Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow’s “Till A’the Seas,” first published in the Summer 1935 issue of The Californian. Spoilers ahead.
“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…”
From the image of a man lying on a cliff-top, gazing across an arid valley we go to a description of Earth’s aeons-prolonged broil under a nearing sun. At first humans are able to adapt to the mounting heat and deepening drought, both through evolution and technology. As the equatorial cities become too hot to bear, some devise shields and armor, screen buildings, create “miniature worlds of refuge.” Many refuse to believe the astronomers and look forward to the return of a milder world. But at last even these stalwarts must retreat toward the poles.
Great cities like Niyara and Yuanario are left to the scorpion and spider, and become legends to the migrants. The burning blight inexorably spreads. Agriculture fails. The treasures of ages disintegrate in abandoned museums. Degradation and debauchery, anarchy and barbarism, turn the dying age of man into an “incredible saturnalia.”
Only in the Arctic and Antarctic do primitive settlements survive. But the oceans shrink under a relentless sun, until drought is universal. Men seek dwindling moisture deep underground, for even the polar ice-caps may have evaporated—no one can traverse the intervening deserts to find out.
Man, who has “always thought himself the immortal master of natural things,” is reduced to a few hundred survivors, then a few dozen, finally only two: the old woman Mladdna and the young man Ull. Mladdna dies, leaving Ull alone. Desperate to find new companions, he sets off for a fabled place of huts beyond the mountains. From the cliff of our opening, he spies a small huddle of buildings and hurries to them, to find nothing alive but the tough grasses of a moribund flora. The only companion left to Ull is an ancient skeleton propped at a table in one of the huts.
Ull wanders the dead village. He finds what has only been legend to him: a well, with a bit of stagnant, slimy water at its bottom. In his eagerness to draw some up, he slips and falls to his death. Mankind is now extinct—how “monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days…To such a conclusion the aeons of its farcically toilsome evolution had led.” And the stars whir on.
Even so, the sun’s first rays find their way into the well to light Ull’s weary face as he lies broken in the slime.
What’s Cyclopean: The aeons are not in this case uncountable: the word “aeon” is used seven times in the course of an extremely short story.
The Degenerate Dutch: The western hemisphere is abandoned first, at which point the destruction of civilization is complete. (Why is the western hemisphere abandoned first? Is it closer to the sun?)
Mythos Making: No beetle people inherit our cities, but the ultimate pointlessness of humanity is still Mythosian in the extreme.
Libronomicon: The degenerate remnants of humanity are, presumably, illiterate.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Madness and frenzy stalk through the degenerate eastern cities, long after the western hemisphere is abandoned.
Well, that was fun.
No, really, because apocalyptic visions like this one are a deep masochistic pleasure to a certain sensibility in a certain mood. In 1935, when Lovecraft collaborated on “Till A’the Seas” with his future literary executor, Barlow was seventeen, a prime age for disenchantment with one’s own species and for subsequent semi-wishful musing on its ultimate annihilation. That the title comes from Robert Burns’s “Red Red Rose” (1794) is added irony, as “Seas” is no love song. On the other hand, Burns did take the end of Earth a step or two further than Barlow, for his lyric reads, “Till a’the seas gang dry, my dear, and the rocks melt wi’the sun.” We still have rocks after Ull dies. Hell, we even have grass! A self-pollinating species, apparently, since all the insects are dead, too. Which I don’t think quite likely. Not while there’s still enough water for grass and tasty blades to gnaw.
We know Lovecraft admired Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel, First and Last Men; he urged Fritz Leiber to read it and described the book as one of the few masterpieces of science fiction, notable for its vast scope, mythic quality and poignant drama. Maybe he urged Barlow to read First and Last Men as well? Yes or no, the tone of the (very) short story reminded me of the (pretty long and super-involved) novel, which follows humanity through two billion years and eighteen ever-evolving species. Barlow is less ambitious and more pessimistic. His humanity doesn’t seem to evolve beyond Homo sapiens, and it ends with a decided whimper rather than a bang. Whereas Stapledon’s Eighteenth Man has evolved toward a group-mind of high technology, resident on Neptune due to an (uh oh) expansion of the sun; before Neptune goes up in flames, ending Homo at last, Eighteenth Man has released a virus that will colonize new worlds and evolve into new sapient species. So, happy ending, sorta kinda.
Barlow, if anything, outdoes mentor Lovecraft where the indifferent cosmos angle is concerned. Man was too “puny and momentary to have a real function or purpose.” The “slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in [Ull’s] poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been!” How deliciously depressing! And it didn’t even take the resurrection of Great Old Ones to end us human ants!
