An Immodest Proposal

This blog has recently been turning more and more into a political-ranting blog for me, which is not something I’m particularly pleased by. However, it’s mostly because comics at the moment are stupefyingly dull. Oh, that’s not to say there’s not good stuff out there – I’m still reading five or six new comics a week at least – and I’m looking forward to Batman & Robin, Williams on Detective, and the new Wednesday Comics thing – but nothing excites me and calls me to write about it.

So since I don’t want this to turn into “What Andrew’s Angry About Today”, I thought I’d suggest a project. Those who’ve known me a while will know that I have a tendency to start grand projects which don’t get finished, and there’s no guarantee this will, but I thought I’d give it a go. A few years back, when I was still on LiveJournal, I tried to start a community to create a fictional ‘universe’ which anyone could write stories for. Tilt came up with some great stuff about the Wars of the Roses, Gavin R made some interesting suggestions about the English Civil War, my late friend Pete Fenelon came up with an alternate rock-music history for it and I repurposed a (frankly terrible) superhero story I’d started writing for it, but then it all petered out a bit.

What I thought was it would be fun to resurrect the idea (and if anyone who was involved previously wants to join in again, I’d be very glad to use their old ideas or any new ones) and put together a collaborative collection of short stories set in the same universe. That way any story, from fanfic-with-the-numbers-filed-off to experimental modernist narrative, would be given a deeper context.

If anyone wants to do this, what I’d like to do is for participants to write a few stories on their blogs if they have them, and I’d set up a wiki page for ‘factual’ details about the universe. If it takes off, we could do a book of the best stories through a print-on-demand service like Lulu. I’m hoping for a result something like Temps, the Superman-meets-Yes-Minister short story anthology from the 80s.

Would anyone be interested in taking part? I’m addressing this especially to the people I have linked on my blogroll, but if anyone else wants to get involved, it could be fun. It wouldn’t have to be stories either – could be news articles or blog posts from the alternate universe.

As a basic guide, here’s the original ‘proposal’ I wrote five years ago. This is essentially unchanged, so therefore awful, but I think it could do as a starting poinf. What do you think?

The idea here is to find a way to tell any story anyone could conceivably want to do, using the same shared-world backdrop. I think, as an initial idea, that the further away from ‘Now’ we get, the less like the real world it should get. Likewise the further away from the dwelling-places of the likely readers we get, the less like the real world. Inventing a new African country (a la Wakanda in the Marvel Universe) is a lot more ‘plausible’ to the average reader than inventing a new US State or county in Wales. Which is not to say we can’t do those too, but they should be thought about more carefully.
This is only the REAL basics so far…

The way I see it, we have a series of civilisations that rise and fall, leaving little or no trace.:

Prehistory – Dinosaurs. Do they have a civilisation at all? That could be interesting.

The Stone Age. This happened as many people imagine it from films and TV and so on, people living in caves and hitting each other with clubs etc.

The Age Of Heroes. We have a prehistoric Heroic Fantasy setting here, with elements of both Conan type stories and more Tolkeinesque stuff going on. Dragons, Elves, Wizards, Dwarfs etc all milling around doing their thing. This goes on for several thousand years. I think that each civilisation should go through the five stages from Illuminatus! – Chaos, Order, Confusion, Bureaucracy, Aftermath. This would allow us to do both traditional heroic fantasy and Discworld style satire of the Beauraucracy stage.
Atlantis also sank around this time.

Biblical times/Egypt/Greece/Rome – again, pretty much as people imagine them. Feel free to create as many pharaohs and emperors as you want, or to mess with the timeline as much as you like.

King Arthur – this is to the Age Of Heroes as the Renaissance was to Ancient Greece in our world, and should be played as such. The Arthurian times end around the same time as Robin Hood existed, give or take a few hundred years.

The Middle Ages exist mostly as a setting for Shakespeare’s plays.

The Victorian era onwards should happen more or less as it did in real life. There were more gangsters in the 1930s than in real life and superheroes started appearing then too, but in general life remained pretty much unchanged for most people. By the mid 18th century most of the more odd animals (vampires, trolls, talking gorillas and so on) had retreated to obscure parts of Eastern Europe or Africa, and people had essentially stopped believing in them.

