Yael Dragwyla (polaris93) wrote,
Yael Dragwyla

Review: Poul Anderson's "Epilogue"

Poul Anderson's "Epilogue" was first published in Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction in March 1962, and is included in the anthology Going for Infinity, a collection of some of Anderson's best fiction and essays, which was first published in 1990. One of the most haunting stories I've ever encountered, it has remained with me ever since I first read it, back in 1962.

This story describes a last visit to Earth by star-faring humans who originally left Earth for the stars in the midst of a terrifying international crisis that threatened to evolve into an all-out thermonuclear war. Several scientific institutions and agencies, along with the Western powers, had funded the research and development that had culminated in the creation of the starship as a way of saving as much as possible of Earth's life and human civilization if the worst should happen. And, shortly after the ship departed for the stars, it had. As a result, all organic life on Earth had succumbed to the combined effects of total thermonuclear war and its aftereffects.

So those aboard the starship discovered when they found themselves in the Solar System again. The complex and half-immaterial machinery intended to drive the ship to the stars had malfunctioned. As a result, rather than arriving at Tau Ceti II a few decades after leaving the Solar System, the starship had somehow ended up, still in the neighborhood of the Solar System, three billion years after it had departed. The bloated red Sun was huge in Earth's sky, the Moon much farther out than she had been upon departure. And the Earth . . . was no longer the beautiful blue-green-fleecy-white of the living world she had once been. Instead, the Earth was painted in ochre and black -- perhaps natural, this far in the future, when the increasing heat of the Sun could have been expected to kill most of Earth's life off all by itself.

Of the 100 supercargo aboard the Traveler -- 50 couples, 100 top-flight engineers and scientists, many with artistic talent as well as their superb educations and training -- three descend to the Earth's surface to take one last look around and "bid farewell to Grandmother Earth." The Earth looks, well, dead. What can it hurt?

But the Earth isn't dead, just differently vital, you might say. For what the three -- Hugh and Frederica Darkington and Sam Kuroki -- find when they land on the ancient planet and begin to explore it is that Earth is very much alive, covered with a bewildering and often beautiful variety of strange new life-forms . . . made of metal, and silicon, and galenium, and a host of other elemental and complex materials never found in the organic life of Earth as the three had known her before they left for the stars.

At first, they speculated that humankind had colonized other worlds and that their descendants were using Earth as a sort of factory world operated entirely, or almost entirely, by robots. But soon it becomes apparent to both Hugh, a biologist, and Erica, an engineer, that the creatures they see all around them aren't robots. The sessile ones are too elegant and complex, far more like the plants and fungi they had known on Earth than any sort of machine or machine part, while the motile ones move like the animals they had known, some of them displaying striking inherent intelligence. They speculate about Artificial Intelligence, and wonder who could have built all of this, and finally have to admit that all of it somehow "just growed."

Somehow, after all organic Earthly life died, the result of what was almost surely the last, ultimate human war, it evolved again -- from self-replicating, autonomous machines that had been the only survivors of that war, probaby sea-rafts, motorized floating boxes containg metallurgic processing plants, powered by solar batteries that took dissolved minerals or various elements out of sea water and, when they had full cargos, went to a point on shore where depots received their loads. Once empty, they returned to the sea for more. They had inertial navigation devices, electronic sensors, and various homeostatic systems, so that they could cope with normal changes in their environment. On top of everything else, they had electronic templates which carried complete information on their own design. These controlled mechanisms aboard the sea-rafts which made any spare parts that were needed by them. Those same mechanisms also kept producing amd assembling complete duplicate rafts.

Once humanity and all other organic life was gone from the Earth, the sea rafts were still there, patiently bringing their cargoes to crumbling depots on empty shores year after year after year. And then they began to mutate . . .

And from those humble beginnngs, a brand-new biota began to evolve, eventually filling the Earth with new analogs of plants, animals, and fungi, and peraps even bacteria and viruses, as well. And now, stunned and amazed, the three moon-suited humans find themselves in a Wonderland of such life, strange and alien and beautiful.

Just as they're getting used to the idea, they suddenly find themselves confronting a 9-foot tall quasi-humanoid "robot" who is just as startled to discover them as they it. Frightened, Hugh Darkington takes aim at it with his gun and blows its arm off -- and the "robot," not seriously harmed, grabs all three of them, ties them up, and begins carrying them across the landscape, bound who-knows-where.

Unable to take off their environment suits -- Earth's atmosphere is no longer oxygenated, and is rich in gases that would rapidly poison or suffocate them -- the three, unable to break away from the giant creature that has captured them, can only endure, terrified and unable to call out for help from those aboard the ship above, because their captor has torn away their antennae.

