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Friday, August 28, 2009

History & Fantasy: A Roundtable Discussion...

with Guy Gavriel Kay, Cecelia Holland, Gary K. Wolfe, and Charles N. Brown




Cecelia Holland began publishing historical novels with The Firedrake (1961). She has published more than 25 books, most historical, occasionally with fantasy elements. She also wrote one SF novel, Floating Worlds (1975), and modern-day novel Home Ground (1981). Her most recent work is a fantasy series about 10th-century Vikings: The Soul Thief (2002), Witches' Kitchen (2004), The Serpent Dreamer (2005), Varanger (2008), The High City (2009), and The Kings of the North (2010).

Guy Gavriel Kay's first novels were set in the invented world of the Fionavar Tapestry, but Sailing to Sarantium (1998) and Lord of Emperors (2000) were set in an alternate version of ancient Byzantium, and other novels that make use of quasi-historical settings with fantasy elements include Tigana (1990), A Song for Arbonne (1992), The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and The Last Light of the Sun (2004). His latest novel, Ysabel (2007), won the World Fantasy Award.


Excerpts from the interview:


Gary K. Wolfe: This is a roundtable discussion concerning the relationship of fiction and history, with Cecelia Holland and Guy Gavriel Kay, each of whom uses history in different ways in fiction....

*

[A long discussion about historical fiction follows; the conclusion, which focuses on the distinction between SF and fantasy perspectives, is excerpted below.]

*

Charles N. Brown: Cecelia's idea of historical fiction is closer to science fiction, and Guy's idea is closer to fantasy. I'd like you to talk about that for the last few minutes. As Gary says, Cecelia's extrapolating to the past, but it's the same way you write about the future. Guy's looking at it from the fantasy viewpoint of characters. You don't have a science fiction mind. You have a fantasy mind, and she has a science fiction mind.

Cecelia Holland: No, it's that people who construct science fiction are trying to visualize a future in which we know who we are -- that says who we are now. When you look at good historical fiction, you reconstruct the past in a way which will let you know the possibilities of people so we know who we are now. It's one end to the other. First of all, science fiction assures us that there's going to be a tomorrow. It's harder and harder for people to realize there was a yesterday. And it wasn't like now, and yet it worked, or it worked as well as now does. There was a past, it happened to people who were like us, whose understanding was incomplete and biased and yet who muddled along and created or destroyed things as they went. It wasn't done by marble heads; it wasn't handed down by God. That it didn't have to happen the way it happened; it happened the way it happened because of the decisions that all these people back there made. And they made those decisions based on who they were at the time, not on 21st-century ideas but on 9th-century ideas. Therefore you strip away the 21st-century ideas in the process of trying to load up some 9th-century ideas.

Guy Gavriel Kay: How do you load up 9th-century ideas?

CH: You read a lot of the stuff. One of the things I love about the Icelandic Sagas is that they seem so modern, as compared to Le Roman de la Rose, where you have talking flowers. In the Sagas, people have the same kind of passions we have, and they seem to be like us. At the same time, they have ghosts, and they have gods.

GGK: That's why I did Last Light with the ghosts and faeries as real. That's what I argued before, if you were comfortable doing an Icelandic Saga in a historical evocation of the time that actually made real the ghosts and the faerie world. I was able to do that; it's the reader's job to decide if I did it successfully or not.

Let's go back to where Gary began with me on the actuality issue. Part of it is a measure of awareness of limitation, an awareness of constraint on how sharply or accurately we can capture something. I've found that the use of the fantastic is a shared alert between the reader and the writer of those constraints and limitations. That works for me, ethically and creatively, to avoid the illusion that I am reaching my way back to the 9th century accurately. That's a compact that I've set up with my reader that belies the usual compact, which is that with a good writer the reader believes they're getting accurate data.

The hesitation I have with the distinction drawn between science fiction and fantasy is that what I'm doing is making use of the fantastic as a tool to explore history, not writing fantasy about the past. The reason I put it that way is that if you look at the books, the degree of magic, of fantasy elements and tropes, varies widely. In a book like The Lions of Al Rassan, or A Song for Arbonne, there is essentially none of what one might call magic. There are hints of precognition or somebody with a psychic ability. The point I'm making is that it's not so much writing fantasy about the past, it's using elements of the fantastic in measures that seem suited to that story. That's key for me. I have never introduced magic because that would be a market-appealing -- or even avoided using it because it might be a market-impeding -- element. Cecelia said, and I completely agree, you're working for yourself and your story. The degree to which you use certain tools is driven by the needs of that story.

