Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Magical Miracle of Tolkeen: The Establishment of Clark's Law on Earth

Despite its youth as a distinct civil and cultural entity, and its status as something of a rustic backwater in the greater cross-dimensional cosmopolitan civilization that exists in the milieu of RIFTS, the City-State of Tolkeen has to its credit one innovation that--for those aware of it--has magic-using societies dumbfounded. That innovation does not seem significant to those not familiar with either the practice of magic, but it is such a profound change that it amounts to a paradigm shift equal to that from the Rule of Man to the Rule of Law.

Now, to understand the significance of this paradigm shift, one must comprehend the old paradigm. In all but a few circumstances, the practice of magic first arises from the interaction between a god-like supernatural entity and a curious or cunning mortal; the first users of magic are those who strike pacts with such entities, for good or ill, a form of externally-bestowed power represented by the Witch and Shifter classes. (Closely related to it is the Warlock class.) Out of such initial contact arises cults, sects and greater institutions where one sees the emergence of the Priest, Shaman and Druid classes (in their variations). Only at a time of maturation in a society, where philosophical inquiry flourishes, do magical practices secularize into the non-denominational forms of the Wizard (including its variants such as the Ley Line Walker). The practice of magic rarely arises of an origin akin to that of inquiry into the natural world that creates scientific breakthroughs and the con-commitment technological development.

Even in societies with a secularized subculture of magical practice, the influence of religion--that of the original supernatural--is such that it maintains a dominance upon that society by way of dominating its elite social class (who, in turn, dominate the government and related institutions). The supernatural entities that created these magical societies, even if otherwise of a benevolent or disinterested perspective with regard to mortals, so routinely seek to suppress those useful arts and sciences from which the aforementioned breakthroughs and developments arise that it is notable when there is any significant co-existence within a culture at all- to merge them, while inevitable, is so great a change that it lights fires in the minds of mortal and supernatural beings alike as great as that which sparked Creation itself.

That said, it is rare for those who do merge magical practice and scientific inquiry to merge them completely. Specifically, it is rare for these hybridization practices to do more than to hybridize the end results--the casting of spells and the creation of technological items--into techno-magical artifacts. In the minds of the majority of techno-mages, these are still seen as separate and distinct things--Chocolate and Vanilla--that they do not mix until the last moment of creation (i.e. an ice cream cone with one scoop of Vanilla and one of Chocolate). They have not gone to the next step.

Tolkeen's contribution is to make that breakthrough. The reason for this comes from its past, where the first native Earth humans in the Tolkeen community learned magic from the off-world Atlantean magicians who decided to come to Tolkeen and establish a settlement there. Those Earth natives were not only trained scientists, properly educated artists and skilled technical workers--programmers, engineers, technicians, fine artists, etc.--but they often possessed significant overlapping expertise as well as a balanced scientific and creative knowledge base. Amongst them were those who knew--if not practiced--native magical practices of various sorts that existed in the pre-Rifts era. When the Atlanteans came to these survivors, who had already put together a functional community within the ruins of Tolkeen's pre-Rifts incarnation, and demonstrated their magical prowess the natives decided to learn what they knew.

Atlantean society retained a certain conservative streak from its last era on Earth, and so did not think--it never conceived in their minds to do so--to question as to what, if any, relationship existed between the principles that governed the universe of natural phenomenon and those that governed the supernatural. In this respect, it was normative of the greater multiverse of magical and scientific practice. When the native Earth students, each steeped in the tradition of skeptical inquiry, began this mode of investigation none of the Atlanteans thought it would go anywhere and decided to leave them to try and learn from failure.

The moment when the native Earth magicians gained the ascendency in Tolkeen's magical community came with the breakthrough of one trained as a computer scientist as well as a physicist. Along with his wife--no less a mind--he isolated the basic unit of magical energy and discovered what he called a "mote". This allowed for the energy of magic to be detected, manipulated and measured as if it were any other mundane power source. The reason? He approached the practice of magic as if it were just another science, because he never had to deal with the memetic shackling of religious institutions and cultural hegemony impeding his efforts or suppressing his work.

Soon, this man and his wife embarked upon a grand project. Using the massive magical power around them, they gathered their friends and established a laboratory. In the heart of that laboratory they created what--to the Atlanteans--seemed to be a rather shallow and small ritual space. Atop the ceiling seemed to be some sort of focusing apeature, and the area around a barely man-sized dais as the point of focus. They'd soon witness their former students routinely use this device to go elsewhere and then return hours later. Soon others, students of their students, also made frequent use of it, and curiosity overcame them.

