The Mists of History Problem
Saturday, August 18, 2018
Have you ever heard of Fernando Lamas?
Don't worry; it's not a trick question. He was a reasonably famous star back in the 1950s. He's also a great example of a star whose legacy has long since died off: My generation, and anyone younger than mine, was never widely exposed to his name. I only heard of him because he was once a guest star on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which aired on Nick at Nite when I was a kid.
It wasn't so long ago that millions upon millions in the United States recognized and admired him. But, as is true of most people, his work didn't transcend the generations, and, so, as that material lost cultural currency, the Fernando Lamas legacy could grow no further. It's very unlikely there will ever be a resurgence in interest in him. His name, in all probability, will never be widely spoken again, nor his work widely remembered. It will be reduced to a blip in historical texts—lists of old movies and actors, and descriptions thereof—and, as more years compress upon the span of time, ultimately even this will be squeezed out of humanity's knowledge, so that he is entirely gone.
(I have wondered sometimes how technology will influence this, if at all. Given that in theory we can now retain vast and extensive records of people, perhaps their legacies will last longer too. Perhaps much longer. Then again, given how hard it can be to run a forgotten computer program from the 1980s, perhaps digital immortality is an illusion. Who knows?)
Eventually, this happens to everyone. Some are forgotten before they're even dead. Others, like Caesar, will be widely remembered for thousands of years, albeit in legend more so than anything resembling historical fact. Most people of course are somewhere in between, leaving no material behind but enjoying a quiet afterlife in the memories of those who personally knew them, before finally winking out once and for all.
At any rate, this week we're going to take a look at this problem in the context of Relancii history, because it's an interesting one from a narrative standpoint.
Calendars and the Mists of History Problem
The Significance of Long-Lived or Widespread Calendars
At the start of After The Hero, the Imperial Calendar records the year as 12,076. But, like our own 2018, what does this number mean? The only constructive answer to that—other than an inference that something interesting presumably happened or was thought to have happened around Year 0—is that it becomes a measure of the stability of civilization as a whole.
Civilization is a tumultuous thing—like nature, ever changing—and if any society can be bothered to keep counting the years on the calendar once it reaches the high hundreds or even the thousands, given how routinely nations rise and fall and transform from within, there must be a cultural underpinning. And if a calendar is widely used as well as long-lived, then that signifies a correspondingly extensive degree of sociological continuity across a large geographic area. Even if fashions change, and laws, a widespread and venerable calendar is a sign of some more fundamental cohesion. Our calendar's consistency, for instance, is most likely originally a testament to the pervasiveness of Christianity, and later on to the vast unifying power of global capitalist economics and the utility of standardized reference points in our electronically interconnected world.
(As a counterexample, the present Hebrew year—which will be rolling over in about three weeks—is currently 5778, which is certainly very long-lived, yet the Hebrew calendar's actual usage in the real world is minuscule, having widely declined even in Israel, and left with no relevancy outside religious Judaism. This means it is much less remarkable than our own calendar, which, despite having less than half the years on it, is used by much of the world.)
Counting Years vs. Remembering Them
There are likewise many calendars in varying degrees and durations of use throughout Relance. The Panathan Imperial Calendar is the one I personally use for "modern" reckoning (i.e., I think of modern events in terms of it and remember modern dates by it), and its usage is quite widespread, given the Empire's size.
But there's an interesting problem here: The number 12,076 is arguably too big. Surely no part of a civilization could remain stable enough that a calendar could ever survive that long, right?
To wit, if I asked you to name five well-known public figures from the 1900s, you could easily do so. If I asked the same question of the 1800s, most people would have no trouble. Going back to the 1700s wouldn't be a terribly steep climb for most of you, either. But after that it gets a lot harder. The 1600s? The 1500s? Generally speaking, you'll have to start straining your brain for the names of politicians you learned in history class, or the names of the authors of books you read in English class. And thus you'll start remembering their names not in terms of the century they lived in, but the society they were connected to. "Ancient Greece" will give you a ton of names, but when did Aeschylus live? When did Sappho live? (Hint: Not at the same time as Aeschylus.)
How timeless our history becomes, once we go more than a few centuries out from the present day! And, in those farther centuries of our history, the tiny clutch of famous names that you might be able to rattle off, which are heavily skewed toward rulers and artists who "earned" a place in the history books, is not by itself anything so grandiose as a "grasp of history."
A calendar, on some level, reflects this. When the anchor that a calendar counts becomes irrelevant, let alone forgotten, something newer will eventually be devised.
What the devil, then, could allow a calendar on Relance to grow so old? And if we on Earth have such trouble remembering even five names worldwide from 500 years ago, how could any calendar, no matter how mighty the empire sponsoring it, last for so long?
