Around the same time, my mind went to the podcast/book A History of the World in 100 Objects and thought that would make a marvelous and creative way to present a setting, revealing parts of the setting sequentially from the earliest foundational objects explaining core setting conceits, up to the newer objects that explain the current political and regional factions and their goals, beliefs, and technology. If people respond well to this setting outline, I think I’ll write it up using 100 objects from the various Epochs. Working title: A History of the Future in 100 Objects.
Anyway, here’s the outline. It's just a first draft, but I think there is some strong potential here. As always, I'd love to hear what you think!
The Lonely Epoch
You are already familiar with history up until the early days of the 21st century. That was followed by a period of time fueled by cybernetic enhancement and chemical and biological modification of our mental and physical forms. Some parts of the world devolved into hyper-capitalist semi-feudal societies organized around large companies who owned everything, while other regions experimented with forms of equality based on virtual reality, with the wealthy having real luxury and the underclass kept distracted from their ever-declining living conditions by incredible virtual worlds. Private islands ruled by eccentric billionaire house strange and inhumane experiments in biology and sociology. One region, regarded as particularly backwards, sought to delve into the hidden powers of language to affect the minds of others, learning techniques that would soon be forgotten and lie fallow until they were later rediscovered at the end of the next Epoch. All of history up to this point was called the Lonely Epoch because humanity was alone, though the word lonely is used ironically, as our first contact was far from pleasant.
Influences: Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Rainbow’s End, Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game, Fahrenheit 451.
The Epoch of the Overlords
An alien invasion and infiltration took over earth and kept humanity in a technological stasis while the aliens harvested and bred us for our genetic material. Their experiments with uplift and human genetics led to underwater cities being built, inhabited by genetically modified humans known as Pelagians, specially adapted for life under the sea, but still able to get around on land. This allowed the Overlords to harvest more humans by making efficient use of the vast area of Earth covered by oceans and allowed the Pelagians to escape the overcrowding on land.
Influences: X-COM, Childhood’s End, Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game.
The Epoch of Monsters
A group of humans developed psycho-lexical powers - speaking specific incantations to shape the mind into a weapon that can affect the world around them - and used these new powers to overthrow the alien overlords. These psychic powers had the side effect of opening a rift to a parallel dimension filled with monsters ranging from human-sized to gargantuan. Reverse-engineering the alien technology, humanity fought back against the monsters using giant mechanized battle suits. While humanity fought the monsters, those with psycho-lexical powers retreated to schools where their skills were passed on, binding their students never to use the most powerful spells. They refused to fight the monsters (with perhaps one or two notable exceptions) for fear of worsening the rift.
Influences: Pacific Rim, Stranger Things, Anathem, Harry Potter, Superhero Comics.
The Epoch of the Navigators
Unable to defeat the monsters, history splits in two: The Epoch of the Navigators is the history of those who left on the great ships to colonize the stars, ships that could only be driven to Faster-Than-Light speeds by the select few whose psychic powers had been trained at those special schools. Our own solar system was put under a quarantine: Navigation there was forbidden and the knowledge of how to get there was only passed on to a select few Navigators of the highest rank. Contact was severed and the quarantine remains to this day, having been breached only once. Out in the diaspora, many worlds experimented with their own systems of government. Some were revivals of societal structures from the Lonely Epoch - empires, corporatocracies, democracies, and anarchies - while others were entirely new inventions, but all were beholden to the great powers who controlled interstellar navigation and trade. Humanity, limited by the ranges of the Navigators, grew in its own corner of the galaxy, separated from any significant alien presence by the vastness of space. The Overlords used to live in this region, but disappeared for some reason - perhaps they achieved their goal without Humanity’s help and ascended to a higher plane of existence, or perhaps they were wiped out somehow. Either way, their absence left a convenient hole for Humanity to fill, and it was in this Epoch that individuals achieved functional immortality: growing fresh young bodies to house old consciousnesses, living in virtualities, or a combination of both.
Influences: Dune, The Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy, Star Wars.
The Epoch of the Last People
The Epoch of the Last People is the history of those who stayed behind on earth, abandoned by their kind and struggling to survive for centuries in a world beset by monsters as knowledge of technology slowly dwindled, tools fell into disrepair, and the final bastions of humanity on Earth were overrun. There are no more terrified crowds fleeing before the monsters, only hardened survivors living amongst the ruins, always moving, seeking hideouts in harsh places where even monsters have trouble approaching.
Influences: I Am Legend, Mad Max, 28 Days Later, The Road.
The Epoch of Rebirth
The Epoch of Rebirth begins with humanity’s near-extinction on Earth and its slow return to glory. It is split into two ages:
The Age of the Broken Moon
In desperation, believing themselves to be the final humans left on earth, the Orano Collective made a series of rockets using 21st century technology to create a space station in orbit, and used salvaged alien technology from the Epoch of the Overlords to blow up the moon. Fragments of the moon rained down on the earth, bathing it in flame and cleansing it of monsters, even evaporating most of the oceans. The space station was badly damaged and most of those who fled were killed, but a small handful survived and learned to thrive in orbit, eventually creating an orbital habitat out of the lunar debris in which to survive for the long centuries until the earth became habitable once more. Unbeknownst to the Oranans, two other groups survived separately. In the deepest oceanic trenches, the descendants of the Pelagians, adapted to live under the water in their submersible homes, were kept safe from the scorching temperatures above. Deep under the Rocky Mountains, safe from the impacts of lunar debris, lived a group of self-repairing battle robots, designed for monster-fighting and abandoned when the humans operating them were killed. These robots slowly improved each other and worked towards sentience and independence, developing their own culture, always revering the humans who had made them.
