There’s a line in The Arrival, where the linguist character opines that language, the ability to communicate, is the basis of all civilization. The guy she’s talking to shakes his head and says it’s obviously science.
It occurs to me that language comes before science, so I agree with her. Even math is a language. Mathematicians who don’t share a spoken language can still ‘discuss’ their field via the numbers and formula. Scientists must share a language, even if it’s only math, to be able to science. And language does predate the invention of mathematics. Shared spoken language is all but an absolute requirement to be able to teach non-basic math to someone, excepting the rare (very rare) mathematical prodigy genius who just somehow innately grasps algebra and calculus simply from seeing the numbers and formulas.
This post comes about from a response I gave to a Redditor who put up a rant proclaiming any efforts he made with his writing were “only entertaining other humans occasionally until we all go the way of the dinosaur.” Obviously I can’t really get behind that.
I thought of The Arrival when I saw the post because culture is the ongoing legacy of humanity. That culture includes art and similar ‘useless shit’, as well as science and ‘useful shit.’ Except it occurs to me that our global society, such as it is, has art that’s a millennia or more old that people still cherish, find relevant, and experience on a daily basis. There’s not as much thousand+ year old technology that hangs on to the degree that thousand year old culture does. Sure we’ve got real basics like the wheel, the plow, hammers, a good bulk of math up to algebra (wiki informs me calculus was ‘invented’ in the 17th century) and so on; but by and large most technology falls by the wayside and generally is of interest and delight only to historians.
Culture, art, has a more lasting chance of persevering. Does all culture, all art, so persevere? No, of course not. But things come in and out of fashion all the time. One example is Gregorian Chants, which originated somewhere around the 9th or 10th century; but received a worldwide resurgence of awareness and popularity in the 1990s thanks to some musicians incorporating the Chants directly into their own music.
Culture is what sticks around. And historically humanity has been pretty bad at predicting which bits and pieces of culture will stick better than others, or when they’ll get scraped off the floor and given a second (or third or fifth or tenth) chance to stick again.
And then there’s this, because while I love culture, I am a scifi geek, and also love science. It’s not an either/or proposition. The one leads to the other, the other leads to the one; and they both drive us forward. One of the most common things heard from scientists and engineers is “I got into this because of (insert some story/movie/book/series/etc…) that I loved, and it motivated me to take up science as a way to do what I loved in those stories.” Going the other way, scifi writers read science news with a very special kind of delight; every new theory and discovery and advancement generates a lot of new ideas for where to take the next tale.
I never feel like humanity is wasting its time when it comes to culture and art. I do feel like we’re wasting time when we dawdle and delay over advancing things; whether those things are solar power or space travel, or ending censorship and suppression of art. The thinkers and dreamers among us are the ones who carry us forward. Even those others of us who aren’t either thinking or dreaming. I can’t play a note, but I love music. I can’t design a computer, but I still have a tablet.
I’ll always cherish the thinkers and dreamers. They’re the special ones.
Incidentally, Apocalypse Atlanta has gone on sale starting today in preparation for Apocalypse Alone’s appearance in the SFWA New Releases newsletter. As always, the sale periods where I discount the first book in the series is a great excuse for a new reader to check things out and get a foot in. Culture doesn’t have to be heavy and weighty; there’s always room for fun. And zombies.