Convergent Evolution in Post-Holocaust SF
Dedicated to Shoshana Milgram
The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified. These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods -- this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons -- it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. These things are forbidden -- they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.[i]
It’s a familiar passage from a familiar story, Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). First published in the Saturday Evening Post, as “The Place of the Gods” (Benét changed its title for his 1937 collection, Thirteen O’Clock.), it was reprinted as the lead story in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (1943), the very first sf anthology, edited by Donald A. Wollheim – and it has since been a seminal influence on what is generally called post-holocaust sf. “By the Waters of Babylon” was not the first story of its kind, yet while it can easily be seen as a deliberate contribution to a literary tradition we know now that it was not inspired by any previous examples.
The history of science fiction is one of not only invention but reinvention. Most readers today take the tale of the future, seemingly addressed to readers of the future, for granted. But it was not always so. As Austrian sf scholar Franz Rottensteiner puts it, “Before the establishment of a genre, there were only writers creating in isolation, and it was mostly by chance when they happened to know what others did before them in a similar vein.”[ii] Examples of futuristic sf stories (as opposed to plotless utopias) from before “scientific fiction” or the “scientific romance” was recognized as a genre include Julius von Voss’ Ini (1810) in Germany, Jane Webb’s The Mummy (1827) in England, Felix Bodin’s The Novel of the Future (1834) in France, Vilhelm Bergsøe’s “Flying Fish Prometheus” (1870) in Denmark and Mor Jokai’s A Novel of the Next Century (1872-74) in Hungary. There is no indication that the authors of the later works knew of the earlier ones; indeed, Jokai made a point of contrasting his work with “state novels” (utopias set on imaginary islands or other worlds); he referenced Etienne Cabet’s Journey to Icaria (1840), and believed that he was inventing a new kind of narrative:
Other novels are called to present a tale, born only of the imagination, in a way that convinces the reader that it could really have happened; this novel will present a historical event that has not “yet” happened, and will grapple with the difficult task, to present the facts and the characters, the future age’s inner and outer world, in such a way so as to make the reader say: this might yet happen!
There will not be in this novel utopian states, Icarian people; its scenes will not be on yet to be discovered islands; the story, throughout, takes place in the known world, and develops from situations that exist today, from notions that impact the world today.[iii]
Similarly, there were examples of alternate history long before sf was recognized as a genre, notably Louis Geoffroy’s Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, 1812-32 (1836, revised 1841 as Apocryphal Napoleon). While there were a number of examples, in English as well as French, they were probably unknown to Sir John Squire, whose If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931) was a collection of speculative essays – among them Winston Churchill’s “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” a tongue-in-cheek piece supposedly composed in an alternate history where the South won the Civil War. That probably inspired Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953). Alternate outcomes of the Civil War still figure in alternate history today.
But Moore’s novel also had a time traveler changing history, an idea that dates back to Edward Everett Hale’s “Hands Off” (1881), in which the protagonist rescues the Biblical Joseph from slavery – Egypt is conquered by barbarians after a famine, Judaism dies out, and Greek and Roman civilization never develop. Of course, the Bible isn’t real history; neither is the Arthurian mythology of Thomas Malory exploited in Mark Twain’s classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). It wasn’t until L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939) that the more realistic subgenre of time travel and alternate history took hold in America, although there had been previous examples in Europe – notably Théo Varlet and André Blandin’s La Belle Valence (1923) in France, translated in 2012 as Timeslip Troopers; and Antoni Slonimski’s The Time Torpedo (1924) in Poland. As in the case of 19th Century tales of the future, it is doubtful that the early 20th Century authors of time travel/alternate history were aware of each other.
Yet the invention and reinvention of the same ideas in alternate history suggests a cultural parallel to the kind of convergent evolution that has produced similar bodyplans in marsupial and placental mammals, or in fish and aquatic mammals. It seems natural for a culture in which theories of history have taken hold for writers to speculate about how history might have gone otherwise – and why. And there likewise seems to be something in the cultural environment that has encouraged post-holocaust fiction – and in particular, post-holocaust quest fiction like “By the Waters of Babylon.” There were a number of earlier examples, some of them uncannily similar to Benét’s story, and yet Benét wasn’t familiar with any of them. In a letter to one Margaret Widdemer, who had been inspired to write a post-holocaust story of her own, he explained his own inspiration thusly:
I don’t see how that particular idea can help being at the back of a lot of our minds these days—it has suddenly come upon us that the works may blow up. I suppose Wells was the first to say it in our time—though we must go back to Macaulay’s brooding on the ruins of London Bridge.[iv]
Only, Thomas Babington Macaulay wasn’t thinking about some cataclysmic end to our civilization, the basis of stories like Benét’s. Rather, in a piece for the Edinburgh Review on a history of the Papacy by Leopold Ranke (1840), he remarked that the Catholic Church had been the only institution to outlast Roman civilization: “And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”[v] Perhaps he was also thinking of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), the seminal work which reminded us that all past civilizations have been transient, and that ours too could be.
