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Friday 31 January 2020

A score to settle

There’s a trope in modern American crime fiction that goes something like this. The Hero is a thief, loyal to his friends but not too smart. He pulls off a daring robbery, but the cash is stolen by the Sneak, a friend he trusted who betrays him to the cops. The Hero waits until his sentence is up and goes to get his money from the Sneak, only to find it has been paid to Big, a mobster who had the screws on the Sneak. The Hero sets out to recover his cash from its new owner in spite of the massive resources Big has at his command.

How dumb is that? The Hero originally stole the money from a bank or corporation that wasn’t guarding it very well. Now he’s setting out to steal it from somebody who is not going to let it go without a fight, and whose idea of payback is a lot more brutal than ten years in clink. It makes for a gripping story, because it’s personal and played for high stakes, but if the Hero was at all rational he’d just go and rob another bank. All he needs to do is not trust the Sneak this time, and he’d be on a beach with a paper umbrella in his drink before you can say Stick ‘Em Up.

OK, park that. Here’s another strand. Years ago, I got to a moment in my Tēkumel campaign that looked like turning into a Total Party Kill. Luckily it was the end of the session, so I had some time to think outside the box. Instead of having them all roll new characters next time, I had them wake up on a ship with filthy bandages wrapped around their wounds. It was logical, as they’d been whupped by a gang of smugglers in a waterfront warehouse. Instead of leaving bodies for the authorities to find, and thus bring heat down on their heads, the smugglers stripped them of their gear and sold them to a slaver.

I thought it would turn into a prison break thing, where they’d run away or lead a slave revolt and eventually after many adventures they’d make their way back home to freedom. But the players hated being slaves. They’d rather I’d killed them. It didn’t take long before a couple of them made a deliberately futile assault on their guards just to commit suicide. The others asked to end that campaign and restart with new characters.

Oh well, an interesting discovery, at least. Then I got to thinking, what if they had escaped? The very first thing they’d think about after getting home would be how to get their gear back. That enchanted steel sword, that Excellent Ruby Eye, the Gloves of Chirenē … they wouldn’t rest until they had every single item back. But, of course, this would be months later. That gear would be scattered to the ends of the Five Empires. They could very well spend years tracking it all down and recovering it, probably at far greater cost than simply writing it off and embarking on new adventures to pick up new equipment.

It wouldn’t be rational, but I know that’s what they’d do. Just as they couldn’t abide being enslaved, they couldn’t have lived with the shame of having their precious stuff taken away from them. You can almost imagine the voiceover for the game: ‘They were sold into slavery on the far side of the continent, their treasures taken from them. Now they’re free, and they aim to take everything back…’ It would run and run. And, because it’s personal and defies all reason, it would make a cracking story.

So the next time I see Coen Brothers characters doing something completely stupid, I’m just going to think of my players and it’ll all make perfect sense.

Friday 24 January 2020

The sacred power of reason

At the end of this month, British government departments will stop using the word "Brexit", on the grounds that Brexit is over and done with from January 31st. It won't be, of course -- the negotiations and patches will take years, the consequences last for decades -- but we're in Ingsoc territory now. The Ministry of Truth doesn't even want talk of "negotiations" (ignorance is strength) as that would make the British people realize that the hard part is only just beginning.

As I write this, in a deliciously ironic touch given that the Leave campaign repeatedly complained about the "unelected" officials of the EU, the prime minister has been on holiday in the Caribbean for 40% of his total time in office and his special adviser Dominic Cummings (unelected boss of government strategy) is looking to hire uneducated cranks to bypass the UK civil service and carry on Cummings's favourite pastime of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot. It's a strategy that hasn't been tried since Stalin, so what could possibly go wrong?

Jamie and I are wondering whether we now need to prove our patriotism by issuing a new edition of our last gamebook: Can You Do The Thing Previously Known As Brexit? But maybe that tumbril has already trundled. I do wish we had indulged some of our original plans for the book. In the first draft it opened on a crashing plane. You woke up in the cockpit but had no recollection of how to fly the thing. That established a framing narrative to which you'd return throughout the book, with increasingly surreal (or possibly increasingly lucid) episodes such as:
  • Remainers hiding in priest holes in Elizabethan times. 
  • The mutineers on Pitcairn island having “done away with the experts”. 
  • Conversations with the Number 10 cat.
  • Facts trying to escape across the English Channel in rubber dinghies.
And concluding with the prime minister (ie you, the reader) watching the trial of Orestes from The Eumenides, only in this version the Furies win the vote by 13 to 12 thanks to blatant lies yelled out by the Chorus.

