CSI: Necromancy, Part II: Notes on Setting

Posted: January 18, 2015 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

I don’t know, now I got started, I figure I may as well get it all out of my system.  The idea, as I mentioned earlier, was to try to do one of these supernatural-adventure-mystery shows like Constantine or Detective Grimm, but with a feel that was more like CSI or Law and Order (or Bones, I guess), where you’re using these sort of forensic systems and legal procedures to deal with supernatural concepts, rather than every week having to have to hunt a new monster that you Look Up in the Book.

I guess, imagine it like the Deep Space Nine to Star Trek: The Next Generation.  A key difference between the shows, and one that a lot of people liked better, is that in DS9 there was no getting away from the problems that they ran into.  They were here in a place, dealing with communities over and over again, facing certain problems and then the consequences of those problems, and such like.  And imagine it even a little more concrete, where we start the show knowing what different tools we have at our disposal to create and solve mysteries, and if we’re going to create a new tool, we have to 1) know how it works, 2) know why it works, and 3) not introduce anything that we’re going to wish we could forget about three or four episodes down the line.  But THEN, imagine that it’s not just a question of formalizing our investigative processes, but a question of formalizing what the communities are like and how they relate to each other, so that if we are going to introduce a new monster we have to 1) know what it is, 2) know why it’s here, and 3) not introduce it unless we plan to use it again.


The Premise

A thing that’s fine, but that I’m tired of, is “Supernatural Things Are Real, but Secret.”  This creates some good conflicts (like between the main characters and other, non-supernatural authorities, who either don’t know what’s going on, or do know what’s going on but have to pretend not to), but it also causes a lot of problems that I don’t feel like solving (i.e., how come no one has figured this shit out yet?  Seriously, though, for every supernatural monster that the Bros. Supernatural vanquish, there’s got to be like thirty that they don’t even know about, right?  Surely SOMEONE is going to put two and two together).

So, let’s turn it around a little bit, let’s say that the Supernatural is real, and that everyone DOES know about it.  Let’s say this.  About fifty years ago – our universe made contact with the Old Country, a different universe that had magic in it.  Magic sort of bleeds into our universe, making it much more magically active.  About thirty years ago, it became clear that the Old Country, which is fifteen or twenty billion years older than our universe, is basically unravelling.  There’s no monster or conquering force or anything, it’s just coming apart due to natural/supernatural forces, and it started to become unlivable.  Our monsters started making the crossing at that time, and started coming across in greater and greater numbers.

This gives us basically three broad categories of monsters – some of them made the crossing a long time ago, and were living in secret, either alone or in small enclaves, here throughout human history, and serving as the foundation for your assorted myths and folktales.  You’ve also got your long-lived monsters from the Old Country who remember what it was like, and maybe resent the order of this new world.  And you’ve got your new monsters who were born here, since the conjunction (or whatever it was, the change, the meeting, &c.), and are trying to make it in this new world however they can.

You can see that obviously this has a lot of parallels with historical waves of immigration, and I think to a large degree you’d want to roll with that – what would happen if fairy tale monsters started emigrating to the United States at ley line nexus points around the world?  Well, obviously we’d build giant barbed wire fences around them and try to push them back, and we’d make a bunch of laws trying to keep them out, limiting their access to jobs and social services, trying to restrict them to certain communities, &c.

And in response, of course, the immigrants would make their own survival networks, finding ways to sneak through or to get their families across, finding communities where they’d be safe, sometimes turning to crime when legal opportunities were insufficient.  Trying to preserve their culture but also adapt to the new culture, there’d be a lot of internal conflict about that.

That’s all very good; I think you have to be careful using “monsters” as a metaphor for immigrants, obviously, which is why it’s important to me that the supernatural guys don’t all have superpowers or something, they just have different needs, different cultures, different behaviors, &c.  Maybe more like Alien Nation than Grimmsby.

