Tugging on Superman’s Cape: Simple Suggestions for Avoiding World-Destroying Disaster. Or Not.

There are, I think, a few basic safety rules which, if consistently ignored, will almost always provide would-be adventurers with sufficient diversion to create an exciting plot.

Rule number one: do not engage in archaeology. Do not fund archaeology. Above all, do not free that which has been carefully entombed. In most SF and fantasy settings, there were good reasons for entombment…and they still hold.

Indiana Jones did not manage to keep the Nazis from grabbing the Ark of the Covenant. No, the Ark protected itself. As you can see…

Melting Indiana Jones GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The upside of this experiment in archaeology was that the outcome was beneficial: pesky Nazis conveniently melted! This is not always the case. Angry gods are not always quite so particular about their victims; supernatural phenomena don’t care at all about good or bad. (I shouldn’t have to add this, but it’s 2018: Nazis are bad.)

In the future history in which many of Arsen Darnay’s Disco-Era stories1 were set, widespread use of nuclear power demanded a solution to the problems posed by radioactive waste. The solution: a nuclear priesthood conditioned (between incarnations) to find and guard radioactive materials. The result: an ever-renewed population compelled to seek out and hoard repositories of reactor waste. The toxic material kills them; they are reborn and return to their lethal labors: Lather, rinse, repeat. This is not the at all same thing as safely containing the stuff.

While the nuclear priests in Darnay’s books may have a legitimate excuse for digging up that which should remained buried, the wizard Bomanz (in the backstory to Glen Cook’s Black Company series) has no such excuse. Eager for knowledge, he explored the Barrowlands in which the Dominator and the Lady had been confined. He woke the Lady. To Bomanz’s surprise (but nobody else’s) it turned out that making psychic contact with beings known for their mental-domination abilities is a bad idea. After that, it was all over…well, except the screaming and the subsequent decades of war on an epic, continental scale.

Bomanz could at least plead that the effects of his error were merely regional, no worse in the end than a limited nuclear war. The humans in Christopher B. Rowley’s Vang series (Starhammer, The Vang: The Military Form, and The Vang: The Battlemaster) know that they live in a universe in which far more advanced civilizations have suffered abrupt, horrifying ends, in which weapons capable of snuffing out entire star systems were not sufficient to preserve said lost races. One might think that would instill profound levels of caution in human explorers.

The Vang: The Military FormOne would be wrong.

At least Vang outbreaks are generally limited to individual worlds. The galaxy has over four hundred billion star systems. Losing the odd world here or there to a hegemonizing swarm is sad, but not that consequential in the grand scheme of things. Worlds may die but the galaxy goes on.

…Or at least it does unless one lives in the worlds of Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought. In that setting (as demonstrated in the novel Fire Upon the Deep) opening the wrong archived zip file can unleash extremely aggressive, extremely malevolent hyper-intelligent entities capable of commandeering entire civilizations in their quest to conquer and consume the whole of the galaxy. Even I (a perennial runner-up in the Darwin Awards) can understand that waking hungry gods with galactic reach is a bad idea. The researchers responsible for unleashing the Blight on the Milky Way knew that, but they experimented anyway. On the plus side, they died for their arrogance. On the minus side, so did billions of perfectly innocent bystanders.

Immediately defunding of every archaeology department and research program may not be sufficient to save us, because (as The Mummy films reveal) there are simply too many rich people with archaeological hobbies2. Perhaps we need obligatory archaeology prevention programs in school (like the drug prevention programs that have worked so well). Perhaps task forces should be roaming the world, shutting down illicit digs. Or perhaps we should just hope that civilizations will simply do a better job of disposing of their surplus existential threats than fictional civilizations ever seem to have done.

Or perhaps we really need do something about the advertising. The next time you are entombing an insufficiently dead eldritch horror, take a step back and ask yourself: “Is this giant, skull-encrusted pyramid sending the message I intend? Or is it simply a giant billboard that will attract adventurers for as long as it takes for the Horrors Hidden Within to be freed?” It’s just something we all ought to consider (but probably won’t).


1: Arsen Darnay books and stories set in a nuclear-priesthood world: Karma, A Hostage for Hinterland, “Plutonium,” “Salty’s Sweep,” and others.

2: People who find one long-buried existential threat often acquire a curious taste for finding more long-buried horrors. That’s not helpful at all. See, for instance, Melissa Scott’s Order of the Air novels, which feature much millionaire-funded perilous archaeology.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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