Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Trinity Continuum: Aeon

I can't stop thinking about the sci-fi Lunar garbage crisis. I was so hard on High Frontier for not taking it more seriously. I don't know what it was, but the imagery really affected me. Growing up, I was inspired by pictures of the moon. Seeing disc of the Earth rising over that serene, silvery landscape sparked my imagination and awakened both my intellectual curiosity and my sense that we are all one human family, trying to make it on our ridiculously small and fragile blue orb. So there was some romantic and sentimental part of me that was troubled by the thought of 290,000 Lunar residents just dumping willy-nilly their mine tailings, broken drill bits, dead batteries, and god knows what else.

In the world of Trinity Continuum: Aeon, there are 50 million people living on the Moon. And I'm haunted by the question, what are they doing with their garbage? Damned Transhuman Space. If I'd read these last two books in the opposite order, I'd never even think about this issue, but now it's all I can think about. The book doesn't say that the people of Olympia use the Lunar surface as their own half-assed garbage dump, but it also doesn't say that they don't.

I guess the fact that their city is made of implausible soft sci-fi crystal domes and impractical sealed-environment skyscrapers would at least give them an incentive to keep their immediate environs beautiful. And it's completely unclear what productive economic activity makes it preferable to settle the Lunar south pole, rather than, say, Detroit, so I don't necessarily have to imagine vast swaths of mining and heavy industry. In the end, though, what calmed my fears most about the potential for a sci-fi trash apocalypse was the certain knowledge that the Aeon Trinity would never stand for it.

But I think I have to admit that's a pretty thin thread to tie my hopes onto. The Aeon Trinity is a nebulous group of comics-inspired do-gooders. They are financed by a global cabal of impossibly wealthy philanthropists who prefer to remain anonymous (presumably because if they were ever given anything so concrete as an identity, we'd start to wonder why bank-rolling an organization that meddles in everything from public education to developing the technology to invade alien planets doesn't instantly bankrupt them) and the only thing we can be absolutely certain about is that they are on the right side of history.

It's kind of a weird train of thought. Central to Trinity Continuum: Aeon's pitch is the idea that the Illuminati is real, they're actually pretty good guys, and in the future they'll go public. It almost seems like I'm pushing it a little too far to also imagine that they'll use their diplomatic and economic clout to ensure that the Moon's waste-disposal regulations are robust enough to preserve its beauty for generations to come.

There's a treacherous part of me that wants to make this the centerpiece of an introductory adventure. You've just been recruited by Aeon, a venerable conspiracy of two-fisted adventurers and action-scientists whose self-appointed mandate is to act as a force for interplanetary justice! Your first mission? To find out who has been illegally dumping their rubbish on the outskirts of Olympia (womp womp).

But, of course, we all know how that would play out. The group starts off grumbling in disappointment. Maybe the team rebel even storms off in a huff. But the team leader gives a speech about how "everybody has to start somewhere" and "they can't all be vid-worthy." And then, in the course of their investigation, they discover the illegal dumping is tied to a sinister corporation, and in the course of infiltrating that corporation, they learn that it is a secret front for a mutant-worshipping cult, and maybe the team rebel's earlier tantrum puts them in the optimal position to stage a timely rescue, and in the end, they all band together to expose the conspiracy, but the main perpetrators get away and the team has just earned themselves a powerful and persistent enemy. Time for brevet promotions to the Aeon task force that has been tracking them for years!

Call it the power of genre at work. Genre is Trinity Continuum: Aeon's greatest strength. It's got a charming and self-aware approach, making explicit 1e's convention of associating each region of the setting with a different science-fiction sub-genre (seriously, there's a chart in the "Storyguiding" chapter and everything).

This is where I have to slow down and tread carefully. Trinity Continuum: Aeon corrects or improves almost every problem I had with the first edition of Trinity (and I've got, like 4 pages of notes that I'm just now realizing would be too tedious to recap, filled with things like "Legion no longer mercenaries😀 - working for UN, but sometimes rogue?"), but now that there are fewer speed-bumps, I can better see how objectifying such an approach might seem.

Nippon is where you set a game if you want a sort of 90s retro-future look, with robots and video screens everywhere, set inside a giant arcology that covers most of the home islands (or perhaps "only" about 33% of Honshu - there are contradictory passages), and the backstory is that in the chaos and uncertainty of the Aberrant war, it made some kind of economic and strategic sense for them to strip-mine their entire nation to make themselves a 100% artificial environment. And look, I'm no scholar of Japanese culture, and I can't speak authoritatively about its relationship with nature, but I'd be surprised by a timeline where the Japanese leveled Mount Fuji and "sifted it for minerals," and I'd be a little bit heartbroken if they tore up the cherry trees.

