Sunday, October 11, 2015

Azathoth the Microbiologist

So, the big reason that I haven't been posting is that I've gotten a new job as a wine microbiologist (during the busiest season) and have been moving.  A new location = no regular D&D group = less time spent thinking about D&D = fewer things to blog about = cosmic, ineffable sadness.

So, while I do have many things to blog about (a small backlog exists) I think it's appropriate to start with the one that is closest to microbiology.

this bacterial art by Eshel Ben-Jacob
We grow bacteria in Petri dishes.  We do this to study them, but more often we do it to (a) see if they were present in an original sample, (b) because they produce some chemical that we want more of, or (c) they're transgenic and we want more copies of their edited DNA.

One of the most striking things about the whole process is how inefficient and indirect the whole thing is.  Want to know if there's E. coli in this jar of cat vomit?  You can throw it under a microscope, and yes, E. coli does show up as cute little spheroids. . . but half the shit that you'll see inside cat vomit is going to show up as cute little spheroids, which makes certain identification pretty impossible.

So then you usually take the cat vomit, put it in a selective media that only E. coli can grow in, and then see if any cute little spheroids grow in that.  The problem is that selective media isn't perfectly selective (you'll get some things growing in it that aren't E. coli) and besides, there's lots of variants of E. coli that probably won't grow in it anyway, so you get false positives and false negatives.

You can also melt all the bacteria in acid (or at least, lytic enzymes) and look at the DNA you find in there, but that's getting away from the fun realm of historic microbiology and into the modern fold of molecular biology.

Inefficient and inexact.

It's a little bit like being a park ranger and trying to manage a park from a space station.

Park Manager: "You there!  Telescope monkey!  Are there any beavers in the park that we are managing?"

Park Ranger: [peers in telescope] "Well, I see some brown blobs that are moving around and are approximately beaver-sized.  So, it's possible.  But they could also be coyotes or komodo dragons."

Park Manager: "We need to know for certain, dammit!"

Park Ranger: "Okay.  I'll just use the tractor beam to pick up a cubic kilometer of the park and drop it on an island that I sterilized just this morning.  Then we'll drop anti-canine bombs and gas it with a plague that will kill all lizards.  We'll look at it again in 5 years and if we see more brown spots moving around, then we know for sure that it's beavers."

Senior Park Ranger: "You rookie.  Just pick up a cubic kilometer of the park and centrifuge it.  If there are any beavers in the park, there will be gnawed trees, and gnawed trees sediment in a different layer than un-gnawed trees."

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

What if our world (or a fantasy world) was merely the petri dish of some vast, unsympathetic alien intelligence?  What if humanity has been seeded (or at least cultured) for some ineffable purpose?

For shorthand, I'll refer to this vast, cool, and unsympathetic intelligence as Azathoth.  He's our nine-dimensional alien researcher.

What is Azathoth like?

He is Very Very Big.  He is also Singular, in the opposite way that we are plentiful.  If he has peers, they are outside our scope.  He operates on a different scale.  His experiment might take a billion years.

He can see things we cannot see.  He knows things that we cannot comprehend. He has no way of communicating any of this, and no inclination.

He has very bad vision.  He has a hard time telling us apart from other animals.  Hell, he has a hard time telling us apart from our environment sometimes.  He identifies us indirectly; if he wants to check for our presence, he might use sterilization methods that eliminate all non-human life.  Or he might dye us--black rain that makes all humans begin astral-vomiting up black stuff.

He is immensely powerful.  Killing all life in the universe is the work of a moment.

His twin weaknesses are precision and perception.

He has anticipated our escape attempts.  We have countermeasures against the best that microbes have to offer (durable endospores, dispersive spores) and Azathoth has a similar relationship to us.  We cannot build anything that can resist his sterilizations.  We cannot escape the boundary that he has defined for us.  (In a sci-fi setting, perhaps something prevents us from leaving our planet or galactic cluster.  In a fantasy setting, perhaps something prevents us from leaving our plane or local set of planes.)

