For the Love of Secrets Past
Do you ever wonder why the ancients always seem to have crazy secret stuff hidden away in holes? I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I think ancient ruins and the history of ancient peoples is really cool, and am often impressed with the innovations they developed – but there’s a notable trend in scifi and fantasy to show the ancient world as superior, more advanced, wiser, and better than the society shown as contemporary. If you think about it, it’s almost hard to think of a fantasy book that doesn’t do this. Everybody from Tolkien to Howard to Martin to Jordan to, gosh, everybody seems to get a piece of this. Science Fiction has its fair share, too – from Star Wars’ Old Republic to Asimov’s Galactic Empire and even Mass Effect has a lot of that ‘faded glory of ages past’ thing going on. What the hell?
To some extent this is all because of the Romans or, maybe more accurately, the Dark Ages. Humanity hit a peak with the Pax Romana and then, after a lot of bad decisions and slow erosion, it slumped into the Dark Ages, which is definitely a low. Oh, and let’s not give Europe all the blame, either. Similar stuff happened to the Islamic world after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate and to the Chinese after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. No doubt there are descendants of the Aztecs in Mexico who pine for the glory days of Tenochtitlan and Egyptians who look with wonder back on the works of the Pharaohs. History is littered with the corpses of great civilizations that preceded long periods of unimpressive or downright barbaric culture, so tendencies to look at the ancients (who got it ‘right’) for guidance are, to some extent, culturally ingrained in us.
Let’s not get carried away, though. Ancient Rome might have been neat, but to suggest that their civilization was ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’ than our own is a clear exaggeration. We do lots and lots and lots of things better than the Romans ever did. Did they achieve some things we haven’t? Well, maybe, but it wasn’t ‘ancient laser beams’ or ‘the secret to immortality.’ They probably had a slightly better way to, I don’t know, make a canoe paddle or organize a mail system without vehicles. Fascinating, but not the kind of thing you dig up out of an ancient ruin and then proceed to use in the conquest of the Earth. Our civilization is at its own little peak, and it is currently producing the kind of tricks that the next Dark Age might marvel at, but the civilized peak after that one will look at and say ‘my, weren’t they so clever without the use of moldable nanotechnology and germline genetic engineering!’ Nobody’s going to dig up a Harrier jet and fight off an alien invasion. That would be silly.
I am the first person to say that technological progress isn’t strictly linear (if you want a real-world example, take a look at this article), but I also don’t think humanity is prone to being total boneheads. We are more advanced today because, in large part, we have learned from those who have come before us. The cleverness of ages past is not evidence that they were somehow smarter than us, but rather that they were just as smart. They figured some stuff out we didn’t, wound up not using it so much, and the rest of the world sort of forgot. Later on, some other guy figured the same thing out and did it again, but then an archaeologist says ‘the Romans could do this, you know’ and then a bunch of people run around saying the Romans were the most brilliant folks who ever lived because they thought of ‘x’ thousands of years before anyone else. Then somebody points out the Chinese/Egyptians/Persians/whoever actually thought of it before them, and tout this as some kind of evidence of humanity’s escalating intelligence the further back we go. This simply isn’t true; what it is evidence for is that humanity has always been pretty smart and periodically hits upon the same ideas and accomplishes them in whatever way necessity dictates they must.
To bring this back to the specfic genres, I feel it would be refreshing to find more fantasy novels that weren’t so obsessed with the whole sic transit et gloria mundi theme. I’d like to see cultures on the rise, surpassing their forebears, blazing new ground, showing how silly the old conservatives are to stick to their old ways. We get plenty of this in science fiction, to be fair, but fantasy could use that same spirit. Maybe I’m expecting something out of the genre that isn’t under it’s purview–maybe fantasy is a genre designed for those who long for the past and see nothing but peril in the present. I don’t think so, though. I’d like to think our wildest dreams can lead us forward, not just backward.