Archive for May, 2009

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On Arks

May 24, 2009

The idea of an ark as a sanctuary for all that is important in the face of great disaster is an old one, and you’d struggle to find a single person in the Western world who doesn’t know the story of Noah, who supposedly saved two of every creature from the flood.

The idea of more modern arks is something that has surfaced from time to time in both fact and fiction. The concept is to me a very evocative one, and I’d like to explore a few of the more prominent examples here.

Firstly, fact. One of the most amazing feats of this decade has been the construction of the great Seed Vault on Svalbard. A colossal deep-freeze storage unit containing seeds and genetic information for every key crop and plant that our race has come to rely on. Behind huge blast doors, 120 metres beneath a mountain in the frozen wastes of a remote, polar bear haunted island in the arctic circle, no matter what floods, droughts, plagues or infestations strike the crops of the world, there will be a frozen ‘backup’ on Svalbard.

Entrance to the Svalbard Seed Vault

Entrance to the Svalbard Seed Vault

The construction of the Vault was entirely funded by the Norwegian government, which claims sovereignity over the island. Recognizing the potential importance of the project, however, the cost of upkeep is paid for by a vast consortium of nations, including both leading economies and developing ones, as well as at least one legendarily wealthy philanthropist.

This is an entirely pragmatic and self interested project, though no less noble for it. It does put it rather at odds though, with the purely optimistic nature of the one Ark project that is even more incredible.

The Voyager satellite recently left the very outer edges of our star system, travelling at a speed of 3.6 AU per year, one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun, or approximately 8.3 light-minutes. Although it is not the satellite’s only function, Voyager carries on it a message from Earth, consisting of over a hundred images, the sounds of the natural world and of human civilisation and industry, greetings in a great many languages, and a selection of musical movements, from Bach to Chuck Berry, going via traditional music from dozens of cultures.

This information is encoded on a golden disk, coated with an incredibly pure isotope of Uranium, chosen for its half-life of  4,510,000,000 years. Numbers that large are hard to properly assimilate without something to compare it to, so imagine it this way – our planet was formed from the swirling dust and gasses of the newly formed star-system only 4,540,000,000 years ago.

If some disaster were to befall humanity, wiping us out entirely at this very moment, the Voyager satellite would be the very last thing to survive of humanity. When the winds and storms of Earth had scoured the greatest monuments of mankind into dust, Johnny B. Goode and the Brandenburg Concerto will still drift through the interstellar void, untouched even by the most distant solar winds.

As a comical side-note, the major record label EMI was approached with regards to including ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by the Beatles on the Voyager disk, but they refused.

The Golden Record

The Golden Record

There have been innumerable references to the ark as a store of biological information in fiction – usually science fiction. Almost every notable science fiction TV series has had something approximating it at some point, whether it’s an automated system set to wipe out the protagonists in an attempt to restore an extinct race (as in Stargate SG-1) or a more peaceful remnant, seeking only somewhere to set down and rebuild (as in Star Trek : TNG). Rarer but no less intriguing is the fictional equivalent of the Voyager disk – not an attempt to save a species, but to preserve something of it, so that it is not lost entirely to the ravages of time. In reality, this is a good deal easier to achieve than saving the species itself – a lot of work went into the Voyager disk, certainly, but not nearly as much as it would have taken to outfit the satellite to carry a sufficiently large colony of humans to replicate with a safely sized gene-pool, along with habitats, food, water, air, and enough energy to sustain them indefinitely. You only need to look at how difficult it has been to sustain the international space station (ISS) with only a handful of astronauts, even with regular supply missions, a near Earth orbit and no pressure on those astronauts to reproduce to see that such a thing would be completely outside human capabilities at the moment.

In science fiction, of course, colossal hindrances in engineering limits and even the laws of physics are easily overcome. That is rather the difference between ‘science fiction’, and ‘science’. So it’s little wonder really that science fiction authors and scriptwriters tend to go the whole hog with the fully blown species preservation, rather than settle for the achievable but innately tragic idea of a small capsule containing the great masterworks of art, preserving something of a doomed species’ endeavours.

This said, there are still one or two examples, usually drawn either from settings which aren’t technologically that far ahead of our own, or in at least one case a civilisation LESS advanced than our own. In the recent film ‘Children of Men’, adapted quite heavily from a book by P D James, humanity is doomed to a slow death, the result of sudden global infertility. There are no new children, and the remaining adults are slowly dying as a result of panicked anarchy, a countermovement of totalitarianism, or simple old age. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, as T.S Eliot put it.

