Just before Christmas I attended the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Chester. To be honest, I mostly steered clear of the hardcore theory – while I do quite like it, I liked it on my own terms and when my brain is feeling fresh and focused: the week before Christmas, at the end of a long and tiring year, not so much. But there was a lot else going on at the conference and I attended several inspiring panels about outreach, engagement and how archaeology relates to other fields. I’ve written about the conference in general over on the CREWS blog, but here I wanted to go into a little detail about my own paper, which was firmly in this blog’s thematic ambit since it was about the archaeology of alien megastructures in fiction.I was speaking at the panel ‘Haunt This Place: Fantasy, Archaeology, and the Ghosts of the Land’, organised by Dr Penelope Foreman and Dr Katy Soar. As the name suggests, this was mainly focused on the intersection between archaeology and ghost stories, whether literally (and literarily) in the works of authors like MR James or Alan Garner, or in the ways the archaeological past haunts and informs modern place-making. All in all, it was an eclectic and fascinating set of papers. Even in this diverse line-up, mine was a bit of an odd one out. Hopefully, though, I can explain how science fiction and alien spacecraft fit into these themes.
I’ve written before on this blog about the long links between archaeology and science fiction, and my own pet theory that they’re two sides of the same coin. In the earliest science-fiction to incorporate archaeological aspects, the links to ghost stories are very close. I’m thinking in particular of HP Lovecraft, who worked very consciously within the spooky-story tradition of forebears such as MR James, Algernon Blackwood or Lord Dunsany, and like them, often populated his works with a cast of stuffy and ill-fated antiquaries. In stories like At the Mountains of Madness, the archaeological resonances are clear: ancient structures lost for aeons are rediscovered and are compared both directly and indirectly to archaeological sites:
The whole arrangement looked like the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes, or the primal foundation walls of Kish as dug up by the Oxford Field Museum Expedition in 1929; and both Danforth and I obtained that occasional impression of separate Cyclopean blocks which Lake had attributed to his flight-companion Carroll.
What sets Lovecraft apart from his predecessors is the cosmic aspect of his horror – his creatures and malevolent forces aren’t just unearthly, they’re explicitly extraterrestrial. Cthulhu and his brethren are, in modern terms, aliens.
From Lovecraft we can trace a long tradition of ‘ancient aliens’ stories, both fictional and, in the case of a rich and problematic seam of pseudo-archaeology, ostensibly non-fictional. There’s a lot to be said about these (and a lot has been said about them) but I’m not primarily interested in them here except to point out how often these works continue to return to the touchstones of the older ghost story tradition which spawned them. Often this means a certain amount of overlap with the imagery of so-called folk horror, however far removed standing stones, witch-hunts and corn dollies may seem from spaceships and future technology. Both folk horror and ancient aliens had their heydays in the late 60s and early 70s, coinciding with the occultist counter-culture of the time. For a clear understanding of how this overlap worked I can do not better than suggest checking out the 1971 Doctor Who story ‘The Dæmons’, which drew heavily on the BBC-sponsored, televised investigations of Silbury Hill in 1968-1970 to tell a tale of a televised dig at a Wiltshire barrow unleashing a devil-like alien from a spacecraft under an ancient barrow, replete with witches, malevolent morris-dancers, maypoles, warm beer and rural satanists. ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ and Doctor Who’s later ‘Image of the Fendahl’ explore similar thematic territory.
What I’m more interested in here is hard sci-fi – the kind that turns its nose up at fripperies like plot, characterisation and writing style and prefers to explore a good knotty scientific question – preferably with equations included (always important to show your working). A subset of these stories, also peaking in popularity in the 70s, deals with what have sometimes been called ‘big dumb objects’ – huge and more-or-less uncanny alien megastructures that appear or are discovered by human scientists, and which are explored over the course of the story, their mysteries exemplifying whatever thought experiment the author is keen to examine. Key examples include the alien habitat-asteroids of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Greg Bear’s Eon, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the huge and ineffable V’ger of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
These objects blur the line between landscape, artefact and machine, which is in itself a very archaeological idea. The scientistically-minded and functionalist processual archaeology of the mid-20th century was very keen on the idea of systems, of treating societies and their components as systems and subsystems within a great mechanism.
When you add in the fact that these alien environments are generally deserted and that people are presented as exploring them, trying to reconstruct the details of the species and societies that created them, these stories become intrinsically and fundamentally archaeological.
The authors who wrote them aren’t oblivious to this: archaeological references abound in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, for example. But at the same time, they’re reluctant to tackle the archaeological element head-on. The main characters – like the writers – generally come from a scientific background, and although they might have some secondary interest in archaeology and exploration – such as the captain in Rendezvous with Rama or Star Trek: the Next Generation’s Picard – it’s usually portrayed in an old-fashioned and romanticised way more akin to the 19th-century antiquaries of MR James and friends. The realities of 1970s archaeological practice probably hadn’t impinged too much on the thoughts of people like Clarke or Niven. Thus, when Clarke’s heroes venture out into the alien landscape-machine-artefact of Rama, the archaeological allusions are to the romantic – and spookily-tinged – ‘big digs’ of early archaeology: the tomb of Tutankhamun and the like.