Proto-science fiction about the end of the world itself, or at least of civilization, dates back to Jean-Baptist Cousin de Granville’s The Last Man (1805), a curious book that juxtaposes religious and secular visions. God has decided it is time to end it all, and the last man and last woman – Omegar and Siberia – have to be persuaded to accept His plan, with a little help from Adam (recalled from the Gates of Hell for that purpose). Yet there is no mention of the Second Coming of Christ or other signs from the Book of Revelation that obsess Millennialist Christians, and there are also references to the threats of deforestation and the exhaustion of natural resources.
Yet perhaps it was the very syncretic nature of the narrative that gave The Last Man its appeal to other writers (if not to the general public), and may thus have inspired Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) in the short run as well as Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the World (1894) in the long run.
French sf historians Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier cite a number of transitional works inspired by Grainville. Auguste-Françoise Creuzé de Lesser, who published an expanded version of The Last Man (1831), added aerial cities and even a failed attempt to colonize another planet. Other variations cited by the Lofficiers include Paulin Gagne’s The Unieide, or the Woman Messiah (1858) and his wife Elise’s Omegar, or the Last Man (1859).[vi]
Shelley’s The Last Man imagines a global plague wiping out the human race in a utopian 22nd Century, perhaps as punishment for collective human hubris as opposed to the individual variety in her Frankenstein (1818). M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) plays a variation of that scenario. A polar explorer – who has been told that seeking the North Pole is against God’s will (an idea suggested in Frankenstein), but also believes that his life has been guided by supernatural forces, is the only survivor the plague – except for one woman who has become absorbed in the Bible and urges him to trust in God. At the end, it seems, they are destined to be the new Adam and Eve.
Purely secular disaster stories, as Benét noted to Widdemer, were pioneered by H.G. Wells – “The Star” (1897), in which the gravitational force of a passing rogue star devastates our planet, was the first modern cosmic disaster tale. There had already been any number of future war stories, and Wells contributed to them with The War in the Air (1908), in which civilization is brought low. But there were also secular versions of other disaster scenarios, notably Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912). Told 60 years later by one of the survivors, it verges on the post-holocaust story. The same can be said of such later works as George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949; a plague figures again) and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959, nuclear war). In both novels, those who lived through the catastrophe are still alive at the end, and carry the weight of the story.
In “By the Waters of Babylon,” by contrast, centuries have passed since the fall of civilization, and the past has become a matter of legend. Finding out about the past and what it means to the present is a matter of a quest by the hero. In Benét’s story, that quest grows out of a coming-of-age journey that is part of the hero’s own culture:
If the hunters think we do all things by chants and spells, they may believe so—it does not hurt them. I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings—that was hard and took a long time. My knowledge made me happy—it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind—it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.
We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the trees, we have not forgotten the old writings, although they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me—I wished to know more. When I was a man at last, I came to my father and said, “It is time for me to go on my journey. Give me your leave.”
He looked at me for a long time, stroking his beard, then he said at last, “Yes. It is time.” That night, in the house of the priesthood, I asked for and received purification. My body hurt but my spirit was a cool stone. It was my father himself who questioned me about my dreams.
He bade me look into the smoke of the fire and see—I saw and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen—a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it the gods walking. I have always thought about that. His eyes were stern when I told him he was no longer my father but a priest. He said, “This is a strong dream.”
“It is mine,” I said, while the smoke waved and my head felt light. They were singing the Star song in the outer chamber and it was like the buzzing of bees in my head.[vii]
Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “Dawn of Flame” (1936), which first appeared in a small press memorial volume the year after Weinbaum’s death, couldn’t possibly have been known to Benét, and yet it opens with the hero, Hull Tarvish, leaving home on a quest of his own in a future where the past is similarly a place of legend:
He passed the place where the great steel road of the Ancients had been, now only two rusty streaks and a row of decayed logs. Beside it was the mossy heap of stones that had been an ancient structure in the days before the Dark Centuries, when Ozarky had been a part of the old state of M’souri. The mountain people still sought out the place for squared stones to use in building, but the tough metal of the steel road itself was too stubborn for their use, and the rails had rusted quietly these three hundred years.
