Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The New Gods of Babylon


When you think hard about it, the traditional cyberpunk trope of megacorporations literally ruling the world doesn't make any sense.

A megacorp is a massive private corporation, holding monopolistic or neat-monopolistic control over multiple markets. Megacorps are so powerful they can ignore the law, maintain private armies to enforce their will, and exercise extreme control over their employees. This looks like a set-up for a nightmare blend of a dictatorship and state capitalism, but for one small problem.

Megacorps are profit-driven.

Their goal is, quite simply, to make money. As much money as possible, and with it power and influence. That is how they achieved their status, and how they maintain it. One of the most fundamental tenants of maximising profit is minimising costs. And ruling the world is costly.

Governments in the real world spend money like water on public goods, including roads, sewage, public infrastructure, the environment, the legal system, and so on. While their bring great benefit to the public, they incur massive upkeep costs. In corporate-speak, they are loss centres to any private company that is not explicitly in the business of providing these goods and services.

Megacorps may be so rich and powerful they can afford to cover the costs of these goods. But why would they? It is far riskier and much less profitable for megacorps to diversify into new markets and sectors than it is to consolidate and grow their existing market share and to offer even more product. They may well benefit from having excellent infrastructure, a robust national defense, and so on, but it is far less costly for them to simply pay someone else to take care of them so they can focus on their core strengths.

In other words: megacorporations in a realistic setting will need governments. They will not take on the burdens of governance, because the costs incurred from upkeep of public goods would be far too great for any profit-oriented company outside this sector to shoulder. Instead, they will want to create a pliable government, or a hollow state, one that offers them maximum permissiveness and opportunities to pursue profits with minimal oversight, regulations and punishments. The megacorps will leave the hard work (and expense) of actual government to the public sector, so they will focus on profits.

This, by the way, is what is happening in Mexico. The drug cartels may be fighting a decades-long war with the federal government, but they do not actually want to overthrow the government. They do not want to rule Mexico. They wish to carve out a space to carry out their (hugely profitable) criminal enterprises in peace, and to destroy their rivals to capture their market share. They leave the drudgery of day-to-day administration to the civil government so they can accumulate and enjoy their wealth.

Megacorps that do go into the business of actual government must necessarily set aside a pure pursuit of profits, and thus become something other than a hypercapitalistic private entity. They may become an extension of the state, form an alliance with the government, or create some new hybrid private-public model. Whatever form this takes, if they assume the costs and responsibilities of government, if they become the government, then they are not traditional megacorps any more.

With this in mind, I set about creating non-traditional antagonists for Babylon Blues, a decidedly non-traditional cyberpunk work.

Megacorps would not work. Dystopian governments are exceedingly common in fiction today, and in the real world dystopian governments do not usually produce the futuristic aesthetic I wanted for Babylon Blues.

That left me with gods.

More precisely, demons in the guise of gods.

The New Gods of Babylon wish to rule the world. To them, wealth is a necessary prerequisites to gain control of the people, but is not itself the end goal. They may control megacorps to gain profit from sales of goods and services, but it is only a means to an end. They pursue power, and the logic of pursuing power is vastly different from the logic of pursuing profit. Among other things, they will be perfectly willing to spend money on loss centres if doing so will increase their power, such as standing up private armies to do their bidding instead of getting the taxpayer-funded military and police to take care of business.

Of course, few people will willingly pledge themselves to entities that present themselves as demons. To attract followers, these beings present themselves as gods. They wear outwardly-beautiful forms, offering power, blessings, the opportunity to earn the right to become superhuman. With their occult powers, they make the miraculous mundane, and dazzle all who witness them in action.

In our world, there is no widely-accepted proof of God, gods, or other supernatural phenomenon. It is fashionable to be atheist or agnostic, because the physical sciences have not proven the metaphysical. Believers must have faith that there is a higher power.

In the world of Babylon, there is no need for faith. The New Gods openly dispense blessings and miracles on their followers. Every time a believer uses a power, no matter how slight, he becomes a living testimony to the power of the gods. With the existence of gods and powers widely known and accepted, there is no room for disbelief, no way to reject their existence. The only choice you have left is which god you side with, if at all.

And, no matter which god you choose, there is always a cost.

The New Gods dispense blessings and privileges to those they deem worthy. People who desire temporal wealth and power will do everything it takes to win the favour of the gods, and with them their blessings. But there is always a price to gain the power of the gods.

Humans are fragile vessels, tiny motes of dust in comparison to the overawing cosmic entities that are the gods of Babylon. Even if a New God imbues a believer with power, that believer must be strong enough to receive it. If not, the power will burn him out from within, destroying his mind and soul, transforming him into a ravenous blood-maddened beast. A husk of a man, now a monster that must be put down before he brings disaster on the world.

Or, at least, this is what the New Gods want you to believe.

For the believers strong enough to accept the power of the gods, the changes are incredible. They can manipulate their bodies, bend the fabric of space-time, become berserkers, manifest aspects of their gods, wield stupendous technologies, and more. But these powers require a constant connection to their deities.

Which means the New Gods exercise immense influence over the minds of their believers.

And when a god gives you marching orders, you cannot refuse.

Even if it means acting like a Husk -- or becoming one.

