Reaction Chamber

Book Review: Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace

Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace returns us to the world of Young Centurions and to the adventures of Sally Slick and Jet Black, first seen in Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. This time around we get right into the action as Sally fumes over being shut out of the local tractor races. With the circus in town, Sally decides to race “unofficially”; of course, Sally leaves everyone else in the dust. After showing up the local bullies and drawing the attention of the circus owner, Sally’s prized tractor goes missing!

Author Carrie Harris turns out prose with precision and clarity, aimed at a teen audience with an adult reading level. Her action scenes left me breathless and her description of Sally’s and Jet’s perspective on their adventures plunged me back through time to the days when 100 yards worth of woods around the neighborhood drainage ditch sheltered ninjas and monsters aplenty. Add in a dash of the exotic by having the two of them literally running away to join the circus and this story becomes exactly the kind of adventure I always wanted as a kid. From my current perspective, many years and much hair removed, it’s an adventure well suited to the abilities and station of the characters. It’s only an evening’s read for an adult but I consider it time well spent.

“Miniature Menace” deftly sidesteps most of the issues I complained about in “Steel Syndicate”. The opposition is well suited to the characters; even the mysterious bad guys deal with the teens at their own level, and can be effectively fought in that way. My sole complaint of any substance is that Sally and Jet seem to have been shoehorned into this book when it really should have been a Mack Silver adventure. Their motivations for getting involved with the circus are painfully contrived but quickly superseded by Mack’s part in the story.

Much is made of Sally’s conflict with the local bullies, who don’t want a girl competing in their tractor racing. The Young Centurions series attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the 1910s, but both historical records and the literature of the time depict women and teenage girls as starkly independent and broadly capable, especially in the American Midwest. The emphasis placed on her unsuitability as a mechanic and racer because she’s a girl is oddly misplaced for the time period. The idea that the bullies are objecting to her participation because she’s a girl feels awkwardly forced.

Sally’s mechanical tendencies also create tension between Sally and her father in the early part of the novel, contributing to Sally’s decision to defy her parents and undertake the search for her tractor. Again, I found the basis for the conflict to be awkward and forced, as Midwest farm girls of the era were expected to contribute to the family and run every part of the house. On the other hand, I completely empathize with Mr. Slick’s inability to understand the thoughts and actions of his teenage daughter! It’s a tribute to Harris’ ability to involve me in the story that I felt truly concerned about whether or not Sally would be able to heal her relationship with her father. The denouement scene between father and daughter alone is reason enough to put this book on any parent’s or preteen’s reading list.

While it’s also an engaging adventure novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace serves as a superior introduction to the world of Young Centurions. We get introduced to several of the main characters, a circus that provides a natural springboard for adventure, the idea of the Century Club, and a wealth of suitable opposition. The structure of the story breaks down seamlessly into scenes and encounters that form a bang-on model for a game outline. This is so good that I found myself wishing the text of the novel had been incorporated into the Young Centurions RPG book instead of being published separately. The RPG desperately needed something to tie it together, and dropping chapters of the novel in between portions of the RPG text would have a been a perfect fit. As a companion piece it goes from merely a satisfying read to an essential addition to the game book.

I really liked this book. It’s a great introduction to Young Centurions, involving far more of the cast than just Sally and Jet. I really don’t feel the title does the story justice, as this is predominantly Mack Silver’s adventure. The threat of the miniature menace seems tacked on as well, but by the time it became a factor I gleefully hand-waved my concerns away in order to keep turning pages. If you are a fan of any of the Spirit of the Century products, pulp fiction in particular, or YA novels in general then I expect you will enjoy this book every bit as much as I did.

Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me as a reviewer for Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace and provided me with a digital copy of the book. I’m very much afraid that only motivated me to go ahead and pick up the print copy from my FLGS and spend a few bucks on DriveThruRPG to add it to my mobile shelf. When Sally and Jet pick up their next adventure, hopefully exploring yet another corner of the Young Centurions world, I’ll be waiting in the wings.

* * *

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Upon the Riverworld

In my previous examination of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, I spoke much about Farmer and very little about his setting. I’m afraid I find Farmer’s work tedious, but the Riverworld setting incredibly fascinating. In particular, I’m fascinated by Farmer’s depiction of Riverworld as an archetypal paradise and mankind’s inability to accept this paradise as the Heaven it is meant to be. Heaven ought to be a place where all of your needs are met and you can be at perfect peace with yourself. On Farmer’s Riverworld, no one is ever at peace.