Once the Atlanteans crossed this threshold for themselves, they stood in awe of what they beheld. Within a year of the native Earthers breakthrough and the establishment of the laboratory, they figured out how to use their own scientific knowledge as well as that of the magiclal principles that they learned from the Atlanteans and created a safe and secure city inside a pocket-dimension. This is the Crystal City, Tolkeen.

As the First Founder, Roger M. Ire, the man who made this possible, said to his former teacher: "We had myths and legends about magic long before your people returned. Not all of them are derived, in whole or in part, from the actual deeds of the last Atlantean age; we in particular were enamored of a far more recent myth, one created in our lifetimes, and used that myth to guide our creation of this place. Welcome to the Grid, Master."

The First Founder quoted a pre-Rifts author, Arthur C. Clark: "Any sufficiently-advance technology is indistinguishable from magic." So, they reasons, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from the practice of magic. They thought of it as another science--no different from chemistry, geology or any other--and yet remembered that it had the quality of the Arts to it also. In time, a truly unique culture of magician-engineers arose and that Crystal City became the Inner City while outside arose the Outer City as the community's command of knowledge expanded and applications arose from the fruits of their inquiries.

Now we hear not "spells", but of "protocols". Now we hear not of "casting" and "banishing", but "resolution" and "deresolution". Now we hear not of "demons", but of "programs". We hear no priests calling people to prayer, but often of hear the philosophers call people to debate. We see the measurement of motes becoming means of measuring the time it takes for the Resolution Engines to execute the resolution of things, and we see the fusion of principles in the creation of Platonic Protocols whose use holds the promise of a sort of immortality--Tolkeen has never attempted to resolve a program over the form of a living being before, but those working on the Marvel Project assure the people that all necessary safeguards are in place--and the Council of Masters is confident that the threat posed by the Coalition States can be successfully defeated.

It is a time of great optimism in Tolkeen, a time of high culture, a time of great potential and hope- and a time of dangerous exuberance, unjustified confidence and romantic perceptions of life and one's place in it. Tolkeen stands at a crossroads, where the very esoteric modes of thinking that goes with traditional magical practice may well be the necessary balancing point that Tolkeen needs to endure. If it, like the Coalition, puts too much emphasis on the linear thinking that mundane scientific thinking is prone to producing then Tolkeen could be blind to the true threats to its continued existence and open itself to tragedy and ruin.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tolkeen: The Sky-Blue Kingdom, A Place of Freedom and Hope For Tomorrow

Tolkeen arose on the ruins of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. Unknown to everyone, it is one of the key points on the planet's global network of ley lines; 100 ley lines meet here, making it ones of the lynchpins of the network, and thus it is not at all surprising that some form of supernatural power base would arise here. What is remarkable is that, instead of it being dominated by supernatural creatures or alien species, it is rules by a majority of native humans in concert with a minority of off-world humans and aided by a significant number of friendly non-humans of a diverse sort.

The off-world humans are a branch of Atlanteans who decided to establish themselves here as part of a larger, longer-term effort to unseat the usurping god-like alien Splugorth who occupy the Atlantean homeland now risen from beneath the Atlantic Ocean. They are the faction that brought magical training to Tolkeen in the wake of the Coming of the Rifts, and for some time thereafter dominated the emerging community. Today they have a strong presence in the government and drive its foreign policy, but no longer hold such an overwhelming advantage.

The native humans are far and away the majority, and as many of the surivors were also trained as scientists in various disciplines they took to the magical arts--once they saw it to be beneficial to learn them--quickly. What shocked the Atlanteans was they applied ideas commonplace before the Coming of the Rifts, creating a whole school of sorcerer-engineers that swiftly seized a memetic hegemony and impressed the Atlanteans greatly, revolutionizing magical practices heretofore fossilized and stagnant in their existence.

They industrialized magical practice. Entire machines now exist that ritually resolve entire buildings into existence directly out of magical energy, following plans that the architects and engineers created and loaded into the machine before starting the machine's resolution/manufacturing process. Most people learn how to use common items that resolve vehicles, armor, whatever into existence as an outgrowth of magic tattoo technology. Tolkeen is a place of wonder, optimism and vibrancy where the only thing that's scarce is knowledge- which compels the ambitious to scatter far and wide in search of it abroad as eagerly as it does searching for it in the labs at home. In Tolkeen, one can be whatever they want to be, for magic brings freedom and autonomy no one can have without it, and thus any commitment that they make is one freely made by choosing to do so.

