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The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head

Archive for August, 2012

In the Company of Others by Julie E. Czerneda

Posted by Zumbs on August 26, 2012

In the Company of Others coverThis is a story that has so many twists and turns that it is difficult to describe without giving away a number of spoilers. Instead, I will sketch out the situation at the start of the book.

In the far future, humanity managed to travel to the stars. First they searched for extra terrestrial intelligence without success. Then they selected a number of dead planets fit for human life and started to terraform these worlds. As the terraforming progressed a number of space stations were established to facilitate immigration from Earth to the new worlds. However, something went wrong in the new worlds. The mysterious Quill caused the new worlds to be uninhabitable. Little is known of the Quill, and theories range from a plague, dangerous “three meter tall giants with googly eyes and long tentacles” to simply being a hoax.

Either way, the Sol system put the new worlds under quarantine and in panic refused the settlers to return home, fearing that they would bring the Quill to Earth. This left the settlers and station personal effectively stranded on the space stations, quickly filled past capacity, afraid and with few supplies. Our story starts some decades later, when Earth scientist Dr. Gail Smith and her ship The Seeker docs at Thromberg space station, looking for a young man called Aaron Pardell. As you may have guessed, Dr. Smith is researching the Quill, and trying to find some way of making the quarantined worlds inhabitable.

Having been left out to dry by Earth, the people at Thromberg station aren’t exactly happy with Earth or the newcomers. They managed to survive through the extreme hardship of the last few decades and live in extreme close quaters. And “they” are not a uniform group: Some are remnants of the old station personal, others are settlers and some few are space explorers. While they live together, each group has its own desires, internal intrigues and goals.

The book is well written and the characters are nuanced, different, and often have their own agendas. The description of the development of the crowded Thromberg station, as well as the intrigues on The Seeker work well. In many ways the story is character driven in the sense that it is people who act and react to each other.

It is highly recommended, and I plan on reading more by the author.

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The Gamers: Hands of Fate Kickstarter Campaign

Posted by Zumbs on August 12, 2012

So, how much experience do I get for the peasant?

Cover for The Gamers: Dorkness RisingMost, if not all, tabletop roleplayers have been there. Doing stupid stuff just to get a few, measly experience points. This, and more, is humorously captured in the movies The Gamers (watch it here) and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (watch it here), where we switch between the action at the table and the in-game action. The in-game footage does a nice job of capturing some of the funny shit that different rule systems allow characters to pull of.

However, the action at the table is also extremely funny, in some instances being similar to the comic Knights of the Dinner Table (free preview here). Naturally, the types of people at the table are exaggerated for comic effect, e.g. the following exchange from the first movie. One of the PCs just died, and the player made a new character, being introduced to the game:

Gamemaster: Guys, please! I want you to roleplay this. Remember you’ve never met this guy before, the last guys you met tried to kill you, and you’re standing in the ruins of an evil, cursed castle. Just act appropriately.
Magellan (player): Hello, I’m Magellan, a traveling mage. I notice your group has no wizard.
Rogar, the Barbarian (player): You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?
Magellan (player): Yes. Yes I would.

The movies also deal with a lot of the issues surfacing at the gaming table. How does the group handle missing players? Sometimes a Game Master (GM) will saddle the party with an NPC with the obvious attempt to chaperone the party into a particular path or actually *gasp* play their chosen alignment. And then we have the usual questions of player knowledge vs. character knowledge. More serious is the integration of female players into a party of males in a male dominated hobby. All to often female players experience that they are treated as newbies, and stupid newbies at that. Rules lawyers and the art of min-maxing is also touched upon.

Like in Knights of the Dinner Table, there is a clear and distinctly adversarial relationship between the Game Master and the players. This perplexes me to some degree, as GM and players tell a story together. Could it be due to the exaggeration for comic effect, I noted earlier? Still, it is obvious from the movies that the people playing are friends, who, like me, play with our friends for fun, to escape the bounds of who we are and pique our imagination.

Well, if you are a table top roleplayer and want to support your culture, or if you simply liked what you saw, you can help fund the next Gamers movie, The Gamers: Hands of Fate, by donating whatever you can and want at their Kickstarter page.

Oh, and while you wait, you can watch a comedy web series by the same producers. It’s called JourneyQuest, and it follows a group of adventurers on a quest to find a legendary sword. I would tell you more, but I find that it would ruin the surprise of some of the jokes. Naturally, nothing quite turns out as expected. The first season starts here and the second (still in progress at time of writing) starts here. ONWARD!

Oh, and everything is better with pirates! Yes, that is the offices of Wizards of the Coast!

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Review of City of Pearl by Karen Travis

Posted by Zumbs on August 5, 2012

city of pearls coverA few centuries into the future, Environmental Hazard Enforcement officer Shan Frankland is sent to a distant star system on a secret mission. So secret, in fact, that she will only learn the mission specifics as she needs them. Along with her are a number of marines and scientists (charmingly dubbed “the payload”) representing various academic and commercial interests. With a round trip time of 150 years, everyone they knew will be dead and gone by the time they return. The planet contains life and, possibly, the survivors of a human colony of Christian fundamentalists whose last transmission hinted that there could be alien life on the world.

Upon their arrival they discover that the human colony has indeed survived. But they are not alone. The seas of the world is inhabited by the bezeri. The isenj had colonized the surface and were polluting the seas, so the bezeri were dying. Yet, the isenj refused to stop. A cry for help caused the wess’har, who own a planet in the system, to come to the aid of the bezeri and exterminate the isenj colony on the planet.

The wess’har are fierce defenders of the bezeri and only just tolerate the human colony there. The isenj still claim the planet and (not surprisingly) consider the wess’har to be monsters. The fundamentalists would rather just be left alone. And the wess’har require that the scientists do not take living samples of anything.

The heroine, Shan, is somewhat like a female Dirty Harry. She is pretty buff and not afraid to apply physical force to do the job, even if it means bending or even breaking the rules. She has her own morality and puts a great deal of weight on that. Unlike Dirty Harry, her morality is not utterly conservative – her work in the Environmental Hazard Enforcement has left the leery of bio corporations and caused her to get some empathy for the eco-terrorists.

The major theme of this book is environmental destruction and the question of how we coexist with the other living beings in the world. As it happens in the future, a lot of the tendencies seen today are brought to to their logical next step. In this sense, Traviss poses the question if this is the way we want to go. The ecology of the planet in the distant solar system can be viewed as one, possible, path where our own destruction of nature causes our own destruction. These are important questions, and Traviss pack them into a readable book that is likely to cause you to think it over.

The wess’har are strict vegetarians and consider all animals to be “people” and are in general very protective of the environment. While they wonder why humans do not see things that way, they are never asked why they do not have the same respect for non-animal life, e.g. the plants that they eat. The question of dietary choices is a significant theme of the book, sometimes given too much space with too little discussion. Similarly, the vegetarian fundamentalists are put in a positive light, whereas the scientists are uniformly put in a rather unfavorable light. As in fundamentalists are part of the solution, scientists are part of the problem. Sigh.

Overall, this is a very readable book, well written, intelligent and thought provoking. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

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