City in the Dust: A Story Setting?

I have a growing urge to create a fantasy setting. Where the urge comes from I have no idea but, given my gaming background, this desire will almost certainly take the form of a role playing world. This post is about inspirations and tying them simply into something approaching a coherent whole.

In the far future, the sun is huge, bloated and red. The earth is a desert but for the scattered communities around the former Antarctic circle clinging to the receding shores of the polar ocean. One sprawling tangled ruin of a once great city is our focus. As the ocean slowly evaporates and contracts, the city advances on to the newly dry sea floor, abandoning behind to crumble into dust those portions of the city too far from the water’s edge.

There’s something about this image I that really tickles me. It comes largely from one of H. P. Lovecraft’s “revisions,” a story called “‘Til All The Seas” by Robert Barlow. The story is based on a Robert Burns song, “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose.” I prefer to look to a different song for inspiration, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust, written about Pompeii. Pompeii means Rome and the society of the city thus becomes an analogue of the Eternal City.

The city is a slave economy in which a small number of extremely wealthy families vie for political control of ever-diminishing resources. The gladiatorial arena figures prominently in the social life of the nobility and the struggle for mere survival of the masses. But while secrets and intrigue are games of quiet manipulation, the raw and precarious nature of the world dictates a more immediate manner of competition. This is also a world of the honour duel and vendetta.

We’ve moved here from an image of the world to the mechanisms by which society functions. It is the world of Romeo and Juliet in which the any slight must be redressed in blood. I’m drawn to this idea and I’ve used in before to great effect in a Feng Shui RPG campaign, 9mm Juliet, which mapped the troops of Shakespeare‘s play onto a post-apocalyptic Manga-like setting. But outside the houses of privilege, how does the rest of the world work?

For the underclass, life is nothing more than a grim struggle for basic existence. Farmers scrape the moss and algae from the damp corners where decaying walls butt together or harvest the semi-domesticated grasses of the desert fringe. Hunters risk life and limb to smash the carapaces of the giant insects which dominate the life of this world for their meat. Manufacturing no longer exists. Goods are no so much made as recycled from scraps discovered in the rubble of a once glorious past. Many envy the life of slavery. While the fate of a slave is entirely at the whim of his or her owner, the social conventions of slavery guarantee shelter, protection and a regular supply of food.

This is the stuff of 1930s pulp fantasy as typified by R. E. Howard‘s Kull of Atlantis and Conan stories either directly from the source or moderated through revival attempts in the early 1980s by the likes of Brian Lumley and co. There are those determined to achieve their ambitions regardless of the cost paid by other. There are those who rage against the fate imposed upon them by the natural world and the nature of society. It is a world of deeds rather than contemplation.

So, from an initial and rather shaky image, a world of people and social conflict has emerged. I guess this is nothing more than a simple proof that Jacques Derrida might have been right: everything is always already written (URL). The prioblem now is to find some characters in the world and work out what they want to do.