That much Hull Tarvish knew, for they were things still spoken of at night around the fireplace. They had been mighty sorcerers, those Ancients; their steel roads went everywhere, and everywhere were the ruins of their towns, built, it was said, by a magic that lifted weights. Down in the valley, he knew, men were still seeking that magic; once a rider had stayed by night at the Tarvish home, a little man who said that in the far south the secret had been found, but nobody ever heard any more of it.
So Hull whistled to himself, shifted the rag bag on his shoulder, set his bow more comfortably on his mighty back, and trudged on. That was why he himself was seeking the valley; he wanted to see what the world was like. He had been always a restless sort, not at all like the other six Tarvish sons, nor like the three Tarvish daughters. They were true mountainies, the sons great hunters, and the daughters stolid and industrious. Not Hull, however; he was neither lazy like his brothers nor stolid like his sisters, but restless, curious, dreamy. So he whistled his way into the world, and was happy.[viii]
Benét’s hero learns about the war that brought down civilization, and contrasts it with the kind of petty wars his people know:
Then I saw their fate come upon them and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked the streets of their city. I have been in the fights with the Forest People—I have seen men die. But this was not like that. When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their city—poor gods, poor gods! Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. I saw it happen, I saw the last of them die. It was darkness over the broken city and I wept.[ix]
It is the same in “Dawn of Flame,” where the scholar Einar Olin tells Tarvish about the rival powers of the old world:
“These were warlike nations, so fond of battle that they had to write many books about the horrors of war to keep themselves at peace, but they always failed. During the time they called their twentieth century there was a whole series of wars, not such little quarrels as we have so often between our city-states, nor even such as that between the Memphis League and the Empire, five years ago. Their wars spread like storm clouds around the world, and were fought between millions of men with unimaginable weapons that flung destruction a hundred miles, and with ships on the seas, and with gases.”[x]
Where did this kind of story begin? With Richard Jefferies (1849-87), a British naturalist, journalist and novelist whose After London; Or, Wild England (1885) created the model for what we now know as post-holocaust sf, even if Benét and others had to recreate the same model in decades to come. Jefferies was already interested in disaster sf; about 1875, he had begun a tale called “The Great Snow,” in which London is doomed by a super blizzard. But nothing ever came of it. A lot came of After London. It begins with an account by some later historian called “The Relapse into Barbarism;” Jefferies gets into the actual story with “Wild England.”
Centuries after most or at least much of the rest of the world has succumbed to a combination of industrial pollution and a near pass by a rogue planet – at least, nothing has been heard from the rest of the world – England has become a patchwork of petty principalities in which feudal lords hold sway over illiterate serfs.
Advanced technology has vanished, and forests have reclaimed the countryside. Travel is so difficult that even educated men have only a vague idea what is happening more than a few dozen miles from home. Wars are fought with swords and bows and arrows; knowledge of gunpowder is as lost as that of steam and electricity. After London establishes the pattern, not only in its setting but in its story; for, as even as in “By the Waters of Babylon” and “Dawn of Flame,” it is the quest of an individual to discover, if he can, what value there is in civilization.
Like so many of his later literary counterparts, Felix Aquila is a lone, discontented youth who, chafing at the restrictions of a static society, sets off to seek his fortune elsewhere. Although he accomplishes nothing more than to reintroduce the catapult to warfare and to win the allegiance of a shepherd society, it is implied that his long-term influence will be considerable.
He convened an assembly of the chief men of the nearest tribes, and addressed them in the circular fort. He asked them if they could place sufficient confidence in him to assist him in carrying out certain plans, although he should not be able to altogether disclose the object he had in view.
They replied as one man that they had perfect confidence in him, and would implicitly obey.
He then said that the first thing he wished was the clearing of the land by the river in order that he might erect a fortified dwelling suitable to his position as their Leader in war. Next he desired their permission to leave them for two months, at the end of which he would return. He could not at that time explain the reasons, but until his journey had been made he could not finally settle among them.
[That journey has to do with a woman named Aurora he plans to marry.]
To this announcement they listened in profound silence. It was evident that they disliked him leaving them, yet did not wish to seem distrustful by expressing the feeling.
Thirdly, he continued, he wanted them to clear a path through the forest, commencing at Anker’s Gate and proceeding exactly west. The track to be thirty yards wide in order that the undergrowth might not encroach upon it, and to be carried on straight to the westward until his return. The distance to which this path was cleared he should take as the measure of their loyalty to him.
