Muriel Temple, a single woman who has recently returned to England after serving as a missionary in Africa, has learned that she doesn’t have much longer to live — maybe a year, maybe a little more or less. She is sad, but she is not afraid because her faith is strong. She wants only to serve God by helping others during the time she has left. Her current project involves trying to talk an unwed pregnant girl out of an abortion, but before she gets a chance to track down and confront the alleged father of the baby, disaster strikes.
Earthquakes shake England, storms arise, and soon most of England, and maybe the rest of the world, is under water. Only a couple hundred people remain, mostly from the lower classes. After the initial shock fades, the survivors band together around a few different leaders — mostly opportunistic men who’ve managed to gather some like-minded followers. Few women remain and most of them, including Muriel Temple, have attached to Tom Aldworth’s camp because Tom is a benevolent (if reluctant) leader who will try to protect them from the abusive men who lead the other groups.
Most of the survivors are content to do nothing but get some sort of roof over their heads and to raid abandoned gardens for their daily food. They are lazy and self-indulgent, making no effort to rebuild society or even to plan far enough ahead to prepare for the first winter. One survivor takes the opportunity to find and hoard all the goods that he knows others will need so he can sell them later at exorbitant prices. The biggest immediate problem, though, is the unequal distribution of women. The brutal men who lead the other camps want their share of the females and they’re willing to fight to get them. Tom, who doesn’t consider himself or any of the other men in his camp to be a leader, wishes to pass the reins to someone who’s better qualified. When a formerly successful barrister shows up, Tom’s camp will need to decide whether they’re willing to be governed under his terms.
Dawn, first published in 1929, is more than just an exciting disaster story. It’s also a treatise on human behavior and a condemnation of the political and educational systems of 19th century England. While at first it seems that S. Fowler Wright criticizes the lower classes for being lazy, undisciplined, and cowardly by waiting for the government to take care of them, he also denounces the government and the upper classes for making them this way:
Vaguely they realized that there was no help but in themselves, and they were untrained in self-reliance, as they were unpractised in self-discipline. All their customs, all the tendency of their laws for a generation, had discouraged their initiatives and reduced their freedoms. They had been taught the ethics of slavery. They had not been encouraged to think, nor allowed to act. They were not permitted to build even their own houses to their own designs, or to teach their own children as they would. Everything was under the direction of appointed specialists. Even the money that they earned had been withdrawn from their control in ever-larger proportions, so that it might be spent for them more wisely than they would be likely to do themselves.
S. Fowler Wright acknowledges that many social programs were just and raised the average standard of living, but now, after disaster strikes, the leaderless people have no idea how to take care of themselves. They need a leader, but they’re suspicious of laws and regulations. What kind of government will work best for this new civilization? Should there be a class structure? Private property? Regulations against hoarding and price-fixing? How do you regulate business without discouraging economic growth? What should be the role of women in this new world? Should all knowledge be made known to everyone, or is there some information which needs to remain hidden from some people? Which should be of paramount concern: the good of the individual, or the good of society as a whole? Is the majority always right? In the end, Wright doesn’t answer these questions, but he gives us plenty to think about.
There is some nice characterization in Dawn. Muriel, who is insufferably self-righteous in the beginning, comes to see that her ideas about God’s laws have been corrupted by bad doctrine and England’s religious traditions. She eventually realizes that some of her rigid views must become more flexible, tolerant, and Christ-like in this new world.
There is also some satirical humor and some lovely writing — especially the descriptions of the treacherous sea:
A man can learn to love the sea, as he loves a woman. He can love the wind also, but not quite in the same way. Air is not feminine, like water. The wind can be quiet and loving. It can be fierce and merciless as a wolf in its hunger. But not as a cat. It will not purr against your feet in the same way; it will not bite without barking. The sea does not seek its prey like a dog; it does not hunt as the wind hunts. It may crouch very still the while it waits for its victims. It can be quiet and swift in its treacheries. It can caress with smooth and deadly paws.
It loves to lie in the sun’s warmth, purring lazily, and half asleep, till it has lured its victims to its reach, as a fly will settle within range of a lizard’s tongue. You may do well to love, but it is always folly to trust it. Even though it respond to your wooing with the surrenders which its lovers know, it will not be loyal. It will turn with cold and cruel teeth, even on those to whom it has bared its beauty. It has the heart of a harlot.
Dawn is actually a sequel to S. Fowler Wright’s novel Deluge, though it also stands alone. Dawn was originally published in 1929, decades before scientists started talking about global warming, yet Wildside Press has appended the subtitle A Novel of Global Warming to the title. Wright’s disaster was caused by geological changes in the Earth’s crust — not global warming, so this subtitle seems ridiculous and I can only explain it as a shameless attempt to sell an old disaster novel by modernizing its title. It didn’t need that.
There is something else that annoys me, and I’m assuming that this is also the publisher’s decision, though I could be wrong since I do not have the text of the original novel: in the front of the book they have misquoted from anthropologist Sir James George Frazer’s 1908 lecture entitled “The Scope of Social Anthropology.“ Frazer says “No abstract doctrine is more false and mischievous than that of the natural equality of men” but in this edition of Dawn, the quote has been changed; the word “quality” is used instead of “equality.” Later in the book, it is quoted correctly by one of the characters. (The wrong quote at the beginning of the book is attributed to Sir James Fraser rather than Sir James Frazer.) As intolerable as Frazer’s quote is, it’s even more intolerable to misquote him. Instead of trying to “fix” Sir Frazer, why don’t they just ignore him by not quoting him?
Anyway, none of that is the fault of Audible Frontiers who produced the audiobook version of Wildside Press’s text. They chose Susan Ericksen to narrate. I’d never heard her before, but I thought she was excellent. Her deep voice is attractive and she handles male and female voices beautifully with just the right amount of enthusiasm. I definitely want to listen to her again and I recommend this version of Dawn.
Deluge & Dawn — (1927-1929) Publisher: First published in 1927, Deluge is one of the most famous of the English catastrophe novels. Beautifully written and action packed — RKO Radio Pictures even filmed this story — the novel depicts a flood so severe that it destroys modern civilization, leaving the few survivors to adapt to the rigors of the natural world. Like other English writers responding to the trauma of World War I, Sydney Fowler Wright expresses a loathing of the worst aspects of industrialization. The flood, in his view, becomes an opportunity for the remaking of society. The protagonists soon realize that civilization and technology have divorced them from the knowledge and skills necessary for survival. Released from their over-reliance on social regulation, they struggle to overcome their own brutality to develop a new sense of community. For over 75 years readers have praised this book for its style and wisdom, and debated the meaning of its controversial ending. This Wesleyan edition is graced with an excellent introduction and annotations by leading science fiction scholar Brian Stableford.