Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why I Read What I Read

I just had a sort of mini-epiphany that I thought I'd share.

Said epiphany pertains to why I read what I read. Executive summary: I read (mostly) the sort of books that I would have read when I was ten years old if I had had the attention span that I do now. To clarify: I first got heavily into the science fiction genre when I was about ten years old. That was the age I was when the first Star Wars movie came out; it was also about the age I was when I discovered the original Star Trek series in syndication. It was also about this time that I discovered that SF wasn't just a movie genre and a TV genre - it was a literary genre as well. I discovered in books like The People's Almanac and magazines like Starlog (both of which I still remember with enormous fondness) that there were actually books by people with names like H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke that, broadly speaking, dealt with the same kinds of situations that my then-favorite movies and TV shows did. Here's what happened when I got my hands on one of those books and tried to read it, however: I remember being ten or perhaps a little older and getting a copy of Wells' The Time Machine and trying to read it (if you haven't read it, click on the boldface title you just saw - it will take you to Project Gutenberg's ebook version and you can read it there (seriously, do it - it's really good and it's actually a not-very-long and pretty fast-paced novella - if you just had breakfast you should be able to finish it before lunch time)) and saying to myself (keep in mind I'm ten here), "Oh my God! This is so long!" This is of course pretty laughable to me now, but looking at it from another perspective, you can say it was pretty good of a kid that age to even attempt a a classic piece of fiction like that at that age when it wasn't assigned in school or anything.

So - back on topic - why am I reading so much Wells and Clarke and Harlan Ellison and Thomas More these days? Because, like I said, they're authors I wanted to read when I was ten, but couldn't.

Just wish I could decide whether that's a good thing or not.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Rock Criticism Still Sucks

"...this essentially reactionary attitude became the prevailing orthodoxy in rock's critical establishment." And remains so to this day, I fear.

The dominant [critical] view came to be that of [Jon] Landau and Esquire's Robert Christgau, and it focused on two things: technical excellence and the primacy of the African American roots of the music. As Chrtistgau wrote, "the problem is that when poetry, musical complexity, and psychedelic basso-profundity come into the music, its original values - simplicity, directness, charm - are often obscured." This became code for limiting rock to three-minute songs with clever hooks, and the [Grateful] Dead clearly failed that test. That spring, Christgau wrote, "Most hippie rock and roll musicians exhibit the same in-group pretentiousness that characterized the folk and jazz purists who were their predecessors." Though Christgau himself would be more flexible in the future, Landau would not. In his defining critical manifesto, "Rock and Art," Landau declaimed, "Rock was not intended to be reflective or profound." Where this left Bob Dylan went unsaid, but this essentially reactionary attitude became the prevailing orthodoxy in rock's critical establishment.

- From A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally

(Art by Bob Thomas)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Leftist Propaganda?

You be the judge.

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, 'It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but might as well be.' It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?' There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand-glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue... Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Speculative Fiction Shorts: "To Serve Man" By Damon Knight

This post (my first in forever) is dedicated to my good friends Amy Whelan (who encouraged me to get off my butt and post this (or, more accurately, encouraged me to get my butt on the computer chair and post this) and Melanie Whipple (who reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode that is adapted from it. This is surely one of the great twist ending science fiction stories of the twentieth century, which is almost certainly why Rod Serling & co. chose it for The Twilight Zone.

To Serve Man

By Damon Knight

Galaxy, November 1950

The Kanamit were not very pretty, it’s true. They looked something like pigs and something like people, and that is not an attractive combination. Seeing them for the first time shocked you; that was their handicap. When a thing with the countenance of a fiend comes from the stars and offers a gift, you are disinclined to accept.

I don’t know what we expected interstellar visitors to look like — those who thought about it at all, that is. Angels, perhaps, or something too alien to be really awful. Maybe that’s why we were all so horrified and repelled when they landed in their great ships and we saw what they really were like.

The Kanamit were short and very hairy-thick bristly brown-gray hair all over their abominably plump bodies. Their noses were snoutlike and their eyes small, and they had thick hands of three fingers each. They wore green leather harness and green shorts, but I think the shorts were a concession to our notions of public decency. The garments were quite modishly cut, with slash pockets and half-belts in the back. The Kanamit had a sense of humor, anyhow.

