Friday, 25 January 2013

For blakd and archia

Sorry to anyone else, if you're able to comment telling me how to hide the bulk of this post behind a 'cut' so you don't need to see its massive bulk in your news feed, let me know! This follows a discussion about the webcomic Enthrall (NSFW).


@blankd: I highly recommend reading about / playing some classic Vampire: the Masquerade :D That's a slightly different affair, because the vast, government-controlling vampire bastard-aristocracy work in secret (you're still a slave, you just don't know it), but some things roll over. You control a vast outright of human vassals, directly and indirectly; they can be made to do many things for you, but you don't send them looking for sensitive information that could be used against you by your enemies / sold on, etc. These people are in your service, but as 'a unit' - you don't personally oversee every individual, certainly not closely enough to be confident absolutely none of them would be overwhelmed by guilt, or lust for power, to hand a copy of the dossier to the rebels, or be bought off with promises of immortality by an ignored-and-sidelined younger vampure to set up what looks like a leak to undermine your position in vampire society so he can usurp you, or...

There's reasons to keep certain things out of the hands of cattle :)

Looking over your comments, I can see where you're coming from in places, but it seems that you're applying the rules of hard science fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_science_fiction) to Enthrall - what you are talking about is a much higher level of scientific detail than most books, comics, movies or TV shows apply.

Don't get me wrong, even in non-hard SF and fantasy, there are lines. For instance, did you see the movie 30 Days of Night? I couldn't help it, the fact that the whole plot is based around the idea that if you go north enoughin Alaska you get a solid month of night, and they portray 'the last day' as a normal, full 8 hour day where everyone's super-busy getting ready for the month of night, and then everyone comes out to watch The Last Sunset for a month. And at the end of the month, there's a big, grand First Sunrise. That, had me smacking my head on my desk and wailing. What made it worse was that the person I was watching it with didn't see to understand anything was wrong ("Things are different when you get that far north-" "NO! No no NO! The rules of the axial tilt of our planet is not fucking well DIFFERENT in Alaska!"). So yeah, I'm no stranger to a thing being so implausible to ruins a story for you.

However... flip side. I'm a literature editor for my day job, and I've edited both hard sci-fi and more average (in terms of scientific rigor) genre work, and the important point, what I hunt for, is internal consistency. In a character-driven narrative, your sci-fi or fantasy/magical elements need to be unintrusive, and where they make direct reference to things science has a definite answer to, they need to not be undermined by that without redefining boarders (AKA I'm dealing with a sci-fi tale at the moment where I've thrown out a bunch of issues with radiation, because its 'suns' aren't really suns, rather (comparatively) tiny floating fusion furnaces, because the 'planet' isn't a planet, etc. The characters, however, react with the same 'wtf?' awed confusion as the reader might, so it's internally consistent).

In short? So long as a sci-fi or fantasy concept is not undermined by ITSELF (e.g. a sun-bomb being seen as seriously dangerous, but as part of the spying effort, Fidus is seen going out in daylight with nothing more difficult or inconvenient than a hat, some sunblock and some shades) or massively obviously impossible (not conjecture and 'maybe this, maybe this, fill in this black with this and it wouldn't work' but something outrightly stated thing being just glaringly wrong/impossible, like the 30 Days Of Night thing), then having a technology that acts as a plot device being fleshed out enough to do its job without explaining away every nuance of its workings and background within the world etc is perfectly valid. Often, even if the author knows exactly how it works and why, explaining it in enough detail to give the required background would massively bog down and detract from the story. Example 'backstory' for Enthrall, off the top of my head, follows. Reading it, thinking about how much would be needed to explain exactly why they don't research their weaknesses more deeply, I wonder how many pages of comic would this take to flesh out? Would all of them be interesting? How much would need to be explosion, and how much would be dry and a bit dull? Right now, we have Matriarch as a powerful, background figure. We're not, at this point, meant to care about her or her motivations, she's an omnipresent voice of command, which I would guess is how she is for most of vampire society! Anyhow, example back story (please don't be too harsh, it was a 45 minute job):

The Matriarch was the first vampire, and her vampirism was a curse (ALA classic Caine-based origin stories). I'm going to make her one of six virgin daughters of Alexios IV Angelos, sold to Satan in return for the crown of Constantinople, which he got via the rather poisoned chalice of delivering to him the now-impoverished-and-desperate Venetian army and the instigating of the 4th Crusade. Because that guy got shivved a few years later, and it seems like poetic justice.

