Friday, September 10, 2010

Top 5 Lost Civilizations of SF

Since the beginning, science fiction and fantasy writers have tapped into the idea of lost civilizations for any number of plot devices, from settings to ancient lore, dangerous devices to strange people or creatures. These blank spaces on the map or cloudy periods in history serve to stir wonder, spark adventure, overwhelm with terror, but most of all to intrigue us with mystery. Here are some of the lost civilizations which have stuck out most in my mind over the years.

The Top 5 Lost Civilizations of SF:

5) the Elvish kingdoms of Beleriand - The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
In the first age, Tolkien paints a picture of Middle Earth as a place of grandeur as well as chaos. Almost an entire nation of elves who once left Middle Earth to live with the gods in the west has now returned to hunt down the Silmaril jewels stolen by the evil god Melko/Morgoth and to avenge the crime. They establish a number of powerful kingdoms across the region of Beleriand as they wage their ultimately futile war. In the end, with the forces of evil nearly victorious and the elven kingdoms fallen, the gods come east to put a stop to Morgoth, but during the terrible battle Beleriand is destroyed and covered by the waves. The shadow of the loss of Beleriand and its elvish kingdoms is something that hangs over the rest of the Silmarillion in the later ages, and even stretches into the Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that the events of the First Age are only hinted at in passing. There's a profound and palpable sense of loss among the elves in the later years - a longing for the good old days when the world was young, Men were few, and the kingdoms of the elves in Middle Earth were rich, sophisticated and powerful. Elrond's Rivendell and Galdriel & Celeborn's golden wood were either non-existent, or far-flug, provincial settlements back when Beleriand existed. Now, the great kingdoms only survive in memory and story, and even those will disappear as the elves finally leave Middle Earth for good and the few Men who know about them eventually die. The kingdoms of Beleriand are truly lost civilizations.

4) the Krell - Forbidden Planet
When Commander JJ Adams and his crew of intrepid spacemen arrive on the planet Altair to investigate why no-one's heard from the human colonists in years, they find a wilderness where only the strange Dr Morbius, his beautiful daughter, and their servant, a robot named Robbie, live. But as they investigate, Adams and his crew discover Morbius has learned an astounding secret: long ago the planet was home to an incredibily intelligent and powerful race known as the Krell, and while nothing of their cities remained on the surface, their gigantic machines where still active deep underground. What's more, they find out that the frightening unseen force that destroyed the Krell was also responsible for the deaths of the other colonists - and now for members of Adams' crew. Forbidden Planet is a gem of sci fi cinema. The shots of the vast underground complex are breath-taking, and while Morbius is always showing off this trinket or that computer, there's always a sense of mystery about the place - for all the marvels he's accomplished by adapting the Krell technology, the scientist himself admits there's much he still doesn't fully understand. Moreover, the corridors of the complex seem all the more brooding because we don't know what happened to the Krell themselves. We don't even know what the Krell look like, even if we do finally behold the monster from the id that killed them. And the mysteries of this lost civilization will stay mysteries forever because of the destruction of the planet at the end of the movie.

3) Earth
From Asimov's Foundation novels to Whedon's Firefly 'Verse to Disney/Pixar's Wall-E, science fiction is rife with stories where our entire planet's civilization has been wiped-out, marginalized to the point irrelevance, or just plain forgotten. In fact, there are too many good ones to pick just one as the uber-example of a story where the Earth and all that it held are gone; the three mentioned above are among my favourites.

2) Mars
Yes, I know, another meta example. No, I don't think this is cheating. Same as with the last nomination, lost civilizations on Mars have been written about by countless authors. One of the first I can remember encountering as a kid pouring through the library at C. Cornwell School in North Dumphries, outside of Cambridge Ontario, was a story about a boy growing up in a colony on Mars, unhappy at being called a "greenskin" by Earthers because he was just as human as them and didn't have green skin. The story frequently talks about leaving the colony and seeing the ruins of ancient, abandoned Martian cities, with no-one knowing what happened to the planet's original inhabitants. The boy gets embroiled in some kind of mystery (possibly involving the ruins, I can't remember) and at the end of the story, the Martians return in their fleet of black ships. I wish I could remember the title of the book or the author, but it's been so long. If anyone knows what the title is, I'd be grateful if you could refresh my memory. As an adult though, my favourite story, or group of stories, that talk about a lost civilization on Mars, is Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's just wonderful how the book comes full circle, beginning with a fading Martian civilization, stuffed with stories about humans living amidst the Martian ruins and along their canals, and ending with the Earth itself becoming a lost civilization and the human survivors on Mars becoming the new Martians.

1) Atlantis
The mother of all lost civilizations. The one from our most ancient history that's inspired all of the other tales of cultures or cities or islands or continents or whole worlds that rose to glorious heights before being destroyed or fading from memory. Another meta nomination, yes, but again, there have been countless stories that have used Atlantis as a plot device. Most recently, of course, is an entire series in the Stargate franchise: Stargate Atlantis. Not a fan myself, but I have friends who are, so this one's for them. For my own part, I really enjoyed an anthology Asimov, Greenberg and Charles G Waugh pulled together a couple of decades ago called Isaac Asimov's Magical Worlds of Fantasy 9 - Atlantis.

What are your top lost civilizations?


fredösphere said...

That martian story is one of a series of planet-themed YA novels by Donald Wollheim called Secret of the Martian Moons. Like you, that story has stuck in my head down through the years.

I've blogged some additional information about that book, including an analysis of the cover art, which is (IMHO) one of the most compelling SF covers ever created. Enjoy.

Robin Shantz said...

Thanks, fredösphere!

I checked out your site and that's the same cover I remember from childhood - I can recall how the figure in the wrinkly grey spacesuit made me think of an Egyptian mummy and gave me the creeps.

After reading a quick synopsis of Secret of the Martian Moons, I did some further checking on Wollheim and found he'd written two of my other favourites when I was a kid: Secret of the Ninth Planet, and the Secret of Saturn's Rings.

What a trip down memory lane!