Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Plotbot
  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
May 2017

Hopewell, or Area 5.1

“Almond Joy's got nuts; Mounds don't.”
- TV commercial, mid-1970s

Probably sometime around when I had that candy bar jingle stuck in my head (age eight or nine, maybe), I read a slim illustrated book about the Hopewell Culture, who lived in the Ohio Valley region a thousand years before the Europeans arrived. I can't remember the author. The single image that has stayed with me was a pencil drawing of a shaman, dancing, with long curved finger- and thumb-nails like the claws of a raptor (possibly inspired by artifacts like this). Connected to that image in my brain is a written description of the funeral practices of the Hopewell. Bodies of chiefs and other important people were supposedly left on an elevated rack to soften (and possibly feed the vultures), and then the shaman would ritually scrape the remaining flesh off with those fingernails before burying the bones in huge earthen mounds shaped like animals. I had no idea how much of this description was responsible 1970s archaeology and how much was Ripley-style sensationalism. I read a lot of both back then, and my choices of what to believe were largely based on what I found most interesting.

SF Grandmaster Robert Silverberg also wrote a couple of nonfiction books on the Mound Builders, tracing the history of the archaeological debate. They were actually at least three different cultures, separated by hundreds of years, which would be kind of like lumping the Roman, British, and American Empires into one cultural species. Whether it was pure racism on the part of whites, or whether it was reinforced by cultural amnesia on the part of the native tribes, for a long time almost nobody was willing to believe that natives were capable of building and farming on that scale. Thomas Jefferson had a years-long running quill-duel with Count Buffon and other European intellectuals who kept claiming that America's cooler and wetter climate led to the physical and mental degeneration of all animals, including humans. Jefferson was really hoping that Lewis and Clark would find living mammoths and mastodons roaming the interior somewhere, in addition to the ancient remains that kept turning up in places like Big Bone Lick in my home state of Kentucky.

That'd show those snooty frogs . . .

So, in our ignorance, our culture made up other prehistoric American cultures, who had supposedly been killed off by the savage Indians. These ranged from Greeks to Romans to Vikings to Biblical Giants to refugee Atlanteans (an idea still kept alive in the writings of people like Edgar Cayce and Graham Hancock from column #4, though to be fair, in the past couple of weeks Hancock got a boost, at least on the Younger Dryas impact event, from this paper). The one I found most surprising was the idea that the Mound Builders were lost tribes of Israel, an idea that some speculate may have influenced the development of the Book of Mormon. This was state-of-the-art archaeology during the nineteenth century, and remains state-of-the-art conspiracy theory now. It's very hard to kill entertaining ideas with evidence. Umberto Eco, in his novel The Prague Cemetery, detailed a whole decades-long process of the evolution of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, where recycled drafts of the same plagiarized ideas by the same prolific forger—bought by different interest groups—served to reinforce one another as “independent” sources to the general public.

During the twentieth century, of course, we discovered evidence for all kinds of even wealthier and more technologically advanced cultures than the Hopewells throughout the Americas, from the Aztecs to the Maya to the Incas. We're still finding “new” ones, like the culture that built the legendary Ciudad Blanca, found during a helicopter-based lidar scan of the Honduran mountain rain forest in 2012, and now more politically correctly renamed the City of the Jaguar. Despite how common the “lost culture” trope is in SF, however, it wasn't until Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, & Steel that it became pop-culturally obvious how an advanced culture could simply disappear, how it could collapse to such an extent that its direct genetic and linguistic descendants could forget how to use their own technologies. After all, nobody thought the Greeks and the Romans were aliens (the Egyptians, sure).

What it really comes down to is population, and the fact that human babies are not born knowing anything about technology. Technological societies, whether built of wood, or stone, or concrete and glass, require continuous work to maintain. The pandemics brought by Columbus and later colonists killed between ninety and ninety-five percent of the native American population. If we lost ninety percent of our modern population in a pandemic, knocking the Earth down to less than one billion people in fifty years or less, our globalized industrial society would undoubtedly collapse, too. How far it would collapse is an open question, but I can't imagine we would be building any space elevators.

