Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Aberrant Worldwide Phase I

Hoo boy, was this book ever a roller coaster of emotions. It's a collection of four Aberrant adventures and I could have probably written four separate posts about it. There's so much drama and world-shaking action that I'm left wondering what they could possibly have held back for Phase II.

The first adventure is an election story, written in '99-'00 and it's . . .wrong. That's not such a great fault. I'm not surprised it's wrong. It's more the realization that I didn't understand jack shit about politics prior to 2016 and the author of this adventure was clearly in the same boat.

The plot revolves around a sinister far-right politician who attempts to frame the first nova major party candidate by stealing his diary and then selectively removing pages to make it seem like he was part of the global conspiracy he was actually trying to stop. And my thought when that information was introduced was, "why doesn't he just make up a whole bunch of gibberish?"

Similarly, there's a bit of in-character fiction where the secret service guy expresses doubts about Mark Green's morality because his limo drove by a passed-out kid in the street and he hesitated before doing the right thing and getting the kid some help. I was seriously confused by that section until I remembered, "oh, right, there was a time when we were disturbed by the thought that our leaders were merely performing empathy instead of being relieved when they didn't actively treat it with contempt."

Now, I don't want to get too nostalgic about the past here. My current political nihilism isn't because I think people have gotten worse over the past 20 years. It's more of an astonishment at the dirty tricks this guy is leaving on the table, despite the fact we now have empirical evidence that they'd work. The Senate Subcommittee on Nova Affairs doesn't want to drag Randal Portman into a spurious investigation because they're afraid it might backfire in an election year? Someone had much more faith in the media than history has proved warranted.

But I don't want to rag too much on it, merely for the fault of believing that democracy has rules and that reality would follow some kind of dramatic logic. It's not too long ago that I'd have agreed that it's difficult to be scared of a man with no virtues, that lies work best when they're rooted in partial truths, and that right-wing politicians would want to at least maintain the appearance of being statesmen, even as they looked for ways to smear their opponent. So I understand why this book makes the choice to have Mark Green be smart and hard working, for the Randal Portman conspiracy theory to be based on plausible events, for the Republicans in the Senate to not go scorched earth.

And, you know, to its credit it did anticipate the arc of the American far right. There's an excerpt from one of Mark Green's speeches and it quite eerily focuses on the theme that all the world is laughing at the US and includes the phrase "make America strong again." And there's a moderate conservative candidate who is basically Mitt Romney and has no chance in hell of winning.

Which brings us naturally to the thing that's ludicrous about this section - four major US political parties. Ah, I remember that being a popular 90s pipe dream, when it was possible to not understand that the inexorable mathematics of the first past the post voting system would guarantee the existence of precisely two viable parties. This was before people argued by slinging around youtube videos. A lot of us hadn't even heard the term "first past the post."  There was a sense that maybe a third party could come in and save us, if only the public had the courage to give them a chance.

So naive. What it means in practical Aberrant terms is the GOP saved its soul by splitting from the radicals of the American Eagle Party and that the incumbent is a female atheist Libertarian (adjectives arranged in order of increasing unlikelihood).

That was a surreal experience. As a white American male, I don't think I've ever been on the receiving end of a "research is hard, fuck it, let's go with something that sounds cool" before. And while that's not precisely what's going on here, it's close enough that I can tell it's a little bit insulting, a little bit funny, and a whole lot impossible to take seriously.

Okay, that's 750 words and I've used about half my notes for chapter one. It's tough to communicate exactly how weird this adventure is. It's like a time capsule of bad ideas. Every single page had some kind of bitter irony. The Libertarian president is undermining the federal agencies she's been entrusted to run, but she's "abandoned her lofty attempts at ethical hygiene" and is now taking bribes from "special interests" to back "big government," and gah! I mean, seriously ARGHH! Because she's also written as the adult in the room and I don't know what the hell is going on with this section. A corrupt political nihilist is dismantling federal oversight and feathering her nest by exploiting her position, but the author chose to write about her as if they worked for The National Review and the crux of the criticism is that she's not betraying the public trust fast enough to be entirely consistent with her stated principles. But at least it's not a sex scandal.

