The People who take center stage in Norton’s 1972 Breed to Come have only a vague idea of who they are or where they came from. Centuries earlier, Demons ruled the world. Then their hubris both doomed the Demons and raised their victims — the feline People, the porcine Tuskers, the ratlike Rattons, and the canine Barkers — from mere animals to people. Or so Furtig of the People has been taught since he was a cub.
As far as Furtig knows, the most serious problem facing him is the need to prove himself to those who choose, the females of breeding age of the tribe. I regret to report that this effort will not go all that well for Furtig, who is brave and smart — but not especially adept at the sort of hand-to-hand contest that is one of the customs of his people.
The good news is, having his head handed to him by a much larger Person isn’t close to worst thing that will happen to Furtig by the end of the book. Not only will his forlorn journey of exploration leave him a prisoner of the foul Rattons, but the Demons are at last returning home.…
Furtig’s understanding of his world is extremely rudimentary and localized. His tribe tends to stick close to the Five Caves that they call home. They are not on gossiping terms with the other tribes and races living near them. Only the People’s founder and mentor, the aged Gammage, has a grander perspective, both thanks to his long experience and because he has made his home in an ancient Demon stronghold filled with ancient knowledge — some useful, much of it quite disturbing.
The humans on the starship even now approaching the planet once named Earth don’t know much about why their ancestors fled Earth but what they do know is that Earth may hold the answer to the environmental crisis that will otherwise wipe out all human life on their sole colony world. The fact that uplifted animals have stepped into replace the absentee humans comes as an unpleasant surprise.
So does the revelation that an ancient evil waits to warp human minds and return them to their old destructive paths.
This appeared in print almost simultaneously with Jack Kirby’s Kamandi. While the plots are very different, Norton and Kirby’s worlds, in particular the idea of animals evolving rapidly into tool users after human extinction, are so similar that I wondered if one had influenced the other1. But the publication dates, mere months apart, make it clear that this is more likely to be yet another example of two authors independently and more or less simultaneously creating very similar works. This is not so surprising, given that both Norton and Kirby had played with similar ideas before. Well, it’s good to have an example of independent, simultaneous invention that does not involve poor Charles Sheffield2.
The crisis driving humans back to Earth seemed a bit contrived. I can think of any number of scenarios in which a seemingly habitable world turns hostile. In fact, I was really disappointed this wasn’t a Siberian Traps scenario4. When you think about it, there really are not enough stories featuring flood basalt events occurring right under a massive coal bed, in science fiction or anywhere else. As it was, I got the sense that the universe was a bit peeved some of those horrible humans managed to survive its just wrath.
I was also a bit disappointed that the Rattons were obligately evil. I think there’s enough story potential in the communications barriers between species that it’s not necessary for one of them to be Just Plain Bad.
Norton was fond of cats and I expect that the People’s mating customs (the males fight each other but it is the females who actually choose with whom they will mate) were influenced by her experiences with her pets. The custom of virilocality (females leave their home tribe to live with their mates) seems somewhat less true to the dowts of feral cats I’ve observed.…
While it’s pretty clear that Norton distrusted the moral effect of high technology on its users, she doesn’t kid herself about how much fun the primitive life isn’t; the People lose lots of children to what would be preventable diseases nowadays, Our hero is all too aware that minor wounds can very quickly turn septic and then lethal. It’s an unforgiving world. (Perhaps, given that she had to retire in 1950 due to ill-health, she knew all too well that a life lived close to nature would not be kind to chronic illness.)
This is one of the few Norton books I would have liked to see developed at greater length. We’re really only just getting to know her world when the plot comes to its end. I think there was the potential for a longer series here … but as far as I know, this book remained a standalone.
1: The inspiration for Kamandi was Planet of the Apes. Marvel, having failed to obtain the rights to do an official Planet of the Apes comic book adaptation, commissioned Kirby to create something similar (but not open-to-litigation similar).
2: On a number of occasions, Sheffield came up with original, innovative ideas for stories, only to discover that some other SF author had had the exact same idea. In the case of Sheffield’s Web Between the Worlds and Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, Clarke was kind enough to write Sheffield an introduction discussing the situation.
3: Mind you, I was boggled to discover that various elements in the Master of Mars trilogy were not commentary on Edgar Rice Burroughs, I believe Sarrantonio when he says he had never read ERB.
4: The Siberian Traps are a large igneous province, a region that was at one time home to a vast and long lived volcanic event. The eruptions may have been the cause of the End Permian Extinction, in which the vast majority of all species then on Earth died.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Deccan Traps, another vast flood basalt event, dates to about the time of the End Cretaceous extinction event. Other factors were in play during that extinction, but I cannot but think that the Deccan Traps contributed to the disaster.
Not that I am a vulcanist, sure that all past extinctions were due to vulcanism. See this entertaining essay on the YAGUMET (Yet Another Grand Unified Mass Extinction Theory) temptation.