Saturday, 24 February 2018

Azoth: Ray gun as nightmare fuel

Recently having re-read Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, I am drawn to the azoth in the text. It is better and simpler, perhaps, just to transcribe passages of the original text first rather than try to describe the salient features.

'..the other object was shaped like a T. The stem was cylindrical and oddly rough, with a single, smooth protuberance beneath the crossbar; the crossbar itself seemed polished and slightly curved, and had upturned ends. The entire object felt unnaturally cold, as reptiles often do.'

' azoth is supposed to be controlled by something called a demon.'

'There was an unfacetted crimson gem (he vaguely remembered having heard a similar gem called a bloodstone) in the grip. It was too flat and much too highly polished to turn. He gripped the azoth...and pressed the crimson get with his thumb.
Reality separated. Something else appeared between the halves, as current divides a quiet pool. Plaser from the wall across the room fell smoking onto the carpet, revealing laths that themselves exploded in a shower of splinters with the next movement of his thumb.
Involuntarily, he released the demon, and the azoth's blade vanished.'

[All the above from Chapter Six of Nightside the Long Sun - the reader's introduction to the azoth.]

Image result for litany of the long sun
Litany of the Long Sun, containing Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun.
This edition by Orb Books, an imprint of Tor Books.

One take-away from all this is (though, given Wolfe, hardly the only one: the connection of demon and sword is perhaps also notable) the azoth as an interpretation of the lightsaber - a device in a science fiction work resembling the hilt of a sword, with its own power source that produces a blade made of energy that cuts through most everything.

(The quoted passage above only damages a domestic wall; rest assured it can do more. The line about reality seperating ought to be troubling enough without an example of widespread destruction.)

I hardly imagine the azoth just came about from Gene Wolfe watching Star Wars and thinking 'That seems mighty terrifying,' - but that's an angle to take away from it. It is beyond other weapons: we have a notion of bullet-proof or blade-proof: however terrifying a person wielding either might be, there is notion of escape. Not so the azoth: Silk, protagonist of The Book of the Long Sun would rather jump out a window than face one. It's a good way to think of the lightsaber or similar - a manifestation of the power of the Force, in terms of the structure of not the canon of Star Wars: an incomparable weapon, whoever wields it (therefore, let us hope it's the White Hats, not the Black Helmets).

Anyway: the central premise 'This cuts through anything' ought to be absolutely terrifying. 'An elegant weapon for a more civilised age.' Hardly! Swords and slug guns do not compare; the image a blade or built may do is real and conceivable. The azoth is invoked as demonic, otherworldly - devastating in a whole new way. (Of course, in the The Book of the Long Sun it has limits. It is nonetheless terrifying).

I have been casually throwing a few scattered science fiction remnants into certain sections of my Terrae Vertebrae setting of late - I speak of the Qryth. The High Medieval shading through to Renaissance setting of Terrae Vertebrae barely has gunpowder or the printing press. Magic is comparable, but not quite so banal - one has to chant and make mystic gestures, not just pull a trigger and point.

Either way, there are some settings where a ray gun, even a ray gun of the most ludicrous type from pulp science fiction or children's cartoons ought to be new, strange and terrifying. Terrae Vertebrae should be one such setting. The tables below allows for a variety of technological terrors to be produced.

"Tell me, what was the ray like?"
1. "Like a single thread of fire, stretching towards his body!"
2. "A rod of blinding light, a foot in length!"
3. "Nothing that one could see, a ripple of heat haze in the air!"
4. "Forked like lightening and just as swift!"
5. "Rings! Wide rings, like ripples in water! Hanging in the air!"
6. "He pointed, and there was a surge of light - think of that which hangs in the Northern Sky!"
7. "Three thin beams came out - then they joined, like the legs of a stool!"
8. "An orb, the size of a man's fist - moving with dreadful purpose!"
9. "Just as the foam on the tide as it rolls over the shore, so this moved in the air!"
10. "Bright and swift, like the sparks from the forge , leaving such sparks in its wake!"

Image result for sky captain and the world of tomorrow ray gun
Still from the 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
21st Century pastiche, but it gets the point across.

"Tell me, what sound did it make?"
1. "As unto the crack of a giant's whip!"
2. "Like the terrible sound of thunder, from clouds just above your head!"
3. "Its passing was like ten thousand arrows in flight!"
4. "I heard only screams!"
5. "A titanic blade on the grindstone!"
6. "Great and monstrous buzzing, like a swarm of bees!"
7. "High and sharp - a mosquito's whine!"
8. "Hard, vast and unrelenting - a monstrous, tuneless bell!"
9. "Distant, high and hungry, like the eagle of the mountains!"
10. "Like water running out of a narrow drain - everything was being sucked away, displaced!"

Colours  (if you need them)
1. Red
2. Orange
3. Yellow
4. Green
5. Blue
6. Indigo/Violet
7. Brown/Beige [Bonus points to the first person to make a Beige laser pistol terrifying!]
8. White
9. Black
10. "Unnameable and terrible!"

Add Jale, Ulfire, Dolm, Fuligin, Octarine or Garrow in your own time.

All terribly melodramatic or hyberbolic, I know. But they have just witnessed something unreal, world shattering - or at least capable of shattering the substance of the world in a way nothing else can.

1 comment:

  1. Points will be given to the first person to make an edit of Star Wars where lightsabers are referred to solely as 'cut-everything sticks'.