Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

The sequel to Empire, and in book form the conclusion of the series.

The typification is less pronounced and annoying this time, probably because he didn’t have to shoehorn liberals broadly into secessionists. The book has four major parts.

The first part focuses on the “day to day”, with Cole and Cecily as trusted advisers to President Torrent. It’s pretty short, but establishes that Torrent’s elevation to the Presidency has held, that he worries about politics and election to some degree (though as a heavy favorite). Further, the chapter introduction quotes are now all part of Torrent’s writings. In parallel, Chinma is in Nigeria. He’s patient zero of the sneezing plague, which devastates his whole village. In parallel, the events in Africa spur scenes where Torrent and Cecily discuss Africa policy.

The second part involves Chinma’s adjustment to America, his integration with Malich family, their growing awareness and moral conflict over the right role of Christians in treating the sick (behind the African blockade). Then Cole and his jeesh travel to Africa to combat the governments using the plague as cover for genocide. They encounter foes with the mysterious EMP device that’s a perfect counter to their “bones and noodles” that enhance their abilities. How suspicious…

For a while, both Cecily and Cole are in Nigeria, along with Chinma and her eldest son Mark. They’re hard at work, but the coughing sickness gets them all. While the soldiers are down with the plague, another poor African group, suspiciously armed with the EMPs, hits the base. There is death and tragedy…

From there, the book flows into its fourth and shortest block. Cole has to save the President from a deadly attack, the President admits to taking advantage of the events in the world, but not precipitating most of them. Cole adopts Chinma, Cecily returns to baking cookies, end, credits.

I liked the book for its unconventional focus. While the book begins with politics and coordination against Russia, and ends with an attempted political assassination, in between is filled with a mix of “special forces hooah!” and scenes wrestling with the demands of their faith.

There’s plenty to nitpick, but at a proper reading pace you’ll make it through before they start to concern you. Good enough!

Empire by Orson Scott Card

A loan from dad. Empire is a fast paced book that’s almost a buddy movie between Major Reuben Malich and Captain Coleman. It’s an interesting book, particularly since it was written before 2006, when “Bush Derangement Syndrome” was running so high.

The book champions characters who refuse to buy into the left/right divide, but fails to provide anyone sympathetic on the Left side of the dispute, beyond Ruben’s wife Cecily. It’s fun enough and moves along, despite the authorial intrusion that was unsubtle enough to make it clear that “both sides are crazy, but they’re really crazy… and popularly supported!” was just the way he views the world.

In the end, though, it’s evidently a prelude to a video game. For that, it’s immensely better than almost any game adaptation. It was enjoyable enough that I’m reading Hidden Empire, the finale.

I do wonder how he’d write it if it was written today, a decade later. Would it still be the unhinged left, or would Card acknowledge the xenophobia and blatant racism that scream out from today’s rallies? I wonder.

The deluge : the Great War, America, and the remaking of global order, 1916-1931 by J. Adam Tooze

I read this book to follow a reading group. It’s a fascinating time that I’ve mostly skimmed over–Diplomacy taught me that WWI was mostly “trench warfare”, which sounded horrific and boring.

The book begins before the US entry in WWI, discussing the leaders of the various Entente powers, their goals and motivations. Initially, Britain, France and Russia are struggling shoulder to shoulder, with Britain taking the lead on financing for the team. Russia’s implosion into civil war in 1917 made things even trickier…

The politics within the three nations (and Germany!) were opaque to me before now, but came alive and were fascinating. Britain’s relations with its colonies are tricky–particularly in India, where Muslim unity with the Hindu majority suddenly undercuts the story Britain’s been telling itself about why it’s needed. Ireland has to be bribed into supporting the war with home rule… it’s so much messier than unthinking “how the empire acts” history sits in my mind.

Wilson is more a hindrance than a help, and comes across as… too ivory towerish? He’s a man of theory, with goals that are perpendicular to the world he’s trying to interact with. His striving to establish peace without victory has some very unfortunate parallels to our intervention in modern day Syria–with a similar damning of the belligerents to longer misery. He swoops in to accept the German armistice, ignoring his allies in the war–and making Germany resent being treated like they lost the war when officially they hadn’t.