There were three of them at this session of the U.N., and, lord, I can’t tell you how queer it looked to see them there in the middle of a solemn plenary session — three fat piglike creatures in green harness and shorts, sitting at the long table below the podium, surrounded by the packed arcs of delegates from every nation. They sat correctly upright, politely watching each speaker. Their flat ears drooped over the earphones. Later on, I believe, they learned every human language, but at this time they knew only French and English.

They seemed perfectly at ease — and that, along with their humor, was a thing that tended to make me like them. I was in the minority; I didn’t think they were trying to put anything over.

The delegate from Argentina got up and said that his government was interested in the demonstration of a new cheap power source, which the Kanamit had made at the previous session, but that the Argentine government could not commit itself as to its future policy without a much more thorough examination.

It was what all the delegates were saying, but I had to pay particular attention to Senor Valdes, because he tended to sputter and his diction was bad. I got through the translation all right, with only one or two momentary hesitations, and then switched to the Polish-English line to hear how Grigori was doing with Janciewicz. Janciewicz was the cross Grigori had to bear, just as Valdes was mine.

Janciewicz repeated the previous remarks with a few ideological variations, and then the Secretary-General recognized the delegate from France, who introduced Dr. Denis Leveque, the criminologist, and a great deal of complicated equipment was wheeled in.

Dr. Leveque remarked that the question in many people’s minds had been aptly expressed by the delegate from the U.S.S.R. at the preceding session, when he demanded, “What is the motive of the Kanamit? What is their purpose in offering us these unprecedented gifts, while asking nothing in return?”

The doctor then said, “At the request of several delegates and with the full consent of our guests, the Kanamit, my associates and I have made a series of tests upon the Kanamit with the equipment which you see before you. These tests will now be repeated.”

A murmur ran through the chamber. There was a fusillade of flashbulbs, and one of the TV cameras moved up to focus on the instrument board of the doctor’s equipment. At the same time, the huge television screen behind the podium lighted up, and we saw the blank faces of two dials, each with its pointer resting at zero, and a strip of paper tape with a stylus point resting against it.

The doctor’s assistants were fastening wires to the temples of one of the Kanamit, wrapping a canvas-covered rubber tube around his forearm, and taping something to the palm of his right hand.

In the screen, we saw the paper tape begin to move while the stylus traced a slow zigzag pattern along it. One of the needles began to jump rhythmically; the other flipped halfway over and stayed there, wavering slightly.

“These are the standard instruments for testing the truth of a statement,” said Dr. Leveque. “Our first object, since the physiology of the Kanamit is unknown to us, was to determine whether or not they react to these tests as human beings do. We will now repeat one of the many experiments which were made in the endeavor to discover this.”

He pointed to the first dial. “This instrument registers the subject’s heartbeat. This shows the electrical conductivity of the skin in the palm of his hand, a measure of perspiration, which increases under stress. And this –” pointing to the tape-and-stylus device — “shows the pattern and intensity of the electrical waves emanating from his brain. It has been shown, with human subjects, that all these readings vary markedly depending upon whether the subject is speaking the truth.”

He picked up two large pieces of cardboard, one red and one black. The red one was a square about three feet on a side; the black was a rectangle three and a half feet long. He addressed himself to the Kanama.

“Which of these is longer than the other?”

“The red,” said the Kanama.

Both needles leaped wildly, and so did the line on the unrolling tape.

“I shall repeat the question,” said the doctor. “Which of these is longer than the other?”

“The black,” said the creature.

This time the instruments continued in their normal rhythm.

“How did you come to this planet?” asked the doctor.

“Walked,” replied the Kanama.

Again the instruments responded, and there was a subdued ripple of laughter in the chamber.

“Once more,” said the doctor. “How did you come to this planet?”

“In a spaceship,” said the Kanama, and the instruments did not jump.

The doctor again faced the delegates. “Many such experiments were made,” he said, “and my colleagues and myself are satisfied that the mechanisms are effective. Now –” he turned to the Kanama — “I shall ask our distinguished guest to reply to the question put at the last session by the delegate of the U.S.S.R. — namely, what is the motive of the Kanamit people in offering these great gifts to the people of Earth?”