Oh, and there's a mega-intelligent nova who is plotting to manipulate the government from the shadows to impose his bizarre personal ideology. Step one: "undermine the American judicial system." How, you might ask? Simple: "con judges across the nation into making idiotic decisions. . ."

I'm just going to choose to interpret that as "ludicrously over-the-top absurd decisions like, maybe 'ice cream is a vegetable' or something," because I'm going to scream if I have to talk about a 20-year-old comic supervillain being less clownishly villainous than the current Senate Majority Leader.

Maybe I should just take a step back from this chapter and move on. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it usable? I have no idea how to begin to answer any of those questions.

Let's talk instead about how Project Utopia are total bastards. No, not Proteus. Utopia. It's kind of a running theme of the last three chapters, and if this book is about anything it's about Utopia facing its long-delayed reckoning.

It starts in Chapter 2 with Project Genesis, Utopia's plan to "terraform" the Sahara desert and holy shit where do I even start with that? Like, you can't just destroy the Sahara. It's a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem that has its own intrinsic value. On the other hand, it's also problematic to say that the land is so precious that the locals can't use it. Wouldn't want to get too deep into colonialist privilege and start valuing the ecology over human life, although I'm skeptical that small-plot agriculture is the economic panacea that Aberrant seems to think it is. Admittedly, it would be a great example of philanthropic hubris, were Aberrant the sort of game that thought in those terms.

The second adventure could be interpreted that way without too much of a stretch. It's all about Utopia's chief ecological mastermind, Antaeus, deciding to defect from the Project after the board members ignore his advice and accelerate the time table to finish in two years instead of five. The main obstacle to this interpretation is that it's repeatedly and explicitly stated that the board's motive is to score a PR win, which is exactly the sort of surface cynicism that so often obscures the deeper, richer veins of cynicism that could be had with just a little bit more effort. What if the board started buying into its own hype and sincerely believed their cause was so important that they could ignore the mega-intelligent expert and recklessly push ahead . . . and the PR windfall was just a nice little bonus?

Although, as interesting as the Antaeus vs the suits conflict is, the adventure buries the lede. What the story is really about is Project Utopia's grotesque abuse of nova labor. This isn't one of those cases where there's plausible deniability and we can talk about a writer intending to depict a heroic organization, driven to extreme measures by extreme circumstances. This is straight-up proletarian horror, where the bosses work you till you drop, feed you drugs to get you back on your feet, and then keep working you until the side effects of those drugs send you to a "rehab facility" where you're never heard from again.

That, incidentally, is not a leftist interpretation of the text. It's just literally a summary of a major subplot.  Harmattan is a local boy who starts off bright-eyed and idealistic, a true believer in Utopia's mission who is thrilled to be assigned to help out his home country. He works 96-hour shifts, straining the limits of even his mega-stamina. Fortuntely, "the Project is very generous with doses of adrenocilin to help its novas overcome fatigue and use their powers more efficiently." Of course, pushing your powers gives you Taint, and using drugs to push powers gives you lots of Taint (in the fiction; in the rules Taint is mathematically improbable). Taint mutates the body and mind, and can make a nova act erratically. So erratically, in fact, that a team of PCs is sent in to stop Harmattan when he breaks down and creates a massive sandstorm to protect himself from the assassins he's convinced are lurking around every corner. In the (not guaranteed) event that he is captured alive, he's sent to a secret medical facility for "care" (scare quotes in the original). Either way, the official story is that he died tragically in the line of duty, little more than a month after he joined the Project.

It wasn't Proteus that did that. It was Utopia, as a matter of official policy. The chapter states that this sort of thing was going on all the time, even if Harmattan was the only one with an extreme enough reaction to warrant PC intervention. Some novas are even "euthanized" (ie, murdered) for the taint caused by the work Utopia was telling them to do. I know it's just meant to be a backdrop for the real adventure's political drama, but the whole plot makes my blood boil. It's well-drawn villainy, but it somehow flies under the radar and the text will later pretend that Utopia is an organization that could still be redeemed.

Meanwhile, Proteus is somehow being even worse. Their dirty laundry comes to the forefront in Chapter 3, which is all about how a taint-addled nova is threatening to unleash a plague that is projected to kill between 5-10% of the world's population (and I can't even with this . . . I . . . can't . . . even). The reason he's got such a bee in his bonnet is because Project Proteus literally kidnapped and enslaved him. As in, they dragged him out of his home, pumped him full of mind-altering drugs, and telepathically tricked him into working in a field.

