Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Brief History of the Rockiverse

I bring you news from the distant future of 1979...


A Brief History of the Rockiverse

An excerpt from the forthcoming Rock Opera '79 RPG by Doug Anderson

Legends speak of an ancient global war against evil that goaded humanity into pursuing any possible technological advantage over the enemy. Jetcraft, compustats, health pills, and mech-men were among the fruits of this effort, but their contribution to the war effort paled compared to achievement of harnessing the destructive power of the atom. With this new weapon, the war was won, and an age of peace and prosperity was ushered in.

Atom City and the New Frontier

Atom City rose from the ashes of the global conflict, a shining metropolis of chrome and glass, where every citizen could park his cherry-red aerocar on the penthouse roof of his sky-rise apartment, freed by robotic labor to work a four-hour day and spend his leisure time on the putting green, in the pool, or listening to stereophonic record discs on the family high fidelity audio console.

Beyond the city was The New Frontier, a cratered landscape ravaged by the war, now slowly being colonized by military bases, planned towns, robot farms, and factories. Atom City’s best and brightest spent their days working to settle The New Frontier and push the limits of scientific knowledge even further for the benefit of all.

The Iron Curtain

At the edge of the New Frontier lay the belt of fortresses and defensive walls known as The Iron Curtain, encircling half the world. Behind it lay an enigma whose nature could only be hinted at. A few wanderers claimed to have escaped from a repressive, brutal land beyond the curtain, ruled by a shadowy cabal that was preparing for world conquest. In response, the soldiers of the New Frontier kept watch on the walls and strengthened their own defenses. The specter of invasion from beyond the wall has been ever-present since.

SIBIL

Day to day decisions and allocation of resources within Atom City were made by a huge compustat named SIBIL (Synthetic Intelligent Brain, Infallible Logic), a massive machine at the heart of the city that told you when to water your lawn, when to buy milk, and which shoes went with that dress. SIBIL was programmed by its creators to minimize danger and disruption and to maximize leisure time and tranquility. For most of its citizens, Atom City had ushered in dream world of comfort and convenience, monitored by SIBIL’s million electric eyes and ears.

Heaven and Its Discontents

But not everyone bought into this dream. Here and there, either in the shadowy lower levels of Atom City or in the wastes of the New Frontier, small bands of discontents sought ways of living that traded safety and comfort for primal, sensual experiences and greater freedom of expression. Some rode super-powered bikes along the megastate highways, seeking escape in noise and speed. Others took up paintbrushes to splash and spatter canvases that defied conventional tastes, or repurpose electrically-amplified instruments to play angry, raw music. Still others spoke of unplugging SIBIL and restoring a human hand in the functioning of government. Their protest rallies were small at first but grew ever larger, as bored young citizens joined the discontents. Their music became a unifying force and medium of protest for the discontents.

SIBIL was not pleased. The subroutines that generated editorial commentary in the city’s newspapers expressed displeasure at the ingratitude and indecency of the discontents. They soon found themselves shunned by their neighbors and barred from public spaces. And if an errant walk signal happened to lure a discontent or two into oncoming traffic, or the traffic system steered their air car into a mountainside, then SIBIL could not be blamed for trying to minimize danger and disruption for the city as a whole. New triumphs awaited.

A Certain Major Key

Out on The New Frontier, scientists from Atom City had developed the war’s primitive rocket technology into a vehicle that could propel a pilot into space. The idea of opening The High Frontier to humanity became a public obsession. When SIBIL chose the first astronauts, they became instant celebrities.

Major Timothy Key had outscored everyone on SIBIL’s index of courage, skill, decency, and telegenic good looks. True, at 40 he was a bit old for the rigors of space, but no one doubted his fitness. His ascent into space in a tiny capsule atop a flaming rocket was watched by millions on the televid.

Major Key’s first words from space were not those that SIBIL had scripted for him. After a minute of dead air, he said, “Oh… the… joy…” and began to laugh. He was giddy, ecstatic. Regardless, he performed his mission perfectly, and soon his capsule was drifting back to earth beneath a huge parachute. He was still giggling when they unbolted the hatch and pulled him out.

The Elysian Field

Was it oxygen deprivation? Side effects of the stimulants he had been administered pre-flight? Only after studying the readouts from the on-board sensors did an answer emerge.

There was something out there — an unknown form of energy — that permeated all of outer space but was blocked by Earth’s magnetic field. Its effect on Major Key’s consciousness was to free him of all limitations and fears and allow him to experience absolute happiness and full consciousness for the first time in human history.
He had discovered what became known as the Elysian field.

Back on earth, within the cage of the planet’s magnetic field, Key’s consciousness soon returned to the impaired level shared by his fellow citizens. He yearned to feel whole and happy again. After a few halting, embarrassing interviews on the televid in which he struggled to explain his experience in orbit, Key was relieved of his duties. He bought a motorcycle and hit the roads of the New Frontier, looking for what he had lost.

