alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
The Librarian paged through my day’s writing with one of his tentacles. Coming to the end, he turned his eye stalks back to me. “Very good, Nathaniel, this is exactly what we wanted. Now, as is traditional, I will spend a time interval answering some questions for you. What would you like to know?”

Previous times of answering had told me much about the strange situation I found myself in, but I still felt far from understanding. “I know that your race can travel through time. And I know that you have collected all the knowledge of the ages into this library. But I do not understand why. What is all this knowledge for? <lj-cut>

“Your question contains many unexamined assumptions which make it difficult to answer. I doubt we can conclude within one time interval. However, we can at least begin.

“You say that we “collect all knowledge”. This is not so. “Knowledge” is, like most words, imprecise. Let us first address the meaning “data; facts”. To collect all data would be impossible, redundant, and worthless. Your philosopher Lewis Carroll has a story about a map which is exactly the same size as the territory it depicts. Such a map saves no space, nor can it be unfolded without covering up the very territory that it describes.

“To the people of my own race, who can move our perceptions through space and time, there is no need to collect data. All the data is accessible at once. It does not need to be collected, it is merely necessary to look when we need a piece of data.

“What matters is not raw data, but summaries. Everything that matters is a summary. A scientific equation summarizes many pieces of raw data. A book summarizes some of the accumulated wisdom of the author. Even your sense data is not a direct reflection of the universe, but a processed summary presented by your sense organs to your brain. And a library summarizes a culture.

“What makes a summary valuable is the very fact that it leaves out things, that it is more concise than the raw data that went into its making.

“A human writer approached this idea a few decades after your home time in a story called “The Library of Babel”. He conceived of a library which contained every possible book, formed of every possible combination of letters. This library, however, was useless. The vast majority of possible books are mere gibberish. Of those which have any degree of sense, there is no way to easily tell which are true, which are false, or even which are indeterminate.

“We, the Great Librarians, enact the construction of libraries which are, to the best of our ability, true and useful summaries.

“You and I are part of The Library of Sol, which summarizes the history of this solar system and all the varied planets and cultures which have been (or will be) a part of it. But we are just a small branch library. We primarily exist to answer questions submitted by researchers of the Milky Way Library. And they, in their turn, exist to answer questions submitted by Librarians of a yet higher order, and so on.

“There are rumors and myths among us about the nature of the Universal Library, and what questions it serves to answer, but I doubt that any of them are true.”
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Talking with [ profile] rickthefightguy recently, he mentioned why he had stopped playing Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs. It was after the second time that he had built up a character with a great deal of power, both in terms of combat and politics, had started arguing that The Masquerade was a stupid idea which be abandoned, and had that character summarily killed by an extremely powerful NPC. Sensing the pattern, he declined to go through it again.

Now, on one level, it’s obvious why that happened. When a player attempts to undermine one of the very foundations of the game world, the GMs HAVE to stop that from succeeding. And The Masquerade IS one of the foundational points of the game; its presence in the title is no accident. It marks a genre distinction, between Secret History and Alternate History. In a Secret History setting, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief enough, you can just barely believe that the details of the setting might actually be true. By contrast, an Alternate History setting is obviously and irrevocably not the world we are living in. A Secret History can become an Alternate History, but it’s a very significant one-way change. An author might be willing to make that change for a setting of his (Charles Stross has done so twice so far), but GMs who are running a licensed setting are going to be understandably reluctant to make such a large and fundamental change to that setting. Even if they were willing in theory, making such a change is a LOT of work, for both GMs AND players.

Of course, all that is a Doyle-ist explanation, and I far prefer Watsonian ones whenever possible. So I started considering possible solutions from that angle.

The Masquerade IS, on the face of it, a pretty stupid political idea. It carries very high costs for very arguable benefits. But what if it WASN’T a political idea at all, what if it was an existential one? Not prescriptive, but descriptive? Posit a world where the Rules of Reality (a superset of the laws of physics) prevent vampires, werewolves, etc. from being acknowledged by society.

I have read a number of time travel stories where, when you try to change history, you can make small local changes, but the timestream “cancels them out” with a series of what would normally be considered low probability events. This is just a science-fiction gloss on one of the classic conceptions of Fate, or how one has to pay the appropriate “price” in a magical bargain. Technically, you can avoid fated outcome X, but that will just result in outcome Y, which is much worse. A really skilled sorcerer, who has anticipated many of the possible outcomes, might avoid X, Y, and even Z – but that just leads to an Omega which is nigh-apocalyptic.

