A smashed landscape by Nigel Roth
Lets head back to 1953.
President Truman is telling the world the US has developed a hydrogen bomb, the CIA are meeting to discuss unidentified flying objects, and nuclear testing in Nevada shakes the minds of anyone still unsure what impact the Cold War might have.
While all this is happening, Marilyn Venable sits down at her kitchen table in her home in Texas, and describes what it’s like to rely completely on technology and be undone.
The horror that she captures in her short story casts a shadow of dread that fails to dissipate over time. Even when you read it today, you know you’re in The Twilight Zone.
Before Rod Serling got his chance to showcase it, the story Time Enough At Last had been terrifying people for seven years, originally offered in the magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction.
Whether it was indeed inspired by Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or was Venable’s favorite story, will remain a mystery. One thing is sure though, she wrote it for us. Why did she write such scary things, she was asked in 2012: she answered, 'I don't scare myself. I scare other people.'
And we should be scared.
Venable’s story is of Henry Bemis, who only wants to read books and poetry every day. His safe space to do that is in the vaults, and when the bomb drops the vaults save him. But that’s just the start of the story, because his utter despair at discovering he is alone in the world and his intention to end his life is only halted by the discovery of the intact library, with a million books to read forever.
Before that though we get a glimpse of his life.
First, we feel what it's like to be at the sharp end of the anti-intellectualism that Venables saw then and we see now, particularly in the US where this story is set. He’s belittled and cast aside as a no-one, useless and self-satisfying. His desire for knowledge is tragically seen as a sign of weakness not strength, and his reliance on books and knowledge above all else reveals his lack of free will.
Next, when Bemis discovers the library has been miraculously spared (don’t ask how), he’s happy beyond measure. His loneliness quickly shifts to aloneness and he rediscovers his passion and desire to live, and we in turn are given permission to be alone. These books really are his friends, and he feels content.
But, of course, that can’t last. The last man on earth, a bookworm with every book to read from now till the end of time, manages to trip and shatter his glasses, leaving him unable to read the books that promised hope. Bemis is left distraught, and though he probably could have searched out a Walgreens for a pair of magnifiers which may also have miraculously survived the bomb, this is a story and he doesn’t.
His entire future is ruined by the lack of a pair of glasses; his absolute reliance on technology is his undoing.
Skip forward sixty-seven years, and swap those corrective glasses for your internet access and switch out the bricks and mortar library for your collection of ebooks.
One over-extended power grid, one unattentive electricity engineer, or one dodgy power cable that finally gives up the fight, and you are Venable’s Bemis. Intellectualism thwarted, aloneness penalised, and you’re adrift in the world again.