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Fiction Science Club

Ancient ‘lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Time-honored tales of lost cities emphasize the quest for glittering treasures, priceless relics or mysterious civilizations — but more recent expeditions are going after a different sort of prize: a greater understanding of how and why cultures create large-group living spaces, and what factors eventually cause them to move on.

The findings — gleaned from archaeological digs including Cambodia’s ancient stone city of Angkor and a faded metropolis of mounds on the Mississippi River known as Cahokia — can help future architects and planners build the cities of tomorrow more sustainably.

At least that’s what Annalee Newitz hopes.

“My hope is that we’re going to be building more like the people at Cahokia and Angkor in a more sustainable way, and that our houses will be … made of things that are biodegradable, or that are even living materials,” said Newitz (who uses they/them pronouns).

Newitz recounts a personal quest to learn about Cahokia and Angkor, as well as the ancient cities of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Pompeii in Italy, in a new book titled “Four Lost Cities” — and in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

There’s something deeply attractive about the idea of places that were ahead of their time, but were somehow lost to history. Such tales are as old as the biblical city of Sodom and as fresh as Wakanda of “Black Panther” comic-book fame. It’s even better if the lost city ends up being submerged, like Plato’s Atlantis or Egypt’s Alexandria.

But Newitz says the “lost city” concept usually doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘fallen’ or ‘collapsed’ for these cities, because their cultures didn’t collapse,” they said. “The cities themselves were abandoned by people who basically, in a lot of cases, just got sick of how the cities were being run, with the exception of Pompeii.”

Pompeii was buried under more than a dozen feet of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, but even there, most of the eruption’s survivors carried their culture to other Roman cities nearby. Something similar happened to Çatalhöyük, which was abandoned more than 7,500 years ago but spawned other settlements in Neolithic Turkey.

Cahokia and Angkor, which had their heyday from roughly 800 to 1400, traced more complex evolutionary arcs: They’re both thought to have been hit by a combination of political and climate-related crises — but went through periods of revival before fading away.

Four Lost Cities cover

Newitz noted that natural disasters typically aren’t enough by themselves to bring a city down. “You really can’t take a city out with the natural disaster unless the government is also unstable,” they said. “It was the one-two punch of not having good political leadership … and having some kind of environmental problem, whether that was within the city because of the infrastructure or because of some kind of weather problem or climate problem.”

For that reason, Newitz is of the view that the coronavirus pandemic alone won’t be enough to spark the abandonment of cities — even though some downtown cores may look like ghost towns today.

Newitz is less confident about the long-term outlook, especially for urban areas threatened by wildfires or rising sea levels.

“This is a tough time for us to be thinking about this, because I think many places in the world, including the U.S., are having big questions about our government and our governance,” they said. “And we’re also having climate disasters and a pandemic. So this is a good time to be thinking about how we want to re-imagine our governments, to help us be resilient against these kinds of disasters, because they’re going to keep happening.”

After working on “Four Lost Cities” for years, Newitz wonders how tomorrow’s archaeologists will look at the peculiarities of today’s urban culture — ranging from the quirks of San Francisco’s architecture, to the stratigraphic layer of plastic left behind by the Anthropocene Age, to the revelations contained in Newitz’s own garbage.

Newitz is also working what’s been learned from the lost-cities research into their next science-fiction novel — following up on “Autonomous” and “The Future of Another Timeline.” Intelligent animals will provide an extra twist of genetic engineering to the plot.

“You’ve got to have uplifted animals if you’re going to have a really good city,” Newitz said. “It’s kind of an imaginary way of depicting getting consent from the environment to build something.”

Could cities ever go totally extinct? Newitz doubts that could ever happen. There’s something innately human about living in groups — something that goes beyond economic or environmental factors. Adapting urban culture to become truly sustainable may be one of the biggest challenges for the next century, or the next millennium.

“How do you bring nature into the city, but also how do you continue to have the cool stuff that cities have, like high-speed internet and parties and concerts and restaurants? That’s what we love about cities. People come to cities to party and to meet other people,” Newitz said.

The prime directive to party is pretty much a scientific fact.

“Every time I would talk to an archaeologist about their city, I would be like, ‘Well, why did people come here?'” Newitz said. “In my head, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, they came here for economic reasons.'”

The archaeologists were quick to set Newitz straight. “Every single archaeologist would be like, ‘Well, they came because of pageantry,'” Newitz said. “Like they don’t want to say ‘party,’ right? Because that’ll sound too low-brow. ‘There were some incredible pageants.’ And I was like, ‘So, yeah, people came to have fun.’ … We’re never going to lose that desire to have good food and crazy entertainment.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s Newitz doing for fun during this shut-in pandemic? Podcasts are a prime pursuit: Newitz’s list includes “Short Wave”, a daily science podcast from NPR, and a quirky show called “Who? Weekly.”

“If you’re not able to soak up all the celebrity news that you want, it’s two hosts who will deconstruct silly celebrity news,” they said.

Newitz’s science-fiction reading list includes lots of tales of the city.

“N.K. Jemisin’s latest trilogy, which starts with the novel ‘The City We Became,’ really captures for me a lot of the feelings I have about cities,” they said. Other recommendations include “Perdido Street Station,” the classic book from China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series; and “Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed.

Lord Valentine's Castle cover

“When I was a teenager, one of the books that got me into science fiction was ‘Lord Valentine’s Castle’ by Robert Silverberg, which is basically just city porn,” Newitz joked. “Half the book is like, we reach this place that’s a giant mountain that has 12 giant cities on it, and then we spend half the book going up the mountain and going through the cities. I don’t remember the plot, but I remember the cities.”

The sheer quirkiness of Newitz’s recommendation, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, should be enough to qualify “Lord Valentine’s Castle” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has featured books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to be available at your local library or used-book store. For more recommendations, check out the CLUB Club reading list — and go have some fun.

Consult Annalee Newitz’s Techsploitation website for the latest on the virtual book tour for “Four Lost Cities.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

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