Following the release of John Taine’s four-part, serialized novel The Time Stream, which wrapped up in the March 1932 issue of Wonder Stories, fans of the Scottish-born author would have to wait a good 27 months for any more sci-fi product from him. But this is not to say that Taine was idle during that time, his “day job” as a mathematician and professor — under his given name Eric Temple Bell — keeping him more than busy, and indeed, in 1933, Bell even came out with a nonfiction book entitled Numerology. But fans of the Taine alter ego, and the wondrous nine novels that had thus far been the product of his abundant imagination, were eventually rewarded in June ’34, with the release of Taine’s 10th novel (out of an eventual 16), Before the Dawn.
The book, unlike its predecessor, was initially released as a $2 hardcover from the publisher Williams & Wilkins Co., copping itself a featured review in the New York Times of September 9th. It would go on to see three reissues: first, as part of a 1945 sci-fi omnibus volume from Viking Press; next, as an offering in the February ’46 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (which, despite its name, reprinted reams of sci-fi as well); and lastly, as a 1975 reprint from Arno Press. So yes, the book has been OOPS (out of prints) for 46 years as of this writing, and that strikes this reader as a shame, as a recent perusal has shown the book to be both fascinating and highly intelligent (both qualities being quite typical of Taine’s work), written in the author’s highly readable and lucid style. And if not one of Taine’s best works, Before the Dawn, released when its author was 51, yet demonstrates what a proficient entertainer Taine could be during the pre-Golden Age era of science fiction.
The front cover of the 1934 edition, which I was fortunate enough to acquire at a very reasonable price online, describes the book’s intent: “A narrative of the revelations of the Langtry televisor concerning the frightful terrestrial upheavals and the losing struggle for existence of the great saurians, by an eyewitness of those stirring events.” The novel is related to us by a nameless narrator, who, strangely enough, never reveals his or her connection to the unfolding story. His/her tale only contains three other characters … of the human variety, that is: Langtry, the inventor of the televisor that sets the story in motion; Bronson, the president of the American Television Corp., which has financed Langtry’s work; and Sellar, an archeologist. Langtry, it seems, had discovered that when light impinges on a metallic surface, some of that surface’s electrons are knocked off, and that by measuring the degree of degradation, a precise estimate of the age of the affected material may be deduced. He is able to correctly date a Mayan calendar stone as well as a Mayan statuette using this technique, and in time refines his methods to a remarkable degree. Eventually, using a special beam of projected light, Langtry actually becomes able to view the history that these inanimate objects had witnessed. His device “does for light what a phonograph does for sound,” enabling him and his team to study “that history [that] has been recorded on the unaging records of light itself stored up in the ultimate particles of matter.” I realize that I am explaining this concept clumsily; trust me, Taine does a much better job than I! Long story short: Langtry’s televisor enables him to study an object — a rock, a fossil, a bird’s feather — and view everything that had transpired around it. To be succinct, he can view the past, and in great detail … especially after his team constructs an outdoor viewer and magnifier on the floor of a 20-acre arena, in which to regard the events of history. (And you thought your 50-inch smart TV was impressive!) As Langtry’s device comes to fruition, you might be reminded of two different constructs from two Star Trek eras. The televisor, which allows scientists to rapidly comb through history to examine a particular moment, is at times reminiscent of the Guardian in the wonderful 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” At other times, such as when the scientists walk through the seemingly realistic world of projected light on the floor of the arena, the device comes off more like the holodeck of later Star Trek incarnations.
Anyway, with all of history to explore, our scientists, studying rocks and meteorites and fossils, decide on the prehistoric era. Thus, we witness some protomarsupials stealing the eggs from the nest of what appears to be a T. rex (no dinosaurs are ever identified in Taine’s book, only described). We view some gigantic marsh feeders (brontos?) and their battles with the meat eaters. We see a prehistoric sandstorm, the change of flow of a river, and the decimation of entire dinosaur herds by enormous flies. In the book’s later sections, we visit a northern continent, soon to be rendered unliveable, and meet the book’s four other main characters: Belshazzar, an enormous T. rex type, and two others of his ilk, who the scientists assume to be his parents and who are dubbed Bartholomew and Jezebel; and Satan, another, smaller carnivore, possibly a raptor type, and the hereditary enemy of Belshazzar’s group. We watch these four, and thousands of other creatures, migrate across the 20-mile-long, 5-mile-wide, 600-foot-high land bridge connecting the cold, untenable continent to a warmer, more hospitable continent farther south. And finally, we witness the quartet’s struggles with the other dinosaurs, with each other, and with their new environment. As The Science Fiction Encyclopedia once mentioned, Taine “loved to do things on a grand scale, and most of his novels end with catastrophes which overwhelm whole continents.” And in Before the Dawn, we get to see not one, but two continents undergo cataclysms: the northern one, racked by seismic upheavals and resultant cold, and the southern, which, 50 years after Belshazzar & Co. arrive on the scene, is torn by a quadruple volcanic eruption. Life surely wasn’t easy 65 million years back, that’s for sure!