The Kanama rose. Speaking this time in English, he said, “On my Planet there is a saying, ‘There are more riddles in a stone than in a philosopher’s head.’ The motives of intelligent beings, though they may at times appear obscure, are simple things compared to the complex workings of the natural universe. Therefore I hope that the people of Earth will understand, and believe, when I tell you that our mission upon your planet is simply this — to bring to you the peace and plenty which we ourselves enjoy, and which we have in the past brought to other races throughout the galaxy. When your world has no more hunger, no more war, no more needless suffering, that will be our reward.”

And the needles had not jumped once.

The delegate from the Ukraine jumped to his feet, asking to be recognized, but the time was up and the Secretary-General closed the session.

I met Grigori as we were leaving the chamber. His face was red with excitement. “Who promoted that circus?” he demanded.

“The tests looked genuine to me,” I told him.

“A circus!” he said vehemently. “A second-rate farce! If they were genuine, Peter, why was debate stifled?”

“There’ll be time for debate tomorrow, surely.”

“Tomorrow the doctor and his instruments will be back in Paris. Plenty of things can happen before tomorrow. In the name of sanity, man, how can anybody trust a thing that looks as if it ate the baby?”

I was a little annoyed. I said, “Are you sure you’re not more worried about their politics than their appearance?”

He said, “Bah,” and went away.

The next day reports began to come in from government laboratories all over the world where the Kanamit’s power source was being tested. They were wildly enthusiastic. I don’t understand such things myself, but it seemed that those little metal boxes would give more electrical power than an atomic pile, for next to nothing and nearly forever. And it was said that they were so cheap to manufacture that everybody in the world could have one of his own. In the early afternoon there were reports that seventeen countries had already begun to set up factories to turn them out.

The next day the Kanamit turned up with plans and specimens of a gadget that would increase the fertility of any arable land by 60 to 100 per cent. It speeded the formation of nitrates in the soil, or something. There was nothing in the newscasts any more but stories about the Kanamit. The day after that, they dropped their bombshell.

“You now have potentially unlimited power and increased food supply,” said one of them. He pointed with his three-fingered hand to an instrument that stood on the table before him. It was a box on a tripod, with a parabolic reflector on the front of it. “We offer you today a third gift which is at least as important as the first two.”

He beckoned to the TV men to roll their cameras into closeup position. Then he picked up a large sheet of cardboard covered with drawings and English lettering. We saw it on the large screen above the podium; it was all clearly legible.

“We are informed that this broadcast is being relayed throughout your world,” said the Kanama. “I wish that everyone who has equipment for taking photographs from television screens would use it now.”

The Secretary-General leaned forward and asked a question sharply, but the Kanama ignored him.

“This device,” he said, “generates a field in which no explosive, of whatever nature, can detonate.”

There was an uncomprehending silence.

The Kanama said, “It cannot now be suppressed. If one nation has it, all must have it.” When nobody seemed to understand, he explained bluntly, “There will be no more war.”

That was the biggest news of the millennium, and it was perfectly true. It turned out that the explosions the Kanama was talking about included gasoline and Diesel explosions. They had simply made it impossible for anybody to mount or equip a modern army.

We could have gone back to bows and arrows, of course, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the military. Besides, there wouldn’t be any reason to make war. Every nation would soon have everything.

Nobody ever gave another thought to those lie-detector experiments, or asked the Kanamit what their politics were. Grigori was put out; he had nothing to prove his suspicions.

I quit my job with the U.N. a few months later, because I foresaw that it was going to die under me anyhow. U.N. business was booming at the time, but after a year or so there was going to be nothing for it to do. Every nation on Earth was well on the way to being completely self-supporting; they weren’t going to need much arbitration.

I accepted a position as translator with the Kanamit Embassy, and it was there that I ran into Grigori again. I was glad to see him, but I couldn’t imagine what he was doing there.

“I thought you were on the opposition.” I said. “Don’t tell me you’re convinced the Kanamit are all right.”

He looked rather shamefaced. “They’re not what they look, anyhow,” he said.

