Author: John F Keane
‘Envision a world,’ said the guide, ‘where photography was discovered much later than it was. Imagine no ancient discovery of light-sensitive chemicals, no early Greek photographers like Hilo of Tarsus. Imagine, if you can, a world where photography only emerged in the nineteenth century – a world where all visual representations prior to that were by draftsmen and painters. What kind of reality would have resulted? What kind of world would we live in now?’
Selema shivered. The cave was cold and the darkness troubled her. From somewhere distant she could hear the sound of dripping water.
‘In our world,’ the guide continued, ‘the existence of photographic representation has probably repressed the cults of personality required for religion to develop. Most mystics were bald, fat old men with dirty beards and missing teeth, to judge from the photographic evidence; consider the Buddha or Moses. But imagine a world where artists cloaked these men in veils of dream and legend, where reality never impinged on high ideals. Transformed into stately patriarchs, these unimposing figures would soon acquire semi-divine status.’
Selema found such a thing very hard to envision. Yet in a curious way, the guide’s words made sense. She shivered again as he resumed his talk.
‘Similarly, war in such a world would probably be far more commonplace. For us, major international conflicts are rare, occurring once every few centuries. But a world where no cameras recorded the rotting dead of Issus, Cannae or Hastings might well cloak violence in false ideals of heroism and chivalry. With vast resources being expended on war and religion, science and technology might develop far more slowly.
‘And that reality – a reality quite different from ours – could very easily have happened. If the Greeks had not been inspired to find light-sensitive media to capture pinhole images, such an unfeasibly different world might well have occurred. But what inspired the Greeks? What do we have, that such a world does not? Simple, we have… these!’
The guide flicked on his infrared lamp. The crowd gasped as the famous Photos Culture images leapt from the cave walls. Though inverted, the ancient Cro-Magnons in each scene were clearly visible, waving and grinning with spears and clubs held aloft. In one they posed before a slaughtered woolly rhinoceros, its wounds still bleeding. How astonishing that people from thirty-thousand years ago could still be seen, immortal in light! And even more astonishing how such primitive people made such images, all eighteen of them.
‘By sheer chance,’ the guide continued,’ these caves contained a light-sensitive fungus named photus clavatus. These people noticed their shadow imprints forming on the walls whenever they lit a fire. By trial and error, they learned to produce real photographs using holes in the cave walls, fixing these exposures using salt water.’
The guide made a sweeping gesture with his glittering arm.
‘These amazing images are the result. Some historians believe they represent the very foundation of our world; for, without them, we might be living in a totally different place. Of course, that is pure conjecture. These images might have had little effect on historical events. Still, it’s interesting to speculate what effect their non-existence might have had on Tlon, Mervek and the other great nations of the Earth: not to mention our colonies on Mars and Venus.’
Interesting indeed, thought Selema, checking her holographic timepiece: 14.28 on September the third, 1858. The gold transponder behind her ear chirped but she let her neural avatar handle the call, still feasting her eyes on those wonderful images.
Brilliant concept, well told.
Thank you so much for your kind and inspirational words. I am currently working on an alt-historical novel entitled A Curious Development. This explores an alternative timeline in which photography was accidentally discovered in prehistory.
Clever, inventive but in general a pinhole camera (what you are describing in the cave would be a camera obscura) can not capture people/things in motion clearly. I have 3 pinhole cameras, 2 Leonardos (see Pinhole Resource) and one stainless steel homemade one with a series of clip on laser cut apertures. Done a lot of pinhole photography. And by referring to salt water I would then guess that a silver nitrate solution was involved. Guess I am just being picky, but I teach 19th c. art history which includes the origins of photography. Nice reference to Plato’s cave.
Personally, I generally shy away from speculative fiction that mines the dense literary ore of philosophy and anthropology and offers it up as, what has been labelled, hard SF. This is just personal preference, but for me, the stories tend to drown in the high concept and read like scientific service manuals. Void of fun. Though, I should add that I have been guilty of writing the impenetrable myself on occasion. Anyway, John, I found your story to be wonderfully accessible, razor sharp in its construction and by far the best take on alternative history I have ever read. Just excellent.
Thank you so much!
Masterful, idea-dense alt hist trip. Fantastic!
Great piece. Inventive and thought provoking. I always wondered where we would be as a society if Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions and ideas hadn’t laid dormant for three hundred years. Now, I kind of know. Thanks.