The setting for this particular story is a small town with a real high immigrant population; a lot of them have legal refugee status (America isn’t completely heartless, but, importantly, giving some refugees legal status gives us the moral authority to reject others), many of them don’t.  The town was pretty dried up and dying when the immigrants moved in, and so there’s a lot of townies who resent the changes and the intrusions of the last thirty years or so.  There’s a pretty big proportion of Gentry (elves) – think of them like the exiled Russian nobility after the Bolshevik revolution.  They were all counts and dukes in the Old Country, super-rich and powerful, and here no one gives a shit.  Those guys ALL have refugee status, and are a lot harder to get to when they commit crimes.

(Figure the Gentry, who know a lot more about magic than everyone else, probably cut a deal with the government to exchange information for protection.  Most of the new magic / necromancy schools were run, or at least advised by, the Gentry.)

So, our setting is this small, under-funded police station, trying to solve crimes related to supernatural murders (and sometimes regular murders), in this small town that is a simmering hotbed of tensions between many different groups of people – we’ve got preserved ethnic tensions from the Old Country, class tensions among them, generational tensions among them, generational tensions between them and the humans, race tensions amongst the humans and with the newcomers, &c.  This place is a mess, but also a model for how to start building a multicultural community.

Maybe a good idea is to actually set up two police forces – one for humans, and one for non-humans, so that we can milk some conflict between that, too.  Lots of good hooks for, “we can’t solve this murder because the regular police aren’t sharing information”, for “they’re after a non-human for this murder but the data doesn’t support it, we have to clear them,” and so forth.  Good good.

The Background

What is going on in a place like this?  I like the 30-50 year timeframe for when the change happened, because that’s about the timescale for when computers as we know them were first introduced (around 50 years ago) and when they started appearing in every household (around 30 years ago).  In that span of time, computers and the internet and such have been so thoroughly integrated into modern American society that it’s weird to try to imagine life without them.

What this means is that we can start looking at ways that magic and these supernatural guys have affected culture, but we don’t have to say that this is a disruption that’s so massive that everything would, or ought to become, unrecognizable.  There’s any number of things that might not have caught on in the intervening couple of decades – magic that was only just introduced, magic that the elves are keeping secret, magic that regular people are just plain scared of – so we don’t have to really bother with questions like, “why, if people can make it rain in their backyards, haven’t we just taken complete control of the weather system to end famine?”

So, some ideas.

Vampirism:  Vampirism is like a cross between a disease and a drug that was re-introduced when people started crossing back over from the Old Country.  It works pretty much like old time vampirism works – you end up getting pale and corpsy, you need to drink blood to survive.  Most people don’t survive more than a few years at it; they get increasingly allergic to daylight, increasingly desperate for blood, and end up either killing themselves, getting themselves killed by accident, or getting themselves killed on purpose.  If you DO manage to maintain for a hundred years or so, you start to get other kinds of weird powers.  Otherwise, it’s just mild hypnosis and enhanced senses.

An important thing for me is that vampirism doesn’t make you smarter or a better predator or anything like that and, actually, most vampires are just as dumb and panicky as any other regular individual.  They’re not especially dangerous – an unarmed vampire is more dangerous than an unarmed human, but not necessarily more dangerous than a guy with a gun – but the government treats vampires like they’re all deadly supermen.  Every community has an official Zero Tolerance policy against vampires, and usually a heavily-armed SWAT team devoted to arresting them that ends up killing them at least three-quarters of the time; many communities, especially those with a lot of supernaturals, kind of look the other way when it comes to vampires, as long as they aren’t spreading it around or hurting anyone.

Vampirism, of course, is one of the reasons that people don’t want to let immigrants into the world at all – it’s seen as just one of many different supernatural and monstrous hazards that will destroy humanity and civilization as we know it, that the foreigners are natural predators who only want to kill and eat the rest of us, &c.  In reality vampires are exactly as good, bad, smart, and stupid as every other kind of person; the persecution of vampires and the eradication of vampirism is essentially political theater.

