In working with revisions for Sand of Bone, I’ve been dealing with adjustments to the world’s history, particularly the passage of time between past events and current plot. When first written, I used the passage of centuries to explain the loss of critical knowledge because my younger self viewed knowledge—especially critical knowledge—as resilient and enduring. In revisions, the passage of time is less than three generations because I now know knowledge is fragile and our ability to hold it tenuous.
The loss of skills-based knowledge is easy to see. My grandmother, living in the backwoods of Kentucky Appalachia, knew how to preserve food and dress game. My mother, living in California’s suburbs, had no need to preserve food, raise her own meats, or hunt and dress game. Thus I lived most of my life without that knowledge. Most folks today can’t imagine slaughtering, cleaning, and butchering their own chickens. Most folks can’t successfully quarter a chicken.
Sure, it’s easy to say those skills don’t matter in modern life. We’ve so specialized labor that we no longer need to know how to raise chickens for food. Tyson does it for us. But imagine what those skills would be worth if food-supply specialization became prohibitively expensive for average folks. Imagine what our grandchildren would think of us, letting knowledge that enhances survival go by the wayside so quickly, so easily. But we, living in the middle of that loss, really don’t see the problem.
How valuable would it be today to have reports of why past settlements were abandoned? How the decisions were made and the consequences managed? What adaptations were attempted, and which ones succeeded or failed? For a generation facing the outcome of climate change, it would be valuable indeed. And why wasn’t that critical information passed down to us? Simple: people were too busy surviving to worry about teaching. I believe that’s the primary reason such knowledge is lost.
To us, today, it’s more important to navigate social media than preserve vegetables. That’s not a judgment; it’s a fact.
There was a deeper knowledge that drove past skills acquisition, and that knowledge is being lost as well. My grandmother didn’t preserve food because she wanted to live a simpler life, or provide her family with healthy alternatives to processed foods, or because it was the Next Cool Thing. She preserved food because she lived in a time when there were patterns of plenty and scarcity. If she didn’t gather and preserve what was ripe, when it was ripe, her family wouldn’t have it to eat the next month. It was simply a known fact that not everything could be had at any future time of want.
But the type of knowledge I’ve been musing about, the knowledge lost in Sand’s backstory, is more historical and fact-based. Despite our modern means of storing and exchanging information, this knowledge too is fragile, changeable, and ephemeral. Small groups of people can still successfully hide information and divert attention. Large groups of people can decide which facts get repeated, and which facts get ignored, by deciding to “Like” and “retweet.” We can see videos uploaded from folks in the midst of the Syrian uprising, but we don’t know what decisions are being made by those holding power over Syria. We may never know. That knowledge will be lost.
I recently read an online discussion about bad clichés in fantasy. The lost sword/book of spells/heir to all things was singled out as particularly silly. One commenter asked how you could just misplace something so obviously important.
Well, we did lose Richard III for centuries. It’s suspected the knowledge of his resting place was forgotten within a mere hundred years or so or his death.
If but half a dozen people know where The Secret Thing is hidden, it takes a couple bullets, a pair of fatal accidents, a bad case of pneumonia and one suicide to ensure The Secret Thing is lost forever. If Bob is the only one in the family who knows his sister’s kid is actually the result of a one-night-stand with Big Politician, Bob can ensure the knowledge dies with him. If my character’s grandfather didn’t want his granddaughter to learn the Secret Handshake, the girl isn’t going to learn it. She may grow up knowing a Secret Handshake once existed, but she won’t know what it is.
Truth is, it’s easy-peasy to lose things and the knowledge of things—particularly important things, because we don’t necessarily use them on a day-to-day basis—and almost as easy to deliberately hide knowledge, at least for a time.
So the relevant backstory for Sand is far more compressed than the previous version. Everything is more immediate, which makes the interactions and conflicts far more personal as well. And I find myself thinking about how our own histories will be remembered based upon what knowledge we choose to pass on to our children, about the impact time has on what gets retold or withheld, and about the ways we determine what will be important to the future based upon what we know of the present.
In other news, it snowed last night. Karate was cancelled. Since the local schools are all closed today, tonight’s classes are cancelled as well. Is it nice to have an unexpected day off? Sure. Will I be antsy enough to go for a walk in the cold, wet snow this evening? You betcha.