It was as much of a concession as he could decently make, and I invited him down to the embassy lounge for a drink. It was an intimate kind of place, and he grew confidential over the second daiquiri.

“They fascinate me,” he said. “I hate them instinctively still — that hasn’t changed — but I can evaluate it. You were right, obviously; they mean us nothing but good. But do you know –” he leaned across the table — ” the question of the Soviet delegate was never answered.”

I am afraid I snorted.

“No, really,” he said. They told us what they wanted to do — ‘to bring to you the peace and plenty which we ourselves enjoy.’ But they didn’t say why.”

“Why do missionaries — “

“Missionaries be damned!” he said angrily. “Missionaries have a religious motive. If these creatures have a religion, they haven’t once mentioned it. What’s more, they didn’t send a missionary group; they sent a diplomatic delegation — a group representing the will and policy of their whole people. Now just what have the Kanamit, as a people or a nation, got to gain from our welfare?”

I said, “Cultural — “

“Cultural cabbage soup! No, it’s something less obvious than that, something obscure that belongs to their psychology and not to ours. But trust me, Peter, there is no such thing as a completely disinterested altruism. In one way or another, they have something to gain.”

“And that’s why you’re here,” I said. “To try to find out what it is.”

“Correct. I wanted to get on one of the ten-year exchange groups to their home planet, but I couldn’t, the quota was filled a week after they made the announcement. This is the next best thing. I’m studying their language, and you know that language reflects the basic assumptions of the people who use it. I’ve got a fair command of the spoken lingo already. It’s not hard, really, and there are hints in it. Some of the idioms are quite similar to English. I’m sure I’ll get the answer eventually.’

“More power,” I said, and we went back to work.

I saw Grigori frequently from then on, and he kept me posted about his progress. He was highly excited about a month after that first meeting; said he’d got hold of a book of the Kanamit’s and was trying to puzzle it out. They wrote in ideographs, worse than Chinese, but he was determined to fathom it if it took him years. He wanted my help.

Well, I was interested in spite of myself, for I knew it would be a long job. We spent some evenings together, working with material from Kanamit bulletin boards and so forth, and with the extremely limited English-Kanamit dictionary they issued to the staff. My conscience bothered me about the stolen book, but gradually I became absorbed by the problem. Languages are my field, after all. I couldn’t help being fascinated.

We got the title worked out in a few weeks. It was How to Serve Man, evidently a handbook they were giving out to new Kanamit members of the embassy staff. They had new ones in, all the time now, a shipload about once a month; they were opening all kinds of research laboratories, clinics and so on. If there was anybody on Earth besides Grigori who still distrusted those people, he must have been somewhere in the middle of Tibet.

It was astonishing to see the changes that had been wrought in less than a year. There were no more standing armies, no more shortages, no unemployment. When you picked up a newspaper you didn’t see H-BOMB or SATELLITE leaping out at you; the news was always good. It was a hard thing to get used to. The Kanamit were working on human biochemistry, and it was known around the embassy that they were nearly ready to announce methods of making our race taller and stronger and healthier — practically a race of supermen — and they had a potential cure for heart disease and cancer.

I didn’t see Grigori for a fortnight after we finished working out the title of the book; I was on a long-overdue vacation in Canada. When I got back, I was shocked by the change in his appearance.

“What on earth is wrong, Grigori?” I asked. “You look like the very devil.”

“Come down to the lounge.”

I went with him, and he gulped a stiff Scotch as if he needed it.

“Come on, man, what’s the matter?” I urged.

“The Kanamit have put me on the passenger list for the next exchange ship,” he said. “You, too, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

“Well,” I said, “but — “

“They’re not altruists.”

I tried to reason with him. I pointed out they’d made Earth a paradise compared to what it was before. He only shook his head.

Then I said, “Well, what about those lie-detector tests?”

“A farce,” he replied, without heat. “I said so at the time, you fool. They told the truth, though, as far as it went.”

“And the book?” I demanded, annoyed. “What about that — How to Serve Man? That wasn’t put there for you to read. They mean it. How do you explain that?”

“I’ve read the first paragraph of that book,” he said. “Why do you suppose I haven’t slept for a week?”

I said, “Well?” and he smiled a curious, twisted smile.

