Sunday, June 12, 2005

Age of Kali

Sorry for the double post to all my LJ friends. I wanted to have this up on this site rather than just the LJ, as a sort of "reminder to self." There is nothing new in this post if you read the last one: skip ahead.

I was looking at Shadowrun the other day, and at Guardian’s of Order’s new books Ex Machina (cyberpunk) and Dreaming Cities (urban fantasy) and thinking about what a fun game Shadowrun was, but how it could have been so much more. It could have been powerful, hit issues about the future of technology and humanity, religion and humanism, and many things besides. Obviously it didn’t want to be, but I decided I did want that game. A game that made magic and machine clash in the near future in a way that would let me explore issues of transhumanism and the cost to the human soul, religious faith and the cost to the human ego, and other things besides.

So I started writing. I came up with the following. It’s raw and unedited, but I think something of the spark that interested me in the idea can be seen there. It is less Cyberpunk meets D&D, and more Transhuman Space meets Mage the Ascension, all with something of a Sorcerer attitude.

I haven’t decided on a system yet.

The Age of Kali

"For three thousand years at least, a majority of people have considered that human beings were special, were magic. What the ability to manipulate genes should indicate to people is the very deep extent to which we are biological machines. The traditional view is that life is sacred… but not anymore. It is no longer possible to live by the idea that there is something special, unique, or sacred about living organisms. We are machines."

- Dr. Robert Haynes, at the 16th International Congress of Genetics, 1988

"That Man is this whole universe, -
What was and what is yet to be,
The Lord of immortality….
This is the measure of his greatness"

- The Rg Veda, first composed ~2000 BC

"Unless we change direction, we are going to end up where we are headed."

- Traditional Chinese Proverb

Dateline: India, 2050 CE.

With nearly 1.5 billion citizens, India is the largest nation on earth and holds nearly a quarter of the earth’s total population. It passed China in mid 2030, and has recently passed the total population of the entire European, South and North American continents combined. It is a country of contrasts. In the refurbished palaces of the princely dynasties of yester-year, 8 of the 10 richest people on earth live lives of perfect luxury and pleasure. But in the streets outside babies die in the streets, India’s infant mortality rate being more than double any other countries. 125 story glass and steel high-rises tower over the swarming temples of ancient gods. Corporate scientists take advantage of the world’s loosest laws about technological and biological experimentation while charismatic gurus gather cults that reject modern technology, refusing to even take penicillin to cure the diseases which still ravage the subcontinent. It is a land of the Kama Sutra and religions that revel in sexuality as the generative force of the world, and a land of the most draconian moral laws – where it is possible for a man to stone his wife to death for committing adultery.

It is said that in India the past is at war with the future, and the outcome of their struggle will be prophetic of the outcome of the struggle facing the whole human race. As William Barrett said, "Our modern adventure began with the seventeenth century, but the earlier age has not vanished like a marker on a line that we have passed; it is still present, with all its paradoxes and tensions, in the uncertainties and malaise of our modern consciousness." These aspects of ourselves, the conscious of the modern age and the unconscious of the past ages, are coming to a head in the ancient cauldron of India.

At the beginning of the game life will be fairly normal. Technology will have advanced at a good rate, but it will not have overcome any major paradigm hurdles. Computers will be smaller and faster, medicine more potent and versatile, cars faster and running off of hydrogen and electricity: but everything will be much in the mode of modern technology but better. Corporate India will be huge, with massive numbers of technical and scientific jobs being centered in the country. While computer and information tech are as big as everyone expected, the biggest industry is biotechnology: an area that India has come to dominate due to extremely permissive laws with few to no restrictions on controversial areas like organ harvesting, free market trade in body parts, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning. Here you can buy a kidney legally, and there are 1 billion poor who are usually willing to do without one because the money will let them lift themselves out of the gutter.

At the same time India is as religious as ever. Bhakti (devotional worship) movements with charismatic leaders are gaining steam, putting a new slant on ancient Hindu beliefs. In the streets of the cities new religious movements are growing out of fusion music, the Vedas, and hip-hop consciousness. Mixing elements of Vedic Hinduism, Buddhist Tantra, and Sufi mysticism, this new movement claims to be able to give visions of the divine, its followers dancing, fucking, and dreaming themselves into ecstatic states where they believe they see beyond the mechanical world. Beside both of these movements there is also a growth in fundamentalist Islam, evangelical Christianity, and hard-core Jainism. The only thing these religions have in common is that they are almost universally opposed to the way the biotech corporations treat life and the sanctity of the human body.

The PCs will be somewhere in this vast and eclectic mix. My first thought for setting is New Delhi, a city which has seen its share of violent change: from Hindu to Arab to Persian to Mughal to British to Hindu and now to the future. It is a city of Djinn, of unlimited financial growth and possibility, and ancient grudges and prayers. The PCs take on rolls of those caught in the divided grip of India, powerfully conflicted between the forces of old vs. new, religion vs. secularism, technology vs. magic, and extremism vs. mediocrity. They are people who are caught between the past, present, and future in a way that puts their whole life and concept of self in jeopardy. The religious Muslim whose family is on the verge of starvation who is offered enough money to open a shop – if only he donates his kidney. The Brahmin scientist who is working on a way to clone human children without the need for a human womb, who has to face issues of her own infertility and her parents desire for grand children. The hip-hop urban DJ guru who uses cutting edge tech to pirate and remix corporate music, living as a parasite on their system while trying to bring it down. The genetically-selected Rajput army Lieutenant who has to deal with a history of violence and racial oppression while finding himself in love with a genetically impure untouchable. And so on.

