by the Inmara
When setting out to write this story, we had three purposes: to give Molly a story to romp in; to use that story to explore and say something about system hopping, which is something the plurality community periodically talks a lot about; and to have fun with the pulp sci-fi genre.
What happened is that we ran faces first into an observation that has been made many times by many others.
Space exploration, especially first contact, as it is presented in science fiction, is built on the foundations of colonialism.
And there may be people who are successfully finding a model of space exploration that isn’t built on colonialism, but we’re almost certainly not going to end up being those people. So, we tried to turn this story into a self critique. We did that by letting our writers and their characters search for a way to salvage the situation, with the instruction to allow themselves to fail, with the possibility that this story would be a tragedy.
And we got really tangled up in the web of themes we wove, and we’re not sure we successfully untangled any of it.
We tried, though, and we’re willing to go back and fix stuff if it’s needed and fixable. And we aren’t going to stop thinking about it on our own, either.
But, also, we want to talk about the themes we worked with that we do know about from personal experiences. Because it gives us a chance to talk about the differences between the fictional versions of ourselves and our real selves, and where these stories are coming from. And we want to raise awareness of some of this stuff.
So, we’re plural and Molly is a real person who shares our body with us, and she first started her outworld-facing life as an RPG character for a game that was a cross between Talespin and Firefly. It was mostly Talespin with Firefly technology and some other sci-fi tropes thrown in (still colonialism, unfortunately). We thought it would be really funny to have a snake as the pilot of a ship, and in the true cartoon ethos of it all we had her piloting the ship with her tail. And Molly came forward from the recesses of our psyche and volunteered to play that character. It fit who she was.
Like the rest of our system, she is autistic and trans. We didn’t explore that in the RPG, but when we started writing this story, those became important themes for us. It was part of letting her be true to herself.
Same with Susan and Lesley, when they volunteered to be the lesbian couple who encountered Molly during first contact. And their dreams for our body and our life became part of the story.
Manifold, like the other Tutors in our stories, represents a system member who was born to a role, such as protector, facilitator, introject, or persecutor. The role of Tutor is kind of a mix between protector and facilitator, but for only one other system member at a time. It’s a kind of parent! It is also obviously autistic.
At this point, it should be pretty obvious to everyone that the Sunspot is a representation of our system. It does have things about it that aren’t really true of us, but most of it consists of close analogs. However, the idea of the Tutors was really born from an attempt at making this setting into a role playing game, and the need for a canonical tool to help the GM to guide the players if need be. Also, we were looking at presenting alternative and alien ways for families to be structured and raised, and there were definitely some scary dystopian themes we were working into that RPG setting before we realized that it was, in fact, our own inworld. And some of the fictionalized traits we have left in the setting may have unintended symbolism outside of our system that we now have to reckon with.
We’re still examining that, and are hoping we’re mostly OK. Or that we can salvage what we’ve made by having good plot developments later.
But, a thing that does happen in a plural or multiple system is that members are sometimes created with the purpose of serving the system in a particular way. And that purpose can dominate their life, and they can sometimes be totally OK with that and identify with their role. And sometimes they can find it painful and alienating, and seek to grow beyond it.
We see this as equivalent to being assigned a gender. Which happened to us.
In this way, Manifold is also trans.
Another thing we’ve got going on in the fictional Sunspot is literal “forced diversity”. Not the kind where writers actually put representation into their stories and bigots complain about it (though we’ve got that, too). It’s the use of evolutionary algorithms to completely write the genetic code of each individual person to be completely different from everyone else, and it’s a reaction to the even worse origin of eugenics for conformity. This is not supposed to be a good thing. It’s simultaneously a way to populate an RPG setting with wildly alien animal people, and also to look at what fighting fire with fire might be when it comes to eugenics. It’s a plot device to give our characters something deeply entrenched to try to undo without messing things up further, if they can. And to demonstrate that where you’ve started will always haunt you in some way. There will always be work to be done.
It’s also an analog to how nearly every member in our actual system is otherkin, therian, alterhuman, or whatever else you want to call it. We’re not human, internally, and we have no way to explain how or why we end up with the identities that we do. But, if it’s a psychological reaction to growing up in a society where humans were awful and alien to us, it’s still something we cannot choose or control.
But, also, on top of that, this part of our setting is also a foil for being assigned a sex at birth. Being an intersex trans person who was born with extremely severe genital dysphoria, there is this interplay between cultural expectations of sex and gender and the injustice and agony of being born with something that matches neither what society expects nor what your neurology needs it to be. The mismatch between brain and body is a real thing that can happen, and societal birth assignment is only a small part of that equation, and people who try to say otherwise are incorrect. But, societal birth assignment is a thing that cannot be avoided. Even if society didn’t assign genders or sexes at birth, that lack of an assignment would be its own kind of imposition. Maybe a better one, but one that still would not fit everyone. And there’d still be the disability of being born with physical dysphoria.
So, the forces of being trans, intersex, and autistic, in a society that not only doesn’t accommodate those things but tries to actively eradicate them, made us intensely lonely, even amongst good friends, and drove us to seek escape even during times when we were actually alone. Our body, our vessel, our psyche, our system itself hurt and we had to try to get away from it.
So, that’s what Molly is doing at the beginning of her story, leaving our system and looking for a life in the void outside of it.
And then she’s doing that one thing that always felt contrived, wrong, and invasive to us: walking around the elementary school playground looking for someone to walk up to and ask, “Can we be friends?”
Later in our life, we took a different tactic. We sat in crowded cafes near the front door and drew comics. When you do that, there will always be people who will stop and talk to you about it. And you’ll usually end up getting to know the regulars pretty well. And also the baristas. People love comics and other artwork, and they want to ask about its creation. In the Sunspot Chronicles proper, that sort of first contact is about to occur. Someone has left out a sign saying, “come talk to us,” and the Sunspot is answering.