There are a few fiction books about the various Mound cultures (as a quick search will turn up), and Escape Pod has an alternate history where the Aztecs are capable of space flight. But there is much fertile ground for fictional exploration of pre-colonial America, even leaving aside the Ancient Aliens angle. How about a good old-fashioned time travel story, exploring a different culture rather than endlessly rehashing our own culture's history? Or an alternate history where the pandemic was reversed, or where there was just enough earlier gene flow between populations to prevent a pandemic? Or a fantasy series with a working magic system that's NOT based on medieval Europe?

I realize that “the market” has a narrowing effect, as authors inevitably copy the things they've read, and the things they see selling now online or in their local bookstores. But as shown in this article about the Black List, there are lots of good stories waiting to be told (and sold), which are emphatically not what is already out there. I would like to believe this column is likewise a force for expanding what's possible and plausible and scientifically responsible. But I'm clearly prejudiced.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., really likes Venn diagrams.

REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almond_Joy

http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Hopewell_Culture

https://muse.jhu.edu/book/23680

Silverberg's fourth-most widely held work in WorldCat libraries”—Wikipedia flavor text?

http://www.jasoncolavito.com/mound-builders.html

Whoever built the mounds had a faculty not possessed by modern Indians. Building instincts seem hereditary. The beaver and the musk rat build a house. Other creatures to whom a dwelling might be serviceable, such as the squirrel, obtain shelter in another way. And races have their distinctive tendencies likewise. It never occurs to an Indian to build a mound.”

Cooper, C (2016). Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery. Overlook Press, New York.

Chapter 1 describes how Jefferson recruited volunteers to prove that the east coast of America was both warmer and sunnier than Europe.

Gutzman, KRC (2017). Thomas Jefferson – Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Specifically Chapter 4, “Assimilation.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bone_Lick_State_Park

http://www.edgarcayce.org/about-us/blog/blog-posts/the-mound-builders-giant-skeletons-and-the-soul’s-journey-to-the-sky

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=columns&vol=randall_hayes&article=004

http://maajournal.com/Issues/2017/Vol17-1/Sweatman%20and%20Tsikritsis%2017%281%29.pdf

DOI:10.5281/zenodo.400780

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/books/review/the-prague-cemetery-by-umberto-eco-book-review.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/17/society.umbertoeco

A bit more by Eco, an Italian, on the specifics of anti-semitism in his own country.

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/an-ancient-city-emerges-in-a-remote-rain-forest

The book was really good, too.

http://gisgeography.com/lidar-light-detection-and-ranging/

http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/

POPULATION VS. TECH LEVEL
There is a lot of controversy about this issue, almost none of it relevant to our time.

Summary
https://escholarship.org/uc/item/61n4303q#page-2

The argument
http://www.jstor.org/stable/117309?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
http://randompolicy.blogspot.com/2013/01/minimum-population-to-support-high-tech.html
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/277/1693/2559.short
http://in-africa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Powell-A-et-al-2009-Science-Late-Pleistocene-demography-and-the-appearance-of-modern-human-behaviour.pdf
http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/368/1630/20120412.short
http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1567/1060?iss=1567

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YI_PMkZnxQ

Good documentary.

http://escapepod.org/2011/09/30/ep312_night_bird_soaring/

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-data-can-help-you-write-a-better-screenplay/

“We can also find out some of the more tired genres by looking at the scripts that were flagged for being derivative or unoriginal. A whopping 36 percent of epic war movies were considered derivative, with monster movies (32 percent unoriginal), romantic fantasy (30 percent), mythology (30 percent) and sword and sorcery films (28 percent) rounding out the top five most derivative genres.”

Read more by Randall Hayes


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