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Mists of Dawn (Synopsis)
by Chad Oliver, 1952
Synopsis by Paul Barry

The version I read was a 1952 Science Fiction Book Club edition

Chad Oliver precedes his story Mists of Dawn with a few page section called The Science of Man. In this section Mr. Oliver speaks from his time, as an author in 1952. He writes of science fiction: " It used to be, back in the days of Jules Verne, that writers were concerned with the all-important how." "The question today is no so much how the characters got where they were going, but rather what happened after they got there?" He goes on to say that the real science of Mists of Dawn is not time travel. It is anthropology. He describes his use of extrapolation in the field of anthropology as a means to write about the language, social organization and songs of the ancient peoples described in this book. "Mists of Dawn" is about space-time travel. But more than that it is about the interactions between a young man from 1953, and the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon communities that he encounters in his unplanned journey to 50,000 years BC.

The story opens with Dr. Robert Nye and his teenage nephew Mark Nye walking toward their home in the foothills of a mountain range in New Mexico. As they walk they meet some Apache Indians, with whom they have a long acquaintance. The author uses the appearance of the Indians to segue into a discussion between Robert and Mark Nye about longevity of Indian culture on the Americas. Dr. Nye says that the Indians were old when Rome was young. The concept of "when Rome was young" sets Mark to speculating about what Ancient Rome was like. His uncle announces that, "The Rome of the Caesars is closer than you think Rome is only two weeks away." This is how the reader is introduced to Dr. Nye's plan to return to Ancient Rome in a space-time machine that he'd been working on for 20 years. Appropriate to the speculations of the early 50's the space-time machine is noted to be atomic powered. Dr. Nye is a Nuclear Physicist from White Sands. His nephew, Mark, age 17, has been with him since age 5. Marks parents were both killed in a plane crash at that time.

The space-time machine has the appearance of a gray lead sphere 15 feet across. Dr. Nye introduces some of the concepts of space-time travel. He notes the idea that one cannot move through time without moving through space also, as the earth rotates on its orbit and moves through space. He says, " Now, what this machine actually does is to utilize the tremendous energies of the atom to warp space-time in such a manner that the machine can move through them at will." Dr. Nye goes on to say that the way the mechanism is set up, once it starts back in time, it cannot be stopped until it reaches it's destination. The machine was set for 46 AD. Dr. Nye spins the dial to demonstrate its function. Dr. Nye describes the three lights of the control panel. Green means ready. Red means that it has reached the destination. Yellow indicates a recharge time of two weeks.

All of Dr. Nye's descriptions to Mark are the set up for what happens next. There is rocket testing going on at a nearby government base. There is a phone call. Dr. Nye heads upstairs. Mark is alone in the space-time machine. There is a loud concussion and a rumble, the rocket has gone off course and crashed. Mark loses his balance and falls onto the control panel. The door hisses into place and he is off. He is disoriented during the travel. He cannot recall what time the machine is set for. He arrives at 50,000 years BC at the end of the last Ice Age, the Upper Pleistocene.

As Chapter 4 begins Mark ventures out of the sphere. He is wearing jeans and a wool shirt. He has some matches, a small folding knife, and his uncle's 6 shot .45 revolver. It is cold; he is forced to weigh his need for food against exposure to the elements. He has two weeks before the sphere will be recharged for his hoped for return trip. He decides to head off to hunt. As he moves along to the East, he has the sensation of being watched. Soon he is fearful of this feeling. He begins to move back toward the sphere. He is surrounded. As chapter 5 begins the Neanderthals capture Mark.

The Neanderthals take him on a southwestward trek to their caves. Mark is exhausted, cold and hungry when the push him into a small cave, and roll a large rock across the entrance. Mark passes out. When he comes to there is some kind of ritual going on in the cave. He can peek out from a spot where the rock does not cover the cave entrance evenly. As their ceremony, which involved some chants by a Neanderthal with a red stripe painted on this face, and some drumming on rocks with bones, came to a close, three Neanderthals move toward Mark and move the stone away. He sees this as his only opportunity to escape. He shoots one to them, and runs. They chase him for many hours of the night.

