Writing For Posterity


Okay, so every writer wants to know that their work will last down the ages. But there’s a project going on at the moment which takes it to the next level. A group of people have been tasked with the job of warning future generations away from highly dangerous areas such as radioactive waste contamination. The challenge is that language changes way faster than radioactive waste deteriorates, so putting up warning signs just won’t cut it. Metal rusts, symbolism and words evolve, and a sign won’t last for more than a couple of decades. Even carving into stone is out, since erosion will probably make it illegible within a couple of centuries, plus the aforementioned language barrier.

So how do you communicate with the next millennium?

The answer is to use the landscape as your media. Make it inhospitable and ugly – a place people simply don’t want to be. Put up sculptures that loom and make unpleasant or creepy noises in the wind. Cover the area with massive concrete and metal spikes that would cost a huge amount of time, effort and money to clear. Build sulphur pits to make it stink – that stuff lasts for ages, I’m pretty sure. Make it abundantly clear that people are not welcome here.

This isn’t a new idea, by any means. Gargoyles were originally designed to scare people away from sacred places, and that dates right back to the Ancient Greeks and apotropaic magic. Regardless of what language you speak, an angry woman with snakes instead of hair is scary, right? You’d know you aren’t supposed to be there. Same principle.

If you find this idea fascinating, then it’s all in a book called Deep Time by Gregory Benford which talks about the messages and impact our ancestors made on the world, and how we can consciously do it for the future:

We extract stories from our environment because we are hard-wired to “see” them popping out, patterns that order a chaos.

Communicating without words, using the world itself as the story. Think about it – how many tales have already been told that way? It can’t be a detailed communication, but it’s certainly a grand one.


2 responses »

  1. The study of how warn people not to dig was carried out decades ago, http://articles.latimes.com/1991-11-24/news/mn-152_1_atomic-priesthood
    I watched a documentary on the subject; I think it was in the late 90s. Interestingly they had a panel consisting of a very wide range of specialists and it was concluded that any marker would make people want to investigate the area, since that is human nature. Thus, the area needs to be somewhere that is likely to remain inhospitality, ideally vast and flat and thus very, very boring! I did a quick search but couldn’t find the documentary.

    As for communication, I am a big believer in the technological singularity theory. I don’t think language will be a barrier as long as technology is allowed to remain at least at our present level, nevermind the apparently ever closer technological singularity. Still the question of future communication is a very interesting one and a good plot to use, whether it is for fantasy, historical, present-day or futuristic.

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