Fiction relies on the ability of the reader to accept as reality the foundational postulates of the setting. In the case of exploratory literature, this has a tendency to blur the lines between axiomatic philosophy and the literary arguments which necessitate the presence of a straw man fallacy. The author presents his conclusions as incontrovertible because he controls both sides of the argument. It is therefore vital to remember that exploratory literature such as the Riverworld saga does not present an objective view of philosophy but only the author’s opinions on the subject.

The Construct

Riverworld was created by an alien race for the betterment of humanity; the aliens call themselves “Ethicals”. The inhabitants of the Riverworld awake naked upon the shores of the river, tethered to a grail that provides them with food and luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. Everyone is young and strong, their bodies entirely without physical defect. The weather is perfectly temperate, so that the absence of clothing offers no physical hardship. The foundation is laid for a society in which everyone has been made equal in every way save for sheer physicality, and materialistic advantage is difficult to attain. All those who die awake in a newly created body in a completely different section of the river.

Religion and spirituality still have a place in the new world. Traditional Western religion is immediately abandoned for failing to fulfill its promise of paradise. The adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism either quickly turn apostate and decry their faith or transform into fanatical zealots without any capacity to reason or desire to adjust to the new life. Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism spread quickly and are widely embraced by the populace. Pagan religions are barely mentioned and not treated in detail. The single most powerful religion is the Church of the Second Chance, an organization created by the Ethicals that proclaims life on the Riverworld to be a chance for the soul to become enlightened and move on to the next plane of existence.

Souls are very real. The Ethicals call them wathan, and they are the repository of an individual’s memory and personality, quantum bonded to the particular arrangement of atoms that forms a person’s body. When one body dies, the wathan remains disembodied until a clone may be manufactured. It then spontaneously bonds with the clone body, creating continuity of personhood. The Ethicals do not understand how this happens.

The Progression

The first day, Awakening Day, ends in an orgy of rape and murder that claims the lives of nearly a third of the population. Over time the population of the river builds a society in which the physically strong and socially charismatic oppress the weak and those who are less assertive by taking control of the grails which are the world’s only source of food. Violent men enlist other violent men to their cause and build large communities around the concept of grail-slavery.

Communities develop primarily along racial lines, but even settlements that are completely homogeneous lack peaceful internal relations and become extremely mistrustful of outsiders. Even communities that seem to be the result of mutual decisions to peacefully cohabitate are eventually revealed to be dependent upon strongly charismatic leadership. Those communities that lack external opposition to unify the populace eventually dissolve into anarchy and then tyranny.

In conflict with Sam Clemens, the leader of one community states that their two cities could never be at peace, that he envisioned a world full of “black faces as far as the eye could see, and we would all be soul brothers at last”. This vision is finally realized by another character, who builds an entire community populated by “soul brothers”. He is promptly deposed as leader and the community dissolves into anarchy and tyranny, as does every other community on the Riverworld.

With all religions successfully debunked, human sexuality becomes entirely a function of personal preference and community norms instead of an oppressive religious tool. Those religions that remain take the form of either zealous fanaticism attached to unsupported dogma or Unitarianism. Jesus and Buddha have already reached a superior stage of enlightenment, and so never awakened on the Riverworld. Most other prominent religious figures become either zealots or adherents to The Church of the Second Chance.

The wathan are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The first wathan were created by accident in an Ethical laboratory, attaching themselves to the scientists and immediately granting them true sapience. Prior to this, life had no continuity of being and although lifeforms could be intelligent they were not truly possessed of self-awareness and free will. Since then, the Ethicals have seeded promising worlds with wathan generators so that other lifeforms might have continuity of being and the freedom to make choices apart from the dictates of universal determinism.

The Deconstruction

Farmer has some very pointed things to say about human nature and human society. Farmer clearly states that the reason mankind cannot create a peaceful society is that an individual human can never be at peace with himself. Religion, racism, sexism, and every other form of social attitude control are merely expressions of this state of discontent.

The Ethicals predict this behavior, stating that it comes from some flaw in the wathan. They also state that some wathan evolve beyond this flaw, and that these individuals behave ethically enough during their life that their wathan moves to a higher state of being. This is Farmer’s own version of original sin and salvation through good works, although he would never have called it that. Farmer seems to want humanity to be its own god, responsible for its own creation and the architects of its own salvation.