CH: There was a book called Historical Fallacies from 30 years ago. One of the fallacies was to look back at the past as if the only things that were relevant were the things that turned out to matter now. What is relevant to now isn't necessarily what was relevant then. To find what was relevant then is the work here. I think it's the only work: to try to recover the past, recover who we were then so that we have depth and resonance. I do not understand people who want to live their whole lives with their faces pressed up against the present, when all they have to do is turn around and they have this whole great playground. History is, or the past was, and we can find our way back there if we use the imagination. We can at least find something that resonates well enough that we can escape from the prison of the now.”






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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mary Robinette Kowal: Puppetmaster




Mary Robinette Kowal was born in Raleigh NC and attended Eastern Carolina University, majoring in Art Education, with a minor in Theater and Speech. In 1991 she left for an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta GA, and never went back. She has been a professional puppeteer ever since. Kowal spent a year and a half working in Iceland on the children's show Lazytown, has worked for various other shows and theaters, and runs her own company, Other Hand Productions.

Kowal began publishing fiction in literary journals in 2004, and in SF magazines with "Portrait of Ari" in Strange Horizons (2006). Her work has since appeared in various genre magazines and anthologies. Notable stories include "For Solo Cello, op. 12" (2007) and current Hugo nominee "Evil Robot Monkey" (2008). Some of her short fiction will be collected in Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press later this year.

Kowal is also a novelist, with two Jane Austen-flavored fantasies forthcoming from Tor, starting in 2010: Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass.

She is currently the Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and was the art director for small-press magazine Shimmer. She attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp in 2005, and won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008. She lives in New York with husband Robert Kowal, married 2001, though they are relocating to Portland at the end of August.


Excerpts from the interview:


“One of the things that pulled me to both puppetry and writing speculative fiction is the world building. And certainly the technology: I know exactly what it's like to live on a daily basis in VR goggles. When I was working on Lazytown, I was often wearing VR goggles and watching a virtual world. It was shot on green screen, so you had real puppets, real people, shot against green, and then they created a real-time environment, so we were seeing exactly what the audience would see. You always watch a monitor, with television puppetry. So I would watch with VR goggles. Take them off -- 'Oh, right. Big green set.'”

*

“One of the other things that has definitely shaped me as a writer is coming from an art background, where you start by doing a 'gesture drawing.' It's a very fast sketch, and you go from that to a more fully rendered one. Then, if you're going into paint, you'll do the under painting and then the final painting. So that experience informs the choices I make.

“The amount of detail you put into a painting is directly related to the size of the canvas. If something's very small, you're probably not packing it with detail because you can't see it. And one of the choices you make is, 'How far away is my audience going to be standing?' With theater, that means 'How big is my audience?'

“For my collection A Scent in the Dark, I picked my shortest stories -- in most cases so I could give a broader sampling. Writing short fiction is very much like doing a sketch. These are the ideas, these are the relationships I want to talk about. If a detail isn't needed and it's not adding anything to the story, I'm likely to pull it out. Sometimes a detail can add to it, based on enhancing the environment, since for me a story isn't just plot; it's also character and setting.”

*

Shades of Milk and Honey is a Regency Romance fantasy, and I tried to write it as if Jane Austen were writing it. We're going through this bizarre Jane Austen resurgence, so I may have timed it exactly right! I'm very fond of it and I've written a sequel, Glamour in Glass. I could happily write more in this world, and I've already begun a short story about one of the main characters.

“The magic system is called Glamour, and the basic idea is that a young woman learns painting, music, and glamour as 'womanly arts.' It's an illusionary art (basically, you're dealing with wavelengths), but doing it takes energy just like running up a hill takes energy. So if a young woman does too much glamour, she might faint. But once you've created this illusion, you can tie it off and it stays fixed in place. (It will gradually degrade over time, like a painting would fade.)

“One of the characters is a glamourist who comes into town to do a mural for a wealthy woman. He's also sort of an inventor. One of the things that bothers me with magic in fantasy is that there are very few experimenters. Who's making the innovations? If magic really existed, it wouldn't be static and then stop; there would constantly be people pushing the boundaries. So this fellow is actively trying to create new techniques.”