They immediately promised to fulfil this desire, but added that there was no necessity to wait till he left them, it should be commenced the very next morning. To his reiterated request for leave of absence they preserved an ominous silence, and as he had no more to say, the assembly then broke up.[xi]
The first part of After London, because it is the first future history account of its kind, it is akin to what would now be called an information dump. But while it sets the stage by going into great detail about the breakdown of society after the catastrophe, it also creates the atmosphere for the story to follow. Below are some extracts that relate to the fields and forests, wildlife and former domestic animals, and, of course, both the handiworks and social order of humanity:
The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.
The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of all, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on, and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.[xii]
* * *
Footpaths were concealed by the second year, but roads could be traced, though as green as the sward, and were still the best for walking, because the tangled wheat and weeds, and, in the meadows, the long grass, caught the feet of those who tried to pass through. Year by year the original crops of wheat, barley, oats, and beans asserted their presence by shooting up, but in gradually diminished force, as nettles and coarser plants, such as the wild parsnips, spread out into the fields from the ditches and choked them.[xiii]
* * *
By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hills only excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks of wild creatures or cut himself a path. The ditches, of course, had long since become full of leaves and dead branches, so that the water which should have run off down them stagnated, and presently spread out into the hollow places and by the corner of what had once been fields, forming marshes where the horsetails, flags, and sedges hid the water.[xiv]
* * *
Thus, too, the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the water and the mud it brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arose completed the work and left nothing visible, so that the mighty buildings of olden days were by these means utterly buried. And, as has been proved by those who have dug for treasures, in our time the very foundations are deep beneath the earth, and not to be got at for the water that oozes into the shafts that they have tried to sink through the sand and mud banks.[xv]
* * *
In the first years after the fields were left to themselves, the fallen and over-ripe corn crops became the resort of innumerable mice. They swarmed to an incredible degree, not only devouring the grain upon the straw that had never been cut, but clearing out every single ear in the wheat-ricks that were standing about the country. Nothing remained in these ricks but straw, pierced with tunnels and runs, the home and breeding-place of mice, which thence poured forth into the fields. Such grain as had been left in barns and granaries, in mills, and in warehouses of the deserted towns, disappeared in the same manner.[xvi]
* * *
When the ancients departed, great numbers of their cattle perished. It was not so much the want of food as the inability to endure exposure that caused their death; a few winters are related to have so reduced them that they died by hundreds, many mangled by dogs. The hardiest that remained became perfectly wild, and the wood cattle are now more difficult to approach than deer.
There are two kinds, the white and the black. The white (sometimes dun) are believed to be the survivors of the domestic roan-and-white, for the cattle in our enclosures at the present day are of that colour. The black are smaller, and are doubtless little changed from their state in the olden times, except that they are wild. These latter are timid, unless accompanied by a calf, and are rarely known to turn upon their pursuers. But the white are fierce at all times; they will not, indeed, attack man, but will scarcely run from him, and it is not always safe to cross their haunts.
The bulls are savage beyond measure at certain seasons of the year. If they see men at a distance, they retire; if they come unexpectedly face to face, they attack. This characteristic enables those who travel through districts known to be haunted by white cattle to provide against an encounter, for, by occasionally blowing a horn, the herd that may be in the vicinity is dispersed. There are not often more than twenty in a herd. The hides of the dun are highly prized, both for their intrinsic value, and as proofs of skill and courage, so much so that you shall hardly buy a skin for all the money you may offer; and the horns are likewise trophies. The white or dun bull is the monarch of our forests.[xvii]
* * *
So far as this, all that I have stated has been clear, and there can be no doubt that what has been thus handed down from mouth to mouth is for the most part correct. When I pass from trees and animals to men, however, the thing is different, for nothing is certain and everything confused. None of the accounts agree, nor can they be altogether reconciled with present facts or with reasonable supposition; yet it is not so long since but a few memories, added one to the other, can bridge the time, and, though not many, there are some written notes still to be found. I must attribute the discrepancy to the wars and hatreds which sprang up and divided the people, so that one would not listen to what the others wished to say, and the truth was lost.
