Invented in 9th century China, black powder was first used in guns. Modern smokeless gunpowder wasn’t discovered until the 19th century.
In my first two novels, society has forgotten how to manufacture smokeless gunpowder. Firearms are mostly black-powder muzzle-loaders, and cartridges are unreliable. Because black powder is dirtier and can cause modern guns to jam if not explode, most would not be practical in the world I created. However, a couple of my readers disagree. They believe the ability to make smokeless gunpowder and use and make modern guns would survive a collapse of civilization. (Yes Don, somebody else thinks like you).
Maybe the ability to produce contemporary propellant and guns would endure, but I think it is highly unlikely. Knowledge disappears or goes into hibernation when societies fail.
Historian Bryan Ward-Perkins said the fall of Rome included a collapse of “material sophistication.” People reverted to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. An archaeologist pointed out that the fall brought about the loss of texts, practical skills and institutions that produced writings on how to get things done. Talking about that era, Thomas Cahill said, “A world in chaos is not a world in which books are copied and libraries maintained. It is not a world where learned men have the leisure to become more learned.” Ward-Perkins stated, “The main lesson I think we should learn from the collapse of the Roman Empire…(is) a realization of how insecure, and probably transient, our own achievements are…”
The fall of Rome wasn’t the only time “civilization” collapsed. Eric Cline pointed out eleven-hundred years before the birth of Jesus, earthquakes, drought and marauders known only as “Sea Peoples” brought about the “the abrupt and cataclysmic end…(of) the civilized world of the Bronze Age… No more Minoans or Mycenaeans. No more Trojans, Hittites, or Babylonians. The thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C., which had stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, suddenly ceased to exist, along with writing systems, technology and monumental architecture.”
If our civilization ends and the electrical grid disappears, our information may evaporate more quickly than the Latin and Greek ideas did because it is stored digitally. Scientific data stored on floppy disks already have been lost due to disk deterioration.
Widespread death after a collapse of the modern world would accelerate the loss of knowledge. One reason why many would die is that humans don’t do well when faced with deadly threats. Psychologist John Leach said only ten percent of people, when threatened, control their fears and act rationally. I believe these are the people that keep the human race going. Another ten percent of the population, Leach said, become hysterical. The rest, eighty percent, do not survive because they are stunned, bewildered and are so overwhelmed, they do not act. For example, only one out of three hundred worshippers attempted to disarm the gunman who opened fire in the Al Noor mosque in New Zealand.
We today do not appreciate how much our institutions – military, police, courts, hospitals, government alliances – have reduced the threats to our lives.
Due to the degradation of sanitation and medical infrastructures, pestilence also would contribute to population decline. The Black Plague arrived in Europe in 1347. Before it ended, the disease killed 25 million Europeans. The continent did not regain its population until the 16th century.
War would do its part. Genghis Khan’s invading armies killed 40 million people. So many people died – 11 percent of the world’s population – that huge swathes of cultivated land returned to forest. The Vucari in my first novel, The Book of Ruin, used Genghis Khan’s Eurasian steppes to invade Teutonic-America.
However, Roman and Greek knowledge did return to Europe eventually. It came back along three basic pathways.
One, it hibernated in Christian monasteries until clerics discovered ancient manuscripts in church libraries. In 1417, a papal secretary found languishing in a German monastery Lucretius’ philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, written 1,400 years earlier. Lucretius, a Roman, talked about atoms, the earth as a planet and ideas that support the belief that each person is endowed with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His words influence Shakespeare, Galileo, Darwin and Jefferson.
The second way ancient knowledge returned was through Ireland. Thomas Cahill argued because Catholics in Ireland enshrined literacy as a central religious act, their clerics kept Latin literature alive by copying “everything they could get their hands on…Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought.”
In my book series, Orthodox clerics similarly protect modern knowledge by writing The Book of Ruin and preserving pre-Flash manuscripts in a floating monastery.
The third way ancient knowledge got back to Europe was through Islam. While Europe withered in a Dark Age, Islamic scholars preserved Greek and Latin writings on philosophy, astronomy, geography, mathematics, science and medicine. Scientific discoveries flourished during Islam’s Golden Age. Algebra, chemistry, azimuth, zenith, alkaline, zero and algorithm are Latinized Arabic words. One writer claims Islamic scholarship jumped started the European renaissance. I am exploring a similar cross-pollination in my third novel, RangerKnights.
I kept these histories in mind as I spun my tales. I made choices. Some pre-Flash technology and customs survived in whole or in part. Others did not, including – and I apologize to gun enthusiasts – smokeless gunpowder and most modern pistols and rifles. Smokeless gunpowder will be rediscovered in my third novel, which takes place 250 years after the first book.