The Gentry:  These are you classic elves – tall, skinny, blond, pretty.  In my imagination they all have hideous monster teeth, though; not like crooked or rotten teeth, but mouthfuls of sharp, jagged teeth, to drive home their alien-ness and the fact that these guys actually ARE predators.  They were the literal top of the food chain in the Old Country, and now they’re here and they’re trying to work their way to the top of the food chain again.  Some of them are better off than others – there are houses that managed to keep their fortunes when they came over, and there are houses that fell on hard times and lost everything.  While the Gentry tend to have a predatory culture, they’re like humans in the sense that they come in all different kinds – some Gentry are very happy to have left behind the old ways and come somewhere where they can start new.  Some are offended by the very notion that they can’t do whatever they want to whoever they want whenever they want.

A lot of them are desperate and poor, and poor, desperate people sell things that they have to get out of poverty.  The Gentry sell magic, though this is tightly-controlled by both the government and the remaining Gentry, to preserve their power (which also means there’s a thriving black market in magic, for what?  All kinds of things – spells to find lost friends, spells to make people fall in love with you; I bet there’s a whole bunch of places you can go where you pay someone to transform you into an animal, right?  It’d be like going to a brothel, except instead of sex you get your body temporarily mutilated with magic).  They sell their own blood, which probably has weird, inconsistent effects that make it hard to track down – someone dies and left a trail of grass growing in their house, maybe they were using certain kinds of charms on their garden too often; a second person dies and his bones are made of wood, and you start to think that maybe there’s a market in Gentry blood around here.

They’d probably have a pretty profound effect on sex-work, too, though not necessarily in the way that you’d think.  They can’t get pregnant, and don’t experience human veneral disease, so that’s one thing.  On the other hand, their bodies are always cold and they have mouths full of razor-sharp teeth, so I expect this would become like a real-specific niche in the escort world.  Still, often-times, what johns pay for is less sex and more the sense of power that sex provides, so I expect the kind of guys that would go for it would be willing to pay a lot of money.

(I expect this is true for a lot of different kinds of supernaturals; I’m not judging, and it’s important to me that the story not be judgmental about sex-work – sex-work is work, it pays money, people do it for the same reason that people work at McDonalds or anywhere else they’d prefer not to work.  People in desperate straits often turn to sex-work, but a lot of this has to do with its illegality and the stigma around it – even the danger that often accompanies it has more to do with its perceived criminality than it does with anything implicitly dangerous about prostitution.  So, what I mean is, in the same way that vampirism looks like a good model for exploring how we try to solve with violence what are essentially public health crises [see: drugs, ebola], the exploitation of supernatural foreigners for all kinds of work but especially sex-work ends up being a good platform to explore how we try to solve with violence and incarceration what is essentially a problem of labor exploitation and prejudice [see actual sex-work].)

Start-Ups:  Let’s figure we’re about at the level where humans are comfortable enough with the existence of magic that it’s starting to be profitable to make a business related to it.  I.e., for example, such as:  a business where you sell rain charms for your backyard, to water your garden; a business where you use, I don’t know, enchanted flax splinters to give people customized deep-dream experiences; professional, private necromancer services who’ll tell you what the last thoughts of your departed loved ones are like; a flowershop that sells plants from the Old Country that will sing under the new moon, &c.  I bet people would pay money to be temporarily “ridden” by a demon, I bet they’d pay a lot of money to talk to devils and things like that.

And one of the things about all of these businesses is that a lot of them are unregulated, and the consequences of those business isn’t clear, because they haven’t been around long enough.  Take that rain-in-your-backyard charm – it seems nice, obviously, but does it have an effect on weather patterns in the area?  Just first, what happens when lots of people start using it, how does it change the weather?  Where does the water come from?  Where does it go?  What does it do to the temperature of the area around it?  But related to that, magic often has repercussions in itself – creating a small rainshower now might curse your family with a drought on the day that you die, and no one realizes that because it hasn’t happened to anyone yet.

