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I have a post apocalyptic world where the main character is trying to learn more about the pre-apocalyptic world. However I don't know how long it would take for almost no knowledge to get to him other than from historians. The only information they have of the pre-war world is that there was a large democratic country stretching from sea to sea, and it controlled parts of other land masses (they know that there are other land masses but nothing about them). What would be a reasonable timeline for this to happen?

More detail edit: takes place in Arizona with small cities popping up long after the nukes fell down. The main concern is a different historian finding something stopping the state of no information.

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    $\begingroup$ This depends on many details, mainly on to which extent cities and towns with their libraries and records survived the initial disaster and its aftermath. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 21 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ You should also consider the population density (lower density results in faster loss of knowledge) and the state of the infrastructure, especially industrial (repairs might be impossible due to lack of people/materials/machinery). Also, how much food the survivors have? How long did it take for the food production to stabilise? How food is obtained? If there is no surplus of food any knowledge not related to immediate survival needs may be lost. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 21 at 5:05
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    $\begingroup$ Civilisation is liable to be immensely harder to kill than most respondents give it credit for. But you can bend reality substantially. We can read all except a very few of the languages ever (known to have been) created. 2000 years is not long enough. Nukes help, but nuking will not erase the totality. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Apr 21 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ I think we need to move on from the idea of a nuclear apocalypse. The idea that the entire planet will be destroyed is not really accurate. Basically, nuclear weapons function entirely in the same way as conventional munitions. The only difference is there is a higher mass energy density. There are still limits to the size. There are three main mechanisms involved. High air pressure, infered radiated heat, and radiation. The only one that scales significantly is heat radiation. However this heat radiation has very limited effects in many situations. For example heat is very easily reflected. $\endgroup$ – marshal craft Apr 21 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ This question needs quantification of "knowledge" and "gone" to be answerable. Some knowledge loss will occur in the millisecond after the first bomb. Some knowledge will be preserved in fossil records 6 billion years later. In between these two extremes is a very wide continuum of loss. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Apr 22 at 7:02
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Whatever you want

Scenario 1: Small rural town continuously occupied by rational authorities, war occurs "today". The town keeps itself together and starts repairing key infrastructure and scavenging from areas that were hit harder. Record-keeping may be a bit spotty for the period immediately after the Big Boom, but in 50 years when they have stabilised at a reduced tech level they will still have plenty of old books from the local library and private ownership that they can refer back to. The broad knowledge of the pre-war world will effectively never be lost.

Scenario 2: Small rural town continuously occupied by rational authorities, war occurs decades in the future. The town keeps itself together and starts repairing key infrastructure and scavenging from areas that were hit harder. However, the vast majority of written material is in electronic format stored either in a "cloud" that no longer exists or on local storage media that is not stable over prolonged periods of power outage. Society falls further before stabilising - largely because of the lack of readable technical specifications to allow items to be repaired or reconstructed. Over a few generations there are only second-hand word of mouth tales of the "old days" with inaccuracies and little detail - no one can really believe that anyone had an internet or that people had the time to waste making reality TV shows.

Scenario 3: Cult leader gathers followers and leads them into a previously unpopulated area to build a village immediately after the bombs fall. Various topics (including pre-war geopolitical realities that don't reflect the cult leader's preferences) are declared "heresy" with extreme punishments for discussing / teaching them. In this situation, any child under the age of about 2 years when the bombs fell will grow up with no knowledge of the pre-war world and will have no locally available reading material to learn from. Even children who were somewhat older will have very limited knowledge - a six year old will probably remember playing with tech toys but how many six year old children can provide much useful information about the country they live in beyond their immediate environment?

In short, you can pick whatever time scale you want and have people with vastly different levels of knowledge relatively geographically close to each other - there is nothing stopping scenario 1 and scenario 3 both happening 50 km apart. There are people today who believe that the Earth is flat, vaccinations cause autism and COVID-19 is caused by radiation from 5G - if your protagonist is raised by such people then he can be as ill-informed as you like in the first generation post-apocalypse.

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    $\begingroup$ As in The Village, Scenario 3 is possible even without an actual apocalypse. (Though you'd have to find a way for planes not to fly overhead.) $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Apr 22 at 1:01
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It's very hard to lose knowledge

I'm afraid most of the answers you've been given make some serious assumptions that are, frankly, false. It's very, very hard to lose substantial information — even after a nuclear apocalypse.

