Wednesday 17 May 2023

The Gravity of Cows

Over many a volume of forgotten Lore, through many an hour of Netflix and Disney dreck and many a meltdown over whatever Games Workshop is doing this week, I have pondered the interlacement of the Paracosm, the Corporation, and Autism.

Lets say instead, - 'autistic traits' or 'light autistic spectrum traits'. Strongly Autistic individuals have a very hard time and don't get to do much. Those of us with autistic traits, of whom there are many more, well we have quite a strong effect on, and relationship with, popular culture.

You might even say that we are the collective gravitational force of Genre-based popular fiction.

Part One - Evolution of the Paracosm

But first the Paracosm, the alternate world! Its primordial precursors; most religions, imagined tales of distant lands, stories of a legendary past, 

Then more recently; the philosophical disquisition given concrete form; what if there was an island where this or that happened? Or a country that was ruled this or that way? Lets imagine it in detail, not just the parts relative to the argument but the whole thing. a republic, a Utopia, a perfect king a most awful tyranny.

Then; what if we just imagined such a place but there was no (direct) political argument to it? Or at least, it did not primarily rest on such an argument. This is not, legend, history, argument or scripture, it is directly stated fancy, a fiction. A creation of the imagination, and called so,
but described as if it were a real place.

Then; when does it become a full Paracosm? When it is shared between multiple people? If so then the earliest I can think of is Glassland, the imaginary world cooked up by the Brontes. 

There must be a deep forgotten history of the Paracosm because it emerges so naturally from the play of children in friendship groups and families.

E.R. Eddison, writer of The Worm Ouroboros had one with his own brother I think, which is where many of his stories were set. The serial scientific and fantastic fictions of the late 19th and early 20th century were Paracosm, but owned by their author, and usually made purely as a vector for stories, the linked stories by various authors in 'Strange Tales' in particular

The vast, many-peopled Paracosm as we understand it I think really took root in the 70s and is closely related to D&D and corporate ownership.

Part Two - Corporate Power

for a Paracosm to be projected across a vast range of people, and for those people to be able to interact in a regular and systemic way with it, and for those systems to be unified and universally communicated, requires industrial production, complex communication and organisation.

A substantially large organisation must do this. Something bigger than just a small business, and for a substantially large organisation to do this there must be a substantially large reward. At minimum enough to pay for the industrial reproduction, communication and organisation. So the beast becomes something that feeds upon itself. The more industrial reproduction and systemisation spread the Paracosm, the more people interact with it, which feeds back into greater profits, which can go into more industrial production.

But more. As we consider the Paracosm though time, (and the most active ones have not been active that long), like land, if you want it to remain coherent, that is; stable in use and nature, then it must have an owner of singular identity, but one much longer lived than any individual person.

Historically the owners of land have been; an aristocratic family, the Church, a religious order, the King etc.

To which we may now add the corporation. The aristocratic houses of our modern day, and the Paracosm a virtual barony, which, like a stretch of agricultural land, can be conserved, developed, sold off, reduced to ruination and treated in many ways as a real place.

Now the Corporation, a 'virtual' aristocratic house, has its own virtual kingdom, a place sustained and made real by the interest and investment in it.

Something happened in the late 60's and 70s. Something to do with the growth of genre, the power of information technology and industrial production, free time for nerds and corporate interlacement with the imagination.

The 60's - Star Trek, Tolkeins major growth. Marvel and DC get a boost here and are re-integrated as Paracosms though they have been running for a while.

The 70s - Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons

The 80's - the Warhammers 

So we have a synthesis; the Paracosm, an imagined barony, and the Corporation, an imagined and potentially immortal individual. The Corporation can own a Paracosm ... forever perhaps, and can theoretically maintain a profit on it forever, and it is that profit that allows the Paracosm to keep developing. The corporation is not an author, it has no single use in mind for the Paracosm
but far from it, desires as many uses as possible across as many systems of production as possible. 

