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Let's Read: Parasite Rex

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  • Let's Read: Parasite Rex

    I was inspired today by the thread Ekkoren made to read the Chronicles of Darkness core book. The book I'm reading, though, Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer, isn't part of the Chronicles of Darkness at all. Rather, it is a nonfiction book about real-world parasites that was listed as an inspiration in Hunter: the Vigil. I thought it might be interesting to give it a read and record some thoughts on using it as inspiration for Chronicles.

    Why Parasite Rex? I've had this book sitting on my iPad for a while, and the very first time I picked it up with that my grandparents will I was still in University. I don't think I ever got past the first chapter, and I certainly don't remember much of it. The immediate cause for me to pick it back up again was that I got to see Anand Varma's presentation with National Geographic Live today, entitled Beauty and the Bizarre, which opens with Anand's incredible photography of various types of parasites. I had actually misremembered which book listed Parasite Rex as inspiration, so I had thought a couple of times through the lecture about the obvious link between Anand's work and Requiem. Since I'm contemplating a Vampire Chronicle, now seemed to be as good of a time to read Parasite Rex as any.

    *****************

    Introduction

    The introduction starts with a description of the effects of Sleeping Sickness in what is now South Sudan and at the time was held by the Rebel forces in the civil war. Zimmer picks up on how slippery the definition of a parasite is in scientific circles. I confess I run into this one as well when trying to differentiate for my students between a parasite and a pathogen. There is so much overlap between the two that a Venn Diagram between them could almost show a single circle. Is that the relationship between Hunters and the supernatural? One of the central conceits of Vigil has always been that those who take up the Vigil are different from regular mortals. The second that you hit Tier Three level Conspiracies you are dealing with organisations who either have explicitly supernatural powers or who access to those who do.

    It is also interesting how Zimmer describes scientists (and himself) as being morbidly fascinated with the beauty and elegance of parasites like Sleeping Sickness's source, Trypanosoma brucei. I can see Hunter organizations being enthralled with the supernatural in similar ways, but it was also striking to me on a meta level. Scientist's fascination with parasites is very the same curiosity that I suspect most horror fans feel towards the genre. For CofD even more specifically, I suspect that all of us on this forum feel something similar. We are enchanted and enthralled by the deadly world that we set this games in and the macabre beauty of organizations like the Ordo Dracul or the Guardians of the Veil.

    Moving over to Costa Rica, Zimmer is helping to collect frogs with parasitologist documenting the many unknown parasites they find withing frogs. They are pulling flukes, hookworms, and nematodes out of lungs, guts, and kidneys. It reminds me of a line from Batman Begins;

    "You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every layer of its government."

    A similar sentiment is used to convey how dark the world of Chronicles is, especially with Vampires. The Kindred have their fangs in everything, but does that mean the world is utterly corrupted? I mean, vampires in this game are social parasites, and parasites are goddamned good at getting past every last defence you can throw at them. Zimmerman had earlier mentioned that the parts of the world which aren't crawling in parasites are far more unusual and abnormal than those that are. So a strong supernatural presence doesn't mean doom for any one city. In fact, that's normal; it's just that mortals choose to ignore the paranormal. Our world is bursting with evidence of parasites right in front of our noses, and we manage willfully remain oblivious to it. Is it really that surprising that everyone in a supernatual modern world would ignore the ghost in the alley? They aren't jaded by the supernatrual, quite the opposite. If they were conscious of the bizzare world around them, most people wouldn't be able to cope.

    It also makes me wonder what evolutionary forces drove the supernaturals in CofD to exist in their current forms. Obviously, I could brush the evolutionary question off via magic, and for some creatures like Changelings and Beasts, that may be appropriate. Vampire, Werewolves, Prometheans, and Mages all have featured various social and lineage factors that could act as Dawkins Memes in the same way that genes do biologically. It's an interesting question, especially since Anand talked about hyperparasites today, parasites that parasitize other parasites. Sound much like the Strix or Claimed to anyone? Those were certainly my thoughts.

    ********

    I like this idea, I think I can get some pretty good ideas out of it. I don't know how often updates will be, but I want to keep it up. If you have any thoughts on what I have said, or have read/start to read Parasite Rex, feel to chip in and post your own thoughts. Chapter 1: Nature's Criminals is next.
    Last edited by Second Chances; 03-17-2017, 10:23 PM.


    CofD booklists:
    Beast I Changeling | Geist l Hunter l Mummy | Promethean

  • #2
    It is also interesting how Zimmer describes scientists (and himself) as being morbidly fascinated with the beauty and elegance of parasites like Sleeping Sickness's source, Trypanosoma brucei. I can see Hunter organizations being enthralled with the supernatural in similar ways, but it was also striking to me on a meta level.
    This is the part that I find really interesting too. It brings to mind how you can portray all sorts of NPCs not just in Hunter. What about a Mysterium Mage? The first time the players meet one, you could portray him/her in this manner, that is absolutely fascinated and very excited but also very aware of the weirdness of the fascination, that could make the characters really 'get' the npc and where their actions and emotions come from. idk, I like that.


