davidgillon: Illo of Oracle in her manual chair in long white dress with short red hair and glasses (wheelchair)

I was reading the rulebook for 'Planet Mercenary', the RPG for Howard Tayler's 'Schlock Mercenary' universe this afternoon and I was absolutely delighted to see the game master's section has a section on making your games accessible, covering everything from wheelchair access to players with social anxiety. It's even written within the game's metanarrative* that it's a game for actual inhabitants of the Schlock Mercenary universe. There's a couple of slight mis-steps where it's arguably patronizing, and a faux pas in the segue to handling problem players in the next segment, but this is generally really well thought out - for instance, using a differently sized rather than differently coloured die if one of a set needs to be distinct and a player has a visual impairment that would stop them seeing that, and watching player body language for signs players are being triggered or otherwise driven out of the game. And of course the major step forward is that it's there at all.

* Also within the metanarrative, a short story told in the form of editorial comments - wow!

davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
Diaspora Phoenix, Martin Dougherty
I guess when you've spent a decade trying to find a book it's almost inevitably going to be disappointing. This is the other Traveller: The New Era book mentioned here and unfortunately the novel format (in comparison to short stories) makes it feel much more like a written-up role-playing campaign. The story actually opens up very well, in TNE's post-apocalyptic universe, the planet of Lerun has been supplying aid to Darryl, a more regressed world in another star system, but now that's being invaded by the forces of Imperial Raymore, who have a nasty habit of shooting the aid workers out of hand and there's a last stand going on around the starport as they try and evacuate as many people as possible, a process that introduces us to our characters: a fighter pilot, the deck officer on a merchant starship, an artillery forward observer, and a couple of engineers.

Things don't go according to plan, the cutter lifting them out is shot down and the next place we find them is with the resistance on an offshore island, waiting for the hammer to fall, but wait, there's another island they might be able to evacuate to, and there are legends that during the final collapse soldiers once appeared from there, so there might even be a base. So our heroes are sent to look, and find a contingent of the bad guys have taken over an old, hidden planetary defence site, and there's a half-complete, lashed-together excuse of a spaceplane, which our heroes steal. That only gets them into orbit, but wait, there's another legend of a stealth warship that crashed on the moon with repairable damage, but no one could get to it to save the crew, but now they can. And so on.

The writing is okay, but the structure is problematical. Our heroes gradually put together the core of a new nation, but they never actually grow out of being first one out of the assault lander. It's as if Jim Kirk were president of the Federation, but still taking down corrupt planetary governments single-handedly every time he gets bored. Which unfortunately is symptomatic of a novel based far too closely on a role-playing campaign.

And then it stops, on a cliffhanger, with the author noting in some closing notes that he planned a four book series, but never got around to writing the other three. Strictly for the TNE completist, I'm afraid.

Valour's Trial
The Truth of Valour
, Tanya Huff
Two more in Huff's Valour Confederation series. In Valour's Trial, Torin Kerr is back where she belongs with Shquo Company, Confederation Marine Corps, and newly promoted to Gunnery Sergeant, having discovered the Confederation is being invaded by molecular-level shape-changing plastic aliens over the course of the previous couple of books. But that's only the new threat, and not one they can do much about, the ongoing war with the Others is still in progress and there's an Other task force that needs kicking off a planet in Shquo Company's sector. And then the Others nuke the battlefield.

When Torin wakes up she's in a prison camp, but the Others never take prisoners, and one of the marines has gone all Colonel Kurtz, so problems to deal with even before she can think of escape. Meanwhile, Torin's significant other, Craig, the salvage operator, is refusing to accept her death and heads off to look at the battlefield along with Presit, the Confederation's most annoying journalist.

There are some definite thematic similarities between the early part of the prison camp sequence here and LMB's Miles Vorkosigan story Borders of Infinity, but Huff then adds additional layers of complication onto the story as Torin discovers things are in no way what they seem.

The Truth of Valour picks up three months later with Torin out of the Corps, one of the most famous people in the Confederation, and the war with the Others winding down. Training with Craig to work as a salvage operator, Torin is gradually introduced to his world, but then two salvagers are killed by pirates and if the other salvors are willing to send them off with a good party, Torin isn't willing to let it go quite so easily. Unfortunately for everyone, the pirates have siezed something that could potentially destabilize the entire Confederation, and they need a salvager to unlock it. In the worst of all possible choices they pick Craig and leave Torin for dead. Cue awesome rampage of revenge as Torin calls in the clans.

