Monday, December 28, 2020

#StayAtHome: "Star Trek Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind"


David Mack's "Reap the Whirlwind " is the third book in the Star Trek: Vanguard series, a set of Original Series novels set in the Taurus Reach, an area outside the Federation and bordered by the Klingon Empire, the Tholian Assembly, and the Federation. The Organian Peace Treaty does not exist yet, so the setting features intense espionage, sabotage, diplomacy, and intrigue among these three powers. 

The intrigue isn't just about territory: there is a series of ancient alien archaeological finds on many worlds in the Taurus reach, finds that promise great power for the faction that can unlock their secrets. But one of the three factions would rather keep these secrets buried...

In Star Trek Adventures terms, the Taurus Reach is a campaign setting ripe for exploration and intrigue. There is Starbase 47 (the station name for this Watchtower-class starbase is Vanguard), the Federation's primary footprint in the sector, and the heart of Federation operations covert and overt in the area. There are four important starships in this novel: USS Endeavor, the Constitution-class starship assigned to the sector after the destruction of the USS Bombay; the USS Sagittarius, an Archer-class starship (the small ship on the book cover which is trying to dodge a Klingon D7), the operations "runabout" (as it were) assigned to the starbase; USS Lovell, a refurbished Daedalus-class explorer assigned to a Starfleet Corps of Engineers crew; and the Rocinante, a free trader whose Captain, Cervantes Quinn, is beholden to both the Orion syndicate and to Lt. Commander T'Prynn, the Starfleet Intelligence liaison to Starbase 47. 

Yes, Rocinante does come up as a rogue ship name in SF from time to time, doesn't it?

I am not sure how accessible the book would be to someone just starting the series with this book, but there is a 30+ page glossary at the back. I plan to continue reading the series, even though I am not a huge fan of the ancient alien threat at the center of the series, and I find some of the characterization a bit tiresome; to wit, please either stop referring to female crew as the "brunette", or do the same occasionally with males; consider less frequent introduction of new female characters as annoying antagonists for male characters; consider not blowing up one of the two lesbian characters in the book, especially just after the characters' big break up scene.

So there are things in the series that annoy me, for sure. But in sourcebook terms, it IS a very interesting effort to create a setting for new Star Trek adventures (insert a capital "A" if you like; a Taurus Reach boxed set would be A GREAT IDEA for the RPG). You would really want this particular book in the series for its glossary, if you were going to use the setting in advance of a boxed set, and you'd want the first book in the series, Harbinger, for its nifty fold out map of both Vanguard and the exteriors of the Sagittarius. I know that this Archer-class starship has become a favorite for some Star Trek Adventures fans, as it is warp capable, able to land planetside, and small enough to be crewed by a handful of PCs. 

I have even thought about using the Taurus Reach for convention-based scenarios; it's probably just a matter of time until I figure out a story I want to tell. In the meantime, I am starting in on book four of the series, Dayton Ward's Open Secrets.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

#StayAtHome: Jenny Odell's "How To Do Nothing"


If quitting Facebook forever really isn't an option (and it isn't for most of us), what should you do to avoid doing work for Facebook, Twitter, etc.? By work here, I mean letting the attention economy (pushing the "Like" button, hitting the refresh addictively, and retweeting or resharing the latest outrage) command your attention. Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" (2019) was written to explore that question. She suggests that the answer is to retrain our attention to notice people and details in our local environment and broader region.

She makes her case through storytelling and theory, ranging from ancient Greek philosophy to the art scene (she is a digital artist by profession), social theory, birding (her hobby), and nature walks. An important insight in the book is that the attention economy produces and relies upon a kind of siloed attention: while people are networked, each person's online experience is profoundly channeled and controlled by algorithms in a way that makes shared experiences nearly impossible. Instead, we have to focus our attention on local people and nature if we want to engage in authentic dialogue, community, and exchange.