“It’s a cookbook,” he said.

Copyright 1950 by Galaxy Publishing Corp. Copright 1961 by Damon Knight. Many thanks to Mr. Write for posting an HTML version of this on the internets.

Cover of the issue of GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION in which "To Serve Man" originally appeared

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Speculative Fiction Not-So-Shorts: A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Okay, I realize that, up until now, I've almost exclusively posted short stories or poems in my Speculative Fiction features. But this one's different. This one's special. This is one of C.S. Lewis' favorite novels. This is one of Philip Jose Farmer's favorite novels. This is one of Alan Moore's favorite novels. This is, believe it or not, one of Harold Fucking Bloom's favorite novels - loved it so much he even wrote a sequel to it, as a matter of fact (and dig on that groovy cover, willya?). This is the one and only, hyperbole-inducing, sui generis science fantasy classic...

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Dude. I'm so there.

Art by Bob Pepper

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stephen King's Ten Favorite Horror Books or Short Stories

An interesting list I found at Google Books in a volume entitled Stephen King from A to Z. I've provide links for all the pieces, including links to their complete online texts if available.

Ghost Story (1979) - Peter Straub
Dracula (1897) - Bram Stoker
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) - Shirley Jackson
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* (1886) - Robert Louis Stevenson
Burnt Offerings (1973) - Robert Marasco
"Casting the Runes" (1911) - M.R. James
"The Two Bottles Of Relish" (1932) - Lord Dunsany
"The Great God Pan" (1894) - Arthur Machen
"The Upper Berth" (1894) - F. Marion Crawford
"The Colour Out of Space" (1927) - H.P. Lovecraft

*The link is to a very thoroughly annotated version of the novella at Wikisource

Poster for the 1931 film version of Stevenson's tale.

(Anybody know the artist on this one? It's signed, but I can't quite make it out ("Norley", maybe?))

Ms. Jackson's long-awaited first volume in the Library of America

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Speculative Fiction Shorts: "Till A' The Seas" by H.P. Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow

[Talk about global warming! PS Yes, I'm still on my Dying Earth kick from last year. - Art]

