Noah in Time

When the silence was first broken at Gorgias Press, one of my colleagues suggested that I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The title suggested to me some kind of point-of-view rewriting of H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, a novel that had a large influence on my young, science-fiction inclined mind. For some reason I wanted to keep this place sacred to the memory of Wells and I dismissed the suggestion with polite demurral. Since that time Niffenegger has been constructing quite a reputation as a novelist, and because I enjoy the implications of time-travel and I like to keep current – fashionably late, of course – I finally took the time to read the book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect; it is a sensitive love story, wrenching in parts, but the mysteries of time travel are left to a genetic defect and not some technological invention. In the course of wending in and out of past and present lives, the main characters, Clare and Henry, carry on a dialogue that includes the dynamic of a protagonist raised Catholic. Once, while discussing the bizarre nature of time traveling, Henry suggests that Noah is a fairy tale to which Clare replies, “Noah is in the Bible. He’s not a fairy tale.” This statement reaffirms that, for many people, Noah is the obvious touchstone of the Bible and modern society. A versatile figure, enigmatic and only sketchily drawn in the Bible, Noah reappears regularly in the popular media. Just this summer I noted how Justin Cronin’s The Passage also cites Noah as a schematic for much of the plot that bears the story. A few weeks ago I mentioned how the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still viewed Klaatu’s ship as an ark. Noah from outer space.

Noah is a foundational figure for our society. This should not be surprising since the flood myth is among the most ancient of stories that humanity has relegated to religious literature. The Sumerians and Babylonians told the story long before Genesis was composed. In its own way, the Noah story is an example of time-travel. A tale whose origins are lost in the pre-literate stages of humanity, it becomes history with the uncritical acceptance of the Bible, only to become a defining myth of twenty-first century literature. The world of the twenty-first century often feels like a fragile environment ripe for a catastrophic flood. Consciously or not, we are still looking for our Noah.

Another kind of Noah

Gort to Flood

There seems to be a society-wide fascination with the end of the world as we know it. Or maybe it is the just the perspective I bring to it. The past two decades with their breathless run up to Y2K and grappling to forge some sense out of 9/11 before 2012 rolls over us, have been awash in popular representations of how it might all come to an end. A society begging somebody to apply the brakes. We’ve got many senior citizens still around who’ve never used a computer attempting to coexist with a generation that has never been without one. From Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years. I remember watching the latter on (black-and-white) television. Now I watch students walk into class with devices about whose function I can only ask Mr. Spock to speculate.

So it was that I finally got around to watching The Day the Earth Stood Still last night. The 2008 remake. Having long been a fan of the original, I can understand the insistent draw to bring it up-to-date. Even by the time Star Trek (original series) aired, it was hard to see what had terrified 1950s audiences about Gort or the idea of aliens. Thus I had great expectations when I first saw the trailers for the remake, but the reviews took the edge off my shine and I’ve only now experienced it. Naturally, I was looking for the religious angle.

Like Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the religious metaphor came in the guise of an ark. Klaatu is here to save all species except us, prompting Regina Jackson to state that after the ark is filled, the flood will come. The apocalyptic end of the world – being eaten by bugs (perhaps prescient of New York’s bed-bug infestation) – brings nanotech and the Bible together in an unhappy marriage. As soon as the authorities learn that Klaatu’s sphere is an ark they try to blow it to kingdom come. And yet Helen Benson is here to tell the tale.

We are vulnerable. For all our achievements, we fear the kids down the block that are bigger than us. Whether they be cold, emotionally flat aliens or ragingly wrathful gods, we are constantly watching the skies waiting for the next great flood.

Dark Night of the Ark

Vampires continue to be the rage of the age. My own interest began back in the days of Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, and Barnabas Collins. Stoker’s Dracula is one of the earliest novels I remember reading. Dark Shadows was a regular, gloomy fixture of 1960s daytime programming, and black-and-white vampire movies were often available on Saturday afternoons on commercial television. I have not kept pace with the current fetishism surrounding our toothy friends, but I did read Justin Cronin’s new novel, The Passage. I didn’t know the book featured New Age viral vampires, but they do make for a compelling story.

What particularly captured my attention in Cronin’s work, however, was the crossover between religious and monstrous themes. I have mentioned this connection previously, so I was glad to see confirmation that religion still features in monster stories. The religious element comes in the form of a virus developed by the military to create super-soldiers (a theme X-File affectionados might find familiar) that ultimately goes awry. The result is a girl who is part of a project named Noah; she lives the tremendous lifespan of the biblical hero without the debilitating effects of old age. She is also the ark by means of which humanity might survive the ordeal. The novel is apocalyptic and yet vaguely hopeful. It is also very difficult to lay aside for too many minutes at a time.

The tie-in of Noah and vampires is a novel one. The point of comparison is longevity – those who imbibe the blood of others do not age and wither as mere mortals do. Noah’s survival is a matter of grace (or science in the case of the novel). The last mortal to breech the two-and-a-quarter century mark (thank you, Terah), Noah is symbolic of those who stand out as examples of righteousness in a wicked world. It was refreshing to see the theme so creatively rendered by Cronin. The biblical flood is a kind of prepocalypse, a foreshadowing of what might recur if evil prevails. The Passage has left me strangely sentimental for both vampires and ark-builders alike.