Hundreds of golden civilizations have risen across history, juggernauts who conquered nature and other nations—but never defeated the passing of time. No matter how glorious, every grand culture has eventually staggered, tripped, and come crashing down into apocalypse. And from those splintered ruins rise incredible myths, strange artifacts, and dreams of a forgotten time.
My new novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, imagines a race of humanlike robots created eons ago by one such lost civilization. These marvelously advanced machines are trapped in a world of barbarians, stranded out of time, watching the ruins of their cities crumble into a dark age. As their power supplies dwindle, the machines desperately maneuver our civilization toward a technological future capable of understanding them. Called avtomat, the robots in my novel are survivors of an ancient cataclysm, servants of the great empires of antiquity, and immortal shepherds to our civilization. But they are not the first fictional characters to sift through the detritus of a fallen world.
So without further ado, here are five of my favorite stories that do the same:
“For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny
Technically this is a short story, but I couldn’t pass it up since it’s one of my favorite stories of all time. A race of highly advanced machines sift emotionlessly through the broken remains of dead human cities, never sparing a thought toward the people who once lived and are now gone. Until one day, when an artificial intelligence called Frost decides to build a human being through which to see the world. The machine gazes upon devastation and experiences the stark beauty and terrible sadness of his Maker’s self-destruction. Heart-breaking.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
Stumbling upon the horrific remains of an inconceivable alien race was perhaps done first and best by our woefully unappreciated (at the time) friend H.P. Lovecraft. On a mission to Antarctica, a group of geologists find the prehistoric remains of an ancient race so bizarre and foreign to human understanding that simply to contemplate their remains and the architecture of their ruins is an invitation to madness. Awe-inspiring.
Pure by Julianna Baggott
Maybe a surprising addition to this list of classics, I love Pure because of how the beauty of the past is incorporated (literally) into the ruins of the present. After some kind of horrible weapon detonation, survivors are melded into whatever (or whoever) they happened to be near. The protagonist has a doll head melded into her hand, and that’s probably the least horrific mutation in the novel. Grotesquely satisfying.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
An oldie but a goodie, Niven takes a fascinating physics problem (how to build a strip of land that circles the sun, and give it night and day, etc) and sets his characters loose upon it. In a place with a land mass equal to all our planets combined, Ringworld explores a ridiculous complexity of races, species, languages, and histories. Some are living and some are dead, but the scale of it is nearly beyond imagination. Epic.
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
A smaller novel (with a totally misleading title) but one of my favorites, Roadside Picnic follows a desperate and brave scavenger who loots an area of the planet contaminated by a mysterious alien contact. The Visitation Zones are not so much the remains of a ruined civilization as they are the remains of a temporary alien visit (“roadside picnic”). Inside, the zones are bizarrely lethal, physics-breaking areas of extreme danger. Despite the enigmatic setting, the underlying story is beautiful and simple—a flawed criminal risks everything to support and protect his wife and little girl. Utterly unique.
As you can see, I love books that are set in the ruins of fallen civilizations! So, please—tell me what I missed in the comments. And in the meantime, let’s enjoy our own civilization while it lasts…
Top image from The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny: Power & Light; cover art by Michael Whelan.
Daniel H. Wilson is author of the New York Times bestselling Robopocalypse, as well as nine other books. He earned a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. His next novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, is available now from Doubleday. Find him on Twitter @danielwilsonPDX.