A Teaser on the Eras of Relance
Relancii civilization is significantly older than ours is understood to be. On Earth, the oldest known civilized societies are under 10,000 years old. Nor has any single society lasted longer than a fraction of this. Yet on Relance they have this calendar that claims 12,076, and there is supposedly this entity, the Panathar Empire, that claims to have existed that whole time.
Well, for starters, we can knock that number down: Even though I originally conceived of all this in terms of tellurian (Earth) years, I kept the number the same when I switched over to the relurian (Relance) year, which is only 72 percent as long as ours. So, 12,076 relurian years would be more like 8,695 tellurian ones.
But that's still a long time, and there are no more such bonuses to unlock. On Relance, by decree of the author, there is a calendar that has lasted for that long. It wasn't devised retroactively. It isn't some kind of trick. The Imperials really did begin their calendar 12,076 years prior to the start of ATH.
What they were counting is something that Imperial scholars in Galavar's time would call the "Modern Era," signified by the restoration of the Panathar Empire after—you'd better sit down—more than 25,000 years where civilization had collapsed and did not reform.
Relancii historians name this era—itself more than double the length of the Modern Era—the "Dissonance," referring to Wars of Dissonance that defined the inability of civilization to coalesce during this time: a divine punishment upon the Kindred for challenging the Gods and participating in the War of the Gods, a mythic, super-ancient epoch that began over 40,000 years before the events of ATH.
These scales of time are almost unimaginable in sociological terms. We break up cultural developments in our own world by decade. Yet it would take dozens of centuries to surmount the Imperial Calendar, and hundreds of centuries to cross over to the other side of the Dissonance—beyond which lie several more eras of history.
The Implausibility of Indefinite Continuity
You may remember a Curious Tale Saturdays miniseries I did in 2015 about the Creqmer Tower. In that piece, I included a section on archeological attempts to date the tower. There are multiple theories and much debate among scholars, even though the argued range of possible ages—between 18 and 79 centuries—is a whole order of magnitude less than the kinds of time scales I'm talking about with respect to the full civilized history of Relance.
Even with only a tenth of the years involved, scholars still debate the tower's age, because even a "mere" four or six thousand years ago—well within the Imperial Calendar's range—is still a stupendously long amount of time from a sociological standpoint—more than enough to cloud the facts of history.
Most books 50 years old in our world are falling apart. Books a couple hundred years old are treated with gloves and masks. Books older than that are usually preserved in museums and libraries. How many books are going to last a thousand years, let alone ten thousand? Statistical tables, philosophical treatises, songs, news events, administrative reports...the written record of history is tenuous, and has the problem that history is always growing. More books to store. More books to transcribe as the old copies age.
More, more, more. It's unsustainable. Even if you're a famous star like Fernando Lamas—whom I chose in part for his celebrity; millions of people knew him at his height!—you might be nothing a hundred years later. We're not even a hundred years out from the height of his career yet, and he's mostly forgotten already. The records are still there, but, even if they do continue to be preserved somehow, who is going to read them?
Who actually goes through library archives and reads these exploits? Very few people; that's who.
And think of the opportunities for misinformation to seep in! A faulty translation, a deliberate alteration, an oblivious interpretation of an idiom or circumstance.
Even languages themselves easily become forgotten in a few short centuries, or change so much they bear no real semblance to their ancestors, and good luck reading history then. You'd better hope there's a Rosetta Stone that shows up at some point.
So how the erf did Panathar keep a calendar going for 12,076 years and counting?
The Practical Implications for the Story
I created the time scale of Relance during the RPG era, when I didn't really understand this stuff as well as I later came to. But for better or worse I kept that scale. I like the idea of a society lasting for 12,000 years, while other societies around it rose and fell. I like the idea of a nation surviving for such a long time that its own history becomes clouded and misty. And I like the idea of a forgotten civilization existing long before that.
But, in the Draft 10 Era, there are some practical implications from this time scale. It isn't trivial for a character to find a book that's 300 years old. It's downright implausible for a character to casually remember some obscure song or bit of historical lore from 3,000 years past. The farther back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes to plausibly devise a means of transferring information from the past to the present.
You've actually seen me tackle this problem many times already—probably often without realizing it. The Creqmer Tower article is but one example, a thinly-disguised teaser. It was my way of hinting that Relancii history is much, much deeper than I usually let on.
From the Prelude, the Davoranjan Hero Allopeash lived hundreds of years prior to ATH, yet upon Galandrim Rennem discovers a depiction of Allopeash's death shortly before his own. Why? How? It isn't explicitly answered, though Rennem muses that it feels like some kind of cruel joke, as though Galavar had seen Rennem coming all along.
