content by

James Davis Nicoll

Dice, Damage, and Destiny: Five Top-Notch Superhero RPGs

Tabletop roleplaying games seem to be enjoying something of a golden age at present. So is the superhero genre—it seems impossible to channel-surf without running into some crime-fighting masked archer, gadget-wielding teen, or omnipotent extraterrestrial. It follows, therefore, that someone out there might want to cross the streams and roleplay superheroes. What superhero roleplaying games (SHRPGs) might they consider?

There are a lot of SHRPGs available. I have not played all of them, but of the ones I have sampled, here are five I would recommend, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.

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Five More Reasons Aliens Are Avoiding Planet Earth

I once pointed out to Fred Pohl that if FTL is possible and if it does (as the math says it would) facilitate time travel, then the paucity of alien visitors suggests that not only is Earth not interesting to aliens of the current era, but it is also not interesting to aliens of any era.

Pohl said that was the most depressing thing he’d ever heard. I am happy to have enriched his life.

The idea that Earth is simply not worth bothering with may seem counter-intuitive to us. However, our perspective is highly skewed by the fact that we come from Earth. Aliens may have good reason not to bother with the planet. Way back in 2021, I discussed five reasons why aliens might not have visited us. Here are five more reasons.

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Five Obscure But Interesting Publishing Experiments

As anyone who has ever had to pry bits of shattered Pyrex out of the walls can attest, experiments do not have to be successful to be interesting or worthy of attention. Publishing, for example, has seen any number of innovative ideas that for one reason or another failed to thrive. Failure does not necessarily reflect poorly on the creator—sometimes, it’s just not steam engine time. Take, for example, these five bold ventures…

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Five Hypothetical Reasons Aliens Would Bother Visiting Earth

China’s Yutu-2 rover has reportedly spotted a cube-shapedmystery hut” on the far side of the moon. No doubt the object is a hut in the same sense that Mars’ canals were canals—not at all—because like ʻOumuamua, it is almost certainly not an alien artifact. Even if it is an alien artifact, there’s no reason to think it is new. Estimates as to how long the Apollo relics on the Moon will survive thermal cycling and micrometeor bombardment range as high as one hundred million years. And for all we know, aliens build better than we do.

Still, coincidences do happen! It is fun to speculate about what might bring aliens here just now, or what Earth could possibly offer that aliens could not get more easily closer to home?

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Solving the Mystery of Turkish Delight (and Other Fantasy Anomalies)

In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Jadis the White Witch bribes Edmund Pevensie with the confection known as Turkish delight. So…where did Jadis manage to obtain Turkish delight in f*cking Narnia? It’s hard enough finding authentic Turkish delight in Canada, and at least that’s in the same universe as Turkey.

When confronted with the appearance of seemingly anomalistic phenomena in secondary fantasy words—food, technology, even figures of speech—objects and concepts that at first glance should have no place in these fantasy worlds, there are a number of possible explanations to which readers can turn.

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Five Recently Completed SFF Series

Among life’s many pleasures is that little thrill one gets on completing a project, whether it is placing the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle, sliding the final book into its assigned place on a brand-new bookcase, or polishing off some DIY bricklaying as Fortunato watches. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a pleasure often denied readers, since so many series having languished before reaching their finales. Even I have given up on hoping Cao Xueqin will ever deliver the final, full, canonical edition of The Story of the Stone. However! As memorable as the exceptions are, many authors have seen their projects through to the end. Here are five (more) recent examples of completed SFF series.

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Looking Back at Science Fiction’s Very First “Year’s Best” Anthology

One could, I imagine, construct a comfortable (but non-waterproof) bungalow out of a collection of “Best of SF” anthologies that have appeared over the decades. The names on the spines slowly evolve over time: Dozois, Hartwell, Cramer, Strahan, Horton, del Rey, Carr, Wollheim, Merril. New names appear as older established names vanish. It is a sad year that does not see at least two or three Year’s Best SF anthologies, curated by competing editors.

Still, post-Gernsbackian commercial genre SF only dates back about a century. Someone had to be the first person to assemble a Year’s Best. That someoneor rather, someones—were Everett F. Bleiler (1920–2010) & T. E. Dikty (1920–1991), who were co-editors for The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949.

This 314-page hardcover, published by Frederick Fell, with a cover by Frank McCarthy (1924–2002) collected twelve stories from 1948. It sold for $2.95, which in today’s currency is about $30.

What did the best of 1948 look like, you wonder? I am so happy you asked.

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Abandon All Hope: Five Extremely Pessimistic SF Classics

Young people nowadays have been trained by dystopian YA fiction to see the worst in every situation. They focus on the downsides of climate disruption, increasing socioeconomic stratification, and the ongoing collapse of civil liberties, and ignore any potential upsides.

Consider what a privilege it is to be among the last humans to see many species soon extinct! Imagine the tales young people of our time will be able to tell their grandchildren (were not for the fact many of them won’t have children and prospects of grandkids are even more dismal)! Why, one can even take comfort from the fact that in a million years the sum total of all human accomplishment may be recorded in an aesthetically pleasing discoloration between adjacent layers of sedimentary rock. Natural artistry!