Besides which, in the conflagration which consumed the towns, most of the records were destroyed, and are no longer to be referred to. And it may be that even when they were proceeding, the causes of the change were not understood. Therefore, what I am now about to describe is not to be regarded as the ultimate truth, but as the nearest to which I could attain after comparing the various traditions. Some say, then, that the first beginning of the change was because the sea silted up the entrances to the ancient ports, and stopped the vast commerce which was once carried on. It is certainly true that many of the ports are silted up, and are now useless as such, but whether the silting up preceded the disappearance of the population, or whether the disappearance of the population, and the consequent neglect caused the silting, I cannot venture to positively assert.[xviii]
* * *
It has, too, been said that the earth, from some attractive power exercised by the passage of an enormous dark body through space, became tilted or inclined to its orbit more than before, and that this, while it lasted, altered the flow of the magnetic currents, which, in an imperceptible manner, influence the minds of men. Hitherto the stream of human life had directed itself to the westward, but when this reversal of magnetism occurred, a general desire arose to return to the east. And those whose business is theology have pointed out that the wickedness of those times surpassed understanding, and that a change and sweeping away of the human evil that had accumulated was necessary, and was effected by supernatural means. The relation of this must be left to them, since it is not the province of the philosopher to meddle with such matters.
All that seems certain is, that when the event took place, the immense crowds collected in cities were most affected, and that the richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape. Those left behind were mainly the lower and most ignorant, so far as the arts were concerned; those that dwelt in distant and outlying places; and those who lived by agriculture. These last at that date had fallen to such distress that they could not hire vessels to transport themselves. The exact number of those left behind cannot, of course, be told, but it is on record that when the fields were first neglected (as I have already described), a man might ride a hundred miles and not meet another. They were not only few, but scattered, and had not drawn together and formed towns as at present.
Of what became of the vast multitudes that left the country, nothing has ever been heard, and no communication has been received from them. For this reason I cannot conceal my opinion that they must have sailed either to the westward or to the southward where the greatest extent of ocean is understood to exist, and not to the eastward as Silvester would have it in his work upon the “Unknown Orb”, the dark body travelling in space to which I have alluded. None of our vessels in the present day dare venture into those immense tracts of sea, nor, indeed, out of sight of land, unless they know they shall see it again so soon as they have reached and surmounted the ridge of the horizon. Had they only crossed to the mainland or continent again, we should most likely have heard of their passage across the countries there.[xix]
* * *
The cunning artificers of the cities all departed, and everything fell quickly into barbarism; nor could it be wondered at, for the few and scattered people of those days had enough to do to preserve their lives. Communication between one place and another was absolutely cut off, and if one perchance did recollect something that might have been of use, he could not confer with another who knew the other part, and thus between them reconstruct the machine. In the second generation even these disjointed memories died out.
At first it is supposed that those who remained behind existed upon the grain in the warehouses, and what they could thresh by the flail from the crops left neglected in the fields. But as the provisions in the warehouses were consumed or spoiled, they hunted the animals, lately tame and as yet but half wild. As these grew less in number and difficult to overtake, they set to work again to till the ground, and cleared away small portions of the earth, encumbered already with brambles and thistles. Some grew corn, and some took charge of sheep. Thus, in time, places far apart from each other were settled, and towns were built; towns, indeed, we call them to distinguish them from the champaign, but they are not worthy of the name in comparison with the mighty cities of old time.[xx]
A few years after Jefferies’ novel came John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889), in which an expedition from Persia in the 30th Century explores what was once the United States. But Mitchell’s intent is strictly satirical – the Persians all have silly names like Noz-yt-ahl, and misunderstand what they see: a cigar store Indian, for example, is taken to be a wooden god. The Wikipedia entry for the novel asserts, without giving any foundation, that it “seems to have been a rough model for Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence.”[xxi] Huxley’s 1949 novel is a story within a story, involving a screenplay in which nuclear war is touched off by intelligent baboons; what passes for civilization a century or more later is ruled by a Satanist church. In turn, the Wikipedia entry for Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963) cites Ape and Essence as a “precursor novel.”[xxii] The 1968 film version of Planet of the Apes, which spawned a media franchise, relocated the story from a planet of Betelgeuse to a post-holocaust Earth, on which the apes developed intelligence and a new civilization after men destroyed theirs. It is hard to take all this seriously as sf history. The impact of After London, by contrast, can be traced forwards for close to 50 years.
John Collier’s Tom’s A-Cold (1933), set in a barbarian England following a war that destroyed the cities and advanced technology and decimated the population, has been described as a “genuine successor”[xxiii] to After London by sf critic John Clute in his Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and as “reminiscent” of Jefferies’ novel by historian-critic Brian Stableford in Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950 (1985).[xxiv]
But while Collier’s approach is similar to that in After London, there are also some stark contrasts. To begin with, Tom’s A-Cold (alternately titled Full Circle in the U.S.) is actually a first generation post-holocaust story, taking place in 1995. Its internal references reveal that the war began no later than 1940. The former Chief of a struggling community in Hampshire – known as Father but apparently named Gilbert – is 70 years old, and was in his mid-teens when he joined the military. He and an older man named Tom remember what it was like before the war.
