Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches (Game Reviews)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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My partner Katy’s made a great many board game trades recently. All the T.I.M.E. Stories are gone (!), but as I have a review of them coming out elsewhere soon, I shan’t talk about them here. Instead, gather ’round to hear the tale of how we ditched Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches.

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PUERTO RICO

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How could we get rid of such an august pillar of Eurogaming? Fairly easily, as it happens. I never wanted to actually play Puerto Rico. I had a positive aversion to the game, and would only participate if someone else in the party really wanted to. Katy thought for a good long while that this meant I hated ‘role selection’ games generally. I think that actually I just find Puerto Rico especially tedious.

I’m finding it hard to identify why Puerto Rico was mechanically such a drag, because I haven’t opened the box in ages–in fact I last played it when we were only somewhat into gaming. Perhaps this means that I should have given it another go, but honestly I wasn’t eager enough to do so to overcome Katy’s manic urge to pack a game the instant a trade’s accepted. Puerto Rico also isn’t considered a good two-player game. We didn’t have the Official two-player version, and you have to jury-rig a sub-optimal variant. Thus it’s not great for our two-person household.

Puerto Rico‘s art’s acceptable, and its components are fine as far as quality goes, but I’m never over the fact that the basic game concept is plantation slavery, and no one thinks that’s weird. That is weird. Calling the black-person-coloured little tokens ‘colonists’ (…) can’t really sufficiently abstract the game from its obvious historical inspiration, especially when you’re directing your ‘colonists’ to do all the productive actions of slave labour. That’s basically necessary in order for you to play. The game thus positions the player as historic overseer and omnipotent controller of fully-objectified workers rather than as participant.

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They could have TRIED, you know? The colour of the tokens could have been green or blue rather than mahogany. ‘Puerto Rico’ could have been a historical location associated with colonists rather than slaves, or it could have been an invented fantastic location. The game’s available, necessary actions could have elided options like ‘work this plantation for me’. The underlying mechanics of colonialism might still have been at work (and ‘Eurogaming as a collection of colonial tropes and engines’ needs interrogated and deconstructed in its own right), but active racism might thus be thwarted.

Of course a racist male relative made a meeeeeal of this when we played because he’s the type of guy who thinks it’s funny to ‘get my goat’. This made the creepy content not just ‘Erin being over-sensitive’, but skin-crawlingly inescapable. Sure, it’s just a game. But I’m not keen on the idea of ‘Holocaust Monopoly’ either?

I do think the conceptual underpinnings made me less willing to engage with an otherwise loosely themed and mechanically ‘basic’ game. I don’t see Puerto Rico as all that similar to Race for the Galaxy, one of my all-time favs. I know they share a developmental lineage, but to me, that’s evidence that Puerto Rico was a key evolutionary building-block we’ve now rather moved beyond.

A friend was shocked that a game this tone-deaf/racist came out in 2002, and that that’s not *the thing* people say about Puerto Rico, which is, let me remind you, *the 12th most popular game on BGG*. Guess that’s what happens when a hobby’s pretty white&male, not self-reflexive and doesn’t give many fucks about inclusion?

As board gaming expands as a hobby, gaining more of a foothold in a broad base of casual players (exactly the sort of people who’ll be introduced to Puerto Rico as a classic game), this is really the kind of thing we’ve got to start critically examining. Are you going to comfortably teach Puerto Rico to your black friend who’s come to the game cafe to hang out with you and maybe get into this? If not, are you then comfortable playing it in her absence?

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POWER GRID

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I struggle to see Power Grid as a Eurogame, really. To me it feels like a representative of the better class of ‘standard American board games’. I almost want to pop Ticket to Ride and Turn and Taxis, both of which I like better, in that category as well.

The theme is well-integrated, and while there’s nothing terribly objectionable about providing Germany with a better power infrastructure than your competitors (other than a demonstration of the massive logistical waste endemic to capitalist competition, I guess), there’s nothing terrible compelling about it either. The resource competition mechanism annoys me a little. I don’t tend to like petty, in-game push-pull shit with other players all that much. I’m fine with competing on a larger scale, but squabbling over resources is kind of distasteful. At ‘about 120 min’ (per BGG), Power Grid is rather long for what it is. It drags somewhat, and there’s not all that much to do in terms of making choices. The box is huge, and as shelf space is a finite commodity, that’s not a plus.