    On a second note: I theroughly approve of this post and hope that with this and Ekorren 's thread "Let's Read" posts become more commen (like how "What we know so far" and "Ask a simple Question, Get a simple answer: ____ Edition" have)



    Frequent Story Teller for the Circle of Five gaming group.

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    • #3
      Ah, Parasite Rex. I have a copy of this on my shelves. Been quite a while since I read it.


      - Chris Allen
      Freelance Writer, The Pack / Dark Eras / Werewolf: the Forsaken 2nd Edition / Idigam Anthology / Fallen World Chronicle / Trinity Aeon

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      • #4
        Originally posted by xiongrey View Post

        This is the part that I find really interesting too. It brings to mind how you can portray all sorts of NPCs not just in Hunter. What about a Mysterium Mage? The first time the players meet one, you could portray him/her in this manner, that is absolutely fascinated and very excited but also very aware of the weirdness of the fascination, that could make the characters really 'get' the npc and where their actions and emotions come from. idk, I like that.
        Totally. Same goes for the Ordo Dracul, especially once you realize they are parasites trying to study other parasites. It is also indicative of the way that Prometheans study humanity, especially with how the Stannum refinement looks at negative emotions and how Argentum deals with the weird. We can't forget Beasts either. Especially Beasts. They are naturally inclined by their powers to study and solve the mysteries of other supernatural creatures. Their behaviours are very similar to those of parasitologists.

        Originally posted by xiongrey View Post
        On a second note: I theroughly approve of this post and hope that with this and Ekorren 's thread "Let's Read" posts become more commen (like how "What we know so far" and "Ask a simple Question, Get a simple answer: ____ Edition" have)
        Thank you for the kind words. I do think that the other threads have their place, but I (obviously) really enjoy this type of critical thinking exercise. I do have a couple of other Let's Reads in mind once this one is done. They range from things like Stephen Asma's On Monsters, to Wicca & Witchcraft for Dummies. I also really want to do a Let's Watch of Begin Japanology. I thought David's inclusion of it in Hurt Locker was a sublime choice and the nice thing about a Let's Watch is that everyone can participate.

        EDIT: And the thought that just occurs to me is that another good Let's Watch would be John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. He usually tackles some of the worst aspect fo humanity in a way that is funny and engaging. That could be an excellent source of ideas.
        Last edited by Second Chances; 03-13-2017, 03:25 PM.


        CofD booklists:
        Beast I Changeling | Geist l Hunter l Mummy | Promethean

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        • #5
          Chapter 1: Nature's Criminals

          The opening quote first chapter is taken from John Brown's Parasitic Wealth or Money Reform: A Manifesto to the People of the United States and to the Workers of the World. It's an interesting quote, explicitly join the connection between the perversion of justice and the larva of parasitic flies. Unsurprisingly, it frames the rest of the chapter, join steadily towards the political ramifications of the biology of parasites. We will get into that later, though.

          The broad outline of the chapter is that it covers the history of scientific thought on parasites. One idea that stood out to me was the belief of European physicians in the Renaissance that parasites were either a result of foul air, unbalanced humors, or excessive heat or cold. The clear tie-in for Chronicles of Darkness is with Prometheans. If you want to up the body horror component for the Created, an easy way to do it would be to have Prometheans who have fallen into the grips of Torment spontaneously generate parasites. If you really wanted to up the creepy factor, these parasites could even mass together to form swarm-based Pandoran once they hit a certain critical population.

          Next, there is a discussion of the concept of spontaneous generation and the discovery of microorganisms. There's a very interesting section where Zimmer discusses the problems that spontaneous generation posed for the Abrahamic creation myth, namely if parasites in microorganisms could spontaneously generate from blood, why was their need for God to create the universe? Furthermore, if God created them, what was the motivation for doing so? The same question exists for monsters in CofD. Different organizations have different answers in-universe, ranging from unholy scourges to evolutionary enigmas. The truth is up to the Storyteller, but it does touch on one of the things I love about CofD. It's awesome that the setting is so flexible, and that it poses these challenging and almost unknowable questions to ask, just like the real world poses its questions to scientists. It's easy to create a setting where all of the answers are laid out for you. It's also easy to just avoid answering questions. It's a difficult to ask questions, and only give partial clues towards their answers, to create ambiguity that implies a greater master plan and conductivity. That is one of my favourite things about Chronicles of Darkness. Speaking of blood though, what other parasites could be generated within the Vitae of the Kindred?

          Moving on, there's a discussion of how the Danish zoologist Johan Steenstrop and the German doctor Friedrich Kuchenmeister established in the 1830s and 40s the lifecycle of parasites. It's gross, it's disgusting, it involves feeding immature tapeworms to condemned criminals without their knowledge. Peak Ordo Dracul or Mad Mage right there.

