Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Map & Miniature Miscellany - Model Cities, Panoramic Maps, Polymath Maps, Fantasy Buildings, Faraway Lands, Maze City, Papa's Maze

Enormous Scale Models of Cities are Mind-Blowing and Gorgeous
Vincze Miklos

"Sometimes the only thing more awe-inspiring than a city is a massive model of the city, rendered down to the finest detail. And of course, they're to scale. Which is itself amazing."

Gorgeous Panoramic Maps Drawn Long Before Satellites Even Existed
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghen

"There was once a time when we had to imagine what our towns and cities looked like from the sky. There were famous artists who specialized in creating these panoramic views of Earth, though today, it's a lost art. They were called panoramic or aero views, each drawn by hand without help from a plane or satellite."

"The makers of these maps took the accuracy of their creations very seriously. The artist would walk through the streets of his subject, noting every detail available, from the location of trees to how many windows each building had. They would create a kind of proxy map using their notes, and only start drawing once they had a complete survey."

The Maps of an Ottoman Polymath
Public Domain Review

"The Bosnian-born polymath and all-round genius Matrakçı Nasuh is best known for his exquisite miniatures depicting various landscapes and urban centres of 16th-century Persia."

"The name Matrakci was not, in fact, his name by birth but rather a nickname referring to his invention of a kind of military lawn game called matrak, a word which means 'cudgel' or 'mace', the main weapon at the heart of the game. The name stuck, and later would come to label its very own genre in Ottoman miniature art, the 'Matrakci style', describing works echoing his penchant for detail and precision of execution."

Building Fantasy
Lucas Adams
New York Review of Books

Fantastical Cityscapes of Cardboard and Glue
Roberta Smith
New York Times

"Out of modest ingredients Kingelez creates a whole world, entirely his own. The sprawling, glittering future city is one example of an electrifying alternate civic space, a city made up of glittering skyscrapers that could easily have been crafted from stained glass. In addition to entire imaginary cities, Kingelez’s work offers an assemblage of eye-popping additions to any fantasy skyline. Each piece is riddled with decoration and ornamentation, bright pink foliage, circles and stars, and a color palette that always leans toward the bold and the vivid."

"Peering down at Kingelez’s array of visions like some benevolent Godzilla, it’s an easy leap to imagine the lives of those living and working in a cityspace that instantly feels so exuberant, and so generous. None of Kingelez’s designs feature private residences. What would it be like to live and work in a place that knows abundance and love the way Kingelez depicts it?"

Incredible Dream-Like Models of Faraway Lands
Alice Yoo
My Modern Met

Amazing Bonsai Tree Castles are Miniature Living Worlds
Lori Zimmer

"All my creation comes from my early experiences of bonsai making and maze illustration. I always got inspired from the question 'if I could be a Lilliput…' Maybe such small objects could be transformed to become a huge scale of buildings, castles, and the world itself."

"I built my career as a maze illustrator in my twenties. I got fully immersed in pushing a strong conceptual maze. From my thirties, I shifted my career from being a maze illustrator to being a concept maker for the catering trade that creates a fusion between food and entertainment. I applied my method of giving surprise and joy to people for which I cultivated in my career as a maze illustrator."

I’ve Been Developing This Maze City For 5 Years While Travelling Around The World
Bored Panda

"Rabath Jany is an ancient city in Babaria, built across the fiords of both Silvenaos and Yellow seas. It is better known as Maze city due to its complex architectural structure. I developed this painting traveling around the world during five years. The mix of different people, cultures and natural landscapes I met during my trip has deep influenced the development of the maze city. Rabath Jany is the result of such mix of cultures I met during my trips."

"Maze city is a mixture of modern and ancient technologies. Maze city’s inhabitants always used sailing ships. Otherwise, they also have a very sophisticated sky metro infrastructure with hundreds of sky lines running through all the districts."

