Saturday, October 20, 2012

Literary conventions

As I've mentioned before, the primary inspiration for Vesh comes from recurring settings and themes in my dreams, plus a whole bunch of other shit for inspiration (LasVegas, Disneyland, the Mall of America; Bioshock, Planescape, The Dark Tower; Hunter S. Thompson and Transmetropolitan).

Last night I had a dream about a literary convention, and this deserves a bit more explanation. Writers are rock stars in Vesh. They're movie stars. They're the big cheese. They're Lady Gaga and Madonna, they're Freddie Mercury okay you get the idea. Publishers and printing houses are the big agents and band managers. It's a frothing, scintillating, glittering business.

"yeah okay sure you just say that 'cause you are a writer and it's wish fulfillment"

Actually no, this came about because of something I'd realized about Quintessence.

As mentioned before, and for those just joining us now: Quintessence is the distilled essence of human faith, belief, and imagination, and it's the basis for all magic and most technology in Vesh. In its raw form, it's also highly toxic and causes unstable rifts in reality as it responds directly to subconscious desire. It's a vicious literal genie that has its uses but it's dangerous.

Quintessence is distilled from objects in which people have a lot of faith, belief, or in which they've invested a lot of imagination, or from objects that represent those things, or which have been in close proximity to such things. Costumes from theater productions. Weirdly, cinema never took off in Vesh's universe for some reason (I've never once dreamed of a movie theater), but if it had, props from movies are a good example. Paintings. Religion's a big one, and when Northreach swept south into Myshtar one of the first things they did was convert every last shrine to the Fey and the Elementals into Quintessent energy to fuel their war machines; they also rotate their Cathedrals of Purity, making the very act of destroying and rebuilding the edifices into a religious ritual, which is one reason Northreach has such a huge supply of Quintessence. Religion is a powerful source.

So are stories.

But why literature? Why isn't art, or theater, or hell, even religion itself the Big Deal here? Literature isn't even the most potent source of Quintessence--the most potent source is human sacrifice, especially martyrdom, especially done in a cruel, unjust, and overly theatrical way.

Why literature?

With stories, the thing in which people put their ultimate faith and belief and imagination is the story itself. We get reams of fanfiction and tons of devoted fanart not because of a physical object, no matter how much people will laud physical books, but the story itself. And the thing about a story is that it can be copied over and over again, reproduced, given new life, new spins, new takes. It is a renewable resource. You can't destroy an idea, not fully, not even Quintessence can do that.

With artwork, we put a lot of value on the physical first edition production, even in the case of prints. We want things that are hand-made. We want originals, not copies. While a photograph of the Mona Lisa is still beautiful, you're not going to get a lot of Quintessence out of it because the bulk of the belief is in the painting itself.

Books, on the other hand...

People can and will fall in love with physical books, sometimes to frankly stupid degrees. I once saw on Tumblr someone get pissed as hell because some artist had used books to create a beautiful carving of a skull. How dare he waste perfectly good copies of Microsoft Windows 95 Instruction Manual!? GOSH. I myself had a well-worn, dog-eared copy of The Neverending Story that was just a trade paperback that I adored and was very sad when I lost it. Of course, then I had an excuse to get a nice hardback, but even then... and I still search for the mythic lost copy I had when I was a tiny child, a movie edition book that had the shimmering copper cover and the Auryn embossed into the front, the real physical thing that my grandfather lost in a hospital when we lent it to him (I doubt he even read it, frankly).

Books are relatively easy to produce (as compared to paintings, sculptures, etc), extremely easy to reproduce, and the physical object will always generate some level of belief and faith and imagination on the part of people. There's something about the physicality of the object that we love. And then more elaborate special editions can be produced, with forwards, illustrations, new covers, bigger sizes. I know some people who collect versions of just one story. There's one person, for instance, who has every single edition of House of Leaves alone.

And the thing is, despite this, a lot of books are lost or destroyed, despite how much people love them, despite the care, despite the beauty. Libraries and bookstores destroy thousands of perfectly good books every year just because they can't keep them, and this isn't just shitty trade paperbacks. These are original editions from the 1800s, these are beautiful hand-illustrated manuscripts, these are well-loved objects. It's just a matter of too many books being created, and not enough room to hold them all.

In our world, it's a terrible shame and a waste. I still wonder why we can't just donate truckloads of these things to third world countries, where at least if they can't read them they might use them as building material and insulation (which you can do! I actually use shitty trade paperbacks to insulate parts of my room in winter. They're marvelous for that. If highly flammable.) But in Vesh... old library books especially are excellent sources of Quintessence. You can sell your beautiful signed illustrated first edition copies for thousands of dollars if you know the right people. And even your old shitty trade paperbacks are worth something to someone.

Which brings us back to writers. Books with shitty stories don't sell, unless they're Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray. Rather: self-published poorly edited bullshit that you find on Amazon doesn't get you a whole lot of Quintessence. You have to build a following. You have to market. You have to get to the point where people will pay thousands of dollars for a signed limited edition copy, where you get the gargantuan Hall H at ComicCon when Joss Wheadon is there lines for authors. When you get to that level, when you get people really believing in your stuff, that's when you become a goldmine not just in terms of how much money you make selling your books, but in terms of the secondary Quintessence market.