  1. I apologize that this seems trite: but generally speaking, people aren't stupid. Almost everyone who survived the apocalypse would be literate (can read and write) and would pass that along to their children. Why? Because knowledge is power. Not necessarily knowledge of, say, quantum physics... but knowledge of business, fundamental mathematics, mechanics, civil and structural engineering, electricity, etc.

  2. The world is a very structured place. Schools would quickly reform because, per #1, people generally aren't stupid. You'll have plenty of people who know that failing to train the next generation is a really bad idea.

  3. We're addicted to technology. Yes, humans can figure out how to "live off the land." But realistically, you'll have people getting generators, computers, and the lights working very quickly. Even small town hardware stores have generators ready to sell and you can make a passable biodiesel fuel out of cooking oil (and cooking oil comes from both vegetables and animal fats...).

  4. Even a nuclear apocalypse wouldn't destroy every library in every city (and university, college, school...). Books will be everywhere. In homes, in stores... everywhere. The world wouldn't lack for books unless your story drives a reason for those books to be destroyed.

  5. 99.99% of the technology we use today was invented in the last 150 years. This is incredibly important to understand. If your apocalypse was so thorough that it destroyed 90% of the population (leaving some 770 million people, at least half of which are adults...), you'd still have so many people with so much knowledge in their heads that it would be believable to have everything back to today's standards in 150 years. Yes, you have the radiation problems... but you have people with modern medical knowledge and medical supplies literally everywhere. You wouldn't have the mortality problems of the middle ages.

Conclusion

SciFi loves the idea of a Mad Max-style apocalypse, where whole groups of people have somehow regressed and access to knowledge is mysterious. In reality, the world is swimming in knowledge. Oh, we might lose a lot of the things that don't affect everyday life (like astrophysics and quantum physics) and the destruction may have made it difficult to bring the highest tech back quickly (like nanometer-geometry computer chips). But electricity, chemistry, mechanics... and books... would all be in use from 10 seconds after the bombs hit. And there's so much stuff available that resources would exist for years... even decades....

Do not underestimate just how much knowledge is in the head of the average 35-year-old person (much less the 60-year-olds...). Your real challenge is justifying its non-existence. That will be a contrivance, not an inevitability.

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4 Generations (140ish years), if electricity went down.

Once the people who were around for the Fall are dead, it's mostly over as far as retaining modern-day information goes. If you blast humans off the Grid, all you've got are books. If it takes 30+ years to get computers back into use, even things like CDs and flash drives that survived the apocalypse intact will be basically unreadable. So all you've got are hard copies. The problem is modern-day publishing techniques are made for efficiency, not longevity. I have books over 100 years old that are in far better condition than ones made in the 70s-onwards. Even with proper care and storage (which most books won't have) things will be dicey 50 years on. Arizona might get lucky, since it's not really damp there. But even so most everything will go in the years between "everything is on fire oh god oh god it's the apocalypse" and "we now have somewhat successful farming communities."

But even if you have the books, you need people to read the books. Literacy just isn't that big a deal in a post-apocalypse agricultural world. Sure, the 2nd gen will get taught to read, because the 1st gen expects it. But the crops need to come in and the rad-cows need milking and the 3rd generation's literacy rate tanks. With that drop comes less desire to maintain the records people do have. Sure the Bible/other holy works get copied by diligent priests, and agricultural stuff gets copied for its usefulness. But if you get blasted so far back that the 1st/2nd gen can't get the power working again all the technical stuff falls by the wayside. By the 4th generation reading is for priests and whatever nobility equiv gets set up. And they mostly read Holy Texts and practical works History is a super low priority. The Emberverse (starting with Dies the Fire) by S.M. Sterling does a great job of depicting this decline in historical knowledge. If your civilization is blasted back into the stone age and only hear about history via your grandad, who also tells stories about WILD things like Jedi and Captain America, how much will you actually remember? Tanks and robots and Nukes and lightsabers and F-22s and P-51s and T-65s all get mixed up because hey, they were all bedtime stories your grandpa told you about things that don't exist in your world. You tell those stories to your own kid, but they don't believe half of it. Sure everyone knows a giant gorilla called King Kong lives on a far-away island. But some war that killed 100 million+ people? IMPOSSIBLE! Even with the Ancient Weapons.

