Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

The conclusion to the trilogy. For this book we abandon the single POV and get a series of overlapping and parallel stories. Some of the story continues on from the Biologist and Control at the end of book 2, though we now see some of the action from her viewpoint.

We also have interesting chapters running alongside that deal with the beginning of Area X–before it was even a separate area. Plus we learn about the S&SB (though only indirectly), get more theories about Area X and its relationship to “the normal world”, etc.

It’s a more straightforward book, despite the many viewpoints and multiple timelines. It’s interesting to see the overlap and weirdness, and to find out more. An intriguing conclusion to an interesting trilogy.

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

A new character, Control, brings a new viewpoint in the wake of Annihilation.

This book is largely about the organization that “manages” Area X, from the POV of a brand new director. Even on the “right side” of the border, everything is odd. As the book goes on, we learn more about the conditioning techniques that were applied to the expedition members.

In the end, it’s a sequel in topic–but with a new vantage point and different focus. In the background Area X still looms… but we now get hints as to the dysfunction that was involved in running it, the effects of being near the border, etc.

If you enjoyed the aura of mystery in Annihilation, you’ll probably enjoy the continuation of the story in Authority.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The world ends before our eyes–not in a hazy before time, but as we read. Harper is our viewpoint character, and she’s very engaging. While her love of Mary Poppins may be going a little far, she’s exactly the conscientious neighbor we all want, or person we want to be. She does a good job of being selfless, but not in a fake feeling way.

The disease that’s killing everyone is tragic–and it’s clear that the old world is mostly over. Fortunately, it’s mostly over in a believable way, instead of a YA shortcut to societal dissolution. The limited viewpoint makes what’s obvious (and hidden) not always what an omniscient observer would find obvious, which is nice. Harper finding Harold’s notes is a nice way around their limited perceptions.

It’s also a more rugged tale of survival; the book covers about a year, not a deadly weekend. Old norms fall fast… but after watching our panic over Ebola in the west, it’s not that hard to imagine society failing to overcome the challenges of this much deadlier spore.

I look forward to reading more books by the author, though this story is done enough for me.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The novel is well written, about a group exploring a strange area that doesn’t quite conform o the world’s rules. While their minds aren’t wiped, they are subject to oddness–particularly in their perceptions. It pairs nicely with our strategically unreliable narrator.

Things fall apart very quickly and continue getting worse. The exploration is very well done; it’s not hard to imagine ourselves in the unnamed narrator’s shoes. (That’s one bit of interesting story building: the conscious avoidance of names–of the exploration crew, but also for just about everything. It makes the timelessness and undefined seem strategic…

Anyway, the rest of the trilogy also sounds interesting, so I’ll add them to my library queue.

Hunter by Mercedes Lackey

An interesting book with a very strong, positive, interesting protagonist: Joyeaux Charmand. She’s a Hunter–someone with magical powers in a post-almost the Apocalypse, the Diseray.

Some of the interesting threads that felt reminiscent of other books were the high peaks setting for the Monestary and home. Much like a few recent books about a plague (disease or zombie) restricting people to mountaintops, with the lands below being wasteland, the flatlands are a shattered world. In fact, the backstory of the Diseray feels a lot like the RIFTS backstory–a bunch of bad decisions collided and brought back magic in a wrenching disaster. The disaster was near total–society collapsed and creatures from myth ate just about everything–except for a few enclaves, particularly where the snow remains year round–or where the remaining scraps of humanity rallied behind the Psimonds and early Hunters.

Joyeaux is a teenage girl who is a Hunter, trained in a (to the Capital, Apex) remote and hidden fortress. Very quickly, she’s summoned from the mountain to her Uncle in Apex. There are interesting fish-out-of-water elements (a bit like Katniss going to the Capitol).

What made the book stand apart was the strong internal consistency to Joy’s decision making and experiences. You don’t get flashes of her doing things because it’d be convenient to the plot. The world building also hangs together plausibly–there are a lot of asides about decisions that were quickly made that reflect well on the people who made them.

