Saturday, August 17, 2019

Trinity - Part One, Setting

Trinity is 90s White Wolf's take on the sci-fi genre and it is both exactly as interesting and exactly as fraught as that sounds. The premise is that it's ~120 years in the future and about 2-3 generations ago, the world very nearly lost a war against superheroes.

While the world has largely recovered, in the process of digging itself out of the hole, it fundamentally changed. The economic and cultural centers of the old world, located primarily in the global north, were the hardest hit in the fighting, whereas the global south was relatively untouched. That means that, along with China, South American, India, and Africa are the new leaders going into the 22nd century.

Which is a fresh, interesting setup for a sci-fi universe, almost as much in 2019 as in 1997. It's a shame, then, that White Wolf didn't quite land the execution.

I really should be panicking as much now as I did during my read of The Complete Ninja's Handbook, but I mostly got that out of my system (for now). It makes me uncomfortable when I have to do my "woker than thou" routine, because in 1997, I really wasn't. It was getting exposed to diversity through things like White Wolf books that set me on the path to seeking out more knowledge about these subjects. So now I have 20 years of hindsight and the benefit of the internet, but back when I first read Trinity?

I was like, "Wow, it's really cool that Africa is a major world power, now tell me more about the Moon." (Yeah, I was blithely racist in the same way that any sheltered white American was racist. It's embarrassing, which is why I'm always inclined to cut these books a little slack).

Now, the problem with Trinity is that its setting was conscientiously inclusive, but the actual text turned out to be really, really white. I think it's a matter of subconscious biases informing editorial priorities. Sort of how it's empirically proven that people will think a group with 20% women is majority female. It's the sort of thing that takes an active effort to overcome, even if you're aware of the problem generally.

For example, take the Psi Orders. In Trinity, a number of people have latent psionic powers. To unlock those powers, they must get dunked in a special tube called a Prometheus Chamber. There are eight such chambers in existence (for plot reasons not yet revealed in the text) and each one is controlled by an organization known as a "Psi Order."

Every Psi Order specializes in a different form of psychic power, but because they are actual organizations that require physical facilities to do their stuff, the Orders are also tied very strongly to bits of the setting's geography. The clairsentients are based on the Moon, the telepaths in China, and so on.

The psychokinetics, the largest psi order, are based out of Australia. The second largest, out of the former USA. The third, out of Switzerland.

The smallest order was based out of India. They were wiped out by the others for backstory reasons. The second smallest, out of Africa. They all mysteriously disappeared before the game begins.

Don't get me wrong, the African psychics were teleporters - the coolest discipline and one with a huge effect on the setting. But it's not a good look to preemptively remove your majority black faction. It's just a coincidence, to be sure (and keep in mind, all of the orders are explicitly global organizations that recruit from all over the world), but too many coincidences starts to look a pattern.

Like, I have the second printing of the Trinity book (not recommended, really - the binding on my copy has started to fall apart after only very gentle use) and in the back it lists the planned order/geography supplements. Most of them eventually got made, but three never saw print. South America was released as an ebook. China was written, but never got to the publishing stage. Eventually its pre-layout text was released unofficially.  The Africa book was never even written (the teleporter order did get a book, but geographically it covered the extrasolar colonies).

Again, I don't think this was part of any sinister racist agenda. I believe the writers of Trinity did indeed intended to create a unique, vibrant sci-fi setting that was anchored by a de-colonized global south, but it just so happened that the bulk of the words that actually made it to the page were about white people and their problems.

One last example - the list of major 22nd century corporations. Europe, now an irradiated hellscape because grotesquely mutated ex-superheroes deorbited a giant space station on top of it, killing millions and making most of the survivors into scavengers and refugees - 3 corporations of note. Africa, the new hope of the world, center of a thriving economy - the same.

Or North America, now a totalitarian fascist state centered on the decaying ruins of the former USA - 9 major corporations. Versus South America, vibrant, cosmopolitan, and rapidly growing, which has 5.

That doesn't prove anything, of course. Maybe the reason Africa and South America are doing so well is because they have relatively few major corporations (certainly, it's implied that North America is outright ruled by its home-grown corps and that's a big part of why it's such a shithole). In the end, there's more to intelligent criticism than tedious page-counting. It's just . . . it's another coincidence.

Like making the telepathic Ministry of Psionic Affairs into a secretive and labyrinthine bureaucracy, utterly inscrutable to outsiders and a bottomless well of paranoia . . . and then basing it in China. I mean, on the one hand, what are you going to do - have sci-fi telepaths and not make them into a terrifying conspiracy with chilling implications for privacy and personal freedom? Be real. But it's weird that they just so happen to be Asian.

Look, I don't want to be sleazy implication guy. I'm not trying to dance around an accusation of racism here. I'm being indirect because the book is directly blameless. This isn't a situation like Oriental Adventures, where the whole thing needs to be sealed away behind a mental barrier of "this is a historical artifact, and product of its time, and thus, even as a piece of art, it needs to be considered with a certain critical distance." Trinity isn't embarrassing. It's largely pretty good.

And yet it's important to remember that for all its good intentions, it was indeed written with a certain point of view. And though it was progressive for its time, it also tends to mirror the peculiar concerns and prejudices of the time and place of its origin.

