Odious and Peculiar

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Forging the Sampo

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Friday, November 20, 2009
Slate has a rather fun article about the problem of communicating the dangers of nuclear waste far, far into the future. There are substantial and interesting linguistic issues, of course, but the crux of the question is how any warning system can possibly avoid being the equivalent of a giant, red, "Do Not Push" button. But the think tanks working on the problem really seem to be enjoying the opportunity to unleash their sci-fi nerditude, and who can blame them? Proposals seem to range from Neal Stephenson's Anathem on one end to H.P. Lovecraft on the other:
...the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch's Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what's buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed....

Proposals for the "earthworks" component demonstrate that the whole project of communicating with the future is really a creative assignment, more dependent on the imagination than on expertise. What'll really scare off 210th-century tomb raiders? The report proposes a "Landscape of Thorns" with giant obelisklike stones sticking out of the earth at odd angles. "Menacing Earthworks" has lightning-shaped mounds radiating out of a square. In "Forbidding Blocks," a Lego city gone terribly wrong, black, irregular stones "are set in a grid, defining a square, with 5-foot wide 'streets' running both ways. You can even get 'in' it, but the streets lead nowhere, and they are too narrow to live in, farm in, or even meet in."

I have to admire their restraint in avoiding the words cyclopean and squamous. Navajo, eh? Well, it is New Mexico we're talking about here, so Athabascans really ought to figure into any dystopian scenario under consideration.

Returning to the Anathem angle, I've heard the "nuclear priesthood" idea floated in the past as well. Given the documented history of religious institutions, this strikes me as not being the solution, to say the least (and my concommunicants get no exception here). Besides, can you imagine the types who would volunteer for ordination?

Thinking about such matters on a government salary: nice work if you can get it! Were any of these scenarios actually to come to fruition, they could be a major tourist draw in this century. The Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce ought to be lobbying like mad for the more lurid options.

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I think they are overestimating the human sense of danger. If they build one of those things, people of the future will probably start using it as a skate park or something.
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