Sunday, August 17, 2014

Definitely Maybe

A group of Russian intellectuals find their researches are being interrupted. Some of the interruptions are bizarre, such as the sudden delivery of never-ordered booze, caviar, and cheese. Some of the interruptions are downright scary, such as the sudden apparent suicide of a colleague. Others are threatening, such as the interrogations of the devilishly red-headed investigator looking into the suicide, or a mystery telegram implying that a loved one is in trouble.

The intellectuals represent different disciplines: biology, astronomy, and literature to name a few. What they have in common is that a few of them live in the same big Soviet-era apartment complex. Back in my Binghamton days, my friend Boris and I lived in a big, run-down apartment complex that reminded Boris of his childhood in Leningrad. Happy memories. A sense of community. People dropping in on each other.

Most of the" action" in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel Definitely Maybe is just like that: friends, and sometimes strangers (in both senses of the world), dropping in on each other, drinking, smoking, boozing, and theorizing. The conversation and banter is fun and funny. This novel is almost an SF comedy of manners.

This is a new translation of the novel by Antonina W. Bouis, with an afterword by Boris Strugatsky. It's part of the Neversink Library imprint from Melville House.

The friends propose different theories to explain the constant interruptions in their disparate lines of research:  a human conspiracy (secret masters of sorts), aliens, and the Homeostatic Universe. The latter idea is that the universe itself abhors being known/knowable, and acts against those who probe its secrets. The novel concludes with most of the characters deciding that pursuing their research will be too destructive: it will harm the people they love the most.

One among their number is determined to forge ahead with his research. He decides to relocate to the distant Pamirs, far away from anyone who could be harmed as the Homeostatic Universe makes "adjustments" to slow down the researcher's progress.

The novel is significantly less gloomy than the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic and Hard to be a God. (But it's still gloomy.) It has one connection to Roadside Picnic which is that one of the characters hypothesizes that an (alien) "supercivilization" is behind the interruptions of peoples' researches. The same term is used in Roadside Picnic to explain the appearance of the Pillman Radiant and the Zones.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Recent Field Reports From the Zones

This is a week The Strange is everywhere. So I thought it would be timely to remind folks about From the Zones - an ongoing community project inspired by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's classic SF novel Roadside Picnic - as well as by Andrei Tarkovsky's great film STALKER, which is itself based on the Strugatskys' novel.

Background on the project and how to participate can be found right here. The collection of Field Reports by contributors describing new Zones, taxonomic tables, new phenomena, artifacts, threats, and more can be found right here. We welcome new Field Reports at any time.

We've had a recent Field Report by Bruce Baugh! Meet Moira Tesla, and her Glass Pistol! Bruce uses the new Valiant RPG to stat out a Stalker and a picnic in the Valiant Universe. We're a big fan of Cosmic Patrol, which uses the same game system as Valiant Universe, so we may be meeting Moira on her home turf once the Valiant HC comes out!

And hot on the heels of Bruce's post is a new interstellar campaign seed by Mark Carroll, called The Picnic Basket. Mark's Field Report calls on the Cosmic Patrol for help! You're going to want to read the comments for this one, which riff on Vernor Vinge, Roadside Picnic's Golden Sphere, and Hellraiser's Lemarchand devices.

From the Zones logo courtesy of Hereticwerks.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Second Noon?

Give this wikipedia article on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Noon Universe a gander. We have an interstellar science fiction setting with no interplanetary or interstellar governments. No space empires, no imperialism and war among the stars.

Most humans just life on Earth. Most of humanity's problems have been solved - by humanity. It's a post-scarcity society, and one that is communistic. The stage of communism that has been achieved is the highest one, where the state has withered away. Socialism circles back into anarchism. Society is guided by other kinds of collectivities such as councils.

Interstellar travel is nearly instantaneous. It is mainly scientists and observers who get around the stars. Other worlds in other systems also have human or near-human populations (Arkanar is a good example of this), but how they got there is a bit of a mystery. We'd probably have to turn the clock back thousands and thousands of years to figure that one out.

Other systems have aliens. Some of the aliens are so alien that it takes a while to figure out they are intelligent.

Earth sends out observers to other worlds. When societies are less developed than Earth (and here it is important to point out that the development of most human and near-human societies follows predictable "stages" outlined in "basis theory"), there is a policy of non-intervention to prevent the development of things like a "20th Century Rome".

