By The Waters of Babylon
Stephen Vincent Benét
second story in Phase II of Young People Read Old SFF is Stephen
Vincent Benét’s 1937'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
with Angels, quoted in part in John Brunner's disco-era The
angel approached me.
one was quietly but appropriately dressed in cellophane, synthetic
rubber and stainless steel,
his mask was the blind mask of Arcs, snouted for gas-masks.
was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator nor
did he have much conversation, except to say,
will not be saved by General Motors or the pre-fabricated house.
will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the Lambeth Conference.
will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding universe.
fact, you will not be saved."
he showed his hand:
his hand was a woven, wire basket, full of seeds, small metallic and
shining like the seeds of portulaca;
he sowed them, the green vine withered, and the smoke and the armies
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?
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.
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.
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
recommend this story to others, in fact I have recommended it to the
players at a local post-apocalyptic LARP, for inspiration.
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.
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.)
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:
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Tower of Babel
Rastafarian hit “Rivers of Babylon”
of these things is not like the others.♪
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.
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.
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.
now I have Bob Marley’s “Rivers of Babylon” stuck in my head.)
story was boring.
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.
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.
did remind me a bit of reading The
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.
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.