That puts Collier’s novel in company with “The Scarlet Plague,” if only the latter part of London’s story. Well before Collier in England and Weinbaum and Benét in the U.S., there were works like George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn trilogy (1912-14) and Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (1920) that don’t quite fit the pattern because the protagonists are Rip Van Winkle types, like those in such classic tales of the future as Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) – they awaken in the post-holocaust future, rather than being born and raised there. In The People of the Ruins, however, a socialist revolution as well as a war have brought down civilization, and it has to be significant that Collier refers to “war, defeat, revolution and blockade.”[xxv]
There is nothing like Jefferies’ information dump history in Tom’s A-Cold, but in his introduction, Collier is disingenuous in his assertion that, unlike other novels “laid in the future,” it “contains no sociological interest at all,” and that his business was only to describe the imagined state of affairs, “not to account for it merely because it happens to take place in the future.”[xxvi] While he doesn’t go into exhaustive detail, however, Collier works the essentials into the actual story. It is thus that we learn that travel is difficult because roads are overgrown, and marshy areas are common, just as in After London – but there is also mention of railroads being scavenged for metal, an idea used a couple of years later by Weinbaum: could he have read Collier?
But the neo-medieval society in Tom’s A-Cold is actually more barbaric than that in After London. Just a few pages into the story, we learn that the Chief, Ajax, thinks that what his community needs is to “launch out and get some more women.”[xxvii] Women have come down in this brave new world; Tom’s wife Alicia was once “violently feminist,”[xxviii] and played an active role in local councils for husbandry and defence; but under the current Chief, “no woman dared raise her voice in the general talk.”[xxix] By the time of the story, the community is a “patriarchal gang,”[xxx] in which alpha males vie for dominance. Nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with kidnapping women.
We are also told there are over a score of men aged 50 or so, but three times that many under 30 – “The nineteen sixties and seventies had not been propitious for child-rearing.”[xxxi] Something to do with the aftermath of the war, apparently a plague. With its small population, the Hampshire community fears attack from larger groups, although its defensive hedges are laced with barbed wire. There are only a few fields growing wild-looking oats and corn, and for meat there are mostly rabbits – pork is a rare treat because too many hogs ranging around “would have been conspicuous and attractive”[xxxii] to raiders. There are old books, but they aren’t read by the younger generation.
Harry, the young protagonist, is the grandson of Father/Gilbert (What became of his father is unclear, although his mother Bella puts in an appearance.). He and his friend Crab are sent on a scouting mission to Swindon, where rumor has it that young women are available. Harry is smitten at the sight of a one of the women there:
Harry lay rigid, all his life ravenous in his eyes. He had never before seen a woman dressed in anything but dreary skins, and, skins or no skins, he had never seen one a tenth as beautiful. She seemed like a goddess, radiant. What a thing beauty is! This girl bore herself nobly and gaily … but what most made her seem divine to Harry was a fresh and untrammeled look she had…[xxxiii]
Her name is Rose, and Harry claims her for his own after the raid itself succeeds. But the Chief is wounded – gangrene sets in, and the abysmal state of what is known of medicine from old books (Some in Greek, which nobody really understands any more) in attempts to treat it leads to his death – which is just as well, Father believes, for it clears the way for Harry to become Chief himself. Father has wanted that all along, and in his own hubris Harry sees himself as a dictator – “I’ll be answerable to none,”[xxxiv] although at the advice of Father he allows for a vote in which the younger men are eager to grant him sole power as opposed to giving a council of elders ultimate authority.
Only, pride goeth before a fall; and things soon go awry for the new Chief. Rose’s brother comes looking for her, and Crab flies into a rage and kills him. That dooms a budding romance between Harry and Rose; she flees home, and raises Swindon against him. Harry has already been busy with improving his community’s defenses – like Aquila in After London, he reintroduces catapults – training his men in combat, and even getting them to read the old books. But during the battle that ensues. Rose kills Crab, and George – who has longed to be Chief himself – kills Rose. Harry, in turn, murders George. That sets the young men against him and, in an ambiguous ending, Father urges him to try to bull his way through:
“Come, Harry!” he cried at last. “Shout them down. To Swindon!”
Harry stood still.
“It’s a terrible life!” cried Father madly.
