By the Waters of Babylon, first published in 1937, is a prescient science fiction story set in an indeterminate, postapocalyptic era, not uncommon for this genre; this lack of detailed setting suggests an unstable physical and social environment. Only gradually do we learn some detail about the setting and get a sense of the time of the story. The narrative concerns a boy, the son of a priest who will become a priest himself, growing into manhood. The use of titles for places (Dead Places, Forest People) rather than names suggests that his is a primitive culture. At times the narrator finds himself having to make a decision that challenges the “law” (as he understands it); he tells us that he “is a priest and the son of a priest,” as though this mantra justifies his mission and his title. This kind of naming and establishing of position suggests a tribal culture.
Benét allows the narrator to tell us what he sees and thinks; he does not supply an authorial voice to explain what has happened, or where in time or place the story is set. This is most effective; science fiction that has to explain itself, or feels the need to explain the science behind its gadgetry or story, often betrays its genre. The narrator simply describes his feelings and observations as he begins his quest to become a man and a priest, assuming that role for his band of people.
In the tradition of tribal tales, he has a vision; his father interprets his vision, and the son must complete his quest before he can return to the tribe. This all seems indicative of a generic tribal or native tale, but Benét plants clues to indicate this story might be set in the future, not in the past.
The quest itself sends the boy to the east, where he is forbidden to go, and to the City of the Gods, which is also forbidden. We come across rather typical symbolic devices here: He must cross the river that divides one land from another (or, one state of consciousness from another); he realizes that many of the legends he has heard are not true (tangible experience replaces myth); he finds hieroglyphs he can only partly read (the past trying to communicate with the future; truth is written as a text only a few can read). In his capacity as a priest, he will have to “read” the signs as they appear. Benét allows this; in a kind of typography (which also supports the primitive setting), the narrator reads the will of God through nature; also, nature becomes personified (the river grips, as with hands), demonstrating a culture connected to the world in which nature is a living, active force in lives.
We expect the story to reveal where the narrator is, that is, we sense, and begin to look for, the trick. This is a convention of the genre, and as we read, we get the sense that Benét is telegraphing the end of the story. It is hard not to feel as though, in the story’s final paragraph, we will learn which city he has stumbled into, and exactly the condition of the nuclear apocalypse that has reduced civilization to rubble (and set the scene for the rise of a new civilization). In a sense, this does happen; this adherence to the convention works against any rising tension in the story, especially for modern readers. We have seen this often enough to know the trick.
However, Benét does not allow the trick to outrun the narrative. We do learn the secret of the location— New York—and we can figure out some details, but Benét is not interested in the trick as much as he is in his message: that a high civilization has destroyed itself; that the gods were men, just as the narrator is a man; and finally that “we must rebuild.” The message is apparent (if a little heavy-handed) to modern readers, but only because it has become well worn. If we can read through the conventions to which Benét adheres, observe the fine descriptive passages, and recognize the less apparent tensions in the text—the boy’s entering manhood, his struggle to determine whether he should observe the law, whether the priests are above the law—the story offers more subtle grounds for discussion than the conventional postapocalyptic tale.
Benét, Stephen Vincent. “By the Waters of Babylon.” In The Devil and Daniel Webster and Other Writings, edited by Townsend Ludington. New York: Penguin, 1999. Izzo, David Garrett, and Lincoln Kankle, eds. Stephen Vincent Benét: Essays on His Life and Work. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. Stroud, Perry Edmund. Stephen Vincent Benét. Boston: Twayne, 1962.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Science Fiction, Short Story
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