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Say "Cheese!"

John F Keane is a long-serving member of the BSFA (British Sci-Fi Association) and has published both prose and poetry in a number of science fiction magazines, including Analog. In an academic capacity, he has written about the social prototyping potential of science fiction in such prestigious management journals as Emergence and The International Journal of Advertising. His paper "Literary Praxiphorical Analysis: Using Science Fiction and Fantasy to Shape Organizational Futures" (2014), co-authored with Professors Bernard Burnes and Gary Graham and published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change (84), is considered a classic of its kind.

He is currently working on the Altrisian series, a trilogy of novels about an ancient super race with the power to manipulate destiny across vast spans of space and time. He is also developing a novella describing an alternate timeline in which photography was discovered in prehistory. Lonely Ways, a collection of his shorter speculative fiction, is available on Amazon both as an ebook and as a paperback.

He resides in Manchester (the UK version) and is an active member of the South Manchester Writers' Workshop. His hobbies include chess, Sudoku puzzles, crosswords, and horticulture. Follow him on twitter at @JohnFKeane2.
"Let us go to the place," said Nardoo excitedly. "It is time for us to live forever."
The tribe were well-daubed, clad in their finest furs and bearing their best weapons. This day was important to them above all others, the third day after the salmon spawned. They trooped out of the camp, leaving their children in the care of old Sundoo. Children could not stay still long enough to live forever; but someday their time would come.
Keril and the others fitted their safety helmets and followed their guide deep into the cave system, stronghold of the Photos Culture. Her heart began to race with fear and excitement. The electric lamps on their foreheads hurled back the shadows, revealing damp walls and dripping stalactites. When they exhaled, their freezing breath hung like November mist in the musty air.
"Switch to infrared," said their guide, as the tunnel narrowed. "Light can harm the images."
Keril fumbled for her goggles and switched off her lamp. In a moment the cave appeared as in a shuttered room, faded but visible. Presently, they were reduced to crawling in single file through a tight, twisting tunnel.
"We're there," called the guide from somewhere up ahead. His voice sounded muffled and distant. Keril could better endure the pain and discomfort, knowing her journey's end was close. When she emerged at last, she scrambled to her feet and took a deep gulp of the cold, still air. Yes: the images were everything she had expected.
Nardoo crawled through the blackness to the Place of Taking and settled down to wait. As Head Man, it was his responsibility. Outside, Candoo removed the dirt and twigs from the hole they had made and a cone of light burst in. It threw the tribe across the wall in miraculous detail, but upside down; and the rock surface glistened green as it always did this time of year. Squinting, Nardoo poured his salted water onto the rock just as Candoo covered the hole, returning the cave to darkness. In a day they would return with torches to admire their stone reflections, their newfound immortality.
The cave photograph was inverted and woefully faint but if she concentrated, Keril could see nine Cro-Magnons standing stiffly amidst a lush summer landscape. She counted five men and four women. Clay smeared their faces and the men clutched spears and stone-headed clubs. But there they were, etched forever on stone; frozen in an image that would endure twenty thousand summers.
"These people," said the guide respectfully, "were the true pioneers of photography."
"But how did they take these pictures?" asked a red-haired teenager in green denim, his watery blue eyes staring.
"No one knows," replied the guide airily. "Perhaps some light-sensitive fungus grew here in those days."
"How many pictures are there?" asked a blonde lady in a pink jump suit.
"Just these nine. And this is the best, the last they made before running out of space. Experts think new images were added every year, perhaps to mark some special occasion. Those people were industrious if nothing else."
A murmur of amusement rippled through the party. The guide eyed the final Photos image with a wry smile.
"And that's the story, basically. The Greeks saw these images and reverse engineered the process. In no time they had the camera obscura, then silver-nitrate photography. And the rest, as they say, is history."
But everyone knew that. There was nothing special about Hilo's photos of Alexander the Great or Cynthia's fashion snaps of Cleopatra. Everyone recalled them from school. These cave images, however, were something else entirely; glimpses of a lost world where photography should not exist. Just imagine if these cavemen had not stumbled on the secret of photography and produced these astonishing images. What kind of world would have resulted? Idle speculation washed through Keril's mind. Perhaps Rome would never have risen on its seven hills, or the Vikings raided from the frozen North.
More astonishing still, Odinism might not be the dominant religion or Cipolia the world's most powerful nation. Keril smiled at her idle fancy. She was already looking forward to her upcoming vacation on Nimbal, Saturn's biggest moon.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 20th, 2018


"Say Cheese!" is built on the conceit that prehistoric people could make primitive photographs. The story explores what kind of reality might have arisen if such images existed. At a more specific level, it investigates the possibility that art might have had a regressive influence on humanity's social, scientific, and moral development.

The tantalizing thing is that the main ingredients of ancient photography were already in place thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks, Arabs, and Chinese certainly knew about the pinhole image or camera obscura. The only thing they lacked to produce photographs was some chemical means of permanently capturing and "fixing" these light images. Some art historians believe the seventeenth century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer developed an angled mirror, which allowed him to perfectly replicate camera obscura images, explaining the incredible realism of his paintings. Indeed, the most astonishing thing is that true photography was developed as late as the nineteenth century; it could and should have happened much earlier.

The main challenge of the story was fitting these concepts into an engaging piece of flash fiction. The story explains prehistoric image-capture by invoking a light-sensitive fungus growing in caves inhabited by Cro-Magnons. Two storylines, one ancient and one modern, were developed to showcase the ancient act of photographic creation and its transformative impact on futurity. Each of these narratives builds towards a climax which unites them in a moment of revelation, providing what is hopefully a satisfying conclusion to the story.

- John Francis Keane

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