Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Fading Sun: Kesrith

C.J. Cherryh's The Fading Sun: Kesrith (1978) has been with me since high school. My best friend, Steve - the first person I gamed with - read the entire Fading Sun trilogy back then. He really liked its narrative about the Kel, a dying race of honorable space mercenaries, and their dog-bear (sehlat?) companions. I finished Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit last month; Lee's faction of black-clad warriors is also called the Kel. This can't be a coincidence.

The Fading Sun: Kesrith is one of the books I am reading for Vintage Science Fiction Month this January.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Vintage Science Fiction Month

We are once again back in Vintage Science Fiction Month, and I have started several and finished one vintage SF work already. Vintage is defined as published in 1979 or before.

  • The Bloody Sun and The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C.J. Cherryh
  • Tales of Neveryon by Samuel R. Delany
Brief Review: What if Conan the Barbarian were a gay leatherman? I last read Samuel R. Delany's Tales of Neveryon (1979) within a year of two of its publication. I have reread parts of the first story, "The Tale of Gorgik" several times (at least in part) but this was my first time in about 35 years rereading the entire book.

The book is a set of linked stories, and it is implied that the stories happen somewhere in ancient Central/South Asia of our own Earth's prehistory. While the story features dragons, in most other respects, it is a swords and sandals novel without other explicit fantastic elements.

Gorgik, the protagonist of the first story, starts the narrative as a slave, and ends as the leader of a slave revolt. Other stories focus on female protagonists, and some of the protagonists and characters cross paths with each other in successive stories.

Tales of Neveryon can be considered anthropological SF, as the stories explore:
  • The mysteries of commodity chains, as embodied in children's songs about the bouncing balls that appear and disappear over the course of each year in the port city of Neveryona.
  • The gendering of creation myths, the creation of gender, and the mystery of why men's genitalia are more vulnerable than those of women.
  • The uncomfortable connections between slavery and sexuality. Or, the gayest daddy leatherman Conan you've ever seen!
Tales of Neveryon was very much worth rereading. As it was the first in a series of novels (including the first AIDS novel), I intend to read the rest of Delany's Neveryon series over the course of the year.

Gameable? This is Fate SF, so we're going to ask that question!  Tales of Neveryon has its Gorgik the Liberator, and Everway has its Tales of the Gorgeous Liberator!  Anyone seeking to create game worlds that take culture  and political economy seriously can take a lot of inspiration from this book, and the subsequent ones in the series.

I also found a passage in the book that is very suggestive of Tekumel. The connection might even be real, considering that both Delany and Barker taught at the University of Minnesota:

Outlook: January is a busy month, with the North Country Gaylaxians' discussion both Tales of Neveryon and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang in the first half of the month, and the Second Foundation Reading Group discussing Nisi Shawl's Everfair towards the end of the month. But chances are good that I will finish at least The Faded Sun: Kesrith before February arrives.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Saturday Night Space Opera Zazzle Store

 Click on the image to get to the store!

Did you know there is a Zazzle store for our Saturday Night Space Opera game group? Click on the image or the link here to see all the cool SNSO swag you can order.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Strange Stars Fate Sale

You still have today to get in on the Hydra Cooperative's big PDF sale for the New Year. My Strange Stars Fate rulebook is part of the sale, as is Trey Causey's Strange Stars setting book, which every SF gamer should own. Check them both out, or the entire Hydra list here.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Gaming Trisolaris

2016 MN State Fair Arts & Crafts Exposition

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past, better known as the Three-Body Problem or Trisolarian Trilogy. The trilogy has a huge fandom in China, at least one authorized sequel, and perhaps the most expansive future history since Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. It's the best SF I've ever read, and so of course that makes me wonder aloud about how to make it gameable.

The system - that's pretty straightforward. I'd use Fate, and specifically the Diaspora rules, since they are already fine-tuned for hard SF such as Cixin Liu's trilogy. The Technology-Resources-Environment rating scales can be put to good use in the Trisolarian trilogy's universe.

Environment gets swingy in a system like Trisolaris, where prior to human contact, the system ratings alternate between E0 (garden world) and E-3 (barren world).

We also need some modifications to the T2-4 end of the Technology ratings.

Over the course of the novels, we see Trisolaris transitioning between T levels with respect to interstellar propulsion, from something like a T1 (exploiting the system, and generation ship capability) to T2 (light curvature propulsion by the third novel).

That being said, it is apparent from quite early on that some T4 technologies exist for the Trisolarians, such as sophons and the capability to block others' T-advancement through a sophon block.

Clusters are worth mapping purely as relationships rather than itineraries. Specifically, they become a way to map potential relations of power, including colonial relationships between different species in the dark forest. I suppose there need to be dark forest detection mechanics too.

