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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Traveller Tuesday: Ancient Terran Culture

Last game session, something interesting happened: a character asked about ancient history (or rather, what would be ancient history to his character) and it gave me a chance to riff on things like anachronism and information drift.

Here we go...
My use of Traveller setting and dress falls under
fair use guidelines for both Mongoose and Far Future Enterprises.
The context of the question is that I made a reference to some black-book ops ominously titled "Project Azathoth" and "Project Nyarlathotep". Most of the players immediately realized they were references to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but didn't really know what those two entities were. A quick Computer check (the PCs used space-Google, basically) brought up the fact that they were, respectively, ancient Terran gods of "Madness & Chaos" and "Forbidden Knowledge & Destruction". 

(Yes, the Lovecraft enthusiasts in my readership are likely getting a bit itchy right now. Don't worry, we'll get to that.) 

After that, I figured the players would either go "Yes, we get the idea, these are disquieting codenames for equally noisome projects" and nope the heck out of there, or dig a bit deeper in what precisely these unsettling operations might be. I was therefore caught off-guard when one of them said "I'd like to do more research on these deities."

My first reaction was that good old GM standby: "Do you have any skills in history, anthropology or religion?"  The answer was no, but the PC did have Jack of All Trades-3. "Well, make an education roll." The role was made with minimal success

"These entities came to be worshiped during the early 20th century by Terran reckoning," I began, "during a period of extensive global warfare, mass pestilence, and of course the looming spectre of nuclear destruction..."

"Wait, wait, wait," my player interrupted. "You're telling me that the Cthulhu Mythos is real in this universe? It's not a collection of stories?"

"The Bible is a collection of stories. The Iliad is a collection of stories. The Kalevala is a collection of stories. The Ragnarok Cycle is a collection of stories."

"Well, yes, but we know the Greeks were real. The Trojan War actually happened. Are you saying that the events in Lovecraft's stories actually happened in this universe?"

"Modern Imperial historians equate it roughly with other mythology. Some are impossible to prove or disprove; some are considered allegory, and others prophecy."

"But don't we know that Nyarlathotep didn't actually destroy a New England town or whatever?"

I don't recall exactly what I said, because I was trying to express a notion I had yet to fully develop in my own mind. I ended up fumbling around a bit, and the PCs got the idea and went on their merry way. But that failure has been nagging at me for a while, so now I'm going to address it.


1) We are closer to the Pharaohs 
of Ancient Egypt than the Third Imperium.
The current year in my Traveller game is Imperial Year 1106. Per the Library Data book, that converts to AD 5624 -- 3,609 years from present-day 2015.

It's generally believed that Thutmose III was the pharaoh during the time of Moses. If so, that would put the Exodus of the Jews at 1446 BC, or 3,461 years from present-day 2015.

I picked Thutmose III just to be relevant and culturally accessible; he's actually a very late pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty. Pharaoh Cheops/Khufu (the one who had the Great Pyramid built) was from the 4th Dynasty, over a thousand years prior to that. The First Dynasty? That's sometime circa 3150 BC, or roughly 5, 165 years from now. 

In other words, we are to the Third Imperium what the First Dynasty of Egypt is to us.

Think about how very little we actually know about the culture and history of ancient Egypt, when compared to all the things we know about present day culture and modern history. Think about all the art and monuments and documents lost to disaster and war. Think about how we go search for their ruins, study their buried corpses, and even go through their trash in an attempt to understand how they lived.

I mean, we don't even get the middle ages right in popular culture. Not all of the swords present in the D&D Player's Handbook existed all at the same time, nor did their armor -- full plate was closer to Early Renaissance than Dark Ages. So a game of D&D, from the perspective of someone who lived around that time period, would probably look to them like this looks to us:
Strip #895 of Starslip's "Concrete Universe" arc. 

2) Loss of Data
What happened to all the records? Well, lots of things.

Disaster: the fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria was a huge historical loss. Before widespread duplication of knowledge, all it took was one good fire, landslide, or earthquake to destroy records and/or cultural sites forever.

Post-mass media, a suitably large event (such as a coronal mass ejection causing a global electromagnetic pulse can also destroy such records, and in fact entire civilizations (such as the Maghiz did to the Darrians).

