Archaeology in Science Fiction, Part 1

Since I am an archaeologist and a science fiction author, I figured I’d write a little bit about archaeology in science fiction.

Sadly, it is rarely done correctly. For anyone who has ever dug in the real world (hush, Weaver!) it isn’t something that happens overnight. Planning can takes months or years. The dig itself (once you have permits, money, and a crew) can take weeks. It is possible to dig small sites in just a few days, I’ve done it, but it is hard work with grueling hours. I usually am at the site before the sun rises and leave in the afternoon, as it gets really hot in New Mexico in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is no fun at all.

Okay, so on to the bits about archaeology in science fiction! The list below has, in no particular order, a few books, movies, and television series with archaeology done right, or close enough for government work, wink.

The Remnant by some weirdo

I had to list this here, right? I tried to keep the science to a minimum in this book but also keep it correct. It has ancient technology, ancient cities, and ancient evils lurking in ruins. I think my favorite authors are showing a bit in this book.

The Remnant has archaeology as a central theme, along with a cast of scientists, some of whom are archaeologists.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

The novella follows an expedition to Antarctica where they discover an ancient city buried in the ice, and much more. Even though it is somewhat dated, this story is a fantastic read and a radical departure from some of Lovecraft’s other works.

The story is good, the science is pretty good for the time, and this is really the foundation for many later works by other authors. If you only read one book on this list (besides mine!) read this one.

The Beastmaster by Andre Norton

What can I say about Andre Norton? Read all of her books! Really. Okay, so some are better than others, but they are all interesting. It was hard to pick just one for this list, but The Beastmaster wins me over with ancient ruins, aliens, and psionic-linked animals (see why?).

It has a lot of anthropology and philosophy in it. Also, the last Navaho after the Earth is destroyed. It is an interesting and introspective book.

Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

Kula rings in space! Also, ancient artifacts from long dead aliens. This is a fun book, and Fred Cassidy, the main character is very easy to like as he stumbles cluelessly through the problems in the plot trying not to die, or be turned inside out (as apposed to reversed).

Fred is an archaeologist (sort of) and a part of the book is spent on a dig in Australia. Don’t worry about the talking kangaroo and wombat…

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

I’m going to put this here despite it having some of the dumbest scientists ever to be in a novel. Really. *spoiler* they die and you’ll be glad by the end. The human race is improved by their passing. That aside, this book has some great archaeology and anthropology in it.

It is a really interesting take on the Fermi Paradox and worth reading. This is the first of the series, they get a little weird toward the end, but the first few are quite good.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This has a lot of themes, but archaeology is a main one. It is the interesting start of an interesting series that has some tropes you might have seen elsewhere, but given a new life with this book. The story begins with an archaeologist trying to discover why an alien race died.

I would say the book has its origins in Reynold’s science background, and also a bit of Warhammer 40k. Maybe not on the last, it just feels that way to me.

If you liked Interstellar, you should like this book.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark

If I was being mean, I would say this was the most original thing the man had ever written, but that would be unfair. I read this book first many years ago, I’ve read it a few times since. It is still interesting to me, and I still find new insights in it.

The story centers around the exploration of an alien derelict that enters the solar system. The team has only a short time to explore before it moves on. Very cool idea and story. Don’t bother with the later books.