man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét
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"By the Waters of Babylon" is a fantasy about what might happen in the future. Do you believe a world like this could emerge in the future, or is such a world very unlikely?

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I think that the story is based in reality, since it takes place in real places.

We do not know exactly what happened, but there is enough evidence in the story to tell us that some kind of cataclysmic event killed most of the population of New York City and...

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I think that the story is based in reality, since it takes place in real places.

We do not know exactly what happened, but there is enough evidence in the story to tell us that some kind of cataclysmic event killed most of the population of New York City and surrounding areas. There have been other events in our history where large percentages of the population died. We also came close to nuclear annihilation with the invention of atomic weapons.

It makes sense that if everyone died but a few people, the culture would die with them. After an event this devastating, a new culture may develop around what is left. That is basically what happened with John’s people. They reverted to a more primitive existence, one in which they both revere and fear the past.

 I have been in the Dead Places near us, with my father—at first, I was afraid. When my father went into the house to search for the metal, I stood by the door and my heart felt small and weak. It was a dead man's house, a spirit house.

The “Dead Places” are places where the former population lived, and they seem to be dangerous. At least, John’s tribe, the Hill People, think they are dangerous. They are avoided by anyone except certain individuals who are called priests. John says that he becomes a priest when he touches the metal from a Dead Place but does not die. Clearly the Hill People salvage the metal from our civilization, possibly for religious purposes.

We know that this is actually our world because when John travels to the Place of the Gods to see the source of his vision, he realizes that the gods are not really gods, but just humans. He also names the place he visits.

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.

Is such a thing possible, where the buildings could still stand but the people would die? We do not know exactly what the event was, although the Hill People refer to it as the Great Burning, or how it affected everyone. The city is in ruins, but it is still there. John can still read the names of famous people. It is not out of the realm of possibility that climate change or a nuclear event could cause this.

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