Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Few Comments on “Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner

This one’s a science fiction thriller taking place in hot spots all across our solar system, with aliens and conspiracies and interesting tech and culture. This was solid three star material, but felt more like an excerpt from a novel than a stand alone novelette. The characters are okay, the action is okay, and the setting is very, very good… but this just didn’t quite come together in the end.

I loved the whole idea of titular game, though:

B’tok was to chess as chess was to rock-paper-scissors. For starters, b’tok was four-dimensional and could only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of a b’tok game icon depended on its 3- D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolved. It developed turn by turn, and the view differed by side. A player saw only as far as his pieces had explored. The dynamics tended to undo any equilibrium that might arise between rivals; it was a rare match that ended in a draw.

That’s actually a pretty good amalgam of several abstract games that have come out in the past decade or so: Lasca, Hive, Octi, Tamsk. I could not read that passage without trying to work out how to actually design it! Of course, the gameplay that is described later on is not like what I imagined from this. I’ve also got to say though that the idea that the real world political maneuverings would mirror what could on with the game is one that I didn’t feel truly got paid off in the end. Oh, there was spy versus spy and cloak and dagger, sure. But if you set up a character as being some kind of brilliant grand marshal that can see six moves ahead, then you’re on the hook to dazzle me with a Bobby Fisher style combination at some point.

But a crazy Xanatos Gambit just isn’t what we get. Instead… we have to endure some space alien Illuminati scheme and the tinfoil hat types that are hot on their trail. The way it plays out makes me long for the old spy movies that came out before cell phones and the internet. It makes me wonder how anyone can even have an adventure anymore these days. Mars is barren. Venus is a hell world. Earth is so explored that there’s no longer room for millenia old civilizations in Antarctica or deep within the earth. Instead of having the protagonist drop kick a heavy and make off with an alien babe that looks mysteriously like Yvonne Craig, Edward Lerner serves up a couple bland professionals that sit on park bench and mentally text each other about some sort of fake business trip. It ends up being a whole chapter just to set up a fifteen minute conversation.

Please tell me the future isn’t this boring.

This piece to me is emblematic of why I just haven’t bothered to read the big long-running science fiction magazines starting about two decades ago. In the first place, I just don’t expect to get something like this which, you know, at least tries to be “real” science fiction. But even for the stuff that’s otherwise on point, it’s always seemed to me that the editors favor these sort of overwrought, overly bland “serious” works that lack the sort of cogency that I expect from great fiction. Somehow this is supposed to be “real” science fiction while the stuff I like (apparently) is not. I don’t buy that. And I know Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, and A Merritt are long gone… but I do expect people to try.

Random Thoughts: Default Characters, Manly Men, Slumping Sales, and Hipster Welfare

Charles Akins wants to know what your default is when you read a character in a book that isn’t really specified.

Mine is an amalgam of John Carter, Conan, and Dumarest. It’s awesome!

Tom Knighton wants to know if we can name some some of our favorite works that aren’t about manly men doing manly things in manly ways.

I’m trying to think what I like that’s outside of the scope of Conan of Cimmeria, John Carter of Mars, and Dumarest of Terra and I’m having a real hard time. I’m willing to broaden my horizens occasionally by reading about Cugel the Clever, I guess.

Oh wait, I remember liking one book that wasn’t about a Manly Man. It was about this child prodigy military genius that wiped out a huge armada of alien space ships and saved the earth.

You know, other than that… I can’t really think of anything.

You want to know why science fiction sales are slumping? It’s because you can’t get stuff like “Incident on Ath” at Barnes & Nobel. I mean just look at it! Even if the books are all perfectly fine taken out of context, I’d read all 17 novels before this one just to maximize the savory awesomeness of everything about it.

I posted the following poll up on Google+:

True or False ? — Patreon is hipster welfare, a naked embrace of internet panhandling for losers that can’t make it in the open market.

Only 11% of the respondents voted true, but that shouldn’t be surprising– given who’s on my feed, a good many of the people participating actually have rpg-related Patreons themselves!

A Few Comments on “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa

Okay, you know I liked this one.

The fact that this is the Space Gaming Blog actually has nothing to do with that, either. Oh sure… this is exactly the sort of thing that ought to be in the science fiction magazines but which just isn’t there anymore. And yes, I did binge read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, but I only read it for the space battles and I detested most of the characters even if I couldn’t set the danged things down.

But I really didn’t pay that much attention the technical details and the space combat in this one. I guess you’re like, “but Jeffro… that’s about all there was!” Eh, not really. All of that action and detail is there for just one purpose: to establish the setting and the background information without having the author brain dump on the reader. Really, it’s all there so that you can understand what is happening in the final scenes. And of course all of that is there to set up what this story is really about.

So let’s review this past week’s reviews in order to put what I’m about to say into perspective:

  • I have raked Thomas Olde Heuvelt over the coals for creating a setting that was little more than a gigantic navel for his protagonist to gaze upon.
  • I have patronized Kary English with a long-winded dissertation on how to capture and convey a moment of humanity.
  • I have teased Annie Bellet about her ridiculous cardboard cutout redneck bad guys.
  • And I have the audacity to lecture Lou Antonelli on how to depict what happens when real people have some kind of genuine encounter with the supernatural.