‘Now’ is pretty much like now today, except that the level of technology in some ways is more advanced. Teleportation and time machines might exist, but if so they’re prototypes only, most people haven’t even become aware of their existence, and they don’t make much difference to people’s lives. There’s a colony on the moon, and another on Mars, but again these don’t really enter into most people’s thoughts.
Superheroes exist – there have been ‘mystery men’ since the thirties, and a few powered heroes since the 60s. There are nothing like as many of them as there are in superhero universes, however, and while superteams exist, people wouldn’t expect them to make any real difference to the world.

Roughly 20 years from ‘now’ we have FTL and first contact with alien intelligences. A hundred years or so from then, there is a nuclear war which devastates most of the earth. However, a few billion people by then live off Earth, and so while the Earth becomes uninhabitable for a while, except by a few roaming tribes of mutants and suchlike, it’s eventually repopulated, and becomes one of the centres of the galactic Empire.

The Empire itself goes through two separate phases. In the time of growth, it’s high-concept space swashbuckling, a la Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers, with jumpsuited heroes battling evil space dictators and saving the girl. Later on, it settles down into a more sedate empire, a la the Federation in Star Trek or the empire in Foundation, except with multiple sentient species (humans, vampires, trolls etc) from Earth as well as aliens.

Eventually, the empire crumbles, humanity is reduced to almost nothing, and the Things under the sea, which have been guiding humanity for millennia through The Conspiracy (which involves every conspiracy idea ever) come out. Their breeding program has produced some very tasty meat…

There will be whole alien civilisations too, as well as beings from other planes (faerie, Heaven, Hell and so on). There is one ‘true god’, but that god has multiple aspects, each of which have multiple identities which can interact, thus allowing elements from any major mythology to share the same stories.

I’ve not included here the ideas from anyone else, as I’m not sure they’d want me to, but this should give people an idea. Anyone want to join in?

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23 Responses to An Immodest Proposal

  1. Alix says:

    Ooh, now this sounds interesting. I have a medieval universe-ette of my own I have created and am trying to tell a grand story in, without much success so far (two years, 60,000 words and have I got a plot? I have not). Being constrained into telling a bit of it as a short story might be just what I need. Although caveat I have read very little sci-fi and that would show in the writing. I am much more your straight down the line real world fiction person. But then, what’s real about the Hundred Years War?

    • Sounds great… the last thing I want, truth be told, is people who are overly familliar with genre stuff. Most genre fiction, and most genre fiction fans, is/are shockingly unimaginative. I don’t want this to be ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘horror’, but a collection of stories with ideas – which might individually resemble one of those categories, but will not collectively do so. If you see what I mean.

      I don’t want to do something that’s like the million Star Trek spinoffs or Tolkein clones or bad Batman comics, don’t worry…

    • And after posting that I look at Twitter and see you’re recommending Neal Stephenson books. Stephenson’s stuff is exactly the kind of thing I *do* want to do… a mix of historical fiction (Baroque Cycle), cyberpunk (his first few novels), contemporary thrillers (Cryptonomicon) and parallel-universe SF (Anathem) but all driven by the same very strong underlying ideas…

  2. Alix says:

    Aha, then that’s exactly the wavelength I like. I’ve read Cryptonomicon as well and tried the Diamond Age, but didn’t get on with it. I am a bit genre-focussed to be honest, but on history/fiction hybrids rather than sci-fi. In my worst WHSmith-at-train-station moments I will generally pick up anything involving upper middle class people and a dark family secret concealed in the 1920s.

  3. Debi Linton says:

    So no steampunk?

    I’m mentally having a look at the original character sets (to say they have stories would be to imply I can plot in the slightest), and I know that the actual filed-off-fanfic I have growing won’t work because it’s about the world, not the characters (and the world doesn’t really fit in this). But I’m thinking my blind ex-superhero would settle into the world nicely.

    I need a plot for her. But I’ll write up the backstory I have growing first.

    • Oh, Steampunk’s OK, so long as nothing makes a *huge* change to the world. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where it’s still recognisably the late 19th century, but with Professor Cavor and Nemo and so on running around.
      Any great technological changes then couldn’t have ramifications that are *too* wide-ranging, but if, say, the first man on the moon wasn’t Neil Armstrong but a Victorian gentleman in a steam-powered “balloonless aeroship” then that’s absolutely fine…

  4. Zom says:

    Nnnh, always like the idea of joining in creative ventures, but given my blog commitments and the fact that I keep threatening to start writing a novel I just can’t justify it. Energies devoted here would be better devoted elsewhere, I’m afraid.

