Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Literary Vacuum: A Tremulous Light

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The history of our species is littered with instances of colonialism. One of the earliest inspirations for The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism was the computer game M.U.L.E. by Ozark Softscape, published in 1983 for the Atari 800 personal computer. While nearly perfect in execution and tone, it was M.U.L.E.'s archetypal background theme that bestowed the game's true power. Primarily an echo of "colonization sci-fi" such as Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the game casts you in the role of a lone colonist trying to survive the economic uncertainties of colonial existence. In a typical game of M.U.L.E., bad things happened to good colonists; good things happened to those who didn't deserve it; you might go hungry in the wake of a pest attack on your food supply, while rival colonists hoarded food and let it rot, rather than sell it to you, lest you get ahead. By the end of the game, however, players often pulled themselves together for the greater good of the colony. A strong colony became a destination for traders, where all the colonists did well (a victory); a failed colony became a lonely place, on few, if any, trade routes (a loss).

Having played M.U.L.E. countless times, colonialism often resonated in my thoughts as I grew older; it created a lens through which I looked at the world. It became a catalyst for thought and a microcosmic mirror.

On our planet, the dominant form of life is microscopic. Bacteria and viruses may not truly be aware of our civilization, but they do shape it. They have colonized our species like we might colonize a planet. They dominate our bodies. They intervene in our behaviors, just as dominant human cultures exert political, economic, and cultural control over weaker human cultures. Unlike viruses or bacteria, however, our species has mastered the art of influence, both in terms of military power and economics. Where those two forces meet, you find the choking bacteria-like bloom of religion, thriving, spreading.

In The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, the world's most powerful governmental systems have aligned themselves into a single entity, known as the World Order. The narrative's speculative premise is that our planet will be faced with an overpopulation crisis, made worse by runaway environmental degradation. In the face of this global crisis, a new ideology emerges that legitimizes an overt form of population control; the promise is societal cohesion and protection, but the World Order is steeped in religiosity. It is essentially a values-based system, and while scientific discoveries ultimately allow humanity to colonize distant planets, the World Order's will to control remains ascendant. Humanity submits to it through a form of natural selection (i.e., dissent equals death); though the World Order's corporate spirituality is riddled with incorrect causal associations and invasive dehumanizing practices, submission becomes essential for humanity's continued existence. To do otherwise risks our end.

Shimmerism, the fictional religion, is born on the fringe of the World Order, where its ability to control begins to fray. Shimmerism renounces the patternicity of bureaucracy in favor of the noise and chaos of free thought. Shimmerism sits in diametric opposition to the World Order and its tenets, and so it isn't really a religion at all. It is only cast in such a light because of the World Order's dominance. Survival of the fittest comes to the forefront; The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is about what happens when harboring irrational beliefs becomes a survival strategy. It paints a picture of what the world would be like if modern religions actually got what they wanted: a timid, quivering civilization steeped in weird beliefs; a societal dead-end, where cause and effect are merely opinions; essentially, a world where humanity's evolved necessity to believe nonweird things is viewed more as a religion than not.