I don’t really know how Power Grid‘s ranked 23rd, other than that it’s not that difficult, so a lot of people must play it and then rank it highly? I suppose it’s a decent intro to more complex gaming and thus has a place in the ‘gaming lifecycle’. Peoples’ interests get more developed and specialised as they get more into gaming, and they get better at games generally. What initially seemed difficult and absorbing might now amount to two hours of going through the motions. Katy also changed her mind about gaming and themes some time after we bought Power Grid, and started to hunger for games with more enticing subject matter. We didn’t play Power Grid that much after we started to find games better suited to our particular developing palates, and I’d be a little surprised if people who’ve gotten deeper into the hobby find themselves turning to it all that often, except as newbie ‘seduction’ fare.

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DIXIT

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People in board gaming have the lowest art standards, I swear to god. Everyone raves about Dixit‘s cards and they’re… fine? You know, a bit fun. Sort of hotel paintingy, but you could almost see some of them on the cover of a mediocre collection of Angela Carter reprints.

Dixit has a simple mechanic. People have hands of cards with mysterious semi-surrealist paintings on them. They go in turns to say a clue, which they hope will lead one and only one other person to guess their card correctly. Everyone else then chooses and lays down one of their cards, and everyone tries to guess the ‘correct’ card that inspired the initial clue. Points are awarded to the clue-giver for having one person guess, and not awarded for garnering either no correct responses or too many. Other players whose contributions fool people into thinking their submission was the one the clue related to receive points. Correct guesses also get you points.

Gameplay is fairly fun, and I like that Dixit relies on intuitive, social intelligences and communal clue-giving. It works more like charades or something than a traditional Eurogame.

The problem becomes, who the fuck do you play Dixit with? In any group of people gathered together to play games, it is really easy, due to the uneven nature of social relationships, to clue one and only one person into most hints. People have varying degrees of shared references, and know one another from different places. It’s not fair for me to play with my girlfriend Katy and anyone else: a giant clam comes up, and I could play badly on purpose and say ‘pearl’, but I can also just say ‘Harry Sullivan’. Katy knows Doctor Who as well as I do and will definitely remember the time in “Genesis of the Daleks” when the companion of that name was memorably almost eaten by a giant clam. If we play with my sister, that favours me, because I know both of them better than they know one another. If we play with Katy’s work friend, that favours Katy. No composition of people won’t be lop-sided. You’d have to all know one another fairly poorly and not have lots in common (in which case why are you playing board games, how excruciating) or all know one another about equally well and share about an equal degree of cultural context. I guess I could save Dixit for a reunion of my uni housemates, but even in that ideal scenario–I still have a bestie? He and I would fucking own? If you played with two couples the advantage would still be with the person better friends with one member of the couple. Dixit might be a uniquely awkward way of making that sort of thing obvious.

I guess you could deliberately try to play Dixit badly by eschewing all ‘personal’ clues, but that sounds difficult to do and like an unpleasant play experience. A game that requires you to fuck it up so it’s functional is a bit broken. Also it’s for 3-6, which makes it not great for our two person (occasionally ‘plus variable numbers of guests’) household.

Maybe Dixit works better for people without really developed shared bodies of knowledge. People without fandoms or anything like them, essentially. But it’s a board game. Played by nerds. So good luck with that, I guess.

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STAR TREK: FIVE-YEAR MISSION

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When I first got this game, the fast pace and relentless cascades of consequences annoyed the hell out of me. We were still often bad at it when we got rid of it. We couldn’t play it that much because it’s for 3-7 people, and we are most often a party of two. Perhaps if we’d played it more we would have gotten speedier, but it’s a dice-based game, so while there are a lot of decisions to make, there’s also a ton of luck involved. We never played it with more than three people–it might have been easier if we had, though of course given that every person must add another challenge to the stack when they begin their turn, more crew members means more problems. However it would also mean more of the die that solve problems in play, so I think ultimately it’d have been in our favour.

I don’t think we were ever in agreement about how collaborative Five-Year Mission was supposed to be. I thought fairly fully, i.e. you can make suggestions to the currently-placing player, whereas Katy thought that was out of order.

Because it necessitated an additional player, this got brought out as a sort of ‘party game’ when we were visited by people who also liked Star Trek: a stressful, random barrage of shit happening while you ran out of time and your beloved ship was destroyed. Welcome to our house, I guess.

Five-Year Mission combined a theme I’m deeply interested in with no plot to speak of, random dice-rolling over engine-building and decisions, timed elements and threat-addition: my only hate sprung from my only love. It was like a pizza topped with sardines, or an ice cream sundae where the chocolate scoop is actually just a big shit. Frustrating. Unhygienic.