But pessimism is nothing new, of course. Olden time SF authors were enormously pessimistic, producing works every bit as sour and gloomy as the most morose works penned by today’s authors. Don’t believe me? Here are five intensely depressing SF novels from the long, long ago. I recommend each and every one of them, if only to cast your current circumstances in a more favourable light.

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Five SFF Books in Which Valuable Is Not the Same as Powerful

Sometimes I succumb to nostalgia and look through my collection of roleplaying games from the dawn of the industry. These games were produced by companies now long forgotten and their prospects of being revived are quite remote.  Recently I looked over my edition of SPI’s Universe, whose spectacular star map I referenced in this earlier essay. I opined that SPI could have copied GDW’s gambit and used their StarSoldier/Outreach games to provide their Universe game with a more detailed future history. A savvy commenter called my attention to a worldbuilding detail in those boardgames I had either overlooked or forgotten…

[An unfortunate truth: valuable is not the same as powerful.]

Five Novel Approaches to Powering Interstellar Travel

Science fiction often assumes particular bundles of technology, even when the components of that bundle are not causally linked and might not appear at the same time. For example, authors generally assume energy-generating technology will keep pace with propulsive technology. To put this less obscurely, they assume that by the time faster-than-light drives show up, so will cheap, affordable, reliable fusion power plants. No doubt this is only partly driven by narrative convenience. We’ve been told fusion is only thirty years away for sixty years now. One can forgive authors for believing what turned out to be hopelessly optimistic predictions…although I am not sure why said authors also seem to expect fusion plants to be conveniently low mass, extremely efficient, and aneutronic.

However, some authors eschew the dream of commercial fusion (at least, of the variety that can be crammed into a spaceship hull) without abandoning the dream of interstellar travel. Not many, admittedly, but enough that five examples can be found.

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Four SFF “Best Of…” Anthologies You Might Have Missed

Even in the 1970s, when I was an avid magazine reader, it was impossible to keep up with all the publications and all the stories. I relied on annual anthologies collecting the best short SF. At the time, such projects were helmed by Wollheim, del Rey, and Carr (I was just a bit late for Merrill). Although the Best Of annuals all had the same core mission, no two editorial teams had quite the same idea what “best” might be, so I didn’t end up buying the same short story over and over. When I did, it was an indication that story was worth the reader’s attention.

These days, there are many venues for short fiction, and there enough Best Of annuals that keeping track of them can be challenging. Of course, you’re all aware of the Horton, Clarke, and Strahan annuals; here are four that may be new to you.

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Five Spellbinding Military Fantasy Novels

While skimming the news, I saw a tweet about the popularity of MILFs. I didn’t have time to read the article itself but the headline didn’t surprise me. After all, MilSF—military science fiction—is very popular within science fiction, while fantasy generally outsells SF, so it stood to reason that military fantasy books—thus, MILFs (no need to google it!)—would be popular as well.

In fact, the problem wasn’t coming up with five fantasies about war. The problem was narrowing my list down to just five.

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I Will Survive: Five Stories About Living to See Another Day

This year Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated on October 11th. American Thanksgiving will fall on November 25th. In both cases, they are glorious feasts celebrating the end of harvest season. However, the first European Thanksgiving in the New World may have been Martin Frobisher’s on May 27th, 1578. As you might guess from the date, Frobisher and his crew were not giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. They were grateful to have survived their latest quest for the Northwest Passage. And isn’t simple survival something for which to be grateful?

The characters in the following five works would no doubt agree that while survival has its challenges, it is far superior to the alternative.

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Five Cold War Novels Set in the Aftermath of Nuclear War

If there is one astonishing fact about the 20th century that will bewilder historians of the future, it is that the nations of the world, the United States of America and Russia in particular, invested trillions of dollars in nuclear weapons without putting them to serious use against the other. Yes, the United States did batter Nevada into submission with approximately a thousand nuclear detonations. Presumably the Russians did something analogous to their own subject territories. And yet, the long promised global thermonuclear war has never quite come to pass.

Nor is this weird sense of potential going unfulfilled peculiar to writers struggling to come up with enough words for a essay! Game company Fria Ligan knows this market; it has just released the 4th edition of the venerable Twilight 2000 tabletop roleplaying game (newly out today), which offers players the chance to escape to a world in which international tensions spiraled into nuclear conflict in the mid-1990s. Forget work deadlines, forget tax forms, forget worriedly checking the Covid numbers in your area! It’s much more fun to spend your time searching for a trove of faintly glowing food tins so that your character doesn’t starve before the fallout kills them.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that science fiction and thriller authors have been more than willing to provide us with the dubious wonders that could be ours, given only the resolve to press The Button . Consider these five Cold War works.

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Five Time Travel Stories Where Things Get Rather Messy

Who among us has not dreamed over getting a do-over? Perhaps this time around, one could defer the two-hour discourse on the history of stirrups until the second date, leave the nearly-red hot frying pan to cool a little longer, or at the very least, take steps to ensure that some major historical debacle never happens, changing the course of human events for the good of all. Armed with knowledge of how things played out in the original timeline, surely one could shape a more perfect history!

That’s in reality. In fiction, of course, there’s no plot if everything goes as expected. Thus, these five works about altering timelines that did not, alas, work out entirely to plan.

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