Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 5

The Fall of the First Men

1. The First Dark Age

WE have reached a period in man’s history rather less than five thousand years after the life of Newton. In this chapter we must cover about one hundred and fifteen thousand years, and in the next chapter another ten million years. That will bring us to a point as remotely future from the First World State as the earliest anthropoids were remotely past. During the first tenth of the first million years after the fall of the World State, during a hundred thousand years, man remained in complete eclipse. Not till the close of this span, which we will call the First Dark Age, did he struggle once more from savagery through barbarism into civilization and then his renaissance was relatively brief. From its earliest beginnings to its end, it covered only fifteen thousand years; and in its final agony the planet was so seriously damaged that mind lay henceforth in deep slumber for ten more millions of years. This was the Second Dark Age. Such is the field which we must observe in this and the following chapter.

It might have been expected that, after the downfall of the First World State, recovery would have occurred within a few generations. Historians have, indeed, often puzzled over the cause of this surprisingly complete and lasting degradation. Innate human nature was roughly the same immediately after as immediately before the crisis; yet minds that had easily maintained a world-civilization in being, proved quite incapable of building a new order on the ruins of the old. Far from recovering, man’s estate rapidly deteriorated till it had sunk into abject savagery.

Many causes contributed to this result, some relatively superficial and temporary, some profound and lasting. It is as though Fate, directing events toward an allotted end, had availed herself of many diverse instruments, none of which would have sufficed alone, though all worked together irresistibly in the same sense. The immediate cause of the helplessness of the race during the actual crisis of the World State was of course the vast epidemic of insanity and still more widespread deterioration of intelligence, which resulted from the use of microbes. This momentary seizure made it impossible for man to check his downfall during its earliest and least unmanageable stage. Later, when the epidemic was spent, even though civilization was already in ruins, a concerted effort of devotion might yet have rebuilt it on a more modest plan. But among the First Men only a minority had ever been capable of wholehearted devotion. The great majority were by nature too much obsessed by private impulses. And in this black period, such was the depth of disillusion and fatigue, that even normal resolution was impossible. Not only man’s social structure but the structure of the universe itself, it seemed, had failed. The only reaction was supine despair. Four thousand years of routine had deprived human nature of all its suppleness. To expect these things to refashion their whole behaviour, were scarcely less unreasonable than to expect ants, when their nest was flooded, to assume the habits of water beetles.

But a far more profound and lasting cause doomed the First Men to lie prone for a long while, once they had fallen. A subtle physiological change, which it is tempting to call “general senescence of the species,” was undermining the human body and mind. The chemical equilibrium of each individual was becoming more unstable, so that, little by little, man’s unique gift of prolonged youth was being lost. Far more rapidly than of old, his tissues failed to compensate for the wear and tear of living. This disaster was by no means inevitable; but it was brought on by influences peculiar to the make-up of the species, and aggravated artificially. For during some thousands of years man had been living at too high a pressure in a biologically unnatural environment, and had found no means of compensating his nature for the strain thus put upon it.

Conceive, then, that after the fall of the First World State, the generations slid rapidly through dusk into night. To inhabit those centuries was to live in the conviction of universal decay, and under the legend of a mighty past. The population was derived almost wholly from the agriculturists of the old order, and since agriculture had been considered a sluggish and base occupation, fit only for sluggish natures, the planet was now peopled with yokels. Deprived of power, machinery, and chemical fertilizers, these bumpkins were hard put to it to keep themselves alive. And indeed only a tenth of their number survived the great disaster. The second generation knew civilization only as a legend. Their days were filled with ceaseless tillage, and in banding together to fight marauders. Women became once more sexual and domestic chattels. The family, or tribe of families, became the largest social whole. Endless brawls and feuds sprang up between valley and valley, and between the tillers and the brigand swarms. Small military tyrants rose and fell; but no permanent unity of control could be maintained over a wide region. There was no surplus wealth to spend on such luxuries as governments and trained armies.

Thus without appreciable change the millennia dragged on in squalid drudgery. For these latter-day barbarians were hampered by living in a used planet. Not only were coal and oil no more, but almost no mineral wealth of any kind remained within reach of their feeble instruments and wits. In particular the minor metals, needed for so many of the multifarious activities of developed material civilization, had long ago disappeared from the more accessible depths of the earth’s crust. Tillage moreover was hampered by the fact that iron itself, which was no longer to be had without mechanical mining, was now inaccessible. Men had been forced to resort once more to stone implements, as their first human ancestors had done. But they lacked both the skill and the persistence of the ancients. Not for them the delicate flaking of the Paleoliths nor the smooth symmetry of the Neoliths. Their tools were but broken pebbles, chipped improvements upon natural stones. On almost every one they engraved the same pathetic symbol, the Swastika or cross, which had been used by the First Men as a sacred emblem throughout their existence, though with varying significance. In this instance it had originally been the figure of an aeroplane diving to destruction, and had been used by the rebels to symbolize the downfall of Gordelpus and the State. But subsequent generations reinterpreted the emblem as the sign manual of a divine ancestor, and as a memento of the golden age from which they were destined to decline for ever, or until the gods should intervene. Almost one might say that in its persistent use of this symbol the first human species unwittingly epitomized its own dual and self-thwarting nature.