“Ah!” shouted Harry, and rushed out, and down the stairs.[xxxv]
Whatever else one can call it, Tom’s A-Cold isn’t a quest story in the same sense as After London: Harry never ventures from his own community except for a mercenary purpose. The most that can be said is that there is at least some hope for a better future, a revival of civilization, unlike what Shanks’ Rip Van Winkle physicist Jeremy Tufts finds in The People of the Ruins. Although Tufts proves useful to a regional ruler called the Speaker in the England where he awakens after 150 years of suspended animation, by building cannon that make for a signal victory against one rival, the forces of the Speaker are routed in a later battle. Tufts and his love Eva, the Speaker’s daughter, are trapped by enemy forces; when she is killed, he decides to commit suicide, knowing that all hope is lost:
He had a vision of the world sinking further below the point from which in his youth he had seen it, still on a level with him. Cities would be burnt, bridges broken down, tall towers destroyed and all the wealth and learning of humanity would shiver to a few shards and a little dust. The very place would be forgotten where once had stood the houses that he knew; and the roads he had walked with his friends would be as desolate and lonely as the Stane Street of the Romans. Even all this story, his victory and his defeat, his joy and his sorrow, would fade out of the memory of man.[xxxvi]
To our eyes, the parallels between After London and Tom’s A Cold and the more familiar post-holocaust works like those of Weinbaum and Benét that reinvented their tropes seem more than mere coincidence. Benét was concerned that “the works may blow up,” Collier had already observed that, “given a certain impetus, things may take this sort of course,”[xxxvii] and early on in Tom’s A-Cold, Harry and Father come across the remains of an aeroplane that crashed “in one of the earliest battles.”[xxxviii] Rather, the resemblances seem as inevitable as those of the marsupial counterparts of dogs, cats and other animals that fill or once filled niches now dominated by their later placental counterparts. Tom’s A-Cold updates After London through cross-fertilization with works like People of the Ruins, but is still part of the marsupial lineage. “By the Waters of Babylon,” by contrast, is a placental work, and the same is probably the case with “Dawn of Flame.”
It was Shoshana Milgram who first called attention to Benét’s having invented the post-holocaust story independently of previous such works. For Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem (2005), her focus in “Anthem in the Context of Related Literary Works” was on her discovery that Rand had been inspired by “The Place of the Gods” for her 1938 post-holocaust story, which also drew on elements of the anti-utopia. Rand couldn’t recall the author or title of the story 20 years later, only that she had read it in the Saturday Evening Post and “the fact that some kind of war had destroyed civilization, and the last survivor in the ruins of New York.”[xxxix] Not quite accurate – Benét’s protagonist was hardly the “last survivor” – but his first-person style as well as the substance of his story make the case a dead giveaway.
Benét, unlike Weinbaum, wasn’t a genre sf writer. But readers, writers and editors of genre sf were always on the lookout for science fiction from sources other than the pulp magazines that had fostered American sf since Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories in 1926 (Gernsback even gave the genre its name with Science Wonder Stories in 1929.). They didn’t hesitate to embrace the likes of S. Fowler Wright and Olaf Stapledon; Famous Fantastic Mysteries, a reprint magazine, featured works from before the time of specialized sf pulps by Wright, William Hope Hodgson, Francis Stevens and others – it even reprinted Anthem in 1953. Thrilling Wonder Stories had already reprinted “Dawn of Flame” in 1939, making it familiar to genre readers, as its appearance in the 1936 small press memorial volume could not. It was thus quite natural for the genre sf community to take notice of “The Place of the Gods,” and perhaps also see an affinity with Weinbaum’s story. It may be crucial that Benét and Weinbaum were both Americans; Collier was a British writer, although he later moved to Hollywood to work on screenplays, and a bleak attitude towards the future was more characteristic of British sf. Tom’s A-Cold, which has never been reprinted since 1936, may be the last post-holocaust work in the marsupial lineage of After London. Benét and Weinbaum, in any case, share an attitude far more hopeful than Collier’s. Consider the conclusion of “By the Place of the Gods:”
I told and he listened. After that, I wished to tell all the people but he showed me otherwise. He said, “Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places.” He was right—it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.
Nevertheless, we make a beginning. it is not for the metal alone we go to the Dead Places now—there are the books and the writings. They are hard to learn. And the magic tools are broken—but we can look at them and wonder. At least, we make a beginning. And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man’s face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.[xl]
In “Dawn of Flame,” Hull Tarvish learns from Einar Olin that civilization has already arisen again in what was once New Orleans, beginning with a man named John Holland:
“Holland was a rare specimen, anxious for learning. He found the remains of an ancient library and began slowly to decipher the archaic words in the few books that had survived. Little by little others joined him, and as the word spread slowly, men from other sections wandered in with books, and the Academy was born. No one taught, of course; it was just a group of studious men living a sort of communistic, monastic life. There was no attempt at practical use of the ancient knowledge until a youth named Teran had a dream — no less a dream than to recondition the centuries-old power machines of N’Orleans, to give the city the power that travels on wires!”