Everything that I felt was wrong with their stories…? Everything I’ve nitpicked? Everything I’ve winced at, mocked, belittled, dissected, and criticized…? After all of that pontification, I’m here to tell you, Steve Rzasa got it right. All of it. He just nailed it.

First, there is a setting… there’s something going on and in the midst of a large conflict, there is something significant at stake. That’s a very good start right there. There is no preamble. No prelude. No introduction. Rzasa starts with action and then raises the stakes continually from there.

Secondly, this artificial intelligence is surprisingly the most human character I’ve read about so far in any of the Hugo Nominated works. I mean, with the title like it is, you kind of know where everything is going from the start. But Rzasa actually conveys the sense of this thing going from “eh, just following orders” to convincingly facing a real moral quandary. I’ve seen action. I’ve seen awesome. I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. Have I seen someone that’s really on the horns of a dilemma? You know… until Steve’s story, I don’t think I have. Not in what I’ve read of this year’s Hugo noms anyway.

Thirdly… the bad guy. I guess we’ve seen this type of character before. General Scheisskopf maybe. But the guy is repulsive, right? Why…? Because of a racial slur or sexist remark? Nope. Because he’s trying to win a war by any means necessary? No, not even that. It’s the megalomania combined with his undiluted zeal. If you were in doubt about how much to hate this guy, it’s settled when he bullies our AI protagonist for asking an honest question.

Finally… this story is, whether the author intended it or not, about the most concise description of real Christian religious experience that I have ever seen. It’s far better than the usual weak tea devotionals or Sunday morning “feel good” sermons. Take out the chrome and the explosions, and all that’s left is the sense of this AI character having to count the cost and then ultimately “come out from among them and being separate.”

In fact… there’s a hymn that goes right along with this story that I think highlights the tone that comes across here:

Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’Twixt that darkness and that light.

This is one of those rare tales that I can wholeheartedly rate with five stars. The story just works. It’s impeccably well crafted, sure. But it’s the fact that it conveys some aspect of the sublime that gives the it its resonance and punch. Whether you think that’s a bunch of poppycock or not, you have to admit that there’s something admirable about this AI character, that it does the right thing, and that it is worthy of respect. How often do you come across characters that are that kind of compelling anymore…?

I’ve lately been assured that, “the future will not be made of the ideas of the 1970s, or the 1870s, or the 1770s, or before.” I’m not so sure about that, myself. In spite of the technological advances of the past few hundred years, I have to say that human nature has remained remarkably consistent. And it’s not like there is only once right answer when comes to how we imagine the future. One thing’s certain, however. There will be war. There will be good and evil, right and wrong. There will also be moral dilemmas that take on a spiritual dimension. All of us will face that. And there will be… more than just “good feels” and “bad feels” resulting from this, but actual consequences due to how people decide. That is after all a big part of what makes epics so danged epic, after all. It makes for good reading whether you’re talking about elves or spaceships– and I’m glad this was on the shortlists this year.

A Few Comments on “On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

I really dread it when science fiction writers delve into religious topics. I just wince when one of Isaac Asimov’s rationalistic know-it-alls, for example, condescendingly explains to a ditzy romantic interest that Jezebel wasn’t necessarily such a bad person. You know how Southerners get accused of still fighting the Civil War? Some people act like they’re still arguing at the Scopes Monkey trial. And Ender’s Game was such a great book… but who on earth encouraged Orson Scott Card to make some kind of parochial Catholicism be such a central part of its sequel? (That Hugo Award winning novel right there is all the proof you need that the Hugo Awards are broken!) Dude… I came back because you delivered the exploding space ships. What do you think you’re doing?!

In a similar vein, I nearly aborted my reading of the Honor Harrington series because by the second book, I was positive that the Graysons were just being brought in to function as whipping boys. Using these sorts of people as a punching bag goes back at least to, what? “A Study in Scarlet”? Perfectly legitimate, sure. I’m just tired of it. Of course, Weber had quite a bit more in mind for those characters than the same old same old, but still.

That brings us to this passage from Lou Antonelli’s Hugo nominated work from this year:

Although most people went along with being “volunteered”, after the suggestion was made I agreed willingly. I was single and so nobody else had to suffer with me; I thought it would be worthwhile experience for a young Methodist minister.
I commed the base Commander.   “A quick question,” I asked.   “Was Joe McDonald the first human die on Ymilas?”
“Why yes, he was. Why do you ask?”
“He’s here in my quarters.  He’s become his own Helpful Ancestor.”
The Commander cursed, then asked “What do we do now?”
“I don’ know about ‘we’,” I said, “but I have some counseling to do, and then I call Dergec.”

Now… I don’t have anything against the writer and I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with this story. And I realize that I’m maybe coming from left field with this one. But I gotta say… too many people write about religion in science fiction when they know basically nothing about it. And the people doing it often don’t know that they don’t know. The worst stuff is by the people that have no inkling that a lot of their assumptions about life, nature, and man constitute a de facto religion when they think they quite beyond such things.

