‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ is a story plagued by its uniqueness. It is given too much credit for being a landmark work by some, and yet too little credit for popularizing the science fiction genre by others. Both views are valid, and both must be understood to view the story in the context of both the science fiction genre and literature as a whole.
‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ is often recognized for launching the start of the post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction. However, it was hardly the first significant work of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. One post-apocalyptic vision prior to the twentieth century came from H. G. Wells in his novel The Time Machine (1895). The future world discovered by the time traveler in the story is the result not of a single catastrophic event but of a continual downward slide for humankind. The human species has split into two distinct races: the Eloi, who are peaceful but no longer strive for knowledge or progress, and the Morlocks, ape-like brutes who live in darkness and kill the Eloi for food. When the time traveler proceeds farther into the future, he finds that even these species have died out. Other examples include Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), both of which feature a plague that wipes out most of humanity. Another example is Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), which features a rogue planet that passes close enough to destroy the Earth.
‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ is at least different from many apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories that pre-date it because it suggests that humans are the cause of their own catastrophe. Along these lines, the story is highly regarded for its significance as a cautionary tale. It seems to offer a message to contemporary readers about how to avoid the devastation depicted in the story. Once again, though, earlier science fiction writers were already masters of the art of the cautionary tale. One might argue that the entire subgenre of futuristic science fiction arose from a desire to present cautionary tales in a way that allowed readers to draw a line from current circumstances to unpleasant conclusions (or, in some cases, pleasant conclusions). Significant examples of cautionary tales include Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), in which the future American government falls under the control of a small group of wealthy elite who crush a populist revolution. Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon is another example, offering visions of many successive and unique iterations of humankind. In the book, the First Men destroy nearly the entire population of Earth through their carelessness. In these and other examples, humans are either largely or solely responsible for their own downfall.
Benet also gets credit for predicting the coming of nuclear war in his descriptions of the Great Burning. The story appeared before the development of the atomic bomb and describes ground that continues burning (as with radiation) long after the bombs have been detonated. However, his description is vague at best and involves some generous interpretation of ‘‘poison’’ and ‘‘burning.’’ The author who most directly predicted the development of atomic weaponry was—once again—H. G. Wells, in his novel The World Set Free (1914). Wells in fact uses the term ‘‘atomic bombs’’ thirty years before such devices existed. Although his version of atomic weaponry is somewhat different in effect—not as powerful but lasting over a much longer period—Wells refers specifically to ‘‘the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms.’’ astonishingly accurate description of the actual physics involved in nuclear fission, which was not realized until nearly twenty years later. It is worth noting that one of the physicists who developed nuclear fission, Leo´ Szila´ rd, was inspired in his work by the description given in Wells’s novel.
Although Benet’s story was not the first significant work of post-apocalyptic fiction, nor did it accurately describe atomic war, it is still significant for several reasons. To appreciate these, it is necessary to look beyond just the plot of the story and focus on both its style and its audience.
In the 1930s, the science fiction genre was, from a commercial standpoint, not doing very well. The Great Depression had taken its toll on publishing in general, but genre magazines like Amazing Stories Astounding Stories were hit especially hard. Amazing Stories , which had boasted a circulation of over one hundred thousand in the mid-1920s, shrunk to about onefourth of that. Astounding Stories , the leader in the genre, had a circulation of only about fifty thousand. In the mid-1930s, most science fiction published in such magazines belonged to the subgenre known as space opera—adventure stories that used outer space as a setting but did not focus on how technology can affect human culture. The start of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction—which saw the debut of writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury—was still a few years away, coinciding with John W. Campbell’s reign as editor of Astounding beginning in 1938. In other words, in 1937, the genre could be aptly described as stuck in a literary and commercial ghetto.
Meanwhile, the Saturday Evening Post publication in which ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ was first published—was considered an American institution. It had been published under its best-known name for over a century and had arguably existed in a different form— launched by Benjamin Franklin—for another century before that, making it even older than the United States of America. Under the editorial leadership of George Horace Lorimer, the magazine was known for its iconic Norman Rockwell illustrated covers and its heartwarming tales of Midwestern characters. It also published fiction by some of the biggest names in contemporary literature, including William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis. By 1936, its circulation reached three million copies per year—a readership at least five times greater than the most popular science fiction magazine.
Going strictly by these numbers, ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon’’ was bound to have a greater literary impact than most science fiction stories simply because of where it was published. In addition, while science fiction readers might have recognized the story as not entirely original, the readership of the Saturday Evening Post was more accustomed to quaint stories about tractor salesmen and hardware store owners. They were much less likely to have been exposed to the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fact that Benet was already a Pulitzer Prize–winning author put him in an ideal position to push the bounds of what Post readers were willing to try.
However, Benet’s accomplishments do not end at being fortunate enough to have his story published in a mainstream magazine. If the story had been written in a style typical of science fiction at the time, it would have likely been rejected by the magazine’s editor or, had it been published, by its readers. Instead, Benet created a perfect ‘‘gateway’’ story to capture the imaginations of readers who would not normally consider themselves fans of science fiction.
In fact, in reading the story, one does not see any tell-tale signs of science fiction until the very end. The style makes the tale feel more like myth or fairy tale than a prediction of mankind’’s harrowing future. Benet uses simple sentence structures and lyrical repetition to suggest the culture of the Hill People; especially noteworthy is the repeated sentence, ‘‘My father is a priest; I am the son of a priest.’’ The author also uses this repetition when John first arrives at the Place of the Gods, when three successive paragraphs begin with, ‘‘How shall I tell what I saw?’’ The style smacks of similarity to Native American oral tales and songs (as translated into English, at least), and this can hardly be coincidental. Benet reinforces this connection with the significance he places upon animals as messengers from the spirit world. Even the animals John sees—the hawk and deer—are ones considered important in many Native American cultures.
What Benet creates, then, is a science fiction tale without the science. Everything is viewed through the culture of the Hill People, who see the advanced technologies of the ‘‘gods’’ as magic. There are echoes of this in The Time Machine and even Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), but no one had offered this view of advanced human technology from the viewpoint of an outsider. This unique perspective would become an important component of science fiction literature in future publications. For example, Arthur C. Clarke would use it in much the same way for his Against the Fall of Night (1953), and would even get credit for the observation that advanced technologies would appear to be magical to less sophisticated cultures. This observation is known as Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, which he did not come up with until 1973. Surely Benet deserves some credit for making the same observation—in motion, rather than just talking about it—many years before Clarke did.
The net impact of Benet’s work—owed to both his artistry and the circumstances of its publication—is that it opened up the realm of science fiction to mainstream readers. They suddenly saw that science fiction could be much more than they thought it was: cardboard space adventurers protecting damsels from menacing aliens. It nudged the genre ever-so-slightly out of its literary ghetto and toward respectability. And it brought new readers into the genre, helping to popularize what would very soon become the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Greg Wilson, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Published by Gale Group, 2010