Odell is incredibly skilled at weaving together different kinds of knowledge and experience, and she has a gift for explaining art, social theory, and animal behavior in ways that are incredibly accessible to the general reader. This was the December book for the Empire Reading Group, and a great book with which to round out the year.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

#StayAtHome: John M. Ford's "The Final Reflection"


This was my first rereading of John M. Ford's The Final Reflection (1984) since its original publication some thirty six years ago (!).  My first reflection is how much the novel (and, secondarily, the FASA Star Trek RPG supplement The Klingons, also authored by John M. Ford) have shaped my understanding of who the Klingons "really" are. I believe this was the first really sympathetic portrayal of the Klingons, written from a Klingon point of view. I mean, in my current post-Dominion war Shackleton Expanse Star Trek Adventures RPG campaign, there are Human-Klingon and Romulan-Klingon fusions, and there is even a small renascent Imperial Klingon States in the Expanse. In fact, one of my best pieces of game writing for this campaign was their "declaration" of the new IKS.

A second reflection, provoked in part also by some of the journalism about Star Trek: Discovery, is that the Klingons have been reinvented several times. So any Star Trek GM will need to decide which Klingons they are using - or which combination of Klingon-types they are select for the Klingons in their game. For example, while Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation had this weird idea that repairing disabilities with prosthetics was somehow un-Klingon and/or dishonorable, the Klingons in The Final Reflection have all kinds of prosthetics - even obvious plastic facial prosthetics. Similarly, notions like the Black Fleet and the significance of "the naked stars" start here, with John M. Ford.

A final reflection is that whoever wrote Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, must have been influenced by The Final Reflection. There are just to many similarities in themes, and in the core conspiracies present in the movie to make this happen by accident. Some of Ford's themes spill back to Enterprise as well, particularly the "humans first" movement which seeks to cut off Earth from other worlds.

This is a very enjoyable novel, with a lot of action and a lot of heart, and some really evocative literary references as well. Anyone who has Klingons reading The Once and Future King is doing Klingons and Trek the right way. 

It was nice to see an acknowledgement of John M. Ford in STA's new Klingon Core Book.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

#StayAtHome: Paul Waters' "The Republic of Vengeance"


When I purchased Paul Waters' The Republic of Vengeance at Uncle Edgar's (the back room of Uncle Hugo's SF bookstore, where mysteries and historical novels live), Elizabeth told me that some of the regulars, who are fans of novels set in classical antiquity didn't like the homosexuality in the novel. Apparently they didn't look at the last paragraph of the Historical Note at the back of the book:

"It should perhaps be noted that bisexuality was ubiquitous in the ancient world, and well attested in the sources. Such behavior was not, in itself, an object of censure, and this remained true until the end of the classical period when the Church, wielding its growing political power, began to impose its own uniform blueprint on human relations." 

This book in fact qualifies as a gay novel. Marcus, the Roman protagonist, is gay and a major arc in the novel is the development of his lifelong relationship with his Greek lover, the athlete Menexenos. But it is not a typical gay novel, as one of its abiding themes is a young man's quest for vengeance against the pirate who killed his father (and indeed a whole shipload of hostages, of which Marcus was the only survivor). This quest leads the young man into the Greek and eventually Roman war against Phillip the Fifth of Macedon, who has designs on the whole of Greece (and possibly the whole Mediterranean).

Rome is still a Republic, and during the course of the novel (albeit offscreen) Hannibal is finally defeated, while closer to center stage, Phillip and his pirate lover Dikaiarchos wreck chaos across the Greek peninsula. The last novel I read, David Anthony Durham's The Risen tells the story of the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome; it happens a bit after this novel, and I swear that there is way more explicit raunch, gay and straight, in Durham's novel than in Winters'. The latter is far more interested in Hellenistic philosophy than in gay sex, but Paul Winters tells a good story. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

#StayAtHome: Spartacus, Corona, Cuboniks


Two of these books are among my best reads of the year. David Anthony Durham's The Risen is a novel of the Spartacus uprising during the Roman Republic. It is written in short chapters, each conveying the perspective of a different character who was part of the Spartacus movement. You get to see how the movement and individual characters evolve over time. I had dinner with David once (and with Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson) 12 years ago or so, and it is amazing to see how his career and Nnedi's have progressed. David is best known for the Acacia fantasy trilogy, but now that I have read "The Risen", I want to read another of his historical novels, Pride of Carthage, which is about Hannibal. This was my best read of 2020 to date; I read it slowly over the summer and fall. Like all really good books, finishing it leaves a bit of a hole.

