It has been two minutes to midnight since 1953.
According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, we have been teetering at the brink of nuclear destruction since the Soviets detonated their first H-Bomb. Now that both East and West have demonstrated the ability to launch, without warning and without possibility of resistance, H-bomb-carrying missiles from one hemisphere to the other, I will not be surprised if the FAS ticks the clock one minute closer to midnight.
It is thus no surprise that post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre coming into full flower. On the Beach, a pessimistic look at the aftermath set in Australia, came out in 1957, and it was a strong seller.
One of last year’s crop was Horace Coon’s 43,000 Years After, which tells the tale of an alien archaeological expedition to Earth 43,000 years after humanity has exterminated itself and all vertebrate land life by nuclear hellfire. Coon is not, by trade, a science fiction author. He writes social how-to books and satirical social commentary. It’s actually a good background for someone writing a book of this type.
The best satire holds a mirror to its subject to point up its absurdities. Coon does this in 43,000 by letting humanity’s writings and edifices, most made for public consumption rather than posterity, be our race’s only method of communicating with the archaeologists, humanity having rendered itself otherwise quite mute.
And what did we leave behind? Most of our cities have been smashed, and the remains have not aged well over 43 millennia. It is clear to the future observers that we did have large transportation networks, that we did have knowledge of the H-bomb, and that such weapons were employed universally (though the aliens are somehow able to deduce which had been fired by the West and which by the East). Some statues survive, and the aliens are aided by a limited sense of telepathy that enables to them to puzzle out mysteries that might otherwise be unsolvable (the last is a hand-wave, but scientific rigor is not the point of the book).
The real breakthrough comes when the expedition finds a time capsule buried in 1938 in conjunction with the World Expo. The capsule provides a wealth of written and physical detail, particularly the Almanac and Sears Roebuck Catalogs. The expedition also finds scattered records on stone and surviving microfilm, but they (conveniently) end in the 1950s, ten years before the determined date of the holocaust.
The findings of the archaeologists are conveyed through the personal musings of each of the three expedition directors: dogmatic and dictatorial Zolgus, thoughtful and scientific Yundi, philosophical and emotional Xia. Each is heavily influenced by his/her prejudices. Zolgus, for instance, cannot help but denigrate humanity for its failings: employing agriculture, failing to fix the planet’s axis, failing to embrace a world dictatorship, eschewing renewable energy sources. Zolgus acknowledges briefly that his own race had its savage time, but he refuses to pardon Earth’s growing pains, describing us universally as “stupid.” Unfair? Perhaps, but an attitude that the richer nations of Earth frequently adopt toward the more “backward” nations of the world. Or by the rich toward the poor (i.e. “I got mine; why ain’t you got yours yet?”)
Yundi is more respectful, but relying solely on empirical data, he has the most trouble understanding humanity’s self-destructive urges. Xia is willing to be charitable. She unabashedly falls in love with the Earth and its erstwhile inhabitants. She recognizes and forgives our self-destructive urges, only lamenting that they came to such an unhappy fruition.
We do not learn much about the aliens except that which can be gleaned from their own reflections–they must be roughly humanoid, but they have no teeth and six digits on each appendage. They do not crowd all of their sensory organs into their head. They have a Communist-style dictatorship and vast technologies and access to energy. They do not self-perpetuate or have families, but rather artificially grow their young so as to completely liberate both sexes. Coming to Earth reinforces the wisdom of these practices for Zolgus, but creates doubts regarding them in the other two, especially Xia.
Ultimately, the questions the expedition asks are “why did humanity kill itself, and was it inevitable?” In answering these questions, Coon tells the readers (through his characters) how to possibly avert the potential tragedy. Coon also creates a secondary cautionary tale in the form of Zolgus, depicting in a negative light the phenomenon of technological dehumanization.
Of course, such a book runs the risk of being a colossal bore of philosophical posturing. In fact, the book is rather short (just 143 pages), and quite well written. The characters, while probably not alien enough, are engaging, and each have their own well-developed tone. As a story, the plot could have been served better with more focus on the archaeological sleuthing; the archaeologists come to their conclusions a bit too quickly. But, again, that’s not really the point.
So give the book a read. You may or may not come away with any profound shifts in your thinking, but you won’t have wasted the few hours it takes to complete the novel.
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