[SYSTEMS] RELIGION - AL EWING/JONATHAN HICKMAN, PART 1
Believe in yourself.
Okay, so right up front, I think we need to highlight just how good at this stuff Al is. I’ve worked with him for a few years and what’s really missing from a ‘text-only’ reading is how deliberate, thoughtful and considerate he is when choosing what he’s going to do narratively.
This, of course, isn’t the only way to do things (there’s literally the top-level, inverted version of this where people are riffing and it’s connective in an ‘and then, and then’ kind of way), but what Al is doing here incredibly holistic -- he’s weaving a tapestry and you have to be careful when you start pulling at the threads of it.
So, apologies, Al. Apologies for all this vandalism I’m about to do.
NOTE: I’m not sure how all of these breaks out as far as length goes, so I’ll plug away until I hit the limit (or a section break) and just post until I’m done.
NOTE: I’m in bold. My name is Jonathan.
Here we go...
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What I’ll refer to here as “Bedrock” are the fixed, immutable foundations of the thing. I’m working from a starting document I’ve been handed – I need to make sure I don’t contradict that document, and play by the rules I’ve been given, in order to do what I’ve been tasked to do properly, which is built on that structure.
So – thinking specifically of Religion in the context of the 3W3M doc – what’s our bedrock?
NOTE: All of this is obviously based on the document that I originally gave Al, Tini and Ram. We were trying to spread these out so that it’s not just me doing this for weeks and weeks, but the further away from me giving them the original document, the more this living universe has evolved from what was originally described. So I think I’ll go ahead and publish Tini’s stuff here after this because we’re definitely starting to rub against what was and what is. Okay, moving on...
It’s a universe with mythology and lore, and currently that mythology and lore is oriented towards the previous “magic cycle”. Magic here is a metaphor for creativity.
Mythology and especially iconography is also built around the Three Worlds, and the Three Moons.
The worlds – Water (AKVA), Fire (FAYRII) and Earth (THERRA). The Moons – Air (HEIR), Order (ORDO) and Chaos (KAOSO). (Air being separate from the other elements and grouped with Order and Chaos is interesting, and suggests that on these worlds, air is classically not seen as an element but instead as a neutral state between Order and Chaos. It might not be possible to do things with that here, though – or not without bumping into someone else.)
The moon of Order implicitly represents science, the moon of Chaos represents magic.
The planet of Water is theocratic, with two sects of the same basic religion living on it. Both these sects are built around the mining and extraction of KHOR that powers everything in the universe.
They don’t fight over KHOR. Fighting over KHOR is against the religion. We have our first rule.
I hope everyone appreciates the wheat-from-chaff approach to Al’s thinking.
Hiring mercenaries and proxy soldiers to fight over KHOR on your behalf does seem to be allowed, though. These proxy wars are influenced by the natural fluctuations of KHOR – when there’s a lot being produced, there’s a lot more to fight over.
KHOR does not appear to be a finite resource in the same way that, say, oil is. That’s interesting – I’ve heard some people describe oil as a continually self-replenishing resource, given to us by God. So there’s a potential religious connection there.
It’s like the sun. So it is finite, but not on any timeline by which you would measure a ’human’ civilization.
The planet of Fire is a very rigid monarchy. Kings and Queens, famously, are ordained by god. Sometimes they’re even treated as gods incarnate. (Henry VIII also comes to mind.)
The moon of that planet – Air – is de facto ruled by hedonistic heirs, princelings and minor royalty, and the crime bosses that cater to them. Again, from a religious point of view, this tells us something – namely, that hedonism and illegal activity is a-okay at a certain level of wealth/power/family. Is that a contrast? Is it not so okay in other places? Things don’t have to be forbidden to be judged.
I think one of the things I really picked up on while working on the X-books is if you want something to feel very alien -- if you want it to short-circuit the reader -- take something like what Al is saying here about hedonism being allowed at a certain level and invert it to be the norm. Not what we’re going for here, but worth pointing out if you’re overlaying ‘our norms’ on an alien culture to make the story relatable, you can do the opposite of that and spin people out.
“Earth” is the main planet, where the story begins. It’s run by politicians – stand-ins for plutocrats, schools, corporations, institutions – and if there’s one thing all these groups love, it’s religion. Whether they believe it or not is another matter, but it’s always a useful tool in the arsenal.
Earth has two moons – Order, a high-tech wonderland devoted to science, and Chaos, a wasteland of ancient magical ruins, an archaeological site. A place of ur-Religions, maybe – long-forgotten versions of the main belief.
So that’s our bedrock – what we have to work with. From these jigsaw pieces, we can start building something up.
Now the good stuff...
FIRST PRINCIPLES OF A FICTIONAL RELIGION
Let’s dive into some quick thinking on the potential purposes of a religion – that’ll help us decide what ours looks like. And let’s assume that it doesn’t matter what the religion is – that’ll be defined by the story - only the form it takes in the population.
