Last Updated on September 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
Stephen Vincent Benét’s post-apocalyptic short story “By the Waters of Babylon” was first published in 1937 in the Saturday Evening Post, under the title “The Place of the Gods.” In 1943, it was included in the anthology The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.
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The appeal of Benet’s 1937 world is that its message is stark and simple: technological civilization is superior to one that lives closer to the earth. Because of the many unquestioned assumptions Benét makes about what is valuable, his story teaches us more about the biased attitudes of a particular place and moment in time—the United States in the 1930s—than it does about the “universal” themes it is trying to transmit.
For this reason, the story is anachronistic, meaning that it reflects its own time period but seems outdated in our own. This is valuable because it gives us food for thought and reflection. Ironically, some of the very assumptions Benét makes are precisely what could destroy a technological society like that of the modern Western world, especially an arrogant ignorance of our own weaknesses.
Benét’s story rests on the simple assumption expressed above: technological civilization is unquestionably superior to more traditional cultures. The youthful narrator looks with a wonder, awe, and unquestioned desire at the splendors of the Place of the Gods. He craves what that civilization had—hot and cold running water; beautiful, realistic paintings; great buildings; soft chairs; canned food—with the deepest admiration. He perceives all of this as vastly superior to his own culture.
This awe-struck admiration of technological culture can seem naive, if not outright wrong, to the modern reader. It reflects what we might call a colonial mindset, the idea that Indigenous people around the world are inferior (we might think of Rudyard Kipling’s poems, such as “The White Man’s Burden”) and unadulteratedly eager to acquire what we have. It is not a two-way street: “our” culture is depicted as having all the advantages that any Indigenous person living in a traditional society would supposedly desire to possess at all costs, and yet that person is depicted as having nothing to offer us back.
Today, a similar story would almost undoubtedly contain debate within the so-called “primitive” culture about the merits of changing to become like the “superior” culture. Would the Indigenous culture really want to take on the characteristics of a civilization that destroyed itself? Would it wish to abandon its own, very different, values? How could it move forward with greater wisdom and without the hubris that leads to self-destruction?
These kinds of questions were raised very sharply after Benét’s death, in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by World War II. “Civilization” was not looking so “civilized” after that: a continent in ruins, the Holocaust, and the United States’ nuclear bombing of Japan has to this day caused a great deal of soul-searching that was largely absent from Benét’s world, even after the vast destruction of World War I. But there is every reason for us to bring that soul-searching to our reading of his story and raise the questions that he was unable to anticipate.