But people from Earth are no longer used to everyday violence and misery. Being around it sickens one. Some observers feel obligated to act. Small actions, like saving someone's life: probably no big deal. Big actions, like ending the life of a tyrant, fomenting a peasant rebellion, or introducing advanced technology: those are no-no's. Some observers will do it anyway. There's a story there to tell there.

Other humans go out to explore. Lots of stories to tell there as well.

I'd imagine Sector General style stories could work in this universe too.

Here at FATE SF, I am going to explore developing a Second Noon campaign frame. I'll take my time with this project, lots of irons in the fire right now, and I want to read more of the Strugatskys' novels set in the Noon Universe.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hard To Be A God

Would you read a Culture novel set in Westeros? We have something like that in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Hard to be a God, now available in a new translation from the Chicago Review Press by Olena Bormashenko. She did the recent edition of Roadside Picnic, as well, so if you had a good experience with that book you should really try this one. First published in the Khruschev era in 1964, this novel was much more popular with Russian SF readers than Roadside Picnic. That makes sense to me, as a friend who grew up in the USSR once described conspiracy as the best hermaneutic lens for interpreting events in Russian politics. There's a lot of conspiracy going on in this novel.

Hard to be a God is considered one of the Strugatskys' more optimistic novels, set in the post-scarcity, communist future of the Noon Universe.*  There are cornucopia machines, even though they are not called that. The banter between the protagonist and his friends will be very familiar to the fans of the non-Romantic and more picaresque figures in modern fantasy, such as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The Strugatsky brothers set out to write a lighthearted urban adventure inspired by the Three Musketeers. However the novel took a radically different turn due to Russian politics in the early 1960s. The novel became a cautionary tale disguised as an adventure.

The time the novel was written was less than a decade after Khruschev's Secret Speech of 1956, in which he officially disclosed Stalin's crimes to party leaders. It was also just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could have ended in a nuclear war if not for the moral probity of the Russian submariner who refused launch orders (but the world only learned of that much, much later).

Within Russia, the apparent cultural openness of the Khruschev period was being challenged by party operatives in the cultural sphere who used Khruschev's personal expression of distaste for avant garde art as the excuse to begin a crackdown on various types of experimental art and literature. The Strugatskys remembered the past decades; Hard to be a God was their response.

We find our hero, the ne'er do well Don Rumata (one of a number of Earth observers who are on the planet in disguise) living the life of a dissolute noble swordsman in the kingdom of Arkanar. The kingdom has fallen on bloody, brutal times, with a useless young king and his menacing advisor, Don Reba (think Beria, with the "i" removed for purposes of deniability). Reba has built up a private militia - the grayshirts - who are busy arresting and executing any intellectuals they can get their hands on.

There are concerns among the Earth observers that Arkanar's development has deviated from the normal course that "base theory" (i.e., "Dialectical and Historical Materialism") outlines for the development of societies from the medieval to industrial stage. Instead, some kind of quasi-fascist social movement is taking over the kingdom of Arkanar. Society has deviated from its natural course of development, and the Earth observers are uncertain how or why this has happened.

I won't give away the plot, but I will say that for a purportedly optimistic novel, its tone is unremittingly grim - much, much worse than Roadside Picnic. Sure, their are humorous moments, but all of them are set against a dark background. This is probably the strongest connection to the work of Iain M. Banks, for unlike the agents of the Culture, the observers of Noon Universe Earth are not allowed to intervene in the social development and political affairs of the kingdom.

Of course, some Earth observers have broken the rules and intervened anyway. And our hero plays close to the edge of the Noon Universe's "Prime Directive" by rescuing and relocating intellectuals, scholars, and scientists who are being persecuted by the regime.

Life is very cheap under the regime of Don Reba. Things aren't much different in our world. I was reading the novel during the midst of Israel's brutal re-re-re-invasion of Gaza, and at the height of the U.S.-based hysteria over and persecution of Central American children at the border. Seeing the U.S.'s latest intervention to re-fix the mess it created in Iraq, is a good reminder that it is Hard to be a God - very hard in deed. Best to think about it first. 

It goes without saying that the brutality of Don Reba, and of later social actors in the novel such as the Holy Order, are very reminiscent of the behavior of the powerful in A Game of Thrones. Perhaps it's no accident that Arkanar has a Gray Joy Inn, and a less-than-beloved king who dies at the hands of a poison wielding adviser.