Al is separating the ‘myth’ of the religion from the ‘action’ of the religion. We know he gets into the former later, but an observed halo-effect of the black hole of ‘what’ the religion is a pretty neat way to attack it.
A belief system could be a means of personal enlightenment for the individual. It might be something that drives an individual to make changes in their life, resist self-harming or self-destructive tendencies, engage in self-improvement. It could take the form of meditation, or martial arts, or other art. A religious community could become a place of hospitality for weary travelers, or a place to grow and distribute food. That all feels like a BOTTOM-UP application, focussing first on CONTROL OF THE SELF from within, and spreading out from there.
A belief system could also be a means of control by an oppressor class. Religion as a thing imposed – a set of laws from above, restricting those below. Example: that rule from the theocratic Water Planet. There’s no fighting over KHOR. That might have started as a sensible truce amongst individuals way back in history, but it’s now been codified into a dictate from some higher power – albeit one that’s worked around, as our KHOR miners are continuing to fight via proxies. Let’s call that TOP-DOWN application, focussing on CONTROL OF OTHERS.
The project is heavily focussed on Manichean dualities, and we’ve got our first ones right here – TOP-DOWN versus BOTTOM-UP. SELF-CONTROL versus CONTROL OF OTHERS.
Add in the rotating cycles of ascendance and decay, which everything is based on in the universe of 3W3M, and you get to take any duality and do the positive and negative version of it (doubling the number of classes), and also there are two separate sects here (doubling things again). So there’s a large amount of variance in what looks like a a very simple duality.
Additionally, the breakdown here that Al is doing could also be expressed as system of internal and external enlightenment/control. Which I think we’ll get a lot of juice from in the later parts of this.
Finally, these things (Self-control and Control-of-others) should have a name and be codified, and we’ll get to that in a bit.
So far, so good. We have two approaches to a single undefined religion – and what was that in the bedrock about two warring sects? Let’s start extrapolating and see what comes out of that.
BUILDING OFF THE BEDROCK
If I was stretching this metaphor further than it needed to go, I’d call this the “Foundation Phase.”
The Water World seems like a good place to make our first cut, so to speak – the in-system Theocracy. Or Theocracies, rather, since there are two nations here, each of which worship a different form of the same religion. (I won’t get into how they exist in the water, what the physical shape of the nations are, etc – that’s for someone else.)
What have we got to work with? One shared rule. Don’t fight over the KHOR.
Why that rule? How did that rule evolve? Is it because if you’re fighting over who gets to mine KHOR, KHOR is going unmined? It’s a sin to waste good KHOR?
I think once they did fight over the Khor. And all of this grew out of that conflict. Enlightenment comes through pain and the annihilation of the ‘old ways.’ I’ll pretend here like I haven’t read all this and we aren’t concerned with a foundational ‘messiah/prophet/leader/holy person’ -- but keep in mind that religion is the oldest form of revolution and that always demands a catalyst in the shape of a person.
You might also want to keep in mind what I said about making things alien and why you would want to wear that cloak if your desire was to break an existing society.
Back up a little. We’ve got a solar system that gets cold fusion energy from this KHOR in times of science, and gets, uh, mojo of some kind from it in times of magic. (Let’s assume something equally valuable. Magic is not my department on this project.) So the one constant, in the rise and fall of societies as things swing from science to magic, corruption to non-corruption, is KHOR and the energy it provides. Whatever system you have going, it’s built on the KHOR.
Al did not know when he was writing this was that the KHOR cannot be handled/touched/consumed by people -- it’s too dangerous/scared for those who ‘believe’ in it. But that fits nicely in what he was doing.
No wonder a theocracy or two have built themselves around this stuff. It’s clearly a sacred substance. Gives us another reason for the faithful not to fight over KHOR – to fight over KHOR dishonors the KHOR, disrespects the KHOR, tarnishes the KHOR somehow. Maybe it’s an insult to who provided the KHOR.
Yes, the reverence for the thing is built into the system you created to control the thing.
So perhaps our cardinal rule is simply: Respect the KHOR/that which created the KHOR.
KHOR is a constantly replenishing, sacred substance that’s generated at the heart of the Water planet – making the Water planet, the one planet without moons, the provider of everything.
We’re starting to get into deities. Let’s build out further.
Yep. To be continued on Al and Jon’s God talk. Soon to be a syndicated show on NPR.
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Do you think there is a sense of superiority amongst the people of Akva that they sit at the center of the universe, since they're the providers of Khor? Do they feel they are the "birthplace" of these world's cultures and subcultures? Like the Vatican kind of sits at the center of Catholicism and its offshoots.
I have to admit there are certain posts I am behind on, but man if nerding out on all this background doesn’t increase the urge to catch up on missed posts and nerd out on the ones I’ve already read! You all have the best job (and you’re pretty stellar at it)!
I hope you all find a way to pull this together into some type of encyclopedia once you hit the point of putting together collected editions!