318 – Lost Knowledge
We all lose things, but what about losing knowledge? How is knowledge lost, and what effect does it have on your story? When trying to find the lost knowledge, is it always in the last place you look? That’s what we’re talking about this week, along with intersecting factors like genre, realism, and aesthetics. Also, way more discussion of Water World than you might expect.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren and with me today is Chris and Wes. Now gather around friends, ‘round the campfire, for today we’ll be telling you about the lost ancient myth that is the Mythcreant podcast. They say that podcasts once ran like water in the before times, but such knowledge is lost to us now… Can you guess what the topic is for today? Can you guess it?
Wes: Oh, man. Something important.
Chris: Is it how hard it is to work with RSS feeds? Because they’re just like a technical nightmare. I think that’s the lost knowledge you’re talking about.
Oren: Yeah, that. Well, you got me. No, today we’re talking about lost knowledge, which is a very common trope in various types of spec fic. You get the really obvious ones, like in post-apocalyptic stories, where not only have we forgotten things, but we don’t know how to do technology anymore because of an apocalypse.
Chris: Hence why podcasts are running on RSS feeds. We’ve lost the before times knowledge.
Oren: And then there are other things like fantasy stories, which love to have ancient curses and the big bad that’s so old that nobody has written it down anywhere. Urban fantasy does that too. I do that in my urban fantasy campaign. Every other day, it’s like, “Hey, this NPC will tell you some lost history” and the other players seem to think that’s cool. So I’m part of the problem, to be absolutely clear. But I wanted to talk about it, it’s been on my mind recently, because I’m reading a book right now where reading is lost knowledge, which is weird and strange.
Chris: Well lost knowledge is really cool. Especially with fantasy, it makes everything feel wondrous, and that’s what we’re going for most of the time. So it’s mostly, how do we find an excuse, so that knowledge can actually be lost.
Wes: There’s something to it when it’s lost, and you need to discover it. In a world where we’ve seen so much, there’s robots on Mars and stuff – but it’s the archeologist, it’s the Indiana Jones of it all, kind of figuring it out and finding it. That’s cool. It’s fun.
Chris: It’s way easier to discover something that, you know, somebody knew and put nicely in a book for you, and then the book was conveniently lost, than it is to do scientific method to regain all that. [Chris and Wes laugh] One definitely is more conducive to stories than the other. It’s like, “Here, now watch as we do very slow experimentation and iteration on this idea to figure it out.” That’s not as fun.
Wes: God forbid you have to steal the declaration of independence and then find a secret map or riddle or whatever it was on the back of it in that movie. [laughs]
Oren: I mean, it is really convenient when you find all the knowledge in an exposition book. Instead of having to discover what these weird new demons are and figure it all out by hand, you just have to go, “Hey, someone already wrote this all down, but then it was lost. So I only have to find the book. I don’t have to go and do like anthropological research on the demons.”
Wes: And then you also instantly understand it.
Oren: And to be clear, there, there are lots of instances in history where knowledge is lost. It just doesn’t tend to happen the way fiction writers kind of want it to.
Chris: Do you want to give an example?
Oren: Yeah. Okay. So probably the most obvious, and I would say biggest case of lost knowledge is when conquerors or just whatever dominant group destroys knowledge that is relevant to a marginalized group. You know, this happens anytime there’s a big conquest. It happened a lot with imperialism. It happened in the Nazi takeover of Germany.
The Berlin Institute of sex research had a lot of really, at the time, cutting edge information and data on various sexual issues, including trans issues. And it was all burned. I’m sure some of it was backed up somewhere, but with a lot of that, you had to start over. So that’s a depressing way how knowledge is most commonly lost.
But it should be noted that this is all knowledge that the dominant group wanted destroyed because it was better for their narrative if it wasn’t around – which certainly can be important to fiction, you can use that. But when most people think of lost knowledge in fiction, they think of something more along the lines of Greek fire or Damascus steel, and those are really weird exceptions to the general rule. Technology is rarely lost in real life.
Chris: The problem is it’s too useful, right? Whereas something that’s cultural can be very valuable to that culture. And another group might want it erased, because again, it reinforces the value of that culture. But it’s not like I can just trade this in for cash instantly in the same way that Greek fire, for instance, would have been.
Oren: Yeah. I can’t use this to light an enemy fleet on fire. So, “Eh.”
Greek fire is an unusual situation, because it was a secret of the Byzantine empire and it was held very closely because the Byzantines didn’t want their enemies figuring out how it worked.