The idea of irresistible decay obsessed the race at this time. The generation which brought about the downfall of the World State oppressed its juniors with stories of past amenities and marvels, and hugged to itself the knowledge that the young men had not the wit to rebuild such complexity. Generation by generation, as the circumstance of actual life became more squalid, the legend of past glory became more extravagant. The whole mass of scientific knowledge was rapidly lost, save for a few shreds which were of practical service even in savage life. Fragments of the old culture were indeed preserved in the tangle of folk-lore that meshed the globe, but they were distorted beyond recognition. Thus there was a widespread belief that the world had begun as fire, and that life had evolved out of the fire. After the apes had appeared, evolution ceased (so it was said), until divine spirits came down and possessed the female apes, thereby generating human beings. Thus had arisen the golden age of the divine ancestors. But unfortunately after a while the beast in man had triumphed over the god, so that progress had given place to age-long decay. And indeed decay was now unavoidable, until such time as the gods should see fit to come down to cohabit with women and fire the race once more. This faith in the second coming of the gods persisted here and there throughout the First Dark Age, and consoled men for their vague conviction of degeneracy.

Even at the close of the First Dark Age, the ruins of the ancient residential pylons still characterized every landscape, often with an effect of senile domination over the hovels of latter-day savages. For the living races dwelt beneath these relics like puny grandchildren playing around the feet of their fathers’ once mightier fathers. So well had the past built, and with such durable material, that even after a hundred millennia the ruins were still recognizably artifacts. Though for the most part they were of course by now little more than pyramids of debris overgrown with grass and brushwood, most of them retained some stretch of standing wall, and here and there a favoured specimen still reared from its rubble-encumbered base a hundred foot or so of cliff, punctured with windows. Fantastic legends now clustered round these relics. In one myth the men of old had made for themselves huge palaces which could fly. For a thousand years (an aeon to these savages) men had dwelt in unity, and in reverence of the gods; but at last they had become puffed up with their own glory, and had undertaken to fly to the sun and moon and the field of stars, to oust the gods from their bright home. But the gods sowed discord among them, so that they fell a-fighting one another in the upper air, and their swift palaces crashed down to the earth in thousands, to be monuments of man’s folly for ever after. In yet another saga it was the men themselves who were winged. They inhabited dovecots of masonry, with summits overtopping the stars and outraging the gods; who therefore destroyed them. Thus in one form or another, this theme of the downfall of the mighty fliers of old tyrannized over these abject peoples. Their crude tillage, their hunting, their defence against the reviving carnivora, were hampered at every turn by fear of offending the gods by any innovation.

2. The Rise of Patagonia

As the centuries piled up, the human species had inevitably diverged once more into many races in the various geographical areas. And each race consisted of a swarm of tribes, each ignorant of all but its immediate neighbours. After many millennia this vast diversification of stocks and cultures made it possible for fresh biological transfusions and revivifications to occur. At last, after many racial copulations, a people arose in whom the ancient dignity of humanity was somewhat restored. Once more there was a real distinction between the progressive and the backward regions, between “primitive” and relatively enlightened cultures.

This rebirth occurred in the Southern Hemisphere. Complex climatic changes had rendered the southern part of South America a fit nursery for civilization. Further, an immense warping of the earth’s crust to the east and south of Patagonia, had turned what was once a relatively shallow region of the ocean into a vast new land connecting America with Antarctica by way of the former Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and stretching thence east and north-east into the heart of the Atlantic.

It happened also that in South America the racial conditions were more favourable than elsewhere. After the fall of the First World State the European element in this region had dwindled, and the ancient “Indian” and Peruvian stock had come into dominance. Many thousands of years earlier, this race had achieved a primitive civilization of its own. After its ruin at the hands of the Spaniards, it had seemed a broken and negligible thing; yet it had ever kept itself curiously aloof in spirit from its conquerors. Though the two stocks had mingled inextricably, there remained ever in the remoter parts of this continent a way of life which was foreign to the dominant Americanism. Superficially Americanized, it remained fundamentally “Indian” and unintelligible to the rest of the world. Throughout the former civilization this spirit had lain dormant like a seed in winter; but with the return of barbarism it had sprouted, and quietly spread in all directions. From the interaction of this ancient primitive culture and the many other racial elements left over in the continent from the old cosmopolitan civilization, civil life was to begin once more. Thus in a manner the Incas were at last to triumph over their conquerors.

