Archive for September 17th, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds

This is the half-finished (now rounded off and polished) first chapter of a science fiction novel I began sketching some years ago, entitled “Hotel Paradiso.” It was inspired by a number of long and involved conversations with friends and colleagues at Cambridge about how much awareness of the past the human species might retain were it to survive for millions, even billions of years. I doubt, for example, that in the year 5,793,657,349 they will be focussing on Germany between the wars in history faculties around the galaxy…

The heavy black ship drifted through the barren dark. Across the vast silence of limitless death its engines burned a lost roar. Ranged along its bulky hull, tiny windows shone like torches pointed across an immense cavern. Their power was rapidly swallowed by the emptiness; their minuscule warmth, much less even than that of the engines, made no impact on the one Kelvin expanse of eternity.

The ship knew where it was going, for its occupants – a bipedal, carbon-based form not entirely unlike ourselves – had instructed it to move into orbit around an ancient planet. The planet had long since ceased to receive any warmth from its dead sun, which, were it shining still, would have illumined a red soil, here and there fused by great heat into fields of glass.

Deep inside the hull, in the ship’s museum, warm orange light illuminated an extensive archive. Beneath a frescoed ceiling, painted with scenes of ancient forests, of suns and stars, of a world out-of-doors, of ruddy, bipedal beings playing, swimming, surfing, or sitting cast in thought, were rows of computer banks, storage shelves, display cases, brackets, niches and cabinets, stretched through the ship for almost two kilometres. This was the heart of the University of the Empyrean, one of thousands in the sprawling, skulking civilisation of Homo Superior.

Even now, as the ship moved into orbit around the heavy, sullen orb, negotiating with the gravity of the crushed white dwarf, a lecture was taking place. It was given in a language of which we cannot hope to have an understanding, so many were the years through which it had evolved, so many were the contexts, so many were the worlds, indeed, galaxies that it had traversed, that the vocabulary, grammar and tones bore little relation to the dialects to which it traced its origins, billions of years before, on a planet lost in mythology. The basic sense of it is given here.

“Naturally,” said the lecturer, “any study of a period as ancient as this one is heavily dominated by conflicting methodologies. It is why, as ancient historians, we emphasise the development, above all, of the faculty of interpretation. Our evidence is so limited, so much has been lost which could have illuminated our understanding of the very early origins of homo superior, and indeed, our evolution from the Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapientissimus…”

The amplified voice was crisply resonant in the gallery of students and fellows. They sat attentively, looking not so much for revelations as confirmations of their common purpose.

“With only several hundred Earth texts surviving, and mostly in later translations from the publishing houses of Mars and Europa, you know as well as I do what a paucity of evidence we have for constructing the chronology of human social evolution on Mars. With five hundred million years of habitation, commencing with the first mission in the year thirteen billion, seven hundred and three million, four hundred and eight thousand and fifty-three, little was preserved from the earliest period of settlement.”

“However,” and here the lecturer, Professor Julian Rollmops, tapped his elongated middle finger against the air as though knocking on the door of an important point, “you will all be familiar with the ancient Homo Sapiens novel Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks, with its wealth of anecdotal evidence about the Hotel Paradiso, founded two hundred years after the initial Martian settlement. It paints a picture of a time that witnessed the first true flourishing of the economic potential of the Martian colony, which had, for so long previous, languished under the cost of overheads, the logistics of communication and transportation, the absence of sophisticated culture and cuisine and the consequent inability to attract colonists to the slow-growing, insular, claustrophobic frontier mining society. Though we cannot be certain that the incidental information is entirely accurate, we do have proof that the Hotel Paradiso did exist, for, owing to the popularity of the novel as much as the hotel itself, it was preserved as a cultural icon, a vast artefact, celebrated as the gateway to the golden age of Martian settlement.”