‘Jerry told me about a situation just like this, back at the beginning of the twenty-first – no, twentieth century. An archaeologist found the tomb of an Egyptian king, the first one that hadn’t been looted by robbers. His workmen took months to dig their way in, chamber by – chamber, until they came to the final wall. Then they broke through the masonry, and he held out a lantern and pushed his head inside. He found himself looking into a whole roomful of treasure – incredible stuff gold and jewels…
‘Perhaps this place is also a tomb; it seems more and more likely. Even now, there’s still not the slightest sound, or hint of any activity. Well, tomorrow we should know.’
Rendezvous with Rama. Arthur C. Clarke
This old-school antiquarianism resonates with the haunted aspects of these alien spaces. Although they’re initially presented as dead and deserted, relics treated as challenges to be unpicked, their creators loom large, in their absence they are a constant presence. What’s more, by the denouement, it invariably turns out that these alien builders aren’t quite as absent as we thought. Clarke’s line in Rama (unintentionally?) sounds like something that could easily be intoned in ominous, velvet-dark tones by someone in a ghost story:
‘What we failed to take into account was the possibility of non-biological survival.’
Elsewhere in the same novel, he offhandedly uses the phrase ‘The Haunted Asteroid’ to refer to the alien habitat. These aren’t horror stories and there doesn’t seem to be an effort to generate a sense of fear, unease of the uncanny; but nevertheless, Clarke at least was an author who recognised the thin line between the effects of high technology and the supernatural and the sense of a haunting is understated but very much there.
Accordingly, the creators or animating spirits of these landscape-machines rarely appear straightforwardly. More usually they manifest ambiguously, and when they do, it generally marks a kind of breakdown for the scientistic, hard-sci-fi positivism that everything is understandable and rational, that all scientific problems can be unpicked. At this point, one of two things can happen: the story can veer away from hard science fiction into a different subgenre – as with the movie Alien’s turn towards the haunted house/slasher genre once the creature has been disturbed from its colossal starship-tomb – or their can be some kind of moment of transcendence in which the laws of physics or nature of the universe are revealed to be far vaster and more incomprehensible – nigh-magical – than the heroes previously thought. So, for example Rama’s reactionless acceleration at the climax of that novel, or weird climax of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
This interest in the vastness of the cosmos, the human inability to comprehend it, is what brings these scientifically-minded tales back to the ghost-story roots of Lovecraft. The likes of Clarke arguably saw more wonder than terror in this insight, but the basic realisation is the same and the potential for danger is still there. As Vajra Chandrasekera pointed out in a 2015 article in Strange Horizons, ‘Really, there’s nothing but luck and a thin membrane of genre convention between Rama and Azathoth’. One of the weirdest little bits of sci-fi trivia – because their outlooks seem so diametrically opposed – is that Star Trek’s tagline ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ is a paraphrase of a line by none other than Lovecraft himself (‘Carter resolved to go with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before’ – and the name Carter is pretty archaeologically resonant in this regard itself). Sure enough, when these hard sci-fi authors reach these moments of transcendence, the imagery and ideas they turn to recalls that of ghost stories and folk horror, right down to how these utilise the archaeological past.
Take the ending of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for example. The animating force behind the alien megastructure V’ger has been revealed to be a revenant from humanity’s own spacefaring past: an old Voyager probe become sentient and come back to haunt them. It resides at the heart of the megastructure in an uncanny henge-like space, and like a monster from occult horror it has a penchant for possessing beautiful, ethereal young women in white. At the climax of the film, the moment of transcendence comes through a kind of weird (self-)sacrifice at the heart of this alien henge. The echoes of archaeologically-inflected hauntings aren’t explicit, but they’re very much there.
Hard science fiction and its megastructures are something of a paradox then. On the one hand, they privilege and promote science above all: they are fundamentally positivist and to a certain degree functionalist. On the other hand, they can’t help but depict the limitations of such an approach. Their approach to archaeology mirrors this split personality: while not oblivious to the archaeological resonances of their stories, they eschew the scientistic archaeological practices of the time they were written for the more evocative and romantic ones of a bygone age, recalling the antiquarian backgrounds of old ghost stories in ways that become ever more pronounced as these would-be-scientific stories reach their climaxes. Despite the rationalist, scientific and futuristic ideals of their authors, they cannot escape the lingering appeal of the irrational, supernatural, romantic and outdated.
These stories are fundamentally archaeological, and they’re fundamentally, and multiply, haunted.
The conference panel was recorded and will hopefully be available online at some point. If and when it appears, I’ll try and include a link. I’m very grateful to the panel organisers for giving me the chance to speak.