Meerschon Grant Selection Committee—
I understand that only one of these proposals you’re reading will be funded. One out of what I’m sure will be hundreds, if not thousands. And that’s just from the research community. Once scholars from other fields learn that this opportunity isn’t limited to the sciences—that they can read the Dead Sea Scrolls moments after they were written, that with this new technology they can study the plumage of the dinosaurs, or watch the moon coalescing into a sphere—well, once those gates open, then will come the flood, surely.
All of which is to say, I understand the page limit you’ve placed on this document. First, it’s just a matter of self-preservation, as you don’t want to drown, as it were, but second—and we all know this from working with doctoral students—if the idea can’t be boiled down to a simple, provable thesis statement, then chances are the investigator doesn’t have the proper handle on the material, on the argument.
Also—and here I speculate—funding but a single proposal, that’s our impetus to dream big, isn’t it? Dream big or go home, as they used to say.
I submit to you my dream.
It’s completely in keeping with the parameters of this new technology.
For the last few years, we’ve of course been able to send inanimate objects backwards through the time stream for us to unearth now. After the initial rush of transgression, this soon revealed itself to be a parlor trick. It was good the technology was controlled, as it could be used irresponsibly, as a sniper bullet from the future, say, but there was little actual science to be achieved, as of course those objects’ circuits would all fuse during transport, and no voices or cataclysms would end up actually getting recorded, just mutely witnessed.
It was as if there were some intelligence keeping the clever monkeys from hurting themselves, yes.
But clever we are.
Now, with this new breakthrough, we can not only send organic material back in time intact, but the consciousness of that organic matter can persist unaltered as well.
What did the news conference call these travelers? “Naked chrononauts?”
Which is the first parameter of the new technology, as I understand it: you take nothing with you. Not even clothes. Even the product on your hair or the deodorant on your body can entangle with your molecular pattern during transport, as I understand. Thus all the dental reconstruction these travelers will have to undergo. Thus the four-day fast. Thus the forced suffocation during transport.
The second parameter, of course, is that this is a one-way trip.
The third parameter, which I’m sure gives these travelers confidence, is that due to the Earth’s orbit and point of rotation in that orbital cycle, exact targeting in both time and location is functionally impossible. Not only does our planet wobble, but its magnetic field is, on a geologic time scale, all over the place. To say nothing of solar wind and solar flares… the variables at play beggar the scientific imagination, are finally incalculable.
However, no longer are these transported objects or organisms showing up in Earth’s wake, or in its eventual path—which are of course the same thing.
But I’m using my allotted pages telling you what you already know.
My intention is to show how perfectly tailored these parameters are for my proposal.
I submit that the news conference had it wrong. These travelers won’t be naked chrononauts. They’ll be naked paleoanthropologists.
Here’s my dream, boiled down to a thesis statement: A trained scientist strips down, goes back to whatever ancient time period this technology can reach, and does some vital science.
Yes, reading the Dead Sea Scrolls would be amazing. Yes, knowing the exact tint of an allosaurus’s feathers would settle so many arguments. Yes, watching the moon come together in the sky instead of in a simulation would rank as perhaps the summit of human observations.
But, I ask you, how would that help us today?
In each of these cases, and in nearly all of the others in this pool of proposals, what you have is one person smuggled back in time and then leaving no record, settling no arguments for us.
Were this paleontologist to record the pigment of that allosaurus’s head-feathers on a stone, say, and then leave it in some geologically-inactive site out of the weather, and were it to somehow make it through the ravages of a hundred and fifty million years, would we not pick this stone tablet up now, and see simply Blue?
Granted, perhaps there are camps in the paleontology world: Some say Red, others insist upon Blue. But what I ask is: Once either the Reds or the Blues have made their case, just how exactly does that impact us as a people, as a species?
As for the Dead Sea Scroll traveler, yes, she could of course better seal these clay jugs, thus increasing the chance of their survival, but you have to wonder, too, if this traveler might be followed to that cave, and the cave subsequently plundered, denying us of its riches. Or if the Scrolls do preserve wonderfully through the centuries, might they then, in our age, be mistaken for contemporary, and used for kindling? And, of course, why prioritize one religious tradition’s sacred heirlooms over all the other religions’ artifacts?
The traveler wanting to gaze on the moon’s formation, of course—well. Not only would the atmosphere likely poison him before he could even tilt his eyes skyward, but the millennia of lunar fallout from the moon-forming collision would probably have the sky still occluded anyway. And who’s to say this traveler’s not standing in magma already, right?
I submit that every other proposal competing with mine, they’re either trivial, or, if grand, then they’re one of these three varieties, each of which crumbles upon analysis.
The next question, of course, it’s how does my proposal resist falling into any of those three categories?
What we still have here, it’s one lone traveler tunneling back, and observing this “academic” event alone. One traveler sacrificing herself just to know, and then dying with that knowledge.
The nature of paleoanthropology, it’s to find mineralized organic matter and then reconstruct life patterns from those remains, yes?
What this lone traveler does—and I know it won’t be me, as I’m already too old, and have an aversion to dental work besides—is she finds a band or pack or herd of hominids in whatever age she’s touched down in, and then she stealthily collects their dead, either from burials or abandonments, or from camp-detritus or predator stashes.