This is also the crack in their armor. Ambition can lead to arrogance and hubris, and the unusual openness leads to easy infiltration by malevolent agents. Tolkeen's close proximity to the capital of the Coalition States poses a severe existential threat to the States, so war between the two is inevitable despite the denial that some around Tolkeen indulge in, thinking that its cosmopolitanism and links to many other magical societies and states through the multiverse will moot any aggression by the Coalition.

In short, Tolkeen has some distressing naiveity to its culture that the Atlanteans and other more sober-minded individuals have yet failed to rectify, and that will prove to be troublesome in the years ahead. Hopefully, the Marvel Project will prove itself as effective when the time comes.

Magic in RIFTS: A Conceptual Primer

RIFTS features the use of magic by playable characters. These magic-users, these Men of Magic, gain their power through the ability to sense, tap and manipulate a mostly-unseen energy source that the rulebook calls "Potential Psychic Energy". The manipulation of this energy to create tangible effects or objects is what "spell-casting" is about, and that has implications heretofore ill-explored. The ability to train others and have them become able to do magic is also ill-explored. I am to address both and explore the implications of these two premises, both here and in later posts. As with the Coalition posts, I'm focusing upon Earth, specifically North America.

First: Magic Can Be Taught.

RIFTS published a lot of different methods for working magic. There are some methods one cannot learn because they arise out of a connection to an external source of entity, such as the ways of the Priest, Witch and Warlock. Some methods arise from a fusion of innate psychic ability and sensitivity to magical power, such as the Mystic. However, the most well-known and popular magic-users are Ley Line Walkers, Shifters and Techno-Wizards and these methods of magic-use can be used by anyone with the will and intellect necessary to master them. Race, sex, class and creed make no difference (save to psych yourself into thinking you can't do it). This makes magic use something egalitarian in its essence, which is as frightening to some people as what you can do with it. (As for the folks who gain their ability through other ways, I'll talk more about that in a later post.)

Second: Magic Has No Logistical Train

The use of magic does not rely on external sources of power, parts, munitions and so on to be effective. This makes a magic-user far more self-contained than someone who has no such power source open to him, which means that his range is limited primarily by his willingness and the limitations of his allies. It also means that he can live a far more self-directed, autonomous life than someone tied to a state (or similar entity) by means of dependency upon a logistical train. This mobility is a big deal, and wise magic-users make full use of it.

It also means that magic-users, while strongly preferring to stay on or near ley lines and nexus points due to the far stronger flows of magical power, it isn't necessary to do so. They can operate just fine while far from the rivers and lakes magical flows, and with the right application of knowledge they can even carve new channels to extend those flows where they haven't previously gone.

Third: Magic Is The Ideal Power Source

Much like how money arose as the ideal medium for facilitating trade in goods and services, magical power is the ideal medium for transmuting one form of energy or matter into another. It's infinitely renewable, totally clean and has only one side effect: attracting the attention of supernatural creatures. While we're used to the idea of magic-users transmuting magical power into something else, we're not so used to magic-users transmuting something else into magical power; spell-casting is usually thought of as resolving something into existence, not de-resolving something out of it, but clearly this could be done.

The implications of this are enormous and hardly explored at all- certainly not on RIFTS Earth. Contary to common assertions--including those in print--saying that a conflict between magic and science exists, not only does that not exist, but the best magic-users will be cross-trained as experts in mundane physical sciences; not just an expert on the magical arts, but an engineer in both. I will explore this in depth as I get into the Sky-Blue Kingdom of Tolkeen, home to a land where 100 ley lines meet to form one of the most powerful nexus points in North America. (Hint: Think of The Grid and not Disney Land.)

Fourth: It's All About Frequency

The use of magic to connect one place to another, be it to summon something forth, to send someone forth or to open a portal (etc.) involves the harmonizing of frequencies between this dimension (and this specific place in our dimension's space-time) and the destination's point. The use of magic to create tangible effects also involves the use of frequency, as it takes the magical energy employed and manipulates its into the form of the desired effect. If this takes more power than the magic-user has on hand, then time must be expended in conducting a ritual to gather up and suspend that power until there is enough to complete the process.

