Teasers for Adventurer’s Rest

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Sorry about last Wednesday, here’s a present to make up for it.

My apologies for missing my usual post last Wednesday.  I was busy collaborating with several friends to write and produce a LARP game for Staff Week at The Wayfinder Experience (where I’ll be running another game for a considerably younger audience in a few weeks), and as such was pretty much entirely incommunicado.  I still have yet to say happy birthday to my mother and step-father.  I’ll try to get to that as soon as I finish this.

Since Wayfinder (WFE) is all still very much on my mind, I thought I’d offer you a collection of the teasers that I and my friend Thom have made for our upcoming game (Adventurer’s Rest, at WFE’s Intro Camp, July 20th-25th), and some of our thinking behind them.  If you know anyone who might be interested, you should totally tell them about it.  I want lots of players for my game!  Actual entertainment follows after the break…

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The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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You too can construct a magical potato box.

The Long Earth is special, and I don’t say that just because it opens with a diagram of a potato in a box of electrical components.  It reminds me of Pandora’s Star, but without the epic not-exactly-space opera and intricate plotting.  They’re actually very different books, and The Long Earth requires nowhere near as much investment of time and energy as Peter F. Hamilton‘s sprawling story… but there is a crucial way in which they are the same: unlike with most books, I’m not angry when these two finish with a teaser rather than a conclusion.  Somehow, as with Pandora’s Star, when this happens in The Long Earth I simply take it in stride and look for the next book.

Maybe I’m tolerant of The Long Earth’s odd ending because I’m so partial to its strange mix of writing styles?  Pratchett‘s almost flippant whimsey leavens the still-serious storyline that he and Baxter have put together, and their look at the ramifications of partially accessible parallel Earths is engrossing.  The fact that they know how to establish a good set-up for future conflict (and how to pull you into reading about that) only makes things better.  I certainly plan to pick up the next book as soon as I go back to the library.

So what sort of book is this, if it’s like Pandora’s Star, but not?  And what if you haven’t read Pandora’s Star to know what I’m talking about?

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“Dawn Breaks” Background Setting Construction

I mentioned a while back that I was having trouble with the setting that I had “developed” for my earlier piece of flash fiction.  I put “developed” in quotes because, let’s face it, I really just made stuff up and went with it at the time.  I didn’t care about making anything make much sense, I just wanted to follow the flavor that I had found in the first few moments of thinking about what I’d do with my catalyst phrase.

But I’ve been thinking further about the setting, and about what would be necessary to make a few basic tenets of the setting possible.  What do I know definitely exists?  It’s a little messy, but here’s a rough list:

  • Brain transplants are possible, shifting from an old body to a new one.
  • There are things called “chop-shops,” and chop-shop gangs, and they are basically analogous to auto chop-shops except that they deal with human tissue instead of car parts.
  • Therefore, there is widespread black market expertise in surgery and tissue transplantation, and presumably lower rates of tissue rejection than there are in our current world.
  • There is a notable criminal underground, and elements of it have penetrated and corrupted law enforcement.
  • Criminal predation on civilians is fairly common, as witnessed by general warnings against travel through specific areas of the setting’s city.
  • The city has dock and warehouse districts, which are strongly influenced (if not controlled by) the criminal underground.

If I want this to all fit together without it simply being bio-fantasy, I need to come up with some good reasons for these various things existing, let alone coexisting.

Starting with the brain transplants, I decided that it would make sense to say that there was some technology that made it easier to regenerate nerve tissue and repair damage.  As best as I understand from Wikipedia, we’re perfectly capable of putting a brain in a new body at present… the real problem is that we can’t hook up the brain to anything in the new body because we can’t regenerate nerve tissue.  So if I dream up a product called Neurogen (let’s ignore the fact that there’s already something by that name, I didn’t know that at the time that I came up with the name), we can pretend that it is essentially something that causes nervous tissue to regrow and form new connections with other nervous tissue in close proximity.  It is a modified function of the body’s normal growth, so this doesn’t solve neurological disorders.  It does, however, make it possible to reconnect severed nerves far faster and more easily than is currently the case.  Let’s just say that, as long as I’m dreaming up a miracle, it will also reduce the amount of time necessary to retrain newly connected nerves and muscles, dropping the necessary recovery time from years to … months or weeks, perhaps.  We’re already transplanting or reattaching limbs, so this seems like a mostly acceptable future jump.