Now, this is science-fiction we're talking about, and not your subtler, more thoughtful science fiction at that. An entire country inside a single massive building is cool. And when you're shopping around for a place to put that, Japan works as well as any. But in a very real sense, if you do that, then in your setting you've destroyed Japan. There is no Japan in Trinity Continuum: Aeon. There is something where Japan used to be, and it carries with it a dusting of Japanese flavor, but when I look at Nippon and ask myself what details were chosen to make this fantastic arcology nation evoke the Japan of our day, I can't help but go hmm.

I am probably being relatively unfair to Trinity Continuum: Aeon, by targeting it at possibly its weakest point. I could have made a similar observation about any of the regions. To a certain degree, that's just the nature of time. If you look a century into the past, you're going to see a lot of familiar things that are barely recognizable, but you'll also see the roots of thing that have endured.

Which is to say, the interregnum provided by the Aberrant War can explain away a lot, but is it sufficient for Pakistan and India to unite under a single political authority?

Trinity Continuum: Aeon is another mid-future sci-fi rpg that likes to bill itself as "optimistic," and it's interesting to compare its version of optimism to Transhuman Space. For me, the most direct point of comparison would have to be Chile. In THS, it's a triumph of conventional capitalist wisdom, a thriving post-industrial market economy that specializes in robots. In TC:Aeon, it's the Mapuche Nation, and the native-descended people have been given full ownership of the country's genetic IP (I'm not sure what that comes out to in yuan, but it sounds valuable).

There's a definite contrast, there, but I'm not sure I can deliver a definite conclusion. Is this the result of a decade and a half's worth of cultural change or just a difference in the authors' values? Perhaps, in time, Aeon's sci-fi future will age as poorly as THS's, and I'm simply too close to the issue to see it. I feel like there's something, there, some insight that will allow us to better understand the shifting artistic and ideological priorities of the early 21st century Anglosphere, but that will probably have to wait until the blog's 15 year retrospective, where I go back and complain about how none of these rpg books presaged the 2030s obsession with recycling your own urine to fight back against climate change.

I think, overall, it would be a mistake to look for Trinity Continuum: Aeon's optimism in the fate of any particular nation. Parts of it are downright grim. Like, the Federated States of America are a more keenly observed fascist state, with a pointless and one-sided, but distressingly plausible rivalry with the United African Nations that is so mean-spirited they are financially backing Al-Qaeda. I mean, I've been known to be overly cynical at times, but damn.

The optimism in Trinity Continuum: Aeon comes from the same place as my conviction that there won't be a garbage crisis on the Moon - the idea that however bad things may seem, Aeon is there to help. It's a vision that has the potential to be as awkwardly aristocratic as any superhero fantasy, but is more or less saved from that by the fact that Aeon is really just an amped-up NGO. The good work it does is made possible by thousands of people on the ground, pitching in as best they can. That's nice, the idea that people can work together to solve the world's problems.

Although, yes, there is also some magical superhero-designed technology to make things easier.

I'd say that Trinity Continuum: Aeon is pretty much the ideal 2nd edition. For veterans, it's a distillation of everything that was good about 1st edition, but with the rougher and more awkward edges smoothed away. For newcomers, it's a great place to get started, comprehensive enough to let you keep up with the fandom's conversations, but self-contained enough that you don't have to. It's dramatically more niche than the Trinity Continuum Core, so I don't think it has the same potential to become a landmark title, but it's clear that the Trinity Continuum as a whole has a bright future ahead of it.

Ukss Contribution: China in this game is weird. I hesitate to even bring it up because, like the rest of us, TC: Aeon sees the inevitability of an upcoming Chinese Century, but it never quite settles on a coherent vision of what that will mean. However, there is one little detail that is maybe a bit too condescending to apply to a real nation state, but which is perfect fantasy fodder.

Basically, a lot of stuff in the Aeon era is left over detritus from when superheros roamed the Earth and deformed the world's culture and economy by producing regular miracles. One such example was in China, where a child with the apparent power of super-insightfulness advised the government to make a whole bunch of laws nobody but she understood. And the government followed that advice. And it worked. So now that the superheroes have been banished to the outer reaches of space, China has a complicated legal code that protects it from market shocks, but which no one understands well enough to amend or replicate.

It treads a little close to the "mysterious Asian" stereotype to be completely comfortable, but it amuses me, so I'll overlook it. In the setting, the child is nicknamed the Bodhisattva, but I don't know enough about the cultural context surrounding that term to properly understand how it should be used, so I'll just call her The Incarnate.

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