The magic system hangs together, though it does take the back seat to the Hunter’s Hounds. The hounds are the core of the magic–in fact, we really don’t hear about non-Hunters using magic, and Hunters are defined by their hounds. Hmm… that’ll be something to look forward to; are there magicians who don’t have hounds?

The story is familiar; outsider with strange gifts comes to town, trains alongside her peers, fights outsiders and wins allies and enemies for doing so. There’s an interesting overlay of reality TV; in Apex, each Hunter is filmed and has a personal channel, has to keep their ratings up, etc. It adds an interesting twist, as our poor turnip has to adjust to a thriving city and Hunters by the dozen, navigating a reality star’s life in the camera, plus skullduggery. She does well and we root for her the whole way.

(It looks like Elite: A Hunter novel is the sequel; Amazon has it coming out in September.)

Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna

The story was okay, but I must be more burned out on zombies than I thought. There’s good character development, an interesting situation and recent developments to propel the story… and I still didn’t get very excited.

The hero’s identification with his past is strong and should be moving, and the final declarations of interest should have won me over completely, but I just didn’t engage deeply enough. I’ll keep an eye out for more by the author in another setting.

California by Edan Lepucki

Another strong book. This one’s set in a near to very near future, a very slouching apocalypse. In the background terrible things are happening (hinted at or alluded to throughout the book), and terrible things happened before. The heart of the book, though, is about small communities and withdrawal.

The two POV characters begin in the wilderness of a largely depopulated future. They begin well aligned, two against the world, struggling in primitive conditions and savoring the small victories. The world of the beginning is no Eden… except against the corrupted world revealed in flashbacks and (especially) going forward as they explore.

The ambiguity of the decline (which, especially at first, is presented as mostly a people give up and opt out future) keeps you invested in figuring out how the world went wrong. The obvious pieces, which show up in the politics of both the past and future, is a grasping withdrawal from the commons of the wealthy. A lot of the book pivots about memories of movements to fight back against that withdrawal and the complexities underlying even small villages.

I keep dancing around revealing the plot threads, though these are almost entirely just to keep track of what I’ve read. Long story short, this is a slow built complex feeling world. For such small communities, there’s a lot of tricky relations and histories to work through…

Frieda and Calvin really work as authentic characters in a world that feels realistic–a future like “another couple of years down the wrong path…” The ebb and flow of the couple’s relationship and trust also rung true. Honestly well done, though bleak.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

An excellent book set in an interesting near future. It’s the 22nd century, but the collapse of oil and ravages of engineered plagues have knocked technology way back. Carbon emissions are also a big problem, with the sea nearly drowning many cities– and having drowned several others. The setting is great; an intriguing mix of various threads of today extrapolated forward.

The characters fit the setting and are well done. Tan Hock is very sympathetic, despite also scheming and cheating– often tough to make work for me as a reader. Anderson is a good gaijin– focused on home and what success means there, tangled in the local situation but also somewhat above it. Kanya and Jaidee provide interesting takes on the Environmental Ministry, anchoring the carbon emissions and making their effect concrete. Emiko, the windup girl of the title, is wonderful– but she goes through terrible things. I know that when I recommended the book to my wife, it was with the caution that her character is horribly abused on screen– degradation is a core part of her experience.

Their interactions are sometimes surprising, sometimes seem a little contrived as they cross paths, but they show and experience a very tumultuous time in the City’s history, from very complimentary points of view. Unlike many large cast books, I never wanted to skip past a character’s experiences to get to the next.

Communal Setting Building after the Apocolypse

From the mailing list‘s Morgan Ellis:

Here’s the Con Guide Blurb:
Eons ago the world was sundered in a great cataclysm, the cause of which can never now be known. Humanity’s civilization was cast in ruins. In its place lies The Shattered Earth! A world of savagery, mutation, super science, and sorcery. But a few heroes still fight for freedom and justice against the forces of evil in a world gone mad.