Back to movies, music, TV shows, paintings, and sculptures -- people don't feel the same way about VHS or DVDs most of the time. You don't see people on Tumblr flipping the hell out about how someone used a dozen DVDs or CDs to make a sculpture. If you get the stuff signed, sure, it means a lot, and I have a few CDs that I personally care about (Okay, just my Protomen CDs. But that's different). When I've lost books, I've usually been genuinely sad, even if it was just a dog-eared copy. When I've lost DVDs, my entire reaction has been meh. Maybe this is a product of the digital generaton and how digital content is easily replicable, but honestly I think it's because books are easy. The story's right there, it's inside the thing, you don't have to watch it on a screen or wrestle with region codecs, you just open it up and it's there. Again -- physicality. The things which have Quintessence from theater productions are the props, the costumes, the venue itself... all of which aren't nearly as easily replicable or replaceable as books. Besides, people put stock in the originals, not replicas in these cases.

Which brings us back again to literary conventions. This stuff is SanDiego ComicCon level of "oh jesus that's a lot of screaming people." And it's crawling with Quintessence merchants. You want that signed original edition copy of Romance of the Underground Empire? You'll have to beat twenty Quintessence merchants to get it... and worse yet, your own enthusiasm and desire to get it before them just makes it even more valuable TO those merchants. The more people want something, the more Quintessence they can get out of it.

This also means that there are thieves who specialize in breaking into libraries and stealing books. People keep their personal libraries hidden, under lock and key, and often deny owning any books, in case some Quintessence hound is looking for them. Libraries have airport security. Shit is bananas.

Also, people tried to make eReaders, but they required Quintessence and produced none and so the big publishing houses and big-box bookstores rapidly crushed that market, in much the same way as the big gas companies have quashed electric cars.

Gamewise, this means books of any kind are worth MAD LEWT. PHAT LEWT. and if your character knows how to distill quintessence (Which ALL spellcasting needs in this setting!), best to raid a library.

As for the dream? It was actually very boring, mostly I was fighting my way through this stupid convention trying to find this one author and her husband, and when I did I was very cross and said something badass like, "You do realize that finding you was a dreadful waste of my time and money, yes?"

I think it was because someone else at the convention was trying to get them assassinated, which while illegal in the particular Holding we were in, was totally fine in a Holding nearby, so I had to keep these two inside the hotel and hope the crazy dude didn't decide that he wanted to risk the wrath of the local Warlord anyway. BODYGUARD DUTY YEAH.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


In Vesh, most disputes are resolved within each Holding according to that Holding's particular rules and laws. Inter-Holding disputes are resolved mostly by those Holdings beating the shit out of each other for a while, or quietly backstabbing, depending on which Holding we're talking about. In cases where an individual causes problems across multiple Holdings, usually deals can be worked out, and people can work together to take them down. It's in the general interest.

On occasion, however, something more is needed. Vesh has no overarching governing body; there's nothing to tie the Holdings together, and if anyone ever tried there'd be outright war (this hasn't happened yet, mostly because everyone recognizes how utterly dumb it'd be to try). But sometimes, an inter-holding dispute goes on so long that it threatens the integrity of the other Holdings, the business of the city (because Vesh IS a business: it's in the business of entertainment and illusion)

In that case, the Grey are called in.

No one is quite sure when the Grey began, or where they come from. They didn't seem to exist back when Vesh was just a normal city with some places to gamble. And yet they seem to also have always been.

Most of the time, the Grey are called in as mediators, to sit and keep some of the more childish Warlords in check during meetings. They are neutral, outside both the pulls of ego and of money. They aren't paid for their services, at least, not that anyone knows of. You just ask them, and they arrive.

There are a few Warlords they refuse their services to. The Queen of Tir Na Nog is one, because she tends to call upon them every day with a new SO AND SO WAS MEANNNN TO ME! SO AND SO IS OPPRESSING ME!!!

Every warlord (even the Queen of Tir Na Nog) knows better than to harm one of the Grey. None of them are sure what would happen, but each will vouch that it's a terrible idea. There are rumors that in years past, one Warlord called a Grey to their Holding, and had her killed. No one will speak this Warlord's name, or say who it was.  Nikolai Habsburg, owner of the Průmyslový Palace resort, and one of the oldest Warlords, will crack a dessicated smile when asked. "She was foolish," he'd say, "And proud, and did not know that one cannot threaten thunder. Now even her name is forgotten."

On equally rare occasions, the Grey intercede on their own, without prompting. Usually when this occurs, every Warlord drops what they were doing anyway, as does any citizen who knows what's good for them.

Again, this doesn't happen often. They're no secret police, and they answer to no one. But that may be why they're so terrifying.

The Grey also set up places called Grey Circles, which are areas in the undercity surrounded by large standing stones. These areas are Quintessent negation zones; basically, antimagic fields. They exist for the purposes of negotiation on neutral ground.