What's surprised me with this series is that Huff hasn't at all gone with what I expected, even the first book, which is a refight of Rourke's Drift, has layers of politics and xenology that I really wasn't expecting in what initially presented itself as a grunts-eye war novel (and yet they're still successful at being grunts-eye war novels). It was only in reading Truth that I realised quite how much Human society is being changed by the interaction with other intelligent species. Dealing with the sexually irrepressible di Taykan means pretty much everyone is effectively bi (as gender really doesn't matter to the di Taykan, they just want good sex), and there are two serious conversations in Truth about whether having sex with a di Taykan actually counts as being unfaithful or not. Truth also strongly hints that a couple of long-running male characters are now in a relationship and it's possible there are sexual elements to Presit's friendship with Craig (on Presit's part, Craig only has eyes for Toren), even though she's a metre high, furry rodent.

Pack of Lies, The 20-Sided Sorceress Book 3, Annie Bellet
(I actually read this over Christmas and forgot to cover it earlier). Jade, the eponymous sorceress, is back home after getting people killed during the previous book, and pining for her weretiger lover, Alek who is off delivering justice for the shifters and never calls. Then the wake for the 1000 year old werewolf king, who just happened to live outside town, is interrupted by a series of murders, which bring back not just Alek, but a female werewolf Justice, who takes an instant dislike to Jade and almost instantly outs her as a sorceress, not the hedge-witch she had people convinced she is (the problem being sorcerors gain power by eating the hearts of their competition, so they really aren't well liked). As if that isn't enough of a problem, someone starts taking shots at Jade, people she cares about get hurt, and the evidence points to a professional assassin being after her, probably at the behest of series uber-bad-guy (and former lover/mentor) Samir. Unlike the first couple of books in the series it's a full length novel (c220 pages), but it actually whizzed by, so still felt short in some ways and I was surprised when I realised I was in the final few pages. It's an enjoyable read, but not a deep one (though there's a comment early on, talking about the crap Jade's BFF Harper has to put up with as a professional gamer who happens to be a woman, that may well be a reference to Gamergate). So if you're in the mood for mind-candy....

davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
Just one book read since the last of these, but I want to get back into the habit, and this one needs more back-story than most book reviews...

As I've been generally recuperating and taking things easy (aka being a couch-potato and indulging myself) I've been buying some roleplaying stuff for the first time in years, and the new development since I was last active is e-publishing, which means some stuff I'm buying for significantly less than I was paying for its direct dead-tree equivalents in the early '80s. Mostly that's been stuff for Traveller, the SFnal RPG, of which my favourite incarnation has always been the post-apocalyptic 'Traveller: The New Era' (aka TNE), the third edition that picked up after the second edition comprehensively trashed the 1100 year old 'Third Imperium' with a decade-long, multi-faction civil war culminating in the release of an artificially intelligent computer virus that turned every planet into an equivalent of the Terminator universe's post-Judgement Day Earth (actually worse as most instances of Virus tended to be actively psychotic, which isn't too bad when your toaster is infected, but seriously problematical when it's a one million tonne starship with planetary bombardment capability). One of the reasons I adored TNE was that the good guys were explicitly placed in a moral quandary: in order to raise civilization from the ashes they needed to find, cannibalize and rebuild any functional or semi-functional piece of technology they could get their hands on, but often that same piece of technology was all that was keeping other survivor communities alive. The official name of the good guys was the Reformation Coalition, their unofficial name was the Star Vikings, and it was an accurate description for how they went about their business.

In among the relatively limited number of releases for TNE before the publishers, GDW, went bust, were a handful of pieces of fiction. There was a trilogy by Paul Brunette, of which only the first two volumes were printed, though the third has now appeared in ebook form and I picked that up back in 2013. But there were also a handful of linked short stories and a separate novel by a second author, Martin Dougherty, that never saw print. I found, and liked, most of the shorts on the website for a later (and short-lived) revival of TNE that Dougherty authored a few years ago, but never found anything more than hints of the novel. However Traveller is back on its feet and Dougherty is the author for a lot of the new stuff, so has taken the opportunity to issue both the collected shorts, and the novel, in ebook form (well, PDF, but close enough), and I picked them up along with my other purchases from DrivethruRPG (http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com, I'm not sure if they're available from any of the more conventional ebook publishers).

I haven't got to the novel, Diaspora Phoenix, as yet, I'm just about to copy it onto my Kindle for tomorrow's train journey, but I have just re-read the shorts, collected as Yesterday's Hero (the 'Tales of the New Era: Volume 1' on the cover page can be ignored, there was never a Volume 2), which collected add up to 11 stories and 100 pages, and I still like them as SF that features a very atypical lead character, Lisa 'Lander' Davies, a self-described 'five-foot wimp who has real trouble with stiff doors', or in the words of her later husband (and he's praising her at the time) 'a neurotic little woman who can't shoot straight'.