Oliver describes a hidden energy reserve in "man" that few ever tap in modern times. He describes how Mark taps into this reserve. In spite of being exhausted, and inadequately dressed, his instinct to survive drives him on. He does use his wits to escape. He escapes by climbing down a cliff wall and entering a river to avoid leaving a trail. He finally finds a place to hide. Once again he collapses into unconsciousness.

Mark awakens to a sunny day. His clothes are dry now. He eats some snow and feels energized enough to consider hunting. He finds a pool of spring fed water. He drinks, and waits. An animal resembling a reindeer or caribou comes to the pool. He fires at it, misses, fires again and it falls. He builds a fire, butchers the animal, cooks and eats. He feels great, until he realizes he is being watched again.

There is a man resembling an American Indian behind him. The man has an arrow ready on his bow. There is a brief standoff. The man says "orn." There is a questioning tone to his word. Mark guesses that the word means friend. The Cro-Magnon hunter is "Tlaxcan." His tribe refers to themselves as Danequa, which means "the people." Mark offers Tlaxcan some of his food. They establish that neither intends to harm the other.

Bad weather is coming in. They cooperate to make a lean-to between some rock formations, and a fire. They rest for the night.

When Mark awakens, Tlaxcan is gone. Mark sees vultures circling not too far off.

He runs in that direction. He finds Tlaxcan wounded along side a large dead wolf-like animal. Tlaxcan has also killed a vulture that comes to close. Mark tends to Tlaxcan's wounded shoulder. Then he fishes a salmon-like fish out of a river with Tlaxcan's gear. They rest another night. Tlaxan is ready to move the next morning. Mark is surprised at Tlaxcan's resiliency. At a point in chapter 10 (p.84), Mark muses about the amount of time he spends searching for his next meal. Oliver notes Mark's thoughts: "He realized that he was beginning to learn, in a way he would never forget, the first law of primitive life: you had to eat, and getting and preparing food took a lot more time than it did when all your had to do was stroll into a restaurant and order a meal."

Mark and Tlaxcan head off together. Mark's view of Tlaxcan is described: "He was Tlaxcan. A Man who laughed a lot in a world that was no laughing matter, a man whom Mark was proud to have at his side. He had a friend, Tlaxcan, and he could depend on him. That made all the difference, he knew, the difference between living and dying. That was the secret behind the survival of the fittest. The fittest did indeed survive, but he was fittest because he had the one secret that made him a man - the secret of friendship. It was co-operation, one man helping another man that enabled man to survive in a harsh world. Alone, man was little more than an animal. But together, united, he was king. They seemed to know that much in 50,000 BC. Had they forgotten, Mark wondered, in 1953."

They arrive in the valley where the Danequa lived. Mark sees it as beautiful. There is a waterfall at the far end of the valley that divides into two rivers out of the pool at its base. There are rainbows in the mist around the waterfall. The walls of the valley are steep. There are cave-dwellings throughout one wall of the valley.

Mark and Tlaxcan are seen and confronted by several other Danequa men. The men are threatening. Tlaxcan stands between them and Mark, with an arrow ready. Friends of Tlaxcan come up and the confrontation ends. Mark meets many Danequa. Tlaxan has a wife, Tlaxcal, and a son Tlax.

One of the Danequa is apparently a shaman. He is Qualxen. He comes to meet Mark wearing stripes of paint, red, brown, black, white, gray and green. He invites Mark to a cave. He does a chant and makes a large skull disappear. Qualxen has done this privately. Mark, in front of the group, uses matches to make fire. Most are impressed.

One warrior is not impressed. Nranquar does not like Mark. Mark needs to prove himself to Nranquar, in a hunt for the Quaro (Mammoths).

Mark is led off to a cave, apart from the tribe. It is a night for ceremonies. Mark is not invited, as an outsider. He sees the fires in the distance, and hears the chanting and drumming. He is confronted in his warm, fire-lit cave by a wolf-like dog. The dog becomes his friend. This seems to surprise the Danequa.