While it takes a living consciousness to discover and refine the techniques for doing this, the process for executing specific magical acts can be externalized. When one creates a magical item, one externalizes a magical process into an object; this can be done on an industrial scale. For example, the St. Louis Arch is now a Rift Machine and can connect to damn near anywhere through the whole of existence--anywhere, at any time--and if it were brought under control it could be the center of a vast civilized center. (It isn't, and instead is dominated by very powerful supernatural predators.)

The implications for this are mind-blowing, and are the basis for Techno-Wizardry in the game. I fully intend to explore these implications as I write about Tolkeen, for it will be a magical state that wholeheartedly embraces the potential to transform it into a post-scarcity state.

Keep these in mind as I go forward about magic in RIFTS.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Cyborg: Recycling Humanity into Something More Useful

Many of you reading this have an image of cyborgs derived from popular genre media such as Robocop, Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, The Terminator, various other fiction from certain subgenres of science fiction literature (e.g. Neuromancer) and certain DC and Marvel superheroes such as DC's Cyborg and so on. Some of you may even think of cyborg technology as being one road to a transhuman ascension from our frail fleshly shells into something that promises immortality as well as far greater endurance and resilience to the physical rigors of existence.

To quote Admiral Ackbar: "It's a trap!"

I will not argue that a cyborg possesses greater physical capacity than baseline human bodies, or that a cyborg--if incorporating computer technology--can surpass baseline human mental capacities in certain areas. I do not argue that cyborg technology is not a viable means of augmentation. What I argue is that this augmentation is necessarily a path to greater autonomy and freedom for one so augmented. Instead, I'm arguing that becoming a cyborg is instead enslavement in ways that many who transform themselves into cyborgs do not appreciate until well after the fact.

A cyborg, as usually understood, is an individual that originally was an organic being but integrated into himself various mechanical and electronic substitutes for organic body parts lost sometime during his life due to illness or injury, including "illness" such as "weak and puny compared to requirements of the job" as well as "injuries" such as "member of an unwanted or disfavored group". As this process of integration cannot be done by oneself, this path requires the cooperation of another individual to make happen; that this individual is in a position of power usually results in the cyborg being exploited somehow by that individual. The result is that the cyborg, for all of his physical capabilities, is often little more than a very powerful slave warrior who is dependent upon his master for such things as maintenance and sustenance.

This is the thing that many popular media don't put before the reader or viewer, and it is the actual flaw that acts to enslave the cyborg in most cases. (It also marks the difference between those cyborgs that do become free from those that don't; free cyborgs acquire the skills, tools and resources necessary to shorten the logistical train that any technology-heavy character has to deal with. Losing access to those parts, munitions and technicians that keep a cyborg in good working order and ready for action is a big fucking deal. This threat should be front and center in the minds of individuals that decide to play a cyborg character. It is exactly this issue that keeps cyborgs loyal to their masters, because otherwise they will degrade into a useless hunk of junk quickly as their power sources run out, their weapons run out and their damage accumulates past their capacity to work with or around.

All of this combines into the concept of "recycling" people, which is where (once again) the state has it over the individual. States--and, for my purposes here, I will include any group that acts as a government in any way such as corporations and clans--look upon people as resources, regardless of philosophical practices, because a state must use the people to exercise its powers and execute its duties and wise ones will place significant value in their human resources- especially if they possess expert knowledge or sought-after experience of some sort.

Therefore, states will tend towards monopolizing cyborg reconstruction as they would other forms of augmentation; furthermore, those states that have Juicer or Crazy technology will see this as a way to retain the best of their augmented operatives once that technology renders those agents sufficiently dysfunctional or non-functional. This is where the recycling idea comes from.

A cyborg, therefore, is someone sufficiently valuable for states to retain in active service when they otherwise would have died or forcibly retired; in return for this renewed life, they are permanently leashed to that aforementioned logistical train just as if they were the weapons and vehicles that they used every day. They may yet operate on a deniable basis, and they may be sent far afield in their work, but they remain leashed--enslaved--to the providers of the services and goods necessary to keep those cyborg shells (partial or full) operating as intended.

So, unlike the Juicer and the Crazy--who are both suckers--the Cyborg is a victim of circumstance. Like the other two, the real cost of his power comes is his freedom and autonomy; unlike the other two, so long as his brain is intact he can be rebuilt again and again, quickly turning a would-be Iron Man into The Man in the Iron Mask. Beware, therefore, the siren song of Steel Immortality.