Various causes, then, combined in South America, and especially in the new and virgin plains of Patagonia, to bring the First Dark Age to an end. The great theme of mind began to repeat itself. But in a minor key. For a grave disability hampered the Patagonians. They began to grow old before their adolescence was completed. In the days of Einstein, an individual’s youth lasted some twenty-five years, and under the World State it had been artificially doubled. After the downfall of civilization the increasing natural brevity of the individual life was no longer concealed by artifice, and at the end of the First Dark Age a boy of fifteen was already settling into middle age. Patagonian civilization at its height afforded considerable ease and security of life, and enabled man to live to seventy or even eighty; but the period of sensitive and supple youth remained at the very best little more than a decade and a half. Thus the truly young were never able to contribute to culture before they were already at heart middleaged. At fifteen their bones were definitely becoming brittle, their hair grizzled, their faces lined. Their joints and muscles were stiffening, their brains were no longer quick to learn new adjustments, their fervour was evaporating.

It may seem strange that under these circumstances any kind of civilization could be achieved by the race, that any generation should ever have been able to do more than learn the tricks of its elders. Yet in fact, though progress was never swift, it was steady. For though these beings lacked much of the vigour of youth, they were compensated somewhat by escaping much of youth’s fevers and distractions. The First Men, in fact, were now a race whose wild oats had been sown; and though their youthful escapades had somewhat crippled them, they had now the advantage of sobriety and singleness of purpose. Though doomed by lassitude, and a certain fear of extravagance, to fall short of the highest achievements of their predecessors, they avoided much of the wasteful incoherence and mental conflict which had tortured the earlier civilization at its height, though not in its decline. Moreover, because their animal nature was somewhat subdued, the Patagonians were more capable of dispassionate cognition, and more inclined toward intellectualism. They were a people in whom rational behaviour was less often subverted by passion, though more liable to fail through mere indolence or faint-heartedness. Though they found detachment relatively easy, theirs was the detachment of mere lassitude, not the leap from the prison of life’s cravings into a more spacious world.

One source of the special character of the Patagonian mind was that in it the sexual impulse was relatively weak. Many obscure causes had helped to temper that lavish sexuality in respect of which the first human species differed from all other animals, even the continuously sexual apes. These causes were diverse, but they combined to produce in the last phase of the life of the species a general curtailment of excess energy. In the Dark Age the severity of the struggle for existence had thrust the sexual interest back almost into the subordinate place which it occupies in the animal mind. Coitus became a luxury only occasionally desired, while self-preservation had become once more an urgent and ever-present necessity. When at last life began to be easier, sexuality remained in partial eclipse, for the forces of racial “senescence” were at work. Thus the Patagonian culture differed in mood from all the earlier cultures of the First Men. Hitherto it had been the clash of sexuality and social taboo that had generated half the fervour and half the delusions of the race. The excess energy of a victorious species, directed by circumstance into the great river of sex, and dammed by social convention, had been canalized for a thousand labours. And though often it would break loose and lay all waste before it, in the main it had been turned to good account. At all times indeed, it had been prone to escape in all directions and carve out channels for itself, as a lopped tree stump sends forth not one but a score of shoots. Hence the richness, diversity, incoherence, violent and uncomprehended cravings and enthusiasms, of the earlier peoples. In the Patagonians there was no such luxuriance. That they were not highly sexual was not in itself a weakness. What mattered was that the springs of energy which formerly happened to flood into the channel of sex were themselves impoverished.

Conceive, then, a small and curiously sober people established east of the ancient Bahia Blanca, and advancing century by century over the plains and up the valleys. In time it reached and encircled the heights which were once the island of South Georgia, while to the north and west it spread into the Brazilian highlands and over the Andes. Definitely of higher type than any of their neighbours, definitely more vigorous and acute, the Patagonians were without serious rivals. And since by temperament they were peaceable and conciliatory, their cultural progress was little delayed, either by military imperialism or internal strife. Like their predecessors in the northern hemisphere, they passed through phases of disruption and union, retrogression and regeneration; but their career was on the whole more steadily progressive, and less dramatic, than anything that had occurred before. Earlier peoples had leapt from barbarism to civil life and collapsed again within a thousand years. The slow march of the Patagonians took ten times as long to pass from a tribal to a civic organization.

Eventually they comprised a vast and highly organized community of autonomous provinces, whose political and cultural centre lay upon the new coast north-east of the ancient Falkland Islands, while its barbarian outskirts included much of Brazil and Peru. The absence of serious strife between the various parts of this “empire” was due partly to an innately pacific disposition, partly to a genius for organization. These influences were strengthened by a curiously potent tradition of cosmopolitanism, or human unity, which had been born in the agony of disunion before the days of the World State, and was so burnt into men’s hearts that it survived as an element of myth even through the Dark Age. So powerful was this tradition, that even when the sailing ships of Patagonia had founded colonies in remote Africa and Australia, these new communities remained at heart one with the mother country. Even when the almost Nordic culture of the new and temperate Antarctic coasts had outshone the ancient centre, the political harmony of the race was never in danger.