It is this quest for internal salvation that forms the foundation of Riverworld. All of the people therein are profoundly discontent with themselves and their lives. Jesus and Buddha are said to have become enlightened by shedding their desire for purpose, yet it is the very lack of purpose that drives the main characters to seek out the Ethicals. Like Solomon, Farmer explores every avenue to happiness over the course of the Riverworld stories. Also like Solomon, Farmer ends up proclaiming that everything is ultimately futile and that true contentment can never be attained apart from the intervention of some outside force.

Farmer personalizes the Riverworld quest for identity and purpose in the character of Peter Jairus Frigate, who appears in two incarnations in the story. Standing in for Farmer himself, the two versions of Frigate embody both sides of the conflict between the residents and the Ethicals. Like every other character in the series, the two Frigates are utterly unable to resolve their differences. In the end, the pursuit of ethical behavior serves no goal other than to provide characters with the hope of a better existence for the wathan after physical death.

This hope that the wathan eventually passes on to another place has no basis in reason, only in speculation. This stands in marked contrast to every other postulate in Farmer’s work. Farmer builds every other societal construct on a solid foundation of logical motivation, cause, and effect. His logical justifications for slavery, segregation, and sexual promiscuity are impeccably built on a humanistic foundation. It is only when Farmer attempts to justify non-violence and codes of honor that he turns to pseudo-spirituality. Farmer seems to find no basis in human nature or societal evolution for personal virtue.

The Riverworld series closes on the bleakest of notes, with the surviving characters trapped in an eternal existence that is unable to provide them with a reason to live. Farmer wrestled with religion heavily in his writing, and built his Riverworld as a setting entirely without its influence. I think it is no coincidence that a world entirely without religion is also entirely devoid of purpose. It is particularly telling that not a single one of Farmer’s characters is able to behave ethically enough for their wathan to transcend. Riverworld is a story that raises innumerable questions about human purpose and ultimately ends in the conclusion that all human endeavor is mere vanity.

I cannot argue with Farmer’s conclusions but neither can I accept them. Solomon comes to the same conclusion in Ecclesiastes, but Solomon acknowledges that the flaw in his reasoning comes from the absence of a Creator who perfectly knows His creation and is actively involved in their daily lives. I think Farmer’s work here highlights in the strongest possible way the Biblical truth that humanity was created by God for a singular purpose to which God Himself must elevate us. In the words of the Lesser Scottish Catechism, “The chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Book Review: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate visits a 14-year-old Sally Slick in the years before she grows into her role as a Spirit Centurion. It introduces us to Sally’s fellow Centurion Jet Black and a host of supporting characters, both villainous and otherwise. The novel sets the stage for the Young Centurions RPG, from 1910-1916. The first time I read this book I was charmed and very impressed; the second time I was still charmed but more aware of the story’s flaws. It’s a good book, the content aimed solidly at a teen and pre-teen audience with high-school reading skills.

The story: The title promises a story centered around Sally’s conflict with the Steel Syndicate, but I think a more accurate title would be “Sally Slick and Her Marvelous Racing Tractor”. Sally’s older brother has gotten involved with the organized crime ring known as the Steel Syndicate, and when he falls into their clutches it’s up to Sally to rescue him. It’s the kind of adventure that every kid dreams of having, the one where you become invaluable to the people you look up to the most and they begin to see you in new ways.

The charm: The story evokes the feel of the classic Tom Swift novels, in which the teenage heroes are the only ones in the right place at the right time with the right technology to defeat the villains. Sally hasn’t really discovered romance, a boyfriend is someone who makes you feel funny when you hold his hand. The stakes of the adventure are serious, and Sally takes them on in a manner appropriate to both her age and her time period. It compares very well to The 39 Clues, another series about extraordinary young people. It’s the kind of book I consumed voraciously as a kid.

The writing: I blew through this book in an evening; it’s not really meant for adults. The writing is aimed at elementary and middle-school kids with a high-school reading level. The story construction is straightforward, moving from plot point to plot point with direction and clarity. Author Carrie Harris keeps things moving at a good pace, not skimping on the action but still giving the reader an opportunity to catch his breath. Kids with good reading skills will enjoy this book and kids with lower-level reading skills will find it both challenging and engaging.