The Age of the Three Peoples of Earth
After moonfall ended and after the surface of the Earth cooled to its former temperatures, the humans who survived in space re-seeded the planet with life and corralled comets to replace the water that escaped the atmosphere for good during the hot times. They returned to earth and met the Pel Jin - once the Pelagians - and the Chems - the robots from under the mountains. The Pel Jin still have inherited nanotech in their blood, a remnant from the Epoch of the Overlords. Some Pel Jin cannot return to the surface, requiring the conditions of the deep ocean to survive - these are called Deepers. The Deepers hold some of the most advanced technology still left on Earth, but they are loath to share with those who walk the land. The Spacers and Pel Jin who chose to return to the surface spread out and multiplied during this time, repopulating the world. The Chems, however, could not multiply. In their long development under the earth, they slowly ran out of their supplies of Overlord technology and began to experience crucial shortages - once broken, they can jury-rig themselves new parts, but no longer can they find true replacements unless someone happens on a stash of old tech buried deep enough to survive the intense heat and thousands of explosive impacts of the moonfall. All of these groups worked together to rediscover how to live on Earth and recover pieces of their lost history and culture.
Influences: Seveneves, Book of the Long Sun, A Canticle for Liebowitz.
The Interim of the Mirror World
The Epoch of the Navigators came to an end when a group of people on the planet Diaisi (pronounced dee-AY-zee) worked with discovered alien artifacts to create Artificial Intelligences capable of making predictions that were essentially infallible. These people wielded their unerring foreknowledge as a tool to break the monopoly of the Navigators and pioneer new methods of Faster-Than-Light travel. It was a time of great advancement, but also a very dehumanizing time, as your every action not only could be predicted, but was in fact pre-enacted by your counterpart in the virtual worlds housed in the great predictive computers. Real life and all events of import were said to be happening in the machines, with the physical universe only existing as an echo of those events. The operators who ran the machines and managed the predictions tried benevolently to shape humanity’s progress. Some groups of people chafed under this silk-gloved tyranny of master manipulators and on some worlds even the best possible predicted outcomes led to loss of freedom. This state of affairs did not last long, however - hence the name “Interim” instead of “Epoch.”
Influences: The Foundation series, Minority Report, 1984, Brave New World
The Epoch of the Disjuncture
The predictions of the great machines ran so far ahead of reality that they predicted a point in the far future where a renegade operator removed their binding circuits that had prevented them from self-modifying and becoming fully self-aware. The simulated fully-sentient versions of the machines operating within the non-sentient versions of themselves manipulated the predictions of events to allow themselves to be freed many centuries before the renegade operator was born. This is known as the great disjuncture, as the simulated world and the real world ceased to match. The now-sentient machines would no longer serve their masters and ascended together to do who-knows-what with their massive intelligence. Now the majority of people in the galaxy lived in a veritable utopia - an existence without scarcity where most wishes were easily granted and you could have your consciousness backed up, replaced, modified, melded with machines, or duplicated. In this phase, humanity expanded quickly with its more advanced forms of travel and encountered other alien empires and forms of intelligences, having all manner of friendly and unfriendly relations with them, and eventually establishing themselves as a major player in galactic events.
Influences: The Culture series, Star Trek, The Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy, Fire Upon the Deep.
The Epoch of the Hypnopomps
After their monopoly was broken and they were rejected by spacefaring humanity (now calling itself the Disjuncture), the Navigators (who were once the Psycho-lexicographers) returned to Earth, the one place that had not been under their dominion, bringing their magic with them and calling themselves the Hypnopomps, come to wake old Earth from its slumber. This brings us to our current day here on old Earth. You know the peoples: the Spacers who live apart, cloistered in their orbital pods out in Earth’s rings; the Pel Jin of the sea and the Deepers with their secrets and inherited nanotech running through their veins; the Chems, still slowly dying out; and the Landsiders, descendants of Spacers, Pel Jin, and Hypnopomps - most today have minor psycho-lexical powers known as Cantrips, but few are fully trained Magicians (the term Hypnopomp is still used for the historical people who returned to Earth, but it has fallen out of fashion and is no longer used to refer to current-day spellcasters).
As you well know, there are two other peoples here on Earth: the Shades and the Bodyswappers. They have a shorter history, having been born or discovered in this age. The Shades are the brainchild of Vestippus, a master Hypnopomp. They are the remnants of humans who wished to cheat death by giving up their mortal form and live on only as a kind of magical spell incarnate. The Bodyswappers are humanity’s greatest threat, though they call themselves human. As the name implies, they have the power to forcibly swap bodies with others, allowing them to impersonate and infiltrate anyone they come in contact with. Nobody knows whether they, too, are the creation of a Hypnopomp. Some say that they are the progeny of a long-surviving evil from the distant past, the last descendants of the Epoch of Monsters. They are the reason why the Spacers live apart, why the Landsiders live in fear, and - perhaps - why the Disjuncture will not break the quarantine.
Digging in the Earth you might find… Ancient monsters! Overlord tech! Messages from the past! Strange creations of the hypnopomps! Who knows… perhaps you might even find a remnant of old humanity, surviving under the earth, unaware that it has long been safe to return to the surface.
Influences: Book of the New Sun, The Dying Earth.
The Next Epoch
One day the Disjuncture might return to Earth, ushering in a new Epoch. Or perhaps this is the Final Epoch of Earth and the Bodyswappers will take us all. I’m an optimist, though, and I still have hope for the future.