So the stories get mixed up, and the books are dissolving away, and only the most successful immediately-post-fall communities managed to keep any non-survival-oriented books at all. But it's been over 100 years and nobody is QUITE sure what the difference is between fiction and nonfiction, and hell the world's changed anyway. Not efficient to spend a ton of brainpower figuring out what's real and what's not. The harvest doesn't care either way!

TL/DR In 4 generations, give or take, pre-apocalypse history will be mostly forgotten, and what is remembered will be so mixed up with pre-apocalypse fiction nobody will have any idea what's true and what's false.

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Answer flavored by talking to a startup founder from the Phillipines who showed us how much educational material is lost due to cyclones and big storms.

The usual assumption is, even if we lost the internet cloud, libraries persist.

However, if there was a weather side-effect of continual, hellish cyclones and overall extremely humid climate, almost all paper records would rapidly deteriorate. Such weather would also be very bad for any surviving electronics.

So, with that scenario, I'd say a small number of generations and most knowledge would be lost.

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By the time two generations have passed most unessential knowledge will be lost. Anything nonessential for survival will go in the dumpster. No one cares to learn about art history if survival is your primary concern. There will be some people who are interested in preserving other areas of knowledge, but they will be seen as strange. These "librarians" could spend their whole lives gathering info, but nearly everyone they talk to just wont care to learn it. Its possible they might have apprentices who will carry on their work, but in a violent place like the post-apocalypse you can expect that many such "libraries" will have as short a lifespan as the people tending to them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that’s perfect because I was planning on basing it 350 years after the bombs drop giving enough time for those large stores of info time to die out. $\endgroup$ – WantToBeWriter Apr 21 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ If you really want most knowledge gone then youll need several societal collapses in short order. Each time more and more knowledge is lost. Ex: After the apocalypse several societies emerge with high organization. These societies have gather remanants of knowledge. They come into conflict and destroy each other. Banditry, lawlessness, and starvation follow. More knowledge is lost during these unorganized years. Next less advanced civs emerge, but they come into conflict (might even be that one is ANTIknowledge and burns everything thry can find) Rinse repeat for a while and no more knowledge. $\endgroup$ – Hippeus_Lancer Apr 21 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think you're forgetting something, namely, winter. People who grow their own food have at least a few months of the year (depending on climate) when there's very little work that needs to be done. Traditionally that time would have been spent in reading, educating children, or on cottage industries like weaving, furniture-making, etc. In the fictional scenario, it might be spent on learning electronics, mechanics, etc. You simply cannot spend 24/7/365 on farming, due to the nature of farming. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Apr 21 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Art history, possibly. How to build a fortress (or any complex building), smelt good quality steel, mix gunpowder and other explosives, diagnose and treat diseases in people and livestock, not so much. All of those are literally impossible without being able to read and write. Your library isn't some weird geek's hobby, it's what keeps you alive. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 21 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @WantToBeWriter Only the most trivial practical things can be "passed down". Everything else needs to be written down. There isn't any other way to preserve and pass on knowledge which works, and if you're starting with 100% literacy and books then there's no believable way to lose all that. As for your supply chain, I intentionally listed only skills which could be done almost anywhere with local supplies. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 22 at 0:13
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Short, but with some decent points.

If people survive the apocolapse, which people did, then they would pass knowledge generation to generation. Bombs also only permanently eradicate things close to them, there shoudl still be plenty of rubble and the like scattered around the remains of the city. Plastics also last an absurdly long time, so take that as you will. In my eyes, there would be many ways to learn about the past. If its been a lon time, like, hundreds or thousands of years, many books probably would be destroyed, but there still would be books if it has only been like, 100 years.

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  • $\begingroup$ You make a great point about plastic! that a great way to learn small snipets about the past! thanks I think I will use it in my book $\endgroup$ – WantToBeWriter Apr 21 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Whats the book going to be called, or is the title still in development? $\endgroup$ – LorenzoTheSnail Apr 21 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ title still in developement $\endgroup$ – WantToBeWriter Apr 21 at 15:55
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Knowledge is basically sticky. No matter what events transpire, knowledge will be preserved and eventually restored. A nonfiction book that illustrates this tenet is How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill (ISBN 0-385-41848-5). While I am aware of criticism regarding the specific facts Cahill presents, the basic idea, I think, holds sway.

