Drowning in History
How do we move forward from so much past?
Recently I finished the second book in Dan Simmon’s epic sci-fi series Hyperion. Composed first of independent narratives told on a pilgrimage and then as a more focused narrative of one magnificent battle, Hyperion is about many things. It’s about religion. It’s about time travel. It’s even about fatherhood. But as I read it last month, I was struck by one particular theme: its obsession with history — not as a topic, but as an antagonist.
You see, in the far future which Hyperion illustrates, the question of human purpose becomes unexpectedly daunting. In a universe where every planet, mountain, ocean, and star has been touched by humanity — in a world where every person must compete not only with the living but also the incomprehensibly numerous dead — how can any achievement matter? Hyperion features exact replicas of Earth, hyper-post-modern religions, AI networks capable of predicting nearly every outcome, and a network of billions on billions of humans (living and dead) whose works, homes, and experiences are hardly more than a step away.
During quarantine last year I spent a lot of time learning about ancient civilizations. From the Mycenaeans to the Sumerians to the Olmec, humanity has wrought wonders from dirt on every habitable continent. When hearing these stories, I am struck by a sense of adventure and achievement. How must it have felt to be one of the first people to domesticate crops, construct temples, or step upon a paved road? How can we, today, ever feel such a sensation when every hill, valley, and ocean is covered in ruins and filled with refuse?
Cities like Memphis and Rome are literally built upon centuries of ruins. Each of the crumpled buildings which now compose Rome’s foundations was once hugely important to the people who lived and worked there, and each is now little more than a puzzle which scholars and millionaires explore at their leisure, according to whim or profit.
At the same time, the spaces on which new cities can be built are increasingly rare, and none can truly claim to be the “first” of their kind. To make matters worse, cities have, in almost every case in human history, been built to maintain structures of oppression rather than to accommodate human needs. From the Spartan fortress created to uphold Helot slavery to America’s sprawling suburbs created to aid in segregation, the globe is covered with these monuments to hierarchy and (quite literal) obstacles to justice.
The question which Hyperion forces on its readers is whether there is any room to escape the tyranny of the past. Can the humanity of the far-future overcome their own creations, level monuments to cruelty, and construct a new world altogether? Or has the folly of previous centuries doomed the living to obscurity at best (as they are unable to stand against yesterday’s achievements) or extinction at worst?
And, of course, what of our world? More than just climate change and the horrors which 200 years of industrial emissions have wrought, how can humanity move forward from tens of thousands of years of history? Every hill in France has been built upon, every field in Britain has been plowed, and every forest in the USA has been settled, surveyed, and sold. Any movement towards the future — any movement towards change — will have to do more than simply create the new. It will have to disrupt and destroy the old. And that is no easy task.
In the 18th Brumaire, Marx wrote:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
And he’s right.
Even granting the anthropocentrism and ecological uncertainty of it all, I want desperately to imagine a time when I could simply walk to new land in Sumeria, untouched by humanity, and help create an altogether new community. I envy the likes of Shakespeare and Homer, able to spin stories out of more ancient traditions and able to work outside of their own shadows. I wish I had no history to contend with, no traditions to consider, and no ruins blocking my way. I wish I could make my own history as I pleased.
But I cannot. None of us can. For better or worse, abolition, synthesis, and confrontation are the only ways forward.
From Hyperion to Huston, there is no future except the one we create.