This means that there are far fewer people with paralysis due to trauma, and spinal damage is far less debilitating in the long term than it used to be.  Maybe this enables more adrenaline junkies, but the treatment is probably also relatively expensive, and (based on my understanding of how this works) it won’t stop things like ALS.

On to the chop shops.  There are several things that stand out to me about the concept of human chop-shops: there are problems with disease transmission, there are problems with tissue rejection, there are societal conditions needed to make widespread black market transplants practicable, and there are technological barriers to maintaining healthy tissues beyond a just-in-time supply chain.

Taking those in order, I’m going to ignore the whole disease transmission problem.  I figure some chop shops will be more careful than others, and your chances of getting an infection will vary by where you get your new kidney.

With tissue rejection, I posit that advances in immunosuppression drugs should make this less of a concern.  We’re already fairly good at dealing with this, and (as I understand it) the health of the transplanted organ is generally more of an issue.  That is, more rejection problems and followup complications can be solved by improving tissue health prior to and during transplantation than would be quickly solved with better immunosuppression drugs, especially true given that immunosuppression drugs hurt the body’s chances of fighting off any infection introduced by the new tissue or during the transplantation.  That should be partially addressed by my consideration of the last point.

But what about those societal conditions?  Previous black market transplantation has thrived in areas with legal organ transplants, a sufficiently large body of medical knowledge, basic medical facilities, easy travel, and a relatively large disadvantaged population (prisoners, the unprotected poor, etc.).  My real life examples for this are India in the early 90s, China for an unknown period of time, and the Philippines until 2008.  There are reports of kidnappings in Mexico tied to organ trafficking rings, and regardless of how accurate those reports are I find that idea intriguing, so I’ll add kidnapping victims to that list.  To me, the simultaneous requirements for a large body of medical knowledge, medical facilities, easy travel, and a large vulnerable population suggest a society with a large wealth imbalance.  This goes nicely with the kidnapping idea, since the unprotected poor are more likely to be vulnerable to predation by criminal gangs associated with chop shops, and any roughly middle class kidnapping victim can be given the choice between paying ransom and being used for transplantation, if they aren’t simply given the millionaire’s tour.

Wealth imbalance coupled with weak public institutions lends itself to easy corruption of public institutions, since the average worker will be looking for whatever they can get to pad out their meager paycheck.  This means that there will be wealthy members of society with sections of the public security apparatus on their private payroll, and some of those wealthy members of society will be criminals (when you routinely break the law, owning the public security apparatus is a good business investment).  I think that’s enough on that topic for the moment, though it no doubt deserves further examination.

Which brings us to that last point, and the super cool heart-in-a-box.  We now have hardware that can maintain healthy function of organs post-removal, reducing the time pressure that normally surrounds any transplant operation and potentially giving doctors the opportunity to monitor extracted tissue and treat some pre-existing conditions prior to implantation.  Apparently this is an especially big deal with lung transplants.

I think that answers most of the issues above, if not all of them.  I’ll do more investigation on this topic later.

****

Well shit.  My friend just told me about 3D printing of organs.  I’m not sure what this does, though maybe this is a disruptive technology in this story world, one being fought by the traditional organleggers in a luddite-like response to the potential destruction of their source of revenue.  Time to go burn down the organ-printers, and chop up the scientists for their organs.  Or something.

I had previously disregarded the disruptive effects of cloning based on the premise that growing and maintaining most organs until they were sufficiently mature for healthy & functional transplant would be more expensive than grabbing “user-guaranteed” organs from a relatively healthy abductee.  But this 3D printing stuff may require me to start over with some of this in order to incorporate it without breaking the setting.  Or maybe I just need to break the setting after all.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Holy crap, this is a good book.  Many thanks to Monica for the recommendation and the loan.

