10 September 2011

Last Resort Challenge #1

Reposted on new blog at http://dynamitochondria.blogspot.com/2011/09/last-resort-challenge-1.html.

It's time for the first try at the Last Resort Challenge. So let's pull down three books and get cracking.

First component: from ISMs: A Compendium of Concepts, Doctrines, Traits, and Beliefs: Hyperpituitarism, the glandular condition that triggers growth disorders such as giantism and acromegaly. I need to look up that last one. [...] OK, it's like giantism but mainly in the extremities and usually adult onset.

Second component: from the Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions: Flying Ointment, made by a witch and smeared on the body to gain the power of flight.

Third and last component: from the Dictionary of Theories: Group Theory. This one is in the book twice, and I happened to stab my finger on the Politics version rather than the Physics version. In Politics, Group Theory states that individuals and whole societies are not significant political actors. Rather, groups of individuals interact and negotiate their priorities and platforms, and from this process emerges policy.

OK, this could be tough, but I already have the kernel of an idea.

The word witch is a loaded term with a ton of cultural baggage. In stories, witches tend to be separated from society, operating solo or in small groups, figures of fear and superstition. It's reasonable to assume that their impact on societal policy is minimal. But it's not as simple as that. As a feared or possibly hated group, they've been driven out of the main social groups, but not wiped out entirely. Why? Because witches are frequently portrayed as the source of counsel and aid not commonly available, such as the classic love potion or the secret answer to the troll's riddle.

Since I drew Flying Ointment above, you can probably guess that I'll focus on the specialty products of the witch's cauldron over their information services. Witches of folklore and other story turn out a varied array of substances to produce extraordinary effects. Unguents, potions, oils, philters, powders, and ointments from the hand of the witch cause the subject to fall in love, stride seven leagues in a step, breath underwater, or fly through the air.

These unusual abilities stay unusual in most stories, and there's typically a reason for it. Either the witch's price is dear, or powerful societal censure would result if anyone found out. Frequently, both of these cases are in effect.

So the witch's customers have access to the resources to pay the witch's price, meaning that they are likely the more politically power members of society. They are also secretive, though they always assume no one will ever find out. That makes them ripe for a blackmail scheme, but what if the witches had something else in mind?

The typical witch's product is ingested somehow, whether by drinking, breathing, rubbing on the skin, mixing with food, or what have you. So suppose the witch's craft were advanced enough to sneak in some side effects, such as a subtle glandular codition, something that takes a period of years and multiple applications to produce obvious symptoms, such as elongated extremities or some other easily noticed feature. Then it becomes obvious who the most frequent consumers of witchcraft services are.

If the condition can be suppressed with yet another product, the witch has the wealthy patron over a barrel. A high price can be demanded, perhaps changes in policy, or the suppression agent will be withheld. I mentioned above that political group theory holds that policy is the result of negotiation between groups of individuals, and this is a form of negotiation. But what if the witches have something else in mind?

Over time, consumers of a witch's services would find the services indispensible, an advantage over their rivals, a way to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles. The witch's services are indispensible, but the witch still lives in isolation. Suppose rather than blackmail, the witches have organized and have decided to pursue societal revolution. Rather than blackmailing their customers into acting as their political proxies, they force their customers to live with their new physical features as a brand, a scarlet letter, and obvious mark of the witch's services for all to see.

It's a risky scheme, and in the short term the witches are likely to weather some level of cultural backlash, but there is the potential payoff of making it clear to the larger culture that their services are highly valued by the societal elite, individuals that many wish to emulate. In time, the negative connotations of witchcraft may fade, and the witches might be accepted into mainstream society, just another group contributing the interaction and negotiation to create and establish policy.

So there's my first post on the Last Resort Challenge. I'd hoped to come up with a better title, but the post turned out to be at least somewhat about the process of combining the components, so the brute force title stays.

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