Dad Spends 7 Years on Incredibly Detailed Maze
Spoon & Tamago

"Some people have hobbies. Other people are obsessive. But when the two cross paths, this is what you get. A Japanese twitter user recently unearthed an incredibly detailed maze that her father created almost 30 years ago. When pressed for details, the father explained that he spent 7 years creating the map."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Actual Play - Shadows of Brimstone - Contacting a Fallen Fortress

Kitsune - 1st level - played by Emily
Courtesan - 1st level - played by me

Session 1
Somewhere in the hinterlands of feudal Edo-period Japan, a meteorite made of mysterious dark stone has landed in the nearby mountains. The stone can be forged into weapons and used to perform magic, but it seems to have opened a door to monsters once believed mythical, and prolonged exposure slowly warps its users. Society in this localized region has all but collapsed into chaos. Landowning families have largely retreated into their hereditary fortresses, and the countryside is filled with soldiers and criminals, all traveling in search of opportunity, gold, and dark stone.

Two companions set off on an adventure of their own - the Kitsune, a fox spirit and former guardian of a Water Temple, and the Courtesan, a skilled entertainer bearing a personal letter from the Emperor, thanking her for the afternoon she participated in a tea ceremony at the Imperial Palace, that she hoped would help keep the pair safe on the road. They first set off to investigate a fortress that had gone dark, its fields abandoned, its lanterns left unlit.

The pair entered the fortress, with the Kitsune carrying their lantern to try to hold back the darkness. Courtesan peeked into the next room. Kitsune began searching for evidence of whatever crime had befallen the place. She found a small purse of coins ... and bloodstains and a fleeting shadow that unsettled her. She drew out her ornate comb to smooth her fur and sooth her nerves.

They passed into a dojo, the floor covered with scattered salt. The cubbyholes along the walls were filled with smashed salt blocks, buckets of the stuff were overturned. All of it was mixed with dirt and sand, useless to try to collect. As the pair stooped down though, the moonlight coming in through a hole in the roof was broken up by the shadows of a flock of tengu flying overhead. Fortunately, the flock flew on without landing.

In the next room the far wall was half-filled by a massive statue of some religious icon, a large man that neither of them recognized. The Courtesan had never been a religious woman, and the Kitsune was only familiar with her fellow spirits. As they crossed the room, the shadows seemed to twist with malevolence. While they watched those, they were somehow ambushed by an enormous slug that towered over both of them. The slug reared over them, its thick coat of slime and mucus dripping onto them, but the Courtesan's hidden dagger and Kitsune's kama knives quickly ended its life. Kitsune lamented that no salt had been recovered to use against the pest. Searching the room afterward, Courtesan found dark stone, and Kitsune found a magical Ring of the Yamabushi, which she placed on her finger.

They continued down a hallway where the ceiling collapsed onto them. Kitsune dodged out of the way, but Courtesan was showered with debris, and needed to pause to bandage her wounds. They passed through another hall and into a courtyard where a curse was painted on the floor. An undead goryo, dressed and painted like a kabuki actor snuck out of the shadows and ambushed them. This fight was harder, but the Kitsune's blades struck true, shredding the creature's costume and sending it back to the underworld. In this room Kitsune found dark stone and the Courtesan located a bag of gold dust.

After the fight, the Courtesan was briefly possessed by an angry spirit, cursing the brutal end of its too-short life. Kitsune brought out her ornate comb, and ran it through her friend's hair while speaking words of comfort and encouragement. "There there," she said, patting Courtesan twice on the shoulder, "there there." They both felt a growing sense of dread as the ominous circumstances began to weigh on them.

They next entered a garden courtyard. It was decorated for a party. At last! A clue to show the pair that they getting closer to learning the fate of the palace's inhabitants! Kitsune's quick eyes spotted a secret passage in the wall, but the pair declined to enter it. She also found a pot of soup, somehow still simmering over hot coals. They each ate a small bowl and felt refreshed. Whatever had happened to the residents, it wasn't poison.

