The novel is set ca. 2010 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of a post-apocalyptic California (the exact nature of the apocalypse is not detailed, but seems to have been a combination of eco-catastrophe, overwhelming pollution, and plagues). Civilization has collapsed, and small pockets of survivors scrounge for their survival amidst its ruins.
The widespread release of genetically engineered viruses has created a growing subpopulation of deformed, crazed mutants, who are forced to live in isolated communities. Others infected by the viruses retain their human characteristics, although they display some unusual traits, such as the ability to re-grow amputated limbs.
As ‘False Dawn’ opens, the heroine, a young woman named Thea, is surveying the scene of yet another atrocity committed by the Pirates, the most vicious band of wasteland raiders. Amid the corpses of the victims she finds a man named Evan, left for dead by the Pirates. Thea and Evan form a wary partnership and embark across the mountains for Gold Lake campground, where, it is rumored, a safe and secure haven for the dispossessed is located.
The remainder of ‘Dawn’ is essentially an adventure story recounting the shared journey of the two characters, who encounter a variety of perils – mostly at the hands of their fellow humans, but also from the elements and the mutated wildlife.
For a novel published in the late 70s, ‘Dawn’ was quite graphic in its depiction of violence and brutality, particularly for a novel authored by a woman; at that time, only male writers like Norman Spinrad (‘The Men in the Jungle’) and Piers Anthony (the ‘Battle Circle’ trilogy) had written sf novels with as high a quotient of explicit mayhem.
What makes ‘Dawn’ effective is the author’s failure to offer contrived notes of hope; the landscape through which Thea and Evan move is one in which any last vestiges of kindness and morality are fast becoming expunged by the relentless onslaught of both raiders, and ecological decay.
‘Dawn’ is a cornerstone novel in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of sf. If you like your post-apocalyptia to have a ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Fallout 3’ flavor, then it’s sure to appeal to you.
(For another review of ‘False Dawn’, readers are directed to the 'Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations' blog.)