I was somewhat surprised to find this film on NASA’s list of scientifically accurate SF movies.
Now, obviously we’re not talking about the main character’s “Wolverine”-style super healing factor, which is the only actual “scientific” aspect of the story, but about its portrayal of 10,000 years of history.
The irony is that its historical “facts” are as nice a collection of historical myths as you’re likely to find in any one spot.
Some of these myths – like the very first claim the film’s hero makes – are so blatantly wrong that one wonders why they’ve survived as long as they have: anyone who’s ever glanced through the second Book of Ptolemy’s The Almagast knows exactly what shape any educated man of the Fifteenth Century thought the Earth had.
Others reflect an almost insulting lack of understanding of other cultures. Why, for example, would anyone chose to teach the Jews how to escape the endless suffering on the wheel of death and reincarnation when their major factions believed that either we simply died once and for all or that we rise again to either heaven or hell? For that matter, why would the Jews care if he did? It only makes sense if one argues for some “true essence” of Buddhism which has nothing whatsoever to do with either its doctrines, history, or the culture which gave it birth.
Obviously, any attempt at addressing these myths would be longer than the film itself. But the film’s biggest failure is its remarkable lack of imagination. Somehow Jerome Bixby simply assumed that a man who’d lived 10,000 years would share all his parochial 20th Century prejudices.
Imagine, though, from what we actually know of that history what the story of such a man with an interest in higher learning would really look like:
We know from the surviving megalithic sites that many of these ancient peoples had a remarkable knowledge of astronomy – and the oldest known sites (in South Africa) are far older than our 10,000 year old man. Obviously, accurate calendars would be incredibly important to any early agrarian culture, where dates of solstices, equinoxes and moon cycles would determine when it was safe to plant and how long they had before bad weather came. And who would have access to this vitally important knowledge?
Only a small, priestly caste.
In fact, despite our usual image of a tribal shaman as little more than someone in a funny hat waving bones around, even the most primitive shaman would have had a considerable store of important knowledge – the use of medicinal herbs, practical astronomy, and, of course, the history and literature of the tribe.
The very things, in other words, which interested “John”.
The situation would have become even worse when “John” was 5000 years old or so. Around that time he would have encountered the first major civilizations, whether in Assyria, Egypt or China. Not only did they have access to far more knowledge than he had ever encountered before, not only would he have discovered math and other previously unsuspected disciplines, but for the first time “John” would have seen rows of strange marks which recorded this knowledge permanently…
Marks known as “priest writing” (i.e., “hieroglyphics”).
In fact, he would have been at least 7000 years old before anyone made the first early attempts at understanding the universe without reference to divine revelation in ancient Greece, 7500 before Confucius did something very similar in China (although his teachings also included specific information on the proper worship of the gods).
If “John” spent any time in Western Europe during the “Dark Ages”, the only place he’d have found the learning and culture he wanted would have been in the Benedictine monasteries, which painstakingly preserved vast numbers of ancient manuscripts. Later, in the Middle Ages, it was the Catholic Church that founded all the great Universities of Europe – Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Paris and many, many others. And whatever one might think of the Galileo case, the Catholic Church paid his salary for thirty years while he studied heliocentrism, despite the ban on teaching it publicly.
Learning remained almost exclusively in the hands of religious bodies in the West well into the Enlightenment, when we find a skeptic like David Hume making his living as an Anglican Priest.
Which actually should come as no surprise as the one thing that learning requires more than anything else is the necessary leisure to pursue it, something religion has always been able to provide – and which we find it doing in culture after culture with only rare exceptions like the Moslem Caliphate in Persia.
So how might our megalithic man view things from this perspective?
On the face of it, a deep respect for the part that religion played in promoting learning would seem possible.
Although, one would also understand it if “John” took a defiant attitude towards religion – like a Prometheus longing to steal fire from the gods – and felt envious of the priests’ control of the knowledge they had painstakingly acquired.
But it seems far more likely that he would feel a hatred of any kind of learning. After all, it was quite common for entry to such priestly castes to be strictly hereditary – and even if he could join, would he have been able to do so at an apparent age of his late 20s? Would the ten years he spent anywhere before moving on have been long enough to reach such a privileged position where he would be taught the secrets of the hieroglyphs? For that matter, would ten years have been enough to learn even a trade like metalworking, whose secrets would have been kept from outsiders with almost religious zeal?
In fact, one can imagine quite a few scenarios any of which would be far more likely than the sort of routine (and ahistorical) complaints about religious obscurantism that were Jerome Bixby’s real interest here. And let’s face it, most of them would have been far more interesting. There is a lot of potential in the idea, but only if one actually tried to imagine what the experiences of such a man might have been, the beliefs he would have grown up with – and not merely tried to push one’s own beliefs instead.
Although I’ll concede that it would be far too interesting if “John’s” original cultural biases towards women had survived (one somehow thinks of Arthur J. Upfield’s descriptions of the elderly Aboriginal Chief having his “lubras” [harem of young wives] do his digging for him).
That would just be ugly.