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Playing Dice With The Universe

Heretics In Spaaaaaace

by Bill Kte'pi
Feb 03,2005

 

Playing Dice With The Universe

Heretics In Spaaaaaace

Last month we talked about what heresy is, and how it might come into play in a fictional polytheistic religion divorced from historical Christian traditions.

But I know what you're wondering.

You're wondering:

What's that got to do with Frederick Jackson Turner?

My, what an out of the blue question! I'm glad you asked!

If you took American history in college -- maybe even in high school -- you probably know who Turner is, but here's a refresher: in an 1893 paper, Turner argued that the most important and formative aspect of American history was the presence of the frontier. Prior to Turner, not much theoretical work on American history had been done -- the germ theory (that all important American institutions were just adaptations of European ones) was dominant, but all in all it just wasn't a subject that was given much thought. Since Turner, there have been various waves of neo-Turnerist and anti-Turnerist thought, and we don't need to worry about them.

The important aspect of the Turner thesis, for this column, is his description of the frontier as a "safety valve." "Whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East," says our Mr Turner, "whenever capital tended to press upon labor or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was this gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier. These free lands promoted individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, [and] democracy." The idea here is that there was so much land -- useful land, farmable land, land you could live off of (or believed you could) -- that the biggest threats to stability in the "civilized" Eastern cities had more motivation to move West than to stay and make trouble. People who were driven enough that they would participate in a significant uprising were also driven enough to seek better conditions elsewhere (and as the frontier stayed in flux for a little more than a century, one generation's potential uprisers were the next's status quo, a timezone to the west). People who weren't driven enough but were still unhappy were, in theory, satiated by the idea of an alternative even if they didn't take advantage of it.

That's one reason why the close of the frontier was important for Turner: it meant that valve was disappearing, or would need to take another form. For the greater arc of American history, places had existed where people who didn't like their conditions could move elsewhere and create new conditions (a large number of American states have their origins in that kind of movement) -- and of course, America would eventually "catch up" with them. The flux of the frontier was just as important: people were constantly exiting the core of the country, transforming portions of the frontier to their own purpose, and being reabsorbed by the national mass.

Now, I'm oversimplifying a lot of this, and the body of literature on the Turner debate is huge -- Turner himself reformulated his ideas constantly over the rest of his professional life -- so the point is just to underline this idea of the safety valve and the frontier. By having a frontier available, both the dissenters and the status quo are satisfied -- and in the case of the American frontier, they're eventually reunited.

The parallel's probably pretty obvious now.

No, heresy isn't a frontier, but the creation of heresy -- the process of continually refining the orthodoxy's theology by microadjustments which paint a picture of the faith through negative space -- can arguably provide the same safety valve benefits. By proclaiming So And So a heretic of Type X -- a Nestorian, a Donatist, whatever -- the Church is not obligated to address So And So's needs; So And So has been placed outside the borders. So And So, in turn, is free of obligation to the Church and can devote energy to formulating his own religious identity rather than to trying to change that of the Church.


Let's go to space

Once again, let's look at a fictional religious institution -- a sketch you could expand for your campaign -- and the role heresy could play in it, specifically the process of orthodoxy -> heresy -> reabsorption. Last month we went to a fictionalized ancient Egypt; this month, we'll head out to space in the far future.

The People Of Their Names have been called that for so long that it's not clear what they called themselves before outsiders labeled them. They are not a race nor exactly a culture, but their religious identity is strong enough that it might be fair to call it "ethnic" -- in areas where The People live, few if any other religions hold sway, and it's very rare for them to migrate to parts of the galaxy where they'd be alone in their faith.

The People comprise thirteen different races -- of which seven compose the vast majority, the remaining four making up only one or two percent of the population. They occupy, for most of their history, twenty star systems -- relatively proximate to one another through jump-gates and other means of faster-than-light travel. The faith favors no one political or sexual system over another, and so the range of cultures among these twenty systems and well over one hundred planets or nonplanetary settlements is vast. The beliefs of The People are simple, and it isn't uncommon for them to be "combined" with others -- The People tell no origin story, for instance, and have no prophets (although there are texts they view as sacred), so these niches are sometimes filled by local belief or borrowings from other religions.