The problem with this particular passage, though… I guess it’s twofold, really:

  1. I don’t think I can tell you that I’ve ever really met a Methodist that successfully gave me the impression that he actually believed in life after death, that heaven was real, that the devil was the prince of this world, that Jesus was real person, and/or that the stuff in the bible actual corresponds to history and reality in any significant way. They’re mostly just nice people that are a touch sentimental about some old stories.
  2. I’ve never seen anyone involved in any kind of church type counseling see some kind of problem, roll up their sleeves, and say something to the effect of, “yeah boy! I’m gonna do some counseling. Woo-hoo!”

These people– and this is harsh– they’re really some kind of combination of a bureaucrat, a community organizer, and a psychoanalyst. They might have their own veneer of religion-themed jargon depending on their sect… but really…. they’re just ordinary folks mostly. If they were to encounter some kind of actual supernatural type phenomenon, they would be just as gobsmacked as, say, Ebenezer Scrooge when he encountered Jacob Marley’s ghost. But this isn’t some kind of morality play. And there are aliens involved. And there’s some kind of sciencey explanation setting up the premise. So my objection to how “realistic” this feels is entirely subjective and maybe not even fair.

But then there’s this:

I turned in the same direction as Dergec.  “Are you okay with this, friend?  You ready to go home?”
There was a pause, and then Dergec said “He is fearful, but ready.”  He paused and continued.  “Joseph said he wants you to know he appreciates your kindness, but he knows nothing awaits him.  He learned the true nature of the pilgrimage from the Helpful Ancestors.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“He says it is good, he realizes there is nothing left for him here, and he would rather be nothing than a ghost on a strange world,” said Dergec.  “He said the others have given him courage.  He hopes his immortal soul has already reached your heaven.”
“I know it has, Joe,” I said, my voice cracking a bit.  “I have faith in that, that’s my job. To have faith.”

Eh, what does that even mean? Does this character have any concept of what he’s saying? I mean… George Michael had faith, what does this guy have?

And back to these real life chaplain types serving doing a job in the context of an extremely diverse range of religions. Maybe the closest to that that many of us might have come in contact with that is a “campus minister” at a college or university. Can you imagine that sort of person saying something like this… and really thinking that it means something? Again, I don’t have some kind of huge beef with this author or this story. But something just seems off to me here. Oh, no… it’s not as bad as, say, depicting rednecks that drink gin. I just feel there’s something more that could be done with this.

A Few Comments on “Goodnight Stars” by Annie Bellet

Okay, this actually is a story. There are characters, there is an actual reality that they interact with, there is conflict and the protagonist actually undergoes some kind of an arc. I like how it’s built around a set of five kickers that gradually amp up the suspense. There is also an actual science fiction premise here. This is pretty good.

But it’s also amateurish. It’s use of the “f word” a whopping seven times makes it seem like it was written by an adolescent, not a Hugo caliber writer. “Three big white men” roar in from “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” in order to hurl racist epithets and behave in a cowardly fashion. (You know, my generation worked overtime to make The Joker into a sympathetic character. Why does yours use cardboard cutouts for bad guys? Seriously, y’all.) Finally, I’m surprised that the use of a lame pun at the most dramatic moment of the story made it through editing. Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Vance, Lovecraft, and Howard lately to get into this, but I’d have thought that we really could do better than this for what’s supposed to be the year’s best fiction.

So why do people like it so much? I think because it’s real. I know the sort of people in the story. I know the places they travel in. The science is convincing. These many connections to reality grounds the story and gives it some real substance. And those kickers really are effective:

  • As if she knew anything just because her mother was on the Moon. She snorted.
  • “Something hit the Moon. That’s why the meteors were so awesome last night. It was the Moon exploding.”
  • The Moon was gone.
  • There was a huge cracking noise overhead, and the road seemed to roll up beneath them. Out of the brush at the sides of the highway, hundreds of deer sprang forward, flooding into the road and then across and down the other side.
  • A high whining noise broke the still air, as though a jet engine had materialized somewhere above them.

You can drop that into the middle of just about any Traveller campaign and then run with it. It’s great.

On the other hand, I am just so sick of this:

“A big truck roared into the station as Jack was finishing with the pump. Three big white men, mid-twenties to thirties, jumped out, whooping. Two of them were carrying machetes.”

“Ooh, look Jerry.” One of the other men, the one not holding Heidi, laughed. “The spic cunt there wants us to leave.”

I know that this sort of thing is a morsel of joy for 80% of the internet… but come on! You forgot the part where they had a gun rack, rebel flag prominently displayed on the back window, truck nuts hanging off the back bumper, and that they fired off their Dixie horn kit when they pulled in. Lynyrd Skynyrd blares on their radio. These guys spit tobacco juice into old Mountain Dew cans, drop their “g’s”, and have at least one item of hunter camouflage on their person.

And they gallantly protect the gas station from looters and then save someone’s life because of their experience working with the volunteer fire department.

I mean what else would they do?

Yee-haw.

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