Thursday, September 10, 2015

Things That I Like: Cosmogonical Fiction

Things That I Like: Cosmogonical Fiction

What’s that, you may ask? Let’s start out with a few examples. Spoilers will be everywhere, so be warned.

Unknown Armies is a game that divides itself into three levels: street, global, and cosmic. In cosmic-level games, the players are trying to live their lives so as to imitate particular Archetypes strongly enough to ascend to a higher state of existence and become one of the 333 members of the Invisible Clergy. When their ranks are filled this universe will come to an end and a new one will be born under their direction.

Nexus War and its replacement Nexus Clash are a pair of browser-based MMORPGs that are about a conflict taking place after the end of the universe. The player characters are people taken from various worlds and points in the history of the last universe, and placed in a battlefield made partly of eternal planes and partly of post-apocalyptic flotsam. Their actions strengthen and weaken the various gods (and fixing things can be as useful as killing your god’s enemies, if he’s the craftsgod). The strongest god out of the nine will be the one who will exert the greatest amount of influence in creating the next universe. This will affect everything from how many spatial and temporal dimensions exist to how death works (or doesn’t) to how integral violence is to the very fabric of reality in that universe.

Homestuck is a really, really long webcomic (658,000 words and counting) that is, basically, about these kids who play a game called Sburb that sends them into another world. In the process this destroys Earth, and their actions in this other world will contribute to the creation of a whole new universe.

A Dry, Quiet War is a bit off from the others in that there is a war at the end of time— it’s literally called “the Big War at the End of Time”— but it isn’t being fought to determine the nature of the next universe. Rather, in crazy stable time loop shenanigans, the war is being fought in order to determine the nature of this universe. As Colonel Bone explains, “In the future, we won. I won, my command won it. Really, really big. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re all here.”

What do these have in common?

There is a conflict being fought by persons or groups. They may be fighting each other, as in Unknown Armies and Nexus War, or against the environment or another group which has no chance of influencing the universe, as in Homestuck, where the Dersites can only prevent the creation of the new universe, not twist it to their own aims.

The conflict generally involves an amount of violence, but violence typically isn’t the only factor. 

  • In Unknown Armies you have to act in a way that befits your Archetype, and acting against this can actually reduce your power.
  • In Homestuck, catching frogs is one of most important tasks out there, and building houses is also a pretty big thing.
  • As mentioned before, in the Nexus games something as simple as repairing or building a door can help out your side.

The participants generally ascend to greater power in the course of events, whether or not they are directly responsible for creating the new universe or merely facilitating it:

  • Characters in Unknown Armies gain godlike powers.
  • In Homestuck, Sburb’s players have the potential to ascend to the “god tiers” and get other abilities along the way,
  • The champions of the Elder Powers in the Nexus games can become angels, demons, vampires, and more.
  • Those who fought in the Big War at the End of Time are almost like eldritch horrors by the end. Some of this is merely technological, such as how Colonel Bones’ nerves have been replaced by wires, but then there’s stuff like how he kills somebody so that that the other guy is plain wiped from existence.

Finally, those involved may have to destroy this universe or a part of it in the process of creating the new one. Indeed, destruction is necessary in three of the above four, and in two of those the forces of creation are apparently convinced that they are an IKEA and all universes must go.

These stories are to be distinguished from games like Mage or Esoterrorists, or stories like Fritz Leiber’s Change War series because the nature of this reality is set in stone. Even if you’re fighting for this universe’s nature, as in A Dry, Quiet War, there’s really no hope of changing the outcome. You’re just fighting because you fought, and it’s impossible to change time no matter what, or there will be other reasons for you to fight, or breaking the time loop does bad things to you but to everybody else in the timeline-as-it-should-have-happened it’s as if nothing different went down (as in Homestuck but also as in The Men Who Murdered Mohammed).

What’s the point of writing all this out?

I think that these examples represent a legitimate pattern of story. Hence why I bothered to give them a name. But, and here’s a point, I had to give them a name. It’s a real pattern, but not one that’s been recognized yet. Probably because it is, I’ll freely admit, pretty minor.

But these can’t be the only stories of their kind. Are there any other examples that come to mind? Or common elements that I’ve missed?

(And does anyone think that it’s an interesting enough pattern to use for a story, or am I the only one?)

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