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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gary Westfahl: The Addled Archaeology of the Future



Ever since the concept was introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, Americans have periodically prepared and buried "time capsules," collections of artifacts and documents from their own time designed to be unearthed and studied by people at some future date. These assemblages testify to two powerful human emotions: a desire that our descendants understand who we are and what our lives were like, and a palpable fear that, without the assistance of such prepared packets of information, they might fail to properly understand us if they are instead obliged to rely on whatever random objects from our culture happen to survive. At some point, it would be a fascinating project for a science fiction scholar to examine the eclectic contents of various time capsules and consider the story about their creators which they were designed to tell; for, just as I once argued in an Interzone article that the messages to aliens placed on American deep-space probes can be considered a form of science fiction in which imagined aliens are not the subject, but the presumed audience, of the story, time capsules might in similar fashion be considered a form of science fiction in which imagined future humans are not the subject, but the presumed audience, of the story.

But here I wish to consider a different question: are these fears that people of the future will lack sufficient knowledge of their ancestors justified? In the absence of especially prepared evidence in the form of time capsules and the like, are they really likely to badly misinterpret their own past? As it happens, there is a sporadic tradition of science fiction stories about future archaeology which endeavor to argue, albeit in a humorous manner, that this is a genuine danger; however, these texts are rare, they are written by people who are not considered science fiction authors; and they are generally unsuccessful, both financially and aesthetically. As I proceed to examine four of these works, I should note that my title is purely descriptive of this essay's contents and is not intended as a comment on noted scholar Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future (2005), a profound and far-ranging study of utopia and science fiction which understandably fails to discuss those undistinguished texts which a more literal-minded scholar would think of when pondering the phrase "archaeologies of the future."

*****


Speculations about the misadventures of future archaeologists probably began with one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known stories, "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), which is Greek for "things of the future." The text is purportedly a letter written by a man of the future named Pundita (the first entry is dated "April 1, 2848," to let readers know immediately that this is all a sort of April Fool's joke) which was placed in a bottle, tossed into the ocean, and somehow transported back into the past so that Poe could retrieve and publish it. Its author is taking a long balloon trip with hundreds of other passengers , and while he does provide some information about what was, in 1849, an amazingly futuristic means of transportation, he spends most of his time talking about what were, for him, ancient philosophers (all well known in Poet's day), and he anticipates the sparkling wit we shall encounter in later texts by introducing the practice of creatively misspelling the names of past luminaries (Aries Tottle, Neuclid, Cant, etc.) to appropriately accompany his garbled accounts of their ideas.

From such discussions, we get the general idea that the people of the future do not have a good understanding of their distant past, but only at the end of the story is the problem explicitly linked to faulty archaeology. Pundita is excited to learn about the unearthing of an artifact from the ancient residents of New York, termed "the Knickerbocker tribe of savages," who are mysterious to contemporaries because of "The disastrous earthquake... of the year 2050," which "so totally uprooted and overwhelmed the town (for it was almost too large to be called a village) that the most indefatigable of our antiquarians have never yet been able to obtain from the site any sufficient data (in the shape of coins, medals or inscriptions) wherewith to build up even the ghost of a theory concerning the manners, customs, &c., &c., &c., of the aboriginal inhabitants." He describes the discovery of "a cubical and evidently chiseled block of granite" featuring "a marble slab with (only think of it) an inscription — a legible inscription" and provides what assures his reader is an accurate translation of that inscription:


THIS CORNER STONE OF A MONUMENT TO
THE MEMORY OF
GEORGE WASHINGTON
WAS LAID WITH APPROPRIATE CEREMONIES
ON THE
19TH DAY OF OCTOBER, 1847
THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE SURRENDER OF
LORD CORNWALLIS
TO GENERAL WASHINGTON AT YORKTOWN,
A.D. 1781,
UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE
WASHINGTON MONUMENT ASSOCIATION OF
THE CITY OF NEW YORK


He then proceeds to completely misinterpret this artifact:
From the few words thus preserved, we glean several important items of knowledge, not the least interesting of which is the fact that a thousand years ago actual monuments had fallen into disuse — as was all very proper — the people contenting themselves, as we do now, with a mere indication of the design to erect a monument at some future time; a cornerstone being cautiously laid by itself "solitary and alone" (excuse me for quoting the great Amriccan poet Benton!) as a guarantee of the magnanimous intention. We ascertain, too, very distinctly, from this admirable inscription, the how, as well as the where and the what, of the great surrender in question. As to the where, it was Yorktown (wherever that was), and as to the what, it was General Cornwallis (no doubt some wealthy dealer in corn). He was surrendered. The inscription commemorates the surrender of — what? — why, "of Lord Cornwallis." The only question is, what could the savages wish him surrendered for. But when we remember that these savages were undoubtedly cannibals, we are led to the conclusion that they intended him for sausage. As to the how of the surrender, no language could be more explicit. Lord Cornwallis was surrendered (for sausage) "under the auspices of the Washington Monument Association" — no doubt a charitable institution for the depositing of cornerstones.

