Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for Zothique

Z is for Zothique, the setting for many of Clark Ashton Smith's stories. And it is pretty fitting, in that while Amber (and the "A" position) deals with the supposed center of reality, Zothique represents very much for the end of the world.

Zothique is the last continent on Earth, set in the far, far future when our world of today is long forgotten. Our skyscrapers have fallen and turned to dust, our cities have burned and the ashes scattered, the names of our nations and leaders stricken from the monuments and those monuments eroded away. It is set in the Last Days, when today, with all of our achievements, has been forgotten.

Zothique did not start the Last Days genre, though. That honor tends to go to William Hope Hodgson and his The Night Land, which posits a dying universe and last redoubt of humanity, protected from the dark monstrous forces without. But Zothique took that concept and added a good does of fin de siecle detachment and decadence.. The world is coming to an end, and we are on earth's last continent, but the inhabitants meet their doom with a general ennui to the entire proceedings. Our world of today is completely forgotten, its lands dunked into the oceans and returned a number of times. It has that existential bleakness that nothing remains of our proud towers, and the hubris of modern man is laid low. But to the inhabitants, it is neither the past nor the future that concern them, but rather the task of surviving the present.
A map of Zothique, from Wikipedia, which then
points out where it differs from Smith's descriptions.

It is also a sword-and-sorcery sort of world in the Hyborea tradition, with a number of tropes that continue on to other works, as if the middle ages technology was sort of the bottom of where a civilization could fall and still be interesting. There is no gunpowder but still swords. There is magic and gods, but these may be the relics of advancements in our future, or forgotten knowledge which has returned now that the stars have finally come right.

These properties seem to have stuck with this particular subgenre - the bleakness, the ennui, and the D&D period thinking. We have Vance's Dying Earth, Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time, and  Gene Wolfe's New Sun series all sharing this bittersweet dying of the light, of the universe winding down, of the Earth's own end.

I haven't seen a lot of Zothique-style games. Gamma World and its post-apocalyptic kin benefit from recognizing the map to some degree (a GW proposal I had involved "The Settle" (Seattle), with its capitol at the Kingdom (Kingdome) which was allied with the Frees of Freemon (Fremont) against the Reds of Redmon (Redmond) and the robots of Bot Hell (Bothell). Dying Earth from Pelgane Press captures the humorous tone of the Cudgel novels well. But probably the best system that captures the feels and flavor of a world where our world is forgotten is Monte Cook's Numenera. Set in a period where, by rights, the earth itself should have been destroyed, its very beaches are made of crushed cities and swarms of nanotech blow on the wind.

Zothique has a circularity to it, that the far future will merge with the far past, providing a desperate unity to the universe. It is from darkness we came, and it is ultimately darkness that we must reach at the End of the Universe.

More later (well, maybe after a break - all this daily blogging stuff has been a challenge).