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Three Quick Books

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue.

A quick look at three novels I’ve read recently, not so much to review them formally but to point to their usefulness to a Traveller referee. Two have been discussed on the Traveller Mailing List previously but have been tweaked here. It wasn’t until I put this together I spotted a recent theme to my reading of late. For fuller details/reviews see any number of possibilities on the internet.

Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness. Chris Brookmyre.
Original publication: 2017 (Orbit)
Current Availability: Paperback, ebook, audiobook.

First up, a look at a novel so gripping in the last few pages I missed my bus stop! It has certainly made my commute fly by these last few days.

Given that this is set on a supposedly utopian space station, this is a remarkably dark novel that’s an investigation into the first murder on a near future, near Earth station.

The relevance for Traveller particularly, was if you’re looking for good descriptions (and NPCs) of an orbital station type setting. Although it’s near Earth and near future in the book, it would be easily usable as atmosphere or setting for highports in the Imperium. Especially if you want to flesh out—pun slightly intended—the seedier aspects of such a location. Think Downbelow on Babylon 5.

As for the plot, it might be a bit tricky but I suspect a good referee could plagiarize much of it wholesale with some adaptation if you want an investigative/thriller-type noir with ‘big’ implications. (And dodgy corporations).

It is also good for a couple of main characters—both women—who are no holds barred kick-something-or-other types including a cop that walks both sides of the law. Some swearing if you find that objectionable but given the lowlifes the book is usually depicting it’s appropriate enough even if the writer for the most part demonstrates how good he is by not needing it—and there’s a nice pay off to it at the very end. All the relationships in the book seem to be lesbian which might say something about the author (and there were at least two passages I thought gave away ‘male writing female’) but of course might give further grist to an Imperial world that's just a step away from “familiar”.

So it would be difficult to read this without finding ideas galore to pinch for your refereeing or your next character. And if not, it’s a pretty tightly plotted high octane novel to enjoy on the way.

Red Moon

Red Moon. Kim Stanley Robinson.
Original publication: 2018 (Orbit/Little, Brown)
Current Availability: Paperback, ebook, audiobook

Firstly, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this despite it being by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s probably at least 150 pages too long, it massively breaks the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, the main three characters have a huge lack of agency, and it finishes, not quite in mid-sentence, but it might as well do. (So I suspect there may be more to come. Green Moon? Blue Moon?!) The ‘telling’ and the agency are definitely the biggest faults of the book. I have no idea how/why The Times (of London) reviewed this as “a masterpiece” as my paperback says on the cover. It has a major ‘gadget’ (quantum communicator) that seems at first to be key to the book but then disappointingly very little is made of. (Yes, I know rules like ‘show don’t tell’ are meant to be broken and can be broken by masters, but this doesn’t do it to good effect. Some chapters are inserted just as exposition and there is a huge chunk in the middle of the book which is nothing but.)

Red Moon also has a lot of what we saw from Robinson in the Mars trilogy regarding politics and political philosophy and revolution. That might be a plus or a minus for you depending on your interest. (That and some ignorance and clear anti-faith writing is what made me vow not to reread the Mars trilogy—at least not for a long while). (I should say in his defence that I really enjoyed Aurora which was about a generation ship and about as hard science as I’ve read on the subject in fiction although it was very depressing).

On the upside the three main characters of Red Moon are interestingly different from your typical “heroes”, very different from each other, and fascinatingly thrown together. Any of them could be a Traveller NPC or even Patron or perhaps most interestingly a trio acting as a Patron needing help from PCs—maybe ‘as written’.

You get lots of detail/insight into Chinese culture and language (and politics) which is unusual and makes a change from the more usual Western-centric novels I might typically read. Of course, I can’t speak to whether it’s accurate but it feels as if KSR has done some research or had a good advisor (though none is acknowledged).

As for Traveller, it’s a bit too near-Earth, near-future to be hugely usable, but if you do want mid-tech enclosed habitats there’s some good stuff there. There are two excellently envisaged (and described) environments that would easily make interesting places for PCs to visit. You certainly might rethink how characters cope with low grav environments—which in my experience of Traveller games tends to get rather elided over (perhaps too easily). There’s an AI presence which can be best be described as ‘nascent’, so if you don’t want full AI in your game but like the idea of something new/emergent/basic it may provide food for thought. And if you’ve sat at the feet of Johnn Four and his Roleplaying Tips with ideas about more than one baddie—sorry faction, there’s some great stuff here about multiple agencies not talking to each other and thus giving wiggle room for PCs to get up to their stuff… (There’s a wonderfully not intentionally funny bit that reminds me of The Life of Brian segment about the various People’s Liberation Front of whereever.)