But, we didn’t have the skills to facilitate that trick in Kindergarten or first grade, and we were actually instructed by our bewildered teachers to literally go up to another student and ask, “Do you want to be my friend?” Like, that was a thing we saw other students doing already. It’s essentially the easiest method to think of for meeting people when you’re starting out, and it didn’t even occur to us. It’s really straightforward, but it always felt like a violation of consent to us. You’re invading someone’s space and interrupting their thoughts and daydreams to ask them an annoying question about committing to something long term.
So, Molly’s doing that. And she’s doing that in a genre that was built with the very fabric of colonialism, historically used to aggrandize it. We might have been better off just telling a story about a kid trying to navigate Kindergarten. But we tried this first. We still might do the Kindergarten story. We have the ability.
So, what’s this system hopping thing we mentioned at the beginning?
Well, for us, this is where things get into spirituality. It’s not spiritual for all gateway systems who experience something like walk-ins or system hopping, but it is for us. It’s how we developed spiritual awareness despite trying to be staunch skeptics.
However you might want to explain away our experiences, what we know is that we have two gateways in our psyche through which system members have come and gone. They have been locked down pretty solidly for most of our life, and protected by Phage since we were about two and a half. We have all sorts of theories about what all that could mean, but the fact is that these constructs do exist in our system and we also have a handful of system members who have memories of life before they became part of our system and also memories of coming through one of those gates.
In fact, our two eldest members, Jenifer and Eh, remember coming through the first, biggest gate, the Abyss, in order to enter and inhabit our body during its gestational development. They remember being something before being alive. And they’ve both been puzzling over those memories constantly since before we learned how to talk.
There are other gateway systems or even singlets who experience something very, very similar.
System hopping is the dangerous act of a system member either traveling from one system to another, from one body to another, or sending a copy, through those gateways. It’s possible gateways aren’t even needed, or that they’re psychological projections of an openness that everyone has. That’s irrelevant. System hopping is something some people experience.
In this story, we don’t even bother to explore the outworld social implications of one system claiming to have a member from another system, and using that for social leverage or abuse. We don’t have experience with that, and we don’t really want to role play it either.
Instead, we look for how to negotiate consensual system hopping. And then, we include what we’ve learned from Phage and our handful of other Outsiders regarding the safety protocols for doing it. And also some of the obstacles and pitfalls.
And it doesn’t really start out as very consensual, because you can’t ask someone whether or not you can ask them for consent in the first place. “Consent in all things” is a paradox of an ideal. Which isn’t to say it’s wrong to strive for. But we have to learn the limits of it and decide when and where it’s OK to step beyond those limits.
And even we, as a system, do not agree with each other on the answers to that.
So, what this story is, in a way, is us holding up a pile of goopy, drippy spaghetti full of onions and mushrooms, with both of our bare hands, and saying, “This is a problem.” And there might be poster paint in the spaghetti.
So that maybe leaves you now with the question of what Phage is.
In our system, our psyche, it is almost exactly what we portray in our stories, only without the superpowers.
Well, except the superpowers in our stories are representative of how deft it has been at manipulating our dreams and its presence in our inworld. It has the identity of being Entropy Itself, while it also cannot prove that. It has memories of being the core mechanism of how the universe functions, and also of falling into our system through one of our gateways and agreeing to help us live in exchange for feeling what it’s like to be alive. But it could easily be an introject of darkness and fear of death that we created to be that for us, and it doesn’t deny that, either. In any case, it has been our night hag, giving us terrifying paralysis dreams in an attempt to teach us something. And it has been our protector, standing between us and other aggressors. And it really did have a child who named themself Ni’a.
It has also seen echoes of itself in other systems, or even singlet psyches, through their works of art, their fiction, and occasionally by talking to them in person over a cup of coffee. But those echoes also reflect the cultures of the people they accompany, or may not be echos at all but something else.
But Phage’s guidance has worked. Always.
When it feels like something is trying to invade our psyche and force us to do or experience things we don’t want to, a “no” always works. Until at least one of us says that “no”, there is danger. But the “no” does work, even for things that feel like they are gods. Even if only one of us says it.
If only it worked that way in the outworld.
One last thing, though.
Throughout this story there are incidents of unconscious consent and possible coercion. These incidents are difficult to interpret and hard to judge. We do not provide all of the circumstantial details under which they happened. They are left that way on purpose.
Thanks to blacking out and not being able to contact the member who might have been in control, we have experienced this ourselves multiple times, where we have consented to things that the rest of us would not have if we’d been awake and had known. It is terrifying. It was also terrifying to our spouse at the time, as to her it seemed like we were either a completely different person (we were) or we were lying to manipulate her (we weren’t), and we had to navigate that very carefully. We still cannot remember the conversations we had with her where we’d agreed to things. It ended in amicable divorce.
We’ve also consciously watched ourselves agree to things that the rest of us did not want to participate in. So many times.
We’ve both suffered the consequences of those agreements and gained benefits from them. Some we regret, others we don’t, and those feelings don’t always match up with the rewards we got. We still don’t agree with each other.
These moments in the story are left open for you to interpret how you will and to argue about them. As we are doing.
They’ll certainly come up between the characters again, as they revisit them and their feelings while trying to be a family, or to just survive.
In any case, these very uncomfortable developments are important for understanding the complications of the rest of the themes we tackled here.
You can’t always see what you’re about to step in when you’re interacting with other people. It might just be a plate full of poster paint spaghetti.
One can hope.