The time for the mammoth hunt comes. The whole tribe participates. The strategy is to get the mammoths to stampede over a cliff. The tribe uses noise and torches to get the mammoths running. The hunt is successful, but several Danequa are killed and injured. Nranquar is about to be trampled. Mark saves him, and is in turn injured. He wakes to a huge feast at the base of the cliff where the mammoths fell.

Much of the tribe returns to the home camp, dragging as much of the meat as they can. Several men are left to guard the meat from scavengers. Mark and Tlaxcan return to the spot where the men are guarding the kill. They see vultures circling. They fear a trap. They change their course and evade a Neanderthal ambush. In frustration, the Neanderthals charge after them. Mark and Tlaxcan run from the ambush. Two Neanderthals spring from bushes ahead of them. They kill them and run on. They eventually come to a cave.

They enter a cave and descend into the earth. They meet a large bear-like beast. It menaces them, and begins to charge. Mark, shoots out one eye, it keeps coming. He shoots out the other, the beast falls. Mark and Tlaxcan return to camp.

A war council is held. The process is very democratic with every man having a chance to speak. Those who would not agree to the war left the meeting. A plan was established.

Chapter 19, is an interlude between the council and the march into battle. In the days of preparation before war, Qualxen approaches Mark. Qualxen says, "Since you are leaving soon to return to the land of your fathers, you should get to know Tloron before you go. He is a very holy man." Mark says, "Leaving? I have told you nothing about leaving." Qualxen replies, "you are going, you will not return."

Mark has known of Tloron as a holy man, viewed as different from Qualxen, the Shaman of the tribe. Mark goes to Tlaxcan for help in finding Tloron. "Tlaxcan told him that he was at work in a cave far beneath the earth, at work in the sacred chamber of the Danequa. Tlaxcan did not actually say the word 'sacred' of course -- what he said was that the cavern was strong with power, force, mana: that it was heavy with the spirits of the earth, of the sub-earth, and of the sky. But his feeling toward the place were closely akin to the concepts of sacredness, and so it was thus that Mark translated Tlaxcan's words to himself."

Tlaxcan leads him to the caves. They travel down and a long way into the earth.

They see light from a cavern ahead of them. They turn a corner and stop, and take in the scene.

"Mark stood very still, hardly breathing. He could not express the emotions raging within him at that moment. He felt much as an eavesdropper from the future might have felt in looking over Shakespeare's shoulder when he was writing the great soliloquy in Hamlet. Mark knew he was having the unique experience of seeing one of the wonders of the world in the moment of its creation."

"What was the silent Tloron painting? For the most part, he was working in animal figures. There was a powerful bison, muscles rippling (p176)"... "In the soft light of the soapstone lamps, the painting was startling in its force and clarity."

"Startling? That was hardly the word for it, for Mark had seen the painting before. He had seen it almost fifty-two thousand years in the future." Moments later they depart.

Tlaxcan says, "Tloron is a very holy man. He makes the game plentiful and the hunting good."

"Mark nodded, remembering some of the things that Doctor Nye had told him about magic on their tramps through the mountains of New Mexico. There were two basic types of magic, black and white - the black used for evil, and the white for good."

"...Among the types of white magic, ritual magic to insure the success of the hunt held a high place. The idea was that you painted and animal on the cave wall and just as it appeared there so it would appear in the fields ready for the kill. So it was that the first great art in human history was in part magic - as, in a sense all great art has been ever since."

As they leave Mark picks up one of Tloron's discarded red pigment dishes. Mark finds a loose flat stone. He makes an image of a jet aircraft, and writes the equation - E=MC2. He hides this rock in the cave, wondering how the future will respond to it if it is found.

There is a march, a battle and a chase. Mark and Tlaxcan chase two Neanderthals in the direction of the sphere. In a tough battle scene near the sphere Mark and Tlaxcan successfully kill the Neanderthals. Mark says goodbye to Tlaxcan, and the dog, and returns to his own time. He sets the time 15 minutes after he left.

My view is that some portion of the sense of wonder generated by this book may have seeped through in the quotations from the story noted above.

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