The protagonist of the film at one point goes to call in a favour from his cousin, a government minister tasked with overseeing a huge repository of precious works of art, referred to as the ‘Ark of the Arts’, inside Battersea Power Station. Interestingly, in an early draft of the script, the repository was referred to as the ‘Noah Project’. We see works by Michelangelo, Picasso and even the graffiti artist Banksy, and hear strains of King Crimson playing inside the building. In a nice little reference, a huge inflatable pig has been suspended over the power station, in tribute to the ‘Animals’ album, by Pink Floyd.

Another poignant example of this comes in the 1870 novel ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea‘ by Jules Verne. In this, the infamous Captain Nemo has assembled a fully self-sufficient submarine, and taken to shunning the land and all its Empires. He explains that to him, the human race is already extinct; or at least devolved to such a point as to no longer be worthy of notice. He has gathered on the Nautilus all of the finest examples of art and pure endeavour – tomes of poetry, history, scientific knowledge and philosophy, totalling 12,000 tomes in all. They are accompanied by countless paintings and sculptures of an incalculable value, and the sheet music to a great deal of composers, both long dead and contemporary. He explains that to him, there is no difference, and all of the creators of these art-works are long dead and equal in their timelessness.

“These composers,” Captain Nemo answered me, “are the contemporaries of Orpheus, because in the annals of the dead, all chronological differences fade.”

In a strange way, Nemo was the self-styled curator of a post-apocalyptic sanctuary of all that had been worth saving from humanity, with the strange twist that he was living in a decidedly pre-apocalytic world, in which humanity still thrived, in complete ignorance of his existence. And if that doesn’t spark some shiver of wonder in you, you just aren’t imagining it hard enough.

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Ritual of Water

May 7, 2009

A slight departure already from the established pattern – I start off talking about engineering marvels, and before I’ve even drawn breath, I derail myself into fantasy fiction. Ah, well, you may just have to deal with it. I do this sort of thing all the time.

This story is one I wrote as an entry for a writing contest in an MMORPG a short while ago. Although for the most part it avoids mentioning anything TOO specific to the setting, in the hope that someone who hasn’t played the game would still be able to understand it, I should point out that the few names and places that are mentioned are copyrighted property of Iron Realms Entertainment.

