Saturday, September 21, 2019

Aurora Australis - Psi Order Legions & Austronesia Sourcebook

I'm going to have to tread carefully here, because much of this book is about something that absolutely infuriates me in real life - mercenaries (I refuse to call them by the euphemistic term "private military contractors"). Of course, fiction can be a way to safely engage with ideas that repulse or frighten us in real life, and when you get right down to it, most rpg heroes would qualify as some sort of mercenary or another. So really, the worst thing you could say about Aurora Australis is that it doesn't seek to pose any particularly difficult questions about its genre.

It's just that it bugs me. The Legions are heroic mercenaries. They get the bulk of their funds by agreeing to fight on the side of whoever pays them (sometimes, this means different squads wind up on opposite sides of the same conflict!), and that's . . . yikes. If The Legions existed in real life, I'd be demanding that they be brought to justice for their crimes against humanity.

But they're really just operating on comic-book logic. They're like "the assassin with a code" - something that is still pretty awful and anyway doesn't exist in real life because no one who is capable of adhering to a code has the slightest interest in being an assassin, but which is an accepted heroic archetype because nerds like me go absolutely bonkers for stories about people who excel at violence and there are only so many character backgrounds where that's a plausible skill set.

I wonder why that is. Violence isn't particularly interesting. It's, at best, captivating. It's something that you have to pay attention to, because if you don't you could find yourself in serious danger (or, the characters you care about could find themselves in serious danger). And I won't deny a certain fascination with the creative ways people throughout the ages have found of doing violence to each other.

There's something different about genre violence, though.  It lacks an element common to real violence, of degradation. The operative theory of all violence is that you can reduce the complexity of a person - their wants, their needs, their histories - to the simple realities of meat. That you can cut away the parts of them that resist your desires or force them, through threat of pain, to hide away those parts on their own. It starts with a conception of another human being as a victim, too weak to withstand your attack, and then treats this projected weakness as cause for utter contempt. You never start a fight with someone you respect.

Except in fiction. Then you can fight an "honorable foe" and win or lose know that simply trying your best means you've earned their respect under the "warrior's code." It's a cheesy trope made terrible by the fact that people don't always understand that it's an invention, as much a fantasy when referring to your nation's armed forces as when you're talking about the Knights of the Round Table.

The Legions, even when working as mercenaries, do not deliberately target civilians. I think this is supposed to make them sound noble, but as far as heroic codes go, it's grossly insufficient. I noticed that they're not so scrupulous about collateral damage that it has stopped nation-states from hiring (and, in fact, it's directly stated that the leader of the Legions' mercenary division is lax about enforcing the "no civilian targets" code and views it as more of a PR than a moral issue). There's also no mention of the Legion restricting itself to defensive battles. Nor to lawful, democratically accountable employers.

They're basically monsters. Anyone associated with this organization in any capacity is tainted with blood money to an almost unforgivable degree. But for some reason the book doesn't seem to acknowledge this.

I think because it's just supposed to be straightforward military sci-fi. The Legions fight genocidal aliens and power-mad mutants and the moral clarity of those battles carries over to the organization as a whole. Certainly, in all the discussions of the psi order's political maneuvers and role in society, they never face a foe who's like, "what the fuck, people?! They're a private army! They shouldn't be allowed to be that! For fuck's sake, they will straight up shoot deserters! Who is allowing them to do this?! Where do they get the right?!"

The rest of the book is about Australia and that material is ??? I think it's all right. It's got a more confident voice than some of the past Trinity books. It knows what it's about and is set on producing a guide to sci-fi Australia. But sci-fi Australia doesn't really have a gimmick. It's just a country, in the future. The material is useful, but I don't know enough about real Australia to tell you whether it's good.

I do know that the demographics section near the back is totally wrong. It says most psi orders have a 5% mortality rate and the Legions have a 30% mortality rate. But that's complete and utter bullshit. American forces in WW2 had approximately a 3% mortality. The Legions' losses are comparable to the Soviets' (roughly triple the British deaths). Aberrants are deadly, but the conflict has been presented as fairly low intensity. It boggles the mind to think that one of the psi orders is engaged in a conflict comparable to the Eastern front in WW2.

The other notable thing about this book is that it lacks the glossy front section that every other Trinity book has had so far. The in-character blurbs are scattered throughout the relevant sections and are in black-and-white, just like the rest of the book. It's not a change that's particularly damaging, but knowing that this was the last Trinity book to see print (or close to it), it's a little bittersweet, as if they knew the line was dying and released a compromise book as a last hurrah.

I won't say that Aurora Australis is my favorite of the Trinity supplements. In fact, it's arguably my least favorite (though mostly because the line itself was uniformly good), but it was a solid end to a solid run, and I hate that the last three books never saw print.

Oh well, my copy of 2nd Edition is on it's way! Let's hope it lives up to its legacy.

UKSS Contribution - Hey, steely-eyed space warriors with cool psychic powers battling tentacle monsters on Mars, screw you! My choice is phytomining. Technically, it's not something that Trinity invented (I found the 1998 scientific paper which undoubtedly inspired its inclusion here, but it was behind a paywall), but it was a neat bit of unusually plausible science-fiction flavor. It may not be economically viable until certain metal prices reach historic highs, but on Ukss they've been doing it for years.

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