The fortress echoed with hideous laughter as they passed into the next room, another training dojo. In the far corner, they spotted a statue of a temple dog come to life and fought against it on mats meant only for practice and trial combat. The stone statue shrugged off most blows, but Kitsune used water magic to deflect one of its own attacks back on itself, turning the tide of battle. Hidden in the dojo, Kitsune found a Yambushi's charm, and Courtesan located a few ingots of gold.

At last they entered the palace's audience chamber. They realized that the fortress's residents must somehow have tried to contact the denizens of an Other World. Every creature the pair had encountered so far came from the Forest of the Dead, a decaying and mist-filled afterlife. A demonic brand burst into flames on the floor, and three crowds of swirling ghosts poured through the gaps in the hastily boarded-up back door. So this was the fate of the fortress's inhabitants! Either slain by spirits or become them. Rather than risk fighting on the burning floor, Kitsune and Courtesan lured the spirits back into the dojo. They were outnumbered and outmatched, with the ghosts seeming to draw strength from the pair's own cunning and spirituality. Although they banished one angry horde of ghosts, the other two knocked the Courtesan unconscious and cast her aside. The Kitsune's water magic helped her hold out a while longer, but soon she too succumbed to the darkness.

When the pair awoke, the spirits were gone. The fortress was still ruined, but now empty. The Kitsune's leg was injured, and the Courtesan's collarbone ached. Both felt corrupted by the unsettling evil that permeated the place. They resolved to travel to a feudal village to seek medical help, and perhaps hire some assistants, before setting out on their next adventure.

Experience - Kitsune 645 XP, Cortesan 425 XP
Gold - Kitsune 25 gp, Courtesan 400 gp
Dark Stone - Kitsune 3 dark stone, Courtesan 1 dark stone
Treasure - Kitsune found Ring of the Yamabushi artifact and Yamabushi Charm gear.

Kitsune and Courtesan were both knocked out and injured.
Because the final spirits were not defeated and no survivors were rescued, the mission was a failure.

I've played a different version of Shadows of Brimstone before with another friend, but this was my first time as the more experienced player guiding a novice through the game. Technically, Shadows has no game master or referee, but I took responsibility for knowing the rules a little better. Since I often run D&D for relatively novice players, this wasn't such an unfamiliar situation for me to be in. I did make a couple mistakes which I'll correct next time, but overall, I thought it went well - even though we got TPKed at the end.

The gameplay in Shadows is mostly cooperative, but the acquisition of stuff is competitive. Searching a room outside of combat is a solo activity, and the searcher gets to keep whatever they find. After a battle, all players get loot, but again, it's random and individualized. Experience awards come from simply hitting monsters size Large or larger, but only from delivering the killing blow for smaller enemies. Other ways to gain XP include searching rooms, healing others characters' injuries, and casting magic spells. Among the things that account for our uneven XP awards, Emily's character staying alive for another couple rounds of combat netted her quite a bit of experience, even though she was unable to survive the ghosts.

This is a game that requires a lot of pre-play preparation in terms of punching out cardboard tokens; cutting out, assembling, and gluing plastic minifigures; and sleeving and sorting all the cards that come with. The benefit of all that is that it's very good looking, and card draws replace a lot of what would random table rolls in D&D, which both lets the game run without a GM, and probably facilitates the individualized treasure and experience point awards.

What you give up is some of the opportunity for playing the role of your character, and some of the tactical freedom to address the various tableaus you encounter. Simply ignoring whatever it is generally is not an option.

The fact that all the monsters came from the Forest of the Dead was a total coincidence, but it helped create a slightly coherent narrative out of the evening's events, and it suggests that for this campaign, we might focus on the Forest as our primary Other World-ly adversary. The ghosts were a particular bit of bad luck. Some of their combat stats are based on your characters' skills, and ours had high values in just the right places to tip this fight from difficult to impossible. If we are going to fight these things again, we'll need better weapons, and maybe an expendable hireling to help out.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

d666 "Powers Checks" for Raveloft

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque recently posted a critique of "powers checks" in Ravenloft. Jack describes the premise of a powers check, then listed his two key complaints.