 *Be forewarned that some of the information in the wiki article on the Noon Universe is inaccurate. For example, the Progressors are explicitly forbidden to interfere in the primitive alien cultures they observe. That is Earth's policy. One wonders whether Roddenberry had read (or heard of) the Strugatskys' novel before Star Trek debuted in 1966.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Edge Of The Zone

Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker"

At the Edge of almost every Zone is a cordon sanitaire. If militaries, paramilitaries, or corporations can seal off a Zone, they will. Your best bet in breaking through the cordon is a small, fast, quiet vehicle - and bribery.

Especially bribery.

There are Free Zones however. These are either in areas that are too geographically remote to seal off and patrol effectively, or are Zones that have gone entirely overlooked. This latter category is also likely to be geographically isolated. And if there isn't an overlay of civilization at the site of the Zone, there may not be enough oddness to the natural environment for a Zone to be detected - certainly not by satellite.

But never fear. This is where drones are your friend. If a Zone is suspected in an area, drones can be deployed to detect them. Once you lose a drone, you know that something is happening.  This is how the Institute and a number of corporations scout out Zones in new areas.

There are also "Edgeless Zones". Conventional Zones have an Edge; they are easy to imagine as a set of concentric circles with ever increasing intensity and weirdness as one progresses toward the center of the Zone. In contrast, the boundaries of Edgeless Zones fluctuate so wildly that it is usually difficult to tell where the Zone is at any moment. Imagine an amorphous, constantly shifting amoeba, rather than a series of concentric circles.

Even worse, at least one Edgeless Zone has become unfixed even in relative terms. It's migrating, and has already swallowed a few towns and moved on with a rather unpredictable, saltatory gambol. Behind it lies a path of destruction - and its inexplicable leavings.

Logo courtesy of Hereticwerks.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Approaching Kunlun Station

Art by Juan Ochoa

Time to get back to Strangers and Friends. You can see the original posts in the series here. Our goal with this project is to do a series of posts - one per Monday - profiling each of the people pictured in Juan Ochoa's illustration. We're using Mindjammer for this project, since I want to get familiar with that implementation of Fate Core.

Kunlun Station is the informal capital of Shining Lake Sectora Rimward region of space just beyond the Empire (the default space opera setting here at FATE SF). Kunlun Station was built by the R.U.R. over one million years ago, as part of an effort to resettle refugees fleeing the Core. The Kunlun system has one known slipknot connection, which leads to the R.U.R. industrial system of Fountain, deep within the Coreward region of R.U.R. space.

Arriving at Kunlun Station.  Pass the lonely gas giant with its entourage of moons, and go inward toward the sun. The only other object in the system is Kunlun Station. The station was built around a disk-shaped plate approximately 10 km wide on its rim side, and 1,000 km in diameter across the Plate. Most space vessels enter the station through one of the numerous ports on the rim, and then make their way to one of the numerous docking facilities deep within the station.

But the Station is far more than a plateworld. Indeed, from space that is the feature that is the station's least noticeable feature! The Mountain Zones, two huge mountain ranges, "rise" from either surface of the Plate. Each soars as much as 100 km above the Plates, with the highest mountains clustering toward the Plate's hub. The mountains are shielded by dome-like pressure curtains, which retain atmosphere within the two snow-capped mountainous hemispheres. A stable 1G is maintained throughout the upper and lower Mountain Zones, although gravity can be quite variable in strength and polarity once one is inside the Station itself. The casual observer notices rivers and streams and green mountain valleys. The careful observer sees the birds, mastodons and other megafauna, and the various small habitations, shrines, and monasteries.

Deep radar scans demonstrate that Kunlun Station has a central vacuity that is least 50 km deep and 50 km across - a cube, where the ancient "coin" had a missing square. The original structure must have been very similar to a number of ancient and long abandoned "Chinese coin" plateworlds scattered throughout the Near Rim. R.U.R. authorities state that this area is "sacred", and that they have never granted visitors access to the vacuity. But everyone who has been on the station for a while has a story to tell of an acquaintance, patron, or rival who has been there. Their reports vary considerably.

