Young People Read Old SFF

By The Waters of Babylon

Stephen Vincent Benét

Young People Read Old SFF

17 Aug, 2017

The second story in Phase II of Young People Read Old SFF is Stephen Vincent Benét’s1937’s By The Waters of Babylon”. He’s more obscure than he once was now — dying at age 44 didn’t help him stay in the spotlight — but you may have encountered his The Devil and Daniel Webster or Benét’s upbeat toe-tapper, Nightmare, with Angels, quoted in part in John Brunner’s disco-era The Jagged Orbit:

(…) another angel approached me.

This one was quietly but appropriately dressed in cellophane, synthetic rubber and stainless steel,

But his mask was the blind mask of Arcs, snouted for gas-masks.

He was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator nor munitions-manufacturer.

Nor did he have much conversation, except to say,

You will not be saved by General Motors or the pre-fabricated house.

You will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the Lambeth Conference.

You will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding universe.

In fact, you will not be saved.”

Then he showed his hand:

In his hand was a woven, wire basket, full of seeds, small metallic and shining like the seeds of portulaca;

Where he sowed them, the green vine withered, and the smoke and the armies sprang up.

By The Waters of Babylon” is a classic After the Bomb story, or it would be if it didn’t predate the Atomic Bomb by eight years. When I first encountered it as a Mindwebs radio play1, I was surprised at how modern it seemed. 

What will my young readers think of it? 

1: As I was futilely looking for cover art I could use for this entry, I was intrigued to discover there is a stage play adaptation of By The Waters of Babylon”. The story is easy enough to adapt to radio but how does it work on stage?

Wow, that was a good one. Still accessible, and worryingly topical. Hard to believe that it predates the atomic bomb, looking like a prototypical story about primitive people living in the ruins of a blown up world.

The writing was good. There was enough detail to hold my interest, and I certainly want to know more about the tribes and the world, but it never devolved to an infodump. I enjoyed putting the clues together to figure out what city he was visiting. It was a nice little extra. It’s interesting to compare the writing in this to the other very old stories read as part of this project. This one reads much easier than, say, Who Goes There.

The lack of stand-out WTF moments regarding incorrect science or old-timey sexism or racism puts this story ahead of the pack. I guess the moral is that stories that assume we’ll blow ourselves up keep their relevance over time better than ones that try to extrapolate technological advances.

I’d recommend this story to others, in fact I have recommended it to the players at a local post-apocalyptic LARP, for inspiration.


By the Waters of Babylon” was an entertaining yet predictable story. With just the context that the story was an after the bomb” story, it seemed clear fairly early on that the Gods” were human and that their land was New York. Figuring out that the God Roads” were actually streets didn’t necessarily diminish my enjoyment of the story, though. I still wanted to know whether the protagonist would figure it out and what he would do with the knowledge. I enjoyed wondering whether it was widely known among the priests that the Gods were humans, or whether the Hill People had just truly believed that they needed to stay away from the land of the Gods. Either way, thinking about the story after the fact, I appreciate writing a story in the years leading up to World War 2 that basically answers the question after we all destroy each other, what will the future people think when they see what’s left behind?” It’s a question that is unfortunately especially relevant to this day.


Being in a sci-fi mindset, the path of this story was unsurprising. Though I can hardly blame it for being early to the party on post-apocalyptic, Planet of the Apes style storylines.

To me, the writing made this story into an Ursula K. Le Guin distillation of a post-apocalyptic story. (To anyone who has read my previous reviews, you’ll remember that I don’t particularly like Le Guin. She does little to nothing for my mind’s eye.)

The best thing about this story is the title. I considered it for a while and did a quick search of meanings associated with Babylon. There are three things that stand out to my mind:

  1. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

  2. The Tower of Babel

  3. The Rastafarian hit Rivers of Babylon”

♪One of these things is not like the others.♪

But let’s be serious: this is a great title for this story. It’s ambiguous enough to allow interpretation while being specific enough that there is no confusion. Babylon immediately brings to mind a great and wondrous city – an amazingly built place of which there are no firsthand accounts. It is a mythical place of the past that ended in destruction because of mankind reaching too far.

The main character journeys to this poisoned place and falls in the water. He has visions of how things were, and you almost think something bad might happen to him because of the sickly water, and the ancient food and alcohol. But nothing does. And then it’s all over and skips the interesting part I would have liked to read about: the aftermath with his tribe.

Final verdict: it’s fine. Inoffensive. Basic. (Heck, the number of study guides that come up in a Google search indicate to me this is a popular, non-controversial pick for low-level literature classes.) Do I like it? No. Hate it? Nah.

(And now I have Bob Marley’s Rivers of Babylon” stuck in my head.)


This story was boring.

I generally dislike stories that are told with the narrator relating a story to the audience. I often find that they are lacking satisfactory character development, or much tension in the plot. This story was unfortunately not an exception. The only real character was the narrator, and I wasn’t even left with much of a sense of him. I primarily read for character, so stories without any real characters to speak of don’t keep my interest.

The story is completely predictable. It probably wasn’t at the time it was written, but that didn’t make it any less boring to read. I’ve read countless post apocalyptic and/or post-nuclear war stories, and there was nothing here that surprised me, and I didn’t feel invested in the outcome.

It did remind me a bit of reading The Chrysalids, which I did like when I read it in high school. Maybe if I’d read this story when I was younger and had read fewer similar stories I would have liked it more, although I think the structure of the story and the lack of characters would have still bothered me.


By the Waters of Babylon” is the story of a young priest and his quest for knowledge and personal discovery. The story takes the interesting stance of never clearly giving the reader a clear sense of time or place, which can be frustrating at times as it makes it more difficult to visualize the narrative and put yourself into the eyes and mind of the narrator. There is no dialogue in this piece, which is an interesting choice which I can appreciate given the type of story being told. Stephen Vincent Benét does use some weird grammar and will occasionally leave out words. This is not a frequent enough occurrence that it totally detracts from the story but instead just lessens the immersion. While By the Waters of Babylon is a strong diversion from your traditional sci-fi narrative, it was interesting all the same.