Andreas Malm's Corona, Crisis, and Climate Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century was the other great read of 2020. It looks at the intersections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. It asks some difficult questions, like why did (most) states respond very aggressively to COVID-19 while choosing not to respond in significant ways to the climate crisis, which has been killing 150,000 people a year for the last four decades. The book makes a persuasive case that climate change is a primary driver of pandemics, as local habitat disruption forces pathogen-carrying species to migrate. Malm revises radical disaster theory (which emphasizes social factors as the drivers of disaster) by showing how capital in fact drives climate crises and in turn drives biological crises like pandemics. (Note that while the text engages with James O'Connor, one of the founders of Ecological Marxism, it fails to engage with other compelling radical ecologies, such as the Marxist eco-feminisms of Vananda Shiva, Maria Mies, and others. More on the exclusion of non-European thought in a bit.)

Malm's solution is a call for war communism to address the dual crises of pandemics and climate crises. This requires the exercise of state power, so anarchism is out because it rejects using the most critical tool. Similarly, social democracy is out, because it is ineffective in crisis periods. His deus ex machina is that simultaneous Leninist revolutions will happen in multiple countries - somehow. Because he doesn't engage with capitalism as a world-system though, there is no theory behind how these "simultaneous" revolutions might occur, or how they will stay true to their original goals once state power is taken. Here he relies on Adorno and Trotsky to keep the revolutions true. 

You can't get more magical thinking or more Eurocentrism in one serving, and given the terrible track record of Trotskyism in the real world (zero successful revolutions, almost zero traction outside Europe and North America) this is a really self-defeating place to land. Still though, there is a lot of exciting food for thought in this small book, and much of the text left me very hopeful that positive, rapid change on a world scale still might be possible. Malm creates the sense of urgency for the change, and a sense of possibility; it's just that his analysis and prescriptions really need to step outside the European and Western Marxist frames.

Then there is The Xenofeminist Manifesto by the five-country collective Laboria Cuboniks. I read it in about an hour on the exercise bike, and you can too. The point of the text is a bit drowned out by its graphic design, but I gather the main points are to put forward xenofeminism as an anti-essentialist, pro-science, trans-friendly revolutionary feminism for the digital age. None of this is bad. 

What is bad is the way that the text is absolutely smothered by the design. It reminded me a lot of the cover and interior of the Swedish old-school metal RPG Mork Borg ("Dark Fortress"), which came out 2 years after The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Which images below come from the manifesto, and which come from the RPG? Choose your own adventure, but no more of this, please!

Sunday, November 15, 2020

#StayAtHome: Tillie Walden's "On a Sunbeam" and "Cosmic Slumber Tarot"


The art above comes from Tillie Walden's SF epic graphic novel On a Sunbeam, which tells the story of a group of women and one genderfluid crewmember who travel the stars repairing abandoned space relics. Not relics as in spacecraft, but relics as in "old palaces" or other mysterious and long-abandoned structures hanging alone in the built environment of deep space. The starships we see are giant koi, and there are elements of space magic in the graphic novel. At 500+ pages, the story takes a while to "take in" and includes two storylines: the protagonist's school days, and her present life as part of a travelling architectural repair crew. Think about the design intent of the RPG Diaspora, remove all men from the picture (it totally passes the Bechdel test), and add space magic and you have some sense of the promise of this graphic novel. It also has one of the nerviest borrowings from classic SF: in particular, from Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day".

During the North Country Gaylaxian's discussion of the Walden book, we discovered that she has also created the Cosmic Slumber Tarot. This is a full-sized, full-color Tarot deck with two extra cards representing day and night. The art is very reminiscent of  the author's illustration  style in On a Sunbeam, in particular once we reach the vivid, mysterious and magical world known as The Staircase. The deck is charming and beautiful, and comes with a small hardcover guide to the deck. The cards and book come in a hard double box with a magnetic close. It is very reasonably priced at $25.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

#StayAtHome: "The End of Policing" by Alex Vitale

Alex Vitale's The End of Policing is required reading for the movements seeking to abolish the police. In recent months in Minneapolis, gun violence and other crime has increased, and people in the neighborhoods closest to the uprising get no help in terms of routine public safety services. Since the Third Precinct burned, the Minneapolis Police Department seems to have fully withdrawn, as if telegraphing to residents: "So you want to abolish the police? Well, you are on your own. See how you like it."