Subsequent space flights were made in capsules and spacesuits that shielded the crew from the Elysian field. These sober astronauts quickly mastered near-space and made plans to leave their footprints on the moon and Mars. The red planet had other plans.

Red Planet Blues

Mars had cooled from the maelstrom of the early solar system sooner than its sunward sisters. Complex life came to Mars long before it arose on Earth.
The red planet, too, possessed a global magnetic field, generated by the tidal effects of a large moon that churned the planet’s interior.

The first sentient beings to walk the rift valleys of Mars were, at least in terms of gross anatomy, roughly human. Their climb from hunter-gathers to spacefarers was longer than ours would be, spanning tens of millions of years, hampered by a scarcity of useful metals and petrochemicals. When they at last scraped together enough material resources to send their first astronauts into space, they encountered the Elysian field and returned to share their mind-bending discovery with their fellow Martians. To bring the Elysian field to their entire race, their rulers attempted to gently manipulate the planet’s magnetic field by gradually moving the Martian moon to a more distant orbit. In a global catastrophe, the moon disintegrated under the pressure of repulsor rays sent from the Martian surface, bringing down a rain of meteors and leaving in place only two sizable fragments in orbit, far too small to exert enough tidal force on the planet’s interior to keep it molten.

The planet’s magnetic field sputtered out as the molten interior cooled. The Elysian field now reached the surface, but few Martians remained to enjoy it. They had brought happiness to their race at the cost of a doomed planet. Mars slowly became a cold, nearly airless desert bathed in harmful radiation.

By the time of Major Key’s historic flight, millions of years later, a handful of Martians remained alive to pick up his radio transmissions. It gave them hope of salvation, that the vigorous Earthers might come to set things right, but also made them fear for their young neighbors, who might make the same apocalyptic mistake in trying to bring the power of the Elysian field to their planetary surface. Should the Martians contact Earth, or wait for humans to cross the gulf of space and discover them? Based on what the Martians had gleaned of human history via radio and televid broadcasts, some feared the chances of Martian survival outside of a zoo were slim if humans ever met them.

Timothy Key, Rock Messiah

Major Key knew nothing of this as he cruised the New Frontier searching for peace of mind. One evening, passing by a music hall in an old mining town occupied by discontents and other squatters, he heard a driving beat and a pattern of chords that brought back to him, in small measure, the brief happiness he had known in space. Upon entering, he saw a band playing noisy electrified instruments over a pounding drumbeat. The locals called it “rocket music”, or “rock” for short, and despite their meager lives, it made them happy and full of life.

Key’s scientific curiosity awoke in him a desire to discover what lay behind the phenomenon. He stayed on and studied the physical nature of rock music. It seemed that the electrified instruments, when played with sufficient skill in unison, dampened the Earth’s magnetic fields sufficiently to allow some leakage from the Elysian field to reach the planet’s surface. Like Prometheus, a rock band could bring down the gifts of heaven to humankind.

On the New Frontier, rock was already spreading among the discontents. The rockers embraced Key as a visionary, and their movement took on the aura of a spiritual quest for freedom. Rock shows spilled out into the streets, and drew thousands of weary Frontier laborers looking for rest and renewal.

Elysium

What followed was a long summer of harmony and good feeling, as a virtual nation of rock sprang up overnight along the New Frontier. Dubbed Elysium, it became a magnet for discontents everywhere, to feel the sense of well-being and freedom that only rock could deliver.

The Rock Laws and the Revolt

SIBIL responded by first restricting, and then outright banning the playing of rock “in the interests of safety and efficiency.” It became a crime to rock. Now the discontents had something concrete to rail against, and their outlaw rock shows became huge rallies condemning the citizens of Atom City as dupes who had traded their freedom for a humdrum life ruled by a soulless machine. The televids showed scenes of the sprawling camps and muddy fields of Elysium accompanied by disapproving commentary, but the attempt to discredit the movement backfired and drew many young residents of Atom City into the fold. Major Timothy Key was their messiah, and “Unplug SIBIL! Free the City!” was their cry.

Wishing for everyone to share in the nirvana they had gained, the youth of Elysium marched on Atom City, millions strong, to ask that the thinking machine responsible for the city’s functioning be shut down. The majority of city dwellers opposed any changes, and many pointed out that without the omnipresent, eminently logical presence of SIBIL the huge metropolis could not function, and chaos would result. For its part, SIBIL had determined that if it was unplugged it could no longer fulfill its mission, and so turned the city itself against the oncoming rockers, using remotely controlled aerocars, cargo vehicles, and service robots as troops, augmented by the more extreme anti-rock citizens. Major Key pleaded for peace, but the mood grew ugly and turned into a full-fledged street battle. Key himself disappeared during the conflict, and rumors about his fate have circulated ever since.


