Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pigeon Chess

I'm still stalled on my Tomb Raider/SG1 cross-over fanfic, and apologies to all, but I'm going to try to work through some of my issues here. So ignore this post if you have no interest in an unfortunate collision between honest science and an honest adherence to the established canon of a fictional universe.

Here's the ethical issue; in Stargate, and to a lesser extent in Tomb Raider, the so-called "Ancient Astronauts" theory is true. It is a given in the show that the Goa'uld (and the Ancients) had a major effect in the evolution of human societies, and even the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens ourselves.

By itself, this is not exceptionally problematic. The problems come about because these theories do not exist in a vacuum. They have a history, they have modern proponents, and they require certain specific things of real prehistory and the practice of science.

Ancient Astronaut theories are out there, and have a long history. Their roots lie in entwined threads of racism, conservative religion, and hostility to science. Take a step sideways from any of the major threads of Ancient Astronaut and one finds oneself in the middle of Young Earth Creationism arguments, fears about Satanic rituals and demonic possession, justifications for slavery and genocide, and the generic sludge of Giant Government Conspiracy that underlies practically everything from John Bircher rants to anti-vax protestors.

And these theories make an implicit statement about several branches of science and the million of people who have contributed to them (estimates for the number of working archaeologists in the US alone is about 10,000 -- extrapolate that as you can). They require that the body of these sciences contain major errors, and that the individuals working in these fields are either grossly incompetent or willingly participating in falsehood and conspiracy.

The starkness of this requirement is hidden to the casual browser of the subject. When a viewer approaches something like the original Stargate movie, or for that matter a book by Erich von Däniken, they find a surface plausibility. Ancient Egypt seems very remote, mysterious, largely unknown; it does not seem at all impossible that there would be much we do not know about that time.

And this is true, but at a subtler level of detail. Take the pyramids. For the casual reader, it is plausible to think of just the three massive examples in the Giza complex as having appeared as if out of nowhere, allowing all sorts of fanciful theories about their construction. The problem is, Egypt is not quite as mysterious as that. We see the evolution of the pyramid form from the earlier and well-established mastaba tombs, we see the first experiments from Djoser's stepped pyramid (essentially his architect Imhotep stacked a bunch of mastaba on top of each other), the first small "true" pyramids, the "bent" pyramid of Sneferu (which showed the trial-and-error of finding a slope that was sufficiently below the angle of repose to keep the pyramid from collapsing.)

And we see the same kinds of construction and the same process of learning how occurring in other cultures across the world, step pyramids in the Yucatan being only one of several examples. And across Egypt are quite a few massive building projects; why would we single out the Pyramid of Menkaure as requiring special aid to construct whilst ignoring the equally spectacular Temple of Karnak?

And if we require alien help for both those building projects, why do we not extend that same requirement to the contemporaneous (if not of the Giza complex, of many similarly huge construction projects of later Egyptian kingdoms) Acropolis of Athens? Or for that matter the Coliseum of Rome, or Hagia Sophia, or....

And, yes; in the case of the pyramids, we've seen the quarries, we've names for the kings who had them constructed and even some of the architects. We even have letters written by men who were supplying meat and grain to the workers! And I should note that as tempting as it is to see hieroglyphics, too, as mysterious and up for much interpretation, we read them better now than most Egyptians of the time would have.

There is much we still do not know or understand, especially in pre-dynastic Egypt. But the Giza Complex is too big an elephant to hide in even that large a room.

In some part it is a problem of scale. Or rather, one needs to borrow the concept of a God of the Gaps. Perhaps a Goa'uld of the Gaps? Take hieroglyphs. It is not implausible that a Goa'uld did the work of putting together the foundations of that written language. It is unlikely that a Goa'uld brought the very concept of written language, unless you wish to ignore the well-documented early evolution of writing in Sumer (and other places). It is also patently obvious that the language evolved considerably from its first examples.

The gap here is very small. One can't claim that a Goa'uld ship brought the fully formed written language used in inscriptions within Tutankhamen's tomb and handed it to a grateful (if perhaps somewhat confused) primitive people. One can only presume a Sequoya-like figure who took existing trends and concepts and even some characters suspiciously close to what contemporaneous cultures were already using and composed a basic character set and the rules of use thereof.