Ultimately, their captor, who turns out to have a wife, and is a member of a far-flung community of about a hundred others like him, kills Sam Kuroki in the process of dissecting him, not realizing that Sam is a different sort of life-form, one that can't survive such a procedure, and is no good to eat, either. Hugh uses a ruse to allow Frederica to get away while he distracts their captor, and she, in turn, races back to the space-to-planetside craft in which they'd descended to Earth's surface and intended to use to return. Once in the "boat," she turns on the boat's cybernetic central controller, and has it start broadcasting its internal processing, consisting of the intricate, elaborate, and highly complex mathematical functions that are the manifestations of its programming, in all directions. The "robots," Earth's new sapience, like most of the rest of Earth's new non-organic quasi-animal life, communicate among themselves on radio frequencies and those close to the radio bands. As the overwhelmingly powerful radio broadcast from the boat washes over everything within a hundred miles, the "robots," sandbagged by it, retreat into caves or fall senseless to the ground, unable to cope. And while his captor is in such a state, Hugh manages to get away and return to the boat.

When the boat returns to the ship, far above, there is discussion among the others about Sam's death at the hands of the "robot," and what they ought to do about it. Should they get revenge, wiping out the tribe of "robots" one of whose members killed Sam in such a horrific way? They could do so -- the starship has enough firepower on board to do the job a hundred times over . . .

Finally, they decide not to, but just to leave the Solar System and head for the nearest stellar system with a G0-type Sun, like the Sun was back when they originally left Earth for the stars. It would be genocide. After all, the "robot" hadn't known what they were, how vastly different they were from it. Getting revenge on it for Sam's death would be murder, not justifiable revenge. These seeming robots had proved themselves to be intelligent beings with wills of their own and true souls. No justification for such an evil deed would be possible.

And so they depart for the stars, leaving Earth behind them, still alive, however different she was from the Earth of their day.


This story has haunted me ever since I first read it in the same way that wind moaning through bare-branched trees in a deserted landscape taken by Autumn would. It's a melody in a minor key, as haunting in its way as Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is, a song of Autumn -- but also of Spring and Summer come again, as well. It's one of the recognition by beings with souls and spirits of alien beings also so endowed, in spite of all the tremendous differences between them. In the end, it's a melody of love, the love that allows us to realize that the utterly strange also has its place in the order of things, and deserves life as much as we do. And perhaps someday, out among the stars, the Darkingtons' descendants will meet as equals those of the "robot" clans whose lives they spared, and together forge a peace and immensely productive cooperation between them.


Should we care? I often read rationalizations about why species should be preserved. All too often these polemics center on future benefits to humankind, such as new foods, better medicines, panaceas of all kinds derived from animals and plants known and yet to be described. The message is that we should save other species because it is in our species’ interest to do so. But isn’t there a question of ethics involved? Our species, Homo sapiens, is one of the newest on the earth. What right do we have to drive other, older species into extinction? Terry Erwin, the man who discovered how poorly we have done in estimating world species diversity, pointed out that there is far more at stake than food potential, medicinal herbs, or other economic potential. He discusses species in terms of their evolutionary potential. Erwin stresses that we must not preserve just for the value of a species today, but because we have no idea what that species and its descendants might become. Who is to say that our species will be the last as well as first species on the earth to develop intelligence? Who can say that some currently insignificant species might not be the rootstock of some far-flung intelligence ultimately of greater intelligence, wisdom, and insight than our own? Who would have predicted that the first protomammals migrating into the frigid Karoo 275 million years ago would give rise to the mammals, or that the small arboreal mammals trembling in fear of the mighty dinosaurs 75 million years ago would one day give rise to us? Who knows what the spotted owl may become, or what great societies may ultimately rise from the small beetles now living in the vanishing rain forests? And of the species destined to remain small links in the ecosystem, each is the result of a great, long history, and each has some ancestor that has weathered great past disasters. What right do we have to kill them?

– Peter Ward, Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth’s Mass Extinctions, p. 283

Canticle of the Creatures

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
all praise is yours, all glory, all honor,
and all blessing.

To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

All praise be yours, my Lord,
through all you have made,
and first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day;
and through whom you give us light.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor;
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All Praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars; in the heavens you have made them,
bright, and precious, and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Brothers wind and air, and fair and stormy,
all the weather's moods,
by which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how cheerful!
Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister
Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers
and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through those who grant pardon for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy are those who endure in peace,
By You, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your will!
The second death can do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks
And serve him with great humility.

-- St. Francis d'Assisi, Spring 1225 AD
Tags: astrobiology, biology, books, death, ecology, evolution, extinctions, love, mass extinctions, nuclear war, peter d ward, st francis d'assisi

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