* * * *

The Ritual of Water
The only sound was the crackling of logs in the fire, and the wind fluttering in the eaves of our private library. This was a calm moment, seeming worlds apart from the madness of the last few days, and the carnage we knew must surely be coming. The two of us had been tasked by the priests of Eleuni with the creation of a set of rituals of great importance – to restore power to its rightful custodians, and keep the fearful amount of knowledge and strength invested there from falling into the hands of our demonic foes. We had already written the ritual for the Zephyr, and performed it in the airy halls of Eleuni, to great success, and now we had been personally sought out to construct a similar ritual for the Undine. The going was slow, but in the calm air of our library, the time seemed to stretch out forever.
The pile of tomes and scrolls scattered around us was growing large with every passing hour, both hastily scrawled notes and ancient tomes, gathered from libraries across the land and the halls of Eleuni itself.
“A purification rite to begin with… to cleanse the priestess and prepare for the ritual itself.”
“Well, we’ll be conducting the ritual in the water quadrant, so the room will be flooded. A ritual bathing would seem appropriate, don’t you think?”
The scratching of quills joined the crackling of the fire, as we both bowed our heads to work.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The screeching and cackling of demons almost drowned out the churning waters, as our attackers rallied for a second assault. We had lost many good fighters already, and the ritual had barely begun, some to the swirling vortex, and others to blade and fire. The priestess stood at the centre of the foaming waters, serenely rinsing herself from the specially prepared chalice, but over her soft chanting I could hear the bellicose warcries of the demonic horde, growing ever closer. I tightened my grip on my shield, as those around me dug in, ready to defend the priestess with their lives.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The fire spat and crackled, a fresh log on the smouldering embers beginning to char and catch light. The armchairs creaked with the sound of old leather as we shifted position restlessly, the book piles around us growing ever higher.
“It was at about this point in the last ritual that we had the Zephyr lend his blessing. We could have the Undine deliver something similar here.”
“That would certainly fit… let’s see. As the body and soul of the waters…”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“… I bear witness to this ritual, and offer my blessings to you, Chosen of the Waters.”
A sickly tincture of blood stained the turbulent waters around us, as the clamour of battle almost drowned out the calm voice of the Undine. A twisted, malicious axe rebounded loudly off my shield, as its counterpart sank deep into my leg. With a howl of pain, I spat a word of the divine tongue, sending my assailant flying backwards in a spray of water.
“You who have braved the fury of the maelstrom, and entered this pool of tranquility…”
A hail of arrows made us dive for cover, as a pack of Diavlous warhounds bounded through the waters. Incensed by the smell of blood and baying with the thrill of the hunt, they fell upon us.
“… Stand forth…”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“… and make your plea for knowledge.” We both nodded in quiet satisfaction, bending once more to record the words in our scrolls.
The hour grew late, and the fire was once more settling to glowing embers. It was hard to stifle a yawn in the comfortable warmth, but we new we must press on. We paced back and forth, stretching our legs and attempting to reinvigorate ourselves.
“We’ve got the sanctification, the purification, the tracing of the circle, we’ve covered the presentation, the introduction of the Undine and the blessing. What else do we need?”
“The plea itself, I suppose. Bringing the ritual to a close. We could base it on the plea from the Zephyr ritual, as we know it’s a formula that works. And… that’s it. When that is done, we will know whether or not we were successful.”
Papers rustled as the records of the prior ritual were consulted. The previous ritual had gone so smoothly, it seemed natural to follow the format. We each breathed a sigh of relief, our long night of work finally completed. Gods willing, the ritual would pass with the peaceful composure of the Undine herself.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The waters around the slender body of the Undine frothed violently, as she poured herself forwards, forcing her waters down the open mouth of an encroaching demonic summoner. His vile curses died on his tongue, as he bubbled and fell to his knees, clutching at his throat. Without hesitation, I flung my axe across the surface of the water, striking the silenced attacker with lethal force. Around us, the battle was finally starting to turn. The ritual was nearly complete, and the attackers had been driven back. All was not over, though… our numbers had been depleted, our dead littering the tempestuous waters as freely as those of our foes. Behind us, the priestess made their final plea to the elements, and our hearts soared. But it was far from over, and ahead of us our opponents were rallying for one last strike.
One by one, down the line, shimmering shields surrounded each of us as we dug in and prepared for the attack. We were bloodied and battered, but there was no hope of retreat. If our line broke and the encroaching hordes breached the ritual circle, all was lost for the priestess of Eleuni.
With an unearthly screeching howl, the demonic horde charged towards us, throwing up a spray around them as they entered the waist-deep waters. As steel clashed on steel, the priestess behind us began to shout, raising her voice so that her plea might be heard. We fought tooth and nail, spurred on by desperation. The end was within sight, but we were failing fast. A crushing blow brought me to my knees, as the man beside me fell screaming to the water, reduced to a withered husk by the necromancer’s touch. I looked upwards as the executioner’s axe began its final arc – it seemed so slow, almost graceful…
“Your plea is heard, your request granted. Stand forth, Priestess of Water.”
The waters rocketed upwards with a deafening sound, forming an enormous, ferocious cyclone. The man before me was ripped away with a scream of frustration, but where the water touched my skin it was but a gentle caress, cleaning and closing my wounds with its cool touch. When the waters settled, crystal clear and flat as a millpond, we were alone. We who had survived, we were alone, scattered loosely about the priestess, who glowed serenely with her new power.
It was over. And praise be to the Gods, we had succeeded.

The Ritual of Water

The only sound was the crackling of logs in the fire, and the wind fluttering in the eaves of our private library. This was a calm moment, seeming worlds apart from the madness of the last few days, and the carnage we knew must surely be coming. The two of us had been tasked by the priests of Eleuni with the creation of a set of rituals of great importance – to restore power to its rightful custodians, and keep the fearful amount of knowledge and strength invested there from falling into the hands of our demonic foes. We had already written the ritual for the Zephyr, and performed it in the airy halls of Eleuni, to great success, and now we had been personally sought out to construct a similar ritual for the Undine. The going was slow, but in the calm air of our library, the time seemed to stretch out forever.

The pile of tomes and scrolls scattered around us was growing large with every passing hour, both hastily scrawled notes and ancient tomes, gathered from libraries across the land and the halls of Eleuni itself.

“A purification rite to begin with… to cleanse the priestess and prepare for the ritual itself.”

“Well, we’ll be conducting the ritual in the water quadrant, so the room will be flooded. A ritual bathing would seem appropriate, don’t you think?”