“Till A’ the Seas”
By H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow

Upon an eroded cliff-top rested the man, gazing far across the valley. Lying thus, he could see a great distance, but in all the sere expanse there was no visible motion. Nothing stirred the dusty plain, the disintegrated sand of long-dry river-beds, where once coursed the gushing streams of Earth’s youth. There was little greenery in this ultimate world, this final stage of mankind’s prolonged presence upon the planet. For unnumbered aeons the drought and sandstorms had ravaged all the lands. The trees and bushes had given way to small, twisted shrubs that persisted long through their sturdiness; but these, in turn, perished before the onslaught of coarse grasses and stringy, tough vegetation of strange evolution.
The ever-present heat, as Earth drew nearer to the sun, withered and killed with pitiless rays. It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change. And all through those first ages man’s adaptable form had followed the slow mutation and modelled itself to fit the more and more torrid air. Then the day had come when men could bear their hot cities but ill, and a gradual recession began, slow yet deliberate. Those towns and settlements closest to the equator had been first, of course, but later there were others. Man, softened and exhausted, could cope no longer with the ruthlessly mounting heat. It seared him as he was, and evolution was too slow to mould new resistances in him.
Yet not at first were the great cities of the equator left to the spider and the scorpion. In the early years there were many who stayed on, devising curious shields and armours against the heat and the deadly dryness. These fearless souls, screening certain buildings against the encroaching sun, made miniature worlds of refuge wherein no protective armour was needed. They contrived marvellously ingenious things, so that for a while men persisted in the rusting towers, hoping thereby to cling to old lands till the searing should be over. For many would not believe what the astronomers said, and looked for a coming of the mild olden world again. But one day the men of Dath, from the new city of Niyara, made signals to Yuanario, their immemorially ancient capital, and gained no answer from the few who remained therein. And when explorers reached that millennial city of bridge-linked towers they found only silence. There was not even the horror of corruption, for the scavenger lizards had been swift.
Only then did the people fully realize that these cities were lost to them; know that they must forever abandon them to nature. The other colonists in the hot lands fled from their brave posts, and total silence reigned within the high basalt walls of a thousand empty towns. Of the dense throngs and multitudinous activities of the past, nothing finally remained. There now loomed against the rainless deserts only the blistered towers of vacant houses, factories, and structures of every sort, reflecting the sun’s dazzling radiance and parching in the more and more intolerable heat.
Many lands, however, had still escaped the scorching blight, so that the refugees were soon absorbed in the life of a newer world. During strangely prosperous centuries the hoary deserted cities of the equator grew half-forgotten and entwined with fantastic fables. Few thought of those spectral, rotting towers . . . those huddles of shabby walls and cactus-choked streets, darkly silent and abandoned. . . .
Wars came, sinful and prolonged, but the times of peace were greater. Yet always the swollen sun increased its radiance as Earth drew closer to its fiery parent. It was as if the planet meant to return to that source whence it was snatched, aeons ago, through the accidents of cosmic growth.
After a time the blight crept outward from the central belt. Southern Yarat burned as a tenantless desert—and then the north. In Perath and Baling, those ancient cities where brooding centuries dwelt, there moved only the scaly shapes of the serpent and the salamander, and at last Loton echoed only to the fitful falling of tottering spires and crumbling domes.
Steady, universal, and inexorable was the great eviction of man from the realms he had always known. No land within the widening stricken belt was spared; no people left unrouted. It was an epic, a titan tragedy whose plot was unrevealed to the actors—this wholesale desertion of the cities of men. It took not years or even centuries, but millennia of ruthless change. And still it kept on—sullen, inevitable, savagely devastating.
Agriculture was at a standstill, the world fast became too arid for crops. This was remedied by artificial substitutes, soon universally used. And as the old places that had known the great things of mortals were left, the loot salvaged by the fugitives grew smaller and smaller. Things of the greatest value and importance were left in dead museums—lost amid the centuries—and in the end the heritage of the immemorial past was abandoned. A degeneracy both physical and cultural set in with the insidious heat. For man had so long dwelt in comfort and security that this exodus from past scenes was difficult. Nor were these events received phlegmatically; their very slowness was terrifying. Degradation and debauchery were soon common; government was disorganized, and the civilizations aimlessly slid back toward barbarism.
When, forty-nine centuries after the blight from the equatorial belt, the whole western hemisphere was left unpeopled, chaos was complete. There was no trace of order or decency in the last scenes of this titanic, wildly impressive migration. Madness and frenzy stalked through them, and fanatics screamed of an Armageddon close at hand.
Mankind was now a pitiful remnant of the elder races, a fugitive not only from the prevailing conditions, but from his own degeneracy. Into the northland and the antarctic went those who could; the rest lingered for years in an incredible saturnalia, vaguely doubting the forthcoming disasters. In the city of Borligo a wholesale execution of the new prophets took place, after months of unfulfilled expectations. They thought the flight to the northland unnecessary, and looked no longer for the threatened ending.
How they perished must have been terrible indeed—those vain, foolish creatures who thought to defy the universe. But the blackened, scorched towns are mute. . . .
These events, however, must not be chronicled—for there are larger things to consider than this complex and unhastening downfall of a lost civilization. During a long period morale was at lowest ebb among the courageous few who settled upon the alien arctic and antarctic shores, now mild as were those of southern Yarat in the long-dead past. But here there was respite. The soil was fertile, and forgotten pastoral arts were called into use anew. There was, for a long time, a contented little epitome of the lost lands; though here were no vast throngs or great buildings. Only a sparse remnant of humanity survived the aeons of change and peopled those scattered villages of the later world.
How many millennia this continued is not known. The sun was slow in invading this last retreat; and as the eras passed there developed a sound, sturdy race, bearing no memories or legends of the old, lost lands. Little navigation was practiced by this new people, and the flying machine was wholly forgotten. Their devices were of the simplest type, and their culture was simple and primitive. Yet they were contented, and accepted the warm climate as something natural and accustomed.
But unknown to these simple peasant-folk, still further rigours of nature were slowly preparing themselves. As the generations passed, the waters of the vast and unplumbed ocean wasted slowly away; enriching the air and the desiccated soil, but sinking lower and lower each century. The splashing surf still glistened bright, and the swirling eddies were still there, but a doom of dryness hung over the whole watery expanse. However, the shrinkage could not have been detected save by instruments more delicate than any then known to the race. Even had the people realized the ocean’s contraction, it is not likely that any vast alarm or great disturbance would have resulted, for the losses were so slight, and the seas so great. . . . Only a few inches during many centuries—but in many centuries; increasing—