It turns out that Octavia Butler knew what she was doing when she wrote Parable of the Sower.  She managed to create a believable (and deeply grim) future; perhaps more impressive, the grim future she envisioned in 1993 still feels like a compelling vision of our potential future, even if the dates and tech seem a little bit off.  To be perfectly honest, I find the future shown in this book to be especially frightening because of the fact that I remember imagining something very much like it in my early childhood.  Except, of course, I had no conception then of the persistent undertones of racism that are seamlessly integrated into Butler’s story.

Somehow, despite writing about a world that is so clearly dying, about people caught in the death throes of a failing state, Butler writes a protagonist who retains all the hope that you could possibly ask for.  And this isn’t because our narrator is naive or stupid: it’s because she has looked carefully at the world around her and recognized that she has a choice between giving up and killing herself, or deciding to do something to change things.  And she’s clearly unwilling to give up.  I find her really refreshing, a wonderful narrator to follow through such a wounded world.

I’m not saying that it necessarily feels good to read all the way through; the truth is that this book is quite painful at times.  But it’s also uplifting in a way that only people enduring in the face of adversity can be.  And not just enduring, but people who refuse to simply prey upon each other, and who instead try to make something better from the world around them despite how ruined it is.  I like that a lot.  I find it inspiring, and I think that because of that this story fulfills an extremely important role.

Because I’m on a tight schedule today, I’m going to make this one brief rather than going into further depth about the story or its construction.  I admire what Butler has done with this story, and I wish she were still alive for me to thank her for writing it.  I hope that you pick it up and read it too.  If you’ve read it yourself, please weigh in with your thoughts below.  I’d love to hear them.

As if the good story weren’t enough, this is yet another good example of a teen female narrator for me to learn from.  Yet another reason for me to like the book.

 

Turbulence, by Samit Basu

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 The cover doesn’t do justice to the book.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I laughed, cried, or gasped while reading Samit Basu‘s Turbulence.  But I also didn’t put it down once I’d picked it up, and I most certainly do demand a sequel.  I’m not sure how I couldn’t, after having happily finished the book in one day.

This book is profoundly easy to read.  Some stories are told in a way that defies accessibility, that requires you to think hard and work your way through the language to the story underneath.  This is not one of them.  Instead, Basu’s descriptions of the world surrounding our protagonists are offered offhand, seemingly effortless in the way that they paint a picture of the world.  The first analogy that comes to mind is watching Bob Ross paint his happy clouds; one minute there’s a blank blue sky, and the next there are beautiful fluffy cumulus floating in it.  He hardly seems to exert himself beyond the bare minimum necessary, and yet a whole world drifts into being over the course of a few words.  Basu certainly relies on his audience to fill in the gaps, as we always do, but each time he conjures up another tiny detail or reminds me of the appearance of some particular piece of scenery, everything flows together again.

Turbulence is the story of what happens when a single plane full of people are all granted superpowers for no apparent reason.  By focusing on the many and varied people aboard BA flight 142 from London to Delhi, Samit Basu offers a superhero story about people who aren’t American (though American superhero comics exist and are referenced), and in which women aren’t automatically relegated to the status of sex-objects.  I really liked it.  Heck, I think even Spaige would like it.  I wasn’t especially surprised by the twists that Basu provided, but I enjoyed all of them and I loved the end of the story.  Now I can’t wait for more.  Fortunately, it looks like I won’t have to, since the sequel comes out in July.

More after the break.

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Hounded, by Kevin Hearne

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So I read Skin Game (that review is over here), and I blazed through it in my usual gluttonous fashion.  One of my friends knew I’d be wanting more books of a similar ilk to fill my gaping maw while I waited for the next entry in the Dresden Files, and so he recommended Kevin Hearne‘s Iron Druid series. It turns out that Hounded, the first book of the series, pretty perfectly satisfies my aforementioned appetite.  It’s not very long, and it’s not very complicated (except insofar as there are a number of different magical beings, most of whom do not get along with each other), but it’s certainly entertaining.  I would say it’s something like literary junk food, with a small helping of mythological nutrition.  Good for a light snack.