To make matters worse, the city council members who pledged their "veto-proof" majority in favor of abolishing the MPD either willfully mismanaged the process so that nothing would be on the ballot (a required step to remove the MPD, as a chartered organization, from the budget) or were hopelessly naive about how to get to what they pledged to do. All of them need to go.

Vitale doesn't point toward a grand strategy to get rid of the police. What he does do, in topical chapter after topical chapter (e.g., on the limits of police reform, the fact that the police are not there to protect the public, homelessness, mental illness, school-to-prison pipeline, sex workers, gangs, immigration, and political policing) is that the police are not delivering good outcomes for the public, and that the major reforms proposed (i.e., sensitivity training, body cameras, specialty courts for the homeless, mentally ill, sex workers, youth in gangs, etc.) are ineffective. 

For almost every situation, Vitale makes the case that social work and humane social policy are better than policing. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

#StayAtHome: Melissa Scott's "Finders"


"Finders keepers, losers weepers" may be the inspiration for the title of Melissa Scott's 2018 SF novel Finders. The book was the September discussion topic for the North Country Gaylaxians reading group, and it was a very lively, wide-ranging discussion! 

I read the book in three days, which is quite an accomplishment for me, as usually I get stuck in the first three pages of a Melissa Scott novel, and give up. I did that a few times in August with Finders, but used the Labor Day long weekend to push past that stuck point and read the entire thing. Somewhere between pages 75 and 100, this 360 page novel really took off for me.

This is fun space opera, that reminded some of the virtually assembled Gaylaxians of the novels of Andre Norton. Grand Dame with polyamory. 

It also reminded me a lot of the setting of the Stars Without Number RPG, although the particular transhuman Ancients in the story background differ in some details.

So what's it about? Finders tells the story of a starship salvage crew of three: a poly thrupple to be specific, recently reunited. Cassilde, Dai, and Ashe are "salvors": salvagers who search sites of the Ancients (humans, possibly transhumans, from two civilizations ago) for the "elements" and for "Gifts." Elements are small, jewel like colored pieces of technology that are incorporated into current-era technology as essential components  

(There isn't much discussion of this in the text, and maybe it will come up in future books in the series, but it would seem that current-era humans have lost the ability to create these high tech building blocks. So the basis of current-era technology is reliant on salvaging the space junk of the Ancients, and current-era people should eventually run out of this stuff that is the basis of their technology. Or so I'd guess. We'll have to wait for the sequels to learn if this is so.) 

Gifts are unique, extremely rare artifacts composed of numerous elements. They can do truly miraculous things, like confer the ability to heal otherwise deadly wounds and arrest terminal illnesses. Exposure to Gifts creates sensitivity to the proximity of others who possess Gifts. This is dangerous, as gifts are transferable.

Salvage activity typically happens through the purchase of licenses to particular sites, ruins, space wrecks, or portions thereof. Our protagonists engage in legal salvage - typically. There are also claim jumpers/pirates who prey on licensed salvagers (and each other), and the plot of this novel centers on one particularly vicious claim jumper who will stop at nothing to acquire the Gifts of the Ancients.

Why? You will have to read the book to see what happens. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

#StayAtHome: The Dialectic of Sex


Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution was one of the first radical feminist manifestos - if not the first. She points out in her text that at the time of publication (1970), there were no radical feminist utopias from which to draw inspiration (or a plan), so in the final chapter of her book, she writes the blueprint for a radical feminist utopia. (Although written in 1970, Joanna Russ' The Female Man won't be published until 1975.)

Firestone draws inspiration from Marxism, and specifically from Engels' method in influential works like The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. She critiques reformist "American Feminism" (suffrage, the right to participate in social fashions like being a flapper, etc.), Freudianism as a flawed feminism, the origins of inegalitarian gender roles and ideology, the notion of childhood as an ideological construct that become a specific stage of human life (ideology as lived experience and practice, as Althusser would later hold), racism as a subspecies of sexism, male gender ideology, and romance. 

Firestone covers a lot of ground in a fresh way. She has a theory of totality.

