Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Aberrant: Year One

Aberrant: Year One is a sort of generalized setting book for the Aberrant universe. It presents snapshots of the world of alternate 2008, mostly in the form of brief profiles of various cities, in-character news items, and sample characters. It also covers the state of the art technology developed by novas and provides rules for when you want your Mega-Intelligent characters to advance the frontiers of science.

It's dreadfully inconsistent, especially with the technology. I think the culprit is White Wolf's ambivalence about making a superhero game. It's what prompts them to say, "that means saying no to one of the hoariest traditions of comic book super-science: that technology has no long-term consequences for the rest of the world."

Now, that's great. Best part of the Aberrant setting in my opinion, but they also have to inject some of the notorious WW "stop having fun, guys" energy into the proceedings by following up with, "Therefor Aberrant presumes that although nova super-scientists can make limited breakthroughs in science and technology, they cannot make radical advances."

The result is a curious conservatism in technology that in many ways undershoots the real world. For example, CD-Roms are replaced with "chips," which are basically just primitive flash drives. The description of a "chip player" says it's got a digital display with up and down buttons to sort through "up to 100 tracks." Congratulations, White Wolf, you invented the iPod 3 years before Apple, but underestimated its capabilities by about 90% (that "congratulations" is not sarcastic, btw, it is actually genuinely impressive that they predicted as seminal a product as the iPod, which just goes to show that they should have had a little more faith in the audacity of the future)

Likewise, with maglev trains. The technology for those already existed in 1998. We're not sitting around waiting for room-temperature superconductors (though apparently those are actually pretty close to being a reality), but rather for a government far-sighted enough to value the long-term savings over the huge initial cost.

The net effect is that sci-fi 2008 winds up feeling a lot like a near-miss on real-world 2018. Biotech is lagging, but computer technology just kept going. No, we're not too close to near human AI, but Big Data is doing things that should scare the shit out of us. We don't have Aberrant's flying cars, but if we did, they'd definitely be able to drive themselves. "Hypercombustion" that delivers the same power at 1/10th the fossil fuel consumption is the sort of tech that would give any sensible futurist nightmares, and yes you were very perceptive in your "fusion is perpetually 10 years away" cynicism, but damn, that is exactly the sort of scientific problem we could use a superhero to crack. VR is here, and it's kind of cool, I guess, but even in your fantasy world, you've failed to solve the problem of bumping into the furniture.

But honestly, my biggest gripe with the Technology section of this book is that it is inconsistent with a major setting element that was established in the core and is referenced several times in the first half of this very volume - that Project Utopia was given authority by the UN to regulate the promulgation of novas' discoveries in science and technology.

This was always one of the hardest bits of Aberrant's setting to swallow. The only way the fucking Security Council of the United Nations, the most jealously sovereignty-preserving organization to ever exist on this Earth, would ever consent to turn over that kind of power to an NGO would be if nova-tech was so blatantly and imminently an apocalyptic threat that even the most nationalist, head-in-the-sand politician would rather offload the responsibility onto a team of superheroes.

Now, granted, it's suggested that even with Aberrant: Year One's pessimistic assessment of the scientific value of Mega-Intelligent novas, that super-scientists might still develop eccentric, one-off inventions that are too expensive, too advanced, or too dangerous to replicate, but that sort of contradicts the original goal of the technology section. Plus, the core book quite clearly says that the Yakuza is building factories in northern Australia to distribute contraband technology, and that definitely implies that there is at least some seriously weird shit that is threatening to get loose.

Overall, I'd say you can give the technology section of this book a miss. The high points you'll pick up from context in the other books, and as for the rest, you'd probably be better off just pulling up some old episodes of Beyond 2000 and assuming that half of the shit on there actually panned out in the Aberrant universe.

Which just leaves the cities section. It's mostly pretty good, but it treads a fine line, apparently without even realizing it.

So, the great part about this book is its commitment to diversity. You get write ups of traditional stand-bys like New York, LA, and Tokyo, but you also get cities like Lagos, Karachi, and Jakarta. One thing the Trinity-verse has always been good at is remembering that the future is, in fact, the future of the whole globe.

Where it might run into trouble is in its fondness for the term "third world." It's got a very America-centric view of the notion of progress (even, at one point, suggesting the EU could use the US as a model for greater integration . . . ha!), and that can sometimes lead to scenarios where it doesn't feel like the locals have a lot of agency (The Medellin Cartel moves into Cuba after Castro's death and subverts the government to bring about a return to Havana's Batista-era economy? That's . . . maybe not something the Cubans would greet as enthusiastically as this book implies).

Ultimately, I think this book's heart is in the right place, and with a couple of dubious exception is generally on the right side of the colonialist divide, but the language it uses to express these positions is a bit . . . old fashioned (like, maybe you'd want to think twice before describing Hong Kong as "the gateway to the East").

With that slight caveat, I find the setting material in Aberrant: Year One to be generally useful. It's admirably diverse (though South America was overlooked in its entirety), the characters are engaging, and between the various cities it does a good job of showing off the variety of stories a Nova might get involved in.

Ukss Contribution: This is a tough one. While a fine setting book, very little jumped out at me. That's probably because the best stuff is so tied to the specifics of both Earth and Aberrant that it won't easily adapt. I'm thinking I'll go with fantasy-LA's "solution" to its notorious traffic problem - dividing the city into 12 "time zones" that each have staggered standard work hours.

Now, the reasons why this could never possibly work are too numerous to go in to, but there was something authentic that struck me in the way that the most privileged neighborhoods got the most desirable time zones. As a night shift worker, that spoke to me. I think I could probably make a half-way decent fantasy capitalist hellhole with its own clock-based form of oppression.


  1. Have you seen the film "In Time?" Another offering from the director of Gattaca, and I'm quite fond of it.


    1. I have. I thought it was pretty decent,and an interesting sci-fi premise. Shame it jumped the gun on the "it's okay for pop culture to drag capitalism" trend. If it were released five years later, it likely would have been very popular.