Part Three - Autistic Traits

The interest in a Paracosm is not the same as the interest in an individual book or film but is renewed and remade through books, films, comics, television, animation, games, toys, models, props, bought costumes, embodied in acts of shared social play and through gatherings. All of these methods united by their shared love for and expression of, a place, or a reality, which is not real, yet is still shared and experienced by a great many people.

  • DEPTH of interest.
  • love of DETAIL.
  • Love of OBJECTS.
  • SYSTEMISATION of shared communion.
  • DISCUSSION and ARGUMENT over details.

And chief and ruler of these passions, desire to be POSESSED BY THE IMAGINED WORLD

None of these are necessarily the product of light autistic traits, but as a whole they synthesise with those traits, and with the pressures and coping strategies they produce, perfectly.

And from hence comes the great and terrible danger and most subtle trap of the Paracosm, the need to MILK THE COWS, for the cows are we.

Four - The Milking Process

Those who are drawn to the Paracosm tend to have autistic traits and of those who are drawn, there is something of a curve.

Cows is what we are.

But imagine you owned a field of cows, and some cows you could only milk once a day, or even once a week, and you had to go and round them up to do it.

But there were other cows, a minority, who you could milk twice a day, three times a day, more. And you don't have to go round them up. Instead they come to you, constantly, and in fact they get quite violent if you refuse to milk them.

So originally you start out with a Dairy Farm, as we would understand it, but what you end up with is quite different. It’s a milk factory . Which, yes a Dairy Farm is a milk factory. The difference is in the proportion of attention and resources you give to each part.

By the end, the factory is the main thing and you have forgotten you even had fields. There are fields out there sure, the cows live there, but most of your time is taken up with the very productive cows
and even more with those small minority of hyper-productive cows.

Really, as accounting goes, and as your milking operation improves, becoming more and more efficient, your fields decay, and this is inevitable.

Hence the life-cycle of the Paracosm

Five - The Natural Life-Cycle Of The Paracosm

Now, we don't know a lot of this for certain. The Paracosm that most neatly fit our definition have only been going since the 30s , so even the oldest are less than a century old, nor can we guess how they will respond to copyright laws which usually max out after about 100 years, but within that time period we can see a continual process, a pulse of growth and die-back.

Following the cows.
Always follow the cows.


(It’s beyond curious to me that after Marvel and DC essentially bricked themselves into the Comic Book stores, to milk the cows of course, and maybe 40 years later, Disney/Marvel finds itself doing exactly the same thing, bricking itself back up inside Disney Plus.

It costs less outlay, less terrifying risk and the cows come to you.

At the same time Games Workshop attempts its own Streaming Service.

There are echoes here of the Comic Shop but also of Apples 'walled garden', of a lifestyle brand where every widget and thingy integrates with every other whatever, and where you can charge people a LOT, for entrance to that garden because, in Apples case, you are essentially guarding entrance to the globalised middle class.

None of the Paracosm-guardians have managed that yet, and likely nor shall they, (because of the Autistic Traits))


I will venture this as a thesis; every corporate-owned Paracosm, (which is to say nearly every major Paracosm), is at any point, somewhere in this long orbit between states.

Its natural arc is to slowly decay into a nightmare milk factory.

Then once that collapses, the milk factory will be razed and the clean open fields of a fresh new farm to be opened (with the ruins still lingering beneath the soil).

Then the whole process will begin again.

At times Paracosm can be pulled back and forth between the poles. Sometimes they can totally collapse and be regenerated, either by being newly acquired or even through 'community action', but they are always somewhere between these two points and defined by the gravitational pull between milking the cows and luring more cows. Those are the tectonic forces of imaginary worlds. The Gravity of Cows.


  1. Makes me think of the concept of the dictatorship of the minority—when a small but vigorous group has an outsized influence on the population due to feeling strongly about topics that others are largely indifferent to. Big example is disability access—abled people can use both disability and non-disability bathrooms whereas disabled people can only use disability-accessible bathrooms, so most places have both despite the latter group making up a small minority. This is why gluten free food was everywhere for a while and also can explain why representation is becoming a bigger deal in advertising, but that's a much stickier conversation.