The 1920s had been flappers and war profits investigation to me; the international scene, particularly America’s insistence on repayment of the debt their allies had built up defending themselves before the US entered the war, had been much hazier. While I don’t 100% trust his take on China and Japan, there’s a lot more going on along that front than I’d put together. China was divided–differently in different years. The chapter about Chiang Kai-shek’s beginning as Soviet trained and his coup where he purged the communists out of his resistance movement was all new to me.

In fact, everything Russia seemed new. I’d never heard of Brest-Litovsk, had no idea how abject the collapse of the Russia front had been, what the internal politics of the new regime were and how they had to face democratic populists while they were struggling to get established. Similarly, Ukraine and the Baltics seemed quite happy to escape the Russian Bear… if not for long.

Long story short, it’s a good book and I learned a lot. Further, it’s written for interested amateurs–if you want a broad overview of the world almost exactly a century ago, it’s a great place to start.

The caryatids by Bruce Sterling

This book started off strong–I enjoyed the characters and world building on Mljet; it was an interesting world with a very different focus from today. While I enjoyed the puzzles (that the book consciously foregrounded) like “what happened to money?” and “how bad was the collapse?”, the characters and interaction were strong enough to keep the book engaging. The Aquis was a quirky society, but a comprehensible response to the challenges and collapse of the previous half century.

The shift to Mila (the second sister) was abrupt–I wasn’t done with Vera. (And once the perspective shifts, you never get back to the story from that character’s POV again.) She’s a Hollywood star, a member of the second global society, The Dispensation. To be honest, I didn’t see much difference in their experience versus modern Americans–by picking a member of the city’s wealthy elite, what makes the Dispensation different from today’s society was subsumed in the sameness of “movie stars as the face of issues”. Despite that lesser feeling world building, I enjoyed following Mila around as she struggled to manage the transition of finances and power to the next generation. Unfortunately, she was much more a “general managing the battlefield” viewpoint than engaged with the issues that interested her, so it was less gripping. Her “murder” at the end was shocking, but didn’t have much impact because she’d engaged me so much less.

We then shift to Sonja, who did cool action adventure stuff… mostly in her backstory. So she’s cool and collected as she undergoes dangerous threats, bloody minded, etc. Her shallow reasons for her previous terror made it hard to really identify with her; her body is a tool, she marries but it doesn’t seem to really engage as emotion–it’s more calculation… I don’t know, she was again hard to empathize with.

In the end, I liked the world building, particularly of the Aquis. Future China sounded quite plausible, and sure, wealthy run society Dispensation feels like people abstractly running the world everywhere. I’d have liked a more street level view of the Dispensation to actually see what their society is like–the POV was too removed to have a good thought.

The book was fine, but not one that I’m likely to reread. It’s not bad–it has a number of very good nuggets, interesting worldbuilding, and an engaging character for the first third. That enough for me to say, “add it to your queue,” but not “read it next!”

The Jedi mind control is working… on Fate designers

Recently, two different Fate designers have been starting up Star Wars campaigns and discussing how they modify the rules to match.

Rob Donoghue’s take: Shadow of the Sith blank character sheets, completed characters, and rules.

Meanwhile, Mike Olson has been working on a Faith Corps of Rebels for this weekend’s con. Overview, Maintaining Tone, Long Lasting Conditions, and Ships.

Each looks like a fun interpretation, though I don’t know Faith Corps (I haven’t seen the book yet), so I’d probably go for Rob’s take for now. Interestingly, both use a series of defined consequences, rather than Fate Core stress & consequences. I wonder if there’s a reason they both moved toward that design space…

Bulldogs, Fate Core Edition by Galileo Games

Bryan and I discussed the old Bulldogs game in the past, but this new edition was the first time I read through the game myself.

It’s a good setting, with a lot of the Diaspora/Traveler/Firefly feel of tramp freighters crossing the galaxy, trying to make ends meet. The decision to set the game mostly in a balkanized neutral zone between two great powers does a great job of reinforcing the feel of small-fry trying to keep under the radar. Smuggling and the like are a sure result.