The one thing all The People have in common beyond their religion is language. Originally, The People Of Their Names were a language group, not a religious one -- or perhaps their languages grew together because of their shared faith. Language and faith are deeply tied together for The People -- many of the local beliefs and magical traditions they adopt deal with spoken or written curses, magical alphabets, and the like.

But the central issue of the faith is names. There is a finite number of appropriate names, the teachings say. Each name comes from a saint, who was never mortal but isn't a true god, either -- the faith of The People has nothing to say about gods as other religions speak of them, although some individuals do believe in them.

The saint for whom one is named is called one's namesaint -- logically enough, but in The Tongue (the language of The People) the word carries a dozen nuances. If luck came in flavors rather than "good" and "bad," the word for it might be "namesaint." One's namesaint is one's only representative in supernatural affairs -- not only a guardian, but a Platonic form: the tendencies, qualities, and quirks of a namesaint influence one in ways reminiscent of a Zodiacal sign, but far more complicated. Whole scholarly works are devoted to the study of individual namesaints -- conducting surveys of everyone named "Thed," for instance, and using sophisticated computer analyses to examine their lives, personalities, and so on, to try to distill the essence of Thed-ness.

But life is contextual. Although Theds may all feel a tribal affiliation with one another, they are not at all surprised when they meet and find they are different. If Thed Sjones, a lizard-wing raised by a single mother in a conservation community on an industrial world, and Thed Jmith, youngest tripedal primate daughter of a polyamorous miniclan in the steampunk jungles, are very different, it is only because they have undergone different experiences. At heart, there is an essential Thedness they share: the nature that nurture has shaped.

There is a strategy to naming. Because so much attention -- for at least two thousand years, closer to three -- has been spent on determining the meaning of names, parents choose them carefully. Some feel Theds prosper most in port cities, whether those ports are sea- or space-. Others insist that the son of a Ffed should always be a Thed. These are all beliefs -- old wives' tales -- preferences -- but there is dogma at work as well: the Speakers, who are the religious authorities of The People Of Their Names, keep a list of the appropriate names that are possible to bestow.

Changing one's name is permitted only if one was not raised among The People, and even so it's very rare.

There were originally two lists, one male and one female, but when a closer examination of biology revealed that sex was not always binary among the races of The People -- and that a handful of names appeared on both lists -- they were combined. There is a schismatic group -- not quite heretical -- who remain very upset over the combination, and insist that something precious was lost when Thed the male and Thed the female were folded in together -- that one or the other namesaint now dwells alone in eternity.


The orthodoxy

Last month we talked about heresy in terms of a relationship between an orthodoxy and dissidents, so we need to briefly address more directly the orthodoxy at the heart of The People Of Their Names. The Speakers are present on every world, their specific ranks known only to them and coded into their Speaker Name. Because Speakers represent the faith to The People, it's deemed inappropriate for them to use their real names in public view -- it would reveal what amounts to a tribal allegiance. Instead, every Speaker operates under a unique professional name, one the Central Council -- the governing body of the most highly-ranked Speakers -- determines is not in use.

Speakers can discern another Speaker's rank within moments of hearing his name, but the code seems unbreakable by outsiders; it's been speculated that Speakers use technological assistance of some sort, perhaps simple radio implants that communicate portions of their names heard only by other Speakers. This theory is undercut by Speakers' apparent ability to determine rank even when the name is written down and presented to them by a non-Speaker -- but of course, they have no interest in subjecting themselves to tests, and could well be lying about the ranks in order to remain mysterious.