What else is inside the Station? Let's come in for a landing! Come back next time and we'll get oriented.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Deck Of Fridays 24: Made Up For It

Starchild with Stylus

Welcome back to DECK OF FRIDAYS, our weekly feature here at FATE SF! Each week (more or less) since the release of the Deck of Fate, we have made a draw from the Deck of FateRPG Inspiration Cards, or another Aspect-generative randomizer. Then we do something interesting with it, using the Aspect as inspiration for a campaign or scenario seed, a situation, scene, location, NPC, thingie, etc.

This week's draw from the Deck of Fate is a card with the aspect Made Up For It. The card has a value of zero, so my guess is that the original intent behind this Aspect was "equivalence" or "a wash". But zero really isn't that exciting a standpoint, so let's get creative. Let's assume this is actually about appearance.

As in, "You're made up for it."  Here's a 4DF table of SF cosmetics and beauty supplies.

Essential SFnal Beauty Supplies Table

Every starport's Essential Beauty Supply franchise has just what you need. The very thing to get your face on. Or get it off. Stretch out that sagging integument. Swap out that old keratin for something with a bit more pizzaz.  Roll 4DF or draw a card from the Deck of Fate, and consult the encounter corresponding to the numerical result on the left.
  • -4: Envizion (TM). It's expensive. The ultimate anti-aging product, the Envizion chemical peel uses proprietary alien enzymes to dissolve and reshape wayward flesh. It is injected subdermally. Then you just wait - a few hours or a few days, depending on your physiology - and meditate.(But don't fall asleep.) Imagine the face or body you want to have. Usually that is what you get. Indefinitely.  Side effects, which can be avoided or minimized by retaining a licensed Envizion meditation coach, include Doppelganger Syndrome, in which the user begins to resemble a celebrity from the Signal - and Spiders from Mars Syndrome, which is just plain bad. 
  • -3: Stylus (TM). These wand-like programmable fabricator-applicators use triple effector beams* to apply cosmetics flawlessly. They can also be configured to custom print and apply nails. A favorite tool of assassins, the Stylus can produce nails and lip gloss with a range of toxic and hallucinatory affects.  
  • -2: COMpact (TM). This small programmable beauty kit includes a mirror, a nanofabricator, and a convenient reservoir for balms, creams, and serums. Visit any world with Signal, and the COMpact immediately hooks into the vine and downloads the latest data on cosmetic trends. Select preferences displayed over the "mirror" touchscreen, and then the nanofabricator sets to work producing the cosmetic options of your choice. A variety of applicator extensions are also available for this kit.
  • -1:  Freshwig (TM), Hair that Doesn't Fight You! The ultimate in reflexive personal defense, Freshwig comes in many varieties, textures, and colors. But the one thing that all Fleshwig have in common is that they won't give YOUR head a bad hair day. Your remote-controlled weaponized wig will keep you safe anywhere! No more worries about papparazzi, aggressive fans, or kidnappers! The monofilaments of the Freshwig cap read your thoughts, making it easy to trigger a range of effects, from piercing locks of hair to tentacular grasping strands, to the release of toxins.  
  •  0:  Spray-on-Face (TM), the Perfect Disguise (TM) for alien or human, living or dead. Sold in packets roughly the diameter of burrito wraps, each SoF is a 1 cm thick layer of programmable flesh. It can be shaped, textured, and colorized to make radical changes in facial features. Each application works for 24 hours - and more if you feed it. But don't wear one too long.
  • +1: Animate (TM), roll-on depilatory jellies. You'll be scaly for a few days (all over), as body hair, horns, and scales just flake off. But they're gone forever. 
  • +2: Reanimate (TM), programmable keratinizing jelly. Add a new layer of hair, horns, or scales in the colors and textures of your choice. 
  • +3: Sign Vine (TM), the Living Extensions that keep you connected.**  These hair extensions look like dreads, but they are plants that form symbiotic relationships with hair follicles. They range in color from rust red to dark green to brown and sustain themselves through photosynthesis. No one with Sign Vine is ever truly alone, because via scalp induction, the vine connect the user to the local Signal. 
  • +4: BounzTatz (TM). Popularized by spacers, these "living tattoos" range from animated flesh glyphs to three dimensional biological graft creatures.*** Want a parrot or a monkey on your shoulder - permanently? BounzTatz brings it.

*Iain M. Banks just keeps on giving.

**Inspired by Nnedi Okorafor's Zahrah the Windseeker.

***Inspired by Samuel R. Delaney's Nova and Babel-17.