As I thought about my Albuquerque presentation, I tried to actively figure out just what the hell I mean when I say that Ancient (for sci-fi) equals the Other. I don’t wan to use and abuse the term as some sort of blank placeholder, so I’m trying to identify exactly what I mean by it, or just find some questions that I can ask. I do know that on at least one level, I think of the Other as one half of a binary, a way that we define ourselves by what we’re not. This is easy, in some respects, to do among cultures – for a long time Westerners defined themselves as modern, progressive, prosperous by identifying those in the rest of the World as *not* that – savage, regressive, poor (by their lack of industry). This discussion is a massive one, of course, and one that someone interested can easily jump into by reading pretty much anything by Said (or Fanon). Still, in some sense, that dichotomy works – we put characteristics we don’t want on someone else.
The Ancient, though, doesn’t fit so nicely into that binary, especially where science fiction is concerned. The caveat that in some computer games (like some pulp fiction, or comic books) the binary does work, because the Ancient takes the form of an enemy to be defeated, a bug-like creature (not only Starcraft or Doom not the first, Heinlein wasn’t the first, hell, four of the first six covers of Amazing featured lizards or bugs as enemies) that threatens our women, and/or civilization. Still, that incarnation of the Ancient isn’t what drew me to this discussion (if discussion it is), even if I like it for the horror aspects I find in these creatures. Instead, what drew me to this originally were folks like Gibson and Bear and Sterling, with their recreations and metamorphoses of the Ancient into something that we almost longed for in our sci-fi worlds, glimpses somehow of something that perhaps we lost. Gibson’s prose routinely sent delicious shivers down my spine when he invoked the ‘ancient arcologies’ located in cyberspace, ones that we responded to on what seemed to be the level of our lizard brains. The scene where Wintermute locates Case and the dead girl on some sort of abandoned beach still resonates in my head, even though it was fiction for the character as much as it was for myself. And those responses felt good, necessary, primal, and transitional in ways that made sense.
So, thinking about binaries in this discussion can’t be made too easy, even when I think of one of the possibilities of a binary of tech being Nature. In either (or any) sense nature has often been used as the anti-tech, whether in terms of the primitive or of opposition to technological progress or of something we somehow need. Instead, I’m moving a bit to thinking more about the Ancient/the Other as some sort of trauma, thoughts perhaps triggered by my just having completed Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson, a novel in which Robinson tells the story of Galileo but adds in a weird little side plot of some Jovians from the year 2700 who are convinced that if Galileo was burned at the stake in the Inquisition (instead of being banished to his house) our culture would have suffered less trauma from the subsequent split of religion and science.