The post-20th century “postapocalypse” versus $4 million dollars’ worth of post-30th century “postapocalypse”

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When you imagine a post-apocalyptic world, do you normally imagine little recognizable bits of a known world, like a STOP sign used as a shield or a burned-out car used as a chicken coop?

These little elements are like “Rosetta stones” and I think that’s because adventure fiction owes a lot to the golden age of archaeology in the 19th century.
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In the 18th and 19th centuries, guys like Napoleon had the freedom to travel and they had to make sense of old cultures like Egypt for military purposes. A little archaeology got done along the way.

By the 19th century, the British had a lot of the wherewithal needed to travel the world. Thus the stereotypical archaeologist is a 19th century British aristocrat in safari clothing – and, interestingly, archaeology has been in a massive decline in terms of cultural influence for most of the 20th century. The Pax Americana has been good for UFO theories of how aliens built the pyramids, but the Americans seem to produce very few actual archaeologists.

Adventure fiction really got recognizable with books like King Solomon’s Mines. It is a book saturated in the British archaeological mindset. The heroes can recognize lots of little “Rosetta Stone” elements that allow them to make sense of their surroundings. This is the most important part of the story!

Seeing an ancient artifact doesn’t matter if you can’t recognize it. If I had a perfectly smooth obsidian ball, even if it turned out to be 5000 years old, it wouldn’t create a sense of place. It could be anything from any culture. Like the modern world, it would be annoyingly bland. There could be ten distinct ancient cultures, each with their own sets of smooth obsidian balls, and there would be no way to tell one culture from the next.

The thing about classic archaeology fiction is that it gives lots of plausible details that create a sense of place. Some British guy investigating ancient ruins in northern India sees different pictures and artifacts than Indiana Jones investigating Egyptian ruins. The setting becomes very important for archaeology-adventure fiction – the details of ancient writings, ancient statues, etc., are vastly more important than the personalities of the heroes and villains.

The defining quality of archaeological-fiction is that the setting details allow the audience to REASON through a little bit of archaeological imagining. The typical hero is either a highly educated British aristocrat or an H. P. Lovecraft-type American, so he is educated enough to talk out loud about the clues the audience will need to REASON through the fictional mystery.

Traditional fantasy fiction has an awful lot of archaeology – check out Andre Norton’s books (but don’t bother learning Tolkien’s Elvish language). But “high fantasy” was probably invented by E. Eddison’s Worm Ourobouros, combined with Clark Ashton Smith, and “high fantasy” is anti-rational. Those stories are very non-archaeological; the little details CANNOT be analyzed. All the weird details in a C. A. Smith story are designed to PREVENT the audience from being rational.

Once R. E. Howard got into the mix, sci-fi was more important than archaeology. The classic REH story, “Red Nails,” uses a sci-fi raygun as a “wand” and a sci-fi alien city as an “ancient city.” This is why stereotypical Dungeons & Dragons fantasy is all about throwing fireballs. Ancient legends of magic have few, if any, fireballs, but E.E. “Doc” Smith has lots. Dungeons & Dragons just takes typical E. E. “Doc” Smith fireworks and filters them through R. E. Howard’s “Red Nails.”

The result, IMHO, is that typical adventure fiction can show you an ancient artifact or an ancient city, but the archaeological rationality has been lost. It’s all unexplained “magic.”

Now, mix in Cold War paranoia and you have a very self-conscious sense of American culture – kind of like Walker Percy’s stories, perhaps with a touch of Hunter S. Thompson or Stephen King. That is classic American archaeology – UFOs and post-apocalyptic stuff. The hero is still trying to recognize ancient artifacts of the past – but even if the hero can’t make sense of it, the audience can recognize pieces of 20th century America, like STOP signs and automobiles and “Nuka-Cola” and so on. The rational archaeology is uneducated, but as in British archaeology-fiction, the setting is more important than the personalities of the characters.

With some stories, such as the original Bioshock, the art deco visual style and the campy nostalgia is the major strong point of the game. Andrew Ryan is an acceptable character, but the city of Rapture is the only truly interesting character. No one would have bothered to finish the game if it was just another System Shock rip-off. Everybody kept playing because we got to use an old-timey interface to buy ammo, and because our power-ups were packaged in beautiful crystal bottles.

Now all of the above tells you about ordinary post-apocalypse fiction – what about post-30th century post-apocalypse fiction?

As you can see, inXile just got $4 million to make it happen.

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