“What’s that?” asked Hull. “What’s that, Old Einar?”
“You wouldn’t understand, Hull. Teran was an enthusiast; it didn’t stop him to realize that there was no coal or oil to run his machines. He believed that when power was needed, it would be there, so he and his followers scrubbed and filed and welded away, and Teran was right. When he needed power, it was there.
“This was the gift of a man named Olin [Einar himself, he later admits], who had unearthed the last, the crowning secret of the Ancients, the power called atomic energy…”[xli]
Indeed, Weinbaum’s sequel, The Black Flame, is set in a global technological state generations later; Weinbaum even sees a silver lining in the disaster: “a period of barbarism seems to act as a time of rest for humanity before a charge to new heights.”[xlii] That might not have set well with Benét, and certainly not with Collier. Weinbaum also brings in romantic obsession, but Black Margot, the immortal heroine whom no man can resist and who becomes co-ruler of the world empire in the sequel, makes Collier’s Rose seem no more than a country girl. Weinbaum pioneered the use of invented future slang, like “weeds” for guerrillas opposing N’Orleans, and to “have one’s tongue in the bag”[xliii] for refusing to answer questions. Even if he had read Tom’s A-Cold, his approach to post-holocaust sf was as original as Benét’s.
Once it was republished by Wollheim as “By the Waters of Babylon,” Benét’s story became a model for writers of post-holocaust sf. Best known is Edgar Pangborn, whose “The Music Master of Babylon (1954) preceded his epic Davy (1964). That in turn led to novels that take place after the breakdown of civilization but before Davy – The Judgment of Eve (1966) and The Company of Glory (1974); related short stories appear in the collection Still I Persist in Wondering (1978). Others writers influenced by Benét, but in startlingly different ways, and expressing different attitudes, include John Wyndham in “The Wheel” (1952) and The Chrysalids (1959, a.k.a. Re-Birth), Leigh Brackett in The Long Tomorrow (1955) and Walter M. Miller, Jr. in A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). More recently, there have been further contrarian variations, notably Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). But they are all part of the same placental lineage.
[i] Wollheim, Donald A., ed., The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (Pocket Books, 1943), p. 1
[ii] Rottensteiner, Franz, ed., The Black Mirror & Other Stories, Wesleyan University Press, 2008, pp. xi-xii.
[iii] Jokai, Mors, Jövo Szazad Regénye, p. 5, trans. Istvan Aggott Honsch
[iv] Selected Letters of Stephen Vincent Benét, ed. Charles A. Fenton (Yale University Press, 1960), p. 301
[vi] Lofficier, Jean Marc and Randy, French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction, McFarland & Company, 2000, pp. 335-6
[vii] The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, pp. 2-3
[viii] Weinbaum, Stanley G., The Black Flame (Avon, 1969), pp. 11-12
[ix] The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, p. 14
[x] Weinbaum, The Black Flame, p. 19
[xi] Jefferies, Richard, After London (Oxford University Press, 1980). p. 240
[xii] Ibid., p. 1
[xiii] Ibid., p. 2
[xiv] Ibid., p. 3
[xv] Ibid., p. 4
[xvi] Ibid., p. 5
[xvii] Ibid., p. 10
[xviii] Ibid., p. 15
[xix] Ibid., pp. 16-17
[xx] Ibid., pp. 18-19
[xxiv] Stableford, Brian, Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950 (Fourth Estate Ltd.), 1985, p. 244
[xxv] Collier, John, Tom’s A-Cold (Macmillan, London, 1933), p. 39
[xxvi] Ibid, introduction
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 9
[xxviii] Ibid., p, 39
[xxix] Ibid., p. 41
[xxx] Ibid., p. 187
[xxxi] Ibid., p. 13
[xxxii] Ibid., p. 26
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 100
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 232
[xxxv] Ibid., p. 320
[xxxvi] Shanks, Edward, The People of the Ruins (Kessinger Publishing, n.d.), pp. 207-8
[xxxvii] Collier, Tom’s A-Cold, intro
[xxxviii] Ibid, p. 18
[xxxix] quoted in Mayhew, Robert, Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem (Lexington Books, 2005), p. 120
[xl] The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, pp. 15-16
[xli] Weinbaum, The Black Flame, pp. 22-23
[xlii] Ibid., p. 100
[xliii] Ibid., p. 13