* * *

So at last the oceans went, and water became a rarity on a globe of sun-baked drought. Man had slowly spread over all the arctic and antarctic lands; the equatorial cities, and many of later habitation, were forgotten even to legend.
And now again the peace was disturbed, for water was scarce, and found only in deep caverns. There was little enough, even of this; and men died of thirst wandering in far places. Yet so slow were these deadly changes, that each new generation of man was loath to believe what it heard from its parents. None would admit that the heat had been less or the water more plentiful in the old days, or take warning that days of bitterer burning and drought were to come. Thus it was even at the end, when only a few hundred human creatures panted for breath beneath the cruel sun; a piteous huddled handful out of all the unnumbered millions who had once dwelt on the doomed planet.
And the hundreds became small, till man was to be reckoned only in tens. These tens clung to the shrinking dampness of the caves, and knew at last that the end was near. So slight was their range that none had ever seen the tiny, fabled spots of ice left close to the planet’s poles—if such indeed remained. Even had they existed and been known to man, none could have reached them across the trackless and formidable deserts. And so the last pathetic few dwindled. . . .
It cannot be described, this awesome chain of events that depopulated the whole Earth; the range is too tremendous for any to picture or encompass. Of the people of Earth’s fortunate ages, billions of years before, only a few prophets and madmen could have conceived that which was to come—could have grasped visions of the still, dead lands, and long-empty sea-beds. The rest would have doubted . . . doubted alike the shadow of change upon the planet and the shadow of doom upon the race. For man has always thought himself the immortal master of natural things. . . .