    The problem for a lot of companies as you say is that if they steer their media property too far toward the wants of the superfans then it becomes unpalatable for casuals. The choices are either become milk factory hell or completely reinvent the property for new audiences—though fortunately for companies the superfans usually hang around, but not without substantial complaining. Perhaps the only escape from dairy samsara is complete and total obscurity

  2. Thomas De Quincey and his brother William had a shared fantasy world they called Tigrosylvania back in the 1790s, a generation before the Brontës. Like you say, though, realistically kids must have been doing this stuff forever. It's just that it would never have occurred to anyone before the Romantic period to actually write down a record of the fantasy world they made up with their best friend back when they were ten years old.

    I think the relationship between the superfans and the casuals in fandom is like the relationship between radicals and moderates in activism. They naturally despise one another, but without both the movement will never thrive, because the casuals / moderates lack the commitment to keep the thing going and the superfans / radicals have no idea how to make it appealing or accessible (or, in many cases, even comprehensible) to anyone who's not already onboard. Successful long-running franchises are the ones that more-or-less manage to maintain the balance between the two, despite the fact that this means taking flak from both sides *all the time* for pandering to the other lot.

    (The move of comics into specialist comic shops in the late 1980s, which you mention, is one of the supreme examples of a fandom industry going all-in on its superfans, with disatrous results. In the very short term it was extremely lucrative, but in the slightly-longer term it nearly killed the American comics industry. The road from 'Hurrah, X-Men #1 just sold eight million copies' to 'Oops, Marvel just went bankrupt' was only six years long...)

  3. Clearly you should read Plato's Republic as a Paracosm.
    And the read Jo Walton's The Just City as a commentary on the milking of cows ;)

  4. As an Autistic person myself, I began noticing the tendency in myself to be drawn to Paracosms a few years ago. The "Special Interests". When I got into Warhammer, I became very aware as it was happening that this particular Paracosm was a Special Interest BLACK HOLE. The depths of minutia and world-building and factions, in the multiple versions of Warhammer, were like heroin for my brain. I saw this with horror, even as I was helpless to escape the Warhammer Paracosm's gravitational pull.

    It's why, despite loving Warhammer and starting painting multiple small armies at this point, I low-key resent Warhammer at the same time. It's a property that trapped me in a (very expensive) web, that monopolizes my time and attention.

    It's for this same reason I've actively resisted dipping my toes into Battletech. Not because it's bad, but quite the opposite. I know my brain better now, and can see the dangers of ANOTHER decades old property with a similar quantity of Lore^TM.

    I've been trying to lean back into previous special interests, like D&D and World of Darkness, simply to have obsessions that aren't so stupidly expensive.

  5. My granddad and his neighbourhood-kids definetly had a paracosm going way back in Nazi-Germany. Question: Is what Lovecraft created a paracosm? Other authors did contribute to it. Or is it too open? What role does fan fiction play in this?

    1. I would say Lovecraft/the Strange Tales crew is an early industrial Paracosm.

      You kind of buried the lede in the first sentence there!

    2. Had to read up that figure of speech there. I did blog about the whole Schmitdennistan paracosm over a decade ago, after discovering the written records of that fictional country and deciphering most of the Sütterlin that my grandfather was writing in, when not using a typewriter.
      When it comes to the war, he was the more 'problematic' one of my two grandfathers but that's not a topic for a comment under this blog post but for having a beer together or perhaps writing a non-fictional account of sorts.
      If you are interested in thhat particular paracosm, there are three blog posts about it and they contain most information I as the historian/archaeologist of that paracosm have unearthed. I even have a small flag and a seal.

  6. I feel like sleazy crypto-bros and factory-farm magnates wait around every corner to exploit every wellspring of human flourishing and paracosms are not possessed of any special quality that makes them unique in this sense.
    But we're at an interesting point in time, I think, where we might be about to see paracosmological inflation of such extraordinary rapidity and fecundity as to produce simulated experiences of reality that dwarf the possible range of experiences of real baseline reality. The inevitability that this will include every delicious heaven you could possibly conceive makes the prospect of us all collectively surrendering the autonomy of our udders also almost inevitable.