Archive for October, 2013

Traveller

It’s up there, in my little black book anyway, with Out of This World by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Star Wars, as the key SF influencers of the mid-1970s. I’m talking about the pen and paper role-playing game Traveller, a rule system that gave proto geeks some basic guidance and then let their collective imaginations soar. For its central creator, Vietnam veteran Marc Miller, it was a brave approach and one, regrettably, doomed to failure. The growing lore that developed around Dungeons and Dragons at the time generated a taste for back story within the gaming community. And so the Third Imperium was born, as were the Aslans, the Hivers and Droyne and all the other in-game races. Weapons focused on slug throwing ‘kinetic energy’ and there was no faster than light communication network – meaning each scenario was a wonderfully isolated adventure without recourse to capital ship back-up.

Some great stories also sprang up around the game system. Like the time AI computer programmer Douglas Lenat came up with a way of ‘hacking’ the game’s space combat rules during a tournament. Or when Traveller made the jump to digital via the Atari ST – oh how tantalising, oh how laborious the character creation!

Amazingly, the rule books are still in print – through Mongoose Publishing – and while we’re getting closer to the same universal complexity with video games like Mass Effect and EVE, we’re still a good light year away from the mission variance that used to be available via Traveller’s numerous supplements. Perhaps Chris Roberts’crowd funded phenomenon Star Citizen will finally provide a destination worthy of such an epic journey.

The Martian

Perhaps, like me, you’ve been laying there – in your deck chair – staring at the night sky and wondering if you’ve been getting into the fact that this has been ‘World Space Week’ or pondering, instead, whether you’ve actually had one too many sherbets?

The typical, ‘so uncool it remains uncool rather than mysteriously becoming hip’, mission dashboard for the event conveys plenty of global activity – alongside a disproportionate number of rover designs. The theme remains topical, however, using the environmental concerns of colonising Mars to highlight man-made issues within our own ecosphere.

Elsewhere, cool kids Virgin Galactic – who are just into the new space race for shits and giggles it seems (“What carbon footprint?”) – are set to become part of a reality TV show on NBC! Competitors will win a chance to fly on the company’s SpaceShip Two – after putting themselves through what we can only imagine will be a series of astronaut related humiliations.

Finally, away from Space Week, but sticking with the red planet, I’ve been hearing good things about Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s an meticulously thought through take on the Robinson Crusoe ‘what if’ approach of human ingenuity versus environment. Which, nicely, brings the post full circle. Now all we need is a tether, a space elevator, some CO2 thrusters and a process of reclaiming the atmosphere’s carbon without screwing with the laws of thermodynamics. (Lays back in deck chair, reaches for sherbert.)