          This is when evolutionary for science finally enters the picture, in the form of Ray Lankester. Lankester had the good fortune to have been a family friend of Darwin, who filled his mind with stories of adventure in biology as a child. Lankester saw the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection as finely unifying biology and making to into a hard science. He is also responsible for some of Darwinism's greatest shortcomings. Lankester saw evolution as a constant march towards progress, a concept that many other biology teachers and I work hard to debunk nowadays. Lankester, however, believed that if evolution can march towards progress, it is also possible for it to slip away into degeneration.

          I wonder if this idea of degeneration could play a role in the ecology of spirits in Chronicles. Spirits don't play by the same Darwinian rules that living creatures do, so the twisted hybrid magath could certainly be seen as degenerate spirits. Perhaps they were more common in regions that subscribe to Lankester's hypotheses? I expect no few Ivory Claws have also latched on to Lankester's ideas and have tenaciously held on them like a dog with her favourite stick.

          Switching to another game line, I would be shocked if there weren't a large number of Heros who viewed Beasts and other supernaturals this way. To the Hero's twisted logical, all they are doing is "pruning" away the sagging branches of the tree of life. Zimmer hasn't hit the point in the chapter where he talks about how wrong and backwards this degeneracy idea is, but he's been hinting at it. All of the self-righteous mental gymnastics people do to justify their bigotry is the perfect note for a non-sympathetic, complete bastard of a Hero.

          There are also some passages in which the Lancea et Sanctum and Ordo Dracul would find common ground, like this one:

          "Since there was no divide between the ascent of life and the history of civilization, Lankester saw in parasites a grave warning for humans. Parasites degenerated "just as an active healthy man sometimes degenerates when he becomes suddenly possessed of a fortune; or as Rome degenerated when possessed of the riches of the ancient world..." To Lankester, the Maya living in the shadows of the abandoned temples of their ancestors, were degenerates, just as Victorian Europeans were pale imitation of the glorious ancient Greeks."
          An ahistorical and unscientific outlook? Indeed, from our modern vantage point, but you'd be hard pressed to find a vampire or mage that these thoughts wouldn't resonate with. For the Lancea et Sanctum specifically, they are the last true reminant of Kindred Rome, and as that remnant, they may feel the pressure to continually evolve or risk falling into patterns and routines that would destroy them. That is where the Ordo Dracul comes in. The Ordo is all about evolution (scientific rigor, not so much). Lankester's "adapt or wilt" philosophy speaks to them both and I suspect would bind them together in those early modern domains where they got along.

          Another biologist, Henry Drummond, as a quote that drives this convergence of philosophies even further home:

          "...[Parasatism] is one of the gravest crimes in nature. It is a breach of the law of Evolution. Thou shalt evolve, thou shalt develop all thy faculties to the full, thou shalt attain to the highest conceivable perfection of thy race - and so perfect thy race - this is the first and greatest commandment of Nature."
          If that's not Lancea meets Ordo talk, I don't know what is.

          From here, the discussion turns to the politicization of evolutionary theory, and of course, that means talking the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. I'm not going to dwell on those too much, although there is some decent fodder for the more horrible Carthian-Ordo cooperative works.

          Zimmer's final words in this chapter are tearing apart all of the crap people used to believe about parasites. So many scientists got parasites so horribly wrong, not realizing they were at the very centre of life's story rather than being worthless freeloaders. A lot of that came down to arrogance, the arrogance to think you know or understand everything. Zimmer specifically says, "they did not respect the depths of their own ignorance." This is one of my favourite sentiments about human nature, and it speaks to something I love about Chronicles of Darkness. There are no easy answers, no tidy boxes. Even as we drive back the perpetual darkness of ignorance, that just increases our knowledge of what we don't know. Each answer just creates more questions. It a lesson lots of CofD's occultists and monster hunters could take to heart. The world is more complex than we can ever know. We can choose to bulldoze our way through it blindly, or we can opt to revel in shedding a little more light on the mystery. What would you choose?

          Next up: Chapter 2 - Terra Incognita


          CofD booklists:
          Beast I Changeling | Geist l Hunter l Mummy | Promethean

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          • #6
            the center, huh? Interesting... What does this mean for our vampires, eh?


            A god is just a monster you kneel to. - ArcaneArts, Quoting "Fall of Gods"

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            • #7
              It probably means that while the typical Hunter's perspective of vampires been hangers on and leaches on humanity is superficially accurate, it is just superficial. In the Chronicles of darkness, vampires for doctors a powerful social force drive in the development of local areas and potentially wider nations. The evolutionary possibilities would be entirely speculative, and from what I've read of the next chapter, I know I'll have more to comment on here, but that would undoubtably be some form of co-evolution between the kindred and humanity. It could also be the vampires are driving a supernatural version of evolution in humans, represented by ghoul families.

              All of this is of course highly speculative, but it's interesting to think about have a supernatural and scientific overlap. Even if you decide for your Chronicle that it's completely bunk, it still gives the Ordo Dracul and Null Mysteriis something interesting to rave about.


              CofD booklists:
              Beast I Changeling | Geist l Hunter l Mummy | Promethean

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