Atom City Divided

The Rock Revolt ended in stalemate, with the rockers in control of the darker, aging lower levels of the city, and the citizens secure in their skyrises. SIBIL retained its function as master of Atom City, and rerouted traffic so that loyal citizens of the upper city could be resupplied by air. Their lives were comfortable, but circumscribed by the besieging rockers below, where living conditions were grim. The reduced industrial capacity due to unrest on the New Frontier lowered the standard of living for most citizens. A black market sprang up and enriched a few enterprising hustlers who could circumvent the official supply channels to smuggle in luxury goods.

Disco Discovered

SIBIL’s ears heard citizens grumble about the happy existence of the rockers and wonder why they, too, couldn’t be eternally happy. The machine ran simulations that showed Atom City would harbor a growing number of disgruntled citizens who might be willing to bargain with the rebels, or defect outright. SIBIL’s response was to develop artificial fields that could mollify and sedate the unhappy members of city society. The city’s engineers found an alternative beat and form of instrumentation that could simulate the euphoria of an Elysian field. It was named “disco”, short for “DISCONTENT SUPPRESSION FIELD”, its official nomenclature.

Soon, disco palaces were erected around the city to provide for the happiness of its citizens, who happily danced and partied around the clock. Disco became a welcome relief from monotony for some, and an obsession for others. Unlike a natural Elysian field, disco energy is truly addictive, and its ability to induce euphoria comes at a cost of dependence and mindless obedience to the music. By subtly manipulating the field, SIBIL was able to pacify the upper city, which acquired the name Disctopia, to distinguish it from the lower city, now called Rocktopolis.


Abdication

The hustlers who had been profiting from the rift between the two halves of the city were finding they could only accomplish so much with SIBIL still in charge. As ever, the electronic mastermind was programmed to provide safety and tranquility, and could still order the arrest of criminals or suspend their financial activities. Maddeningly, SIBIL was beyond their reach, in a secret chamber beneath the lower city, so well hidden that the descendants of its creators did not even know where.

And then one night, SIBIL withdrew from most of its functions. No one knows whether it was a machine error, sabotage by hustlers or by discontents, or even a rational decision made by SIBIL itself, but in any event, much of the city ceased to function overnight. A period of panic and unrest followed. It was as if the hustlers’ wishes had been answered. In the absence of SIBIL, they could rule the city.

Rise of the Discocracy

One hustler, known only as The Man, was able to gather power faster than his rivals, whom he either took in as underlings or eliminated. The remaining oligarchs became known as the Discocracy, with The Man as their director. They became the de facto city government, controlling food and power distribution and enforcing their will through a menagerie of human and robo-mechanical minions. They maintained order by restricting access to the disco palaces to disloyal citizens and banishing their enemies to the mean streets of Rocktopolis. Their rule is nearly absolute.

The engineers of the Discocracy are hard at work on technology that could strengthen the planet’s magnetic field to the point that not even rock could penetrate it and channel Elysian energy to the surface. If they succeed, it could doom rock forever.

The Now

And so, old Atom City is now two worlds, high and low: above, the glittering but not very gracefully aging skyrises and penthouses of Disctopia, with a no-man’s land of gates, black markets, and checkpoints separating them from the dim, clammy depths of Rocktopolis below. A decadent, ruthless elite feeding off air-delivered goods from distant robot farms and factories, while in the lower city, the masses struggle for basic supplies of food, water, and energy. The Discocracy profits from the gradient of misery between the two halves, with The Man firmly in charge, said to dwell in the highest penthouse of the city.
The once-unified members of the Rock Revolt are now split into warring factions and gangs, their horizons narrowed, their dreams unrealized. Here and there, the spirit of rock remains, played in unsavory bars or blasted from the rooftops. A few legendary rockers from the old days are still around, and there is a new generation of rockers who wish to take up guitars and drums and bring down Elysian pleasures once more. Some have even penetrated Disctopia‘s defenses and defied The Man with guerilla rock shows, to startle the citizens of the upper city out of their disco-induced haze, or to battle the Discocracy’s minions and other means of absolute control.

The Unknowns

These are the essential mysteries our heroes will face:

Can the Discocracy be overthrown and the two halves of the city be reunited through the power of rock?

Who is The Man and why does he wield such power?

What really happened to Major Key? Rumors persist that he is still alive.

SIBIL’s secret chamber has never been found. Is the machine broken, dormant, or hatching some byzantine but eminently logical plan to save the city?

What societies, tribes, and factions are out there on The New Frontier?

Will the Martians ever make contact? Have they already done so secretly? Astronauts are preparing to reach Mars — will they find evidence of Martian civilization?

What’s behind The Iron Curtain? Is there a sinister empire, as rumors tell, or something else together?

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