Friday February 12, 2016

The Shootout Solution: Genrenauts, Episode 1

Every so often I read a book and wish I could have thought of the stuff this author thought up. It's a little painful, and it's made even worse when I know the author personally, and find them intimidatingly intelligent. I am forced to come to grips with the fact that this idea was not just lying around for the first comer. It was secured deep in a cave full of puzzles, and monsters, and death that only an author-hero could courageously and successfully face, and the cave itself is hidden so well I don't even know how to find it.

With Genrenauts, author Michael R. Underwood (perhaps best known for Geekomancy, Celebromancy, and Hexomancy) has created a setting in which he can spin stories that mess very engagingly with genre, setting, trope, and tale. The first of these stories is The Shootout Solution: Genrenauts, Episode 1. It's a fast, fun read, priced to move with the electronic edition currently at $2.99.

The concept runs as follows: our world is part of a multiverse in which the stories we tell congeal into planes or dimensions that operate according to trope-laden rule sets. These areas can reflect back on us. A missing happily-ever-after can mean disaster in our world.

As a creator I understand that the stories we tell say a lot about who we are. Commentary on these stories is a deconstruction of our culture, our beliefs, and even our minds. I have this sinking feeling that the Genrenauts series, with its raucous meta-commentary upon the stories of pop culture, is going to say important things that I might not be clever enough to catch the first time around because I'm too busy enjoying the books.

And it's pretty easy to get lost in enjoying the story. Here's The Shootout Solution in four words: "spaceships, cowboys, and comediennes."

Obligatory Disclaimer: At the bar at ConFusion two weeks ago Michael offered me the first Genrenauts book for free. I turned him down because it's easier for me to not lose a book on my nightstand if I buy it myself and put it in my Kindle app. Also, $2.99.

Non-obligatory plug: The next book in the Genrenauts series, The Absconded Ambassador, is available for pre-order. It drops on February 23rd. I'm in.

(this review originally appeared at howardtayler.com)

ConFusion 42 and Planet Mercenary

Confession time: the Planet Mercenary session at ConFusion was the first time I have run a Planet Mercenary game. I'm familiar with the system, and (obviously) the universe, and I've played the game several times as a player, but I'd never before been the Game Chief.

To the game's credit, it worked just fine in spite of me. We identified a lot of small problems with things like layout and wording, but the mechanics of the game did exactly what they were supposed to do, and encouraged some brilliant role-play.

Granted, 90% of that came from the brilliant players: Saladin Ahmed (Ob'enn quartermaster), Delilah Dawson (Ursumari medic), Mur Lafferty (Esspererin engineer), Brian McClellan (Unioc legal counsel), Cherie Priest (Human pilot), and Brent Weeks (Fobott'r captain). Brent managed to role-play "four-armed and in charge" with some hilarious pantomime, and Delilah got so into character as "Doctor Murderbear" that on a couple of occasions I thought she was mad at me.

Brian put that big eye to use and spotted a spy, who he then bent to the party's aid. Cherie got down with the tactics; her roguish pilot did some mad stealth work, cutting off the enemy's escape route. Mur's engineer then performed some spectactular disassembly on the enemy getaway vehicle, reducing it not just to pieces, but to pieces of jewelry.

And Saladin's  bookish, persecuted, expat Ob'enn bet large, and managed to turn a nasty piece of enemy gear into a nasty piece of bookish, persecuted, expat Ob'enn gear.

I can't thank these folks enough. They sawed a huge chunk of time out of their convention schedule to play this game we made, and they provided lots of suggestions about how to fine tune it.  

The Expanse. It is Just. That. Good.

I'm amazed by how good SyFy's The Expanse is.

It is head-and-shoulders above anything else in TV science-fiction, with the possible exception of The Martian, which was a movie. Yes, I include Star Trek, Babylon V, and Firefly.

Here's my stake in the ground: In 2020 we'll look at the state of science fiction programming, and ask ourselves how we got into this golden age. Then we'll look back and say "ah. The Expanse. It set a new bar, and for the last five years everybody has been racing to clear it."

The Expanse has flaws, sure. It's a television program, after all. The series of books from which it is drawn are solid, but they're not epic-level standouts of literary science fiction. That's okay. They're worlds better than what usually gets turned into TV programming, and the folks working on them are doing everything they can to convince us that the characters we're following live in space, on asteroids, in accelerating vessels, and (most importantly) in our future.

This is science fiction that manages sense-of-wonder without sugar coating the dangers of space exploration. It is science fiction that depicts many of the grim realities of human nature, while still instilling hope for the amazing things humans can, and will, create. It is science fiction that does not feel like high-magic fantasy wrapped in robots and ray-guns.

Minor spoiler: There's one scene in particular during which a vessel loses power, and stops accelerating. Everything starts floating. Then a hole gets punched through the cabinThe characters still able to move spend no more than three seconds looking shocked, and then they do what people who live in space do. They patch the holes so they don't run out of air.

The Expanse is very non-episodic, much like Netflix's Daredevil. Each episode is one act in a multi-act story, and while these acts have beginnings, middles, and ends, the overarching story is never lost as we drive forward. I bought the Season Pass on Amazon because I expect to binge watch this at least a couple of times before (huzzah it got renewed!) Season Two comes out.

We're only six seven episodes in, and the season is short, but if you love science fiction, and you have sufficient discretionary income to let you comfortably put some money where your mouth is, this one's worth buying now.

Content alert: There's some PG-13 nudity in episode 1, presumably to rope puerile male viewers into thinking this is Game of Thrones (episodes 2 through 6 have none of that in them). Also, there is PG-13 violence, and can I just say that arterial spray in null-gee is terrifying? 

(This review originally appeared on howardtayler.com)

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