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THE WITCHES

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The designer of the excellent Discworld: Ankh Morpork also brought us The Witches, and both games’ theming is on-point. Fun, detail-heavy, integral to the mechanic, worked through the components and play, developed, pleasing to the fan but not alienating for the novice: everything you want theming to be in this type of game.

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It’s unfair to compare the mechanics of The Witches to those of its sister-game, D: A-M, because D: A-M is one of the most mechanically exciting, promising titles in the past several years, and few things are in its league. But if I were going to do that unfair thing, Witches would be a bit of a let-down. It’s fine, pleasant even, but a bit too dice-rolly and luck based. The strategy, card-based, deck-building element is the most successful component of the game, but even that is very ‘luck of the draw’.

The Witches is a goodish game I would happily have played more, but it was never destined to be a perennial favourite, and I wasn’t that sorry to lose it.

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WHAT’S NEW: 

So what did we trade away all those games to try?

A Study in Emerald
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame (2002) (not, unfortunately, a game with almost the exact same name, which she thought she was purchasing)
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1981)
Near and Far
Marrying Mr Darcy
Lords of Waterdeep
Innovation
Coup
Citadels
Artefacts, Inc
Android: Netrunner

A few of these Katy also found going used/at good rates. One (Near&Far) she bought full price, and on the day it came out (she really liked Above&Below). But in general, this is just the trading system working out well for us.

Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift

This is the first instalment of my new Strange Horizons column. “Kirk Drift” is a long-read essay on Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, popular memory, gender politics, radical nostalgia and the unicorn dog.

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Section 1: What a lousy party!

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

Read the full essay here.

Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7

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This essay was occasioned by the death, on April 13th of this year, of the actor Gareth Thomas. Thomas was most famous for playing Roj Blake, the eponymous protagonist of the landmark BBC science fiction series Blakes 7. While the essay contains elegiac elements, it’s grown into a longer piece on Thomas in a broader sense, Blakes 7, Blake as a character, television and fandom history, and the status of protagonists and politics in genre television today. I hope that scope doesn’t make the piece feel inadequate in its partial function as a tribute: personally, I think context makes it more of one. I hope, conversely, that an obituary isn’t all the piece is. An obituary, like a funeral, is for people who already care about the person in question and who want or need such a thing, whereas I hope a good deal of this discussion is relevant even if you don’t have that relationship with this actor and this particular text; I hope that it works if you’re simply interested in the mechanics of telling good and ethical stories on television. And of course I hope that if you don’t already love the things I love, you can be convinced of their merit. What is criticism, when embarked on as praise, but a small and understandable piece of selfishness—a little, affectionate tyranny?

Full article here.

 

Links, May 26

STAR TREK

How Riker sits in a chair
Kirk lives in the moment
episode by episode is Kirk a womanizer table
inappropriate ST Christmas ornament
Which Star Trek Captain Are You?
Star Trek gif
Texts from Deep Space 9
Texts from Star Trek: The Next Generation
Our New Favorite Tumblr: Texts From TNG
Star Trek TNG Ambient Engine Noise (Idling for 24 hrs)

GAME OF THRONES
Starbucks vs Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin Appeared on Gay of Thrones and It Was Everything
How Much Would It Cost to Actually Throw a Game of Thrones Wedding?
Littlefinger, IT Consultant
28 “Game Of Thrones” Characters Transported To The ’80s And ’90s
There’s a Game of Thrones Summer School Class at UVA
He Would Never: Thoughts on Game of Thrones’s Fourth Season
Game of Thrones, Season 4: “Breaker of Chains” by Sarah Mesle: ‘Do I Have a Champion?’

STAR WARS


The Star Wars Expanded Universe: A Eulogy
Song Premiere: Neko Case, Kelly Hogan – “These Aren’t The Droids”: meh
Best of the Worst: The Star Wars Holiday Special (FOR REAL)
Star Wars Characters Invade Thomas Kinkade Paintings
stupid children don’t understand star wars
Han Solo Cosplay Pinafore
Best of the Worst: The Star Wars Holiday Special (FOR REAL)
Star Wars Expanded Universe Book Covers And The Feelings I Have Had About Them, Fifteen Years Later

“Charisma” (#1), a 1987 K/S Fanzine, edited by Natasha Solten

TW: some discussion of dubious consent below.

So “Charisma” is a 1987 K/S zine Katy bought thinking I could get into (transformative fandom) zines. Nah.