“Seas” got me wondering about how philosophically devoted Lovecraft himself was to the notion that man—indeed, all mortals—are mere dust in the cosmic wind, fragile and futile, their aspirations and illusions of permanence a joke. I’m thinking he was more like Stapledon, seeing the end of one species or civilization as the start of another, related, an enduring chain of being through capital-T Time. Much of his fiction deals with ways to defeat death. Herbert West reanimates corpses, the fresher the better of course. Joseph Curwen and his allies don’t even need fresh meat—ashes are enough for their necromancy. Dr. Munoz staves off death (actually, redeath) with cool air. The Outsider climbs from the underworld of death, sure, a little the worse for wear, but he goes on to a happy life as a ghoul. And the Mi-Go manage immortality by canning brains. They even promise that their subjects’ bodies will live on in mindless slumber until wanted again. Sure, we get the mandatory cant about the evil of messing with the natural processes of life and death. An aura of wistfulness remains—wouldn’t it be COOL after all, to laugh in the Reaper’s gaunt face?
Lovecraft’s final masters of immortality are the Yith, whose technology exceeds even that of Eighteenth Man. Their environment’s about to go to hell, even evaporate? No insurmountable problem—the entire race can migrate through time and space into new bodies. They don’t hang around hoping evolution will take care of them—they practice instantaneous evolution by hopping from far-flung species to far-flung species as needed. There’s more. Much more. What scares Lovecraft most (and Barlow in “Seas”) is the loss of culture, of the great works of civilization, of racial memory itself, here figured forth by the “dead museums,” whose precious contents the migrating humans eventually value too little to loot. The Yith preserve not only their original culture but that of every race they encounter, either by mass mental migration or solo migration into selected subjects of study. In addition, they give the subjects the opportunity to interact with other subjects from whom time and space would have otherwise sundered them and to deposit their personal histories in universal archives.
Bodies may die, the Yith know. In fact, they must die. But minds and what they’ve created can go on forever, if only in metal books binding unfading parchment and ink.
That’s a lovely idea. Very comforting. And boy, do we mortals need comfort!
Even Barlow can’t perfectly maintain the aloofness of his omniscient narrator (who may be a Yith??? Because, after all, all the humans are dead.) He doesn’t leave the reader with observations about “farcically toilsome evolution” and the “cold, imperturbable moon.” Instead he has the sun, however deadly, make its way to the bottom of the well to touch Ull’s dead face, a last salute, even caress, to the race it’s illuminated for so long.
I write characters who expect to survive until the expanding the sun evaporates the oceans. This means I end up reading more than is probably healthy about the precise predicted sequence and timeline of Earth’s future history, a topic that has terrified me since childhood. Or maybe the causality goes the other way. In any case, that also means an awareness of how fast the science of natural eschatology marches onward. Still, I’m pretty sure that even in 1935, Lovecraft and Barlow were being pretty optimistic in positing humans outliving both oceans and cockroaches.
That may in fact be 17-year-old Barlow’s optimism—could the extended post-human history of “Shadow Out of Time,” written a scant month later, be partially a response to “Seas”? However, in general Lovecraft is actually shockingly optimistic. I realize this is not exactly his reputation, and that my bar for optimism is pretty low these days. Still, it’s always been something that appealed to me about his work.
On Earth as we know it, life appeared about as soon as it was possible, and is likely to outlast the oceans. But the life in question is mostly microbial. In the Mythos, not only life but civilization and intelligence thrive in every one of Earth’s aeons, and in every conceivable portion of the space-time continuum. Gods and monsters build cities on Pluto and fly through the vacuum. Cyclopean cities orbit distant suns. In dimensions inimical to matter as we know it, colors presumably enjoy the fruits of their own colorful sciences and arts. Humans may be relatively insignificant, but civilization is an enduring thing. The Yith preserve individual biographies long after a species is dust; the Mi-go offer cosmopolitan, multicultural conversation between people of a thousand thousand worlds.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of nice. It also makes a billion years of humanity sound pretty pedestrian—if still a darn good run for a bunch of apes.
Even if the apes do spend most of that run acting like idiots. It’s certainly hard to argue with L&B’s characterization of the species. “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.” Denial is not a river in Egypt, because if it were it would have dried up.
We’ll be damn lucky, of course, if we live to deny the warming effects of solar expansion. Even changes within a single lifetime can be hard for people to focus on. Sometimes I have to remind myself that San Francisco really was a city of mist, when I first traveled there in college. That when I was a kid, droughts really were less frequent, non-catastrophic rains more common. It doesn’t actually take aeons to boil a frog.
Where the story’s psychology holds up all too well, the anthropology fares even worse than the hydrology. We’re deep in the theory of cultural life cycles: primitive cultures flower into clones of imperial Rome, fade into hedonistic degeneracy, then at long last collapse into barbarism. The things of civilization are abandoned as humanity retreats toward the poles, and also into the eastern hemisphere because reasons. At long last we don’t even make pouches to carry water, never mind that this is basically the first thing anyone figures out living in a desert. But don’t worry, even when there are less than a dozen of us left, we’ll still describe old women as “hideous.” And nineteen-year-old boys will still be terrible at planning.
People are people, after all, no matter where you go. Too bad for us.
Next week, barring postal delays, we’ll actually cover James Wade’s “The Deep Ones.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with its sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.