The content: When I read this the first time, I was really impressed by the content of the book. The characters deal with situations in a manner appropriate to their youth and to the time-period of the setting. The violence has not been sugar-coated, but neither is it graphic. The language is mostly inoffensive, with one or two curses you won’t find on a kid’s TV show; I’d still be willing to read it out loud to my mother’s grandkids. Harris avoids any kind of awkward preteen romance, opting instead for a very naturally awkward interaction when Sally suddenly realizes her best friend is a boy! This is an adventure story, accept no substitutes.

Upon reflection: I spent a little more time on my second reading and still came away favorably impressed with the story despite a few flaws. The story lacks the agency of the Tom Swift novels. Sally spends most of the novel reacting to her circumstances instead of reaching out and changing things. It leaves the reader with the impression that this character is someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. If the Tom Swift novels predicate action on the improbable, “Steel Syndicate” is built around the implausible. It’s easier to suspend disbelief in the Swift Repellatron than to believe an organized crime syndicate led by the ego-maniacal Steel Don would first pursue their quarry to the Slick farm over a grudge and then abandon their assault without suffering a single casualty.

The story also lacks the educational value of The 39 Clues. With the story so tightly focused on Sally and her problems, it leaves the reader no time to explore the world before the advent of the Great War. The world of 1910s America was radically different from what we know today. Kids had a great deal more freedom to come and go, but going long distances was much harder. Social attitudes varied dramatically according to geography, with huge differences between urban and rural areas. The close of the previous century and advent of the new one has seen an explosion of immigration to all parts of the United States, with a corresponding culture shock for Americans both new and old. The lack of modern refrigeration, widespread electricity, or portable communication presents challenges to modern thinking that were a part of daily life at the time. There is a missed opportunity here to challenge young readers with unfamiliar ideas and situations.

The verdict: This story structure has Sally rushing from encounter to encounter, only taking time between action scenes to gear up. It feels very familiar… it feels like a role-playing game session, which I suppose is intentional. RPGs are Evil Hat’s primary product and the Young Centurions RPG in particular has a very counter-intuitive play structure. This book actually describes the structure of a Young Centurions game blow-by-blow, even to the point where the villains “concede the scene” in the climax of the final showdown. New players and Game Masters could do much worse than emulating this story for their own sessions. It makes for a fantastic adventure game for any age group, but doesn’t really hold together as a story meant for adult examination; the less critically demanding young readership ought to be extremely satisfied.

I got my copy of Sally Slick and theSteel Syndicate from the original Fate Core Kickstarter, but when Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me to review upcoming products, they also provided me with a digital version. I’ve already reviewed theYoung Centurions RPG; the next Sally Slick novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace, is next on my list. I’ve really enjoyed Carrie Harris’ writing, and I’m looking forward to Sally and Jet’s next adventure. See you then!

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Welcome to Paradise; Welcome to Hell

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series postulates the mass awakening of the entire deceased population of the Earth on a paradise planet where a single, massive river separates two shores bounded by impassable mountains. All of those who have died, from all throughout history, inexplicably find themselves once more “in the flesh” and placed within a garden where they do not require shelter and do not need to work for food or drink. Luxuries are provided for them. They are in perfect health and without any kind of physical or mental deformity. Mankind has entered paradise.

Nothing could be more like Hell.

The story centers around the historical figures of Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Clemens. Both men seek to solve the mystery of the Riverworld by reaching the headwaters of the river and confronting the unseen architects that reason, and a Mysterious Stranger, tells them must exist. Their search for purpose provides the framework around which the entire thematic structure of the series revolves.

Farmer wrote primarily in the 60s and 70s. His 1953 Hugo Award winning novella “The Lovers” is credited with breaking the unspoken taboo about depicting sex in science-fiction stories. Much of Farmer’s later work continues to explore sexual themes, though he shows an equal interest in theology. Both themes are heavily explored in the Riverworld series, but they are ancillary to Farmer’s primary drive to define the identity of the individual and discover his reason for being.

Burton can’t accept a world that presents no struggle to survive and forgives the sins of the previous life. He continually comes into contact with Hermann Goering, the Nazi war criminal. The harder Burton struggles against the unseen architects of paradise, the more Goering comes to accept their new life. Burton’s life only has meaning in the face of opposition, either real or imagined.

Clemens is opposed by King John, famous despotic monarch of England. Clemens struggles continually to find an existential meaning on Riverworld that eluded him on Earth. For Clemens, life has no purpose at all. He concludes that hedonism is the only valid pursuit but is unable to find fulfillment in any of the pleasures afforded him.

