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NaNo 2010: Apocalypse time!

October 28, 2010

So. It’s four days until the beginning of November. Up here in the frozen north, it’s windy and getting dark ridiculously early. Also term has kicked off in earnest and the photocopied journal articles are starting to pile up on my bed – this week it’s the life of Constantine, who seems like he might actually have been quite an interesting guy, but comes out of Eusebius’ biography of him looking like the world’s worst Gary Stu. And so with winter setting in and the work piling up, naturally it’s time to write a novel. All aboard for NaNoWriMo 2010!

This year I’m doing good old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery, but hoping to avoid some of the more common pitfalls of the genre. Tired quest plots, for one; I know it’s a very old and eminently respectable genre but everyone’s doing it. Also, importing all the prejudices of the modern world into a fantastical realm – it continues to piss me off how many authors apparently have no problem envisioning dragons, elves, whole kingdoms with every leaf lovingly detailed, but somehow cannot create believable women. Honestly, we’re people really. IT IS NOT SO HARD.

The one that really, unreasonably, bugs me, however, is Medieval Stasis. The one where, as in Tolkien’s Arda or George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, society has stayed at the same generically medieval stage for thousands of years, with no plausible explanation as to what’s holding them back. Even counted generously, the European Middle Ages only lasted one millennium – and the world changed drastically between 500 and 1500 AD. The throne of England passed from Saxons to Vikings to Normans; we fought a century-long war with France and several smaller ones; we had a full-on civil war between Lancaster and York; the heyday of the longbow came and went; the plague happened, several times; the Peasants’ Revolt; the language went from Beowulf to Malory, as did warrior culture; gunpowder and printing were invented; the Reformation happened; and MILLIONS of other things that generally conspired to make the world an almost unrecognisably different place in the 16th century than it was in the 6th.

And all this was without any kind of magical or supernatural power; imagine how much more upheaval, how many more wars, how much more chaos and innovation and general awesome shit could be accomplished if there was bona fide magic involved. Of course people would meddle in it; meddling is pretty much what humans do. Quite apart from the fact that history moves on just left to itself, I have to imagine that the easy accessibility of violent supernatural power would lead to the exact opposite of many years of unchanging peace. Monsters arise in every generation; now imagine a Hitler or a Caligula with teleportation and fireballs. Yeah. No. On the other hand, geniuses turn up every so often as well: Magical!Leonardo da Vinci, anyone? The man could rule the world. (Oh man, now that’s a whole nother idea.)

So that’s objective #1: avoid (too much) Not How History Works fail. Objective#2: pile on the medievalist geekery. I’m envisioning a lot of Gratuitous Anglo-Saxon and the occasional Latin pun. (Did I mention I’ve already written a Latin poem for my characters to quote? Well, I have. You may judge me now.) Objective #3: play around with eschatology a little bit, because the more I think about it the more fun it seems to be.

Eschatology, despite its sound, is not a portmanteau of escapology and scatology;* rather, it comes from the Greek eschatos ‘last’ and means, therefore, the study of the last days, the end times, the Apocalypse, or however else you wish to refer to the end of the world.

Its traditional usage does not imply the absolute end of everything – rather, eschatology is concerned with the end of the present, material world, and different eschatologies allow for (even require) the presence of some kind of better, immaterial world After The End. For apocalyptic Christian traditions, that would be the Kingdom of Heaven; for the weirder strains of transhumanism it would be whatever comes after the singularity. And so on. Plenty of faiths and some not-quite-faiths** have eschatological beliefs of one kind or another, for further details of which I refer you to the rest of the Interwebs.

The Apocalypse and its possible impending-ness are still popular topics of speculation today. However, my field being what it is, I’m more interested in medieval versions of the End; in particular, the crop of them brought on by millenialism – the idea, quite popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons, that the world would end one thousand years after Christ’s birth and thus in or around the year 1000. You get a lot of day-of-Judgement rhetoric coming out around that time.

Then as now, people invoked the spectre of the apocalypse left, right and centre – it was a handy way to keep the flock in line. What I’ve always wondered, though, about both past and present eschatologists, is how many people out of those who nominally believe in the impending end of the world actually do genuinely believe in the impending end of the world? My gut feeling is that most of them didn’t/don’t, because vast swathes of people shy away from contemplating even entirely certain bad things, like dying, and it’s that much more difficult to care about something that may or may not ever happen in your lifetime.

I also suspect that a lot of the loudest preachers of apocalypse, past and present, don’t believe it in the slightest but have spotted a nice big source of profit and power. There’s also those who still think that the ideas associated with the apocalypse are worth working towards (e.g. transhuman consciousness, Christian virtue) but don’t actually believe in the apocalypse itself.

