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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Guest Post: Deus Ex Ruins?

It amazes me how many fantasy worlds have ancient civilizations with far better technology, magic, what-have-you. The Ancient Civilization is a common idea, but it's not one that always has a lot of logic behind it. Science fiction also has similar ideas (Stargate is a great example, but there are many others). And it's not just discovering Ancient Civilizations per se; sometimes it's discovering forgotten technology. Anne McCaffrey's Pern is a classic example. Many other authors tie their fantasy worlds into something that is actually based in science, where "magic" is old technology that no one understands anymore, and that extra bright star in the sky is actually an old satellite or space ship.

Let me ask you something: how many ancient civilizations have we actually discovered remains from who have had technology beyond what we had when we found it? And then what are the odds it would still work?

So far, we haven't seen anything beyond what we already had—at least, that worked. Stonehenge and other mysterious artifacts and structures are around, but we don't know what they were meant for and we certainly don't know how to work them as they were intended. You can try and debate tall tales of magical things from the past, but until I see hard proof, I'm going to keep my healthy dose of cynicism.

I'm not talking about grading technologies as superior or inferior; I'm looking more at the knowledge base required to provide an artifact that we can discover and use today that supplies something we don't already know or have the capability to do.

On a logical level, people come across major artifacts before they're ancient, and cultural groups rarely just up and disappear from their homes. If there's something “cool” around, it's rare that other people don't adopt it in some way. Look at all the changes in battle and warfare via weapons and metallurgy in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa way back when. People are inquisitive, and want the advantages that something new can give them. On top of all that, it takes luck and a lot of hard work and research to figure out the past. There are a lot of discoveries that archaeologists have branded as religious or ceremonial simply because they don't understand what an object was used for. And do we know how the pyramids were built? I sure don't.

There's an awful lot we don't know, and an awful lot that we aren't equipped to find out. The past gets buried over time unless we seek it out. If we're using archaeological digs to discover information from two or three centuries ago, should we expect that thousands of years won't cover up ruins?

I happen to think that if an Ancient Civilization was that awesome, a writer had better have a good reason for why it collapsed and why no one knows about it. They also need to know why it's not a pile of dust or buried if it's still standing thousands of years later. I don't exactly walk down the street and around the corner to some dilapidated ruins--my city was built on top of them because they were in a good spot. There aren't magical abandoned cities hanging around with which to produce the odd deus ex machina to solve our moral battles with other societies.

We do, however, write stories about them. And we do romanticise them (see also: Donovan's Atlantis).

My question, then, becomes why do we look to the past to provide for the future? What is it that we expect, or more importantly hope, to find?

If you don't know the history you're doomed to repeat it is an idea that gets drilled in somewhere in junior high. History and our shared past is important. Humans want to know their stories, and people want to get on with things, so to speak. It's a nice thought that someone out there did all the work for us, and all we have to do is stumble upon the deus ex ruins for a solution.

But what does this really say about us?

Sara J. normally blogs on Jumpdrives & Cantrips.

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  1. I think we like to explore things like Stonehenge just because it is a mystery. On my honeymoon we went to Cancun and there's these ruins in the southern part of the city-- I can't remember the name, but there's a big pyramid. Long story short, the ancients built it as sort of a solar map. I forget how it works, but it's rather advanced thinking.

    I guess my point is that there is so much stuff our ancestors left behind that we can't readily explain. I don't believe that modern science has explained how the pyramids were built. I'm don't think it's that it's being romanticized so much as trying to be explained. It's also a pretty tidy plot device.

  2. I agree, there are lot of mysteries in the world. But there's not a lot of ancient ideas and technology we encounter that are wildly beyond what we've done unless there's a reason for it.

    I think the problem is that it's too tidy a plot device--that's why it ends up being used as a deus ex machina. But that doesn't mean it's a great way to plot. There have been books that use the whole Ancient Civilization idea very well: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (though not really as ancient as ancient gets) is very logical in why things are the way they are, for example.

    But the amount of fantasy stories that use ruins of some sort to indicate some intensely great fallen society... it's really quite boggling, and more times than not, I find it doesn't usually compute.

  3. I do know what you mean. It's usually at that point they stumble upon the vengeful ghost/spirit or the Useful Old Man who Knows Everything.

    Still, ruins in this world, are very cool, and I agree about SQT's Stonehenge mention -- it [lame pun] rocks! :)

    Cool post.

  4. I guess it depends on the story. I liked the Pern series overall, but there was a point when they discovered what the "ancients" left behind and it was awfully convenient when it came to dealing with the Red Star (if memory serves), but at the same time, it was a while into the story before it appeared. They still had to deal with a lot on their own before the technology was available so all in all it wasn't too bad.

    I liked Elantris a lot too.

    In my long winded way I'm saying I get where you're coming from.