Lost Cities and Magic Ratchets

Ruminations on our urge to exalt the mysteries of long ago, and what it does to stories over time

Something I sometimes wonder about, and now perhaps so will you, is how the advancements of Atlantian civilisation are understood by writers over time.

When the story is first relyed, the Atlanteans are not significantly more advanced than their counterparts elsewhere in the story. But as the story of Atlantis is retold, they become more and more socially, philosophically, and (perhaps most of all) technologically advanced. These days, Atlantis is retold as a land of abundant and casual magic, or of advanced crystalline technologies, or of alien-influenced uplifted sentient animals and their half-human kin… It's not something Plato probably saw coming.

I think Atlantis is not alone in this dynamic, and I would be interested to see whether other deluge-associated ‘lost cities’ experienced the same sort of techno-flanderisation over time. And, crucially, whether this correlated with the technological development of the storytellers’ contemporaneous societies.

To put the hypothesis more concretely: “A plot-element whose superiority (possibly domain-limited) is a key theme in the story, will experience a gradual ratcheting of that superior trait to outpace the real-world development or improvement of that trait”.

See also: the ratcheting of dragons and vampires along the axes of culture and intellect - the magic ratchet need not only apply to places and cultures, it appears to affect anything that is contrasted with our quotidian daily lives. As those lives get better or more sophisticated, the myths we built for simpler times get a correlative boost.

I think it's possible that this affects the mythologisation of actual histories also, until factual accounts become impossible to understand as such any longer to a cultural outsider. For example, imagine a deluge account of a coastal city that was flooded within the span of a generation, forcing a culture to abandon possibly their largest economic and cultural centre for higher ground. As this will certainly have lead to a drop in living standards, at least temporarily, parents will tell children of the wonders they enjoyed in the lost city.

Of course, those kids will relate the same stories to their kids, and so forth.. but the flood might have come faster and faster, and the peril ever greater. But, more perniciously, the wonders of the city will also ratchet, for no other narrative reason than to benchmark the lifestyle of the city against the improving conditions of our recovering hypothetical deluge-refugees. Perhaps the city was great because it had plumbing: well, later on when your new highland towns also have plumbing, you'll start recounting how the city had heated water on tap, so the aesthetics of technological advancement and increased leisure are not lost to the march of your own culture's progress. The magic ratchet clicks forward another notch.

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