(This is worth amplifying on; Sequoya is a historical figure, a man who has been interviewed, and he is very precisely a single figure who invented an alphabet to capture the sounds of Cherokee -- which until him had been strictly a spoken language.)

It is the same problem you'd have if you chose to revisit the settings of early Solar-System oriented science fiction; Mars with canals, Venus with swamps, a one-face Mercury, etc. At the time these were written, the base of knowledge permitted what was described. Today it disagrees.

Except in the case of a Stargate, the division is not temporal, but one of depth. At the time the movie was written, knowledge in the field was sufficient to show the central idea was impossible as depicted.

So, yes, this is another direction the modern writer could take (one that preferred not to use as a base assumption that large parts of history, archaeology, and anthropology were wrong through either entirely implausible levels of incompetence or actual nefarious motive); one can take the tack that the depiction in the show is inaccurate. Or, more subtly, that only what is shown on screen is verified, and other theories are unsupported.

We know the Goa'uld build pyramid-shaped space ships. That's a given. But we only have Daniel Jackson's word for it that the Pyramid complex at Giza was built thousands of years earlier than we currently think it was.

Well, this approach has a certain attraction. But it is too easy to end up breaking the spirit of the canon while seeming to agree with the letter of it. Nothing shown on the screen in Star Wars, for instance, prevents it from being possible that the larger ships (up to and very much including the Death Star) are merely hollow balloons, impressive-looking props to wow the populace. But you can't propose this without distorting beyond reason too much of the way the entire universe is presented.

I mentioned earlier the current reality, troubling history, and dangerous present-day partners of the body of loosely-related Ancient Astronaut theories. This is a strong reason why I can not accept them baldly for the sake of story.

For one thing, practically speaking, they don't work. They are inconsistent within themselves, and inconsistent with such a large body of external work you might as well throw out all your history texts and set the story on Trantor or Earthsea. Anything I attempt to bring into the story from the real history of ancient Egypt clashes with the show bible of Stargate.

The other reason -- and the emotionally compelling one -- is that the Ancient Astronaut theories are bad science. The artifacts they use, the assumptions they make, are really, really shoddy.

And what is worse, many of these same shoddy examples and ludicrous ideas are being used actively by anti-science forces today; Creationists, to take only one example, draw equally on the "Bagdad Battery" or the "Coso Artifact." By accepting the claims of the von Danikens (for the purpose of telling the fictional story at hand) I am giving tacit support to the vile idiots who want to bar instruction in evolution from our classrooms. And I can't do that.

And a small but telling argument is that the gems of the Ancient Astronaut collection are so very boring. The Coso Artifact is identical to (and in fact is) a 1920's spark plug. Which means instead of crystal spires and togas these Mysterious Ancient Aliens were tooling around with stuttering, polluting, marginally reliable internal combustion engines. And if you try to build upon it, you have nothing; nothing else in the archaeological record even close to a carburetor or some vulcanized rubber or maybe an early traffic light.

Whereas an Antikytheria Mechanism is pretty damned cool to look at, is built upon materials and knowledge that have an established reality already, and provides a glimpse into the fringes of developments in astronomical prediction, observation, and celestial navigation. Examine the Coso Artifact and all you have is supposition and perhaps you can go very far sideways to the Tolima "Fighter Jets" and try to draw a connection. Examine the Antikytheria and there is an incredible assemblage of Persian astronomical devices and pre-Copernican cosmology and a host of fascinating stories to follow in all directions.

Real life, in other words, writes a better story.

So what do I do, as a writer who only realized the corner he'd painted himself into after 80,000 words and with several hundred readers explicitly waiting on the next update? (Or so say the notifications and followers on Well, there are a few options:

1. The Stargate is real and a lot of other nonsense is real as well. Not only did the Goa'uld build the pyramids and rule Egypt a thousand years before Narmer, they were mining copper in Michigan (long story!) and giving King Pakal a ride in a spaceship (which they seem to have borrowed from the Kerbal Space Program, but that's another story).

2. The Goa'uld are real but von Daniken is an idiot. There are other Ancient Astronaut theories which turn out to be true, and there is indeed both Giant Government Conspiracy and incredible if not willful incompetence on the part of the vast majority of the world's archaeologists, but the fringe believers and most of the pseudo scientists are just as wrong and ridiculous in that world as they are in ours. (The textual evidence is that the show itself takes this line).