The Dialectic of Sex puts forward a stages theory of human society that owes a great deal to Engels - and I like Engels, so no complaints there. And since there weren't any existing radical feminist utopian blueprints when she wrote Dialectic, in the last chapter of the book, Firestone proposes what a non-sexist society would look like: households, not families; collective child-rearing rather than parents; free love within a society free of gender norms.  In short, a communist future, although perhaps not the one envisioned by many male Marxist-Leninists. 

One can argue with whether certain elements for the future society would actually work, but one thing seems pretty clear: this radical feminism has very little to do with the contemporary brand of essentialism and transphobia peddled as radical feminism by the likes of J.K. Rowling and others. Rather, it points towards some of the futures proposed by Samuel R. Delany (Triton, Dhalgren, The Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand) and Cecelia Holland (Floating Worlds). 

Science fiction, not fantasy. Pointing toward the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

#StayAtHome: Three Classic Doctor Who Novels

I read three more Doctor Who novels in the last couple weeks. The first of these was Brian Hayles novelization of the Third Doctor episode, Doctor Who and the Curse of Peladon. This classic adventure is set on Peladon (also the name of the young monarch) and presents a feudal world with an important mineral resource considering its future. The monarch needs to decide whether to join the Federation, an interstellar polity that includes Earth, the Mars of the reptilian Ice Warriors, Alpha Centauri (a green, single-eyed, multitentacled, hermaphroditic alien), and Arcturus (a pulpy, spidery little thing in a life support vehicle).

It's my favorite Doctor Who episode, and Brian Hayles' novel doesn't disappoint, providing a sense of the interior life of our characters. He also introduced a few inventions of his own, including Alpha Centauri's color changing according to their moods.

Next up was Terrance Dicks' novelization of the Third Doctor episode, Doctor Who and the Monster of Peladon. It is set 50 years after Curse. Peladon has been a member of the Federation for about 50 years, the Federation is at war with Galaxy Five, and Peladon is a critical supplier of the mineral trisilicate. The planet is ruled by Queen Thalira, but she is a monarch in name only; the real power is held by the chancellor, who is also the head of the temple of the royal beast-god Aggedor.

Aggedor has been manifesting as an apparition and disintegrating miners; this is bad for production. A rebellion is brewing, but there is also fear that someone else is manipulating things behind the (rock) curtain. (Hint: the villain is on the book cover.)

Dicks' terse style keeps the story moving, but doesn't add much that wasn't in the original story. No color changes for Alpha Centauri. Our big, green ambassador is also consistently referred to as a "he" which is jarring if you watched the original episode or read Hayles' novel.

The best read of the three was Ben Aaronovitch's Remembrance of the Daleks, which is the novelization of a Seventh Doctor episode. Aaronovitch is best known today for his Rivers of London urban police fantasy series, but this was his first novel ever. It is a humdinger, the best Doctor Who novel that I have read to date.

A number of years ago, I read Aaronovitch's later Doctor Who novel Transit, which is an original narrative rather than a novelization. Although rather notorious with Virgin Books for introducing the phrase "the taste of  semen" to the Doctor Who canon, Transit's story about interplanetary skatepunks piggybacking on a hyperspace tube system left me wondering "what is the point of all this?"

Not so, with Remembrance. This is an incredibly fast-paced story, in spite of being a bit longer than the traditional Doctor Who novelizations, featuring a factional struggle between the Renegade Daleks and the Imperial Daleks on Earth, on Remembrance Day weekend, in 1963.

There are some fun Easter eggs in the story, including the Dune-like imaginary references included in some chapter heads, inserting Bernard Quatermass into the Doctor Who universe, and the implication that one of the supporting characters was friends with Alan Turing during the Second World War.


See The Everwayan for more #StayAtHome entries.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Doctor Who And The Irish Question

Have any episodes of Doctor Who, or the books, comics, CDs, etc. dealt with the Irish Question, directly or indirectly? I can't think of any, but I'd love to hear from people who know of such episodes/media.

As an aside, many fans are quite fond of the UNIT characters from the 1970s, but UNIT itself: it's all to easy to imagine that this kind of paramilitary group was originally set-up as an anti-IRA death squad. Maybe they did that on the side; maybe their scientific advisor steered them onto a different path...