Sunday, April 26, 2020

Aberrant: Project Utopia

If there is one character who is emblematic of Aberrant: Project Utopia's worldbuilding, it is Aaron T Peloit, the chief archivist for Project Proteus, the sinister conspiracy inside Utopia. The Proteus chapter of the book is framed as a series of leaked documents, detailing the hierarchy, methodologies, and infamous deeds of that organization, including the assassination of dissenters and political leaders. At the end of the chapter, Mr Peloit explains his reasoning for leaking the documents by citing two outrages in particular - the clandestine nova-sterilization scheme and the fact that Proteus has spies within Utopia itself, creating a culture of paranoia among operatives like him. Those two reasons, and those reasons only are why he's taking the risk of revealing this information. Otherwise, he thinks Proteus is doing good, necessary work, even to the extent that they deliberately sabotage peace operations in regions like Kashmir (30,000 civilians dead in the first two days of fighting) in order to have a reliable way of assigning troublesome nova to suicide missions. He doesn't like Director Thetis looking over his shoulder and he thinks maybe novas should be allowed to have babies, but aside from that Proteus should still be able to keep doing what it's been doing, because an organization like Utopia can't achieve its noble goals without someone in the shadows, doing its dirty work.

A deeply cynical take on an organization that was advertised, in the Introduction, as being "as close to the good guys as you can get in a realistic setting." But that's just what you expect from White Wolf. The back of the book contains the line, "Guiding Humanity to a Better Tomorrow . . . One Atrocity at a Time." Cynicism is what you signed up for.

What makes Aaron T Peloit the mascot of this book in particular is who he decided to leak the information to. Andre Corbin, the disgruntled former employee fired from Team Tomorrow for having too much attitude, Count Raoul Orzaiz, the most charming man in an international nova-supremacist organization, and General Thomas Dwayne Endicott, a US military officer who was spearheading the development of anti-nova weapons. These were the people he thought would set aside their differences and come together to reform Project Utopia instead of ruthlessly exploiting the information to destroy the organization for their own, personal, philosophical, and political reasons.

Now, granted, Corbin in a designated Sexy Bad Boy, and thus above suspicion in these kind of subtle machinations, but even with that mulligan, that recipient list was naive as hell. It's that peculiar mix of cynical and naive that characterizes Aberrant: Project Utopia to me.

It is basically the premise of this book that Philanthropy Will Save the World. Utopia is a private organization that gives away its money however it sees fit and it's mostly working out okay. Private medical research. Private disaster relief. Private environmental restoration and geoengineering. Private law enforcement. Bankrolled by the profits of nova-driven science (that they are implausibly empowered to regulate with no obvious oversight). And these initiatives do indeed go a long way towards addressing the world's problems.

Despite my intimations of sarcasm, this isn't that big a deal. It's just one of those funny little ironies that for all of Aberrant's desire to avoid genre cliches like super-inventors failing to change the world or spandex-clad vigilantes, it wound up stumbling into the most problematic idea in superhero fiction - that ordinary people are unable to solve their own problems and must wait around for their superiors to rescue them.

This is where Aberrant's background cynicism helps it out, though. There are forces in the Aberrant universe (thin on the ground as they are in this particular book) that are highly critical of Utopia, and while I think their cries that Project Utopia is a fascist organization are misplaced, it is at least something to recognize that the superhero genre is one with fascist overtones, and Utopia, by deliberately cloaking itself in superhero tropes (Team Tomorrow started fighting organized crime because people "seemed to expect the comic-book-hero-like novas to do comic-book-hero-like things") invites those kind of comparisons.

And here is where it gets tricky, because there's a part of Utopia that's subversive, and there's a part of Utopia that plays it straight.

Project Utopia subverts the superhero genre by making its Justice-League analogue into an organization that exploits novas. Not just with Project Proteus, but in its very conception. Its motto is "Creating a Brighter Tomorrow with the Power of Today," but there is a fundamental split - the Power comes from novas, but the people who get to define "a Brighter Tomorrow" are largely baselines. Novas can be entrusted with positions of great responsibility - Caestus Pax is not just Team Tomorrow's frontman, he's also the administrative head of the entire department - but ultimately, they are not in charge.

Although Aberrant is hardly the only superhero setting to explore these ideas, it is interesting in the context of the greater Trinity-universe metaplot. Eventually, it's all going to go to shit, and it's not at all clear what side of the human-nova war Utopia's novas are going to come down on. The Project fails, and it owes that failure in no small part to its hubris and its mistrust. Though Aberrant: Project Utopia is largely optimistic, it doesn't entirely forget this dramatic irony. It's always lurking there in the background.

But then there's the other half of it, the naive part. Utopia's good deeds are interesting because they at least make an effort to include stuff that's not normally covered in superhero narratives - when they deliver much-needed supplies to disaster victims, nova powers allow for a much more efficient logistics chain; the water-mastery lady can create economically significant amounts of fresh water and so they send her to fill wells in drought-afflicted areas; and so on.

That's all very well and good. The thought they give to different ways superpowers can be used is Aberrant's greatest strength. Where it starts to get a little problematic is when Utopia's philanthropy takes on an uncomfortable "white savior" sort of energy.

