Other people’s retro-futures

Keira McKenzie has been writing & drawing stuff for positively ages & is now engaged in her PhD, the creative work concerning, quite coincidentally, futures of all stripes and worlds and times, and non-fictionally, H.P.Lovecraft and philosophical theories – which also involve the nature of futures in the past from the perspective of the present.

Future Imperfect. Surely this isn’t limited to the anthropocentric here and now? It immediately brought to my mind the future imperfect of Lovecraft’s 1931 novella, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ in which the extreme geological past is retrofitted to render the future very imperfect for some, the present uncomfortable for his characters, leaving the retro-future from the story’s survivors point of view scarily imperfect.

The narrator is one of two survivors of a scientific expedition to Western Antarctica who relates the events of unfolding wonders and horrors, and sees the results of mismanaged environmental and technological issues that happened millennia – aeons, actually, in the past. For those not familiar with the story, it concerns an expedition 1931 to West Antarctica which uncovers not only fossils (several millions of years old) of alien beings, but actually a live one (though it was dead by the time the narrator saw it). The survivors encounter not only portions of immense ruins half buried in the ice, indicative of a civilization predating anything remotely human, but also the part cause of that civilization’s decline: the Shoggoths.

So – why is this Future Imperfect? Well, for the ‘elder beings’, builders of this great civilization, it was. Very. Imperfect, that is. They had travelled through space to settle on earth before life began on the planet, “they were the makers and enslavers of that life”. It’s all set so far back in our past as to imply geological rather than anthropological ages: nothing was younger than the Pliocene age and most Jurassic and earlier. These elder beings, so culturally rich, with magnificent recorded histories and an apparent understanding of the values of a civilized society nonetheless were subject to the same strictures of us all: their environment, underpinned by the fact that during their time on earth, they had lost the power of space travel (never one of Lovecraft’s strongest points as everything flew through the ‘ether’ on wings poorly adapted to anything else, even the mighty Cthulhu wafted through space on rudimentary wings) so were forced to deal with the rampant geology of a young planet, other invading beings (Cthulhu among them) and their own technology gone bad: protoplasmic goo.

Lovecraft toys with the not quite accepted theory of continental drift and theories of the last ice age, both of which impacted on futures rapidly becoming ever more imperfect for these ‘elder beings’. They were forced back to Antarctica and then had to face the ice age. Many made the transition to the undersea life (they were physiologically equipped for it), through the waters of subglacial lakes with outlets to the sea, their slide into a decline hastened by their badly controlled technology: the shoggoths (Remember, this was written in 1931. Subglacial river systems in Antarctica weren’t ‘discovered’ until 2006, and the sub-glacial Lake Vostok in 1973 – & the Russians have only 50 m left to drill before breaking through into Lake Vostok not far from where Lovecraft set his novella, just as the Gamburtsev Range, a mere few hundred kilometers from the mountains of the novella’s title weren’t discovered till 1958 and not mapped until 2009-2010.).

The shoggoths were (or are?) manufactured goo of a tremendous size that developed their own intelligence. These so advanced and cultured elder beings apparently didn’t like working up a sweat. They made the shoggoths to do all the heavy lifting. But like all slaves, the shoggoths rebelled.

Slaves, as we know from our own (decidedly anthropocentric) history, are expensive: financially, militaristically, and morally. From the vanished peoples of the Fezzan (the ones who first mined the ‘fossil water’ that keeps Libya alive) to the Brits and the Americans – slavery proved too expensive, not to mention undermining the’ moral high ground’. So it was with the elder beings. They had granted their shoggoths enough sentience to do the work required, and thought no more of it. Twits. The shoggoths developed intelligence and rose up against their masters. And think of this:

It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; …nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence … a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train – a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming, and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down on us…

Imagine a horde of these rearing up in rebellion! And it happened twice! No wonder things ended in despair. A once magnificent civilization that had flourished for millennia, that predated Cthulhu and survived when Ry’leh had sunk below the waves, was brought down by a combination of environmental disaster exacerbated by their own arrogance, leaving the mess behind them because they didn’t really address issues when they – um – first arose. A great deal of regret is implied there.

The future in Lovecraft’s fiction – not just this novella, is both retro and forward-looking. However, the nostalgia is more melancholia towards ages past, before humanity impacted the present. And always it comes with the terrible awareness that the imperfect futures other beings met in the unimaginably distant past will affect the anthropocentric futures the characters contemplate.

In At The Mountains of Madness, the shoggoths remained to rule the vast white reaches of Antarctica; this ‘future imperfect’ happened a long time in the past. But what waits for us in the future in the white wastes within the Gamburtsev Range, the so-called Ghost Mountains with their fantastically sharp peaks and steep, deep valleys? And with Lake Vostok?

Enquiring minds what to know!