I figure there’d be a lot of businesses like this, and they’d mostly be run by humans who don’t a hundred percent know or care about magic, and don’t a hundred percent care about the supernaturals, either (maybe not even fifty percent).  They can be pretty racist and still want to pillage this resource for everything its worth, pretend they figured out what to do with it, sell it for as much as its worth, and then be gone before they’re held accountable for it.  Figure that there’d be an entire secondary language that evolved with this, something really different from your traditional magical vocabulary (i.e., charms, ensorcellment, transmutation, abjuration, &c.), as both a way of making it seem more predictable and controllable, and distancing it from its Old Country origins.

This is simultaneously a platform to explore this language of neoliberal capitalism as a tool for divesting cultures of their roots, and also for exploiting those cultures in a purely profit-oriented environment.  So, there’s interesting questions like, “is it okay to use this magic process that was a part of these koblernigh’s culture for ten thousand years?”  “Well, they sold it to us, so it must be okay, right?”  “Except they HAD to sell it, none of them has any money.” “Then they should get jobs.”  “They can’t get jobs, we’ve created a series of legal and social barriers between them and gainful employment.”  Et cetera and so forth.

Be It Concluded

Man, I had a whole section I was going to do just about characters, I didn’t even get to it, this is too long.  I will put up another post later.  Anyway, you can see that by formalizing the characteristics of supernatural creatures, we can not only generate structural mystery based on systems of clues and expectation, but ALSO we can start to fit them into a thematic narrative about the nature of immigration, imperialism, exploitation, and racism.  This is something that you kind of can’t do when you’re not “stuck with” the creatures in your stories; when you let them flit in and out of the setting according to the need for whatever plot-monster you’ve got this week, you end up having to have to squeeze in all of the relevant cultural background vis-à-vis racism or colonialism or what have you in the exposition of the individual episode.

  1. John Jackson says:

    So the Gentry selling magic, is that like selling a piece of paper with an incantation, ingredients for a spell, or a specific item that has to be constructed by the magic user and powered by his/her blood?

    Does Gentry blood have specific or additional affects for vampires? Maybe temporary access to more magic when they feast on it?

    I love these pieces. It’s basically just, “so when you make a fantasy world tv show, you should think about and build the world *before* you start shooting.” Groundbreaking.

  2. braak says:

    I would actually that it’s probably all of the above, with different amounts of condemnation for the Gentry depending on what kind of thing that you’re doing. So, for example, selling your services to a human and doing magic for them, like constructing a charm or something that they’ve got to bleed on in order to make it work, that’s distasteful (Gentry aren’t supposed to do WORK, for fuck’s sake), but selling the techniques of creating a charm or a scroll or something like that to humans, or partnering with them in one of these magical start-ups, that’s a grotesque violation of the many geasas that govern the behavior of the Gentry, and the kind of thing they’d murder people over.

    I like the rules for magic to be comprehensive (i.e., every kind of magic that we’ve got some kind of referent for in history or folklore has the potential to exist), specific (in that a magic spell does a particular thing; very opposed to “telekinesis” as a signifier or magic power), and eclectic (a magic spell that does one thing can’t do a different thing).

    The blood question is interesting. I suppose it could be anything for vampires, obviously, as long as it was usually the same — I think the thing that I like the most is that it actually quickens them for a while. Instead of being sated and being more alive-seeming the way that human blood does, Gentry blood actually starts their hearts beating, they can feel their fingertips again (vampires can’t feel their fingers or toes very well, due to poor circulation), &c. So, a vampire who regrets being vampired could very easily become addicted to Gentry blood in an attempt to recapture his humanity.

    Simultaneously, there are enormous taboos against Gentry even associating with vampires in the first place, much less giving their blood away.

  3. another raptor in the bushes says:

    I love this concept and Im excited to see that you are digging into this more! This inspired me to start sketching out some panels for a ‘first contact’ prequel

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