Postapocalyptic fiction in the tradition of Mad Max II and Planet of the Apes was not merely a byproduct of seventies era dystopianism. Indeed, the genre goes back surprisingly far. Just seven years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Andre Norton presented everything you’d need to run a pretty fair Gamma World campaign. It’s got disparate tribes of human survivors struggling regain even a fraction of the know-how of their expired civilizations. It’s got modest mutant abilities like night vision, acute hearing, and animal empathy. And it has vicious humanoid rat creatures and small (but cunning!) lizard people. Best of all, it has cities ripe for looting right up against the deadly irradiated deserts of the Blow-up Lands.
But though Norton’s novel was ahead of its time in so many ways, it often seems to be more than a little mired in the social issues of its day. While it is interesting that the author managed to produce a credible multi-racial “buddy” story about twelve years before I Spy would be a hit television show, she nevertheless lays on the moralizing rather thickly at times. Take, for example, this exchange between Arskane and the leader of his tribe:
“This is he of whole I have told you– he has saved my life in the City of the Beast Things, and I have named him brother–“
There was almost a touch of pleading in his voice.
“We be the Dark People.” The woman’s tone was low but there was a lilt in it, almost as if she chanted. “We be the Dark People, my son. He is not of our breed–“
Arskane’s hands went out in a nervous gesture. “He is my brother,” he repeated stubbornly. “Were it not for him I would lave long since died the death and my clan would never have known how or where that chanced.” (page 178)
This theme of overcoming racism is echoed in the main protagonist’s relationship to his own tribe where he is an outcast due to his being a mutant. And though the need to pull together in the face of overwhelming odds makes the increasingly forward thinking bent of the characters a bit more believable than it would be otherwise, Norton betrays not one hint of irony when she portrays the savage Beast Things as being anything other than subhuman.
Nevertheless, for Gamma World game masters this book is a gold mine. The premise of pure strain humans sending out scouts to explore, to keep tabs on rival groups, and maybe come back with a little loot is as gameable as anything you’re liable to find in the Appendix N list. The chapter where the protagonist “Fors” enters a largely intact city on horseback with his giant mutant cat friend can be played practically as is in a game session.¹ For people looking for a way to incorporate larger battles into their game, the final chapters featuring elements of three competing tribes coordinating against a potentially overwhelming incursion of mutants should be inspirational. The rest of the book is practically one good random wilderness encounter after another.
To top it off, the novel even concludes with a premise that could support a whole series of adventures. You see, there’s much more to the titular “Star Men” than just a cool name:
Our forefathers were brought to this mountain hiding place because they were designed to be truly men of the Stars. Here were they being trained to a life which would be theirs on other worlds. Our records tell us that man was on the eve of conquering space when his madness fell upon him and he reached again for slaying weapons.
We who were meant to roam the stars go now on foot upon a ravaged earth. But above us those other worlds still hang, and still they beckon. And so is the promise still given. If we make not the mistakes of the Old Ones then shall we know in time more than the winds of this earth and the trails of this earth. (page 222)
This is of course the premise of the adventure module series for third edition Gamma World that began with “Alpha Factor” and that was meant to conclude with the unreleased “Omega Project” adventure.
The world of Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son is far more understated than either the Gamma World game or Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey. Enough generations have passed since the Blow Up that new tribal cultures have developed that are largely ignorant of the past. But there hasn’t been enough time to completely erode the cities of the Old Ones. The most dangerous irradiated regions are becoming less and less deadly as well. If these hardscrabble survivors could just hang on and maybe find a few libraries, they could be on their way to conquering space in no time. That is… unless they fail to set aside their racism, their tribalism, and their propensity to wage war amongst themselves, as Norton reiterates time and again. Failing that, of course, the Beast Things will inherit the earth.
¹ I actually played this out when my son insisted that I run first edition Gamma World for him. The session report is here.
Thanks to David Rollins for cluing me in on the fact that multi-racial “buddy” stories were not just an eighties thing.