Friday, January 20, 2012

The modern ruin: trace fossils of high technology

As I've mentioned before, science fiction writers seem to be particularly good at grasping the heritage issues of the present and future.  Frequently in these stories, the decay of high technology is used as a metaphor for a postmodernish dissolution of identity. (One of my favourites in this regard is J.G. Ballard's Terminal Beach. I still have trouble seeing him as anything other than a science fiction writer).

The following comes from the short story Open Veins by British writer Simon Ings. It is an uncannily accurate description of a number of former military or space sites that I've been fortunate enough to visit.

The site bore little mark of its military past.  The hardened bunkers, the offices and barracks, had been ripped out years ago.  The radar arrays and satellite dishes had all been dismantled, leaving large, low concrete platforms, their smooth grey surfaces punctuated by rusted spars, irregular brick walls, depressions and score-marks: the tracks and spoor and burrow-mounds of artificial life. The single concrete runway was crazed and weed-lined and there were shreds of cable rotting in the verges. (Ings 1997, reprinted in Dozois (ed) 1998 p 546).

Cables or worms? Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station, ACT. Author's image.
(What's that, I hear you ask? Does he mention cable ties? Well no, but I'm sure he was thinking about them).

He could easily be describing the former Orroral Valley NASA tracking station here, a site characterised by the concrete footprints of long-gone satellite dishes and interferometry arrays, which appear smooth and featureless until you start to examine them closely. Then you see the grooves left by blades on earth-moving machinery; holes where pipes, cables and wires vanish under the floor, weathered ledges and grooves where walls once were. Ings likens these to the phenomenon known as the trace fossil: the preserved remains not of some ancient creature, but of the impressions its activities leave in the deposit that becomes transformed into stone. They're signs, not the thing itself.  It's an appealing metaphor, to imagine the cables as polychaete worms burrowing into ground, the bolts left on the antenna footings as anchors for some floating jellyfish in its sessile phase, the hardened bunkers as coral polyps.

This flourishing fauna has come to a sudden end, ripped out and dismantled.  It's not just abandoned but actively flattened down to ground level.  This level of destruction is frequently the fate of modern industrial sites, a major contrast to ancient ones which are more likely to be just abandoned. Or at least, this is argued to be one of the things that makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different.  On the other hand, it's the same middle-range theory, the same taphonomy, that all archaeologists grapple with. While Ings says that his fictive site bears little mark of its military past, the signs should be there for those who know how to read them.


References
Ings, Simon 1998  Open Veins. In Gardner Dozois (ed) The Mammoth Book of New SF 11.  London: Robinson pp 544-558

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