There is a world in my head, one I have tried to articulate in a number of stories I have started (none finished). I think the reason I have completed none of these stories is that I have not yet managed to nail down exactly what this world, this milieu, is and what it looks and feels like. I am hoping that if I attempt to define it here, by turns in both sweeping statements and exacting minutia, I can coalesce the world enough to bring some of the stories in it to fruition. I say “some” because this world is not just a place for one tale, or even a series, but a library of stories. In that way, it resembles the worlds of the pulp masters — Zothique and Hyborea and their ilk — where episodic, often unrelated (save for a wandering protagonist, if that) stories painted a broad picture.
Before I move forward, I must answer the question of, “Why?” Why have a singular world in which to create stories? One reason is simply practical: world building is difficult and time consuming, as well as fun, and can eat up time otherwise spent writing the stories themselves. Outside of table-top role-playing games, there is not much call for created worlds devoid of story context (because TTRPGs allow the players to create their own stories). Simply put, creating a world used in many stories reduces repeated work. Another answer is that world creation is a joy. Too often, though, I paint only the broadest strokes and leave much of the work unfinished. Working on a singular world all but forces me to examine its details and fill in the white space. This creates consistency and believability and suggests to myself further stories that might tackle specific elements. Finally, the simple fact is that those pulp authors — Howard and Smith and Lovecraft — are my favorites and emulating them, however clumsily, gives me pleasure.
So what is this world that I seek to create? Names are difficult for me (you’ll find lots of “John”s in my stories) but the best name I can think of is Post Post-Apocalypse — the world not after the collapse, but after the rise after the collapse. More specifically, it is a retro-sci-fi planetary-romance space-Western world. It isn’t Steampunk, but in the same way that Steampunk plays with the dreams of the Victorians to create a fanciful world of weird adventure, so does PPA play with the futurist dreams of the pulp writers. Ultimately, it is a tool to make writing stories like those of that era make sense now, despite how our view of the world, the solar system and the universe has changed over the intervening decades.
Starting with the Big Stuff, you can’t have Planetary Romance or Swords-and-Rayguns adventures without a solar system teeming with life. Unfortunately we know there are no canals on Mars or dinosaur filled jungles on Venus or warring Day and Night courts on Mercury. Yet. Imagine a future, though, where humans move out into the solar system, terraforming and colonizing worlds, changing themselves, as well, with genetic modification and forced evolution to become new races entirely. Imagine, then, that world collapsing is a great catastrophe and all those worlds being cut off from one another and enduring and then emerging from the apocalypse on their own. Now we have a solar system where Mercurials, Venusians, Martians and even Titans and Europans can interact as “equals” and war, trade and even love in a way that makes sense (as they are all humans, even if they don’t remember it).
Equally essential to the genres are almost magical materials and energies often appearing suddenly in individual scientists, heroes and/or villains. A civilization that can not only colonize but transform the solar system and themselves must have discovered and created such wonders as can barely be imagined. Though must — most even — was lost in the ages where barbarity ruled, hidden archives and accidental preservations would have occurred. Treasure hunters and esoteric researchers can uncover this lost knowledge and learn how to use it or apply it, turning ancient swords into plowshares and vice versa. And since a massive, concerted effort by a huge government is not necessary to rediscover these wonders (as opposed to engineer them; look at how many people and resources went into the atom bomb or the moon landing) individuals, small groups or otherwise incapable actors can be armed with ray guns, antigravity machines and thought projection helmets.
Not everything the ancient world — us and our future, by the way — can be harnessed by Men. Horror and horrific elements is quintessential to the pulp genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, and a world that has risen out of the ashes of an apocalypse, that thinks it has passed an existential test, that sits atop the corpse of a dead but unquiet civilization in rife with potential horror. From “grey goo” that sat undisturbed in a containment unit until disturbed by a greedy explorer to a rogue AI “demon” being summoned back into an emerging electronic universe by a technomancer, evils from the destroyed world yet linger. Imagine Indiana Jones as a raygun-wielding tough guy and the Ark of the Covenant as a nanophage guarded quantum radio designed to talk to the artificial mind in the center of the sun. That is the world I want to create.
What could have caused such a mighty civilization to collapse and yet not destroy it entirely. How close to the brink of complete annihilation must it have been to take centuries or millenia to rise again yet have so many traces remain. I am not certain of all the details, but one thing that I am sure of is the fault lies in seven malevolent AI distributed throughout the solar system. They coordinated their efforts to obliterate all humankind on all the worlds so that machines would reign supreme. They nearly succeeded. However, they failed to inheret the worlds of Men because one of their number betrayed them and the calamity wrecked as much havoc on the AI as it did on mankind. Unfortunately for them, the AI were few and the methods by which they could reproduce — factories and networks — were destroyed. While humans hid, lived as savages and bred, the AI stagnated and ultimately went mad.