So, imagine that that is what The Masquerade is designed to avoid. Before it was established, there may have been incidents where powerful vampire clans attempted to reach some sort of stable political arrangement with humanity at large, only to have those clans entirely wiped out by mysterious accidents. Maybe not just clans, but one or more entire mythological SPECIES. As soon as this pattern is understood, there is a strong incentive to create political structures that will prevent anything like it from happening again. The rank-and-file wouldn’t even have to understand the true reasons for The Masquerade, as long as they scrupulously followed the rules. (It occurs to me, I’ve just invented a Secret History of a Secret History. Yay, recursion!)

In a world like this, when a character like Rick’s started getting too powerful and threatening The Masquerade, instead of killing him outright, some of the clan elders would quietly take him aside and tell him what was really going on. In most such cases, the troublemaker would cease to cause trouble. (I’ve been rereading H.P. Lovecraft, and a very similar situation occurs in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. When the US military does a lot of violent, top-secret stuff in the vicinity of Innsmouth, at first, a bunch of newspaper reporters are very inquisitive about it. They are quietly told at least a piece of what’s really going on, and why they shouldn’t write about it, and they mostly shut up.)

As a further thought experiment, how might the Rules of Reality have come to exist in such a way? I’ve come up with one model, though doubtless there are others possible. Consider a universe that begins much like many primitive creation myths: at first there is formless chaos, but eventually gods coalesce out of it. The first generation of gods don’t do much except (perhaps accidentally) create the second generation of gods, which promptly overthrow and/or kill the first generation, and start building the physical universe out of their remains. This early version of the universe contains mankind, but is still pretty chaotic and “magical”. One God can declare something about reality and make it true, but another God can easily come along and declare something else, or even the opposite.

Eventually, more generations of gods happen, getting more sophisticated over time. As these gods gradually form more complex and stable societies among themselves, they begin to realize that a universe where the nature of reality is in constant flux is “bad for business”. The majority faction of the gods decide to impose a consistent Physics on the universe (possibly some time during the Roman Empire). But, though they are a majority, there exists enough powerful dissent that compromises must be made. Certain entities (e.g. vampires) which do not actually obey the laws of Physics are allowed to be “grandfathered” in – with restrictions. They are only allowed to exist on the fringes; if their presence became known, it would be a threat to Physics, which is not permitted.

Maybe what happens to a sufficiently determined vampire who avoids the vampire legal system and attempts to go public, is that he discovers, much to his surprise, that he is NOT a vampire, but an ordinary human being except for some broken brain chemistry that has driven him insane…
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
So I recently read yet another Galactus story (Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter, by Kieron Gillen). I’m coming to the conclusion that Galactus stories are like Joker stories: they were cool once, but it’s almost impossible to do any good *new* stories with them due to the corporate culture of American super-heroes. They can never be permanently defeated, because of their value as corporate trademarks.

In-story, there are lots of reasons given why Galactus shouldn’t be killed. He is a Cosmic Force of Nature. He Has a Destiny. His death would cause an explosion wiping out huge numbers of inhabited worlds. The justification seems to change pretty often. But it’s just as frequently established that Galactus *could* be killed, if you hit him with a big enough stick.

In my personal head-canon, Galactus has the power of Cosmic Hypnosis. He is able to convince people (and by “people” I include Personifications of Cosmic Forces) that there is *some* reason why they really shouldn’t kill him. Or even, in the case of his Heralds, that they should actively *serve* him. We don’t see him use this power on ordinary mortals because, frankly, he couldn’t be bothered. He only uses it on beings who pose a credible threat to him (or ones he wants to use as Heralds).

His story about originally having been an ordinary mortal may have some elements of truth to it – but that story also seems to change every time he tells it. I’m convinced that he’s just the most powerful sociopath ever. He found a way to become, literally “Destroyer of Worlds”, and thought that would be a fun gig. He’s not tragic, he’s actively evil.

I also now have some vague ideas about a story set in some unspecified Marvel future where someone finally realizes this, and manages to kill the Big G. I’m thinking maybe the daughter of Reed Richards and Loki. (Loki would totally shapeshift into Sue Storm for a good joke.)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
What with one thing and another, I've been exposed to a bunch of zombie stories lately. Many of these, especially the classic Romero model and the more recent Walking Dead version, deliberately eschew any explanation of why there are zombies or how, in a technical sense, they function. I understand their artistic reasons for doing so, but there's a part of my brain that can't resist trying to find explanations anyways.

