As previously discussed, it’s possible to do such a thorough job of destroying a civilization that all knowledge of it is lost…at least until inexplicable relics start to turn up. One example: the real world Indus Valley Civilization, which might have flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC, across territory now found in western and northwestern India, Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan. It was contemporaneous with the civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. History did a thorough enough job of erasing the Indus Valley Civilization from the records that when modern archaeology began to study it, it wasn’t at all clear whose ruins were being explored. It just goes to show that no matter how great a civilization might be, time is greater.
Thanks to the exploits of 19th-century archaeologists (many of them no better than Indiana Jones, digging for statues and jewelry while ignoring evidence of daily life), lost civilizations were common features of 19th-century adventure stories. The trope was imported wholesale into early SFF. Do you remember your first SFF lost civilization? I remember mine, which was thanks to Scholastic Books: the enthusiastically pulp-ish Stranger from the Depths, by Gerry Turner.
A mysterious relic reveals to humanity that there was an ancient civilization that arose before modern humans evolved in Africa. “Was”…or “is”? Ancient does not always mean vanished. These ancient aliens have, in fact, survived(!!!) in well-concealed refugia. Humans have now stumbled across them. Will humans survive the discovery?
Here are a few of my favourite SFF lost civilizations:
C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith inhabit settings that are two thousand years apart. Jirel’s people live in a world they believe to be demon-haunted. Smith’s people have arrived at a different conclusion.
Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.
The evidence in the stories suggests that not only were creatures other than Men responsible for some of those forgotten civilizations, but that Jirel was not so very far off the mark when she thought demons haunted the relics of the past. And for the record, I would like to note (again) that while Jirel faces her challenges with bravery, determination, and cunning, Northwest is a dim-witted genre-blind charmer who strides obliviously into traps and lets his women die to save him.
James P. Hogan’s first novel, Inherit the Stars, reads more like 1940s puzzle SF than the Disco-era book that it is, but it was still a diverting debut. 21st-century humanity is faced with a seemingly insoluble mystery: a 50,000-year-old space-suited human corpse on the Moon. The age of the body is undeniable, but so is the fact that there is no evidence on Earth of a civilization capable of putting a man on the Moon 50,000 years ago. At the same time, humans are clearly the product of a terrestrial evolutionary lineage hundreds of million of years old. How to reconcile the irreconcilable?
In Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s Trigon Disunity trilogy, the Earth receives mysterious signals from the stars and sends out its first interstellar mission to seek their origin. The expedition finds extra-solar colonies that are clearly the last remnant of a star-spanning civilization that has otherwise disappeared. What erased this civilization? And how can humans prevent a repeat?
Enigmatic relics provide both the title of Sarah Tolmie’s remarkable debut novel, The Stone Boatmen, and evidence that some great civilization once spanned the world. The ship Aphelion sets out to discover what it can, in the process discovering that there are at least two other cultures (in addition to the city that launched Aphelion) that are also amnesiac children of that great vanished power. Ages of isolation have insured that the three cultures will develop in very different ways. The novel’s braided stories spin a gentle tale of lost cousins rediscovering family, one enchanting enough to earn a glowing blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin herself.
I am certain some of you are astounded that I didn’t mention some old classic—She, for example, or a widely beloved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novel. Embrace what’s apparently the custom and point out my egregious oversight in comments!
Originally published July 2019.
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 Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.