3. The Cult of Youth

The Patagonians passed through all the spiritual phases that earlier races had experienced, but in a distinctive manner. They had their primitive tribal religion, derived from the dark past, and based on the fear of natural forces. They had their monotheistic impersonation of Power as a vindictive Creator. Their most adored racial hero was a god-man who abolished the old religion of fear. They had their phases, also, of devout ritual and their phases of rationalism, and again their phases of empirical curiosity.

Most significant for the historian who would understand their special mentality is the theme of the god-man; so curiously did it resemble, yet differ from, similar themes in earlier cultures of the first human species. He was conceived as eternally adolescent, and as mystically the son of all men and women. Far from being the Elder Brother, he was the Favourite Child; and indeed he epitomizes that youthful energy and enthusiasm which the race now guessed was slipping away from it. Though the sexual interest of this people was weak, the parental interest was curiously strong. But the worship of the Favourite Son was not merely parental; it expressed also both the individual’s craving for his own lost youth, and his obscure sense that the race itself was senescent.

It was believed that the prophet had actually lived a century as a fresh adolescent. He was designated the Boy who Refused to Grow Up. And this vigour of will was possible to him, it was said, because in him the feeble vitality of the race was concentrated many millionfold. For he was the fruit of all parental passion that ever was and would be; and as such he was divine. Primarily he was the Son of Man, but also he was God. For God, in this religion, was no prime Creator but the fruit of man’s endeavour. The Creator was brute power, which had quite inadvertently begotten a being nobler than itself. God, the adorable, was the eternal outcome of man’s labour in time, the eternally realized promise of what man himself should become. Yet though this cult was based on the will for a young-hearted future, it was also overhung by a dread, almost at times a certainty, that in fact such a future would never be, that the race was doomed to grow old and die, that spirit could never conquer the corruptible flesh, but must fade and vanish. Only by taking to heart the message of the Divine Boy, it was said, could man hope to escape this doom.

Such was the legend. It is instructive to examine the reality. The actual individual, in whom this myth of the Favourite Son was founded, was indeed remarkable. Born of shepherd parents among the Southern Andes, he had first become famous as the leader of a romantic “youth movement”; and it was this early stage of his career that won him followers. He urged the young to set an example to the old, to live their own life undaunted by conventions, to enjoy, to work hard but briefly, to be loyal comrades. Above all, he preached the religious duty of remaining young in spirit. No one, he said, need grow old, if he willed earnestly not to do so, if he would but keep his soul from falling asleep, his heart open to all rejuvenating influences and shut to every breath of senility. The delight of soul in soul, he said, was the great rejuvenator; it re-created both lover and beloved. If Patagonians would only appreciate each other’s beauty without jealousy, the race would grow young again. And the mission of his ever-increasing Band of Youth was nothing less than the rejuvenation of man.

The propagation of this attractive gospel was favoured by a seeming miracle. The prophet turned out to be biologically unique among Patagonians. When many of his coevals were showing signs of senescence, he remained physically young. Also he possessed a sexual vigour which to the Patagonians seemed miraculous. And since sexual taboo was unknown, he exercised himself so heartily in love-making, that he had paramours in every village, and presently his offspring were numbered in hundreds. In this respect his followers strove hard to live up to him, though with small success. But it was not only physically that the prophet remained young. He preserved also a striking youthful agility of mind. His sexual prodigality, though startling to his contemporaries, was in him a temperate overflow of surplus energy. Far from exhausting him, it refreshed him. Presently, however, this exuberance gave place to a more sober life of work and meditation. It was in this period that he began to differentiate himself mentally from his fellows. For at twenty-five, when most Patagonians were deeply settled into a mental groove, he was still battling with successive waves of ideas, and striking out into the unknown. Not till he was forty, and still physically in earlier prime, did he gather his strength and deliver himself of his mature gospel. This, his considered view of existence, turned out to be almost unintelligible to Patagonians. Though in a sense it was an expression of their own culture, it was an expression upon a plane of vitality to which very few of them could ever reach.

The climax came when, during a ceremony in the supreme temple of the capital city, while the worshippers were all prostrated before the hideous image of the Creator, the ageless prophet strode up to the altar, regarded first the congregation and then the god, burst into a hearty peal of laughter, slapped the image resoundingly, and cried, “Ugly, I salute you! Not as almighty, but as the greatest of all jokers. To have such a face, and yet to be admired for it! To be so empty, and yet so feared!” Instantly there was a hubbub. But such was the young iconoclast’s god-like radiance, confidence, unexpectedness, and such his reputation as the miraculous Boy, that when he turned upon the crowd, they fell silent, and listened to his scolding.

