Sunday, February 18, 2018

More Per Ardua than Ad Astra: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora

A couple of years back I subtitled reviews of Andy Weir's The Martian and Neil Stephenson's Seveneves with the tagline 'space is the worst frontier.' 

For all their faith in science and human ingenuity, both books were unsparing in their treatment of the challenges of space and a welcome corrective to the tendency to handwave them away in favour of a ripping yarn.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora is another book which stands under this credo. It pushes back even harder against the belief that our destiny lies in the stars, to the point of almost calling it into question entirely.

Ad astra, yeah, but very much with the emphasis on the per ardua.

It's difficult to talk about without at the very least thematic spoilers, so read below at your peril.

Aurora takes on an idea well established in science-fiction, the generation starship, where a voyage to a nearby solar system can take hundreds of years in a vessel the size of a city. Heading for Tau Ceti, its mission is to colonise the moon of one of its planets, the Aurora of the title, slowly terraforming it to make it habitable for human life.

Narrative tricks

The novel kicks in a relatively short time (20 or so years) before the ship reaches its destination. We follow Freya, daughter of engineer and general systems troubleshooter Devi and doctor Badim, as she grows up onboard the ship and explores its many biomes and communities. 

A few chapters in, we learn that the story is being told by the Ship's computer, a developing artificial intelligence, Devi's other de facto child and arguably Aurora's second protagonist. Ship does some quite awesome things and would be on my Top 10 literary computers any day of the week.  

As a narrator, though, Ship is learning on the job and its odd perspectives and occasionally jarring prose style deliberately bring out a distancing effect in the reader. In other words: science (chiefly astrophysics, engineering, ecology and microbiology) is foregrounded; character development and reader empathy somewhat backgrounded. 

Hard science-fiction often does this accidentally and occasionally ad nauseum and ad infodumpium. This could be because the author is either not that interested in the capital-I Individual or just doesn't have the chops to meet both scientific and literary criteria. 

But KSR is a much better writer than that. Taking this approach intentionally as an authorial device is a) a very clever move b) allows him to provide the story with the science it needs anyway c) sneaks the heart back into Aurora from an unexpected angle, through reader identification with Ship.

Cake: both retained and eaten.

Through interstellar space on a wing and a prayer

Aurora goes into a lot of detail about the risks of travel between the stars: problems of navigation, of acceleration and deacceleration, of the constant battle by engineers and biologists against entropy, of unrest and social collapse. Whatever you anticipate as a problem and solve before the voyage starts, KSR says, there will be two more you didn't predict that you must deal with when underway.

He cautiously concludes, however, that these issues could be solved with a lot of effort and more than a little good fortune and frontier spirit.

The far bigger challenge Aurora sets, however, is what happens when you reach your destination? Could you deal with many of the same entropic challenges as you did in transit? At the same time, could you establish a safe base for you and future generations and begin to slowly terraform your new home? How would you cope in an environment outside humanity's frame of reference in which the odds of unexpected crisis therefore increase dramatically?

To put it another way, would you risk a thousand Roanoakes for a single Plymouth Colony?

Questions for the space and freedom brigade

This is a novel deeply sceptical of the case for interstellar ventures in a way which would have rarely occured in SF from previous generations. KSR might be revisiting old ground on terraforming - he's best known for his Mars trilogy on the topic - but he's drawing more pessimistic conclusions here in a different context.

He also has a long-standing interest in climate change which he's explored in previous works such as Forty Signs Of Rain and New York 2140. Aurora touches on this in later sections of the book and in doing so offers a supplementary critique of renewed contemporary interest in returning to the Moon or colonising Mars. It basically runs: this is both cool and relevant to my interests, but maybe we should prioritise getting our own planet - our actual home - in order first. 

The novel is no polemic, but it is doing what SF does best as a literature of ideas: using our scientific heritage to examine possibilities and raise questions. The questions it raises about both the practicality and importance of space exploration are very relevant at a time when a very rich man has just sent his sports car up on a rocket in some kind of a symbolic ritual to rekindle our interest.

Those advocating for or romanticising space travel - whether in the short-term or the long-term - should then engage with the questions KSR is asking. They are perhaps still solvable on their terms rather than his, but ensuring any vision of the future passes the tests Aurora sets is for me a necessity of the first order.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Not to be confused with a kittiwake, which you can read all about here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The golden age of post-modern role-playing part 2: Torg

Part 2 of a look at early 90's genre-mixing RPGs. You can find Part 1, including a celebration of Rifts, here. 

