Saturday, June 24, 2017

'Ah, that was a beautiful piece of engineering and archaeology!'. Cordwainer Smith's IOM rocket.

I'm always fascinated by how science fiction writers portray archaeology.  A couple of weeks ago, I was wandering through the Adelaide Central Markets on my way to work, and I spied a second-hand book sale. There was a box of old science fiction, and one leapt out at me: Cordwainer Smith's Space Lords, which I did not have.

To my delight, this volume of short stories contained one that I'd never read either. Drunkboat is the story of how the Lord Crudelta precipitated the discovery of Space3. I knew of the story as some critics have discussed it in reference to the evolution of the Vomact family. 

Leaving the plot aside, here is how Cordwainer Smith imagines a kind of space archaeology:
We had put him in a rocket of the most ancient style. We also wrote writing on the outside of it, just the way the Ancients did when they first ventured into space. Ah, that was a beautiful piece of engineering and archeology! We copied everything right down to the correct models of fifteen thousand years ago, when the Paroskii and Murkins were racing each other into space. The rocket was white, with a red and white gantry beside it. The letters IOM were on the rocket, not that the words mattered.

IOM, of course, stands for the Instrumentality of Mankind. The national symbols that adorned spacecraft in the 20th and 21st centuries are mystifying to the denizens of the future, but they copy them anyway.

Fifteen thousand years on from the Cold War space race - I assume the Paroskii and the Murkins are meant to represent the USSR and the USA - there's sufficient documentation and models of the early rockets to replicate them. The IOM rocket is thus a facsimile of old technology. If we think about what was happening 15 000 years ago for us, one of the principle technologies was the manufacture of stone tools. So perhaps this was like something archaeologists might do today in replicating a Magdalenian retouched point.

Magdalenian flaked stone artefacts, from Debout et al 2012
Such technology is often called 'primitive' in popular accounts, but it was very far from that, requiring a highly sophisticated knowledge of geology and engineering too - understanding the mechanical, chemical and fracture properties of stone are essential to making stone tools. Learning how to actually make and use ancient technologies is sometimes called ethnoarchaeology, and the idea is that you can learn something about how people lived in the past that simply analysing the artefact as an object cannot reveal.

Similarly, the facsimile of the rocket demands both engineering and archaeology to make it more than just another model. The rocket is launched from its red and white gantry - cheerful picnic colours - and if you want to know the rest, you will have to read the story.

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