Anyway! Skip the middle, she buys her way out of Hell but is marked by her stay, burned by the day that doesn't shine in Hell, crippled by fear of holy symbols, needing to 'buy' her time on earth with the life (read: blood) of true mortals, but her ordeal has given her strength of will and physical power. She walks the world alone for 200 years, but in loneliness, makes another. He inherits her curse, eternal life, strengths, but hasn't suffered her ordeals so will never understand as she does what it really means. He is overwhelmed by the power and potential, makes a daughter in secret. Matriarch is angry, but understands the reason.

Over the years, the 'younger generation' push for the creation of more vampires. They feel vulnerable being so few, with such exploitable weaknesses, and like their potential is being wasted. They are arrogant and proud, and their voices change the Matriarch's mind. Somewhere around 1500, they start of expand. Only the best can be taken - kings, lords, men and women of power and influence and talent. They take the leaders - easy done with offers of immortality and power. They install their own in seats of power. The number of vampires grows, although they're still only a tiny proportion – part to keep enough prey for everyone, part because men (and women) of power rarely want to share it beyond that delegation is useful to them.

Roll on to 1900. The vampires are still behind the scenes, pulling the strings, but things are changing. Increased bureaucracy and freedom of information is making it harder to keep any kind of presence without it being noticed that you're the same, unaging individual from decades ago. Also, the strict feudal system isn't as strong as it once was – talent and drive can put someone with a great idea or great conviction in a position to do something about it. There have been no new vampires made in about 200 years – their power base is solid, they don't see why they should share power when they have no real need of anyone else. They're all getting old, out of touch, stuck in their ways, but enough 'kickbacks' of projects going wrong and minions getting uppity, even the stoic vampires must act. The electric bulb is invented in 1880 and send brief waves of fear through vampire society before it's confirmed that, whatever makes this light, it doesn't possess whatever it is about sunlight that hurts them. It's the straw on the camel – humanity is becoming too strong.

So, in 1900, the next great expansion happens. Medieval  kings sire protégés from politics and big business, disgraced crusaders take from the modern military, courtiers from media, while ancient philosophers and alchemists embrace within the scientific community. With 2/3 old guard and 1/3 these bright young things, the vampires use key assassinations and puppet politicians to instigate both world wars, before rising publically in the aftermath to seize overt power. All at once, already weakened by fighting each other for three decades, humanity finds their water system laced with poisons whose antidote can only be bought from corporations that have been under vampire control all along, who now only sell to people marked with the brand of fealty. Governments and armies are crippled, by a combination of vampire influence, mutual bankruptcy, and paranoia that anyone and everyone in a position of power could be either a vampire or under their direct control. The coup is a sweeping success, leaving humanity beaten, scared and paranoid. The new generation of vampires act as a bridge between the old guard they swore to serve (and who they know physically outmatch them by miles, thanks to age) and humanity's mores and expectations. There is resistance. A lot of it. Knowing the government can't help them, militia spring up left right and centre, but the vampire controlled military slaughter them, and the vampire controlled media paint the massacres into tragic pictures of whole colonies killed by ignorant, anti-vampire splinter groups attacking the faithful.

Scientific research is locked down by now-openly-vampire-controlled funding bodies, and any work by private enterprise requires a license. They take extra care overseeing any technology involving light, solar power, repurposing of moonlight or lightning – they know well after years living through less advances eons that their only weaknesses are holy relics, and sunlight. Holy was easier – burn, melt, trash every relic, and saturate the public consciousness with the reminder that God failed to save them from this new era. There is no God, only strength and knowledge. Without belief, there is no sanctity in remade relics – two unblessed sticks, held in the shape of a cross in the hands of an unbeliever, is no crucifix.