Once play starts and the human elements of the PCs relationships and struggles have been well established, things will start to move faster. Technological breakthroughs will start coming faster and bigger. Semi-sentient AI will kick in, doubling the processing power available to scientists. Virtuality and direct-neural interface systems will combine with expert libraries to make information and expertise something that anyone with enough money can buy. Clean fusion technology and nano-machines will promise a world without scarcity, without hunger or fear or want, if only humanity can accept it. Things will go from "near future" to "transhuman" with shocking speed. Singularity will go from a theoretical blip on the horizon to a cliff taking up the whole horizon rushing towards the characters faces at a million miles per hour.

At the same time the religious side of things will accelerate as well. Mass movements will grow up out of the gurus and ulema circles. Millions will be in the streets, chanting prayers and screaming protests, and then inch by inch, things will start to happen. Magic will return with a subtle insinuation that will quickly grow into a world-shaking force. As clean fusion comes out of the labs, Shiva and the other gods come out of the human heart – glorious and terrible and ready to dance the end of the world. Magic and the gods will offer humanity salvation and joy, a world without hate, or fear, or damnation, if only they can accept it. Things will go from subtle to blatant, and as singularity rushes up so do ascension and the apocalypse. The Age of Kali is coming to an end, and the world must be returned to the cosmic egg.

And in the middle of all of this, the focus and the force, are the PCs. They will be pushed, they will be tested, they will have to decide, for themselves and symbolically (ritually even) for the whole world which path they will walk. They can chose either, they can try to chose both, or neither – but they must chose, and from their choice the karma of the whole world will be determined. The point will not be how the world ends, it will be what the players say about their characters and their beliefs about the world and the future.

Because of that the PCs should be pushed to the point where things become uncomfortable – where they raise real questions. Having a cyber-arm isn’t enough, that’s cliché, comfortable, old news.

What about the girl with fertility issues who becomes an assassin, ripping out her womb (which she will never use, she doesn’t want children) to replace it with a flesh-pocket that can release a swarm of nanite killers, a swarm of microscopic machines that can strip the flesh from a man in a second. She births death now, rather than life. Why not? It makes her better at her chosen job.

Or what about sexuality – if you can procreate without sex and have sex without procreation, why stay with safe genders? Why not make your clit bigger, your cock longer, why not have both? Dick chicks and cunt-boys, girls genetically fixed to make great jelly-donuts, things that would give the Z’bri of Tribe 8 nightmares. Why not make biological machines to service you? Suck slugs that excrete addictive pheromones while giving physical pleasure? Why not? It feels good and it doesn’t cost you anything.

Or in the once noble area of organ donation: when you find a way to keep "neomorts" as long term organ banks – taking a dying body, keeping it alive despite the brain being dead, and grafting multiple organs into it in order to grow genetically compatible parts. Imagine banks and banks of them, once people with families and lives, now repositories for genetic grafts, harvested like trees for their fruit. Why not? It will save lives.

Same deal on the religious front. Can your character deal with never having sex except for procreation, or having sex with people you do not like because your Guru command you to? When Shiva tells you to kill your mother because she must dance onto a different life, can you do it? If magic requires blind faith, can you really be blind? Is it safe to believe in what you are told to, even when doing so gives you power? Or will it just hurt you more in the long run? When you can see the future before it happens, what becomes of your human uncertainty? What about the guru who gains power by leaving the world, sitting alone in the mountains with the power to change the world, but no longer part of the world that he could change?

Take the things you believe about religion, science, rationality, and push them. Then put them in a human context and apply human pressure. Then turn it up to 11 while gods and AIs walk the world.

It should be one fuck of a game.


Blogger kesher said...

Yeah, I'll play it...

I know that feeling you're reaching toward with transhumanism; in many ways it seems more "magic" than any fantasy setting I can think of.

Have you read Bloom by Wil McCarthy? It's an astounding near-future, hard science story that gets at some of your themes, especially the religious/nanotech ramifications stuff. Here it is at amazon:

(that's an ugly link; sorry.)

Also, have you read S.P. Somtow (who also goes by Somtow Sucharitkul)? His Throne of Madness books are science fantasy, almost, but deeply philosophical with the poetic touch of your above description of the assassin who replaces her womb with killer nanites. I'm pretty sure he's not Indian (I think he's originally from SE Asia), but those books in particular have a strong Indian/East Asian feel to them, as well.


4:30 PM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

I've read Bloom, but not Throne of Madness -- so I'll be sure to check it out.


7:13 PM  
Blogger kesher said...

I had to go dig the books up; their titles and order are:

The Dawning Shadow: The Light on the Sound

The Dawning Shadow: The Throne of Madness

Utopia Hunters

The Darkling Wind


12:00 AM  
Anonymous Claire Bickell said...

Sounds kind of Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny, which also looks at the meshing of extreme technology and faith in a future Indian context.

Definitely sounds rather cool.

1:28 AM  
Blogger kesher said...

Oh man, I had totally forgotten about that Zelazny book; that's a great book, and totally relevant...

Now I'm gonna have to dig that up too...


12:54 PM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Yea, Lords of Light is a good source here. One of my fave Zelazny books.

Kesher, thanks for the titles. I have a feeling that Amazon is getting some bussiness right soon.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Piers said...

Also try:

Ian MacDonald. _Terminal Cafe_.
Linda Nagata. _The Bohr Maker_.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


Will do! Thanks!

2:06 PM  
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