The People are non-evangelical: they do not actively seek to convert others. But neither are they comfortable in the presence of people who do not belong to their faith, even members of the same race (every race of The People has, elsewhere in the galaxy, members who do not belong to The People; The People originated long after the onset of the interstellar diaspora). Because of the emphasis on names, it's unsettling for a member of The People to be introduced to someone -- other than a Speaker -- with a foreign name. It's difficult to think of them by that name -- difficult even, some People admit sheepishly, to think of them as "people," rather than animals. (Pets are given any old name, from nouns -- Jumper, Dasher, Mayonnaise -- to People names to nonsense words.)

The orthodoxy is essentially concerned with preserving The People's ethnic identity. There is no reward/punishment meme, because one's namesaint is the only supernatural influence on one's destiny, and that influence is inescapable and inevitable. Moral systems are largely left to other institutions -- many cultures of The People have strong, moralistic governments; in others, public education is a much more engrossing experience, and continues for life, with adults attending "lecture" to discuss contemporary issues, scientific developments, and ethical debates.

Most of the time, the Speakers' power goes unused -- but it is there so that they may step in when saintwars bloom, conflicts between those of one name (or more than one) and those of another. Usually one side claims that the namesaint of the other side is evil -- the word more oftenly used is "poison," which in The Tongue has a connotation similar to "curse" or "taint" and shares a root with the words for "cancer," "rot," and "insanity" -- that the poison namesaint exerts his influence through those who share his name, to wreak havoc in the galaxy.

Among the many worlds of The People, these wars -- which do not always reach the level of physical conflict -- rage often, but usually remain local affairs. Several dozen multi-world wars have been fought in the past, all of them deeply damaging. The memory of them helps keep the Speakers in power.


Heresies and reabsorption: the Psmithians

Minor disturbances here and there had always threatened the power of the Speakers and the stability of The People Of Their Names -- with a culture this large, it would be inconceivable for peace to persist unabated. But the first real schism came with Heptens Psmith, a Speaker history remembers by his real name, the one he was forced to return to when the Council removed him from his position. A xenolinguist assigned by the Council to the study of pre-stellar proximate worlds to determine if any of them might be lost colonies of The People, Heptens had plenty of leisure time and little supervision -- and so, while spending months in the field waiting for transport to the next planet, he composed the first of his three vast and densely academic texts on xenolinguistics -- what many outside The People consider the first thorough theoretical works of the field.

Xenolinguistics, simply speaking, is the study of languages from a multi-species/multi-system perspective -- the study of language as expressed across a broad spectrum of language structures, from the human system of vocal cords, lungs, and mouth, to the throat-singing jungle whales of Paar to the sign language of the Colossan stormworlds. Like xenobiology and xenopsychology, xenolinguistics struggles to identify what is integral to the concept of "language" -- what aspects all languages have in common, regardless of the methods used to produce it or the uses to which it is put.

Heptens' first work established him, over the course of a couple decades, as an important -- if dull and dry -- researcher who diligently recorded every nuance he uncovered, and had a knack for synthesizing and organizing data. His second text, though, was brought to the attention of the Council of Speakers -- and within a year, he was yanked from the field and told to explain himself.

He refused to recant his position, mentioned in an offhand manner in an examination of language groups comprised of multiple species: that The Tongue was not the original native language of any culture or race of The People, but had in fact originated as a pidgin -- a simplified language developed to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages -- and had since undergone thousands of years of drift.

This does not appear to be a significant claim, but Heptens further stated that the list of namesaints must be flawed: he uncovered evidence of what he called "lost saints," namesaints who had never been popularized because their names involved sounds which could not be produced by all thirteen of The Peoples' races. He further demonstrated that hundreds of names ascribed to saints were duplicates of each other -- mild variations as a result of linguistic drift and regional accents. In several cases -- most importantly, Thed and Ffed -- wars had been fought between the name-groups in the past.

It was far beyond Heptens' duties, the Council said, to challenge the list and the Council's ability to correctly compile it. When he refused to reverse his position, he was stripped of his Speaker-name and rank.