“Fools!” he cried. “Senile infants! If God really likes your adulation, and all this hugger-mugger, it is because he enjoys the joke against you, and against himself, too. You are too serious, yet not serious enough; too solemn, and all for puerile ends. You are so eager for life, that you cannot live. You cherish your youth so much that it flies from you. When I was a boy, I said, ‘Let us keep young’; and you applauded, and went about hugging your toys and refusing to grow up. What I said was not bad for a boy, but it was not enough. Now I am a man; and I say, ‘For God’s sake, grow up!’ Of course we must keep young; but it is useless to keep young if we do not also grow up, and never stop growing up. To keep young, surely, is just to keep supple and keen; and to grow up is not at all a mere sinking into stiffness and into disillusion, but a rising into ever finer skill in all the actions of the game of living. There is something else, too, which is a part of growing up — to see that life is really, after all, a game; a terribly serious game, no doubt, but none the less a game. When we play a game, as it should be played, we strain every muscle to win; but all the while we care less for winning than for the game. And we play the better for it. When barbarians play against a Patagonian team, they forget that it is a game, and go mad for victory. And then how we despise them! If they find themselves losing, they turn savage; if winning, blatant. Either way, the game is murdered, and they cannot see that they are slaughtering a lovely thing. How they pester and curse the umpire, too! I have done that myself, of course, before now; not in games but in life. I have actually cursed the umpire of life. Better so, anyhow, than to insult him with presents, in the hope of being favoured; which is what you are doing here, with your salaams and your vows. I never did that. I merely hated him. Then later I learned to laugh at him, or rather at the thing you set up in his place. But now at last I see him clearly, and laugh with him, at myself, for having missed the spirit of the game. But as for you! Coming here to fawn and whine and cadge favours of the umpire!”

At this point the people rushed toward him to seize him. But he checked them with a young laugh that made them love while they hated. He spoke again.

“I want to tell you how I came to learn my lesson. I have a queer love for clambering about the high mountains; and once when I was up among the snow-fields and precipices of Aconcagua, I was caught in a blizzard. Perhaps some of you may know what storms can be like in the mountains. The air became a hurtling flood of snow. I was swallowed up and carried away. After many hours of floundering, I fell into a snow-drift. I tried to rise, but fell again and again, till my head was buried. The thought of death enraged me, for there was still so much that I wanted to do. I struggled frantically, vainly. Then suddenly — how can I put it? — I saw the game that I was losing, and it was good. Good, no less to lose than to win. For it was the game, now, not victory, that mattered. Hitherto I had been blindfold, and a slave to victory; suddenly I was free, and with sight. For now I saw myself, and all of us, through the eyes of the umpire. It was as though a play-actor were to see the whole play, with his own part in it, through the author’s eyes, from the auditorium. Here was I, acting the part of a rather fine man who had come to grief through his own carelessness before his work was done. For me, a character in the play, the situation was hideous; yet for me, the spectator, it had become excellent, within a wider excellence. I saw that it was equally so with all of us, and with all the worlds. For I seemed to see a thousand worlds taking part with us in the great show. And I saw everything through the calm eyes, the exultant, almost derisive, yet not unkindly, eyes of the playwright.

“Well, it had seemed that my exit had come; but no, there was still a cue for me. Somehow I was so strengthened by this new view of things that I struggled out of the snow-drift. And here I am once more. But I am a new man. My spirit is free. While I was a boy, I said, ‘Grow more alive’; but in those days I never guessed that there was an aliveness far intenser than youth’s flicker, a kind of still incandescence. Is there no one here who knows what I mean? No one who at least desires this keener living? The first step is to outgrow this adulation of life itself, and this cadging obsequiousness toward Power. Come! Put it away! Break the ridiculous image in your hearts, as I now smash this idol.”

So saying he picked up a great candlestick and shattered the image. Once more there was an uproar, and the temple authorities had him arrested. Not long afterwards he was tried for sacrilege and executed. For this final extravagance was but the climax of many indiscretions, and those in power were glad to have so obvious a pretext for extinguishing this brilliant but dangerous lunatic.

But the cult of the Divine Boy had already become very popular, for the earlier teaching of the prophet expressed the fundamental craving of the Patagonians. Even his last and perplexing message was accepted by his followers, though without real understanding. Emphasis was laid upon the act of iconoclasm, rather than upon the spirit of his exhortation.

Century by century, the new religion, for such it was, spread over the civilized world. And the race seemed to have been spiritually rejuvenated to some extent by widespread fervour. Physically also a certain rejuvenation took place; for before his death this unique biological “sport,” or throw-back to an earlier vitality, produced some thousands of sons and daughters; and they in turn propagated the good seed far and wide. Undoubtedly it was this new strain that brought about the golden age of Patagonia, greatly improving the material conditions of the race, carrying civilization into the northern continents and attacking problems of science and philosophy with renewed ardour.

