When does the story of "By the Waters of Babylon" take place ? 

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The story takes place in the future.  There has been some kind of apocalypse called the Great Burning.  All we know about the Great Burning is that “fire fell out of the sky.”  We do know that John’s world is our world in the future because he lives in the area around what was once New York City.

 It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods—this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons—it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. 

John’s people think that we were gods.  They are afraid to touch metal, and only priests are allowed to do so.  They are supposedly the only ones who can touch the metal without dying.  John’s father is a priest, and he is training to be a priest.

As part of this training, John goes on a quest to follow a dream to what was once New York City.  He sees the old buildings and technology, and realizes that the gods were once people.  These “gods” are the bodies of dead human beings.  He decides that this is the foundation of a lost civilization, and his society can rebuild it.

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.

Like many post-apocalyptic societies, John’s is ruled by fear.  John, the new generation, decides that he wants to change things.  He will not be afraid.  He wants to reunite his people and build on the legacy of the past to renew the former society.

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