Many say Heptens had no ambitions, and simply explained his data to those who came and asked. Whatever the case, many People continued to call him Speaker -- and came to him to better understand the list. The Psmithians, as they called themselves, were a major factor in several name-group wars to follow, and elected their own Council and Speakers, who proved far more politically active than their orthodox counterparts.

Eventually -- long after Heptens had died -- one such war threatened the seat of the Council itself, and a four-year series of meetings agreed on a compromise. The list was revised: Thed and Ffed were conflated into the same namesaint, along with hundreds of other pairs, triples, quadruples, and even several quintuples. Riots followed in many cities, but they died down soon, and it was a long time before another name-group war was fought.

The Council does not describe The Tongue as a pidgin, though, but rather as The Language Of The Saints, revealed to The People in some misty era of the past; the fact of "species sounds," language components which do not appear in The Tongue and therefore are not represented in the names on the list, is used as evidence of the namesaints' benevolence: that they have names pronounceable, usable, by all thirteen races of The People means simply that those People have been chosen and elevated above others.


Heresy and reabsorption: the economics of saints

For ages, a popular lay belief among The People -- one Speakers opposed with varying amounts of sternness -- was that just as there is a finite number of namesaints, each namesaint has a finite amount of influence to exert on the world. Often, this belief wouldn't even be stated as such, or not so baldly: but in many civilizations of The People, traditions warn against naming a son after his father, or even after any relative in his father's family -- he will be "too much a pale copy of the original," the superstitions say, or "he will begin his journey in shoes that have already been worn down."

Speaker belief did not admit the possibility of limited-power namesaints -- at least, not this sort of limit (they would speak out against magical traditions that invoked namesaints -- or "the twenty-eight hidden namesaints," whose names were never used by The People -- in order to alter events or attempt to raise the dead). But for the most part, the belief was harmless -- and it would probably always remain so, but many on the Council began to fear otherwise when commercial groups began offering "name determination services," designed to ensure that a name was chosen which hadn't yet been "used up."

Likewise, pressures were brought upon the Council on an irregular basis, even by Speakers, to consider expanding the list of names -- and while these requests took many forms, the Council suspected that the lingering belief in finite power was behind more than a few of them.

So, abruptly -- and unlike the Psmithians case, there was no external conflict to address -- the Council announced that namesaint power was "theoretically limitless, but practically bounded." Under the new theology, the amount of influence each namesaint has is governed by the number of people sharing his name; but it is likewise distributed among that number, and there are diminishing returns in the addition of People sharing a name.

In other words, if the most popular name among the People is Hojn, Hojn has the most influence to distribute -- but the per capita influence is less because of the sheer number of Hojns, and each will receive less than would, for instance, a Mewhatt, the 50th most popular namesaint.

The Council has thus added another level of name-strategy: choosing a name common enough for the namesaint to have significant influence, but uncommon enough that there's enough influence to go around. In the process, they issued stern warnings against "corrupt so-called 'name determination services,' which have proven easily bribed and act only to influence events by placing names where they want them, as though the world were their chess-board." Many planets have since outlawed such services, with no apparent direct urging by the Council.


The People, the frontier: analysis

Is the analogy perfect? Not in the least. The flexibility of Turner's frontier theory in the many other areas to which it's been applied is partly a result of his broad statements -- while elaborations followed, it's much easier (and more fun) to use frontier and safety valve as metaphors than population density.

Nevertheless, whether the analogy will ever hold for real-world situations, you can see how you can use its logic to govern your game's religious institutions: in the case of The People Of Their Names, there are two frontiers accessible by heretics leaving the orthodoxy, one "horizontal" -- moving out of the geography controlled by The People into one where a modified intellectual life may be led -- and one "vertical," moving "below" the attention of the Speakers in the form of simple household belief before jumping "above" them and attempting to usurp similar social powers by offering a service built on a modification of their own dogma.

In both cases, the Speakers and the Council eventually adapted by migrating out to those frontiers and reabsorbing their populations -- letting them keep at least the skeletal structures of what they had built on their own, but reasserting their authority in the process.

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