The New Gods, one and all, do not inspire their believers to become greater than they are. They do not uphold any values save those that support their rule and doctrine. They do not value truth, beauty and goodness beyond utilitarian uses. They offer power, but in exchange demand the souls of their believers.

They are all false gods.

It is well that they all hate each other, and are constantly seeking to dominate and destroy their rivals, or the world of Babylon would be in even worse shape than it is.

In keeping with these ideas, when planning the New Gods, I based them on religious heresies.

The youngest of the New Gods, and the first we meet, is the Singularity Network. Its heresy is that it believes it can create a god through mere technology. Thus, they focus on cognitive enhancement technologies and cybernetics, and have wholeheartedly embraced the posthuman and transhuman philosophies. They reject the flesh and embrace the perfection of the machine. The closest they have to a god is the Will of the Net, a gestalt of every member of the Singularity Network, operating as a group consensus for global decisions. To outsiders, it is a tech-driven direct democracy that chases perfection. But for some reason, no one opposes the Will of the Net. And maybe they can't.

The Guild of the Maker is a faction for laborers, workers and creators. They proclaim that their god made the universe, and honour him through the act of creation. Take the SN's obsession with tech and spread it out to everything. Everything the Guild creates is a testimony to the Maker, and the Maker blesses his believers with the ability to create wonders far beyond human ken. But the Maker is a jealous god, and tolerates no other gods, and will stop at nothing to achieve supremacy--including using up his believers as pawns and footsoldiers. And in the Guild, the only true sin is opposing the Maker. The Guild, thus, is Christianity perverted and watered down, and shorn of its doctrines and values.

The Pantheon isn't one god, but many. An alliance of lesser gods, believers in the Pantheon are free to worship any or all of them as they please. But this worship is transactional: you make offerings, you attend empowerments, and the gods grant you your wishes and make you an Elect. If you are sufficiently devout, they may let you take on their aspects and become a godman. There are no deeper truths, no central doctrine, no exalted virtues. The only good there is lies in supporting fellow believers against outsiders, and bringing in new believers. They have stolen the visage of the Hindu gods and goddesses, but in truth they have much more in common with rakshashas.

The Liberated hold only one law: do as you will. In this sense they are very much like Wiccans. They worship the goddess Namanah, whose blessings allow them to sculpt their bodies into their idealized forms -- or forms for war, depending on her needs. With their code, they are liberated from all cultural, social, and political norms and attachments, and are allowed--even encouraged--to pursue pleasure and hedonism for its own sake. But the Wiccan Rede actually goes: if you harm none, do as you will. And the threefold law warns that whatever you send out, you will receive threefold. The pursuit of empty pleasure is a slow acting poison, one whose fruits will only be seen in the future, but the Liberated's shadow wars against the other gods will have far quicker -- and far more dramatic -- repercussions. You might even say the Liberated are more like theological Satanists.

The Court of Shadows is the church of last resort. To the outcasts, the broken, the pariahs, the desperate, the Court offers sanctuary, protection--and the power to destroy all who have wronged them. For their signature aesthetic, I took the most popular beings in urban fantasy and paranormal romance -- vampires and werewolves -- and smooshed them together in a horrific hybrid. As with the other New Gods, they may claim to extol virtue, but their belief structure only supports their own believers -- and justifies ultraviolence against outsiders. For their aesthetic, the Court stole the mantle of the Catholic Church and twisted them with death and lust, creating a perversion that could exist only in Babylon.

The Void Collective worship no gods. They pursue enlightenment through the complete dissolution of the ego and all attachments to their outside life. They see space-time as an illusion, and with it all matter and all things. The closest they have to an object of worship is the Void. But the Void is not empty; it is full. The Void Collective took a shallow interpretation of Buddhism and weaponized it for its own ends, and in doing so created a hive mind of hollow puppets.

The Seekers of the Way also do not believe in gods. Rather, they wish to become as gods. An alliance of corporations, military forces and security agencies, they seek to understand the powers and the technologies of the New Gods, and use them for their own ends. In doing so, they aim to transcend their fleshly bodies and become something more. They are like Taoists, who seek to become immortal through cultivation of vital energies and strict diets. But instead of following the Tao, the Seekers impose themselves on the world in opposition to the Tao. And in doing so, they court disaster.

With seven factions in play, at least two of them will be in open conflict at any one time, and the rest are deadlocked. If any faction tries to gain an advantage by allying with others, the rest will quickly counter them by forming their own alliance. However, there are so many players that their interests must eventually diverge. Any alliances are temporary and doomed to dissolution, not the least because they are all competing and all believe there is only enough room for one faction at the top. Likewise, any one group that gains a decisive advantage can quickly be overpowered by the rest -- if only because all groups are carefully watching each other to prevent just that.

The New Gods aren't the only gods, of course. There are countless other minor gods in the world, and in Babylon, it is said that there is a god for every man. And in a world where gods walk amongst men, why would anyone choose to believe in an unseen God?

Who would want to?

This is the crux of Babylon Blues, and the answer to that question is Yuri Yamamoto. He who has gone beyond this illusory world, a world of gods and men and suffering, a world that accepts only that which can be seen, and has experienced something... more.

As for what this 'more' is, I'll leave it to another post.

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Babylon Blues may be fully funded, but the campaign carries on! If you want exclusive book bundles with demon-hunting knights and samurai, check out the Kickstarter here!

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