It's hard for me to pin down with precision, but Utopia does a lot of work in "the Third World" and while I could go on a pedantic tangent explaining the origin of the term in Cold War era geopolitics, it's probably not necessary. We all understand that it's a euphemism for "poor," perhaps with some additional racial and cultural baggage. I don't necessarily want to pick on White Wolf for this, because it would have been really easy for them to write an rpg all about the USA and Europe and people back then likely wouldn't have noticed. So, the attempt to make a truly global superhero game, one where the Justice League is more concerned with clean water and education than bank robberies in NYC, where the headquarters are in Addis Ababa - that's not nothing.

 But . . . there are no named African employees of Project Utopia (there is some mention of Ethiopian locals working at the Team Tomorrow Central Headquarters as groundskeepers and the like), and certainly none in a position of leadership. It makes their charitable efforts on the continent seem like something they're doing to Africa, instead of in cooperation with local organizations and governments.

Take their signature achievement - Project Eden, the "terraforming" of the Ethiopian highlands. I spent 15 minutes or so trying to narrow down where exactly this would have taken place, but I'll admit it might be a task beyond my research abilities, because the only candidates I could find all seemed to be places the real-world Ethiopian government has declared protected nature preserves. In any event, the causes of Ethiopia's famines are more complex than "lack of arable land." While climate plays a role, political factors are just as important. Often, the food is there, but people are too poor or isolated to access it.

And look, I'm not going to act like I have any clue how to meaningfully improve material conditions in any of the countries of Africa, but that's kind of the point. I'm just a white guy, half a world away. I'm not going to know more than the people who are actually living there, which is why local leadership is so important. Utopia employs Mega-Intelligent novas to come up with elaborate plans to improve the world, but those novas don't necessarily have mega-empathy, mega-humility, or mega-lack-of-racism, and as a result, the plans are often big, splashy one-off gestures, implementable only by superhumans, and completely orthogonal to the specific social conditions of the intended beneficiaries. It's a specific kind of technological arrogance we've come to recognize in the real world - Elon Musk if his child-rescuing submarine actually worked.

It's a fine characterization. A very interesting premise for a story - "what if techbro philanthropists could really walk the walk," but I think you'd find that if the story is well-told, then the second act is going to be pure suspense as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Facebook has developed an app to eliminate 95% of all murders! But are they going to have the wisdom to navigate the power dynamics that arise out unevenly-distributed access?

Oh shit.

Going back to the Ethiopian example. Eighty percent of the country are already farmers, so how is this agricultural terraforming supposed to work? Are you spending billions of dollars to tear up the country's national parks so that millions of people can move? Or are you interrupting the livelihoods of millions of people while you do complicated geological stuff to their farmland? Either way, if the plan involves economic disruption and the displacement of large populations, why not just build a few hundred factories to give people high-paying jobs, industrialize agriculture on the now-vacated land, and just let people buy food? No new technology needed and you don't even have to destroy the country's irreplaceable geographical and biological treasures.

Not saying that plan is what needs to happen in real-world Ethiopia, just that these sort of rapid changes are almost always accompanied by massive unrest and total, irredeemable shittiness from one party or another ("after pa died, the bank foreclosed on our dirt farm") and there's really nothing about getting superheroes involved that's going to change that, not unless there's a nova with the power of "instilling equanimity in people being forcibly separated from their ancestral homes," (which is maybe a niche ability that would have seen a lot of use among history's worst regimes).

In any event, it's not a theme that gets much exploration, at least not in the self-aware way you get with the game's broader genre satire. Utopia's opponents are portrayed as incoherent reactionaries, indicating that the text is unaware of how fundamentally conservative it is as an organization (you want to fix Africa? maybe persuade the neo-colonialists to stop breaking it - or is that too "controversial" a stance for your carefully curated "apolitical" image?)

A potentially fruitful avenue that's never called out is how Utopia's top-driven philanthropic strategy dovetails with the more explicitly authoritarian and nakedly colonialist (you don't hire mercenaries to exacerbate local conflicts if you respect the autonomy of the people involved) Project Proteus. Proteus is consistently portrayed as a rogue agency, a conspiracy within Utopia, but also a force foreign to it. As much as it wouldn't do to say that the Utopians are insincere in their desire for a better world (that way lies too much cynicism), it is nevertheless possible to acknowledge that Proteus is a natural outgrowth of their conviction that they have a right to unilaterally change the world.

Ukss Contribution: This book makes the . . . interesting choice to take a break from thrilling superheroics just long enough to describe Project Utopia's accounting department - a move of which I heartily approve.

The boss of the accounting department is Juliana Waters. She's a total hardass who demands perfection, naturally, but also she loves celebrating employee birthdays. Insists on it, in fact. The book says it has something to do with her belief in astrology, but honestly, it works just as well without an explanation. Such a specific, human detail it almost makes me think she was based off a real person.


  1. So, is your inclusion Juliana Waters, or the accounting department?


    1. Juliana Waters. I'm just assuming that accounting departments, like sewers and graveyards, are just one of those things that is essential to the running of civilizations, but people usually prefer not to talk about.