Immediately after this passage, significantly, Poe brings his story to an abrupt stop: "Heaven bless me! what is the matter? Ah, I see — the balloon has collapsed, and we shall have a tumble into the sea." With time for only one more joke — a reference to two famous Americans of the nineteenth century as "John, a smith, and Zacckary, a tailor" — Pundita hastily concludes his letter by announcing that he will be placing it in a bottle. One suspects that Poe, a superb storyteller, recognized by now that this particular narrative was not going anywhere and thus resolved to end it as quickly as possible.
While neither the workers who unearthed this object nor the man interpreting it were formally archaeologists (quite naturally, since the profession did not really exist in Poe's era), Poe is establishing some basic conventions that will be observed in later stories about future archaeologists. First, to explain why our present might represent a mystery to our descendants, there is the assumption of some catastrophic event — here, an earthquake — which creates a discontinuity in the smooth flow of information from generation to generation. Second, because so much about their ancestors is unknown, the people of the future will be intensely interested in unearthing and studying whatever artifacts from their remote past they might happen upon. Third, they will invariably bungle the job of deducing the purpose and meaning of these artifacts, usually in a manner which is insulting or condescending.
*****


Further investigation of ancient New York City occurs in another tale of the future, John Ames Mitchell's The Last American, which first appeared in Scribner's magazine in 1889 and was published as a book in 1902. There are slight suggestions that Mitchell — a novelist and publisher best known for launching Life magazine (which then specialized in humor, not photographs) — was consciously following in the footsteps of Poe: while "Mellonta Tauta" is supposedly a letter divided into eight dated entries from April 1 to April 8, 2848, Mitchell's book is supposedly an excerpt from a journal with twelve dated entries from May 10 to May 21, 2951, followed by six entries from scattered dates in June and July of the same year. Yet, anticipating scientific regression instead of progress, Mitchell's far-future travelers come to America not in a balloon but a traditional sailing ship, and they are interestingly residents of Persia (modern Iran), perhaps making this book one of the first predictions of a future dominated by the Middle East. As in Poe, the diarist who explores and studies the New York ruins with several colleagues is not a professional archaeologist, though the introduction notes the "enthusiasm his discoveries would arouse among Persian archaeologists." While some of the Persians' exotic-looking names are difficult to figure out, at least for modern readers, most of them represent lame efforts to be amusing, such as Nōfūhl = no fool, Nōz-yt-ahl = knows it all, Ad-el-pate = addlepate, Jā-khāz = jackass, and Lev-el-Hedyd = level-headed.

Thrilled to have stumbled upon the legendary city of "Nhū-Yok," the Persians explore several of its noteworthy locales, including the Statue of Liberty, the New York Stock Exchange, the once-elegant hotel Astor House, and Central Park. It is noted that the Americans perished because, beginning in 1945, the nation was afflicted by "Climatic changes, the like of which no other land ever experienced . . . The temperature would skip in a single day from burning heat to winter's cold. No constitution could withstand it, and this vast continent became once more an empty wilderness." This is, some reports to the contrary, not exactly a pioneering vision of the devastating effects of global warming, but it does anticipate the increasingly common view among historians that shifting weather patterns have played a much larger role in the rise and fall of past civilizations than previously believed. It also functions as Mitchell's way to explain why the future Persians know so little about the United States. Coming upon a map, the Persians resolve to explore another famous city, Washington D.C., where they surprisingly find three living Americans — an elderly man and a young couple. Unfortunately, when one Persian attempts to kiss the woman, violent conflict breaks out, and along with some members of the Persian crew, all of the Americans are killed — hence Mitchell's title. In a postscript, it is reported that the surviving Persians are sailing back to their home country, intending to deliver the skull of the last American to a Tehran museum.