Farmer made no pretense that his works were anything other than an exploration of his own interests and his own frank opinion about them. Farmer went out of his way to challenge ideas for the sake of challenging them, particularly ideas of religion, social justice, and sexual behavior. Riverworld certainly makes bold and plain statements about society, including:

  • All religion is a human invention and should only be used for peaceful societal governance, for which it is actually the only suitable tool. There is no facet of life beyond the material.
  • Restrictions on human sexuality are a societal construct for the sole purpose of controlling the size of the population, and the only humane method of doing so.
  • Total racial, cultural, and sociological segregation allows like-minded people to live together peaceably, and this is the only way peace can be accomplished.
  • Life has no intrinsic meaning. Mankind cannot be at peace with himself, but can only achieve an acceptable state of discontent.

Significantly, Farmer’s ideas and observations continually challenge my own perceptions and opinions. In this Farmer accomplishes his stated goal for all of his writing, that of exploring transgressive ideas that stay with the reader. His logical constructions proceed virtually perfectly from his central humanistic and materialistic premise and his view of humanity in paradise aligns oddly with Reformed Protestant religion, though Farmer himself was an avowed atheist.

Steve Jackson Games licensed the setting for a 3rd edition GURPS sourcebook. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the story as a television mini-series twice, neither of which attempts garnered enough attention to justify a series. None of the adaptations explored the issues that Farmer raised in the novels. There is also a PC game inspired by the series, but I’ve never played it.

Farmer’s work earned him a great deal of critical attention during his lifetime. Both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov praised Farmer’s literary construction and speculative treatments, citing him as an important personal influence. Personally, I find Farmer’s prose to be merely adequate and his story construction borderline unreadable. I read all of the Riverworld material and watched both television productions, but I didn’t really enjoy any of it. The GURPS book on the other hand portrays a fascinating setting in meticulous detail; it will forever be a treasured part of my library.

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

RPG Review: Young Centurions

Visit a world of pulp action-adventure in the 1910s with the Young Centurions RPG from Evil Hat Productions. If you’re new to Fate or to the Spirit of the Century setting, this book belongs on your shelf. If you’re already familiar with either of those, take a minute to see if this book is going to add value to your collection before you jump on it.
In Young Centurions, you take on the role of a unique individual, born in the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the new century. You embody a Spirit of the age, an aspect of the new century that shapes your character with the positive energy of things to come. Shadows oppose you, those people born on the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the previous century, empowered by the energetic detritus of what has gone before. It’s not always easy to separate Spirit from Shadow in the confusion of the new century, even when it seems you’re all working toward the same goals. And oh yes, you’re all teenagers.
Young Centurions is the prelude to Evil Hat’s Spirit of the Century and Strange Tales of the Century, books that focus on adult characters of the 30s and 40s. Those books use the original Fate or Fate Core rules while Young Centurions uses the Fate Accelerated rules. Characters in Young Centurions tend to be less powerful, less capable, and more vulnerable than adult Centurions, both because the rules of the game provide fewer powers and because, well, you’re all teenagers.
That emphasis on the characters as teenagers dealing with unique teenage problems is one of the strongest aspects of the game. (Fate pun…) We’re not talking teen angst here; the responsibilities of teenagers involve personal and family matters far more often than issues of society.
Adult heroes make decisions that impact the world at large in ways that shape the events of society as a whole. Teen heroes make decisions that change their family dynamic and potentially jeopardize and hurt the people that matter most in their life.
The book does a lot of things right. It provides a set of character archetypes to use as a foundation, with aspect questions and stunt packages that quickly get players into the meat of the game. It explains the use of approaches with clarity and through the use of examples. It teases the flavor of the world with story snippets and plot hooks as a springboard for your game.
The GM chapter contains solid advice on gaming with teens as both players and characters, as well as tips on how to use the unique elements of the Young Centurions setting. The setting chapter gives us an intriguing glimpse of the world and just what role we’re going to play. Most important, the book makes me want to be a part of this universe.
Still, there are things that I wish Evil Hat would have done differently. I see no need to reprint the Fate Accelerated rules, not when they make the FAE book so readily and inexpensively available. Young Centurions does nothing to significantly change the rules; simply adding the setting-specific material would have been sufficient.
For all the intrigue generated by the setting teasers, the book leaves us completely cold when it comes to running the foundational elements of the background. The setting has no central conflict around which to build a campaign, though opposing agendas are implied between the Century Club and the Shadows.
The book leaves the GM with a great deal of work to do in order to construct a group template, including deciding the specifics of the supporting structure and writing up stats for the opposition. I wanted more details on the Century Club, Doctor Methuselah, and the Steel Don. I want to draw inspiration from that material for my stories; I don’t want to have to create everything from scratch.
I find only one critical fault with the book. Young Centurions games follow a story structure rather than a tactical structure, but the book provides no instruction on how to set up a game. This means you can’t simply stock a building with mooks and repeatedly kick down doors. You need to construct your game for narrative flow and problem solving. The Fate Core book includes a whole chapter on how to construct conflict scenes and tie them together. That instruction is absolutely essential to Young Centurions and its absence creates problems for GMs without a strong narrative background.
So I’m conflicted. I want to like this book. The premise appeals to me a great deal. It’s a fairly solid introduction to the world of Spirit of the Century. It’s self-contained, since it reprints Fate Acceleratedand does a pretty good job with the rules. It captures the flavor of teen adventure and preserves a spirit of optimism.
This is a setting for stories that I really want to read, but it’s also a game that I really don’t want to try to run. Story structure games put up a truckload of work for the GM and require a whole table of players that know how to effectively resolve conflict within a story structure. Spirit of the Century at least gives you the option to focus on the action scenes and talk through the rest without detracting from the game play.
At the end of the book, I find myself wanting more. I really think there should have been more background material and a chapter on game construction. At only 160 pages, there’s ample room to push the page count up to 198 and create a truly complete product. The price point is good, only $20 for a full-color hardcover – half that for the PDF.
It’s a great introduction to Fate and the to Spirit of the Century setting. By the same token, if you’ve already got Spirit of the Century or Strange Tales of the Century this book adds very little to either rules or setting. Even if you’ve already got the Fate rules in one form or another, this book adds some nice new mechanics and just barely enough flavor to make Young Centurions worth the purchase.
My copy came from the original Fate Core Kickstarter, though when Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me as a Young Centurions reviewer they also provided a digital copy. They have also requested reviews of the two Young Centurions novels: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate, and Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace. I read Steel Syndicate back when it was first released and loved it; I’m looking forward to reading it again on my way to the Miniature Menace ARC. See you then!