An important note for those who have felt burned by previous experience with the Dresden Files: I don’t think this book is particularly offensive, though I should leave any final judgement to the consideration of someone with a more sensitive palate.  Specifically, there are a number of female characters who don’t feel like they’re only set dressing (it turns out Celtic goddesses show up frequently in a high-mythology urban fantasy about an ancient druid, and the few mortal women you meet aren’t helpless damsels either), but there is a Hollywood-esque imbalance in favor of the pretty, and far more attention is lavished on the descriptions of attractive women than on the descriptions of attractive men.   I don’t really see a problem with that focus, given that the narrator appears to be a straight male, but if you’re not interested in stories about a straight man in an urban fantasy setting you should probably look elsewhere.  Like I said, this book scratches a similar itch to the Dresden Files, but with less Noir and all that that entails.

Right, so how about more details on the story and setting?

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Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

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If you haven’t read the Dresden Files, this is not the place to start.  Similarly, if you’re not familiar with the series, I’m not quite sure how best to describe it based on this book.  The Dresden Files began as noir-inspired urban fantasy, focused on the straight white male wish-fulfillment protagonist Harry Dresden, everyone’s favorite (i.e. the only) wizard Private Investigator in Chicago.  According to Jim Butcher, the first book was originally written to prove just how awful formulaic genre writing could be.  Lo and behold, Butcher was actually very good at following genre formulae in generally gratifying ways, and the series has been quite successful.

Thankfully, though it’s still noir-inspired urban fantasy, the series has grown and changed.  Harry Dresden isn’t the same character that he was 15 books ago, and I don’t believe Butcher is still writing to prove just how terrible his writing can be.  The story’s background has grown in depth and complexity, and while not every book has been totally up to snuff (and some of them have their worse sections), I’m still quite thoroughly hooked.  In fact, Skin Game is probably my favorite book in the series to date.  I know, that whole bit about “written to prove how awful formulaic genre writing could be” isn’t exactly the best selling point.  Nor does it put “my favorite book in the series to date” in a very good light.

But the Dresden Files offers up a very specific flavor of story, and it’s one that I have found well-nigh irresistible ever since I read the first book.  It’s a little like guilty pleasure junk food, to be honest, and seeing the series get better over time just makes me feel better about my decision to keep consuming it.  It helps that the legacy of semi-covert noir-inspired misogyny has been slowly leeching out of the books, and I’m glad that the series has reached a point where Harry will more or less listen when his friends call him on his shit.

Enough about the series, how about the book?

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1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon

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This scene doesn’t happen, but doesn’t it look nice?

My review has been delayed by other distractions, but I read most of 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies before it actually came out.  You see, I’m infatuated with the 1632 universe.  I think that’s at least in part because the series offers a far more optimistic take on the world than most of the other fiction that I read.  If you already know that you don’t like the series, I doubt this book will change your mind… but if you do like them, you’ll want to take a look.  I’m not totally sold on it, and yet I still love it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, this book is a clear sequel to the Baltic War storyline, but it also incorporates at least two other storylines into the mix, with other elements thrown in from the rich milieu which has developed in the rest of the 163X stories.  It’s clearly intended to start a new set of storylines, several of which seem like they deserve their own books, or at least their own short stories.  I can see why they tried to fit so much into this book, but I feel like they ended up trying for too much and then ended up without quite enough to satisfy me with each of the individual stories.

But maybe the piecemeal way in which I read the book has done it a disservice.  I got early partial copies as soon as they became available and, like the literary glutton that I am, devoured each morsel as quickly as I could.  Like I said, it’s an infatuation.  While I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself from reading new 163X books as fast as I can, I resolve to start over from the beginning next time once the whole book becomes available.  I’ll probably re-read 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies some time soon to see just how much of my impressions came from the disjointed nature of my reading.

Now then, how about my thoughts on the material itself?

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