"The idea behind the powers check mechanic is committing evil acts triggers rolls to see if your character is warped by the powers of darkness until they ultimately become a villainous NPC. Along the way, a character gains strange powers and finds their body and mind twisted and corrupted."

"The mechanic mostly serves the purpose of enforcing 2e AD&D's sense of morality. The Realm of Terror box set is explicitly clear that powers checks are intended to make players play the game the right way. You can almost hear the beleaguered sigh of the camp counselor as they tell you kids to knock it off or nobody will be allowed to go swimming after lunch."

"If a player wants to lean into the idea that their character has become tempted by evil or corrupted by darkness, the mechanic punishes them for playing in that mode by eventually taking their character away. The road down into the abyss also has a tendency to cripple your character in one way or another."

After reading that, it occurred to me that I'd accidentally introduced a powers check into a game I'm refereeing. In a recent session of my Wizard City campaign, my players found a badass Hell Gun that's supposed to immediately send the gun's target to Hell (and condemn the gun's user to go there after they die too). I loved this idea, but it seemed kind of disproportionately strong compared to the other capabilities of a GLOG character, so I added one more stipulation, a 1-in-136 chance that the gun's user is dragged down to Hell immediately.

The boring way to describe this is to say that the player had to roll 3d6, and their character would be killed on an 18 ... but the cool way to describe it to say that they had to roll a d666 and would be doomed on 666. I assume the original Ravenloft powers check was also something boring like a d100 roll.

So let's convert my impromptu mechanic into a full on powers check by adding two other possible results. Let's also give it a better name, like the Hell Roll, or something. Any time a character invokes a dark power, the player must roll three 6-sided dice:
- on a 6, the character gains a new dark power
- on a 66, the character is corrupted by the dark power
- on a 666, the character either dies instantly or becomes a servant of the dark power

That seems cool, but the nature of Jack's critique wasn't really that d100 rolls are a thematically boring way to represent the exciting danger of using Hell powers. His first point is that he thinks the check is used to force the players to make their characters act like heroes by punishing them if they try to do anything villainous. His second is that instead of cultivating morally-ambiguous heroes who are tempted by the seductive power of the Dark Side, the "powers check" mechanic discourages you from flirting with supernatural evil by making it feel too risky.

To address Jack's first critique, we need to rethink when to make a powers check or Hell Roll, or whatever. In Ravenloft, it sounds like you have to make a powers check when you perform evil deeds like killing people and taking their stuff, which in previous versions of D&D was treated as ... playing D&D. (Sometimes it almost feels like we shouldn't look for moral guidance from a game where you portray murderers, burglars, robbers, and thieves?)

But I would argue that this kind of mechanic is much better if we don't attach it to notions of sin, and instead attach it to ideas about contamination or taint. Without going too deep into theology or philosophy, I think we can draw a distinction between a mechanic that makes it dangerous to perform evil actions and a mechanic that makes it dangerous to get in too close proximity to evil objects.
We can imagine sin as something that accumulates when people perform certain acts. Two notable features of sin are that it can be repented and forgiven, and that it only accrues based on what you do, not the tools you use to do it. This makes it a poor fit for this game mechanic for a few reasons.

A sin mechanic doesn't put much constraint on player actions if they can remove it at will by claiming that their characters feel genuinely sorry and are prepared to spend their next downtime action praying. (Especially if your received ideas about sin come from a version of Christianity in which it's enough for forgiveness to come from God, even if the victims of your actions won't - or, because they're dead, can't - forgive you.)

