The internet has an amazing capacity for creativity. While unbridled optimism about the ‘information superhighway’ should probably be left back in the 90s, I think it’s undeniable that this medium has enlivened our collective culture. In particular, I would point to the way that it’s allowed people of various niche interests to come together, and turn what would otherwise be a few eccentric musings into a viable hobby. To give an example of my own, it’s thanks to the internet that I first managed to dive into the field of alternate history, a genre which continues to inspire me greatly. It’s something I’m genuinely thankful for.
Today, I’d like to briefly discuss another instance of internet-based fiction, one which is well worth experiencing for both its form and substance. As I alluded to in my title, this’ll be a piece of cyberpunk fiction. By itself, that’s nothing new; the cyberpunk genre has experienced a bit of a renaissance thanks to big-budget entries like Cyberpunk 2077. Personally, I’d argue that the best examples of contemporary cyberpunk have been the indie works that live in the shadow of such giants, from Hard Wired Island to Citizen Sleeper. But beyond these relatively well-known entries, there is another work of great quality. A cyberpunk setting you haven’t yet heard of. Hence this piece!
Now, naturally, my first encounter with this work was on the internet. More specifically, I was browsing the Sufficient Velocity web forum, mostly as a way of exploring its alternate history narratives. Then, through the force of sheer serendipity, I chanced upon a narrative in the subforum focused on ‘quests’. This latter format was key to its creation, and it inspired me greatly when I first learned of it. Rest assured that I will write more about it someday. For now though, what matters is that ‘quests’ are a kind of collective role-playing exercise, where forum users work with the ‘quest masters’ to develop either a character or an entire civilization. In this case, I had hit upon an example of the latter. Its name is For The Tyrants Fear Your Might.
Now, as a work named after the second line of the Internationale implies, this quest does not shy away from left-wing radicalism. That alone would be reason enough for me to love it. However, it’s the setting’s overall context which makes it all the better.
As I noted in my piece on the genre, cyberpunk to me is essentially marked by the notion of accumulation. Its core supposition is that the advent of new technologies such as biomodification or artificial intelligence will not fundamentally alter the ruling social order. Instead of resolving any of the existing contradictions of capital, the cyberpunk future only piles more problems on top of it. Its accumulation of societal decay is simply unceasing.
As a piece of cyberpunk fiction, For The Tyrants Fear Your Might perfectly exemplifies this concept of accumulation. Its main story is set about two centuries hence, at a time when capitalism has colonized the stars through a network of interlinked wormholes. Most of this colonial effort is run by the ‘Charters’, vast corporations who rule their frontier fiefdoms like states onto themselves. While humanity is nominally united under the ‘Solarian Compact’—a kind of overgrown UN with a malapportioned parliament—it is the power of Capital which ultimately reigns supreme. Individual Charters may rise and fall, the party in government may shift between the PHRL (big government conservatives) or the JDAP (small government liberals), but the system as such is considered unassailable. That’s capitalist realism for you!
What makes the societal stagnation of Tyrants even more absurd is that all the great technologies we associate with science fiction have been realized in this setting. Immortality is as easy as a few injections, biomechanical augmentation allows for a massive degree of morphological freedom, and nano-scale ‘fabricators’ are nearly as capable at matter replication as anything in Star Trek. With all this potential splendor, it seems ridiculous if not impossible to think that a capitalist economy could prevail. But this is intentional.
To explain the paradox of poverty at the heart of Tyrants, one must realize that scarcity has always already been a social structure rather than a material fact. It is a method of allocation, whereby the privilege of having one’s needs met is proportional to one’s closeness to political and economic power. In the case of capitalism, it is class position which ultimately matters, as this represents one’s right to capital’s profits. And if such a distribution seems woefully inadequate, if not unsustainable, then one should remember the role that violence plays here. Any necessity can be gatekept, just so long as an enforcing class stands ready to resist the osmotic pressure of justice.
That said, it is not as if the possibility for revolution is absent altogether. As a good man once said, tyranny requires constant effort, and the world of Tyrants is no exception. Indeed, in stark contravention of cyberpunk convention, the quest itself starts out with a revolution. On the frontier world of Radiant, a Charter planet built on the tourism and entertainment industries, the teeming masses of service workers have just overthrown their corporate masters. As they arrange themselves into a new democracy of councils—a soviet democracy, one might say—they face the challenges that naturally come with being the lone island of freedom in an ocean of tyranny.
Here is where the real game begins, an amazing exercise in collaborative writing, and one which is still going strong after more than two years of play. Because of the quality of its plotting, a typical example of both the danger and beauty of revolution, I would not wish to spoil anything more through my appraisal. Suffice it to say that this work is well worth your time and participation.
If I am to say anything more, it will be on the various background materials related to this setting. When the quest began, it was really only the immediate vicinity of Radiant which was known to the players; much of the rest of the galaxy (along with its history) was shrouded in darkness. As it’s gone on, however, this darkness has been clarified, an effort which has resulted in a gargantuan amount of worldbuilding. Its overall style is one of simultaneous absurdity and misery, of the kind which only a drastically accelerated form of capitalism can deliver. Still, without spoiling too much, there are pearls of hope amidst this ocean of horrors. Many of them are found in the recesses of its backstory. Consider, for instance, that it was due to a left-wing revolution in the Americas that climate change was ultimately turned around; unfortunately, when this “Democratic Federation” was finished saving the planet, all they got as thanks was a Charter-backed takeover. Thus it went for all the other almost-revolutions in this setting. Every time the capitalist ruling order got close to being toppled, they got lucky. To anyone who’s familiar with real revolutionary history, this pattern is awfully familiar.
Still, it is this constant tension between hope and danger which makes Tyrants so interesting. If you need any more reasons to read it, consider this: halfway through the narrative, there is a particular Event which causes everything to be thrown into turmoil. Indeed, it forced the authors to spend several weeks (and tens of thousands of words) on its implications alone. Safe to say that it is one of the most riveting things I have read all year.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention my own modest contribution to this work. Since its start, the authors have encouraged player-written submissions; naturally, I could not resist. My self-appointed mission was to fill one of the last great gaps in the Tyrants repertoire: political economy! In their description of future revolutionaries, the authors always emphasized the usual suspects: anarchists, Marxists, Adamists…wait, Adamists? What are those? This is the question I set out to answer. Along the way, I wrote a whole fictional biography for “Stella Eve Adams”, the chief ideologist of the coming two centuries. If you’re curious to know what kind of theory someone would come up with in this setting, and what its most important or eccentric outcomes could be, then all you need to do is read my posts. Have fun!
With that, I think I’ve said my piece for now. If I’ve not convinced you to check out Tyrants yet, I’m not sure what would make the difference. Maybe the way it turns orcs and catgirls into real ‘augmented’ demographics? Or else the way it depicts future England as a nationwide theme park? This world is filled with fun details like that, along with the space to add some of your own. So join us, why don’t you? Let the tyrants fear our might!