That leaves only sunlight. Controlling all scientific advancement, from a point in history where there was little to no understanding of what MAKES sunlight, the vampires felt safe. Their own scientists were increasingly overseers, rather than researchers, and allowing human researcher to look into the specifics would cause more risks than it averted. They were old, settled. The mere presence of daytime, even locked in dark rooms indoors, made them sluggish and bleary. No, daytime is dead hours, the vestigial cost of their power. The Matriarch never thought to question, old ones accepted it – the young were taught it till they did. You are creatures of night; that is the price.

The next 150 years were good and bad for humanity. Mostly bad. They were in theory a slave race, but to the man on the street, this meant simply staying off the streets after nightfall (and accepting the consequences if you didn't – you own fault, not your murder's), monthly blood bank visits with the threat of incarceration or true slavery if you didn't comply without good medical reasoning, and the risk of true slavery should you be the wrong side of the law, for whatever reason.

We see a collared Scarrow, and a few collared people around the house, and Arin previously collared then freed, and it's easy to feel that (because we only see people directly touching vampire society) everyone's a direct slave. Most people can just get on with their lives, so long as they stay generally in line.

Very few new vampires are made. There's two reason they still are – firstly, sometimes vampires die, either accidents, or aggression from spliter groups. Secondly, part of what keeps a society in chained is hope – the idea that the bright and brilliant could be chosen to be embraced and be part of the ruling classes keep the masses from falling into useless despair. People get angrier at oppression when it feels there is really no way out. Hope of elevation quells dissent. As such, very young, very new vampires DO exist, but they are rare, and kept on a very short leash for a few decades, and are treated as lower classes until they have proved themselves (see – Fidus, 11 years bitten at the time of Enthrall's main plot).

The 1900s wave of scientists are largely occupied signing off research requests, vetting them for anything they think might be dangerous, with varying 'threat' levels, depending on the trustworthiness of the source of the request. They directly oversee anything they judge could touch on any area of vampire weakness. As such, modern understanding among either vampires or humans about light and electromagnetic radiation is very limited – the term UV was never coined, sun bed never made, lighting technology beyond the tungsten bulb never developed, and Johann Wilhelm Ritter's work on oxidizing rays fell largely out of modern understanding as it could no longer be legitimately taught.

In 1989, a company, run by an established old-guard vampire, applies for a research permit for medical treatments for sun-burnt vampires – anything more than 10 seconds is lethal, but vampires have survived with burns from brief flash-exposure, and this company has a very strong standing. The company makes their case to the science board, the board makes their case to the Matriarch, and it was signed off.

The project involved taking vampire tissue, preserving it, subjecting it to various forms of light for varying times, then treating these affected swatches of skin with different treatments. It was a success, in many sense – vampires have known for a long time that clothed area suffer less but do suffer, for instance, but never why. These tests showed the the very highest frequencies of sunlight, UVC, were what caused extreme, instant burns in vampires, even semi-shielded (clothing, for instances, only partially blocks light – as anyone who's woken to a pretty-much-light room from daylight filtering through non-blackout curtains knows). Great strides were made in burn treatments, and research would have continued, had a servant of one of the Matriarch's daughters not smuggled an altered lamp into the daughter's room and burned her to death.

Someone had leaked the results. Funding is pulled instantly, the company disgraced, the entire research team banned from study and either killed or enslaved. The vampire in charge of the company is quietly assassinated by the vampire society's elite, and replaced. The old guard has always felt "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and the backfiring of study into their weaknesses supported their stance. The younger generations kept fighting for research, knowledge, but the old guard were vilified and certain – some things are not meant to be known. Keep the cattle ignorant, keep to the old ways.  They cracked down, hard, on non-sanctioned research projects with death or enslavement as the automatic penalty for "renegade science". Standing out against the edict would be political suicide for any young vampire.

Seems their crackdown might not be doing a brilliant job...