Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Aberrant: Elites

Elites is probably the most important Aberrant setting book since Year One. It, more than any of the books before, explores novas as superhumans, rather than superheroes. The term "elite" started off just meaning "mercenary," but this book expands it to mean "any nova with a paying job." While Elites is mostly about mercenaries, the other possibilities get some shout-outs - The Devries agency arranges contracts for a plastic surgeon and an engineer, the Argus Agency uses its founder's precognition to provide disaster relief right as it happens, the suggested PC-founded agencies include a PI office and an escort service ("hey guys, I've got a wild idea for our next campaign . . ."). All-in-all, Elites does a lot of unique Aberrant worldbuilding.

You just know there's going to be a "but," don't you? I'll let this remarkable early line set the stage for me: "[mercenaries] have a bad reputation, despite the fact that first world nations have used them."

. . .

That "despite" is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. But as ridiculous as this sentence is, it gets to the heart of the book's primary flaw - It is completely tone deaf on matters of imperialism. One example of an elite mission is when the President of Pakistan defaults on a 20 million dollar loan from a London bank and "this was probably the first time a private interest employed elites against a sitting head of state . . ." by kidnapping him and taking him to the UK "for trial."

Which is just . . . wow. I mean, there's something there. A theme we could explore. The cruelty and arrogance of these killers for hire. The most prominent elite agency is owned by a white South African and got its start working for the DeBeers corporation. In a modern game, they'd be almost cartoonishly evil, a perfect foil for Project Utopia and a force that makes even the Teragen seem good.

Unfortunately, Elites never quite twigs to the fact that it's supposed to be a villain book. That damned "despite" looms over everything. There's a section in the storytelling chapter that talks about novas committing war crimes. It's called "The Gray Areas." You know, the moral ambiguity of blowing up a water treatment plant relied upon by thousands of civilians because it would deal a blow to the rebels.

Or take the presentation of Anna Devries herself. She's a bona-fide Good Boss. She never sends her elites into combat without the best available intelligence and backup, she fosters an espirit de corps, pays generously, and "she's not blind enough to be prejudiced against black South Africans, like her father is." She even subcontracts all of her company's nova branding to a prominent gay stereotype (though in Elites' defense, it never says that Bruce Sauvage is supposed to be gay, just that he's "flamboyant" and that he plays "Ethel Merman and Judy Garland tunes . . . at full volume all day long.")

It would be wrong to say that this book goes so far as to present mercenaries in a heroic light, but "unfortunately, a large percentage of the world's wealth is found in politically unstable areas. Corporations need to go to great lengths to protect their valuable investments."

It never gets to the root of what's going on. Never expresses the true power dynamics at work here. For example, it quite correctly identifies Kashmir as a likely location for a serious international crisis, but it doesn't say anything about the water. It's not that "no amount of reason will deter them from their ancestral claims," it's also that the region is of immense strategic and economic importance. It's only a minor exaggeration to say that millions of lives are at stake, and that if superheroes really did turn the region into an "environmental wasteland," the result would be a humanitarian crisis of an absolutely stomach-churning scale.

But this gets us close to an uncomfortable discussion. How could Elites miss out on something so important? Partially, I blame lack of research. This is something I try not to get on my high horse about, because I still have access to some of my writing from this time period and it's about ten to twenty times worse, but there's little excuse for saying that signs on the Devries compound are posted in "English, French, Afrikaans, and local African languages."

That speaks to something more serious than just a little laziness. Sure, Namibia has a great deal of linguistic diversity, but there's nothing stopping you from adding Oshiwambo and Khoekoegowab to the list. Sadly, the book seems to quite thoughtlessly objectify the places where it says elites do their fighting.

I don't know how much of this is just a genre thing. You've got a military superhero story and the local people are scenery and props. You can just write in a plot about Islamabad being "leveled" and there's no need to think about the fact that it's a city of a million people (about half that in 2000) that has a healthy degree of hometown pride. New York in The Avengers was scarcely better treated.

And yet, in searching for the city's population, I discovered that a lot of Pakistanis are really invested in the idea that it's one of the most beautiful world capitals. Google Earth didn't give me quite enough information to make a definitive judgement, but fuck, I'm not about to set myself up as some kind of arbiter of comparative civic aesthetics. The parts of it I did see, however, were enough to convince me that if India really did dispatch a team of superheroes to set it on fire, the rage would be incalculable.

That brings us to the ultimate, imponderable question at the heart of this book - is it okay that it's talking about real places? I think there are layers here. Like, if Islamabad were destroyed because it was ground zero for an alien invasion, that's practically an honor. You've got comic book shit happening, and it has to happen somewhere, so why not the world's second most beautiful city?

But when you change the motive for the superpower-fueled carnage to "retaliation for a terrorist attack carried out by Muslim extremists" that starts hitting a little to close to home. Or worse, you could do what they did in the section on Congo and make the nova dictator cynically exploit anger at the Tutsi genocide to gain power, and then totally neglect the issue once he took office. That feels gross to me.

The logic is clear. Novas are pretty powerful. Many of them have mega-Intelligence or mega-Charisma. If one wanted to take over a country, they could probably do it. And if you're making the sort of game that Aberrant bills itself as, then this possibility should probably be realized somewhere. And if you're making it somewhere, you've got to balance between artistic license and a care for the real location's history.

All of this makes sense to me. But then I ask myself "why there." To be entirely fair to Aberrant, if you judge by their handling of American politics (a female libertarian president!), there is almost no degree of distortion anywhere else that's going to be worse. However, there's this nagging feeling I've got that they needed a place where novas could do mercenary shit, and the Equatorial Wars (and there's no telling you how much I dislike this name) were the result because Africa is somehow . . . expendable. If the main mercenary hotspot was southern France because the Prince of Monaco erupted and decided to use  his wealth and nova powers to reclaim the land his ancestor was forced to sell to France, that would require dramatic alt-history rewrites in places the audience actually knew about. On the other hand, nobody in America knows where the borders are supposed to be in Africa, and thus nobody thinks twice about people hiring superheroes to fight about them.

That's a cynical take, though. I think a larger part is that the year 2000 was a time when White Wolf was both edgy and pretentious, and so the thought of setting a story in a place with real conflict and horror in its past (or, in the case of Kashmir, near future) is one that appealed to the company's most puerile instincts.

Overall, I can't bring myself to like this book. I liked parts of it. I liked the basic concept. A supers setting where the supers hire themselves out to help dictators keep power (or to help suspiciously well-funded rebels to seize power . . . and quite coincidentally preserve American interests in the meantime) is a novel and compelling idea. It gives the conflicts with the starched-shirt heroes a more realistic texture. But to use real people, with real and ongoing problems, that feels like exploitation to me.

Ukss Contribution: Elites is not an evil book. Clueless to the point of irritation? Sure. Borderline offensive as a result? Quite plausibly. But it didn't hate its subjects, so I think there's plenty in here that can be redeemed.

I'll pick the tunnel borer. It melts rock to move through the ground with relative speed ("relative" being the operative word - it tops out at 0.6 km per hour) and is used primarily to sneakily undermine walls and bunkers. It also inexplicably has a crew, despite being in constant danger of overheating and needing a coolant-carrying umbilical cord to sty connected to the surface.

I'm seriously not sure why they couldn't just run a wire down the coolant tube and control the thing remotely, but I do like the idea of brave terranauts exploring the subterranean world. Maybe it could just be a part of how sieges are done in Ukss.

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