"Too wacky," Jamie said, and at the time I agreed. That was before reality, out of its head on drugs, came charging up from behind, shoved reason into a ditch, and ran off laughing. Now even Armando Iannucci has given up on satire ("politics feels fictional enough") and for all I know Chris Morris might very well be thinking of applying to become one of Cummings's galley slaves. (Spoiler: he'll be disqualified on the grounds of having a university degree and being sane. Too bad, as if he worked in Downing Street he's just the chap to pull off a metaphorical Calò.)

If you'd like to wind back to an earlier era when Brexit was still about how to negotiate a rational relationship with the European Union that would reflect the electorate's narrow preference for withdrawal, you can try your hand at that in the book. Future generations will marvel that logic and facts ever played any part in the process, given the political maelstrom that actually ensued. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to send my CV off to Mekonta.

Also available from Amazon in Italy, Germany, France, Australia, Spain, Netherlands and anywhere that books aren't burned. And talking of the Furies vs Athena:

ADDENDUM (January 31): Professor Chris Grey has written a summary of how we got to this point. Only of historical interest now, at least until Tim Harford turns it all into one of his Cautionary Tales in 10 or 15 years' time...

Friday 10 January 2020

The Age of the Triffids

Writing a sequel to The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham's 1951 science fiction classic, is something most authors couldn't even attempt. It's not enough to pastiche Wyndham's style; that would just leave you with a quaint literary curiosity. The sequel needs to match the inventiveness and blistering shock value of the original but in a modern idiom. Think the retooled Battlestar Galactica or the way J J Abrams created a new take on 1960s-era Star Trek.

Perhaps the only writer who could hope to do justice to such an undertaking is John Whitbourn, one of England's greatest living practitioners of fantasy and science fiction. In The Age of the Triffids, he leaps ahead to twenty-five years after the time of the first novel. Bill Masen's community on the Isle of Wight has grown and on the surface appears to be thriving, but with fields of triffids covering most of the mainland and spores ever drifting on the wind, there are threats from outside and perhaps an even greater danger posed by the concomitant social fault lines between the pre- and post-apocalyptic generations.
"Resist the temptation to hide. Otherwise you’re trapped and you'll never get out. Triffids have all the time in the world. Sooner or later, hunger or thirst drive you into the open. They will be waiting."
For copyright reasons The Age of the Triffids is only on sale in Canada and New Zealand. But if you can't wait two decades for the rest of the world to catch up, why not see if a Canadian friend (or bookshop) will send you a copy?

I'm strenuously opposed to book series that go on and on long after they've run out of steam, but what would be your choice for another classic standalone SF or fantasy novel that's crying out for just one good sequel?

Wednesday 1 January 2020

A place among the stars

"Here is a vision of where we could be [in fifty years' time]: We will have fusion power and open-sea mariculture. We will be able to travel the globe freely through suborbital space in less than an hour. We will have research laboratories, industries, and hotels in orbit. We will have scientific bases, astronomical interferometers, and helium-3 mines on the Moon. We will have city-states on Mars — vibrant, optimistic centers of invention sporting lively and novel cultures, with many casting off the chains of tradition to strike out new paths to show the way to a better future. We will have mining and settlement outfits finding their way into the main asteroid belt, and exploration missions to the outer solar system. We will have grand observatories floating in free space, mapping the planets of millions of stars, and finding other worlds filled with life and intelligence. And we will be making magnificent discoveries in physics and cosmology, learning the nature of the universe and life’s role in it, and preparing our first interstellar spaceships to journey forth and find our place among the stars."
That's Robert Zubrin, astronautical engineer and advocate for manned space exploration, making the case for a Roddenberry-style vision of humanity's future. If you feel like going into the new year with an upbeat attitude, listen to Dr Zubrin talking here to Michael Shermer on the Science Salon podcast. It'll make you forget every dumb, anti-rational, zero-sum argument you encountered in 2019 -- at least for an hour. You might even decide to join the Mars Society.

A while back, Jamie and I wrote a script for a TV show set in a Mars colony later this century. The idea was to de-genre the idea of space travel. To forget about Buck Rogers adventures and space opera plots and instead just explore the human adventure involved in setting up on a new world. The networks didn't bite -- they might have if we'd included aliens -- but here's the opening sequence from the pilot, just in case it entices you to look towards the final frontier...

Whatever world you make your home, happy New Year!