The first story, Graduation Day, has Lisa passing out from the very prestigious (think MIT crossed with West Point) Hiver Technical Academy and finding out that her dreams have passed her by, but then being tapped for a Graduation Day tradition that rapidly escalates from bad to worse.

Absent Friends reconnects Lisa with the other survivors of Graduation Day, and sends them off on a half-assed attempt to salvage a motherlode of medical data from the wilds of the planet Nicosia. Getting that data comes at a tremendous price, but reconnects her with her dreams. It's also where she picks up the Lander callsign for the way she pilots an assault lander (so hard she bends it). The timing in this one is a little forced, a little too coincidental, a few cliches are added to, but it's still a reasonable story.

Boarding Party is in some ways my favourite, but that's because as a TNE fan it's a near perfect evocation of Virus at its most horrific. The clipper Apollo comes across a derelict spacecraft, and Lisa is tagged to shuttle the Marines over to check it out. Think Aliens with Lisa in the Ripley role and her boyfriend, Bison, as Newt and Hicks combined.

Under Hostile Skies has Lisa again trying to rescue her boyfriend during a larger scale military operation that has gone to hell - there's a definite theme here, and for a studly-thewed marine Bison does seem to spend a lot of time dashing into places in order to become Robin the Boy Hostage.

Vampire is the generic name for a Virus-controlled starship, so no prizes for guessing what this one is about, and the story opens with Lisa being told she's up for promotion, but not ready for command, so no prizes for guessing how the story develops.

On the Carpet  puts Lisa into a completely new role, chewing out a junior officer for trying to pull off one of her stunts and getting people killed. It's a very short story with a lot of not-so-positive introspection.

Decapitation Strike has Lisa back on Apollo, but now as its captain, and charged with conducting a spot of what we nowadays call regime change. For added angst the dictator in question is an old boyfriend. The plan she comes up with is a little too Star Trek-ish for my liking, I can completely imagine Kirk and Spock doing it this way, but it's probably a reasonable reflection of the way a lot of Traveller players would go about things - I simply prefer a more standard military set of behaviours.  

Court of Inquiry opens with Lisa newly widowed and charged with war crimes on Nicosia. The kicker is that she admits from the outset she's guilty. I really, really like this story because it goes back to the 'Are we doing good?' question at the heart of TNE.

One Vacant Chair has Lisa washed-up after being cashiered, only to volunteer for a near-suicidal undercover operation on Nicosia. I'm not convinced that the woman who just committed war crimes against the planet is the logical choice for an undercover op, especially when she's an intermittently suicidal drunk who can't even be trusted with the care of her child, and this creates a consistency problem with the overly picky service of the first story, but that what the story runs with. The conclusion turns around a tricksy piece of writing that works, but may be annoying.

Devil's Advocate is the one story that hadn't previously been available. 18 months on and Lisa is the favourite to become Nicosia's first elected planetary president. No, I'm not convinced either, but that's where the author went. Her electioneering is brought to a sudden halt by a hostage crisis, and as it's her people being held hostage, well you can probably guess the rest. There's a majorly tricksy piece of writing here that had me, and no doubt every other reader, going 'hang on, WTF just happened?', but it also encapsulates a significant piece of character growth, so I'm half-inclined to let him off with it, but I guarantee you'll think you've misread something.

In Every Threadbare Sail Lisa has completed her presidential term and just wants to raise her son quietly on Nicosia, but there's a vampire in the system, it just shot apart every warship they had, and the only ship they have left is the old Apollo, waiting to be scrapped and without a crew. You can probably guess where it goes from there. Having previously read the collection without Devil's Advocate I'm not quite sure Lisa's motivation hangs together as well with the additional story as without, but the story does tie the overall themes of the collection neatly together.

Overall the writing is a little rough in places, there are a few places in which a rewrite from third to first person is evident and a few other self-publishing glitches, and I'm unsure how accessible these are if you aren't a TNE fan, but I still really like these as stories in which a very atypical heroine gets to be, well, a heroine, and kick butt just as hard as the guys, but also to suffer the consequences of every fight she goes through. There are very few named characters who get out of the collected stories alive, and in fact the cost of those losses on the people around them is a core theme. There is a lot of military SF out there, a lot of jutting-jawed, blonde-haired, bronze-thewed heroes riding out to glory, there's a lot less military SF that talks about the cost of being one of the people who keep on surviving.




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David Gillon

September 2017

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