Michael Karl, sometime crown prince & pretender to the throne of Morvania.