3. The Goa'uld did a lot, but much of what Daniel ascribed to them at one point or another was their propaganda. Archaeology is still being willfully obtuse but there is less obvious evidence they are forced to ignore.

4. The Goa'uld are lying to themselves as well, and got as much from humanity as humanity got from them. (Or you could say, from the Ancients, but that's a whole other issue!) They are a parasite species who weren't even intelligent before they merged with hosts with larger brain power (the unas first, then their now preferred host, humanity). They made an impact in certain parts of pre-history, but Ancient Egypt largely bootstrapped itself and evolved along the familiar forms; aka, most of archaeology is as we think it is, with just a few oddities here and there that either either being covered up or are infrequent and out of place enough they can be safely ignored.

5. There is a big lie all right, but it is the show canon; almost everything we think we know about the Goa'uld and the Stargate is wrong. The actual truth may or may not fit into modern conceptions of human history and pre-history.

6. First rule of Stargate; never talk about where the damned Stargate came from. Get on with the story and somehow never have to talk about the ridiculous back-story.

Okay, so all of these options are bad. Some are worse than others. #6 is right out because if you can't talk about ancient cultures, why would you write a story with two Adventure Archaeologists in it?

#3 seems the least annoying and most plausible, but I've been sidestepping the problem of footprint. Let me explain. Popular depictions of archaeology are artifact-centric. Take the "Baghdad Battery." Taken by itself, it is an item that demonstrably can generate a small current and perhaps could be used in a basic electroplating rig.

The problem is that there's no sign of any of the other materials. They had the technology to make copper wire, but we've not found a scrap of it. There is this one possible battery, but if it had been used for that purpose, they would have made more. And no sign of the baths, the electrodes, the luxury goods that could only have been electroplated; none of the relics we see about any real technology.

Every flint arrowhead (as a class, not as an individual arrowhead) is accompanied by flakes. Early iron is known as much by remains of charcoal kilns and other tools of iron-smelting as it is by the iron artifacts themselves.

As archaeologists have remarked about such artifacts as the "Kensington Runestone," it isn't impossible that Vikings came through and carved that stone. What is impossible is ninja Vikings. Every other time Vikings were present in the New World, they left trash. Their settlements have a footprint, and it is one that is of an accumulation of small but tellingly specific debris. The large singular artifacts by themselves do not sell the story. One Hercules-hilt gladius does not put the Ninth ("Lost") Legion in Nova Scotia.

And advanced technologies have a huge footprint. The Antikytheria Mechanism is hand-tooled with the same materials and methods that were used in numerous other artifacts. But just as ordinary iron requires charcoal-burning (or the local equivalent) somewhere, an entire jet aircraft would require such things as, well, a completely functional refinery. It takes hundreds of technologies with hundreds of different precursor materials and hundreds of different steps in order to arrive a jet aircraft. You would never see just an engine nacelle buried in an ancient tomb; you would see the ancient scars of open pit mines and oil wells and full-scale machine shops spread across the surrounding area.

My biggest available cheat is that the Goa'uld tech is so advanced it is just plausible for the purposes of my story to assume it has no ordinary footprint. Assume it looks like nanotech (of the implausible early Dressler kind, that is); it grows on a substrate, and there is never a point at which an individual Goa'uld or human slave has to run a lathe or do hot air re-work on a PCB.

So I can hand-wave over the need to quarry ytterbium or enrich uranium or any of those other necessary steps for our own technology. But that also means the Goa'uld "gifts" are not going to be particular advanced. Crop rotation and a written language, perhaps. Irrigation. But they won't be (and canonically they basically didn't anyway) give out television or firearms or 1920's motorcar engines to any ancient peoples.

In any case, I'm pretty much wavering between #3 and #4 above. I don't want to go too far from the show as depicted, but I also don't want to have to explain how every working archaeologist is ignoring the obvious. What is very tempting is to come up with a clever and coherent alternative that fits with the presented evidence of the Stargate universe while also agreeing as closely as possible with known archaeology. But I think, alas, that is well beyond either my creative or research skills.

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