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Citizens Grok TANSTAAFL

RAHeinlein_autographing_Midamericon_ddb-371-14Robert A. Heinlein consistently tackled social themes through the framework of his speculative fiction in such a way as to force to reader to confront his own opinions on the subject at hand. Though Heinlein’s work is generally considered to be “hard” sci-fi instead of space opera, the author seldom delved into the fundamentals of the science or problem solving behind the technology of his stories. Instead, Heinlein tended to focus on the evolution of society, the individual’s role within society, and the responsibility of individuals towards their society. His protagonists are nearly always adventurers, philosophers, or engineers of some sort instead of natural or mathematical scientists of the kind favored by Asimov.

Three of Heinlein’s most famous works received Hugo awards (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) while the man himself was named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1974.

DSCN2040Stranger in a Strange Land explores the life of Valentine Michael Smith who was raised on Mars, being the sole survivor of a human expedition to that planet. With Michael as his mouthpiece, Heinlein discusses human behavior, particularly in the realms of religion and sexuality. Organized religion has largely taken the place of nationalism within society; the Fosterite cult dominates all other religions and wields a great deal of economic and political power. When Michael establishes his own religion which teaches Martian psychokinetic abilities and philosophy. The novel affirms that an individual’s highest calling is to discover and rely on himself, a concept embodied in the Martian word “grok”, whose closest English translation is, “Thou art God.”

TanstaaflIf Stranger explores the conflict between spirituality and organized religion, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sets out to explore the conflict between individual freedom and societal obligation. The story describes a Lunar colony that attempts to gain political autonomy from the Earth, and the way that political pressures shape society. Lunar society is founded on mutual self-reliance; individuals who do not contribute to society are ostracized and may even be killed if the society deems it necessary. The revolutionaries in the story adopt the acronym “TANSTAAFL” (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) as their slogan. When the moon dust settles over the colony the revolutionaries are left to govern themselves, only to find the freedom they crave impossible to marry to societal rule of law.