Like Poe's letter-writer, the Persians often misinterpret what they find in these cities. Seeing a sign on the hotel Astor House, the narrator assumes that Astor is "the name of a deity, and here is his temple." They assume that the purpose of the Statue of Liberty was to cast light on the city and cannot believe one of their men who visits it and reports that there are no signs of lighting devices. They come upon the surviving pillars that once supported one of the great bridges of New York, but noting how far apart they are, they conclude that this could not possibly represent the ruins of a bridge. Observing the statues of Native Americans that once stood outside cigar stores, the writer's comment is, "How these idols were worshipped, and why they are found in little shops and never in the great temples is a mystery." It is significant that these future Persians, like later archaeologists we will encounter, have a tendency to interpret enigmatic buildings and objects as aspects of a primitive, polytheistic religion; clearly, it never occurs to these Moslems that the ancient Americans might have practiced their own form of monotheism.

Beyond these specific deductions, however, the Persians actually spend more of their time discussing what their culture had already known about the Americans before their journey, their comments hovering uncertainly between biting social commentary and further evidence of the Persians' inability to properly understand the past. The Persians concede that the Americans had superior technology: "The very elements seem to have been their slaves. Cities were illuminated at night by artificial moons, whose radiance eclipsed the moon above. Strange devices were in use by which they conversed together when separated by a journey of many days.... The superstitions of our ancestors allowed their secrets to be lost during those dark centuries from which at last we are waking." But in all other respects, they regard America as a contemptible, uncivilized society, as these remarks will indicate:

The Mehrikans possessed neither literature, art, nor music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quick-witted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell.

They thought alike, worked alike, ate, dressed and conversed alike . . . . It was their desire to be like others. A natural feeling in a vulgar people.

Those families who possessed riches for a generation or two became the substitute for aristocracy. This upper class was given to sports and pastimes, spending their wealth freely, being prodigiously fond of display. Their intellectual development was feeble, and they wielded but little influence save in social matters. They followed closely the fashions of foreign aristocracies.

Vast sheets of paper were published daily in which all crimes were recorded in detail. The more revolting the deed, the more minute the description. Horrors were their chief delight. Scandals were drunk in with thirstful eyes. These chronicles of crime and filth were issued by hundreds of thousands.


To some extent, Mitchell is surely expressing his own concerns about his fellow citizens' excessive devotion to European models, greed, conformity, superficiality, and fascination with crime in a satirical fashion, in the manner of his own Life magazine, as is also suggested by the book's dedication: "To those thoughtful Persians who can read a warning in the sudden rise and swift extinction of a foolish people." But since all these comments can also be characterized as crude, biased overgeneralizations, he is also conveying the narrow-mindedness and arrogance of the Persians, who are obviously determined to view their own culture as superior and ancient American culture as inferior despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, it may be not simply a lack of data, but a certain rigid mindset, that will prevent our future descendants from properly understanding what we were really like.

*****


Possibly the first effort to portray actual archaeologists of the future as bumblers came from Robert Nathan — a novelist best known for writing the fantasy The Bishop's Wife (1928), later the basis for a 1947 film — who first introduced his clueless investigators in two stories published in Harper's magazine, "Digging the Weans" (November, 1956) and "A Further Report on the Weans" (April, 1959); later, these pieces were combined and expanded as a slender book entitled The Weans (1960). Nathan also introduces the practice of telling such stories in the form of reports purportedly written by future archaeologists, in this case African archaeologists who travel to the now-deserted North American continent to study the ancient people they call "the Weans" — because they so frequently referred to their land as "US." As another innovation, Nathan places his investigators about 6000 years in the future, not 1000 years, so that unlike Poe's and Mitchell's explorers, they approach their work with virtually no knowledge or preconceptions about the ancient culture they are excavating, and thus are forced to draw broad conclusions from whatever scraps of information they can unearth.