On a much larger scale, the Long Night was a nearly 2,000 year long period of interstellar anarchy where technology declined (sometimes to Dark Age levels) and sometimes entire planetary populations just died.

War and Vandalism: Like the above, only deliberate and directed. There's a book titled How the Irish Saved Civilization and the premise is that when the Roman Empire -- notorious for its record-keeping -- fell to barbarians and was sacked, its knowledge was lost. Were it not for Irish monks in isolated monasteries making copies of books, the basis of western civilization would have disappeared, perhaps forever.

More recently, one only has to look at the actions of ISIS in Iraq as they destroy priceless historical artifacts, like the Assyrian city of Nimrud.

Combined with the Long Night, the Imperial Civil War of 602-622 and the varies "Sieges of Terra" that occurred (there were at least two: one during the Third Interstellar War and one during the Solomani War for Independence), there are plenty of opportunity for information corruption/loss and destruction of historical sites.

Looting: This can be personal, such as when individuals steal items of intrinsic or historical value and either keep them for themselves or sell them to wealthy private collectors. It can also be government-sanctioned, when a more powerful culture takes antiquities from native cultures to "protect" and "better showcase" them. A classic example of this is how Great Britain more or less systematically looted Egypt of most of its historical treasures.

It is not unreasonable to assume that arts and records were lost when Terra was besieged -- either by Imperials wanting to safeguard them, or by seceding Solomani who wanted to keep them out of Imperial hands. They might be in a private collection somewhere, or they might have been lost in a misjump.

Censorship and Information Warfare:  During the lead-up to the Solomani Secession, the Solomani Movement embarked upon a strong -- one might even say "racist" -- propaganda campaign which asserted that they were the superior strain of humaniti and best suited for ruling an empire. As we have seen from our own history, any such propaganda detailing how X culture is superior is almost always accompanied by the removal of cultural elements deemed unsavory or embarassing.

Similarly, the Imperium could have countered this by trying to expose the "shocking, barbaric truth" of the Solomani. Tailored computer viruses and other forms of data warfare were likely used by both sides during the Rim War, leading to the destruction or corruption of information. The actions of the Stuxnet Worm, designed to attack Iran's nuclear centrifuges, are a real-life example.


3) Cultural Assimilation and Drift
There are phrases from Shakespeare and the Bible that permeate our conversation, and yet most people don't know where they come from. How many know that "There is nothing new under the sun" is from Ecclesiastes 1:9 and isn't just something that their parents said?

Let's try something more recent: the last time I saw a rotary telephone was sometime in the 1980s, and yet we still say "dial a number" when we call someone. Given enough time land lines may disappear completely, yet we will likely say "hang up" when we end a call, despite having no handset that requires hanging on the receiver.

My point here is that humans regularly adopt things into their culture without thinking about where they came from. Once they've been added into the lexicon, concepts and phrases stay there for a very long time, being adapted to fit similar contexts when the original situation or event is no more.


4) What This All Means
Unless you have a PC who is an actual historian with skill levels, feel free to misinterpret history if it helps the plot or amuses you. Here are two examples from my own game:
  1. The Imperial Interstellar Scout Service frequently makes reference to what we would consider pop culture -- frequently science fiction and fantasy. From their perspective, naming a ship out of something from Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica is just as literary and honorable as NASA naming the first space shuttle Enterprise or the US Navy naming the first nuclear powered submarine after Jules Verne's Nautilus. So if you ever encounter an IISS ship named Thunderbird 3, you ought to know you're dealing with someone who has a respect for the ancient cultural roots of space exploration. 
  2. I decided that in my pantheon of 20th century nihilistic gods, it made sense to add Godzilla to the Cthulhu Mythos. After all, he's a horror from the sea that rises to destroy the works of man... much like Great Cthulhu himself. Mythologically speaking, there's not a lot of difference between the 1920s and the 1950s. I also had some fun with explaining that "The ancient city of To Kyo was ritually destroyed on a regular basis. Likely it was the global version of the sacrificial king: destroying a city to ensure fertility."

When you're playing a story about the future, don't forget that your present is its past... and the past informs the future.

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