A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Nine)
By Mark Wegierski
FASA (another major company) had earlier supported the sci-fi miniatures system, Vor: The Maelstrom, whose premise was that evil energies had broken the Earth up into a twisted shell, and a few humans clung precariously to survival.
One of the flagship RPG systems of FASA is Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine (originally released 1989). Shadowrun is mainly based on the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, however, it introduces a further twist on the theme. There is the introduction of so-called metahumanity (elves, dwarves, orks, trolls), all manner of other creatures of legend (dragons, etc.), and of the possibility of magical practice for most beings, including normal humans -- into a high-tech, gritty cyberpunk world. The setting's premise for this evolution is an upsurge of an enormous wave of magical and occult energies around the year 2011.
Some might suggest that our own world today is one "where man meets magic and machine." There is a burgeoning of the most fantastic occult tendencies today, combined with surreal advances in technology. Shadowrun may both point to an increasingly dystopic world, as well as possibly offer some aid in understanding the parameters of such a future, under siege from both the hyper-irrational (the occult, conspiracy-theories, extreme forms of popular music), and the hyper-rational (hyper-technology, socio-technical controls, and corporate/bureaucratic rule).
Among the interesting supplements to Shadowrun, is the London Sourcebook (1991), which portrays Shadowrun's vision of the British Isles. Much of England and Scotland are covered by toxic waste areas. On the fringes in Wales and Scotland, magical forces have increasingly taken hold. Wales is a large Elven center, while Tir Nan Og (Ireland) is under the rule of the Shidhe (pronounced "Shee") (the elves).
There are at least four aspects of this sourcebook that could be seen as reflections on longstanding aspects of English character.
First of all, there is the notion that the use of magic is tightly controlled and licensed. This parallels the fact that today and traditionally in Britain, guns are very tightly controlled. (One remembers the line from Sting's classic rock song, "An Englishman in New York" - "takes more than a license to own a gun.")
Secondly, there is the office of Lord Protector (which seems to be an especially favored title in many sci-fi scenarios). It could be argued that a term like Lord Protector is too-antique-sounding for this type of background. Also, it is historically associated with Cromwell, who presided over the execution of Charles I (on January 30, 1649 – 365 years ago) so it can never in fact coexist with the monarchy, or with traditional aristocratic titles, as it uneasily does in this background.
Thirdly, the hypothesized British society is portrayed as one with all manner of class-intricacies, and of various inter-class, inter-ethnic, and "interracial" (humanity and metahumanity) rivalries. Ironically, given the wrenching effects of the posited hypertechnology and the flux of magic, the hypothesized Britain has emerged as seemingly more traditionalist than it is today. It must be said that the notion of "young Elven aristocrats" is a rich conceit, one perhaps that can be appreciated even more if one has had some actual contact with English notions.
Fourthly, in the fashion common among the British Left, the actual nature of the rule by privileged families (the condition of England for much of its earlier history) is said to be far different than it appears on the surface. The authors of the supplement have taken great relish in "revising" the now-prevalent notions of Elves in the conventions of fantasy, derived most obviously from Tolkien. In a sense, they are returning to a more traditional view of Elfin nature. (It is interesting that in many dictionaries, elf and goblin are listed as synonyms.) While the Shadowrun elves largely retain qualities of physical attractiveness, it is obvious that many of them are "racists," and that (at the extreme) they are plotting genocide. In a not entirely resolved contradiction, the quasi-Masonic organization that is led by the English Druids, is actually an advocate of pure-human chauvinism. In the supplement, this "new Freemasonry" is seen as extremely powerful in Britain, far more powerful than the actual Freemasons would appear to be today. It has sometimes been argued that in Britain (as opposed to the Continent), Freemasonry has operated as a right-wing, conservative force.
If the Elves are portrayed as at least somewhat sinister, the picture of Orks and Trolls is also highly "revisionist." The conventional view of these creatures in the fantasy genre is also derived heavily from Tolkien. In a rather striking twist on the familiar theme, while the Orks' and Trolls' physical appearance remains rather grotesque, they retain entirely normal intellectual and emotional traits (though perhaps somewhat prone to emotions). Thus, they almost invariably become an oppressed proletariat -- others typically judge them by their appearance, not by their character and worth.
One could mention here the Shadowrun-related product, High Tech & Low Life: The Art of Shadowrun (1997), which has an interesting written introduction, followed by virtually all of the art that had appeared up to that time with the Shadowrun products.
Another RPG product of FASA, Earthdawn, gives a prominent role to "The Horrors" in its portrayal of a fantasy world. Earthdawn had been passed on to another company quite some time ago.
The other major intellectual property of FASA is the BattleTech universe. This portrays futuristic combat based around so-called "Mechs" (huge, human-crewed war-robots – for which the generic term, derived from Japanese animation, is "mecha") set in a universe of warring feudal Houses and Regiments. These space empires are mostly European (Russia, Germany, and Scotland) and Oriental (Japan and China) inspired societies.
FASA announced in January 2001 that it would be closing down by April 2001. However, its two main creations, BattleTech and Shadowrun were transferred to Wizkids LLC. Wizkids has come out with the hugely popular miniatures collectible game – MageKnight, and is owned by the son of FASA's chief executive (the son was also a co-founder of FASA in 1980).
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.