Friday, October 20, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Sunward

Oh, man . . . intricate, meticulous worldbuilding . . . that's the good stuff. The authors of Sunward even thought about the Martian time zones. I didn't want to read about the Martian time zones. I am (resolutely, defiantly) never going to use the stuff about the Martian time zones. But I like that they thought about it. That's the dream of rpgs - that you can disappear into another world. If I visited Mars, I'd definitely be like, "um, how do I set my clock?"

Of course, I can never quite achieve this vaunted state of immersion, even when I know things like the Martian times zones or the name of a dragon's bones. If anything, I find that kind of detail distracting in practice. Lucky for me, Sunward also has a bunch of the sort of details I can use - balloon cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, dusty railroads connecting the isolated homesteads of Martian terraformers, just absolutely and utterly improbable magnetic whales living in the Sun's Chromosphere.

Then there are the details I don't think I should use. The book has two separate female characters who were high status professionals before the apocalypse, lost their bodies to killer robots, and then had AI emulations of their consciousness forced into sex slavery. Coincidence? I mean, yeah, probably. The likely explanation is that this book has eight credited authors and whoever wrote that one part of the Mars chapter didn't know what was going to be in the opening fiction. But if this were a coherent work by a single individual, I'd strongly suspect that someone had issues with powerful women.

And, honestly, that's kind of on the shallow end when it comes to the parts of this book that make me uncomfortable. There's a city on Venus, Parvati, that is somehow all about sex work and it has a notorious black market where people can arrange sex crimes for hire. 

It's an issue I've danced around before. You want a villain? Villains do bad things. You want a world that needs to be saved? It's probably going to be pretty dark. Eclipse Phase is remarkable for just nakedly presenting the sci-fi anarchists as heroes, and their natural foil is a capitalist hellscape.

So where's my line? Indentured servitude is basically indistinguishable from slavery. That makes sense. And it's not surprising that a society that's okay with slavery would move on to the sexual exploitation of its victims. And the fact that this is not enough to satisfy the most depraved appetites of the ruling classes is well observed. There's an undeniable logic. But do I actually want to tell that kind of story?

I honestly think there's a kind of bias at work here. All eight of the authors have white-male-sounding names, and for all the radicalism of the book's politics, it's got kind of a detached voice when it comes to some of the most serious issues. Like, they're concerned with the intellectual puzzle of atrocity as a world-building element, but it doesn't occur to them that they're telling a story that should disgust people or piss them off. You've set up a group of people with particular motives and particular resources and realistically they should be stone-cold terrible. . . thus Parvati.

But it's not an approach that necessarily works very well. Early on, there's a line, discussing the desperate evacuation of Earth as it came under attack by killer robots: 

"Some countries were too poor or too low on the totem pole to get their people to safety - just take a look at the criminally small percentage of African nationals who made it off Earth, compared to their percentage of the pre-Fall population. Some would call that defacto ethnic cleansing."

Oh, come on. The only people who would call it that are those who know what "defacto" and "ethnic cleansing" mean. And, honestly, the only real contentious part of that description is the "defacto." This is a setting with multiple space elevators. You know, the things that have to be built near the equator and are a centerpiece of the proto-post-scarcity economic infrastructure. And with that in mind, tell me again how few Africans were able to get into space.

As an intellectual puzzle, it's distressingly easy to solve - the inflexible engineering requirement that space elevators be equatorial did not result in a new wave of African prosperity and African refugees being in an optimum position to escape Earth because the colonialist nature of the global order did not fundamentally change between the real world's present and the game's vaguely-positioned future. The Europeans stole Africa's centripetal force just like they stole its mineral resources.

Again, there's no rule saying you can't make a dark world where fucked-up shit happens, but there is kind of a rule that if dark, fucked-up shit happens in your work of fiction, you need to take pains to communicate that you understand how dark and fucked-up it is. Not necessarily in a heavy-handed disclaimer or direct, moralizing speech by the protagonist, but at least in the way that characters react to it. Maybe the word "criminal" in your description isn't a platitude. Maybe there are some African characters who are mad as hell about it. Maybe they have some goal or agenda that would make for an interesting adventure or location.

Spoiler alert: these Africans never show up. Indeed, the whole situation is not mentioned again. So, what we've got is a backstory where the people of Africa were defacto ethnically cleansed, and that's why there are so few of them around, leading to the actual, literal game Eclipse Phase being defacto ethnically cleansed of African characters.

Writing tip: if you establish "these people were almost wiped out," then that's something that calls for more of those people to be in your story, not less. Because you're not going to conceive of any use for that information more interesting than exploring the people's reaction to almost being wiped out.

I'm certain that it's just carelessness, rather than malice. but that's the nasty thing about bias. It sneaks up on you. The reason we don't get an African legacy reclamation faction is because grappling with cultural identity in a post-apocalyptic context, where the physical destruction of your homeland means your culture can never truly be what it was before is not what the game is interested in. What the game is interested in is . . . Martian time zones?

Or, more broadly, the physical and social challenges created by having transhuman post-scarcity technology and living in space. We learn about the Martian time zones because the specific sort of fun we're aiming for is the kind that comes from imagining what it would be like to live on another planet. We need to save our brain space for the knowledge that oxygen is a buoyant gas on Venus and so it might be possible to live safely inside a giant sapphire balloon. In contrast, "The Venusian balloon people still have an entirely justifiable grudge against the European Union, for its deplorable conduct in seizing military control over Kenya's space elevator and denying access to the locals even as fleeing the planet came to be a matter of life and death . . ." is actually a pretty good idea for a story. I have no idea where I was going with that.

Ultimately, I blame the TITANs. They are consistently the game's weakest element. They're the explanation for why the game is set in space and not on Earth, but having completed that job, they don't do much more than suck the oxygen out of the room (metaphorically). They are too urgent and intractable a threat, and thus they're The Guys You're Obviously Meant to Fight, even when you've already got other antagonist factions that are clearly in desperate need of a punch to the face.

The corporations on Mars deliberately introduced flaws into the genetic code of the bioengineered bodies of their workers, so that the workers would have to continuously pay a subscription fee for the privilege of not getting needlessly sick. And there's a fucking Titan Quarantine Zone on the very same planet. So when we take a tour of the various Martian settlements and learn about their security forces, what we mostly see is an assessment of their ability to handle an outbreak from the TQZ, and only intermittently do we learn what they'd be like as opponents in a cyberpunk story.

Overall, I'd say that Sunward was a pretty good read. I have my nitpicks and concerns, but it is a richly-detailed science-fiction universe, one that I am pretty happy to explore.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Venusian balloon cities, but that concept has too much overlap with the Aetherian floating continents. I'm not sure I could make it work. I will go with the idea of a ruling class that exploits its workers by deliberately giving them a treatable, but incurable disease.

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