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Cultural Amnesia

Hello! A couple of weeks ago, the translator for the German edition of Scarlet Tides got in touch with quite an interesting question about the story. He'd picked up that in the prehistory of Urte (the world of the Moontide series), an asteroid strike destroyed an isthmus linking the western continent of Yuros to the Eastern Ahmedhassa/Antiopia. I'd dated that at 1500 years before the action of the Moontide Quartet, and he was asking: "Isn't that too recent? Wouldn't everyone know about it? Wouldn't there be visible traces", which are really good questions.

My response was as follows;

  • For the story, the destruction of the isthmus needed to have happened recently enough that there are lingering similarities in culture between the separated continents, and for the technological levels of the societies to be more or less equivalent. However it needed to be long enough ago to be all but forgotten by the common people.
  • In terms of whether there are visible traces - yes there are, for those with the knowledge to see them - primarily the magi. 
  • But it isn't general knowledge because;
  • Firstly, it suits no-one to speak of it; none of the races want to admit kinship to each other (most people are still in denial about the commonality of humankind in our world today, even with all the advantages of scientific explanations we have);
  • Secondly, it is so long ago that any stories of 'the day the sky fell' are lost amidst all the other myths, folklore and religion. It's 'folklore', not history, to most people.
  • Thirdly, this is still an era where most people get their news verbally, months late from traders and travellers, and have no education beyond the basics of speaking and counting and their trade; difficult concepts simply don't get taught and are only known by the elites (who themselves have far more pressing concerns as they compete for the right to rule).

What the question does raise though is: how long does it take for big things to be 'forgotten'? And by extension; what do we really know of our world anyway?

Compare our world: if we say that technologically and socially Urte is akin to Dark Ages Europe/Asia - about 1000AD in our timescale - that would make the asteroid strike in the equivalent of the days of Classical Greece in our world. How many people of that time were conversant about Classical Greece? By 1000AD our world's two largest religions (Christianity and Islam) were still relatively new, but had a powerful grip on society: neither existed prior to 1AD (Jesus having lived around that time, Mohammed 570-632AD), though both were the continuation of an older religious tradition. The point I'm making is that 1000 years is plenty of time for humans to completely alter their understanding of the world, and forget older traditions.

A decade is a long time: we give them names, define them by their trends and characteristics. A century is a heck of a long time, the very edge of living memory, outside of which we rely on written/recorded evidence of what has gone before. A thousand years though; that's immense. Recorded human civilisation is only about five thousand years old, and most of that is poorly recorded or lost. Imagine the worldview of people from the Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries in European terms): largely illiterate, with very little available to read anyway, working in jobs handed down by their ancestors, their received knowledge mostly from priests little better educated than they, whose knowledge is solely taken from religious texts. What would such people know of anything? A few embellished tales with some moral point about decadence and paganism. Oral traditions handed down the biggest tales, colourfully embroidered to make them more entertaining in the telling, but the most relevant knowledge they need is how to survive past the next harvest.

Our knowledge of the classical period stems largely from the Renaissance (French: "rebirth"); beginning in Italy in the city-states where traditional religious and royal rule was being challenged by successful banker-nobles, who looked to preserved records of Rome to enhance and perpetuate their control. It coincided with the beginnings of the printing press permeated politics, science, art and culture . It began a still-ongoing Information Age.

It's often said that victors write the history books, and while the relative freedom of speech in our modern world makes that less absolute, versions of stories compete to be held up as "true" and we have to decide what to believe, often basing that on mode or appeal of the presentation of that information. I like to think the West gets at least a good percentage of the important facts on a story, but how would we know? Corporates and governments censure news, blatantly in most countries: for example, how much do you think the common person in China knows of the current democracy protests in Hong Kong?

The logical extension of this is that we "know" what we're told to know. We forget what we're not reminded of. Cultural amnesia is still a real thing.

That's depressing.

But... if "the truth is out there"; we live in an age when that truth is far more accessible than it ever was, and that's a thing to be hugely grateful for. Nowadays handheld footage from warzones can turn up online and in the TV news. People risk their lives to send snippets of information out from restricted regions to inform the rest of the world of crimes and abuses. Fragments of information about any subject we can imagine float around the internet, enough for us to make some kind of informed opinion if we're prepared to trawl through it and think it through. Secrets are increasingly harder to keep.

That's cause for optimism for a better world to come. And it's more than any preceding generations have ever had.


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