What I’m hoping to explore in this novel is how people in those categories – people who have embraced the idea of apocalypse as a convenient fiction for whatever reason, but don’t seriously think it’ll happen (or happen to them) – react when something of a distinctly apocalyptic flavour actually does happen. The one I’ve got planned for the story is a meteorite*** – big enough to cause utter chaos, but small enough to be survivable; the world will be in a stage roughly analogous to the thirteenth or fourteenth century AD when it hits. Lots of bickering medieval states that feud at the drop of a hat. Lots of religious controversy and accusations of heresy. And magic.

Can you tell I’m really looking forward to this?


*”Yes it is: it’s the study of figuring out how to escape the shit that’s about to happen.” – Rhiannon

**Singularitarianism makes no claim to be a religion, and plenty if not most of those who profess it are atheist; but a sincere belief that we are the generation who will live forever thanks to Science!™ seems about as weird to me as the belief that we are the generation in whose lifetime the Rapture will fall – exceptionalistic, unlikely, and too often used to justify a failure to clean up present shit based on the idea that soon it won’t matter any more.

***Why do fantasy worlds never seem to have full cosmoses? At most they’ll have some moons (which never screw up the tides as royally as you’d expect from multiple moons) – the general impression is of lone planets floating disconnected in the void. The Warmachine/Iron Kingdoms world gets points for having a whole solar system, but even that is, as universes go, kind of small.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    October 29, 2010 12:00 am

    Rhiannon’s definition for eschatology is birlliant

    Full comment to come when I havent’ just drunk a bottle of Rioja to celebrate the last lesson of my teacher training

  2. October 29, 2010 7:36 pm

    I’m sure I’ve read fantasy worlds that have their own zodiacs, but everything else about their cosmos seems to just be Earth – Sun, moon, and all.

    I’m not sure how it’s reasonable to go in creating a truly unearthly fantasy world, though. After all, you need for humans to have somehow evolved on this completely different planet just as they did on Earth which is… unlikely, to say the least.*

    Incidentally, on the subject of singularitarianism…

    * Tolkeinian elves and dwarves are an even bigger problem evolutionarily (especially coming from a world that apparently has no apes), being close enough to learn the languages of other species, yet somehow not wiping each other out through competition, though I’d love to see a treatment where all the fantastic humanoid species evolved from a common ancestor.

  3. October 29, 2010 10:34 pm

    @Seamus: Hee. Congrats. Hope the Rioja doesn’t hit you too hard.

    @atomicspin: I’m not against fantasy worlds being basically Earth-clones – like you say, there are limits to how unearthly you can make a world and still have humans be plausible in it. Just wondering about the lack of attention paid to cosmology/astronomy in a lot of settings – especially given that the High Middle Ages loved them some astrology; it was intimately entwined with the practice of alchemy, for one thing. You’d think they’d mention planets occasionally.

    That PFSC comic pretty much sums up the problems with short-term singularitarianism, yeah. In a thousand years? Maybe, assuming we clean up our act a bit. In thirty? Nah.

    My 2007 NaNo posited elves and vampires as evolutionary cousins of humans – the three species were able to interbreed but with sterile offspring, a la horses and donkeys. Sadly that was the year I crashed and burned after 12,000 words and that particular subplot never really got anywhere.

  4. Seamus permalink
    October 30, 2010 5:00 pm

    Your plot sounds fantastic, and the examination of people’s reaction to the idea of an apocalypse has the potential to be a basis for a thoroughly good piece of psychological novellance (I suppose “novelty” would be the correct suffixation, but just no). What point in time is the story going to start at: is it going to be before and after, or all after?

    On the subject: I met a sci-fi enthusiast on my course and told him pretty much the whole plot of the SF trilogy we dreamed up. We had been talking about tattoos, so I told him about the one we were going to get if we ever finished it: the dual-star solar system/Everything in Nothing design.

  5. October 30, 2010 8:11 pm

    I’m planning to set most of it after the disaster, and cover the initial event in the prologue and in flashbacks. The actual plot (such of it as there is) is basically that in the aftermath of the thing, the church almost-schisms over whether the meteor was a punishment, a warning, or a test, and what the appropriate response should be. The we-must-purge-the-sinful faction clashes with the we-must-endure-in-patience faction and countries start taking sides.

    Oh wow, Permanent Day/The Continent of Night? I haven’t thought about that in ages. Maybe something to keep in mind for a future NaNo? That might be the way to get it off the ground …

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