Before his recognition for novels critical of social and religious movements, Heinlein came under fire from the sci-fi community for a little novel titled Starship Troopers. It was seen as supportive of military adventurism and glorifying racist attitudes. Hard on the heels of the Korean War and in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein received many letters criticism him for writing the book and was surprised when it won the Hugo Award in 1960. The book deals primarily with issues of personal responsibility and societal responsibility, including long passages of classroom-style discourse that landed the book on the required reading list of the US military for many years. Although not the first story to include the idea, the work is primarily famous for its detailed treatment of soldiers wearing personal powered armor.

DSCN2045Unlike many of his peers, Heinlein predominantly held spiritual or pseudo-spiritual views rather than purely secular or humanistic ones. A firm believer in personal responsibility, Heinlein grounded his views in the utility of the person to society as a whole while also denouncing organized society as repressive of individual freedom, as in modern libertarianism. From a Christian perspective, Heinlein’s work is a provocative and well-reasoned examination of life in a society where God is either absent or irrelevant. At the same time, Heinlein seems to argue that spirituality is a necessary and vital element of human existence. Heinlein’s search for spirituality within oneself comes through most clearly in Stranger in a Strange Land, and even in that novel he seems to acknowledge that although the quest for spiritual enlightenment is predominantly internal, effective instruction in enlightenment must originate externally. As with his views on personal freedom and societal responsibility, it is a position that Heinlein explored throughout his body of work without ever coming to a satisfactory resolution.

CGC LogoHeinlein’s work needs to be read by individuals ready to think critically about their belief systems and look beyond the text to implications therein. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Heinlein’s work in general and these novels in particular a Quality score of 10/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.

Behind the Walls

behind the wallsJust to be clear…. This is supposed to be a prison game. Your characters are hardened convicts surviving in a self-contained and self-sustaining environment that happens to have been ideally placed to survive a 1951 nuclear apocalypse. But great pains have been taken to remove or de-emphasize those story elements that characterize not only stories about prisons, but the way prisons function in real life. To be specific, this setting does its level best to ignore or downplay: gang violence, prison rape, segregation, and racism (p. 2). These are the prime motivators of tension in this kind of setting, instead the text encourages themes exploring claustrophobia (p. 5) along with “institutionalism, culture, and aggression” (p. 23).

So what’s left? The text encourages characters to introduce tension in the form of gender identity and orientation, while in the same text block they state a desire to avoid the issues of sexual assault and homophobia (p. 2). I’m not sure how to do that. Tension in the setting is meant to primarily originate between players, and there is a system introduced for managing a set of secrets that players are to keep from each other. There is further tension between the primary gangs of the prison, though we are reminded that proper development of this tension isn’t supposed to be predominantly violent, but it is supposed to be aggressive. Again, I’m not sure how that works. There is also some tension between the guards and the inmates (your players are all inmates) that is meant to thematically reflect two political superpowers.

Observation 1 – the system for keeping and revealing secrets depends heavily on the players introducing tension within the party. That formula isn’t going to work for every gaming group; it certainly won’t work in my gaming group. Even without that requirement, the system is mechanically weak and relies more on improvisational storytelling than it does on game theory. Observation 2 – though stating a desire to remove certain tropes of the genre mentioned above (p. 2), the trope of guard corruption has been retained. NPC guards are exclusively described as “routine” (read “apathetic”), “hostile”, or “lazy” (p. 16-17). The warden is described as “tired” with aspects that depict callousness and greed (p. 35).

Verdict? This is a setting for a very specific group of gamers. I am not one of them; I have a few issues with the setting. The guards and the law enforcement structure are depicted as corrupt, brutal, and ineffective in contrast with a prison society that is trying to keep order. This inversion of both reality and storytelling convention offends me a great deal, but I’m willing to chalk that up to my personal experience as a former law enforcement professional (specifically, a prison guard). If I wanted to explore prison themes in a game at all, the mega-cities of Judge Dredd do an excellent job of developing those kinds of stories while still providing a broad scope of action.

My main criticism is that there is no tactical game here. This setting is all about interpersonal drama, and I have no interest in exploring the themes of gender identity, aggression without violence, or prison culture; these themes are also explored in artwork that is both suggestive (p. 36) and explicit (p. 20). The mechanical material is under-developed; I can’t even lift the mechanics of the setting out and use them in a different prison-themed game. Only gamers with a specific interest in the thematic material and who emphasize storytelling over game play will benefit from this book.