Of all the games I'm looking at in this series, Torg (West End Games, 1990) was comfortably the most knowing. Literally portraying a clash of competing genres, in it the very notion of reality was contested in a really rather postmodern way. And most of its best bits came from riffing on that.

As with its contemporary Rifts, it's another invasion story. Present-day Earth, a world incalculably rich in (ahem) possibility energy, is attacked by a coalition of initially six different realities, each claiming a corner of the planet for their bridgehead.

Each of the six realms represented a different genre, ranging from the expected (high fantasy and horror) through the then-innovative (golden age pulp) to the rather more distinctive (a corporate dystopia, Catholic cyberpunk and a land of stone-age lizards).
Laws Of The Land

Where Torg got particularly clever was in its model of how the different realities interacted with each other. Each brought with them their own laws (or in Torgish, axioms) governing science, magic, religion and social organisation. For example, The Living Land, home of the aforementioned lizard-men, which takes over much of North America, made it very difficult for technology any more sophisticated than a club to function, but allowed its priests to work miracle after miracle with living matter, especially plants. 

Each reality also had its own laws reflecting genre conventions, such as the pulp Nile Empire running on melodrama rather than realism. 

This was a great system, addressing the advantage that technology (reliable, replicable) usually has over magic or individual heroics in a straight fight. But it also was a neat storytelling device in which the GM and the players could explore not just a clash of weapons but of stories and cultures. 

How would a character from a fantasy world accomodate themselves to a science-fictional story or vice versa? How would someone from Earth submit to or resist the tropes of genre fiction? Torg allowed you to play out some really interesting questions.

Do you speak Torgish?

To make all of this hang togerther conceptually Torg developed its own distinct terminology. All the invading realities or 'cosms' were led by an iconic supervillain or 'High Lord,' each with their own 'Darkness Device' and striving to become 'Torg' (menace #1). Meanwhile the PCs were 'Storm Knights' - either native champions of Earth who were strangely resistant to the invading realities, or heroic renegades from the other realms. 

(given its fondness for capitalised nouns and philosophical jargon it's also strangely fitting that the latest version of Torg - Torg Eternity - is published by German company Ulisses Spiele.)

"If done right"

This is probably the phrase to keep returning to when discussing Torg, not least because like any multi-genre game it took a lot of work on the part of the designers and writers, to say nothing of the GM and the players, to try and keep it all on track.

Unlike Rifts, which had a decade of Palladium games to draw on for rules, background, magic and monsters, Torg also had to come up with all of its material from scratch. Unsurprisingly, given how many sourcebooks and adventures West End Games put out, there was a lot of variation in content and tone.

More often than not, the official material tended to channel the 'anything goes' spirit of pulp. Now, that's not surprising given several of the cosm leant hard in that direction anyway and the rules system was fairly dramatic, with a card deck for the PCs full of special plays. But a narrative of ninjas, superheroes, hackers and Victorian detectives just hanging out, travelling the world and fighting reality wars also reduced the jagged culture-clash/genre-clash potential that made Torg more interesting.

Some of the realities too were easier to keep on the straight and narrow than others. The Cyberpapacy, for example, might win points for the sheer gonzo mashing up of cyberpunk with the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, but it struggled to make sense (and risked causing occasional offence) as it stood. Similarly, the golden-age pulp Nile Empire was full of gleeful fun but also at times uncritically reflected orientalist fantasies of North Africa, much like its source material. 

And I'm still not really sure why someone thought naming the realm of horrors Orrorsh, after an anagram of, er, 'horrors,' was a good idea.

Torg a la carte?

All of the realities had lots of good ideas - outweighing their faults - and Torg Eternity has probably improved the game and helped it move with the times. At the time though, taking a more nuanced appproach to the background and developing and running good scenarios was beyond the means of teenage me.

These days I like to think I could make good on all Torg's promise. One thing I certainly would do is accentuate the genre-clash elements and go deep on perhaps one or two invading realities. 

Torg a la carte, if you like.

This would mean I would get the benefit of the source material for those realms without having to spread the game too thinly. I could also frame the characters and plot using only these aspects of the overall conflict and make sure the area invaded had some authenticity and colour, rather than risk it being reduced to one combat backdrop among many.

Man, this sounds good already...

Every time I write one of these look-backs, I remind myself what I liked about a game in the first place. As with Rifts, I might come at Torg from a different, more reflective angle these days but the potential I first saw in it back in the early 90's still feels very much there.

Thursday, February 1, 2018