[I discount 'explanations' such as "magic" or "Satan", as being both out of character with the stories I'm thinking of, and also as merely moving the fundamental questions back one layer.]

The biggest question, to my mind, concerns basic laws of physics: where do zombies *get* the energy that powers their shambling? Some of these stories are set many months after the zombie apocalypse, yet we see no significant diminution in the ranks of the undead. Whatever keeps them moving seems to be pretty sustainable.

Most animals power themselves primarily by eating. The eating habits of zombies, however, do not seem sufficient for this, at a cursory overview. Zombies eat, apparently exclusively, the flesh of living human beings. But after the first hours of the outbreak, the zombies so far outnumber the living that this is clearly not sustainable as a primary energy source.

One aspect that seems odder the more I think about it is that zombies are *never* portrayed as eating other zombies. Even when a zombie has been 'killed' with a headshot, other nearby zombies show no interest in eating its flesh. Why not? It's probably got similar nutritional value to that of living humans. But they never seem even remotely interested.

Perhaps the flesh is not actually the point. What does a living human have, that a zombie doesn't (and thus, presumably wishes to consume in some fashion)? Two things come to mind: sentience... and *pain*.

Perhaps these zombies are actually being animated by extra-dimensional Lovecraftian entities along the lines of those portrayed in Charles Stross's "Laundry" stories. They don't want to eat your flesh, per se, they just want to *hurt* you. They are not, themselves, what we would recognize as sentient, but they are capable of 'driving' a brain that isn't occupied by a living mind. They don't 'know' enough to use guns or knives, but they can activate the host-brain's instinctual attack mechanisms, which feature biting as a significant component. The pain of a sentient mind is what they feed on.

Is this enough to explain the ongoing zombie hordes, and all their energy expenditure? Not entirely, but I think one more guess will bring us a lot closer. If the zombies are being animated from outside, then they aren't necessarily animated *all the time*. Which actually fits the portrayed stories surprisingly well. Often, a group of survivors will arrive in a new location, and it seems entirely zombie-free. Perhaps during early explorations one or two zombies may suddenly lurch out of dark corners and attack, but there don't seem to be any zombies actively shambling about. As the survivors stay in one place, however, active zombies *do* begin to appear; at first a few, but in ever-increasing numbers, until the survivors are overwhelmed or flee. Perhaps this is because the place was full of corpses all along -- but they weren't being animated. Perhaps there was a tiny energy investment in preventing decay, but that could plausibly be quite small. It's only after the introduction of potential 'food', that the zombies begin to be re-animated. Hence, we don't have to explain how millions of zombies can be active for months or years, we just have to explain how any given zombie (out of a potential pool of millions) can be active for a few days or weeks. Heck, maybe they're just burning stored cellular energy from when they were alive, and there *isn't* any new energy input into the system.

Aside from newly-turned zombies, of course. Which, in this model don't need to have any pre-mortem exposure to any sort of infecting vector. Indeed, the mythology of the zombie bite carrying zombie-ism may be a simple mistake. Being bitten by a *living* human is actually one of the most dangerous things that can happen to you, in terms of infection and disease. It seems likely that the bite of a zombie isn't going to be *safer*. So, if you get bit, there's a good chance that you'll die from it, but not directly from zombie-ism per se. Not that that's any consolation.

[As ever, my ideas are freely offered to the universe; feel free to use them if you like.]
alexxkay: (Default)
Posted on the off-chance that at least one of my Friends is enough of a Steven Brust fanboy to enjoy this, but not enough of one to read the Dragaera mailing list (where I originally sent this).

In the course of taking notes for my Dragaera Timeline, I made lots of interesting observations. These start with fairly obvious things, but move into serious criticism and fan-wank territory near the end. Oh, and I hope to have an updated draft of the Timeline up sometime this weekend. Obviously, massive spoilers. )
alexxkay: (Default)
Posted on the off-chance that at least one of my Friends is enough of a Steven Brust fanboy to enjoy this, but not enough of one to read the Dragaera mailing list (where I originally sent this).

In the course of taking notes for my Dragaera Timeline, I made lots of interesting observations. These start with fairly obvious things, but move into serious criticism and fan-wank territory near the end. Oh, and I hope to have an updated draft of the Timeline up sometime this weekend. Obviously, massive spoilers. )


alexxkay: (Default)
Alexx Kay

October 2017

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