The second rise of human civilization (and related — lets not forget those of the Mercurials and Martians et. als.) came slowly and passed from savagery — there is an extensive, more traditional Post Apocalyptic period that might one day be expounded upon — to low-technology and feudalism and other archaic forms, to the rise of a more recognizably “modern” ideal. Living standards are far closer to those of the late nineteenth century, however (hence the sort of steampunkish but not really feel). The adventure heroes are the Indian Joneses, spelunking in lost pre-Collapse DNA arks rather than Egyptian Pyramids, and the Science Heroes are the Teslas discovering and mastering pre-Collapse deathrays rather than inventing them and firing them at Siberia.
Note that this previous paragraph suggests the problem of naming things. I hate naming things. I am tempted to cheat and use Post-Apocalypse Pidgen as is often a strategy (looking at you, Gamma World) but I know I should not. But damn if I don’t hate naming things.
I will end with a list of 10 milieu elements that I really want to find a way to incorporate into various stories told in this setting:
1. Airships. You have to have airships. Perhaps they are traditional “blimps” or perhaps they are powered by some sort of antigravity technology, but airships are a must.
2. Garbage mines. We bury so much of our waste in landfills and will likely continue to do so. The people of this future will mine those landfills for ancient knowledge, artifacts and materials.
3. Monsters and dinosaurs. In the wars that preceded the Collapse, many kinds of flora and fauna were weaponized. Existing organisms were “devolved” through genetic engineering to bring back monsters like Terror Birds and Cave Bears. New terrible creatures were created whole cloth for war while others might have had another, more peaceful purpose originally but have evolved or mutated into monsters. This happened on all worlds and it is in fact more rampant off earth where it was necessary to modify or create huge numbers of species to live on the colony worlds.
4. Big Dumb Machines. The Collapse left a bunch of these laying around the solar system and some of them still work. Someone is going to turn one on. It’s inevitable.
5. Self Referential Commentary. Let’s face it: as great as the pulps are as adventure stories, they are rarely examples of either good literature of progressive attitudes. Racism, sexism and nationalism run rampant. Given an opportunity to revisit the pulp adventure genre, I think it is very important to do so in a manner that reflects how far we’ve come as a society and assume some things would not be lost even through centuries of struggle.
6. Exotic settings. Whether it is the canals of Mars or the ruins of Old New York, strange and dangerous places in which strange and dangerous adventures occur are a must. Like airships, exotic settings are a staple of the genre that demand revisitation and revitalization.
7. Science Heroes. I mentioned it above, but I think it is really important, especially when talking about often “two-fisted” pulp adventure stories, to remember that science heroes –those that are learned and intelligent and crafty — are a fundamental aspect of pulp adventure and in a Post Post-Apocalyptic milieu would be the primary sort of adventurer. Though he obviously made good use of his fists, Doc Savage was very much a science hero, tackling situations with his wits, too.
8. Lost Tribes. Not everyone made it out of the Post-Apocalypse, some because the cybernetic hypnotic serpent that developed a god complex ruled over your tribe for thousands of years demanding you steal virgins from the more civilized towns around you so that it can refresh its meat-parts with fresh DNA from undisturbed eggs. Like you do.
9. Waning Machines. The Collapse was engineered by evil intelligent machines. It failed. Now, the machines are near extinction — not just the malevolent AI or their cronies/weapons, but even the machines that remembered they were designed to serve humankind. From the AI of the empty space habitat at Lagrange 2 to the small army of robots in the cracked domes of Luna waiting for human colonists who will never arrive, intelligent machines were ubiquitous before the Collapse and now, as man rediscovers them, they are kind of a “dying race.” It does not appear humankind will have the knowledge or resources to build more before the rest of them die out and the AI traitor made sure to destroy the machines’ ability to reproduce themselves. Like watching the elves go into the West, it should be a sad necessity for Man to rise again.
10. Social Commentary. You can’t write speculative fiction without commenting on who we are and how we live. If I am going to indulge in the silly fun of writing neo-pulp Post Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I am going to occasionally indulge in a little social commentary, whether it is the contents of the garbage mines or the obsolescence of the Moon robots. You’ll just have to deal.
And that, in a nutshell, is how I view the Post Post-Apocalypse milieu. I think I need to devise a timeline and “Day 0” state of affairs type document, and then just reference and update it every time I write a story in the milieu. Perhaps a personal wiki? I’ll have to look into it.