The character creation section is good, with another good discussion of Aspects. Alien Species are handled well-they come out as flavorful, but not just stereotypes, with common aspects and species abilities that replace stunts. And the Aliens are pleasantly alien. Sure, there are a few Aliens that are basically humans (with or without scrunchy noses), but space slugs and tripeds are great. Similarly, there’s a nice implementation of Credits and Gear.

The debate around heirachry in ship games is settled in Bulldogs by making the Captain an NPC representative of the company. Everyone has an aspect reflecting their relationship to the captain.

Anyway, rather than lots of detail, I’ll just end with: this game looks great. I’d be happy to play it.

Circle of Hands by Ron Edwards

In this book, Ron created a thoroughly interesting setting. The mechanics seem simple and a bit random (in character generation), but that fits the less scripted times that he’s emulating.

The book covers four undifferentiated nations in a very local dark ages setting, with two sweeping magics running through the area and altering the world in their image. The four regions are very similar; there’s little coinage, a great deal of mistrust for outsiders (who, to be fair, are often raiders), a presumption that everyone you’ll encounter is culturally the same.

It’s a direct, honest culture. As players, you make a pair of Circle Knights who are among the new King(ish) of Rolke’s kitchen cabinet–and who are each familiar with both black and white magic. Most of the time you’re in villages; cities over a thousand people are rare and won’t often be visited by the knights on their ventures.

The magic system is strongly thematic, which is reinforced by the cultural implications of magic being introduced before character creation and spell lists. The culture and Ron’s presentation of it is excellent–if you’re looking for a way to play people who don’t feel like 20th century people in costume, this game gives both a complete setting and strong guidelines for conveying that culture. (As a closest analogue, think 9th century Germany or England.)

Playing it is trickier; I’d be interested, but I’d really want fellow players to have read a bit–or at least be willing to set all of their assumptions aside. Since so much gaming is fantasy gaming, there are a lot of assumptions to peel away.

So… mark me as interested, though probably not interested in running it quite yet. With a similarly invested group, I think it’d be interesting to experience in play. The website for Circle of Hands.

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

An interesting tale of life inside a big brokerage house, where the strangest behaviors are normal… if you’re a big swinging dick. It’s a weird dip into a very different life, as the author acknowledges.

It’s half a memoir; the classes and story are told from his perspective, but he takes long asides to explain the politics and organization charts that drive the activity. It sounds like the whole organization underwent a tremendous transformation shortly before he arrived, changing from a partnership with strong controls into a corporation. The older people, who’d worked in the partnership environment, stay decent for a while–out of habit and intertia–but the new kids aren’t locked in as partners, making it much less costly to defect.

A great part of the story was about the beginnings of the residential market and its CMOs. They are kissing cousins to the CDOs that featured so prominently in the 2008 crash… but I never heard of CMOs before this book.

It also demonstrates 2 decades early exactly why the brokerage firms resisted listing prices on an index. Back in the early 80s, the Solomon Brothers middlemen were able to take a huge bite–like 5%–out of mortgage trades where only they knew the prices. That lack of transparency helped drive mortgages from an ignored remnant to 40% of the profit in less than 5 years. But, as soon as their rivals had access to the prices [mostly via defectors], the margins collapsed quickly.

The relations he describes makes the movies about Wall Street sound like documentaries, instead of the wild exaggeration for the screen that I’d hoped. It’s an amazing tale, with corruption at hand at every turn. It’s amazing that he was able to avoid enough of the snares to escape… with a hefty bonus, but without permanently taking on the trader’s worldview.

What’s scary is how many of the very same things played out in the 2008 crisis–also driven by “financialized” versions of mortgages sliced into tranches. It’s crazy how much is familiar…

Anyway, well written, with terrifying foresight baked in.

Dead Set by Richard Kadrey

A well told story set in the modern bay area. A teen age girl (the novel is soley her POV) is adjusting to a new school, coping with her Dad’s recent death, and enduring a rocky home life.

School passes mostly in a blur and she’s detached and drifting. Until she finds a record shop with a special back room. From there, the story gets supernaturally strange, but never crosses into Urban Fantasy despite its setting. She’s offered great temptations, learns the terrible price that people will pay for love, and more. It’s really well told and jukes just when you think you’ve got the formula.