A sin mechanic also appears to punish players for the very same actions that other game mechanics reward them for. This in turn calls for an explanation of why the same actions are only sometimes sinful. I suppose you could put your players in a position where they're doing bad things to bad people for good reasons, and where shouldering the weight of the sin that comes along with doing that is just part of their heroic burden ... but that's not really how Ravenloft used the mechanic. Claiming that doing bad things for good reasons accrues no sin is troubling in its own way though. Trying to justify why killing this type of sentient creature is a sin that requires forgiveness, but killing that kind of sentient creature is a righteous action that pleases the divine starts you walking down a mental path that leads somewhere very ugly very quickly.

Suppose though, that we feel satisfied that this monster really is evil. It does bad things to innocent people, and will continue doing so unless we kill it. Slaying this particular monster is an unambiguously good act. Great! So then why would it be sinful to bite the monster with vampire fangs, or slash it with werewolf claws, or shoot it with a Hell Gun? Maybe others won't see a conflict here, but the version of Christianity that I was exposed to as a child seemed to be filled of stories about how a person with a pure heart can't be made unclean by evil. The evil deeds of others might harm your body, but they can't sully your soul, only their own. If impaling Dracula is good, why should I accrue sin points if I stab him with Jack the Ripper's scalpel rather than a knife that came from my kitchen drawer?

For gaming purposes, if player characters are going to roll dice to avoid being dragged down by supernatural evil, I think it's better to imagine it as a kind of spiritual pollution, or radiation, or poison. For gaming, I think it's better to imagine contamination rather than sin. This kind of evil is like a toxic substance, and it gets on you just by coming near it, moreso if you handle it or use it.

You get contaminated or corrupted by wielding evil weapons, using evil super powers, casting evil spells, reading evil books, invoking evil spirits. Basically, if you could imagine replacing the word "evil" with "radioactive" and have everything still make sense, it's probably okay to roll some dice to try to avoid it.

In fairness, I think this is already the most common way that the risk of being consumed by evil gets used in gaming, aside, apparently, from Ravenloft. Changing the conditions under which player characters accumulate corruption points makes them far more palatable to award during the game.

I would add one final condition as well - players only make powers checks as the result of voluntary decisions. You don't need to roll the dice because a vampire bit you or a werewolf scratched you. That gives you a power, but doesn't put your character's soul at risk. It's only when you use that power yourself that you risk contamination.

(The real-world implications of either of these perspectives on evil can be quite troubling, depending on the situation they're applied to. Imagining that some inner purity or righteousness absolves them of blame for the harm caused by groups that they're members of or benefit from, allows a lot of people to ignore that harm and even contribute to it - in a way that they might not if they perceived themselves as tainted despite their ignorance or good intentions. Similarly, if we apply the logic of contamination to almost any form of abuse, we arrive almost immediately at a very ugly form of victim-blaming. Frankly, this has been quite a lot more thinking about the nature of evil than I really intended to embark on at the start.)

Jack's second critique of the powers check is that it serves to restrict player choices in a couple of undesirable ways. For one thing, it's an attempt to enforce a particular play style using an in-game rule when some sort of outside-the-game mechanism would be better. If you'd prefer to pretend to be dissolute grifters and ne'er-do-wells rather than heroic monster-slaying world-savers, then, idk, maybe don't play the game that says it's about slaying monsters right there on the box? And if your players want to pretend to kill animals and torture villagers for fun, you don't need a game rule to stop them, you need new players, and quite possibly to question the life choices that led you to sit down at a table with that last batch.

The other potential problem is that the powers check might discourage a character behavior you want to encourage - namely pretending to be the brooding sort of hero who fights monsters so long that they begin to risk becoming a monster themselves.

This trope has two components. The first is a kind of evil that it's tempting to give in to. The second is some motivation to resist that temptation. The first component should be supplied by evil powers that are really cool, and substantially more powerful than the available non-damning options. Like, you're not going to use Blackbeard's accursed single-shot matchlock pistol if you've got a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun as part of your starting equipment. You might risk your soul though, if there was a dracolich bearing down on you and those power levels were reversed.

