Ruins of past futures

Fantastic archaeologies and disruptive imaginations

@ SFRA 2023: Disruptive Imaginations – Joint Annual Conference of SFRA and GfF – TU Dresden, Germany, August 15-19, 2023

 Ruins of an eighteenth-century retrofuturistic city, AI generated image

Ruins of an eighteenth-century retrofuturistic city, AI generated image, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

This paper examines the ruin as a device of cognitive estrangement used in speculative fiction to thematise and problematise given conceptualisations of historical time and temporal linearity. Since the modern age, the ruin as a fragment of the past has engender new imaginary colonisations of a secularised future. Drawing on the hypothesis that the fantastic ruin and archaeological methods applied to past futures matured in the European imagination during the modern age, this research connects twentieth-century archaeological and clipeological science fiction to the long-standing history of the ruin within a fantastic imagination.

Materialising heliotropic conceptions of civilisation, especially since the 18th century the ruin has aroused the interest of writers, historians and painters in connection to notions such as those of development and decadence, modernity and crisis applied to human societies as well as to imaginary alien civilisations. The idea of a history magistra vitae and of a cyclical course of civilisations became premises for the application to the future of history as a method and for the aesthetic appreciation and poetics of ruin, discussed by Denis Diderot and Edmund Burke, and epitomised in the ruined Louvre painted by Hubert Robert and in Joseph Michael Gandy’s pictorial work portraying the Bank of England in ruins. The temporal estrangement of the ruin took on futuristic connotations inspiring some of the earliest speculations about the time to come. The contemplation of the remains of the past synecdochically fostered the idea of a future observer contemplating the ruins of the present in writers such as Thomas Lyttelton and Volney. Towards the end of the 18th and throughout the 19th century, the idea of radical changes foreseen in the future increasingly incorporated the possibility of disasters, catastrophes and extinctions (e.g., the Earth in ruin and the last men imagined by Bodin, Grainville, Shelley).

This paper outlines the connection between these precedents and twentieth-century pseudo-archaeology that hypothesised the existence of hyper-evolved terrestrial or alien civilisations located in a distant past.

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