In Mate of Song there is an interesting monument to history that you might also have not realized: While the story as a whole remains unfinished and unpublished, I did publish a scene from the story when I announced the book, and a song, "The History of Karrusíbtael the Great." While introducing the song, Afiach mentions how special and forbidden the song is, helping to seed the reader's mind with ideas for how such information could be preserved:
Karrusíbtael was a heathodwarf who lived during the Forsaken Age, sometimes called the Wars of Dissonance. In those days the Gates of Junction were closed, and the Panathar Empire did not yet exist, nor did any country now alive today. Our ancestors in that time had forgotten their powers all but one, war, and they lived like animals for many generations, until war too at last became forgotten and civilization began again.
I didn't dwell on it at the time, but Afiach here is describing, accurately (if broadly), tens of thousands of years of history, itself tens of thousands of years in the past. Where did she come by this knowledge, and how? Well, if nothing else, you can infer that the knowledge existed in some other form before it became a part of her understanding. She learned it somewhere. This establishes something very important: No matter how difficult or implausible it may seem, good swaths of at least some of Relance's ancient history are, in fact, knowable in the present day.
When Terran civilization is as old, may we be as fortunate.
In The Great Galavar, we see multiple connections to various stages of history. The history of Ieik itself is extraordinarily well preserved by the Ieikili people. But Ieik also retains much knowledge of wider, and deeper, history. For instance, you may remember the episodes involving the bell, Ar Nindar, and the vision that Galavar has when the bell is lawfully struck. In that vision, Galavar relives a brief memory of history from the viewpoint of a mate named Testasian who lived sometime in the distant past. And while not explicitly stated in the text, I'll tell you here that this vision was far older even than the era of Karrusíbtael: It is, to date, the only canonical appearance of a time before the Dissonance. That scene is rather significant, and you will marvel someday at how much I hid in plain sight.
But I digress. As for the plausibility of accessing this old information, this is specially handled by the in-story device of the bell and the day of the year: The bell is specifically designed to serve as a record (of sorts) of history, and that day of the year—The Day of the Dawn—is specifically for remembering history.
My point is that I am frequently engaged in, and from an artistic standpoint deeply fascinating with, the preservation and transference of ancient sociological information from the past to the present. This is a recurring theme in The Curious Tale and one you will infer many things from if you think to look for it. And here's one last teaser: I have a lot more planned. Much of it is already written in notes, actually. And I offer you this riddle: Whenever I talk about something from Relance's history, be it here in these articles or in the stories themselves, there is usually a deeper story reason, for I love hiding plot secrets in the distant past, because it means the unraveling of those mysteries will take us to faraway times.
Plausibility, At Last
Be all that as it may, it just isn't readily plausible for information that's more than a few hundred years old to be so widely known on Relance. Therefore, in addition to narratorial convenience and a bit of artistic license, I must also bend the story at times in order to facilitate it.
The need to realistically, plausibly store information from the past, and then make it accessible in the present, has spurred me over the years to think about societies and technologies to make this viable. It's an interesting consequence of top-down world design: In the real world, a society would arise first, and then its consequences would manifest. Here we have an instance of a consequence being designed first—the preservation and knowledge of large amounts of exceedingly ancient history—and then shaping societies and technologies to accommodate this.
The Empire, Ieik, even Davoranj...all the societies that have any real internal inertia...have evolved in my mind over the years to possess certain traits to make ancient information a little easier to preserve than it is here on Earth. So too have the powers of magic on Relance been shaped to make this reality realistic.
I've also worked in the other direction: I've reduced instances where this old knowledge is known, communicated, displayed, and so on. If Fernando Lamas can be forgotten in under a hundred years—in his own country, no less (well, "countries" plural; he was an immigrant)—then I have to keep that kind of opacity in mind for Relance, let alone the various nations of Relance. If people are going to know rare historical information, they need some plausible reason. It (usually) can't just be some rando. There has to be an in-world justification for it. I've clouded the past, clouded the facts of history, much more than previous draft eras of the story had done.
Okay, so here's one last, final teaser, for real this time: There is, in fact, a special Curious Tale Saturdays, years in the making, that makes use of these clouds in history to present a very curious challenge: an interactive Curious Tale Saturdays, and I hope to be able to finally complete it during the Year of 36.
The Problem of the Past, Today!
I'm sure I've fallen short today in resolving the problem of the mists of history. It really is a very significant problem, and by all rights there should not be such amounts of ancient knowledge so readily available in present-day Relance.
Nevertheless, resolving the problem wasn't my point here. Merely introducing it; that was my goal. And in that I have succeeded wildly!, while also skirting beaucoup story spoilers. You have no idea how close this article comes to all kinds of wild spoilers.
But, all spoilers aside, it's also just a really interesting topic, one that I hope you appreciate too.
Join me next week, in the future!
Until then, may you enjoy being known by others.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!