Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The World Without Jon Stewart -- Or Anybody Else

Bookstores are building great heaps of the long-titled The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race. According to the cover, information in the coffee-table book will help out aliens who drop in to tour the ruins we left, millions of years hence. Comedy lovers will probably find the book a good deal more sobering than his show.

The idea of an unpeopled world will be familiar to those who watched the History Channel series Life After People or readers of the book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

And before those was my 1984 article for Smithsonian on how three great American monuments would age if abandoned by civilization. Most honored by sf lovers is, or should be, the 1949 classic by George Stewart, Earth Abides.

But long before all these was a haunting poem in Old English called The Ruin. There is no record of which Anglo-Saxon poet wrote it. It is at least 1,200 years old and the only text we have comes from a half-burned manuscript inside The Exeter Book. No other copies have been found, so some sentences are fragmentary. But enough remains to suggest the poet was musing on the Roman rubble of Bath … about those who built it and then were wiped out.

A snip:
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
Another poem from The Exeter Book, called The Wanderer, has some of the same deeply reflective mood:
A wise hero must realize
how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
Chilling! If you're preparing to sit down with the Book of Exeter on an overcast and wintry day, my advice is prepare a flagon of mead and build a roaring fire in the hearth first.

The "post-people" genre took a step forward in 1817, when a writing contest sponsored by Leigh Hunt’s Examiner prompted two poets to muse over a giant statue depicting Ramsses II, then lying in pieces at the ancient capital of Memphis. The more famous of these was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who structured his work around an inscription found there, translated as, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias is known to just about every lover of poetry. But how many can recite anything by the other entrant who wrote about the statue, Horace Smith? Mr. Smith's poem On a Stupendous Leg of Granite imagined some visitor in a far-off time stumbling across the ruins of London.

Because of the way Smith linked the distant future to the modern world -- moving beyond the apocalyptic Christianity of The Ruin and The Wanderer -- I regard his poem as the start of modern post-people literature.

Author John Richard Jefferies picked up on Smith’s vision in his 1885 novel After London, pitting his protagonist Felix against a feudal society that had taken root from the city’s rubble.

Why did both writers target London as ground zero? Yes, London was then the economic center of the Western world, but there's a legend involved too. I'll pick that up in a later post.

No comments:

Post a Comment