It used to be a mainstay of science fiction: the story where we visit a barbarian society that turns out to have been highly technologically advanced in the past. You saw this story all the time on Doctor Who and Star Trek, and in the pulps. And now, it's more or less vanished. What happened?
Top image: Michael Whelan.
We talked about this sort of story archetype with Michael Chabon, when we interviewed him about John Carter last year. We asked him where that type of "visiting a formerly advanced culture" story comes from, and he responded:
As the 19th century turned into the 20th century and archeologists started to press deeper in to the jungles of Central and South America and into the deserts of Mesopotamia and India, they began to encounter clear evidence of many civilizations that had attained some level of technological greatness. You look around at these places and you see the living descendants of these people living without the incredibly sophisticated caliber of technology that their forebears had invented. I think it's a very haunting, stark memento mori for a representative of any civilization.
That begins to permeate the thinking of 19th century Europe and America and produces works like The Decline of The West. The rise and fall of civilization is this inevitable process, to which we must all eventually succumb. Nobody's going got be more haunted by that thinking than a parvenu, an ariviste who's kind of new to it all. The person who's most worried about losing everything is the person who's had it the least amount of time. You find that kind of anxiety haunting American popular fiction. You see it in H.P. Lovecraft, you see it in Robert E Howard. In fact, it's probably one of the key tropes of a lot of pulp fiction of the 20th century, that notion that it's all bound to end someday.
That helped determine the way the astronomer Percival Lowell, it helped determine what he saw when he looked through is telescope at the planet Mars. He saw these lines that looked like man-made structures. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli referred to them as canalli, and [Lowell] thought that meant canals. In fact, it meant channels. His mind, prepared by the 19th century experience of the fear of decline, the gotterdamerung — he just made that imaginative leap and thought, "Now I can see Mars is far from the sun, and it looks cold, and it probably doesn't have much atmosphere and seems to be mostly desert. What I'm going to infer from that is that there was this once great civilization that built these mighty canals that criss-crossed the entire planet. And why were they there? They must have been trying to save their world by spreading water from the polar ice caps." This is a man of science, and he just made one wild inference after another. Those were all driven by the gestalt of that, and Edgar Rice Burroughs had the brilliant pulp narrative wisdom and transform into this rich world of Barsoom, which is in this long, slow, gradual decline, having once reached this mighty pinnacle.
But that still doesn't explain why this particular story trope went away. I'm hard-pressed to think of an "advanced civilization now fallen into barbarism" story in the past decade or so — apart from John Carter, of course. Especially the subtrope, where the newly barbaric society is worshipping its former high technology, doesn't seem to turn up that much. (Although apparently it's big in Japan, specifically Japanese RPGs.)
So what happened? I have two theories. First, these stories were about colonialism, and that they thrived during and immediately after the colonial era. Part of the wish-fulfillment aspect of the "fallen into barbarism" story isn't just the puzzle-solving of realizing that this apparently backward society was once advanced — it's also getting to be the clever white person (usually white guy) who understands the natives' own history better than they do. The European visitor who figures out that the idol all the natives are worshipping is really a computer, or that all of their ancient myths are actually about spaceships or whatnot.
And maybe we're a little less comfortable being overtly triumphalist in our depictions of race and cultural interaction, and a little less happy to celebrate the idea of the white explorer who visits other peoples and tells them how best to interpret their own cultures.
But a second theory is that the "foreign culture that has fallen into barbarism" story has largely been replaced by the post-apocalyptic story, in which it's our own civilization that's fallen. There's not that much difference between how Edgar Rice Burroughs treats the forgotten greatness of Barsoom and how, say, Revolution treats America's former technological and political prowess.
It's just that as America (and other Western countries) have appeared more fallible on the world stage and weaker economically, it's harder to imagine us striding triumphantly through the scene of other people's former greatness — and easier to imagine striding through our own ruins.