And even then it’s kind of unclear in the historical record when it actually disappeared, because there are numerous instances of Greek fire being documented outside of the Byzantine empire. One account that I saw said that Saladin used it in his initial siege of Jerusalem. But we don’t know if that was actually the same stuff the Byzantines were using, or just a historian using a colloquial term for an incendiary weapon?We just don’t know the answer and there’s not really, as far as I know, a good way to find out.
Then you have Damascus steel, which is a type of sword making, which notably starts to vanish around the time that guns become more prominent. And there are a lot of theories. I looked into this and it turns out there’s a huge controversy over whether or not we have in the modern day recreated Damascus steel and why it disappeared in the first place. A lot of people have a lot of different ideas and I’m not going to be the one to solve it, but I will point out that it started to disappear around the time we didn’t need swords as much anymore. So I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Wes: All those specialized blacksmiths out of a job. That’s a shame.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, really, if you think about the rise of the gun, the true victim is the swordsmith.
Chris: There’s also a surprising number of future settings that have lost knowledge. I think that’s to add novelty. People like to take a future setting and then take something away that we have.
Oren: I mean, that’s the whole idea behind most post-apocalyptic settings, right. But even if you’re not post-apocalyptic, like Star Trek, for example – in Star Trek, part of the premise is that in the nineties, there was a thing called the Eugenics Wars. And then after that we had World War III. So there are some Star Trek episodes where they find lost knowledge from the late nineties or early 2000s, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s kind of funny. It’s kind of quaint.”
Chris: People are pretty bad at keeping secrets. And if it’s useful, people don’t have any reason to get rid of it. So those are the basic big obstacles. I know that a lot of writers who put it in their settings want to believe that something like a super powerful spell would be lost.
I mean, I suppose if we had a Greek fire situation where only like five people knew it in the first place and all of them swore to take it to the grave, maybe you could keep a secret. But a whole group of people… if you have an entire society that knows something, people are not that good at keeping secrets.
Oren: Right. It’s also worth pointing out that we don’t entirely know why Greek fire was lost. One theory, and this tends to be the case when technology disappears, is simply that the infrastructure for it no longer existed. Because the Byzantine empire, if you look at a time lapse of history, continued to shrink over time and the capacity to manufacture it may simply have been lost. And if you can’t make it anymore, and it was a closely guarded secret to begin with, you know, then it becomes more likely that they might not bother passing it on to somebody else because like, well, we can’t make it anyway. So why does it matter?
Chris: I mean, that is used in some settings where the knowledge is lost because it’s not useful anymore. And the trick there is, why now? Because if we want to care about it during the course of the story, we need a reason that it’s useful again. But there are some things that really do depend on lots of infrastructure.
So if you can’t – you know, I don’t know if we lost all electricity we would really forget how to make electronics all together, but we would probably forget some things. If it’s like, okay, we’ve got all these electronic devices, we can’t plug them in anymore. They can’t run.
Oren: Yeah. Well, I mean, there are a lot of examples of electronics that we could work from, right. We could probably do some reverse engineering,
Chris: Not to mention that they stay intact for a really long time. And that would make it very hard to lose. Even if we lost our electrical grid for some reason, somehow the rules of nature change and the electrical grids don’t work anymore.
Oren: There was at least one TV show with that premise, it’s just like “electricity doesn’t work anymore.” And well, I guess that must not apply to the brain. ‘Cause that’s how I’m thinking these thoughts about how electricity doesn’t work.
Chris: The problem with a lot of those shows is that they want it to be more than electricity. They want combustion to stop working or something, and it’s like, we’d need a very, very large change to the universe. Do you still want to have a basic fireplace? That’s going to be a problem. And if combustion works, then you can have other types of engines and other ways of powering machinery.
Oren: I will say that there are some genre aesthetics that are just inherently unrealistic, and there’s not really a good way to make them realistic. Any post-apocalyptic story that doesn’t have guns in it is unrealistic. There is no way to credibly explain that. And I’ve seen countless stories that try and they each come up with their own weird explanation. None of them make sense. You are better off just not drawing attention to it if that’s something you want.
If you want a post-apocalyptic high fantasy story, if you want something like Into the Badlands, which is a post-apocalyptic Kung Fu adventure, you know, you can do that. Those are perfectly viable genres. But in this case, your best option is to just not draw attention to the fact that there aren’t any guns. ‘Cause once you start doing that, it’s going to get weird.
Chris: Because guns, once again, they run on basic combustion, right? So it’s really unrealistic for people to just lose the knowledge on how to make a gun. It’s not actually that advanced.
