The planet cleanses itself. That is the important thing to remember, at moments when we become too pleased with ourselves. The healing process is a natural and inevitable one. The action of the wind and the rain, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, the vigorous rivers flushing out the choked and stinking lakes—these are all natural rhythms, all healthy manifestations of universal harmony. Of course, we are here too. …
This is the opening of a short story by Robert Silverberg, “The Wind and the Rain,” first published in 1973. The early 70s was an era when Silverberg was becoming more experimental with his fiction, both in the way he challenged and subverted some standard science fictional assumptions, and in the way he employed unconventional narrative techniques (some directly inspired from non-sf writers of the time, like Robert Coover).
There’s not so much a traditional beginning-middle-end story here as a gradual revelation of the situation. The narrator is a member of a ‘reclamation team,’ apparently humans from another world who have returned to this ancestral home of humanity, to clean it of the pollutions that destroyed its ecosystem — —“If we were not here at all, the planet would repair itself anyway within twenty to fifty million years. It is estimated that our presence cuts that time down by somewhat more than half.” (Shades of Foundation!)
They inject chemicals into a large river. They don’t have to know what they’re doing; they just follow instructions. They visit Tokyo, and plant trees. They write a poem – a thesaurus section for the word ‘destruction’ – and toss the poem into the river.
They visit Richland, Washington, and admire the ‘comic solution’ of placing nuclear waste near an earthquake fault, where the estimate of safe storage is only a century or so.
In Uruguay, a small village has been preserved under a dome, the dead inhabitants frozen in their positions.
In California, they consider the historical irony of trying to deal with the loss of otters, that used to eat sea urchins, which now unchecked cause the kelp to die; and how treatments for each symptom made the others worse.
They will have to pry up the concrete and metal encasing the planet. (Shades of Trantor!)
The inhabitants used to wear breathing suits. Theological speculation: if created by God, why did God let the planet be ruined? Perhaps the ruined planet is a self-contained artistic achievement.
Is what they do pointless, turning this ruin into just another world? The planet will heal anyway.
Rumors of a live earthman turn up a robot on a Tibetan plateau. They dissect it.
The story ends:
“The wind. The rain. The tides. All sadnesses flow to the sea.”
As Silverberg notes, in his introduction to this story in his COLLECTED STORIES VOLUME 3, the alarm about ecological damage to the planet — which goes back centuries, perhaps — is sometimes misplaced. It’s not about damage to the planet. Indeed, the planet has undergone wild swings of climate change in the past. There have been huge extinction events. The planet recovers. But not most of the species who have ever lived. The damage humans are inflicting — again, that Sixth Extinction — won’t kill the planet, but it might well kill the human race.
I reread a bunch of Silverberg collections, beginning with the earliest, right about a year ago, up through those early ’70s collections, and took many notes. This past week I’ve resumed that attention, rereading a few I read last year but didn’t take notes on, and plan to post a kind of reading log. Let’s see how that goes.