"He was a radical cult leader who was rapidly becoming a danger to himself and others" stops working as a justification for involuntarily committing him when the first thing you do with him in captivity is economically exploit his abilities in a way that you know will exacerbate his underlying condition. It's an absolute mockery of medical ethics, and the second or third most monstrous thing anyone's done in the official Aberrant metaplot (both the other examples I'm thinking of are from Aberrant: Terragen, although ironically Proteus covered one of them up because the perpetrator was a member of Team Tomorrow at the time).

In the end, the nova in question dies. He either blows himself up to create the plague, is slain by the PCs to prevent him from doing that, or is "euthanized" by Utopia. His best possible ending is being rescued by the Teragen, having a moment of lucidity, and killing himself. Just an utter tragedy, one born not just of fear, but of cruelty and arrogance. Proteus believes it has the right to make life and death decisions for the entire planet, and they've grown callous with their power.

So, how much blame does Utopia bear for its actions? That's the question that dominates chapter 4, when Andre Corbin decides to turn himself in and reveal everything he's learned as part of the superhero underground. The mystery of Slider's death gets resolved and the Teragen uses the media circus to stage a raid on the worst of Proteus' "treatment facilities." The end result is that all of Utopia's dirty secrets come to light at once . . . unless you're playing as Utopia or Proteus, in which case you have the chance to bury them.

The tricky thing about this section is that it tries to have it both ways. Utopia is still a force for good, but they were deceived and infiltrated by Proteus, which parasitically used its resources to advance its authoritarian agenda. But it just doesn't work.

I think we can set aside the contradiction between this book saying that the head of Utopia was "horrified" to learn about Proteus with the claim in Aberrant: Project Utopia that he was "painfully aware of even the shadiest of Proteus operations." That seems less to me like dissembling and more like a failure of communication between authors. Let's just assume for a moment that the Utopia leadership was genuinely in the dark (and, fuck, let's pin the atrocious labor conditions from Chapter 2 on Proteus too).

Does that really let Utopia off the hook? It says something awful about their internal culture that this sort of thing was able to go on for so long. The leaders were asleep at the wheel and thus Proteus was able to wield power without accountability. The result is suffering and death and the bloody hands at work drew paychecks from Utopia's coffers. Such a profound degree of ignorance for such a long period of time is negligent at best. At worst, it seems willful. I'm not sure Utopia as an organization deserves to survive . . . or at least not in its current form . . .

You know, now that I think about it, between the election being a referendum on white nationalism, the virus, and the collapse of trust in an unaccountable law enforcement institution Aberrant Worldwide Phase I could probably be adapted into an astonishingly relevant 2020 superhero story. At the very least, if anyone out there was planning on doing one of those page-by-page breakdowns, now would be the time to strike while the iron was hot.

Oh, and I guess I should talk about the infamous thing from this book, the one that everyone mentions as an example of White Wolf falling in love with its canon NPCs - the Divis Mal v Cestus Pax fight. Honestly, it's not that big a deal. It's a big-budget spectacle that feels like it should be a climax to something, but it's actually not relevant to anything that happens in the adventure. It mostly serves as an excuse to take the heavy hitters off the board so that the Teragen's Bahrain raid can be played as a normal super vs super brawl. Maybe not the most elegant plot device in the world, and one only necessitated by the dubious decision to make the NPCs overpowered (especially Mal - the biggest disappointment in the fight was how effortless it was for him to defeat the setting's signature heavy), but the best way to run it is probably just to have the PCs learn the details from social media later that day. It matters that little to what the PCs should ostensibly be interested in.

The worst part of Chapter 4 for me was actually that it so thoroughly validated the Teragen as an organization. If this was the only book you'd read about them, you'd think they were heroes. I guess that's just what happens when a line has this many writers.

Ukss Contribution: The investigation into Slider's death has a section that details how unaffiliated characters might get involved, and in a quick parenthetical aside it lists the sort of unaffiliated novas who might take an interest - "elites, novox singers, and xwf shootfighters." Mercenaries are sort of "meh" for me, but the thought of a pop star and a pro wrestler teaming up to solve mysteries fills me with delight.

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