Some of the motivation to resist temptation can be supplied by the players themselves. Again, genre buy-in is important here. Otherwise you might end up with a party of Bella Swans eagerly flinging themselves beneath the fangs of the nearest Edward Cullen, because they want nothing more than to be transformed into a beautiful superpowered monster with no discernible failings. Which could be fun, though characters with an unbridled enthusiasm for condemnation rather miss the mark if we were aiming for brooding or angst.

But even if your players are self-motivated to avoid transforming into full-on monsters, if you want them to use these powers some but not too much, then you probably need to define what "too much" means. But you probably also want the players to feel a little uncertain about where the line is drawn. You don't want them striding confidently up to it without fear of overstepping, you want them to worry that every step might be the one that carries them too far. Which means you need a dice-rolling mechanic. (Well, maybe not NEED exactly, but there's certainly a place for one.)

Offering the players cool superpowers that carry a chance of self-destruction creates a kind of resource management mini-game of risk and reward. The possibility that using your power grants you other risky powers serves to amplify the temptation. The possibility of partial disfigurement serves as a warning sign along the road to damnation. You want to use these powers, but every time you do might be your last. If your regular weapons aren't enough, the only way to kill the monster might cost you your soul. So roll that d666!

Friday, June 19, 2020

Three Books for the Times (April / May 2020) - A Deepness in the Sky, The City & The City, A Song for a New Day

Note: I thought about these books as I thought about the pandemic over the course of a few months, then wrote them up in a few weeks. And because those few weeks coincided with the rise of a new civil rights movement, my list already feels outdated, like it belongs to a different era.

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

Vinge's novel follows a human society, apparently at least somewhat culturally descended from Han China, that exists as a fleet of spaceships. The Queng Ho are traders. They travel the human-settled parts of the galaxy at sub-light speeds, using long intervals of cryogenic hibernation to allow individual members to piece together a hundred-year lifespan over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years of galactic history.

The Queng Ho see themselves as preservers of human culture. They are too small, with too few people, to train the really large number of specialists needed to create new technology - only a planetary society can do that. But planetary societies rise, collapse, and have to be rebuilt, and the traveling Queng Ho fleet is able to "restock" a rebuilding society with forgotten languages and technologies. Near the beginning of the novel, the Queng Ho gather to try to prevent a society from collapsing.

I actually forget what disaster befell the society, but a point novel raises is that it almost doesn't matter what the disaster is. The planetary society is incredibly advanced, but also incredibly efficient - which in turn makes it incredibly fragile. Everything is made just-in-time, everything is used, nothing wasted - which means there's nothing extra or spare, nothing redundant, nothing resilient. Any disaster that disrupts production will interrupt distribution and result in shortages and privation.

This incident doesn't take up that much of Vinge's novel, but I keep thinking of that when I see empty shelves at the drug store and grocery, when I see that basic supplies like paper masks and rubbing alcohol are still unavailable, that toilet paper and acetaminophen are rationed and in short supply. On the global scale, there's no such thing as "the right amount" - our choice is between "too much" which will lead to wasting the excess, "not enough" which will lead some to some people having to do without (and if the thing being done without is necessary for being alive, then "not enough" will lead to some people dying). Ironically, we live in a world where we both produce "too much" of many necessary things, and where people die from having to do without them, because we live under a system where people don't have a right to things, they only have the right to buy things, if they can afford them.

A portion of the Queng Ho fleet goes to investigate the "On-Off Star", which is a stellar anomaly that burns normally for hundreds of years, then goes cold and dark for hundreds, then reignites, etc. They are met by "the Emergents," a fleet launched by an authoritarian human government that collapsed due to a terrible pandemic, then rebuilt using the Queng Ho cultural broadcasts, but also rebuilt terribly unequal and cruel. While rebuilding, they eventually tamed the illness that destroyed them.