Then? She simply buries them, in much the same way that allosaurus enthusiast scratches “Blue” onto a stone and leaves it in some likely place.
The difference being, of course, that instead of a word that, no matter the language or code, could still adversely impact history should it be found on its long journey to us, what we unearth now, it’s what we would have found in the course of time anyway: Some more bones.
Just, this is now a rare find. These bones, they’re so unmingled with antelope. They’re so whole, compared to the bulk of other fossils.
It’s as if they’ve been placed here just for us to find, yes?
And, if they’re found earlier?
Then they’re just an extremely lucky find.
Well, assuming this lone traveler follows the recommended protocol, and erases herself in all the ways available to that time period, thus leaving no fossil record of herself. For the Africa of six-odd millions years ago, and since we know we’re going to be poring over it cave by cave, rockslide by rockslide, then the safest means of disposing of your own remains has to be a trek to the ocean, followed by enticing a sea predator to digest you.
It doesn’t guarantee that your skull won’t linger inside that shark, say, especially if that shark itself becomes prey before its digestive juices can dissolve the bone. But chances are that shark dies in the open water anyway, its remains eventually drifting to the seafloor, to either be buried under miles of silt or subducted back into the Earth’s hot belly.
Of course these travelers will be trained for this. And, let me just say, the discipline most invested in preserving the human animal’s unaltered forward progress, it’s paleoanthropology. Also, we would assure this lone traveler that her sacrifice would garner her instant respect in the field. Perhaps we even promise to name one of these caches of bones after her.
But my page limit looms.
I have but one point left to make, here.
It’s that this isn’t even a decision.
Do you remember forty years ago, when the hominid remains were discovered at what became known as Rising Star? They made no sense then, and they make no more sense now. With that brain capacity, these Homo naledi could never have had their own burial customs. Yet there they were, in a geologically-stable, practically unreachable cave, their bones obviously placed there with intention.
Did you happen to read about the big find in Spain three years ago? It’s just now showing up in the journals. It’s another Rising Star, just, this time, with the Neanderthal. Again, the surprisingly-complete bones were found deep in a cave. However, whereas H. naledi was provisionally of the right body-size to have been delivered by their own kind to their final resting chamber, these Neanderthal, their robust build precludes their own kind having delivered their dead down the long, narrow, dark crawlspace—the only entry to that hidden chamber, and one that shows no evidence of having shifted since the Pleistocene.
There are some who now propose that these Neanderthal were disarticulated postmortem, then ferried back into the darkness by Neanderthal children, or perhaps by smaller members of the arriving homo sapiens, as a sort of trophy cache, or a ritualized “forgetting” of these living relics.
Those theories are not beyond the realm of possibility.
However, I submit that a lone traveler—likely female, in order to be of the right size to navigate that final passage—I submit she disarticulated those pristine Neanderthals postmortem, and delivered them back there for us to find. Just, clever monkeys that we are, we found that cache a few decades early.
So, Rising Star, yes, perhaps Rising Star was an anomaly. Perhaps there will be an explanation eventually.
But it’s happened twice now. And in the exact same manner.
What this says to me—and I know I’m nearing the page limit—what this tells me in the plainest terms, it’s that you are going to select this proposal, not any other. That, in the future, you already have. If you hadn’t? Then we wouldn’t have this oddball H. naledi hominid. Then we don’t have the “Spanish Cavemen,” as the media’s sure to christen them.
But let’s look at this from the other side, shall we?
If you don’t approve funding for this proposal, then neither do we have all the “impossible” finds of next year, when we’re able to dig down to previously agreed-upon sites. Those troves of fossils will settle many arguments and start countless more, of course. Such is the nature of scholarly pursuit. And the actual data we recover? It’s on par, as far as the public is concerned, with the missing words of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It matters to them about as much as whether an allosaurus wore a red or a blue boa. And the moon, so far as the world cares, it’s always been the moon.
Neither does the much-contested shape, function, and impact of the first metatarsal below the thumb matter to you.
But it doesn’t have to.
What matters to you, it’s the project.
This technology, this recent breakthrough, it’s not meant to be a flash in the pan, is it? Meaning, this first funded proposal, it’s actually a test. The single most important test in the history of… not just mankind.
Once this technology is proven to work, the support will come pouring in. From governments and then corporate entities, yes, but from the public as well. Private investors will line up to get their name on a brick in the foundation of this historical building.
How I know?
Let’s presume that the paleoanthropologist we send back next year, after her dental work, we dial her back to the last big ice age, but, because we can only target ranges, because we can only lob these travelers at epochs, she empties her lungs of air here in our time, and the next desperate breath she takes in, it’s in Spain, sixty thousand years ago.
She doesn’t also go back two million years to Africa, does she?
No, she doesn’t.
But someone else does. Let me repeat that one more time: Someone else does. What this means is that the first run, the trial, the Ice Age gambit, not only was it a success, but it caught the public’s imagination enough that funding came about for a subsequent trip: Rising Star. Where the exact same protocol was followed. What’s worked once can work again, right?
So, understand, please: You’ve already said yes to this proposal.
Just watch your hand now, as it crosses the page, ticks the appropriate box. You don’t have to do anything, really. Just let history take its course.
(Editors’ Note: Stephen Graham Jones is interviewed by Julia Rios in this issue of Uncanny Magazine.)
© 2017 by Stephen Graham Jones