As one example of their faulty conclusions, the archaeologists assert that "The Weans were probably not at all a friendly or hospitable people" based solely on two pieces of evidence. First is New York City's Statue of Liberty, whose "one arm upraised" is interpreted as a sign of "a threatening attitude." Second is the discovery of an "inscription" reading "the dodgers were shut out." This reference suggests that Nathan's explorers are examining not only buildings and artifacts but also written documents: a table of baseball statistics, evidently found in a newspaper, is regarded as "a primitive form of banking," and there are a number of garbled references to literary writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas. Their other errors include: rendering the name of the city of Washington as "Pound-Laundry"; interpreting the name of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa as a common noun, "hofa"; and assuming from the term "hot dog" that the Americans "ate dogs, roasted." Again, the archaeologists are overly anxious to see evidence of primitive, polytheistic religions: they assert that "each city-state worshipped a different Divinity"; a fragmentary description of a rock'n'roll concert is thought to concern a religious event; and the once-influential gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons are conflated as "a powerful Divinity named Hedda, or Lolly."

Nathan's approach is so scattershot that it is sometimes hard to discern a satirical intent behind his barbs; for example, the archaeologists misinterpret an abstract sculpture of an elongated human figure as a "huge praying mantis" and speculate that the demise of the Weans might have been caused by an "invasion of mantislike insects." Perhaps this is intended as a commentary on the silliness of modern art, just as other comments might be regarded as criticisms of the policy of parity (paying farmers to not grow crops) or exorbitant divorce settlements paid to ex-wives. However, the only safe conclusion to draw from such absurd theorizing is that Nathan's archaeologists are easily the least competent investigators we have so far encountered; somehow, they even manage to interpret a portion of the famous motto on the New York City's central postal office — "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" — as evidence that the Weans perished in a "disaster of some kind," possibly a war with a rival group of tribes, "the More We" (USSR). Perhaps the real point is that, from a distance of six thousand years, it may be impossible for our descendants to really understand our culture — which Nathan's archaeologist essentially confesses at the end of his account: "So far we have been unable to do little more than scratch the surface of life in WE or US. There is no answer to the riddle: who were the Weans? And there is no solution to the mystery of their disappearance." Unlike the confident blunderers created by Poe and Mitchell, then, at least Nathan's misinterpreters are willing to acknowledge that their conclusions are superficial and possibly erroneous.

(Ironically, one unintended effect of Nathan's book is to demonstrate that it, in some cases, it may be impossible to understand a culture when observed from a distance of fifty years — since some of Nathan's jokes will be incomprehensible to modern readers who do not recall Schweppes Cola, the television program Queen for a Day, or the term "payola"; and despite extended rumination, other jokes in the text involving dated references remain incomprehensible to me. In the unlikely event that a contemporary press decides to republish The Weans, it would be necessary to include explanatory footnotes, written by a scholar who had completed the necessary archaeological research into the popular culture of 1950s America.)

*****


David Macaulay is an internationally renowned author and illustrator, well known for producing books that combine meticulous architectural drawings and lucid explanations on topics like the construction of the pyramids, a medieval cathedral, a castle, or the myriad structures found beneath a modern city; several of his books have been adapted as television specials, hosted by Macaulay himself. Thus, one would never expect to see one of his books in a bookstore's bargain bin. Yet there is precisely where I found his Motel of the Mysteries (1979), a book that obviously had not enjoyed much success. In this singular case, where had Macaulay gone wrong? The answer was that Macaulay had unwisely resolved to venture into the benighted subgenre of purportedly humorous accounts of blundering future archaeologists.

Macaulay's book begins by noting that America was destroyed in 1985 when it was suddenly covered by a huge flood of junk mail, unleashed by an accidental reduction in postal rates, followed by the sudden fall of solid pollutants from the atmosphere, placing another layer over the buried country. This may be intended to recall the way that the Roman city of Pompeii was suddenly covered by volcanic ash and thus preserved for posterity; yet the rest of the story is closely modeled on another famous archaeological discovery, Howard Carter's 1922 uncovering of the lost tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. In the year 4022, it is "Howard Carson" who accidentally stumbles upon the entrance to an ancient American structure, peers inside, and proclaims like Carter that he can see "wonderful things." As he proceeds to misinterpret his find as an ancient American tomb like Tutankhamen's, readers instantly recognize that he has actually come upon a room in a contemporary motel — farcically named the "Motel Toot'n'C'mon."

In this room, at the moment of the catastrophe, a man was lying on the double bed, watching television and holding a remote control, while his wife was in the bathroom relaxing in the bathtub, wearing a shower cap. But to Carson, the bed is the "ceremonial platform" where the deceased dignitary was placed; he is facing "the Great Altar" that was so important to his religion; the lamp on the nightstand is "a statue of the deity WATT"; the telephone is a "highly complex percussion instrument"; and the ice bucket is "the ICE," or "Internal Component Enclosure," which "was designed to preserve, at least symbolically, the major internal organs of the deceased for eternity." The "Do Not Disturb" sign on the front door is the "Sacred Seal," guarding the tomb from tomb robbers, and in the "Inner Chamber," the wife is lying in "a highly polished white sarcophagus," wearing "the Ceremonial Head Dress."

