Chindi: Keeping the Channel Open
I've confessed elsewhere to a preoccupation with things that get lost. But that's a tendency we all share. Someone opens a chest in Oxford, finds a handwritten note by Charles Lamb, and the world gets excited. A coin, a spearpoint, a scroll, any fragment from another age ignites our imagination. We encounter an ordinary vase, once used by an Egyptian to carry water to a slave, and we want nothing so much as to touch it. To hold it in our hands.
We hold it in reverence because it represents another era, because it was lost and now it is found.
History is filled with haunting visions of things on a larger scale that have gone astray. We dream of the missing books of the Trojan cycle. Or the contents of the library at Alexandria. And of the Holy Grail.
What would we not give for a glimpse of the Tower of Babylon? Or the Colossus at Rhodes? To find a way somehow to stroll through Camelot? To find a bottle thrown into the sea from the shores of Atlantis? A different age dreamt of finding Eden. One wonders if future archeologists will debate the precise location of Agincourt or Valley Forge.
We're disturbed by the fact that things which are significant, either to us personally, or to the world at large, have a habit of dropping out of sight. What provides more sheer pleasure than a phone call from an old friend with whom we've had no contact for twenty years? What is more bittersweet than news of a lost love?
It seems to us that, in a well-run universe, things that matter would somehow stay on the record. That they should survive beyond the memory of those who knew them. That we could be assured that, somewhere out there, the Hanging Gardens are alive and well.
Because this seems to be a universal tendency, we might ask whether it would be characteristic of any sentient species. Especially if that species has been abroad in the galaxy, and has been traveling at sublight velocities.
Hutch's experience has taught her that the universe is mostly sterile. Empty. A place of vast starlit distances, but with only one instance, beyond our own, of thinking creatures. There is evidence of a few other races, lost in time, an occasional set of ruins on a lonely world. And of course, somewhere out there are the Hawks, who came to the rescue of the primitive culture on Maleiva III, when it was threatened by a severe ice age a couple of thousand years ago.
The truth is that we want very much to find someone else besides ourselves. If you'd like to start a debate, tell your friends, those who like to read, that we're probably alone in the universe. They will argue with you; and if you listen closely, you'll discover there's more passion in their argument that you would expect from someone simply making the point that it's a big universe, we can't possibly be alone. (Which, by the way, is the only argument there is against the proposition.)
Why do we want company so desperately? Are we incurable romantics? Do we want to trade philosophical viewpoints? Are we wired to look for strangers with whom we can share a pizza?
However that may be, there will unquestionably be a sense of wistfulness and loss when, or if, we encounter evidence of someone's having been out there at Walpurgis IV, but there's nothing left now except crumbling buildings and indecipherable scratches on walls.
So, it appears that, in Hutch's universe, somebody got an early start, possibly millions of years ago. They must have found a living civilization, recalled how much of their own history was lost, and thought it might be worthwhile to make a record.
And then, possibly a few thousand years later, they found a second world with oceans and ships and sea captains. And eventually a third with beachfront resorts and books.
We can assume one thing would lead to another, and eventually you get a chindi. Who built it?
Does it matter? It's someone's gift to all of us who are looking for grails.
SFWA Nebula nomination for Chindi
Washington Post Book World selected Chindi among its group of best science fiction and fantasy titles for 2002.