But the revival was not permanent. The descendants of the prophet prided themselves too much on violent living. Physically, sexually, mentally, they over-reached themselves and became enfeebled. Moreover, little by little the potent strain was diluted and overwhelmed by intercourse with the greater volume of the innately “senile”; so that, after a few centuries, the race returned to its middle-aged mood. At the same time the vision of the Divine Boy was gradually distorted. At first it had been youth’s ideal of what youth should be, a pattern woven of fanatical loyalty, irresponsible gaiety, comradeship, physical gusto, and not a little pure devilry. But insensibly it became a pattern of that which was expected of youth by sad maturity. The violent young hero was sentimentalized into the senior’s vision of childhood, naïve and docile. All that had been violent was forgotten; and what was left became a whimsical and appealing stimulus to the parental impulses. At the same time this phantom was credited with all the sobriety and caution which are so easily appreciated by the middleaged.

Inevitably this distorted image of youth became an incubus upon the actual young men and women of the race. It was held up as the model social virtue; but it was a model to which they could never conform without doing violence to their best nature, since it was not any longer an expression of youth at all. Just as, in an earlier age, women had been idealized and at the same time hobbled, so now, youth.

Some few, indeed, throughout the history of Patagonia, attained a clearer vision of the prophet. Fewer still were able to enter into the spirit of his final message, in which his enduring youthfulness raised him to a maturity alien to Patagonia. For the tragedy of this people was not so much their “senescence” as their arrested growth. Feeling themselves old, they yearned to be young again. But, through fixed immaturity of mind, they could never recognize that the true, though unlooked-for, fulfilment of youth’s passionate craving is not the mere achievement of the ends of youth itself, but an advance into a more awake and far-seeing vitality.

4. The Catastrophe

It was in these latter days that the Patagonians discovered the civilization that had preceded them. In rejecting the ancient religion of fear, they had abandoned also the legend of a remote magnificence, and had come to regard themselves as pioneers of the mind. In the new continent which was their homeland there were, of course, no relics of the ancient order; and the ruins that besprinkled the older regions had been explained as mere freaks of nature. But latterly, with the advance of natural knowledge, archaeologists had reconstructed something of the forgotten world. And the crisis came when, in the basement of a shattered pylon in China, they found a store of metal plates (constructed of an immensely durable artificial element), on which were embossed crowded lines of writing. These objects were, in fact, blocks from which books were printed a thousand centuries earlier. Other deposits were soon discovered, and bit by bit the dead language was deciphered. Within three centuries the outline of the ancient culture was laid bare; and presently the whole history of man’s rise and ruin fell upon this latter-day civilization with crushing effect, as though an ancient pylon were to have fallen on a village of wigwams at its foot. The pioneers discovered that all the ground which they had so painfully won from the wild had been conquered long ago, and lost; that on the material side their glory was nothing beside the glory of the past; and that in the sphere of mind they had established only a few scattered settlements where formerly was an empire. The Patagonian system of natural knowledge had been scarcely further advanced than that of preNewtonian Europe. They had done little more than conceive the scientific spirit and unlearn a few superstitions. And now suddenly they came into a vast inheritance of thought.

This in itself was a gravely disturbing experience for a people of strong intellectual interest. But even more overwhelming was the discovery, borne in on them in the course of their research, that the past had been not only brilliant but crazy, and that in the long run the crazy element had completely triumphed. For the Patagonian mind was by now too sane and empirical to accept the ancient knowledge without testing it. The findings of the archaeologists were handed over to the physicists and other scientists, and the firm thought and valuation of Europe and America at their zenith were soon distinguished from the degenerate products of the World State.

The upshot of this impact with a more developed civilization was dramatic and tragic. It divided the Patagonians into loyalists and rebels, into those who clung to the view that the new learning was a satanic lie, and those who faced the facts. To the former party the facts were thoroughly depressing; the latter, though overawed, found in them a compelling majesty, and also a hope. That the earth was a mote among the star-clouds was the least subversive of the new doctrines, for the Patagonians had already abandoned the geocentric view. What was so distressing to the reactionaries was the theory that an earlier race had long ago possessed and spent the vitality that they themselves so craved. The party of progress, on the other hand, urged that this vast new knowledge must be used; and that, thus equipped, Patagonia might compensate for lack of youthfulness by superior sanity.

This divergence of will resulted in a physical conflict such as had never before occurred in the Patagonian world. Something like nationalism emerged. The more vigorous Antarctic coasts became modern, while Patagonia itself clung to the older culture. There were several wars, but as physics and chemistry advanced in Antarctica, the Southerners were able to devise engines of war which the Northerners could not resist. In a couple of centuries the new “culture” had triumphed. The world was once more unified.