Take Trinity's South America. There's no doubt that the text is bullish on the continent. The text, while noting that things aren't perfect, nonetheless strikes a hopeful tone. There's no doubt that it is a region on the rise, full of charming, intrepid people who will become the economic, technological, and cultural leaders of the 22nd century . . . by saving the rain forest and legalizing the drug trade.

I think if you're a young liberal working for White Wolf in the late 90s, there's nothing cooler than imagining a future where people discover a path to prosperity through ecologically sustainable green technology. And, of course, ending the destructive drug war with an expansive amnesty that brings the cartels into the fold of the international capitalist consensus is just a sensible and enlightened idea all around.

But just maybe, there are deeper and more contentious entanglements between the drug trade and the USA's history of high-handed economic and cultural meddling in the region. And maybe the locals are less than eager to forgive the cartels for their brutality and the way they corrupted the region's civic institutions. Maybe they are not viewed as modern-day robin hoods and prospective pillars of the community at all, but vicious criminal gangs, created by a hypocritical global north's endless appetite for dangerous substances they are unwilling to produce themselves.

Just speculating here. Actually, I think the issues with Trinity's setting can mostly be boiled down to the relative ease, in 1997, of doing original research.

The best evidence for that is Trinity's Africa. The book doesn't have a bad thing to say about it, not even in that backhanded way where the positivity is rooted in normally unflattering stereotypes. But it does lean just a little too heavily on the word "tribal."

I don't want to pretend to be an expert here. I've read like two books on the subject. My understanding is that "tribes" are kind of a thing, but even to the extent that they are a thing, a lot of of the time, "tribal" is just a black-coded way of saying "rural." We don't talk about the tribes of Bavaria, Prussia, Baden, et al coming together in the 19th century to negotiate the creation of a pan-German state. But if we were being consistent, we would. Nearly any use of the word "tribe" would improve clarity if it were replaced by "nation," "language," "culture," "village," or "family" (the fact that "tribe" is used alternately to refer to any of these things and more is the root of the problem).

So when Trinity describes the United African Nations (an organization that stretches from Cairo to Johanesburg in a particularly . . . expansive version of pan-Africanism) as an "intertribal forum" that is perhaps not as helpful as they might imagine. In fact, it's really fucking vague.

The most realistic vision here is a sort of African-focused UN or (less-realistically) EU - something without true sovereignty, subordinate to national governments. You couldn't even really call it a regional alliance, because the actual area covered is too damned huge. The only problem with this is that none of the nations of Africa get individual write-ups.  Kenya and Nigeria get name-checked as part of the UAN's space program, but it's unclear how much regional autonomy they have.

This is where that research thing comes in. No delicate way of putting this, but in the USA, at least when I was a kid (and presumably earlier, when the White Wolf writers were kids), they teach you all of jack shit about Africa. It's a huge oversight, given the number of African-descended people who live in our country, but . . . no, there's no excuse. It is one of the uglier expressions of American white supremacy.

So, you're writing about Africa in 1997, roughly 5 years before Guide To The Anarchs claims with a straight face that the Internet was nothing but hype, how do you go about it? Go down to the library, get the "A" volume of the encyclopedia, maybe look up some stats in the CIA Factbook. If you're lucky, they might even have a specialized book on the subject of African History. Under those circumstances, it seems almost understandable that you'd completely fail to note the existence of Lagos, Nigeria, a city of 7-15 million people (depending on how you define the borders of the city).

And I know I harped on the exact same point in GTTA, but it really is emblematic. It's such a big thing not to know about. The regional breakdowns in this book are actually pretty short, and except for perhaps the moon, none are comprehensive. But if Europe can mention Rome. If Australia can mention Sydney. If South America can mention Rio de Janeiro. Then maybe Africa could spare a word or two for its largest city.

Now that you've stuck with me through all of these detailed, specific complaints let me completely undermine any general point I was trying to make by characterizing Trinity's setting section as a whole as "good, bordering on great." A lot of the shortcomings of this section come down to the fact that they gave themselves 150 pages to cover the entire Earth, complete with a century of alternate history that involved fighting evil mutant ex-superheroes, the whole solar system, a half dozen alien worlds with three well-drawn alien civilizations (one of them was uncomfortably rapey in that edgy 90s White Wolf way, but even so, only about 5% as bad as that passage in Guide to the Sabbat), eight whole organizations of futuristic psychics, and a bit of social and political commentary (and a really bad plot about saving the world economy by switching currency to the platinum standard) all with evocative full-color art and for some reason published in an eccentric digest size.

In other words, I really did nitpick every flaw in the text.


  1. Huh.

    This is likely the first discussion of Trinity's setting I've ever seen which didn't immediately break down into an endless labyrinth of metaplot stuff.

    It... actually sounds like a setting I'd like to play around with. How unfortunate that many fans seem to hide this.

    1. I'm glad I could be of some help. It'll probably be a couple of months before I get around to "formally" reading second edition, but I backed the kickstarter, so I can say that 2e is just a straight-up improvement over 1e. Everything that was interesting about 1st edition is still there, but it's better-researched and more immediately useable (it even explains its metaplot).