Oren: Yeah, guns are actually very easy to make, is the trick with guns. They’re not hard. You can make surprisingly sophisticated guns by hand. But even in that case, even if you were just down to muskets, people would still be using those. And there’s one episode of Sword of Shannara, or Shannara Chronicles, I forget what it’s called, where they run into some humans who are like, “We have rediscovered our old technology, and we have a gun!” and it’s like, man, so those are just around? People could just go find those? I feel like more people would have by this point.
Chris: Yeah. Shannara Chronicles is interesting because I do love the aesthetic that they have in the show, where you see old rusted cars and other things like that, that just make it look different than a typical high fantasy. But at the story level, it never feels like it matters that it’s post-apocalyptic, because the technology is never used. I mean, if they started using it pretty soon, it’d become magic tech or technology plus magic, or it would become something else, a different genre. It’s definitely just the aesthetic for the most part.
Oren: Right. I mean, Shannara is a story that wants high fantasy aesthetics combined with post-apocalyptic aesthetics. And that’s kind of weird. That’s just very two very different genres. And it mashes them together for, uh, you know, varying levels of success. Hilariously, one story that I saw that had too many bullets was Waterworld.
Wes: Yeah. How are they making those?
Oren: ‘Cause Waterworld – I mean, as ridiculous as the premise of Waterworld is, we’ve been told that the whole world is flooded, and yet everyone has bullets, everywhere. How are they making the bullets? Where are they getting the metal to make those? I have so many questions.
I watched Road Warrior and Waterworld back-to-back and in Road Warrior, I was frustrated, because there would be more guns. And then in Waterworld, I was frustrated, there should be fewer guns. Nobody has the right number of guns, goddammit! [all laugh]
Wes: I was frustrated in Waterworld when he went swimming down, and you kind of see the submerged city and I’m like, wait, how deep is this? It seems like an ocean, super deep, but really it’s a few hundred feet deep. And I’m just like, okay, maybe there’s some shallow spots. There are, obviously. But that was a weird movie.
Oren: It’s not impossible that they’re just scavenging materials from the ocean floor, right? You know, maybe the whole world is somehow uniformly covered in about a hundred feet of water.
Wes: Yeah. [laughs]
Oren: Who knows how that works.
Chris: They do establish there’s some, cities with tall skyscrapers that you can bet are not that far. But you’d think that if they were doing that much salvaging, we’d see a lot more of it.
Oren: Yeah. Of course, they also chose to make the main character a mutant and then basically have that not matter to the plot. So, you know, Waterworld: not-great film. Hot take.
Wes: I haven’t talked this much about Waterworld, ever.
Oren: I do love Waterworld’s magical transforming catamaran though. That thing is rad.
Okay. So let’s talk about lost knowledge and urban fantasy, because this comes up in my Sunday role-playing game a lot. And I don’t want to be told that I’m being unrealistic by some of my players, so I better figure this out.
Chris: Urban fantasy has a bigger problem, of course, with secret knowledge usually than lost knowledge.
Oren: Yeah. That’s, that’s basically how I justify it in my setting. I’m like, okay, so there are people who know this, but they’re all real grumpy and they don’t want to talk to anyone and they don’t want you to know this because it’s their secret or whatever. That’s how I do it.
Chris: I mean, it is true that an urban fantasy having secrecy is so common that it has more believability shielding, just because people expect it of urban fantasy. There’s lots of secret societies. How did we not know of them? Eh. As long as you don’t call attention to it too much, you can get away with having a masquerade where thousands of people are all keeping magic secret.
Just don’t explain it, as long as you don’t specifically do things where now the plot hinges on why we have to keep this secret. The problem is that too many urban fantasies are trying to make it so that the protagonist has to make sacrifices, like lying to their date or something in order to maintain the secrecy, and we have been given no reason why they need to continue this.
As long as you don’t do that, usually you can do a lot of secrecy and secret societies in urban fantasy, even though it’s completely unrealistic. Because again, once a group of people is large enough, somebody is going to tell, especially if they could profit off of it in some way, like sell the information because it would be valuable to somebody else. Once again, useful information does not typically get forgotten, and is very hard to keep secret.
Oren: Yeah. It also helps that most of my players made characters who are sort of outcasts and have a backstory that would justify them not knowing a ton of secret lore. So I can have my weird nerd NPC be like, “Hey guys, we want to hear about this secret backstory of this Island?” And they don’t stop to be like, “How come we’ve never heard this before?”
Wes: I like the contrivance in the show Grimm where Nick – the main character’s name is Nick, I think – he finds out he’s a Grimm and he’s a Hunter, and his aunt shows up. She dies, but she’s got a trailer full of everything, and he just needs to spend enough time in there researching and he’ll find that lost knowledge. Because apparently there’s one book full of everything.