Hitherto Patagonian civilization had been of a mediaeval type. Under the influence of physics and chemistry it began to change. Wind and water-power began to be used for the generation of electricity. Vast mining operations were undertaken in search of the metals and other minerals which no longer occurred at easy depths. Architecture began to make use of steel. Electrically driven aeroplanes were made, but without real success. And this failure was symptomatic; for the Patagonians were not sufficiently foolhardy to master aviation, even had their planes been more efficient. They themselves naturally attributed their failure wholly to lack of a convenient source of power, such as the ancient petrol. Indeed this lack of oil and coal hampered them at every turn. Volcanic power, of course, was available; but, never having been really mastered by the more resourceful ancients, it defeated the Patagonians completely.

As a matter of fact, in wind and water they had all that was needed. The resources of the whole planet were available, and the world population was less than a hundred million. With this source alone they could never, indeed, have competed in luxury with the earlier World State, but they might well have achieved something like Utopia.

But this was not to be. Industrialism, though accompanied by only a slow increase of population, produced in time most of the social discords which had almost ruined their predecessors. To them it appeared that all their troubles would be solved if only their material power were far ampler. This strong and scarcely rational conviction was a symptom of their ruling obsession, the craving for increased vitality.

Under these circumstances it was natural that one event and one strand of ancient history should fascinate them. The secret of limitless material power had once been known and lost. Why should not Patagonians rediscover it, and use it, with their superior sanity, to bring heaven on earth? The ancients, no doubt, did well to forgo this dangerous source of power; but the Patagonians, level-headed and single-minded, need have no fear. Some, indeed, considered it less important to seek power than to find a means of checking biological senescence; but, unfortunately, though physical science had advanced so rapidly, the more subtle biological sciences had remained backward, largely because among the ancients themselves little more had been done than to prepare their way. Thus it happened that the most brilliant minds of Patagonia, fascinated by the prize at stake, concentrated upon the problem of matter. The state encouraged this research by founding and endowing laboratories whose avowed end was this sole work.

The problem was difficult, and the Patagonian scientists, though intelligent, were somewhat lacking in grit. Only after some five hundred years of intermittent research was the secret discovered, or partially so. It was found possible, by means of a huge initial expenditure of energy, to annihilate the positive and negative electric charges in one not very common kind of atom. But this limitation mattered not at all; the human race now possessed an inexhaustible source of power which could be easily manipulated and easily controlled. But though controllable, the new gift was not foolproof; and there was no guarantee that those who used it might not use it foolishly, or inadvertently let it get out of hand.

Unfortunately, at the time when the new source of energy was discovered, the Patagonians were more divided than of old. Industrialism, combined with the innate docility of the race, had gradually brought about a class cleavage more extreme even than that of the ancient world, though a cleavage of a curiously different kind. The strongly parental disposition of the average Patagonian prevented the dominant class from such brutal exploitation as had formerly occurred. Save during the first century of industrialism, there was no serious physical suffering among the proletariat. A paternal government saw to it that all Patagonians were at least properly fed and clothed, that all had ample leisure and opportunities of amusement. At the same time they saw to it also that the populace became more and more regimented. As in the First World State, civil authority was once more in the hands of a small group of masters of industry, but with a difference. Formerly the dominant motive of big business had been an almost mystical passion for the creation of activity; now the ruling minority regarded themselves as standing towards the populace in loco parentis, and aimed at creating “a young-hearted people, simple, gay, vigorous and loyal.” Their ideal of the state was something between a preparatory school under a sympathetic but strict adult staff, and a joint-stock company, in which the shareholders retained only one function, to delegate their powers thankfully to a set of brilliant directors.

That the system had worked so well and survived so long was due not only to innate Patagonian docility, but also to the principle by which the governing class recruited itself. One lesson at least had been learnt from the bad example of the earlier civilization, namely respect for intelligence. By a system of careful testing, the brightest children were selected from all classes and trained to be governors. Even the children of the governors themselves were subjected to the same examination, and only those who qualified were sent to the “schools for young governors.” Some corruption no doubt existed, but in the main this system worked. The children thus selected were very carefully trained in theory and practice, as organizers, scientists, priests and logicians.

The less brilliant children of the race were educated very differently from the young governors. It was impressed on them that they were less able than the others. They were taught to respect the governors as superior beings, who were called upon to serve the community in specially skilled and arduous work, simply because of their ability. It would not be true to say that the less intelligent were educated merely to be slaves; rather they were expected to be the docile, diligent and happy sons and daughters of the fatherland. They were taught to be loyal and optimistic. They were given vocational training for their various occupations, and encouraged to use their intelligence as much as possible upon the plane suited to it; but the affairs of the state and the problems of religion and theoretical science were strictly forbidden. The official doctrine of the beauty of youth was fundamental in their education. They were taught all the conventional virtues of youth, and in particular modesty and simplicity. As a class they were extremely healthy, for physical training was a very important part of education in Patagonia. Moreover, the universal practice of sun-bathing, which was a religious rite, was especially encouraged among the proletariat, as it was believed to keep the body “young” and the mind placid. The leisure of the governed class was devoted mostly to athletics and other sport, physical and mental. Music and other forms of art were also practised, for these were considered fit occupations for juveniles. The government exercised a censorship over artistic products, but it was seldom enforced; for the common folk of Patagonia were mostly too phlegmatic and too busy to conceive anything but the most obvious and respectable art. They were fully occupied with work and pleasure. They suffered no sexual restraints. Their impersonal interests were satisfied with the official religion of youth-worship and loyalty to the community.