He is fallible.  Despite being powerful enough to kill a dozen universes before coffee, he still fucks up.  Laboratory contamination happens all the fucking time due to imperfect technique and shitty equipment.  Bacteria ends up where it isn't supposed to.

His first tool is isolation.  He cuts us off from environments where other humans live.  He keeps us away from environments where we can thrive.

His second tool is sterilization.  When things go to shit, Azathoth sighs, throws the whole thing in the autoclave, and starts growing a new batch of colonies from frozen stock.

Most of his tools are crude, indirect, and inefficient.  Most of them are going to result in a lot of people dying.  He might grow up a billion humans across a thousand years, and then figure out if there was sentient life on the planet by boiling our oceans and measuring the aggregate suffering it causes.

He depends on us to thrive.  He depends on us to die.  If a microbiologist introduces some yeast into a new, rich soup of nutrients where they can grow without interference, I can imagine those yeast being grateful.  I can imagine those yeast worshiping the microbiologist for his benevolence.  Those prayers will turn to curses and lamentations when it's time for flame sterilization, though.

He cannot hear us, and even if he could, he probably wouldn't care.

We slip through the cracks.  If there are dimensions and planets and planes where we are supposed to be, there are also going to be places where we end up, but aren't supposed to be.  These are facultative environments.  These are the bacteria that grow on the lab coat's coffee stain (at least until it goes to the cleaners).  Humans in these places are escapees, who might have a better grasp of what is going on, but they are also probably going to be places that are very hostile to our life.  They might have competing organisms (motherfuckin' displacer beasts and shit) or simply not have much air or something.

We cannot hurt him (unless he fucks up).  But its an interesting idea.  What if human sentience is pathogenic?  What if we're a disease state in the interdimensional milieu?

Everything we do helps him.  Microbiologists depend on yeast acting like yeast.  Pretty much anything humans do is going to be "acting like a human".  But this is more ambiguous. . . unlike yeast, we can self-sterilize.  The only effective act of defiance might be to kill ourselves entirely.  Spit in the eye of god.

We are the center of the universe again (and this is the big difference with the standard Lovecraftian worldview).  Like in the Christian worldview, the universe was literally created for us, except where Jesus loves us and wants us to be happy, Azathoth sees us merely as a tool.  (This doesn't mean Azathoth is evil.  He might just have a higher concept of happiness than we do.  Perhaps his satisfaction is as elevated above our happiness as our happiness is above a yeast cell's metabolic contentment.)

What Does Azathoth Want From Us?

He might just be checking for proof of our existence.  Maybe he created a whole bunch of universes (or planets) and will return later to see which ones support intelligent life.  He'll take some notes and then implode our stars.  Or maybe he'll return after all the suns have gone out, and sift through the ashes of our civilizations, looking for traces.  (Perhaps his return will flash-carbonize everything in the universe, rendering direct observation impossible.  Best to give your colonies time to grow up and leave lots of remains.)

He might be interested in something that we produce.  We've engineered yeast and bacteria to produce all sorts of fun chemicals.  But what would sentient creatures produce?  Thoughts?  Emotions?  Souls?  Perhaps the end result is sentience itself.  Perhaps Azathoth returns after the apocalypse with a crude soul-ladle the size of a galaxy, which he dips through the various afterlifes until he harvests about half of all the souls there, who were looking forward to spending eternity in their afterlife of deposition.  (He only harvests half, because his methods is shitty and inefficient.  Some of the souls spill out into the void between worlds.  Other souls remain stuck to the ladle.)

He might just be cultivating us.  We could be a stock planet.  Culture a sentient life form on a planet for 4.3 billion years (or however long the incubation takes) then return and parcel all of the humans into 100 different microdimensions.  Some of these microdimensions full of humans will be put into storage, some will be sent to colleagues, some will be sacrificed for analysis.

What Environments Can We Explore?

There's going to be a lot of portals.  This is the end of the pipette tip--this is how Azathoth transfers us to a new dimension (where we might thrive, or might die horribly, depending).