The Emergents ask for diplomacy, and deliberately infect the Queng Ho with their pet disease, then launch a nuclear first strike hoping to wipe them out. A handful of Queng Ho discover the plan in time to fight back, but aren't able to share the news widely. Both fleets take such heavy losses that the only way they can survive is by merging. The Emergents rule the merged fleet, and the surviving Queng Ho are subordinated under the excuse that they launched the unprovoked attack.

The fleet orbits the On-Off Star waiting for it to reignite. Everyone works in shifts involving long stretches of hibernation. Well, almost everyone. The Emergents put some Queng Ho to work creating decorations. They work some people to death, using up their entire lifespans doing unnecessary labor while the others slept. Others are infected with a modified version of the pet virus, which causes neurological changes that leads them to obsessively focus on a singular are of interest - and the Emergents are able to guide the area of focus so that their enslaved workers spend every waking moment obsessively thinking about the work their slavers assigned them.

The way the Emergents talk about these focused workers reminds me of the way Silicon Valley bosses talk about the long hours of overtime their programmers supposedly happily volunteer for. The treatment of the workers given a death sentence so they can carve frescoes remind me of the risks that food service, health care, and beauty industry workers are being asked to take for everyone else's benefit. The Emergents are tyrants who pretend to be victims, who treat all other groups as subhuman, who use propaganda to reject the legitimacy of others' desire for self-governance, who treat all criticism and dissent as a crime, who abuse workers, and who spread disease to others because they believe themselves to be immune. It's hard not to see parallels between them and certain aspects of contemporary American politics.

Aliens live on a single planet orbiting the On-Off Star. Their civilization is somewhat analogous to the Earth during WWII, both in terms of their technology level, and because their world is divided between two main factions. The aliens hibernate underground while their star is dark; they spend the last years for hibernation jockeying for position, each side trying to stay awake and keep their economy and war effort running just a little longer than the other. Again, this reminds me of the way states and countries seem to be vying to keep people at work, regardless of the risk, longer than the others. The multiple parallels make this the book I've kept thinking back on the most.

The City and the City by China Mieville

I've said before that we live in an era that sometimes feels unreal, that feels as though it's can't, or shouldn't, be real. To that, the pandemic has added the feeling of existing alongside other people who live in another reality entirely.

Because of my race, my gender, my age, my income, my education, where I work, what kind of work I do, who I interact with, who I know, who I'm friends with - I live in a world where we fear the pandemic and are social distancing to the maximum extent possible. We also have the luxury and the privilege of working from home, neither furloughed, fired, nor forced to go into an unsafe workplace.

I and almost everyone I interact with, we stay home as much as possible, go to work only when required, go shopping only when necessary, take exercise at odd hours and in bad weather in the hopes of not running into anyone. We interact only virtually. We cancel plans, and keep canceling, as the timeline when we think we can meet again safely keeps receding farther into the future. We skip visits, let our pantries go bare. We do without. We wear masks. We fear not only catching the virus, but spreading it to others. At any moment, I could be sick and not know it.

And yet when we do go out, it's as though the world has split in two. In this store, the other customers wear masks, walk quickly, stand far apart, just as I do. In that store, the walk slowly, touch items and set them back, they talk loudly about how they aren't afraid, how the virus is harmless, perhaps imaginary. They approach me easily, while I feel forced to skitter away as though by magnetic repulsion. In this store, the workers wear masks too, wipe surfaces with disinfectant, stand as far from me as they're able. In that store, the workers wear their masks like necklaces, chitchat with me as they ring up my purchase.

Mieville's story is pure social science fiction. He presents a reality that isn't real, but could be. It requires not different biology or different physics, just different beliefs, following the same rules that turn real beliefs into social reality. The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma are separate because their residents believe them to be separate, and act on those beliefs in a way that makes them real. It's the same way that the townspeople in Lars and the Real Girl treat the doll Bianca as a fellow citizen with an active social life, and in doing so, bring her to life, socially. For as long as the others treat her a living, Bianca occupies the same position as any other townsperson.