I can’t countenance spending the money (even if she does largely sell hers on and thus recoup her outlay). If I want K/S, there’s like MORE THAN I COULD EVER READ online, from uploaded zine fic in archives to 2009 Reboot fic on lj and Ao3. Sadly, I’m more a K/S opportunist than a fandom participant. I’ll read it if I see anything good (or anything mediocre, if I’m in the mood). I check back occasionally to see if anything interesting/new is being written. I’ve loved the canon since early childhood, and I’ve read the fic on and off for well over a decade. I’m a Pairing True Believer, and I’ve considered writing fic. But I’m not IN THE FANDOM, as I have been for some other canons/pairings. I don’t have that level of knowledge and involvement. I won’t read EVERYTHING, even the *very* bad fic, for the pairing in sheer desperation (people who’ve never been in small-to-medium fandoms might never know quite this pain).

And while I appreciate that the aesthetic modes of fanfiction change with the times and that fanfiction is differently good in different eras, I don’t always get on well with zine fic. My tastes there are really idiosyncratic, and I can under-rate pieces that someone whose tastes are more in-line with zine slash’s aesthetics might appreciate more.

Zine-reviewing has a history of negative criticism that digital fandom largely lacks, perhaps because zines could be a substantial financial investment for buyers (not to mention zine producers!). When my girlfriend Katy reviews zines as part of her big Fanlore cataloging project, she keeps to this tradition and, while not Cult of Mean, her tone is also not–gift economy!Cult of Nice. It’s been decades, after all, and you’re not using comments to say the thing directly TO the person, who may no longer be in fandom/isn’t THAT likely to google themselves. I have some qualms/there’s not CLEAR fannish etiquette on this. I’m going to be critical herein, but not–*to be bitchy*, just to try and use this somewhat rare opportunity to talk publicly and honestly about what’s *not* working for me in fanwork in the same space where I talk about what is working for me. To review fanwork like I’d review a book.

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COUNT:

  • front cover illustration
  • 8 pages of interior artwork, all untitled (why?)
  • 7 fics
  • 11 poems
  • 5 boarders, all by Caro Hedge

We start with a really awful cover (Marilyn Cole). One of the ‘logic never happened!!’ Vulcans of Gor AU things, with a bare-chest nipple-pastie armor deal. If I were an archeologist, I’d conclude that in the past, people never experienced embarrassment. Spock’s expression indicates he’s been smacked in the face with something heavy moments before. The art is not great, but in and of itself not *terrible*–I’m more annoyed by the immense popularity of Vulcans of Gor. Also–this so isn’t that type of K/S zine? Nothing in this zine really harmonizes with this art choice.

Idk, I like good cheesecake art, but this really hits my embarrassment squick–and I’ve noticed, when interacting with fans significantly older than me online, that we have (not always, but often–and in certain fandoms, not others) different norms about how raunchy fannish conversation should be. I wonder if there are generational/platform cultural-norms differences in terms of embarrassment squick, and in terms of the degree to which we code fandom as a sort of kink scene.

Interior cover page features a Rumi quote: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere./They’re in each other all along.” Which is sweet, but also suggests, given the content of the zine, having bummed since birth/predickstination.

 

To Protect and Serve

Alexis Fegan Black

20 pages

This story and this author are well-regarded, but tbh TP&S really annoys me for several reasons. How this plot works is crystal-clear from the beginning–though maybe it was surprising in its time, and what I find predictable is actually the result of my having been exposed to those ideas, adapted from this and other contemporary stuff. I like Black’s interest in cataloging emotional states. This aspect of the story is often unusual and insightful. Though for all the build-up, the actual SEX in this one isn’t very physically rendered? That’s sort of–delicately handled. This doesn’t feel much like erotica when it comes to the sex. And of course prep and lube are absent. Of course they are.

As a side-note, slash, written by and for a female (and often queer) demographic, often elevates anal penetration to the status of a PIV-substitute/’real’ sex act, affording lesser romantic importance to other forms of gratification. Here there’s no question that anal intercourse is the Real Business.

We’re not told this is an AU (though Spock is Captain, no sign of Kirk as yet). Spock is wandering around what is apparently a Federation planet. It’s four days’ flight from the Neutral Zone, and a place where a crew transfer can be effected. It’s seemingly populated by humans. The population is substantial, with a few major cities at least. It has slavery. Spock is not hugely wtf about this, and (admittedly in a somewhat-crazed Pon Farr state) is willing/able to believe some of his crew went and bought/rented him a human slave to fuck it out of his system with. This is NOT a mirror-universe AU? Nothing else leads me to believe it might be? Yet slavery. And Spock slave-shopping. …?

