Xeno-archaeology: the study of strange ancients.
Explanation: a future science that deals with the past. The study part of it has a logical framework: i.e. it can be undertaken on dead planets or on places still capable of sustaining life. Either of these has intriguing possibilities. For strange ancients, read aliens. I got a great kick out of Xeno-archaeology from the works of Andre Norton and it is a significant plot device in the Forerunner Factor (here’s my review).
Two things excited me: the rediscovery of lost races, maybe alone, maybe feeling lost and isolated – these connect well to teen fears of being different – and the concept of alien transmission through uncounted aeons. These were themes that constantly recurred in her works and I was happy with Ms Norton’s portrayals.
Over the years I’ve kept up an interest in SF –though I read the Forerunner Factor only recently, I should say I’m a whole lot older than that might imply; for the most part I read her works in the early 1970s –the ideas behind Ms Norton’s xeno-archaeology and forerunners have simmered away. How would events play out as history (pre-human)? What would it take to breathe life into the personal stories of non-humans?
Take a dead planet: If it’s got signs of former habitation, why is it dead? Are there other, similar dead planets in the interstellar vicinity? What if they died out at approximately the same time period… would that suggest a pattern of events… even a cause?
If you go back in Earth’s history, dead civilisations die for a reason – usually they were pushed. There are dead regions on the Earth’s surface. The Mongols wrecked irrigation works in Central Asia that had been in place for thousands of years; as a result of internecine Muslim strife in the 11th Cenury, much farmland in North Africa became desert (check out the Banu Hilal).
Live planets present their own problems. The living take precedence over the dead; you just crushed your arch-enemy, do you keep reminders… trophies? Even if you did, over time they lose significance; day-to-day life takes priority. Reminders of the past become folk tales, myths and legends or are obliterated from memory. Land gets dug up, reused — at least on an airless world, everything is pretty much as it was when Armageddon came.
In the larger scheme of things, humans haven’t been around long. Space is vast with the possibility of lots of extinct civilisations over billions of years. There’ll be more things than just human agency to wipe out life and destroy planets: exploding suns, collisions, interspecies struggles… plus any other observations a budding xeno-archaeologist can come up with. If she (or he) is lucky, she comes across an artefact that has somehow survived over millions of years.
Here’s my take:
Jih Liasse, xeno-archaeologist in The Tau Device, is an alien; she doesn’t know Earth’s history and so doesn’t know we’ve made parts of our planet unfit for habitation. However she gets the principle. Civilisations have competition, the struggle to survive is life or death. Xeno-archaeologists can assume that what is examined is long dead… nothing can come from it. This turns out to be not quite the case in The Tau Device. In space, nothing is as it seems.
23/01/2017 (expanded 12/06/17)
Adapted from my site: The Tau Device