Mass Kidnapping Via Portal - These aren't passive portals that sit there waiting for you to go through it.  These are huge things that slurp down oceans, rip up kingdoms.  These are mega-tornadoes that suck a million humans through at once.  They might appear simultaneously over all the major cities.

Lots of people will die, true, but this is to be expected of Azathoth's crude methods.  After all, he only needs a breeding pair of humans to establish a new colony in whatever dimension he deposits us in.

This might actually be a good starting point for a campaign.  Or, the starting point of a setting's calendar.  (Dibs.)

Pleasant Environments - When Azathoth wants us to thrive, he will introduce us into environments guaranteed it.  Expect heaven.  Rivers of milk and honey are not out of the question.

Horrible Environments - These are places where Azathoth is trying to kill things off.  He might be trying to kill all non-humans (sorry elves), or kill all humans.  This selection can be environmental (temperature, nutrition) or biological (organisms that specialize in killing humans).

Expect environments where there is literally nothing to eat that isn't horribly poisonous.  Poison planet?  There might even be a place where all the amino acids are chirally reversed, so although it looks like a normal place with normal food, you'll starve to death stuffing your face with their bread.

Worshippers of Azathoth - He put us in a land of milk and honey after we were sucked through a wormhole by a nine-tentacled super-tornado.  He must be a nice guy.  Let's all count down until the next portal opens.

Cryo Storage - Some cells are stable pretty much indefinitely when you keep them at -200 degrees Celsius.  These could be ice planets (with no nearby sun), flash frozen in the heyday of their civilization.  They could ice planets that froze slowly, apocalyptically, with a few viable humans locked away in their cryovaults.

(It's possible that Azathoth may grow civilizations up simple to ensure that they have some method of surviving his storage methods.  When you store civilizations by freezing them, it helps if your civilization is advanced enough to develop cryo-banks, vaults warmed by nuclear power, or magic-derived stasis.)

Or you can get away from that boring snow and start thinking about the much more interesting concept of temporostasis.  People locked in time like a void monk, who will thaw as soon as a haste spell is cast on them.

Axenic Cultures - Sometimes you want to culture something in isolation, without any other species' interference.  These are places where the only animal life is human.

Just mull that over for a little while.  These are people who have never seen a dog or been bitten by a mosquito.  Their oceans are algae-choked mats.

It could even be a truly axenic culture, where there aren't even any plants or microbes.  These humans probably lick the saccharine dew off the rocks and have never had a cold in their lives.  They wear the skins of the ancestors, with a bundle of knotted face-skins around their neck like a ghoulish scarf.

Megaxenic Cultures - It's also possible that we're in a semi-xenic culture already (maybe Azathoth wanted to isolate us carbon-based life forms from the silicon-based ones).  And once we leave our little petri dish, we are going to start meeting some really weird people.  Like, weirder than xorn.  Like, Kill Six Billion Demons weird.

Slipped Through the Cracks - This is microbial contamination.  Sometimes you think you have a sterile, unused petri dish but then discover furry mold growing on it anyway.  Sometimes humans end up in places they aren't supposed to be.  Sometimes Azathoth has shitty portal technique, and ends up depositing us on his clothing, in his hair, on the door knob, or inside one of his machines.

Remember that you don't need to have a high level of technology to colonize a new land.  Sometimes all you need is a bag of seeds and a shovel. It might even be interesting to have a campaign that included a completely virgin planet.  Just volcanoes and clean dirt.

Death - If you want to play in this sort of campaign, you need to adjust you sense of scope, especially when dealing with mass death.  The death of a billion might be the price you need to open the next portal.


  1. I really enjoy these kind of posts of yours! I'm never sure what to do with them... I think I'd find it hard to provide the PCs with genuine motivation in a campaign so cosmically brutal.

    But maybe that's not the point. A bit like haute couture, its about providing inspiration that I can take in small way back to my pedestrian campaign.

    1. That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said about me.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I saw this in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Facebook group. Tremendous, dizzying work: world-building (and -breaking) at the hyper-cosmic level.