This placid condition lasted for some four hundred years after the first century of industrialism. But as time passed the mental difference between the two classes increased. Superior intelligence became rarer and rarer among the proletariat; the governors were recruited more and more from their own offspring, until finally they became an hereditary caste. The gulf widened. The governors began to lose all mental contact with the governed. They made a mistake which could never have been committed had their psychology kept pace with their other sciences. Ever confronted with the workers’ lack of intelligence, they came to treat them more and more as children, and forgot that, though simple, they were grown men and women who needed to feel themselves as free partners in a great human enterprise. Formerly this illusion of responsibility had been sedulously encouraged. But as the gulf widened the proletarians were treated rather as infants than as adolescents, rather as well-cared-for domestic animals than as human beings. Their lives became more and more minutely, though benevolently, systematized for them. At the same time less care was taken to educate them up to an understanding and appreciation of the common human enterprise. Under these circumstances the temper of the people changed. Though their material condition was better than had ever been known before, save under the First World State, they became listless, discontented, mischievous, ungrateful to their superiors.

Such was the state of affairs when the new source of energy was discovered. The world community consisted of two very different elements, first a small, highly intellectual caste, passionately devoted to the state and to the advancement of culture amongst themselves; and, second, a much more numerous population of rather obtuse, physically well-cared-for, and spiritually starved industrialists. A serious clash between the two classes had already occurred over the use of a certain drug, favoured by the people for the bliss it produced, forbidden by the governors for its evil after-effects. The drug was abolished; but the motive was misinterpreted by the proletariat. This incident brought to the surface a hate that had for long been gathering strength in the popular mind, though unwittingly.

When rumour got afoot that in future mechanical power would be unlimited, the people expected a millennium. Every one would have his own limitless source of energy. Work would cease. Pleasure would be increased to infinity. Unfortunately the first use made of the new power was extensive mining at unheard-of depths in search of metals and other minerals which had long ago ceased to be available near the surface. This involved difficult and dangerous work for the miners. There were casualties. Riots occurred. The new power was used upon the rioters with murderous effect, the governors declaring that, though their paternal hearts bled for their foolish children, this chastisement was necessary to prevent worse evils. The workers were urged to face their troubles with that detachment which the Divine Boy had preached in his final phase; but this advice was greeted with the derision which it deserved. Further strikes, riots, assassinations. The proletariat had scarcely more power against their masters than sheep against the shepherd, for they had not the brains for large-scale organization. But it was through one of these pathetically futile rebellions that Patagonia was at last destroyed.

A petty dispute had occurred in one of the new mines. The management refused to allow miners to teach their trade to their sons; for vocational education, it was said, should be carried on professionally. Indignation against this interference with parental authority caused a sudden flash of the old rage. A power unit was seized, and after a bout of insane monkeying with the machinery, the mischief-makers inadvertently got things into such a state that at last the awful djin of physical energy was able to wrench off his fetters and rage over the planet. The first explosion was enough to blow up the mountain range above the mine. In those mountains were huge tracts of the critical element, and these were detonated by rays from the initial explosion. This sufficed to set in action still more remote tracts of the elements. An incandescent hurricane spread over the whole of Patagonia, reinforcing itself with fresh atomic fury wherever it went, It raged along the line of the Andes and the Rockies, scorching both continents with its heat. It undermined and blew up the Behring Straits, spread like a brood of gigantic fiery serpents into Asia, Europe and Africa. Martians, already watching the earth as a cat a bird beyond its spring, noted that the brilliance of the neighbour planet was suddenly enhanced. Presently the oceans began to boil here and there with submarine commotion. Tidal waves mangled the coasts and floundered up the valleys. But in time the general sea level sank considerably through evaporation and the opening of chasms in the ocean floor. All volcanic regions became fantastically active. The polar caps began to melt, but prevented the arctic regions from being calcined like the rest of the planet. The atmosphere was a continuous dense cloud of moisture, fumes and dust, churned in ceaseless hurricanes. As the fury of the electromagnetic collapse proceeded, the surface temperature of the planet steadily increased, till only in the Arctic and a few favoured corners of the sub-Arctic could life persist.

Patagonia’s death agony was brief. In Africa and Europe a few remote settlements escaped the actual track of the eruptions, but succumbed in a few weeks to the hurricanes of steam. Of the two hundred million members of the human race, all were burnt or roasted or suffocated within three months — all but thirty-five, who happened to be in the neighbourhood of the North Pole.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30