Before the Dawn did not mark the first time that Taine broached the subject of dinosaurs. In his fifth novel, 1929’s The Greatest Adventure, a team of scientists had discovered a whole passel of living, prehistoric beasties in a hidden valley in Antarctica, of all places. But in the 1934 offering, his discussion of the great saurians is much more in depth. Our narrator maintains an aloof, clinical tone throughout, giving the impression that he/she is also a scientist, or perhaps a science reporter, and yet still manages to conjure up any number of vivid descriptions as regards fauna and environment. The resultant work is both elegant and consistently intelligent, which makes it all the more surprising that the ultimate fate of some of these bloodthirsty carnivores whom we get to know can actually prove emotionally moving to the reader, as well. But the four named dinosaurs are never anthropomorphized, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when Belshazzar kills and eats his own mother to secure a decent meal! As our narrator concedes, despite the scientists’ great admiration for the killer, he is, at bottom, a reptile. So yes, Before the Dawn, despite the far-out nature of its central conceit, ultimately comes off as credible and captivating. It is a book of science as well as a tale of violent action, and ultimately is as fun as can be. Still, there remain some problems that compel me to admit that this work is only minor Taine, or at least, not one of his best.
For one thing, the book somehow feels a bit inconsequential. Sure, it’s fun to peer back in time and watch dinosaurs attack one another, and this reader surely is always up for some good, epoch-shaking, cataclysmic destruction, but many readers, I have a feeling, will come away from Taine’s book thinking “So what? What’s the point?” And truth to tell, I’m really not sure what Taine’s point was here, other than offering up some mind-blowing spectacle. Does he draw any conclusions from what he shows us? Well, not really, other than the theory that Belshazzar might have been Earth’s first scientist, having discovered the principle of the lever some 65 million years before Archimedes. The reader may also come away from Before the Dawn with the thought that much more might have been made of Langtry’s televisor, a remarkable invention that indeed could have been the linchpin of an entire series of Taine novels. But Taine was, generally speaking, never one to repeat himself in that manner. The reader may also regret Taine never taking the trouble to identify his dinosaurs here, so that even by the novel’s end, I was not certain if Belshazzar was supposed to be a T. rex or not. He is shown making a 50-foot leap at one point, though; was the T. rex capable of doing that? Somehow, I think not. And oh … some of the viewed sequences will surely make the reader a tad suspicious. I mean, does it seem likely that a rock or fossil, being read by the Langtry analyzer, could possibly offer up clear depictions of its journey through a volcanic upheaval and resultant tidal wave? Many of the viewed sequences are remarkably clear; unbelievably so, considering what the analyzed specimens have been through. Finally, to end this nitpicking, that matter of the unidentified narrator really did begin to bother me by the book’s end. I kept waiting to find out who this person was, but in vain. Have you ever read a book narrated by someone who doesn’t bother to mention who he/she is, or what his/her connection with the story is? Very strange.
Still, these are quibbles. Before the Dawn, despite these complaints, is an entertaining book and I do give it a qualified recommendation. Taine, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, just might be one of the pre-Golden Age sci-fi authors most deserving of a critical reappraisal, and I find myself now eager to experience him for the seventh time. His next two novels after Before the Dawn — 1935’s Twelve Eighty-Seven and 1939’s Tomorrow — have never been reprinted in book form since their initial publication in the pulp magazines back in the day (a real pity!), but I have been able to get my hands on the first-edition hardcover of Taine’s The Forbidden Garden (1947), and that is where I hope to be heading next. Stay tuned…