And I remember thinking, wouldn’t you just sit down and read all of it? Take work off for a little while? But no, I guess not. He had to go consult the book in his trailer every now and then every few episodes. And then it had to broaden out to the other monster creatures giving him more information later because it’s all new.
Oren: Well, let me tell you as a GM for players who want to just sit down and read all the books, I come up with reasons why they’re not allowed to do that.
Chris: We aren’t allowed books anymore! They’re practically forbidden and he won’t give them to us.
Wes: The reading is the lost knowledge and Oren imposed it!
Oren: Look, I gave you a book once and you wouldn’t stop reading. So I had to stop giving you books! What do I look like, a book generator?
Chris: But I mean, frankly, that’s another reason for having lost knowledge. Everybody likes magical mysterious books with arcane knowledge in them. It’s a favourite fantasy trope. And the books mean a lot more if the knowledge in them is super arcane. It’s an excuse to have cool books.
Oren: If it’s magic knowledge, I’m actually a big fan of using a variant of the automated forget-me-field where magic knowledge doesn’t really mix very well with the internet. Just because, I don’t know, I prefer looking through ancient libraries to find what I need to using Google. In an urban fantasy story, I think it’s cool.
Chris: I was going to say, you mean it in a fictional story, right? [laughs]
Wes: No. Real life.
Chris: Or do you have some hobby about going to ancient libraries that I didn’t know about?
Wes: That was a really funny part in – I want to say maybe seasons three, or four? – of The Magicians. Actually throughout, they’re occasionally just doing internet research, and learning about magic and the Hedge Witches, and share spells on the dark web and stuff…
Chris: This is a trope that is so funny in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. They both have a web that looks significantly older than our internet. And they find the most obscure occult knowledge on random websites. Especially with Buffy, where the computers just look super old and the websites look super old and janky, and you know, not as much stuff was on the internet in the Buffy era as it is today. But somehow they’re finding these obscure, detailed guides to monsters on some websites somewhere.
And in Supernatural, they also always find out how to kill it because we know that every occult book or book of mythology we’ve ever read also has instructions for how the reader can kill whatever it is written right there.
Oren: That’s my favorite part. Because I’ve gone to occult websites, I’ve visited a number of them. And they never tell you how to kill the thing. I mean, usually if it’s a god – and it’s surprising how many gods they kill in Supernatural – it’s just sort of assumed you can’t. A lot of these sites are also kind of on the neopagan scale, so they probably wouldn’t want to tell you that anyway, ‘cause it’s kind of disrespectful.
And if they’re magical creatures, most of them don’t have a built-in weakness. What is a satyr’s magic weakness? I think in Greek mythology, if you want to kill a satyr, you do it the same way you kill a person. With a sword. I don’t think you need a special gold-plated silver sword or something.
But yeah, I love the idea of l them on Supernatura logging on to some occult fan’s website that is talking about how great the Fae are – which is what these sites are actually like – and then at the end being like, “Where does it say how to kill it?” And the webmaster being like, “Why would you want to do that? What’s wrong with you? You weirdos.”
But I get why on Supernatural they do internet research. I understand it’s because they are fighting literally a new monster every week. If they did extended dusty library research for all of them, that would just be really unmanageable.
Wes: And there’s that idea of the internet having democratized knowledge. Sam and Dean would need to go to better libraries or different ones, all the time. They can’t waste all that time driving around, no matter how much Dean loves that car.
Oren: He does love that car, but they don’t have time for that. But even on Supernatural, when they really need to find something important, they spend a few episodes finding an ancient book or something. They don’t look up how to defeat Lucifer online, but if it’s just some random forest god – yeah, they’ll find the answer to that on a website. Very helpful websites.
Wes: Now I really want episodes of them contacting and talking to the website moderators and the bloggers. Like, “Whoa, these guys, we keep getting all the information from them. How do they know this? Maybe we should talk to them!”
Chris: They do have one meta episode where they have amnesia, so they forget that they’re hunters. And the way that they find out how to kill the ghost that they’ve encountered is by looking up these – there’s these recurring, comedic characters on Supernatural who are fake ghost hunters for their reality TV show and have learned most of what they know from the main characters.
So they go look them up and are like, “Oh, these ghost hunters are so great. They said they learned how to do this from these two jerks they met.” And then they take that information from their website. So that’s a little more realistic than the random occult website that tells you how to kill the Fae or something.
Wes: That’s good.
Oren: Right, because they established that,we know why those guys exist. ‘Cause part of the premise of the setting is that most people don’t know about monsters, so it feels a little odd that there are so many explanations of how to kill them online. Of course, Supernatural also goes with, if they don’t have time for internet research, they just call Bobby, that’s their solution.