When he had eased the dying pangs of the old woman, Ull wandered in a fearful daze out into the dazzling sands. She had been a fearsome thing, shrivelled and so dry; like withered leaves. Her face had been the colour of the sickly yellow grasses that rustled in the hot wind, and she was loathsomely old.
But she had been a companion; someone to stammer out vague fears to, to talk to about this incredible thing; a comrade to share one’s hopes for succour from those silent other colonies beyond the mountains. He could not believe none lived elsewhere, for Ull was young, and not certain as are the old.
For many years he had known none but the old woman—her name was Mladdna. She had come that day in his eleventh year, when all the hunters went to seek food, and did not return. Ull had no mother that he could remember, and there were few women in the tiny group. When the men vanished, those three women, the young one and the two old, had screamed fearfully, and moaned long. Then the young one had gone mad, and killed herself with a sharp stick. The old ones buried her in a shallow hole dug with their nails, so Ull had been alone when this still older Mladdna came.
She walked with the aid of a knotty pole, a priceless relique of the old forests, hard and shiny with years of use. She did not say whence she came, but stumbled into the cabin while the young suicide was being buried. There she waited till the two returned, and they accepted her incuriously.
That was the way it had been for many weeks, until the two fell sick, and Mladdna could not cure them. Strange that those younger two should have been stricken, while she, infirm and ancient, lived on. Mladdna had cared for them many days, and at length they died, so that Ull was left with only the stranger. He screamed all the night, so she became at length out of patience, and threatened to die too. Then, hearkening, he became quiet at once; for he was not desirous of complete solitude. After that he lived with Mladdna and they gathered roots to eat.
Mladdna’s rotten teeth were ill suited to the food they gathered, but they contrived to chop it up till she could manage it. This weary routine of seeking and eating was Ull’s childhood.
Now he was strong, and firm, in his nineteenth year, and the old woman was dead. There was naught to stay for, so he determined at once to seek out those fabled huts beyond the mountains, and live with the people there. There was nothing to take on the journey. Ull closed the door of his cabin—why, he could not have told, for no animals had been there for many years—and left the dead woman within. Half-dazed, and fearful at his own audacity, he walked long hours in the dry grasses, and at length reached the first of the foothills. The afternoon came, and he climbed until he was weary, and lay down on the grasses. Sprawled there, he thought of many things. He wondered at the strange life, passionately anxious to seek out the lost colony beyond the mountains; but at last he slept.
When he awoke there was starlight on his face, and he felt refreshed. Now that the sun was gone for a time, he travelled more quickly, eating little, and determining to hasten before the lack of water became difficult to bear. He had brought none; for the last people, dwelling in one place and never having occasion to bear their precious water away, made no vessels of any kind. Ull hoped to reach his goal within a day, and thus escape thirst; so he hurried on beneath the bright stars, running at times in the warm air, and at other times lapsing into a dogtrot.
So he continued until the sun arose, yet still he was within the small hills, with three great peaks looming ahead. In their shade he rested again. Then he climbed all the morning, and at mid-day surmounted the first peak, where he lay for a time, surveying the space before the next range.
Upon an eroded cliff-top rested the man, gazing far across the valley. Lying thus he could see a great distance, but in all the sere expanse there was no visible motion. . . .
The second night came, and found Ull amid the rough peaks, the valley and the place where he had rested far behind. He was nearly out of the second range now, and hurrying still. Thirst had come upon him that day, and he regretted his folly. Yet he could not have stayed there with the corpse, alone in the grasslands. He sought to convince himself thus, and hastened ever on, tiredly straining.
And now there were only a few steps before the cliff wall would part and allow a view of the land beyond. Ull stumbled wearily down the stony way, tumbling and bruising himself even more. It was nearly before him, this land where men were rumoured to have dwelt; this land of which he had heard tales in his youth. The way was long, but the goal was great. A boulder of giant circumference cut off his view; upon this he scrambled anxiously. Now at last he could behold by the sinking orb his long-sought destination, and his thirst and aching muscles were forgotten as he saw joyfully that a small huddle of buildings clung to the base of the farther cliff.
Ull rested not; but, spurred on by what he saw, ran and staggered and crawled the half mile remaining. He fancied that he could detect forms among the rude cabins. The sun was nearly gone; the hateful, devastating sun that had slain humanity. He could not be sure of details, but soon the cabins were near.
They were very old, for clay blocks lasted long in the still dryness of the dying world. Little, indeed, changed but the living things—the grasses and these last men.
Before him an open door swung upon rude pegs. In the fading light Ull entered, weary unto death, seeking painfully the expected faces.
Then he fell upon the floor and wept, for at the table was propped a dry and ancient skeleton.

* * *

He rose at last, crazed by thirst, aching unbearably, and suffering the greatest disappointment any mortal could know. He was, then, the last living thing upon the globe. His the heritage of the Earth . . . all the lands, and all to him equally useless. He staggered up, not looking at the dim white form in the reflected moonlight, and went through the door. About the empty village he wandered, searching for water and sadly inspecting this long-empty place so spectrally preserved by the changeless air. Here there was a dwelling, there a rude place where things had been made—clay vessels holding only dust, and nowhere any liquid to quench his burning thirst.
Then, in the centre of the little town, Ull saw a well-curb. He knew what it was, for he had heard tales of such things from Mladdna. With pitiful joy, he reeled forward and leaned upon the edge. There, at last, was the end of his search. Water—slimy, stagnant, and shallow, but water—before his sight.
Ull cried out in the voice of a tortured animal, groping for the chain and bucket. His hand slipped on the slimy edge; and he fell upon his chest across the brink. For a moment he lay there—then soundlessly his body was precipitated down the black shaft.
There was a slight splash in the murky shallowness as he struck some long-sunken stone, dislodged aeons ago from the massive coping. The disturbed water subsided into quietness.
And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever.
The stars whirred on; the whole careless plan would continue for infinities unknown. This trivial end of a negligible episode mattered not to distant nebulae or to suns new-born, flourishing, and dying. The race of man, too puny and momentary to have a real function or purpose, was as if it had never existed. To such a conclusion the aeons of its farcically toilsome evolution had led.
But when the deadly sun’s first rays darted across the valley, a light found its way to the weary face of a broken figure that lay in the slime.


Text courtesy the good folks at The H.P. Lovecraft Archive; image courtesy Wikipedia