There’s also a poison that can make you need the D or die in this fic–and given that that exists, not sure why Spock didn’t roll up to the slave dealers he’s apparently down with and be like, MEDICAL EMERGENCY, we need a suitable slave or competent sex worker for someone on my ship who’s been poisoned thus and might be aggressive, call all your contacts and make it happen. There’s some random–this slave must be trussed up for some businessman escaping his fat ugly wife for the weekend. …what, Spock’s monolog? What a random, OOC and sexist assumption to make about this hypothetical person’s hypothetical relationship.

So pre Slave Search, Chapel hits on Spock a la “Amok Time” and he’s all IT’S SO HARD NOT TO STRANGLE HER!! Er. I sort of assume it’s hard–not to brutally have sex with her. But. Then, with *just a look*, Uhura manages to convey that she totally gets his needs and is dtf out of compassion. Now, Uhura’s eye-game is strong, but that is an INVOLVED convo to have via eye-game. I think I could eye-game tell someone I wanted to get busy, but not that I was willing to do so out of disinterested friendship and respect and that I understood the cultural/biological issue affecting them. This is that bs thing about Perfect Romantic Communication being wordless, which we alllllllll need to gtf over. Communication is emotional labor. Learn it.

But anyway, apparently EVERYONE knows about Pon Farr (somehow), and if Uhura’s eye game is strong, then the whole ship’s is, bc Spock knows the whole crew is dtf for duty. Really, no one would find that an issue? McCoy and Scotty are both there having that hall conversation from the final episode like ‘Aye, if the Capp’n needs me arse, doctor, I’ll nae deny the poor lad when the time comes’ and McCoy is just drinking and drinking.

But yeah, for inadequately explored reasons, none of this dtf crew are fit for the purpose, and neither are any of these slaves (for slightly better-explained but still kind of difficult to believe reasons), and so Spock decides to kill himself with “special tea”. Idk, earlier he said he just came down here with no prep, but later he has a toiletries kit and special tea, so. Oh and the hotel has blue satin sheets, and if he didn’t bring those then what sounds like a Holiday Inn just… has those? Normally?

Some teen girls (presumably think Spock is hot and) wonder about Spock’s marital status in the Holiday Inn lobby. I know I wonder about a fittie’s marital status all the time, and the future is also like that, probs.

I expect a certain shade of purple from sex descriptions in zine fic, and this story’s dancing nipples are, alas, no great surprise (though the gems encrusting them and the base of Kirk’s cock sure were–though what REALLY surprised me there was that those didn’t fall off and get lodged in Spock’s butt and cause McCoy’s Worst Day or something–who EVER thought vajazzling/a man-equivalent sounded like a *good* idea?). Even so, the sword of his existence and the flaming blade of his passion and genitals as the only reason for living (?!) do make me wince. “He allowed himself to believe that he was some holy trinity itself — his mind, his god; his desire, his son’ his throbbing maleness, his savior.” What do we say to cod-Freud? NOT TODAY. (Id-fic is my fucking–I can’t talk about how much I hate the phrase, I need a drink first).

Also there’s discussion of lightspeed travel and uneven aging, which is interesting hardcore SFF stuff (transformative zine fandom may have been close enough to SFF zine fandom to be a bit more SFFnal in their general reading and interests?), but not how it seems to work in re McCoy’s old girlfriend in the salt-monster ep, Star Fleet orders, etc.

Thus I wonder if, like many early B7 zine fic writers, Black is working without reliable access to good copies of the episodes? Though also, if we’re talking about lightspeed and aging, then aren’t we relying on the same physics that say warp is impossible? If you CAN warp, then whatever warp travel does might not affect aging in that way, because you wouldn’t be doing ftl travel per se, but something else with warp conduits? Idk, maybe this is something they dealt with more in TNG, and I’m unfairly back-porting it into TOS, and applying to work by a writer who couldn’t have known how TNG was going to expand the ST canon’s discussion of what warp was.

What this fic DOES deal a lot with is consent–admittedly in ways I don’t always love.

Below, in the brackets (because I have apparently failed to make the fake lj cut work), I’m going to have a long, confused conversation about the role dubcon plays in fic. Feel free to skip that. It is also RAW AS A JUST-LAID EGG.I am very hesitant to think about it in a public space, because I *know* this isn’t–finished thought, not at all. And I’m probably wrong about gender and sexuality stuff in major ways. Yet the discussion below circles aspects of fic I’ve not seen us talk about much, and I’d like to push that conversation along? Because messy as this is, I think we NEED to talk about it, and that *not* talking about room-elephants or just waving the issue away with YKINMK (like sexuality has no moral valence in the world, and thus *doesn’t come from things that matter, and itself matter*), would be shirking.

Continue reading ““Charisma” (#1), a 1987 K/S Fanzine, edited by Natasha Solten”