Indeed, Macaulay takes special delight in what is literally bathroom humor: the bathtub stopper on a chain is regarded as "the Sacred Pendant" to be worn around one's neck, a plunger and faucet are "musical instruments," and a scrub brush is "the Sacred Aspergillum" purportedly shaken over the bodies of the deceased. Yet the center of his amused attention is the toilet, or "the Sacred Urn." The toilet seat and cover are termed "the Sacred Collar," and both Carson and his wife at one point reverently place this holy object around their necks, Carson doing so as he endeavors to emulate his ancestors by reverently bowing down before "the Sacred Urn." And the water container over the toilet is "the Music Box."

Macaulay also goes beyond his predecessors in satirizing not only archaeologists, but the businesses that develop out of their finds. Carson and his wife arrange to place artifacts from the Motel of the Mysteries in what appears to be a highly profitable Museum; as was the case with objects from Tutankhamen's tomb, they arrange for the motel's treasures to go on tour; and they attract audiences to the site with "a dramatic living spectacle based on a number of ancient theatrical productions." They also create a "Museum Shop" offering tacky items of merchandise modeled on items from their excavation, which are shown in the book's final section, "Souvenirs and Quality Reproductions"; these include a "Coffee Set" with cups shaped like miniature toilets, a "Wall Fragment" displaying bathroom-wall graffiti like "For a good time call Val," and a belt with a buckle shaped like the "Sacred Seal." In effect, Macaulay is not only criticizing the talents of archaeologists, but he is also questioning their motives.

And, in the context of Macaulay's career, all of this seems very strange, since one imagines that Macaulay would have the utmost respect for the work of archaeologists, given that he so heavily relied upon their findings in writing books like City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (1974) and Pyramid (1975). In a sense, portraying archaeologists as greedy idiots represents a betrayal of the principles embedded in his other works, which might be another reason why his regular readers shunned Motel of the Mysteries, allowing a casual buyer to pick up a copy in a bargain bin.

*****


Of course, Motel of the Mysteries is not the only text we have encountered which fell short of overwhelming success: "Mellonta Tauta" is rarely reprinted, The Weans has apparently never been republished, and excluding e-books, The Last American has reappeared only in a completely overlooked 2005 paperback edition. Strangely, despite the fact that Poe, Mitchell, Nathan, and Macaulay were all talented and commercially successful writers, they all conspicuously failed in their struggles to bring to life this strangely stillborn subcategory of science fiction literature. And, as a warning to the next author who might be contemplating such an effort, a few conclusions about why these stories simply do not work are in order.

In the first place, whenever someone plans to write a story about archaeologists of the future examining our present-day life, they will be forced to portray them as incompetent; for surely, nothing could be more boring than to read a future archaeologist's completely accurate account of everything we already know about contemporary society. One can, however, interestingly write about capable future archaeologists who are studying the ruins of an alien culture, since they will be finding out something that is new to us; in two noteworthy stories of this type, George O. Smith's "Lost Art" (1943) and H. Beam Piper's "Omnilingual" (1957), human explorers on Mars investigating the ruins of the extinct Martian race reach accurate conclusions about that vanished civilization. One can also fruitfully expand one's perspective to imagine alien archaeologists of the far future studying an extinct human race, since they will also be answering a novel question: what will drive humanity to extinction? Thus, in Edmond Hamilton's "The Dead Planet" (1946), alien visitors to a barren Earth learn from a recorded message that future humans sacrificed themselves in order to save the Galaxy from a sinister race of energy beings, and in Arthur C. Clarke's sardonic "History Lesson" (1949), reptilian aliens from Venus haplessly attempting to understand humanity from only one surviving artifact — a Walt Disney cartoon — actually manage to make one shrewd deduction from its violent shenanigans: "it is theoretically possible to have wars in a society possessing mechanical power, flight, and even radio. Such a conception is alien to our thoughts, but we must admit its possibility, and it would certainly account for the downfall of the lost race." If someone is ever asked to assemble an anthology of classic science fiction stories about archaeology, these are the sorts of works that should be considered, not the less satisfying texts I have analyzed here.