Oh, and it has some pretty dreadful poetry but I’ll forgive it this as I may have attempted similar myself in some writing I won’t point you to…

In short, if you’ve not got enough to read and you’re looking for some hard science ideas and lots of political science inspiration, it might be worth your time. Otherwise, give Misjump by Mark Long a go. I’m halfway through thanks to Jeff Z’s recommendation in Freelance Traveller and am loving its Travelleryness.

A Study in Honor

A Study in Honor. Claire O’Dell.
Original publication: 2018 (Harper Voyager)
Current availability: paperback, ebook, audiobook

A slightly more unusual title for ‘relevance to Traveller’ but firstly, I found it in the science fiction section of a bookshop. Yes, there are still such things if you look. And yes, this is exactly why I love browsing physically which the internet never quite replicates. I might never have found this otherwise. Having said that, it’s perhaps only marginally SF as the novel is set in the very near future – next year or two rather than, say, 2300 which I might ordinarily mean by the term.

Secondly, as Jeff Z kindly let me merge two of my interests in the March/April 2019 issue of Freelance Traveller, it kind of counts as Traveller by extension of those articles!

Anyway, it’s Sherlock Holmes so of course I picked it up to buy. But it’s not like any Conan Doyle you might know; even the multitude of later pastiches that burden my attic. As I discovered a chapter or two in (I avoid reading back cover blurbs), Watson and Holmes are both black, both women and both live in the Washington DC of a very broken USA which is, sadly, all too believable. (Warning for those of passionate or partisan tendencies: present day names and politics get (usually unfavourable) mentions). One note on its US-centric writing: non-US readers might want to look up “VA” beforehand as it’s never explained and is central to the novel. (The US Department of Veteran Affairs, often informally called “the Veterans’ Administration). (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Veterans_Affairs or https://www.va.gov/) One feature of the book that seems unusual these days and is very welcome is that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. At not even 300 pages it doesn’t get so lost in its own cleverness you’re wishing it would just stop.

The novel focuses on Janet Watson, a veteran military doctor, so Sara Holmes doesn’t appear for a good while and is perhaps only doing Sherlock Holmesy type stuff in the latter half of the book (I’d have liked more of her but maybe there are future novels to come and to be fair Holmes is missing from quite large chunks of Doyle’s four novels). (Bother, I’ve just looked it up on Amazon and discovered there is a second one already: The Hound of Justice. Hang on, I’m just off to the bookshop…) Watson suffers from PTSD which makes for somewhat disturbing/depressing reading at times, but otherwise it’s a real page turner as she is introduced to Holmes via Jacob Bell and goes on to join forces in uncovering… stuff. If you’re half recognizing the name Bell, he was the real life doctor who Doyle supposed modelled Holmes on; other familiar names pop up as well so it’s fun spotting those.

It’s relevance to Traveller? Well, aside from the good writing and the well-drawn characters which may be inspirational, if you’re going down the route of introducing a ‘shlock’ type character as I suggest in Freelance Traveller, then here’s a way of doing it in higher tech settings than the Victorian of the original (or even the present day London of Sherlock or New York of Elementary). Holmes isn’t brilliant through rote learning and observation but thanks to training as an ‘agent’, money and the use of earbuds and lace gloves. Those last two items clearly give access, via some other tech, to the kind of ubersearchengine familiar from Person of Interest.

The plot could easily be recycled into an adventure for one or two PCs (perhaps more characters with work from the Referee) on a divided or dystopian world. Referees would have to introduce their own settings’ analogue of race relations if they wanted to follow the plot closely. On the other hand, that aspect could be ignored although it should be noted that race is also pretty central to the book – it’s not just Holmes & Watson identified as black for the sake of variety or political correctness. (Though having said that, it seems the author is white so I would have to leave the veracity of the character descriptions, inner monologues and situations for others to dissect, but from my perspective it felt very accurate to what seems to be the American experience). Of course, expunging that aspect would be absolutely antithetical to Janet Watson’s whole character. You’ve been warned.

Additionally, elements of the plot could inform any balkanized world (or world with a civil war) in giving some background flavour. There’s not really enough of that, however, to warrant buying this just for that purpose.

It is possible to argue that A Study in Honor is so removed from anything familiar in Doyle that there was no point in labelling the characters as Watson and Holmes. Certainly for the first third of the novel this would be fair. But if there’s going to be a series of them, it’s reasonable enough to set up the characters’ backgrounds and as the chase really gets going it begins to feel more familiar. Personally, I’m really glad I stumbled across the book and would recommend it as a good novel in its own right and an interesting take on a pair of beloved characters.