Finally, what do the PCs do, and what are campaigns like? There are a lot of options here:
  • The PCs are Wallfacers, or in the retinue of a Wallfacer
  • The PCs are members of the ETO, another faction, a group of scientists, or even a spacecraft crew
  • The PCs are Trisolarians, members of a leadership faction or even a dissident group with greater empathy for the humans
  • A Trisolarian campaign should be episodic, with the plot being advanced thanks to time-hopping technologies such as hibernation (for humans), dessication facilities (for Trisolarians), or near lightspeed propulsion / time dilation as plot devices to advance the story.
  • As time advances through progressive eras, the GM should engage the entire group of players in mapping key features of the setting in each era.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Alethiometer Deck

In the Dealers' Room at Gaylaxicon this past weekend, I found a promo deck from The Golden Compass movie. The seller had no idea what the cards were like, but at $10 the deck seemed like a pretty low-risk purchase.

Imagine my surprise when upon opening the deck I saw a unique image on every playing card. And not only an image, but a definition of the image. For example, the 7 of Spades is Serpent, an has the legend: "Definition: Evil, Guile, Natural Wisdom". Very nice! The card includes both a traditional meaning and a more Gnostic interpretation of the Serpent.

I believe each card in the deck is meant to represent one symbol from the alethiometer, the most important clockwork device from the first novel in His Dark Materials. The deck could be used as the Action Deck in any Victorian or steampunk Savage Worlds game, or used as a special divinatory Aspect generator in a steampunk-flavored Fate game.

Compared to the disappointment that was the Penny Dreadful Tarot Deck, The Golden Compass playing card deck is a major find and a bargain.

Steam Between Panels

First the good news: Melissa Scott has a new series of pulp era adventures mixing aviation, archaeology, and the supernatural. The books are coauthored with Jo Graham, and the first book in the series, Lost Things, is pictured above. A few books in there's an adventure set during Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Good stuff.

I learned about this new series during Eleanor Arnason's excellent interview with Melissa at Gaylaxicon last weekend. What I am writing about today is the fact that their discussion also helped me understand something that happened during my panel on Steampunk and Alt History earlier in the convention.

The steampunk panel featured Amy Griswold, co-author with Melissa Scott of a new steampunky alt history Victorian detective series that starts with Death by Silver, and Ginn Hale, known for her groundbreaking gay-and-sexy steampunk novel Wicked Gentlemen. Our panel was focused on steampunk and alt history as a vehicle for exploring stories centered on the experiences of LGBTQ people and other minorities.

We had a good discussion, sharing a number of anthologies, novels, and RPGs that touch on these forms of representation. I also shared some typologies of steampunk RPGs and the differences in how they deal with the conflicting themes of Empire and cultural diversity. My copanelists shared some really fascinating details on aspects of Victorian life based on their research. Their discussion of the complete lack of consumer protection, and the fact that many consumer products (including food and clothing) were adulterated with poisons and toxic chemicals was particularly intriguing. Urban Victorians lived in a toxic swamp!

There was one moment of awkwardness towards the end of the panel, when an audience member asked if we had read Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine.  None of the panelists had read it. I've certainly tried once or twice. I used to feel guilty about this until I figured out that Eleanor Arnason actually introduced a Babbage Engine in an SF&F novel earlier than Sterling and Gibson. See Eleanor Arnason's Daughter of the Bear King (1987).

Eleanor's interview with Melissa Scott brought home a reason why my two co-panelists and I never got around to reading The Difference Engine (1990). They were talking about cyberpunk (Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends was an important work in that genre), and Eleanor mentioned that she was never entirely comfortable with cyberpunk because it had too much Bruce Sterling.

Melissa Scott went on to amplify this point. She talked about writing Trouble and Her Friends as an embodied female response to the kind of masculinist mind-body dualism that we tend to see in cyberpunk, where the male mind prevails over all sorts of adversity, virtual and material. Both Eleanor and Scott highlighted that these same works of fiction (which they felt Sterling's work exemplified) showed white males making the most of the future while women and people of color remained stuck in the underclass.

Now you might agree or strongly disagree with their critique. But it rings a bit true for me when I reflected on the audience surprise in the steampunk panel that none of the panelists had read The Difference Engine.  I know one of the turnoffs for me early in the novel is the female character who is essentially a hostage of the male rogue protagonist. There is a similar turnoff early in A Game of Thrones which has made it difficult for me to make headway with that novel.

So rather than view myself as a "fake fan" or a "fan imposter" for not having read a seminal work, I am now going to consider the fact that a gay guy, and two female authors - each well-versed on steampunk and Victoriana - didn't find that particular "seminal" steampunk work very engaging. There are all sorts of reasons why a particular canon (or Appendix N) is insufficient.

I might still read The Difference Engine, but as I mentioned above, I have already read a good novel with a Babbage Engine. An earlier novel than Gibson & Sterling's.

Credit where credit is due.