Second, obliged to present future archaeologists as bumbling buffoons, writers are also driven to convey an implicit criticism of present-day science; for, if future humans are making wild mistakes in their studies of our present, it is equally likely that today's humans are making similarly wild mistakes in their studies of our past. The stories of Poe, Mitchell, Nathan, and Macaulay raise doubts not only about the accuracy of what archaeologists are telling us about past civilizations, but also about the accuracy of what geologists and biologists are telling us about Earth's more distant past. These visions, then, give aid and comfort to those who would prefer to believe that everything contemporary science teaches us about the past is essentially a lie, as the experts blindly ignore evidence of the obvious truth that the Earth was actually created in its present form six thousand years ago, or that every significant human accomplishment of the past was actually inspired and achieved by helpful visitors from outer space.

The stories I have discussed also call into question the very idea of human progress, the comforting belief that we are superior both scientifically and socially to the cultures that preceded us, and that future cultures will in turn be superior to our own. For one thing, Mitchell explicitly posits that our descendants will be less advanced than we are, and the investigators in other stories do not appear to have achieved any vast improvements in their own technology, suggesting at least that a certain stagnation might characterize the future. Further, if these observers are inclined to arrogantly dismiss our impressive civilization as a hodgepodge of silly superstitions and rituals, it would appear possible that we are also unfairly denigrating the civilizations of our ancestors. Consider the ancient Egyptians, expressly compared to contemporary Americans in Macaulay's book. Certainly, most modern observers would be inclined to regard ancient Egypt as an unenlightened society that practiced slavery, repressed women and minorities, practiced a crude form of polytheistic religion featuring gods that looked like animals, and lacked any significant technology. Yet one might respond that Egyptian culture was kinder to its underclasses than is generally supposed; actually had at least two women as rulers (something America has yet to achieve); briefly practiced a monotheistic religion often regarded as an anticipation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and in a few areas, such as working in stone or human embalming, displayed technological abilities that were equal to, or superior to, our own. One could argue, then, that Egyptian culture was just as admirable as our own culture, and it is only our own narrow-mindedness that leads us to view such past civilizations as hopelessly inferior to our present-day civilization. It is a view that would be heartily endorsed by contemporary anthropologists, who have long railed against the notion that the indigenous people they study are "primitive," insisting instead that all societies have their own complexities and should be accorded an equal amount of respect; and it is the view that is implicitly being promoted in these stories.

We now begin to see, as a third conclusion, why science fiction writers are not writing these sorts of stories, since the arguments that naturally emerge from them contradict the genre's usual attitudes. Science fiction is inclined to heartily support the scientific community, and thus to accept current archaeological descriptions and theories as essentially accurate, and to expect that whatever errors or omissions might exist in today's archaeology will, sooner or later, be corrected by ongoing improvements in our ability to study and understand the past. Science fiction also firmly believes in human progress, fueled by constant scientific advances, a basic impulse toward continuing improvement that even a nuclear holocaust would only briefly disrupt. Bungling future archaeologists simply do not fit into the picture.

This leads to my final conclusion as to why these stories are unsuccessful: as a longtime reader of science fiction, I generally share its core tenets: I do accept the basic accuracy of contemporary science, and I do believe that human society has improved over the years and will continue to improve in the future. Even if they do not seem designed to be taken seriously, I suspect, we reject these stories about errant archaeology because they are implicitly presenting serious arguments that we regard as fundamentally untenable. The stories being told by the science fiction stories we respect and admire, in other words, are truer than the stories that these works are telling, and that is why classic science fiction stories endure while these works are forgotten. For, even when we are reading science fiction, we tend to embrace the truth and abhor the false.

Therefore, I have absolutely no desire to assemble time capsules or prepare any detailed messages for my distant descendants, because I am completely confident that they will always be able to figure out pretty much exactly what their ancestors were like, even if some global disaster destroys most of the records, artifacts, and buildings that we are now depositing in vast numbers all over the world. Frankly, I have too much respect for everything that humanity has accomplished to date, and is likely to accomplish in the future, to ever imagine that the people of the future will someday sneer at our statues as religious idols, or bow down in front of our toilets.


Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays: Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell. His forthcoming works include the second edition of his book about space stations in science fiction, Islands in the Sky, and a study of films about space travel.


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