Thursday, January 7, 2021

(Aeon 2e)Terra Firma

 Reading Terra Firma had got me thinking about Adventure!. No, not the abstract concept, but rather the third of the original Trinity Universe's game lines.  Adventure! was set on a wild version of Earth, one where the "unexplored" regions contained mysteries and wonders. I'll have to stumble ass-backwards through the colonialist implications of this when I read Adventure!, but for a book like Terra Firma, I can confine myself to the superficial - this is the first time the Aeon-period Earth has really felt like the Adventure!-period Earth, 200 years in the future.

Now, to be entirely fair to Trinity, I'm really looking at first edition backwards. The only Trinity book to come out (officially) post-Adventure! is Terra Verde (and I have to acknowledge that it might be more Adventure!-esque, I've never read it), and thus it really is an issue of Adventure! adding a whole bunch of unprecedented stuff into Trinity's past. However, I think that unprecedented stuff really gave the setting a shot in the arm . . . or would have if it had not been almost immediately canceled.

So, you know, Terra Firma is a book long overdue. It's got a whole chapter devoted to strange goings-on and pseudo-scientific mysteries, and it's great. It leans a little heavily on "An Aberrant did it," for my taste, but it's no great fault when the Aberrants are supposed to one of the time-period's main antagonists. There is one genuine "superscience gone awry" problem, in the form of the out-of-control biocomputer that took over an entire forest, and one "ancient mystery of Inspired origin" in the form of the Gorgon Karst (a network of caves that transform those who linger within into crystal, originally explored in the time of the classical Greeks), but I could have used more.

Which isn't to say the Aberrant-inspired ones aren't great too. There's an Aberrant on the moon that is in the process of transforming into a new universe, and he has already created a pocket dimension that's a miniature Hollow Earth with himself as the sun. Time within the anomaly moves at an accelerated rate and the paleolithic culture inside it is descended from lunar colonists who were trapped over 8000 of their years ago. And you know what, the rest are just as good - talking dolphins, dueling AIs that may unleash or contain a nanotech plague, and an "acausal computer" that exists within a timeloop and distributes its calculations over the entire length of its existence. Over-reliance on Aberrants or no, I could have read another 100 pages of the "Earthbound Mysteries" chapter.

Oh, yeah, there are other chapters in this book. The first one, giving brief writeups of 10 different futuristic nations is good. Some of the best worldbuilding Trinity has ever done. It does have the problem of a lot of near-future sci-fi where it describes real places, adds a sci-fi twist, and then makes it seem like the twist is what defines the nature of the place. This is mainly a function of length, of course. The 6-7 pages each location gets isn't quite enough to do much more than give a theme-park version of the societies in question.

I wouldn't call it simplistic, though. We learn definitively that Mt Fuji survives (though it's become an active volcano. . . thanks to an Aberrant), and we learn this fact in the context of a brief discussion of the Japanese culture's "reverence for nature," which is a nice little interruption from the sketching-out of an elaborate arcology nation. However, we also learn that in just 2-3 generations, the people of Japan have become utterly, almost biologically, opposed to being outdoors, so much so that the Imperial Gardens "often go empty," despite being open to the public. One-hundred years is not that long a time, especially since it's only really like 60 since the Aberrant War changed everything.

I don't want to downplay the consequences. The Bharati Commonwealth makes a bit more sense now that I've learned that 700 million people died in India during the Aberrant War. It would take a miracle to bring India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh together, but that kind of crisis might be enough to do it. It creates a new setting mystery, though. Like, I always assumed that the shift in global power structures happened because Aberrants migrated to areas that were wealthy and powerful, and thus those are the places that suffered the worst attacks during the War. Africa, South America, India, and China are the new great powers because they were passed over.

But nowhere, not even the now-fascist Federated States of America, is described as losing hundreds of millions of people. The FSA lost New York and DC and Florida and a huge chunk of the midwest, and presidents were assassinated so frequently that the line of succession couldn't keep up, but there was no talk of horror on that kind of scale.

Truthfully, India's writeup didn't quite sell the horror either. I suspect it's a matter of an author thinking in overly abstract mathematical terms. Don't get me wrong, it's portrayed as bad, but it looks like the thought process involved taking a big number and making it smaller without really taking into account the sheer scale of the numbers involved. If India loses half its population, there's not going to be an India any more. Not even as a member state of the Bharati Commonwealth. When we start to talk about population losses in the double-digit percentages, that's a complete breakdown in social order. Infrastructure becomes impossible to maintain, distant regions lose contact with each other (especially in the wake of the overnight destruction of all the world's internet), institutions collapse. There are 31 languages in India with more than a million native speakers. I don't know enough about the region to tell you where the new borders shake out, but I do know human nature enough to know that if the various regions get subsumed into a new federalist structure, they're definitely not going to see themselves as a bloc.

My guess is that the culprit here is an inherited idea that made me uncomfortable in Aberrant 1st edition and which I'm surprised to see make a return in 2nd - "India syndrome" - the idea that Indian people are more likely to see Novas as gods. To be fair, there are a lot of Aberrant cults in 2nd edition, at least one nearly everywhere modern Aberrants appear, but the suggestion that there were so many in old India that they created history's greatest atrocity . . . it's problematic.

And I've gotten away from the point. Which is that Terra Firma, when it's not being Adventure: 2120! is full of imaginative, but imprecise worldbuilding. It's a good source of ideas for roleplaying games, but it also sometimes seems like a compromise with the uncomfortable truth that the modern economic realities of the industry make it impossible to give these locations the full sourcebooks they deserve.

Ukss Contribution: The Plaguelands are an idea you could build a whole franchise around. Something lurks in the Venezuelan jungle (spoilers: it's an Aberrant) that is mutating the wildlife to become ridiculously dangerous - like "having biological organs that jam radio communications" - level adapted to fucking up humanity's shit. It's enough of a problem that there needs to be a permanently fortified border with the jungle, and even with all the guns pointed inward, freaky nightmare-beasts still break through. Maybe there could be some kind of malevolent hyper-evolution somewhere on Ukss too.

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