Chris: That’s true. They do have a character they just call all the time.
Oren: Bobby knows lots of stuff. It’s very impressive.
You can take this a little farther. We’ve been talking about urban fantasy here, but if you want to bring cosmic horror into it, whether as the full genre or just to give your urban fantasy a little spice – I’m a fan of flavoring urban fantasy with some cosmic horror.
Chris: Cosmic horror works surprisingly well inserted into other genres.
Oren: It does. I agree. But once you introduce some cosmic horror aesthetics, you can introduce the idea that knowledge is corrosive, that some certain knowledge is bad for you. And once you have that idea, you don’t want to take it too far because it can feel like you’re in a setting where you’re being scolded for learning how black holes work. But for certain weird, dangerous, magical secrets, the idea that this knowledge is harmful to the people who know it is also a pretty good way to at least thematically justify why it’s lost and hidden and why you have to go on a quest to find it.
Chris: One explanation that I think worked pretty well is in Game of Thrones, the magic is coming back into the world after being gone for a while. That’s a great way to explain something that has been forgotten if you have a world where there’s sort of natural cycles or an event that happens every couple of thousand years. There might be some records of the last time it happened, but if it only happens that infrequently, then it would be really easy for people to dismiss it or forget about it. Then you can go, “Hey, this is happening. It looks like there is actually a precedent for this.” And then go find that ancient knowledge about the last occurrence.
Oren: Right. I mean, if magic stopped working it makes sense that over time records of magic might be lost. And that’s before you introduce the anti-magic conspiracy, that was in the end of the last book. Oh boy. [Chris laughs] Even without that, it makes sense that books are expensive and they take time and money to store and libraries burn. And if there isn’t an obvious use for magical knowledge over centuries – yeah, absolutely, I’d buy that it would disappear. That makes sense.
You can have the same thing happen on a more mundane level if you have a sufficient enough societal collapse that the infrastructure to make things is gone. That’s your bronze age collapse, that’s your fall of the Western Roman Empire. Roman concrete is another lost technology that’s talked about all the time.
From what I can tell, just from the research that I’ve done is the reason that Roman concrete was lost is primarily the economy to create it ceased to exist. Because the concrete of that time was expensive to make and required ingredients from all over the place, and the Roman empire had the might necessary to make use of a lot of this concrete, but as it fell apart, its various successor states did not.
And since no one was using the concrete, the knowledge for it eventually got lost. So that seems reasonable. That’s a thing you can have to justify, but you know, don’t go overboard with it. There’s only so much that will explain. But it’s not a bad place to start.
Wes: I like that about the infrastructure and the use and stuff. Because in The Elder Scrolls, one of the biggest mysteries is that this entire race just vanishes, the Dwemer. And I like that they parsed it out and you learn a little bit more or whatever during the games, but if all the people vanished – I guess there’s guardian machines and stuff that are deadly, but, where’d they all go? Oh, okay, let’s just go in there and pick up their files. They must’ve record-kept something in stone. Or at least go in and check out the machines. It’s been thousands of years and they haven’t figured out how to make any Dwemer machinery.
That just doesn’t hold up as well. Like how you’ve described it, just because the people are gone… all the tech is there. It’s like what Chris said about our electronic devices: Just open them up and start looking.
Oren: Right. Especially as those machines still work.
Wes: Yeah, they still work!
Oren: There would still be blueprints for them around. And in fact, you might have an easier time getting to them now that the Dwemer, the Skyrim Dwarves, they’re gone. You probably have an easier time getting their stuff, as grim as that is. Depending on what happened to them, there might not be records of it, because they might not have written down the alien invasion that came and took them all, who knows. But there would certainly be access to their stuff. That’s just the case of static technology and fantasy settings, where it’s been like 2000 years and no one has invented anything. It’s like, okay, sure.
Wes: They finally got crossbows in Skyrim. It took them a while, but they got them.
Oren: The Elder Scrolls engine can only handle so much, all right? What do you want from it?
Wes: Good point. I like how you get crossbows, and then of course you go on some lost knowledge quest to go find out that yes, the Skyrim Dwarves had crossbows and they’re better than the ones we have now.
Oren: Those dwarves, always lording it over us.
Wes: They just can’t help it.
Oren: All right. Well, thank you for discussing this topic with me, but I’m afraid this podcast is going to have to become lost knowledge because we are at the end of our time. But thankfully we have the internet, at least for now. So it will be propagated to all of the listeners, we hope. Maybe the use for the Mythcreant podcast will fall away and then the knowledge will be lost. We may never know.
But for those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer, and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.