Basic Setting Info
The basic premise of the setting is that for thousands of years, there has been a city called D’ni miles underneath New Mexico, the inhabitants of which were a long-lived, but otherwise very human-like people who figured out how to write Books that would transport them to places in other universes which match the description they provide. These other universes are called Ages, and they were used for many different purposes: growing food, getting building materials, scientific experiments, relaxation, etc…
However, about 150-200 years ago most of the city’s population was killed by a bioweapon. A relatively few people did survive by retreating to the Ages.
Shortly before this happened they had dug a large tunnel to the surface, curious about what and who was up there, but a conservative group of their legislators convinced the others that whatever small benefits they might get from exploring the surface were not worth the risks. So they sealed it up just below the surface and hid the entrance. In 1987, decades after the Fall of the city, an archaeologist exploring some natural caves in New Mexico found a way into the tunnel and from there to D’ni, which is how there are now people from the surface exploring and even living there.
The D’ni called the process of writing these Books “The Art”. It requires Books and ink made using special materials and processes, which the people exploring the city in the modern day know almost nothing about, so their experiments with the Art are enabled by the limited supply of blank Books and ink they can find. It was the belief of the D’ni, for the most part, that the Books merely link to places that already exist, rather than creating them, but they didn’t really have any way of distinguishing between these two possibilities.
How it works
There are two kinds of Books, Descriptive Books and Linking Books. Both have, on the front page, a Linking Panel which (if the book is completed) a real-time video image of some part of the Age to which the book belongs. Touching the panel transports you and whatever you are wearing or carrying to the place shown in it, but the book itself remains behind. A book that links to a particular Age can be brought to that Age, if the person transporting it has another Book that leads there, but they only work from other Ages. Also, be sure to always bring a Linking Book to somewhere else with you; unless one is already there you can get stuck there until someone brings you one.
- Descriptive Books are where the Writer writes down the description of the place they want the book to link to. The language they use for it is related to but still distinct from the D’ni language itself, and becoming a skilled Writer takes years of practice and study of the symbols used, how they interact, and how to “design” a world that is stable and fulfills the Writer’s goals. Since these Ages are really entire universes every bit as large as our own, only a very small area, as a practical matter, can be described, and even then only in broad strokes. Everything not described by the Book is determined (essentially at random, from all the possible universes consistent with the description) and fixed the first time someone uses the Book to link there. Making changes to a Book which someone has used is very difficult to do safely, and the results are unpredictable, so the D’ni almost never did it.
- Linking Books, on the other hand, are much easier to write, and link to wherever they are written. So they don’t create anything new, but they are essential for getting around the Ages. So as soon as you have a Descriptive Book to a newly written Age, you can go there, write some Linking Books, bring them back to D’ni or wherever, and make access to the Age pretty much as easy or hard as you want.
These days, there are at maybe as many as two thousand people or so who know about D’ni’s existence, and as far as anyone knows none of them are part of the US (or any other) government. The explorers have different levels of involvement with the city and Ages, which the Unwritten book describes better than I can. The largest group are those who live normal lives on the surface, but use Linking Books to spend as many weekends or vacations as they can in D’ni and the Ages. These people, for the most part, know about D’ni because of something called “The Call”. Starting in the early 2000s, people just started… wandering towards the surface entrance for reasons they couldn’t explain very well. Some had dreams, some just an urge to live in or visit the desert. No one knows what it is. Before they got there, a privately funded group called the D’ni Restoration Council was there excavating and researching, but in recent years they are much less active there as an organization. A number of individuals who used to work for it do still spend time in the city, however.