Masquerades and re-attribution of man's accomplishments

When writing stories about the supernatural which purport to happen in the real world, there is a consistent problem that needs to be resolved: the fact that the supernatural parts of the world remains entirely nonexistent in any part of the world that we examine.

One popular resolution to this particular problem, common enough that it could very much be its own genre, is to propose that, for whatever reason, that there is some sort of censorship barrier preventing information transfer from the normal side of the world to the supernatural side of the world. More often than not, this censorship barrier has some or all of the following properties:

  • It's one-way; the barrier does not prevent the transfer of information from the ordinary side to the supernatural side
  • It's set up by members of the supernatural side for some reason or another
  • It prevents most or all information about the supernatural world from being transmitted to the ordinary world, but the exact mechanism differs from story to story
  • It requires active maintenance from the supernatural side to maintain
  • The barrier is mostly invisible from the normal world
  • It may weaken at culturally significant days of the year, in particular Halloween
  • It may affect only ordinary humans, with non-communicative animals and plants being able to see through it, at least partially
  • Physical processes generally pass through unaffected, though (and in particular) the propagation of light may be
  • The combination of some of these qualities can result in some fairly interesting storytelling beats, which is why these points are chosen in the first place. One of the more popular consequent details of this censorship barrier is that it is brought up to explain some of the mysteries of the normal world. This can be an elaboration of an existing legend, or the fabrication of a completely new legend. However, the category that we are most interested in for the purposes of this post is the phenomenon where the supernatural conspire to cause an effect in the real world, which eventually becomes a major world event. Such an event would, outside of the fiction, be attributed to some other mundane quality.

    The specific thing that I would like to point out is the fact that there is inherently a bias in the choice of events that can be re-attributed to the otherworldly agent(s). Essentially, only achievements broadly attributed as being positive are typically selected. More marked is non-selection: essentially, almost every human tragedy that results in many thousands dead or more are not selected for such a re-attribution, and this is even stronger if such a tragedy is human-made and recent. It is essentially impossible to proclaim a massacre that happened in the last two centuries to your shadow-realm werewolves or whatever, and every super-villain would disclaim responsibility for them as well.

    The reason behind this is patently obvious once we move beyond the story itself: it is extraordinarily insensitive to do that. I believe it obvious enough that I won't elaborate on this too much further, but in short it is generally considered insulting to have tragedies that involve you and those you identify with be blamed on someone else, and have the real perpetrator of those crimes somehow exonerated. It's an entirely reasonable complaint and writers know this without actually being actively aware of it, so it rarely needs to stated explicitly like that.

    This convention is not without consequences, however. One of those consequences is that the mean "goodness" of humanity is less, because its accomplishments have been appropriated away while its crimes stayed. Overall, this gives an unintentional worldview where Man, in general, is predisposed when unprompted to Evil, again in the general sense, incapable of producing Good without forces beyond his control yet arrogant enough to claim to do so once his hand is forced into producing such. Man did not land on the moon by their own choice, only because some werewolf clan were miffed at the vampires blocking their vision of it, but eleven million corpses were all the fault of humans and modern civilisation. It is just because of the faeries and the pixies battling that caused someone to invent the light-bulb, so whoever it was cannot be credited for allowing people to live a more eventful night; but the werewolves cannot be faulted for people deciding to eradicate other humans simply because they loved different people (as a tabletop role-playing company rapidly learnt in the worst way possible).

    While that is not entirely a deal-breaker, this can become a little bit annoying in a more direct manner. Writers would have to make up excuses as to why their shadowy cabal or immensely powerful villain mysteriously go missing for several random years in the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, I became aware of this imbalance precisely because of this: a notoriously family-friendly story-industrial-complex corporation created a franchise with a powerful antagonist that has networks to produce evil and suffering all over the world, but that antagonist's faction mysteriously decided to limit their presence to Antarctica for the relevant period in time. It's entirely clear why that had to happen, but it was not clear at all why it had to happen solely just by referencing things that the entities within the story can or do know.

    Now that I have outlined this little quirk, the question is of what to do with it. As it always is in writing and especially writing stories, there's no one canonical way to answer this question, (though there are several canonical non-ways to do it, in an interesting anti-symmetry that I have earlier discussed in my notebooks but I may rewrite in text form here) but here are some interesting ideas that I have.

    One obvious non-solution is to ignore the taboo and just do whatever. Owing to the fact that it's not likely to go well, as demonstrated in a parenthetical above, we will skip over it.

    J(51 | 10), the co-natural realm

    A more interesting solution is to alter the concept of the censorship barrier a little so that it now has an effect in both directions, so that the supernatural realm is not so super-, but is now a co-natural realm. I've written it in one of my notebooks J(51 | 10), but the gist is that the natural realm and the co-natural realm are mirror images of each other, with each having secret forbidden knowledge withheld from the other.

    The setting allows the author to make a lot of jokes with relation to the prefix "co-" and the properties of the dual construction (specifically, the dual of the form A: B → C is co-A: co-C → co-B, with co-co-T being T for all T). More relevantly, we can now restore the symmetry and retain key invariants by co-appropriating some co-achievements from co-civilisation to be merely caused by us, rather than the co-humans that are co-credited with it in the co-natural realm. (n.b. it is possible that some of these items are self dual – perhaps a co-achievement is simply an achievement – but we're keeping the prefixes in because it is fun.)

    While fun to imagine and mostly unexplored ground, this solution is of course not without its shortcomings. Some stories simply do not admit such a dual construction to be made without changing some key premises that give the story its identity. Also, co-events are not events and do not have the same weight as events because we, as people who exist, do not understand the gravity and the co-historical co-value of these co-events. Perhaps in a franchise where the co-history of the co-natural can be described in loving and disturbingly comprehensive detail this can be made, but it needs a lot of effort to have the reader understand the implications of co-appropriation as compared to appropriation.

    Just to round off the trio, let me outline a third solution which allows humanity to rightfully retain its achievements: that the attribution to the supernatural forces is actually mistaken, and it turns out that the root cause is just people in the ordinary world after all. The idea is that even though the chain of events pass through the supernatural realm, the root cause is still attributed to the mundane world, and furthermore, one can enjoy some sense of smugness as the supernatural entity claims ownership of the event, only to know that he only knew half of it, and the reality is that the humans did it all along. A large number of variations to this setup can also happen, which I will leave you to think about.

    In conclusion, a cultural taboo made people do strange things that break some simple invariant and caused equally strange behaviour, and I decided that perhaps we can make it less awkward while still maintaining it.