Beszel and Ul Quoma occupy the same physical space, but the citizens of each city refuse to see the people and places of the other. In a segregated neighborhood, that's easy, since there's no one there to see; in an integrated neighborhoods, it depends on a practiced eye for un-seeing that the citizens train themselves in over time.

Yes, it's a metaphor made literal - for the way every city is two cities or more, segregated by race and class, full of people who have learned to un-see each other so thoroughly that they do it unconsciously - but Mieville avoids making too-simplistic or too-obvious equivalencies. The comparison more convincing precisely because you have to notice it yourself.

There's a murder-mystery afoot, there's the bureaucracy of border-crossing, there are rumors of a fabled third city that is un-seen by citizens of both Beszel and Ul Quoma who both assume it belongs to their neighbor, and after reaching peak speculation, there's a conclusion that feels realistic by comparison for being relatively prosaic. The real draw here is Mieville's bravura description of the two cities, and his excellent narration of the process of un-seeing.

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

Pinsker's novel follows two people, a punk musician living through a moment of rapid and profound social change, and a music fan living after the change has become permanent. The musician comes from our world before the pandemic, from the "normal" we all want to return to. She's on tour when a series of terrorist attacks happening in public places in rapid succession lead to a shutdown of all large gatherings of people - movies, sporting events, concerts. The shutdown happens on short notice, in response to an acute emergency, but then it stretches on, and on, and then it becomes permanent. The music fan comes from farther in the future, from a world like ours could become if our shutdown becomes permanent, if it becomes our "new normal."

Pinsker must have written this book in 2018 or early 2019; it was published in the fall just before the novel coronavirus first appeared. She couldn't possibly have known that coronavirus was coming. She was probably thinking about America's mass shootings, perhaps especially the one in Las Vegas, where a man with a sniper rifle in his hotel room opened fire on a crowd attending an outdoor concert. Her premise in brilliant in its elegance and simplicity. How many shootings like that one would it take before we stopped having outdoor concerts altogether? Before we stopped watching live sports, stopped going to movies?

I left my workplace at the end of a shift, expecting to come back after the weekend. I haven't been back since. At first we were told we'd be out for a few weeks, then for a few months. We're making plans to reopen soon, but we've been warned that we might be required to shut down again on very short notice. No one wants to speak aloud exactly what turn of events would require us have to do that. I'm fortunate. Others have left their workplaces and will never return, other workplaces are no longer there to be returned to. I worry about Pinsker's novel. I worry it will come true.

The music fan in Pinsker's novel grew up after the shutdown. She grew up in a world where people staying at home and never gathering in large groups in person is "normal" and "natural" and unremarkable. She listens to her mother's stories about being in crowds the way we would watch a movie scene where someone fills up their care with leaded gasoline, doesn't buckle a seatbelt, and swigs from a flask of liquor while chatting with a pregnant passenger who's chain smoking and taking "mommy's little helper" pills, on their way to a job at the asbestos factory, and no one is watching the road.

Eventually Pinsker links the two story threads back together. All her life, the music fan has attended virtual concerts, digital concerts, but learns about an underground scene of punks playing illegal live shows with audiences larger than those permitted by law. One of those punks, of course, is the original musician. When I first heard about this book, I expected to feel sympathy for the people trying to rebuild a society where we spend time in groups and crowds.

And in a way, I do sympathize. I also want to be around people again. I also miss eating out at my favorite restaurants, browsing at the bookstore, reading in a coffee shop, playing boardgames with friends, enjoying a slow drink at the bar. I also want to return to "normal." But more than I want that, I want it to be safe first. And so my sympathy is tempered with fear and trepidation. And a worry that Pinsker is right. I worry that when it is safe, that I'll still be afraid, permanently agoraphobic, or that I'll be so used to staying in that the idea of going out in a crowd no longer occurs to me, or that there will no longer be such things as crowds to go out into.