    Sorry

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No problem – I’d probably have said the same were the situations reversed (I’ve been trying and failing to write a novel too…). I’m amazed that anyone’s said yes, to be honest…

  5. pillock says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure…I’m the guy who starts crosswords on the biggest word, so it’d be hard to resist screwing with the totality of the thing in some way…

    But…

    It occurs to me that the blighted Earth period could be host to a more Jack Vance-style milieu, the trolls and the vampires, etc…then when your Second Empire comes along they could move out across the stars, but keeping a very low profile. Then possibly a Third Empire phase, fully decadent, fully decrepit, when they become more visible? Before the final crumbling.

    See, biggest word, that’s me. But it does give me an idea, actually…

    Will let you know!

  6. Zom says:

    Should just add that I like the mixture of content hereabouts

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. I don’t though – I always prefer being enthusiastic to being angry. I’ve just not had much to enthuse about for a few weeks…

  7. Hexar says:

    I’m looking forward to Batman & Robin, Williams

    Something about that was just a bit funny to me.

  8. sean witzke says:

    Uh mayyybe? I’d love to do it but a) I’m kind of swamped right now and b) I think it would be more interesting and do like, a short story or two after the world had been established, so I kind of know the universe’s rules a little bit more intimately.

  9. pillock says:

    Right. Okay. It’s fun. But I doubt I will want to put it on my blog. I would much prefer it if you, Andrew, made a separate blog-space for us to goof around in…call it Universal Fictionblog Space, and moderate it, and put links on the sidebar. And then those of us who’ve demonstrated a willingness to contribute, can be subject to your very freewheeling editorial function, in that strange sub-universe.

    Yes, I’ll do one…if I can require Sean W. to do one to follow, and then you to bat clean-up on it, and return the whole business to homeostasis…because mine’s going to be very good. Yes, it will be fun, and it won’t cost much…but to make it go at all, *you’re* going to have to do one, Andrew.

    J.G. Ballard died. It would be extremely poor form to refuse writing projects now. Paste huge letters up against the sky…refuse nothing. Do everything. I am already working on one. I challenge the blogoverse to do better than I.

    Let’s have a J.G. Ballard “Conan The Barbarian”. Let’s ask Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Marv Wolfman to participate. I’m going to do two stories.

    I’m all up in crazy right now. Ballard. There’s no time to waste. Never was such time.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Great stuff… I’m not sure about an editorial role – that’s something I’ll have to discuss with people – but that’s precisely the spirit we need…

      • Debi Linton says:

        Well someone needs to take on an editorical role, if only for consistency within the universe.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Fair enough then. I would have expected people to be slightly opposed to the idea of an editor, but if one’s actually *wanted* I’ll do it…

  10. The wiki sounds like a really good idea. It would make it easy to link all the “factual” stuff together and help people to collaborate. People with not much time on their hands could just put in little bits and other people could expand them if they wanted to.

    Why not put the stories on the wiki too? It would be convenient to keep everything in one place and it would make it much easier to link between stories and background info. For example, the first time a character is mentioned in a story you could link to their biog page, and the biog page could link to all the stories that they’re in. Of course authors might not want just anyone messing with their stories, but you could protect those pages, and maybe put stories in their own namespace to show that they’re special. There could be a rule that authors can’t change another author’s story, but they can insert links to related pages.

    Could be a very interesting experiment in using wiki technology for fiction.

  11. Oranjepan says:

    I’m interested but I’ll sit back and read it instead. Last time I completed a writing project I wrote a parody of the Iraq war and called it Carry On Invading (the country was called Randia, as if you care).

  12. pillock says:

    Ooof, came back down to earth with a bump…

    But yeah: I think an editorial role of some sort would be welcome. “Moderator”, perhaps…and story-wikis, it’d be a new experience for me at least, and I think it does sound like fun.

  13. darquehex says:

    Did anything ever come of this?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Afraid not. I started having some health problems around this time, and nobody had the mental energy to take over running it. Shame.

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