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Just a thought

Late the other night, I was reading a John Cheever story, "The Wrysons," in which a suburban woman is afflicted with a recurring dream of nuclear holocaust. The dream winds up with a sort of yacht-club immolation scene in which boaters are drowned as they over-crowd the waters of refuge. In the dream, she weeps "to see this inhumanity as the world was ending."

Well, it isn't the world that is ending. The post-holocaust planet will go on spinning somehow, and opportunistic life-forms that have been waiting for the opportunity will flourish. (For example, a virus that replicates through the digitized memory of chatted vacuities such as "I'm standing outside your building, where are you?") Life will begin the long trek back to Descartes. This much we know. But I found myself wondering this evening about cultural extinctions in our own long past. One hundred fifty thousand years is no time at all on the geological scale, but it's plenty of time, I imagine, to scrub the traces of human artifact from the face of the earth. We think of the time between the moment of homo sapiens's unmistakable arrival (whenever that was) and the composition of the first granary account as a long, boring and unrecorded progression toward us. But what if we've done this already a few times? What if there were was a New Yorker seventy thousand years ago - and all record of it has been obliterated by natural processes, just as natural processes would clear Earth of our record in, say, fifty thousand years? What if, far from living in savannahs and bumbling our way toward speech, we've done this sophisticated cultural thing a few times already, but with such catastrophic results that We Don't Remember?

As you know, my mind doesn't drift toward science fiction. But I found myself plausibly wondering...

(But it's another Cheever story altogether that I urge you to read, a lovely tale called "The Duchess.")


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