Tuesday, July 6, 2010


There are rules when it comes to writing short fiction, particularly genre fiction. Or so perceived wisdom would have it.

There must be characters, obstacles for them to overcome, quite possibly a sub-plot or two and a goal – either physical or emotional – for them to achieve. By the end, the protagonist should have learned something, if only not to play with dragons. To use the old three-act maxim, it’s exposition, complication, resolution, and many, many fine stories have been written using some or all (or indeed more than) the above.

But then again there are certain stories that simply throw such preconceived notions out of the window and concentrate instead on mood, form or comment. Such a story is Rene Rebetez-Cortes 1971 tale The New Prehistory.

In an unnamed (presumably South American) city the inhabitants suddenly begin to physically bond together, forming either serpentine creatures or vast, amoeba-like masses. Gradually all but a few individuals remain and the new mass of humanity, rapidly adapted to deal with the new state of things, go about the process of evolution ushering in a new age of monstrous creatures or, more accurately, the new prehistory of the title.

Told in a rather matter-of-fact style by an anonymous narrator, The New Prehistory breaks many of the ‘rules’ of short fiction, particularly the ‘rules’ of science fiction and fantasy. The cause of the catastrophe is never discussed or discovered, the protagonist of the tale is an observer rather than an active participant, there is no struggle, no obstacle and no grand revelation at the end.

Yet despite – or indeed because of – all this, The New Prehistory is a powerful and shocking piece of fiction. On one level it could be taken as a comment on consumer society, that ability we have as a society to blindly follow trends, or on another level it could be regarded as a warning against political conformity, with the serpents and amoebas representing extremes such as communism or fascism.

Whatever the individual response, it’s hard to ignore the often visceral power of the story:

“A restlessness came over the line. Like a huge centipede waking up, the monster slowly began to move down the street, hundreds of arms waving desperately. At the head of the column was a red-eyed man whose mouth was awry in a painful rictus. He was followed by a girl who had been proud of her beauty, her makeup dissolved by tears, she moved like a sleepwalker. Then came a boy, his face pale with terror, the Metropoulos, my old friend, one more vertebra of the monstrous reptile… Gradually the movement grew faster, more erratic and frenzied. The long queue was like a string of carnival dancers, twisting and turning, performing a demonic conga in the street.”

Yet despite the utter destruction of human society – “they have renounced forever the old way of life. It is impossible for them to live in rooms as they did before, to use elevators, sit in chairs, sleep in beds, travel in planes or cars” – there is a palpable sense of evolution by the end of the story, that whole notion that, regardless of circumstance, life will find a way and intelligence re-emerge at some point in the future.

“I suspect the day is not far off when they will build their own airplanes and limousines, as long as railway cars, or rounded and flat like flying saucers. The time will come, too, I have no doubt, when they will play golf.”

However much things change, at least according to The New Prehistory, they will always stay the same. Like HG Wells’ The Country of the Blind, it is those who cannot or will not adapt who suddenly discover that they are the freaks, hunted and either absorbed or killed and in the end, the narrator is alone, sitting in the ruins of the city while in the distance the new prehistory continues apace.

I must confess that I know very little about Rene Rebetez-Cortes other than the fact that he was a Colombian writer, part of the magic realism tradition of South America that boasted such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges, writers who made the mundane fantastic and the fantastic commonplace, with The New Prehistory Rebetez-Cortes achieved both with deceptive ease.

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