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  • Writer's pictureRachel Sherlock

Unearthing the Future: Xenoarchaeology in Science Fiction

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

While science fiction is frequently characterised by its exploration of the future, and its many possibilities, some of the best science fiction comes with a deep sense of history behind it. This is particularly true of stories of extraterrestrial encounters, where vast swathes of history and culture for these alien races can be imagined. Exploring these fictional histories has led to the

development of a hypothetical branch of study called xenoarchaeology in which characters study the ruins and relics of ancient and lost alien races. These stories are fascinating in their application of real world scientific and historical practices to imagined races and beings, and delves into the question of how we can understand beings and cultures through the things they leave behind. Perhaps most enticing about these stories is the tantalising tension as our future meets their past.

Rendezvous with Rama by Sir Arthur C Clarke

At the top of almost all lists of Xenoarchaeology recommendations, and with good reason, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an all-time classic of science fiction. When a spacecraft, measuring 51 kilometres long, is discovered hurtling through the solar system, Earth’s Spaceguard sends its explorers and scientists to investigate. What they find

beyond the airlocked doors is an artificial world, complete with cities and a sea but completely without inhabitants. The story follows the scientists as they explore the world

and try to unlock the secrets of the enigmatic beings that lived in this vast travelling ecosystem. The book mixes the science with tension and mystery, making for a fascinating read about the process of discovering a people from the empty spaces they have left behind. That said, it’s best to enjoy the book for as it is and leave the sequels behind the airlocked door.

At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror by H. P. Lovecraft

Taking a science fiction lens to his Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft presents his classic cosmic horror in the form of an historical account. The story is told as the recollection of William Dyer, who was part of a team of explorers who uncovered the remains ancient life-forms on their expedition to Antarctica, but while the artefacts are ancient, they soon find that the danger is very present. Dyer’s hope is, in relaying the horrors of their experience, that he will prevent further exploration of the continent. Lovecraft’s the slow escalation of terror is created through Dyer’s descriptions of the eerie and desolate landscape:

“These stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space, and ultra- dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things—mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.”

The uneasy combination of scientific pursuit and unearthly terror is captivating.

Omnilingual and Other Stories by H Beam Piper

H. Beam Piper’s short story is a truly superlative example of xenoarchaeology. A succinct but convincing application of real world archaeological practices with imagined alien civilisation. Set on an archaeological dig on Mars the story is focussed on the linguistic recovery of the civilisation. The main character Martha Dane is searching for the ‘Rosetta Stone’, or even the single word which will help her to unlock the dead Martian language. The aliens have left

behind documents and books, but no clue as to their meaning. Piper’s direct and simple prose is perfect for this genre, conveying the sense of verisimilitude, while the narrative focusses on a single moment of discovery, plunging you into the scene and then leaving you looking for more.

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

It’s almost inevitable that a recommendation of Jack McDevitt’s work should appear in any lists on history in science fiction. He is famous for his archaeological and antiquarian themes across his work. For those interested in xenoarchaeology, his Priscilla Hutchins series (starting

with The Engines of God) is perfect. Set in the early 23rd century, humanity has extended their explorations to the stars. There they have found monuments of breath-taking beauty, along with ruins of an ancient alien civilization. Nothing but a set of footprints remains of the creatures that made these incredible structures. Priscilla ‘Hutch’ Hutchins and her team are in race to explore and understand the alien history before the oncoming wave of terraformers who are fleeing a collapsing Earth. The Engines of God is an exciting mix of archaeology and adventure which centres on scientific curiosity.

Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson

While At the Mountains of Madness popularized the south pole as a space for potential alien encounter, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge takes us to the north pole of Pluto. There stands an enormous structure like that of Stonehenge but over ten times in size, but the monument’s

origin remains elusive. The secret perhaps lies in the annals of Martian history. Robinson’s distinct take on history within science fiction is a must for anyone who loves stories of space archaeology. The book is split into three parts, in each, an account of a Martian political revolution is retold, first by an eyewitness in diary form, second by an archaeologist who finds this diary, and finally by a historian and great grandson of the archaeologist, who is now investigating the truth behind his ancestor’s discovery. Using the layers of history and discovery to unveil a mystery, Robinson’s story is a captivating look at the different lens through which we can understand a civilisation.

The Dark Side Of The Sun by Terry Pratchett

Before becoming ubiquitous with fantasy literature, Terry Pratchett’s first two adult novels, The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata, were inspired by science fiction. As is to be expected, Pratchett here plays with the genre expectations, playfully engaging with the sources that inspire him and creating something that is distinctly his own. In the case of The Dark Side of the Sun, Pratchett takes Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as his launch pad, but where Asimov looked at prediction through probability on a large scale, Pratchett’s world involves a branch of probability which can predict your entire life. Set in a ‘life-bubble’ with 52 different sentient species, but before them there was an ancient race called the Jokesters. Their magnificent artefacts and ruins are scattered across the landscape, but who and what these beings were remains elusive. When Dom Salabos defies predicted odds and survives an assassination attempt, he embarks on a similarly unlikely quest to uncover the truth behind this ancient race. It is a colourful and playful take on the hard science usually associated with xenoarchaeology.

This article was originally written for and published on December 16th, 2016.

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