Friday, September 23, 2022

(Aberrant 2e)Swine and Cheese Party

Did you know these posts of mine could technically be considered gonzo journalism? I mean, okay, technically anything "can be considered" anything, but to the degree that book reviews are a form of journalism and to the degree that said reviews normally attempt to focus on things relevant to the book, my habit of making pointless personal asides and telling meandering stories about the experience of shopping for the book I'm reviewing could fit the broadest definition of gonzo journalism as a genre. Because what separates worthwhile gonzo from just doing a bunch of drugs and then being bad at reporting is that gonzo seeks to grapple with the problem of objectivity. The reporter makes themselves part of the story because, by being a part of the culture the story is about, they are already a part of the story.

You know, you write a story about a pizza parlor being raided by the police as a suspected money-laundering operation, and you disclose your conflict of interest if you're a shareholder in the pizza parlor, but not if you watch six episodes of Law and Order a week and have internalized its implicit lessons about the inconvenience of due process. If you'll forgive me for using a problematic expression, "the inmates are running the asylum" necessarily implies that the inmates are also the ones reporting on the asylum. You are not the one sane man in a world gone mad, so you might as well stop acting like it.

(And that's why my timorously confessing a passive participation in America's white supremacist culture right before I point out a book is racist is exactly the same as Hunter S Thompson's legendary drug-fueled rampage through the Nevada desert).

I don't bring this up in the context of Swine and Cheese Party to make some supercilious point about being gonzolier than thou (though I may have been influenced by a desire to show off my cleverness at coming up with the phrase "gonzolier than thou"), but to highlight how weird it is to try and write gonzo fiction.

And I don't mean "weird" in the sense of "LOL, gonzo," but "weird" in the sense of weird. It's a genuine literary paradox. Like, the whole point of gonzo is to undermine the authority of the objective stance. The reporter is not outside of the story, dryly relaying facts, but rather inside the story, desperately trying to wrangle the chaos of real life into a coherent narrative (and the fact that gonzo so often seems incoherent is part of it, the point is you can't).

But being outside the story, knowing exactly what's happening to who, when, where, and why is already how fiction works. You have the authority to relay facts because you are literally the author. Anything you say about the fiction is by definition objectively true about the fiction. There's no wall to break down.

You might be able to do it with the grimmest forms of literary fiction. Combine a thinly veiled personal account with heavily telegraphed editorializing by the author whose personal account it is ("this story is true, the facts have been changed to protect the guilty"), but even then, I'm not sure how you'd tell if you succeeded. "Oh, wow, that fiction you wrote feels super unreal. I can't believe it actually went down that way."

In other words, the one and only piece of genuine gonzo fiction has already been written and it's called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When you make the jump from literary fiction to genre fiction, gonzo becomes nearly unthinkable. You're too deep into fantasy. There's nothing at stake. You can try, as this book does, to indulge in the hypothetical. You're not really doing gonzo fiction, you're just imagining what gonzo journalism might be like in your fictional world. And to his credit, Justin Achilli has gotten better at it since Aberrant: Fear and Loathing. This book has less over-the-top vulgarity and thus may not sound entirely like the iconic Hunter S Thompson you're remembering, but it's also more political, and thus truer to the spirit of his work. It's just, by nature of its subject matter, it can't be a journey into the surreal. I'm not challenged when Duke Rollo tells a story of camping out in the woods of Romania to capture a live bear, in imitation of the new superhero fad of bear tossing because I have no complicity in that. It's like, maybe people in his world would have to think carefully about the way they applaud whatever novas do, and how that might encourage them to engage in such pointless and elaborate cruelty, but I'm only guessing because everything I know about that world comes from these books and this is the first I'm hearing about it.

And I know I'm being the asshole here. What we're really talking about is a couple of stories, told in an unusual way, as a tribute to a beloved author. And the stories are fun, and they are told in an interesting way, and the tribute is fucking lovely. So what's with the stick up my ass?

I certainly don't want to come across like I'm trying to gatekeep gonzo (and I can already anticipate the comments, "then why do you sound exactly like you're gatekeeping gonzo?" My reply - "No I don't, shut up!"), but I can't help wondering why the Duke Rollo character even exists. The likeliest explanation is that Justin Achilli likes writing him, and if you can get the developer of Vampire: the Masquerade onto your roleplaying game, even in this minor capacity, why wouldn't you. But when it comes to his larger role in helping to establish the voice of the Aberrant line, I can't help but think that maybe he exists to further the game's media satire. With a guy like this running around, you can never have true superheroes, you can just have tough guys in spandex bodysuits.

The problem with bringing him back for Swine and Cheese Party is that second edition has so far not been satirical. It plays superheroes mostly straight, with maybe just a bit more humanism than your typical comic book setting, but with the implication that the ones calling themselves the good guys are at least on the right track. That's probably why Duke Rollo was banished from the core and exiled to what will likely be a pretty inessential supplement (although, if he gets back in to more prominent products later in the line, remind me to eat my words).

If there's a gonzo story worth telling in the Aberrant universe, it's going to be one that puts Onyx Path squarely in the crosshairs. Not because OP particularly deserves to be taken down a peg, but because that's the sort of force you're tampering with when you borrow Hunter S Thompson's credibility. Imagine, creating a simulacrum of one of America's great counterculture critics and not turning him on yourself . . . or your audience. If you're not biting the hand that feeds you and fucking with the money, what are you even doing?

And there's definitely room for this. The superhero genre has issues. They historically exhibit a reverence for the status quo and an unspoken great-man driven proto-fascism. The wicked get beaten up, and except for the times when the author is trying to Make a Point, the guys at the wrong end of the fist aren't the imperialists or the capitalists or their agents of state violence, but rather nebulous "criminals" or "terrorists" who just happen to look a lot like the people we're trying to colonize. Aberrant is less guilty of this than most, and indeed, one of the stories in Swine and Cheese Party is about a terrible nova warrior, The Lady of Wounds, who leads her cult in some ill-defined insurrection in rural Armenia, and Duke Rollo talks about the connection with the capitalist foreign policy of the west, but why is he in Armenia? Why does he go to Romania for a story on petty animal cruelty? Why is he not at the heart of the American Dream, wherever that happens to be in fictional 2028, reporting on things that are extremely normal (like religiously-driven violence and animal cruelty)?

It all feels very safe. I am extremely normal for liking superheroes and this extremely normal roleplaying game is presenting me with superheroes who are easy to like. The not normal stuff happens in Eastern Europe. I have no further questions.

Ukss Contribution: There's a line here that really intrigued me. As Duke Rollo is trying to track down the true story of the Lady of Wounds, he speculates that there's more of it than will logically fit into the 9 years since N-Day. Because of that, he wonders, "Maybe we have another Maxwell Mercer on our hands."

That's not the Ukss contribution, it's just a question I hadn't thought to ask before, suggesting an answer I would never have dared to give - that Mercer has a high enough superhuman profile in the Aberrant era that people have theories about him. However, I do like what this says about the Lady of Wounds. I like the idea of a major figure emerging out of a murky and uncertain past.

It probably won't be the Lady of Wounds herself. It's probably a coincidence, but she reminds me too much of the Lady of Pain, and there's a reason I didn't pick her from any of my Planescape (she's too iconic and too edgy - pun unsuccessfully resisted).

So it's super abstract this time - a monster with a history that doesn't add up. I'll worry about the specific implementation later.

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