My third Alternity novel set in the Star*Drive universe is Zero Point, but Richard Baker. It is better written than Gridrunner, the book that preceded it, but it shares a number of unfortunate similarities that aren’t to its benefit.
In Zero Point, bounty hunter Peter Sokolov snatches his mark Geille Monashi to bring back to Pict territory on Penates. But they have to make a blind hyperjump and come across a previously unknown alien ship. They are then caught in a feeding frenzy of those who want to exploit it…
I found this book especially interesting because in our Lighthouse campaign, we have actually met and allied with these aliens, the warlike Medurr (or “draco-centaurs” as we like to call them). They keep all kinds of slave races and have a kind of infinite energy drive (“zero point”) that makes all kinds of brute force tech possible. Also, Sokolov is cybered up and you get to see that at work (clearly using the game rules for it). The novel also reveals a lot more about AIs in the setting than previous novels; Sokolov’s ship has an onboard AI named Peri that is a secondary character. For all the alleged hacking in the previous novel, this one has a lot more rubber-hits-the-road examples of hacking ship computers, AIs, and Sokolov’s onboard nanocomputer.
However, I also found it somewhat tiring because of the relationship between the leads – it was weak in general but was more annoying because it was the exact same dynamic as in Gridrunner. Powerful man captures skilled woman, falls for her for no good reason, they bang, then they alternately betray and/or bail each other out in turn for the rest of the novel. It’s a little obnoxious once, and a back-to-back dose of it was doubly so. I mean, I know that when I abduct women they always fall in love with me, but who else could be so gifted? Plus, Sokolov spends an awful lot of time as a prisoner (like half the novel) – good for character interaction and explication purposes, I guess, but it becomes tiresome.
The book was better written than the previous two, though, and besides the aliens and cyber you get to see a variety of Star*Drive cultures at work – more about Lucullus/Penates, the Union of Sol, megacorps, space pirates… Very helpful for players and GMs of Alternity Star*Drive to get a feel for the setting.
The second in my stash of Alternity Star*Drive books, Gridrunner, details the exploits of Lazarus, a CIB man (space cop), and his prisoner-cum-love interest Sable. She is of course a misunderstood soul who has been forced into the life of a criminal courier by a bad man who has her brother prisoner. “Gridrunner” is the Star*Drive term for a decker/cyberspace hacker. They perform various undercover work in Port Royal, on the criminal-run planet of Penates in the Lucullus system. We spent a lot of time there in our campaign dicking with the Jamaican Syndicate and Picts and other colorful characters.
This novel is a mixed bag. It’s reasonably engaging, but in the middle there’s this 50 page long heist/Mission Impossible intrusion sequence that gets really boring. From a RPG point of view I guess you could mine it for ideas on how to run a scene like that with plenty of technical work and skill checks, but it would still be a bit long for that. The love interest between Lazarus and Sable develops somewhat artificially and is of the “oh I am making career- and/or life-risking decisions because of this broad I met a day ago” type.
The descriptions of Gridrunning are pretty interesting, I can’t help but think “Second Life,” which is fair enough since this was written way before SL came out. It’s a pretty typical Snow Crash kind of setup, with people’s “shadows” in a VR world.
I was a little surprised at the (mild) rape/torture content – I don’t mind it, but usually WotC type stuff is pretty tame. So far between this and Two of Minds the Star*Drive universe is portrayed as pretty darn gritty.
On a personal gaming level, the most interesting part was the description of the Corner, a bar on the space station Lighthouse – my warlion character in our Alternity campaign owns the place.
All in all, this was OK and helped flesh out the milieu (especially Penates, the Lighthouse, and Gridrunning), though the 50 page thievery scene definitely forced me to start skimming for a span.
I was looking through my bookshelf and realized that I own five, count them, five old Alternity novels! As I’ve been playing in Paul’s Alternity campaign for more than two years now, I thought it was high time to root them out and read through them!
The first is Two of Minds, by William H. Keith, Jr. The story features Spacer, a tunnel rat living on the crappy Total Recall-esque mining colony of Lison, who wants a bigger life among the stars. A guy he’s conning gets wasted by VoidCorp (evil megacorp) agents and next thing you know he’s joined up with a typical adventuring party and is headed for the planet of Storm to interface with freaky aliens and get shot at by VoidCorp.
It’s decently written, though a couple times I wished the writing “grade level” was a couple higher. The plot keeps on moving and the characters manage to be just a smidge more interesting than they are flat. They have a couple more main characters than the writer can handle well. Although I was entertained by the Rigunmor guy who basically did nothing but occasionally be a jerk until he sacrificed himself to help everyone in the end – mainly because that’s how Bruce’s Rigunmor character in our campaign is.
Really the main point of interest is how Spacer uses a “holotarot” (space tarot) deck his grammama gave him to interpret and predict events, something the fraal (Grey psychic alien) in the group posits is linked to a latent kind of psychic power. I found it inspiring for Pathfinder games as well, where Harrow (fantasy tarot) decks and use thereof play a big part in the world of Golarion.
It’s also pretty good for inspiration for plots about exploring hostile planets and meeting new aliens in a discovery-oriented campaign. The aliens in Two of Minds are very alien and it definitely reveals the setting as being one where there are some pretty cosmic-scale weird things.
The novel does do a pretty good job of establishing a “look and feel” of the Verge, which is helpful for Alternity Star*Drive players. I would call it cinematically gritty – the Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall is probably the best comparison. The book is an average sci-fi popcorn read in general, but to an Alternity player is definitely worth reading.