Since Mike brought up my setting creation here is the way that I do it. Firstly I have sheet of a few Macro Setting Aspects that can be tagged at any time, and as usual the first one is free. Since the Shattered Earth setting is based heavily on 70s Post-Apocalyptic comic books I really want to make sure that feel comes across in play.

Shattered Earth Universal Aspects:
-Comic Book Panels
-Splash Pages
-Kirby Dots
-Catch Phrases!
-World in Ruin
-Familiar made Fantastic

I start the game with opening the Shattered Earth comic book and seeing six panels one for each of the Player Characters. I go around the table and ask What does your character look like and how are they traveling across the Wasteland of Shattered Earth? Then there is a rise in the Wasteland landscape and as they come over the rise page is turned to reveal the first part of the Setting Creation:
The Monument So I ask the players to name a Monument or Landmark that might still be around hundreds or thousands of years after the Apocalypse. I only have two caveats No Statue of Liberty, it’s been done too many times already, and has to be something that someone from this time would be likely to recognize.

So the players shout out different Monuments, and one of them starts to stand out and the players get excited about it. On my Setting Sheet I have space for two Aspects for the Monument. Once the players and I agree on the Monument I write it down on the sheet. Then for the second aspect I ask what is Post-Apocalyptic about the Monument. The players again throw out stuff and when a cool Post-Apocalyptic Aspect is agreed on then it gets written down. Presto two more Setting Aspects. Once the Monument’s been decided next up is:
The Menace Two more spaces for Aspects defining the danger that surrounds the Monument. I as the players what the Menace should be and usually it flows from the location, and post-apocalyptic nature of the Monument. For instance the Lincoln Memorial and the Swamp Delta that had flooded Washington DC, had the Pirates of the Potomac and Underground Cult as the Menace. The ready to launch Space Needle in the Emerald Jungle of Seattle, had Starbuck the Seattle Warlord and his Highly Caffeinated Super Soldiers. But it can be as simple and generic as something like Cannibal Mutant Raiders. Once the Menace has been created and the next step is:
The McGuffin This is the reason the Player Characters are traveling to the Monument and/or what they’re likely to find when they get there. Free the Slaves, learn the Teachings of a Wise Prophet, find the Solar Scepter, discover an Ancient Cache of Knowledge, or some Forgotten Technology. All of these can be one of the two McGuffin Aspects. Mainly it gives
the players something to focus on besides just beating up on the Menace.

The last six Aspects are the for the Environment and Post Apocalyptic Touches. These are Setting Aspects that help to define additional parts of the game. Environment Aspects are things like strange monsters, mutated flora and fauna, and other hazards of the Shattered Earth. While the Post-Apocalyptic Touches are all about injecting all those strange and wonderful possibilities into the setting.

Once it’s all done I’ve got a sheet of 18 Setting Aspects for that particular game of Spirit of the Shattered Earth, and the location and basic outline of a game and all the Post Apocalyptic madness I can handle. The best part is that almost of it comes straight from the players.

Followed up later with:
How do Universal Aspects work differently from regular aspects though? Are they like aspects anyone can tag or anyone can be compelled for?

Yep they’re just Aspects that anyone can tag or compel, but they’re specifically for that game and the setting rather then for a character. I leave the filled in Setting Sheet right there on the table, those aspects are free for anyone to use, then once they’ve been used I put a check next to them, after that it costs a fate point to tag them.

Probably the best way to think of them is as the Aspects for the Shattered Earth Comic Book Series and for that particular Issue or Game session. If you think of them in terms of Pulp Novels and Movies; Universal/Setting Aspects are the things that will likely show up in a given Pulp Series, and for that Novel/Movie/ etc. in particular.

For instance the Indiana Jones series might have ‘Redline Airways’ as a Setting Aspect to explain the travel sequences where a red line travels across a sepia toned map with superimposed images of various planes and other modes of travel to get the heroes from point A to far off exotic point B.