Professor Rollmops cleared his throat and adjusted his adrenaline level. He was excited and nervous, but over all, proud to be delivering what amounted to a pep talk preliminary to the exploration phase of a long-dreamed of project. It was well-trodden ground and his audience were all too familiar with the details. Once they were on the surface, however, or under it, for that matter, every so-called fact enumerated here would be open to conjecture.

“We know this,” continued Professor Rollmops, “because the hotel is inventoried in the famous document, Grand Marineris 793. If the accepted dating is correct, this originates in the twenty-seventh century of Earth years. The monograph, a pivotal examination of ‘gender blending’ amongst the wealthier colonists, displays a sophisticated use of academic reference, a most impressive awareness of several Earth dialects, and, judging by the scale of the bibliography, it gives tantalising hints about the culture of detailed research which existed. But I digress. What is significant for our purposes is that it pinpoints the exact location of the hotel and indicates that having been decommissioned, it was encased by surrounding developments and came to form a sort of subterranean museum, the structural integrity of which, according to Olympus 137, was still intact some two thousand years later. Whether we can hope to find anything after five billion years is anyone’s guess! But, ladies and gentlemen, fellow scholars, that is precisely why we are here.”

The room hummed with muffled murmurs of interest and one man began to clap, before thinking better of it.

“Sol was a main sequence star in the G2 spectral class. At the end of its lifecycle, in the shedding of its outer layers – still barely visible in the fading remnants of the planetary nebula – and subsequent loss of gravity, both Earth and Mars were pushed into more distant orbits and their atmospheres slowly but surely stripped. Exactly what, if anything, survived on or beneath the surface, is anyone’s guess. The loss of so many ships in the flight to the moons of Saturn and subsequent Titanic War has left us with only a piecemeal understanding of the final Martian evacuation. Fortunately, however, it is only twenty-three thousand years since the last ship is estimated to have departed from the dying system and I personally am hopeful that we shall find some astonishingly well-preserved archaeology. Our scans and models of gravitational dynamics indicate next to no asteroid bombardment, despite the planet’s acquisition of two new moons. Or, rather, two replacement moons, after the expulsion of Phobos and Deimos.”

Professor Rollmops leaned forward, placing both his elbows on the synthetic wood lectern, as though about to deliver an aside. Instinctively, the audience leaned forward, joining him in this greater intimacy.

“Indeed, I am very hopeful that, what is, for the moment, an almost non-existent chronology outside the framework of a vague mythology, will soon be transformed into a sophisticated understanding of the history and culture of this latest phase of outer Sol system settlements.”

There were murmurs among the audience, and shuffles not of restlessness, but warm approval. As the keynote speaker, at this, the last lecture series before the archaeological exploration got underway, Professor Rollmops was tasked with reminding all of their mission and raising spirits appropriately. He was not so much here to inform and instruct, but to motivate; to celebrate.

“We have, of course,” Professor Rollmops continued, “the well-known reference from Phobos 652, regarding the final evacuations from the planet Earth, and the then very great mythological significance which it entailed. The parallels drawn between the long-remembered destruction of a place called Troy, and exile from an abundant garden, are a tantalising glimpse of, we can only assume, even more ancient Earth myths whose significance, again, we can only assume, had acquired a purely academic currency for the fleeing Homo Sapientissimus.”

Across the audience heads nodded sagaciously and Professor Rollmops was pleased to see them so poised for his coup de grace.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “How proud and, perhaps, surprised, our long dead ancestors would be to know that now we have returned from exile after so many troubled millennia!”

This comment brought spontaneous applause from several audience members, and once it was underway, the rest joined in. “Bravo!” they cried. “Hoorah!”

A few stood in their seats, and soon the entire crowd was on its feet, caught up in a wave of nostalgia and destiny to which only an intelligent species that has somehow survived and replicated itself successfully, never quite losing touch with its origins, over a time-span of five billion years, is privy.

Professor Rollmops, himself overwhelmed with the historical significance of the moment, found himself choking back tears.

“Yes, my esteemed colleagues,” he croaked. “We have come home at last!”

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