  • Information exists somewhere in a medium that can be accessed and replicated.
  • People have a strong desire to retain and grow knowledge.

It is certain that some communities will be so caught up in just surviving that they will fall into ignorance. Information that is primarily available in digital formats may be lost forever due to the inherent fragility of the medium. However, those communities that do retain knowledge will eventually expand and re-educate their neighbors.

Recovery from future "dark ages" could even be accelerated by the fact that a typical encyclopedia article on the subject of the printing press should contain enough information about invention to guide future archivists in re-creating the machine (though a typical library should also contain books dedicated to that and related subjects). Of the digital formats, it seems to me that properly stored optical media will hold an edge for recovery possibilities, though the clock on those is certainly shorter than for paper.

Post-apocalyptic technologies and societies that emerge would not resemble our contemporary world very closely. They will, for example, have the advantage of knowing our failures and may be able to leverage that information to prioritize technologies and societal constructs that mitigate the issues we see in our world today.

Post-apocalyptic reconstructions of history will be incomplete and may be biased by the preserving communities' ideals, as well (especially if they selectively use books they disagree with politically for kindling before resolving to preserve what remains). Thus the "history" of the future may look quite different if preserved in Vermont, as opposed to Arizona.

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What would be a reasonable timeline for this to happen?

Optimistically, 500 years

In order to lose reading and writing, you need to almost utterly destroy humanity. Not just in the sense of survivors going back to farming, but actually on the level of a near extinction level event. If you want to guess numbers of survivors, I'd put a maximum of 10 breeding pairs in North America, evenly distributed with no contact with the other families. Only with that kind of pressure are you even slightly likely to lose all this. Even then I'd say it's unlikely, but let's be generous.

To get back to a society which can sustain historians, you probably need at least a million people in North America. That's an order of magnitude less that the population before Columbus, but let's be optimistic. Let's assume 3 children from each generation survive to breed, which is an optimistic figure based on pre-medical survival rates. Then you need a 50,000 times increase in population for a 1.5 times per generation geometric rate of increase. My sums say that's 26 generations. Let's assume child marriage and 20 years per generation. That comes out to roughly 500 years.

Frame challenge answer: Write a different book

Firstly, even with this level of destruction, I can't see reading and writing dying out. There are real practical uses for it, even at this kind of survival level. And there isn't going to be a shortage of books.

But more seriously, this is a very tired old trope, and you have the problem of trying to say something new in a sub-genre which is old. HG Wells may have been first to the party, but it's been used by so many people, and vanishingly few have been original. All that's mainly changed is the visuals, not the concepts. Think carefully about whether you do genuinely have anything new to add.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not a helpful attitude at all. Telling OP to drop his idea because "That story has already been told." Is flatly ridiculous. By your own metric we should all give up writing because every story has already been told in some fashion or another. Not every writer needs to be the next HG Wells. $\endgroup$ – Hippeus_Lancer Apr 22 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ @HippeusLancer Frame challenges (which I explicitly identified it as) are for the bad news that your idea probably isn't going to work. It's not just that it's been told, it's that it's been told over and over and over. I didn't say definitely don't, I said think carefully about whether there's something original. If there isn't, why would anyone read the OP's book instead of the many already out there? $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 22 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ A breeding pair with no contact to others will die out very rapidly. You're not positing near-extinction, this would lead to actual extinction. $\endgroup$ – Nij Apr 22 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Nij Not true - they can reproduce perfectly well, if they are prepared to put up with incest for a bit. This will give a greater chance of congenital diseases, of course, but that doesn't stop the species as a whole surviving. And within a few generations they're likely to come in contact with others anyway. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 22 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Nij Remember that the OP wants conditions where literacy can be entirely eradicated. If you have even two breeding pairs together, they can distribute work and exponentially increase their free time to pass on knowledge. That's why I explicitly said you need the original survivors to be on their own, isolated, so that they don't have enough opportunity to educate the next two generations. It's not nice, but it's the only way the OP will get the setting they need. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 22 at 10:55

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