Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Stellar Frontier - Upeo Wa Macho and Extrasolar Space Sourcebook

Is this the best Trinity book or is it merely my favorite? It's not noticeably better-written than the other books in the series, but it is the one that's deepest into the science fiction elements of the game. And because it doesn't deal with real-world locations, it runs a much lower chance of saying something so fraught that I need to put it under a microscope.

Lower chance, but not zero.

I'm probably reading too much into it. My brain is in a weird place after The Complete Book of Humanoids. It's just if I'm reading the book super critically, there a bit of . . .unfortunate imagery.

Like, a sci-fi plot where the psi orders become suspicious about the trouble the psionic teleporters might get into while gallivanting around the universe, so they assault their headquarters in order to capture them and put them in psionic dampeners - that's probably fine. It raises some uncomfortable characterization questions about the various Proxies, but it is in line with the "trust no one" mood of the time.

But if you reframe it as the psi orders landing a military force in west Africa to capture some of the people there and put them in collars so that the captors can exercise greater control over their labor?

I doubt there was anything at work there, even on a subconscious level, but it's kind of an oops. Making the African-American business mogul the driving force behind the plan was just a tone-deaf coda.

But like I said, I don't think there's any intent. And as near as I can tell, I'm the only person who ever even noticed. In fact, I'm fairly sure the culprit here is well-meaning color-blindness. The decision to have the teleporters flee the psi orders out of fear of being restrained and the decision to base the teleporter order out of Africa were made completely independently. As was the decision to make the setting's most prominent black character the mastermind.

And that, dear readers, is why color-blindness is inadequate as a solution to racism.

Then again, maybe the connection is all in my head. I feel a little self-conscious even bringing it up. It certainly wasn't enough to negatively impact my enjoyment of the book.

Stellar Frontiers places Trinity into kind of an awkward place in the sci-fi genre. Let's call it "proto space opera." There are FTL spaceships and weird aliens and strange worlds, but there's only, like, 5 of them. Everything you're given is very interesting, but for a game set in space, it feels oddly confining.

I wouldn't necessarily call it a worse approach than Star Wars, though. Star Wars planets can often just feel like re-skinned adventure towns. Trinity's planets tend to be much more well-drawn and distinct. Each of the worlds feels different and there's more thought put into things like climate and ecosystems.

That said, there is still sometimes the problem of bad sci-fi scale. One of the planet's plot revolves around a labor dispute between a mining colony and its Brazilian government sponsors. It's an interesting human drama set against a fantastic sci-fi backdrop, but there's just no reasonable understanding of the law of nations that would allow Brazil to claim a whole planet. Not even one that's doomed to be swallowed by a supernova in the next 2000 years. Maybe if inhabitable planets were a lot more common in the Trinity setting, but it stretches the bounds of disbelief a little that the workers have no options when literally 10s of millions of square miles are going uninhabited.

Still, I really like detailed sci-fi worldbuilding, so this was a pretty easy read for me. It could have been a lot more boring and still caught my attention ("now, tell me what the low-gravity algae is like").

The most exciting thing to happen in this book was the introduction of non-malevolent Aberrants, who call themselves Novas. This didn't come as a surprise to me, because my first Aeonverse game was actually Aberrant, and I played it for years before I ever explored Trinity, but, well, there's an advertisement in the back that features the lead Aberrant, Divis Mal posing in a sinister way, but captioned with the tag-line "It's not what you think it is." So clearly this book was a teaser for White Wolf's upcoming new game and just as clearly they expected the reveal that the Upeo wa Macho were on friendly terms with some Aberrants to come as a shock to long-time Trinity fans.

I wonder what it must have been like to have been a part of the fandom at that time. When White Wolf felt emboldened to just publish massively game-changing metaplot in its supplements and then expect you to keep up. I remember getting into the internet world of darkness fandom a couple of years after that, 2001, I think, and that was pretty wild. A lot of flamewars about Mage: the Ascension. It took me awhile to get clued in to what the arguments were actually about, but eventually I started getting a bit heated myself (and I can say that any average post here at ICFTB would probably have gotten me torn apart by rabid wolves back then).

Still, to have been plugged in to peak White Wolf, when it seemed like they were actively encouraging that kind of dissent . . . I can't say I'm sorry I missed it, but I must admit I'm a little bit intrigued.

UKSS Contribution: This book has yet another sample NPC that's too fabulous for gender and it's making me a little self-conscious that Ukss' first (and so far only) nonbinary character is in a similar mold. Ideally, I'd like to take this as the wake up call it is and put in a frumpy work-a-day NB character as a gesture of true inclusiveness. However, it is somewhat stretching the spirit of this challenge for me to read something in a book and get inspired to do the opposite. So I'll just have to keep my eyes open for a better opportunity.

Instead, I'll go with my second choice - the myriasoma. Strange alien creatures that are entire ecosystems. A sort of eusocial hive creature, except that some of the individuals look like plants, some look like animals, and they all sort of cooperate to maintain the whole. I don't yet know whether this is going to be an enchanted forest, a bizarre lunar landscape, or the defining characteristic of some new celestial body, but I do think it's pretty cool.

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