Wednesday, December 25, 2019

(M:tAs) Progenitors

I'm beginning to think that White Wolf may have had a villain problem. First Guide to the Sabbat and now this (well, okay, first this and then Guide to the Sabbat, but my feelings aren't bound by the linear nature of time). Ostensibly, the World of Darkness games are about playing as monsters and then discovering that there can be humanity and nuance even in the things that frighten us. And yet, for a series that is normally about finding the space between black and white, it sure seems weird that each supernatural type has an antagonist faction that is ridiculously, recklessly dark. Vampires struggle with the beast inside them, trying desperately to retain some shred of their lost humanity . . . except the Sabbat, who must drink all the blood. Werewolves must learn to balance their primal fury with the higher aspirations of their reason and seek a spiritual connection to the Earth that uplifts and redeems their bestial natures . . . except for the Black Spiral Dancers, who just want to destroy everything.

But, ironically, the group that is farthest away from traditional monsters, who didn't even really need the White Wolf treatment to be sympathetic, somehow manages to have the worst villains of all. At one point, one of the Progenitors, in-character, praises Nazi concentration camps for allowing them to perform unethical human experimentation, and the only reason I didn't throw the book away in disgust is because the narrator of the fiction was as horrified as I was.

What the fuck is even going on here? The Progenitors aren't one of those nihilist villains that wants to unmake all of existence, but you could be forgiven for thinking they are, based on reading this book. It asks us to imagine every shitty thing about modern medicine, agriculture, and genetic science is not merely a careless side-effect, ignored by a callous ruling class, but a product of deliberate malice. The Progenitors have tainted your fast-food hamburgers with experimental mind-control drugs, but they were temporarily thwarted by those wily Verbena and their subversive veganism - better develop a whole new range of toxic pesticides to dull the minds of the Masses and kill within them the spark of magic.

The position that the Technocracy is meant to embody the evils of capitalism becomes much stronger with this book, but only in a way that makes capitalism itself unrecognizable. The Progenitors aren't really seeking profit, they're just doing incredibly petty shit because it makes people miserable. You know how the media can foster a destructively negative body image in young women? It's because the Progenitors periodically seed pop culture with genetically-engineered super-women made from the cloned cells of Helen of Troy.

I honestly don't even know what to do with this information. Is the book feminist because it acknowledges that toxic misogyny is one of society's great evils? Or does it undermine feminism by giving a complex problem a simple (some might even say trite) origin?

The answer, of course, is "yes."

All-in-all, it's a very 90s style of paranoia. The CDC, the FDA, the insurance companies, even your local corner drug dealer, they've all been taken over by this conspiracy, man. They put chemicals in your food, your medicine, your cigarettes (what, you thought they caused cancer "naturally.") that are specifically designed to make you sick, to keep you dependent on the phony "cures" they sell you at ruinous mark-ups and ensure that you're always too afraid, too weak, and too financially insecure to oppose the government.

There's something there, sure. You could probably thread the needle and make a very sinister organization that did not quite devolve into Captain Planet-style motiveless villains. Progenitors doesn't quite manage it, but it's possible. It's just that sitting here in the 21st century, the whole thing has a very reactionary vibe to it. Not necessarily in its intent, but definitely in its aesthetics. "You can't trust power" segues very seamlessly into "you can't trust expertise." And it would be irresponsible in America to ignore the way that "preference for local control" was often a thinly-veiled disguise for "massive resistance to civil rights."

It's the anarchist's dilemma, really. Ideally people should be responsible both to and for themselves. Centralized authority can't possibly understand all the details and nuances of your particular situation, and thus any rules it makes must, on some level, be better suited to the interests of lawmakers than to your own. And yet, it is often the very indifference of that central authority that works to keep you honest. They don't care about your situation, sure, but they also don't care about your excuses. And that may well protect you from a myriad of petty tyrannies. It is often only your neighbors that care enough to oppress you.

So what's the balance? How do you reconcile the dispassionate justice of distant oversight with the flexible, empathetic humanity of local control? Hell if I know. All I really know is that I have absolutely zero interest in learning about the Technocracy's role in Ruby Ridge.

Progenitors also adds a new wrinkle to the debate about whether Mage: the Ascension is anti-science. It is weirdly ambivalent about the birth control pill. The book refuses to come down definitively over who invented it, but it offers two possibilities. It was either the Cult of Ecstacy, in which case it was "to allow Sleepers greater access to their sexuality." Or it was the Progenitors, who intended to "use these compounds to detect and destroy nonhumans born into the human population."

It's not entirely supported by canon (though it can be hard to tell, with this book's unreliable narrator), but one way to look at it is that the Technocracy falsely takes credit for science. They invent some things, but mostly just those that impoverish, pollute, and oppress. The technology that liberates was either invented by the Traditions or by the Sleepers themselves. The Technocracy was never about science, but about the nightmare of science.

I don't entirely buy it, because the game I remember was often wildly inconsistent on this point. Ultimately, science isn't just an aesthetic, or even a body of knowledge, it's an aspiration - a rigorous dedication to the pursuit of truth through reason and empirical observation. Even to the degree that the Traditions contribute to science through things like inventing birth control pills, they don't really embrace those ideals. The Technocracy doesn't really come close either, what with its deeply counterfactual worldview, but it does occasionally talk a good game. It's tricky - you can't call it "anti-science," because the "science" it is against is barely recognizable, but you can't call it "pro-science" for exactly the same reason.

Although Mage is going to get much deeper into this particular set of weeds before all is said and done. As of this book, the Progenitors are still using spells, the introductory fiction describes their practices in-character as "magic," they can use drugs to shapeshift, and they're prone to breeding genetically-engineered dragon-monsters. It's entirely consistent with the last book, where they were transforming people into magic spiders, but it's also a long way from where they're going to end up.

I can't say that I care much for this vision of the Technocracy, but it's still early in the game's lifespan, so there's time enough to it to evolve into something a bit more comfortable.

Ukss Contribution: Primessence, a terrifying drug that transforms a victim's blood into a glowing magical ooze that mages can use to power their spells. It's a pretty neat image, even if it is evil as hell.

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