The scratching of quills joined the crackling of the fire, as we both bowed our heads to work.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The screeching and cackling of demons almost drowned out the churning waters, as our attackers rallied for a second assault. We had lost many good fighters already, and the ritual had barely begun, some to the swirling vortex, and others to blade and fire. The priestess stood at the centre of the foaming waters, serenely rinsing herself from the specially prepared chalice, but over her soft chanting I could hear the bellicose warcries of the demonic horde, growing ever closer. I tightened my grip on my shield, as those around me dug in, ready to defend the priestess with their lives.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The fire spat and crackled, a fresh log on the smouldering embers beginning to char and catch light. The armchairs creaked with the sound of old leather as we shifted position restlessly, the book piles around us growing ever higher.

“It was at about this point in the last ritual that we had the Zephyr lend his blessing. We could have the Undine deliver something similar here.”

“That would certainly fit… let’s see. As the body and soul of the waters…”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“… I bear witness to this ritual, and offer my blessings to you, Chosen of the Waters.”

A sickly tincture of blood stained the turbulent waters around us, as the clamour of battle almost drowned out the calm voice of the Undine. A twisted, malicious axe rebounded loudly off my shield, as its counterpart sank deep into my leg. With a howl of pain, I spat a word of the divine tongue, sending my assailant flying backwards in a spray of water.

“You who have braved the fury of the maelstrom, and entered this pool of tranquility…”

A hail of arrows made us dive for cover, as a pack of Diavlous warhounds bounded through the waters. Incensed by the smell of blood and baying with the thrill of the hunt, they fell upon us.

“… Stand forth…”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“… and make your plea for knowledge.” We both nodded in quiet satisfaction, bending once more to record the words in our scrolls.

The hour grew late, and the fire was once more settling to glowing embers. It was hard to stifle a yawn in the comfortable warmth, but we new we must press on. We paced back and forth, stretching our legs and attempting to reinvigorate ourselves.

“We’ve got the sanctification, the purification, the tracing of the circle, we’ve covered the presentation, the introduction of the Undine and the blessing. What else do we need?”

“The plea itself, I suppose. Bringing the ritual to a close. We could base it on the plea from the Zephyr ritual, as we know it’s a formula that works. And… that’s it. When that is done, we will know whether or not we were successful.”

Papers rustled as the records of the prior ritual were consulted. The previous ritual had gone so smoothly, it seemed natural to follow the format. We each breathed a sigh of relief, our long night of work finally completed. Gods willing, the ritual would pass with the peaceful composure of the Undine herself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The waters around the slender body of the Undine frothed violently, as she poured herself forwards, forcing her waters down the open mouth of an encroaching demonic summoner. His vile curses died on his tongue, as he bubbled and fell to his knees, clutching at his throat. Without hesitation, I flung my axe across the surface of the water, striking the silenced attacker with lethal force. Around us, the battle was finally starting to turn. The ritual was nearly complete, and the attackers had been driven back. All was not over, though… our numbers had been depleted, our dead littering the tempestuous waters as freely as those of our foes. Behind us, the priestess made their final plea to the elements, and our hearts soared. But it was far from over, and ahead of us our opponents were rallying for one last strike.

One by one, down the line, shimmering shields surrounded each of us as we dug in and prepared for the attack. We were bloodied and battered, but there was no hope of retreat. If our line broke and the encroaching hordes breached the ritual circle, all was lost for the priestess of Eleuni.

With an unearthly screeching howl, the demonic horde charged towards us, throwing up a spray around them as they entered the waist-deep waters. As steel clashed on steel, the priestess behind us began to shout, raising her voice so that her plea might be heard. We fought tooth and nail, spurred on by desperation. The end was within sight, but we were failing fast. A crushing blow brought me to my knees, as the man beside me fell screaming to the water, reduced to a withered husk by the necromancer’s touch. I looked upwards as the executioner’s axe began its final arc – it seemed so slow, almost graceful…

“Your plea is heard, your request granted. Stand forth, Priestess of Water.”

The waters rocketed upwards with a deafening sound, forming an enormous, ferocious cyclone. The man before me was ripped away with a scream of frustration, but where the water touched my skin it was but a gentle caress, cleaning and closing my wounds with its cool touch. When the waters settled, crystal clear and flat as a millpond, we were alone. We who had survived, we were alone, scattered loosely about the priestess, who glowed serenely with her new power.

It was over. And praise be to the Gods, we had succeeded.