Monday, December 26, 2022

[Book Club] A Dungeon Hiding in Blindsight (part 1)

This is the second in a series of chats between Anne of DIY & Dragons and me about dungeoncrawling (or dungeoncrawling inspiring) science fiction. This installment's topic: Blindsight by Peter Watts.

Trey: So, obviously (like Roadside Picnic) Blindsight isn't strictly a "dungeoncrawl" novel--but I think it has some interesting things that might inform dungeoncrawls.

Anne: It certainly has a section of dungeon-like exploration. And one that's kind of consistent with a scifi mini-tradition of people using clones or backups to explore an alien space so deadly that it requires multiple "lives" to traverse.

Trey: Yes. It's a "killer dungeon" as many sci-fi ones are.

Anne: I'm thinking of Aldis Budrys's Rogue Moon and Robert Silverburg's The Man in the Maze as the earliest examples I'm aware of. But Alistair Reynolds's "Diamond Dogs" novella would be another more recent example. I think I've jumped the gun a bit here though. We should probably say a little more about Blindsight generally before getting into the details.

Trey: Good point! Blindsight concerns what happens after Earth receives an alien visitation (not unlike Roadside Picnic in that regard!), but technology is advanced enough that humans can pinpoint where the visit came from in the edge of our solar system and sends first probes and then a (trans)human team to intercept. What they find isn't some more and fuzzy first contact, but a vast and alien intellect with which no communication is really possible. An intellect that wants humanity dead. It takes a while for the team to piece this together though, but all the while the alien is trying to kill them.

Anne: It's been a few years since I read it, so forgive me if I'm remembering wrong, but the near-lethal dungeon is a kind of trap, isn't it? The alien made something that was almost too dangerous, but just safe enough that the team would give in to the temptation to explore it. And while they're focused on the threat of the environment, the alien intellect is up stuff in the background.

Trey: The alien lives in a high radiation environment so some things are hostile because they just are, but it is effectively experimenting on the explorers. This is killer dungeon where the dungeon and the monsters are inseparable.

Anne: "Inseparable" is a good way of putting it! The amount of connection between the intelligence (which calls itself "Rorschach"), the space the human team is exploring, and the monsters that live inside that space is one of the few things the team successfully learns.

Trey: Yes, it's an interesting concept we haven't quite gotten in dungeon ecology (I don't think). The living dungeon where the monsters aren't just local fauna/flora but essentially cells in a great body. I'm sure someone has suggested that, but I've never seen it actually carried through.

Anne: The dungeon as body of giant monster is more of a scifi concept than a fantasy one, and it does lend itself to drawing on real-world biology as a starting point. The film Fantastic Voyage (with the shrink ray and submarine going inside a human body) is one approach, but it focuses on the sense of wonder, and maybe the didactic opportunity, more than the unsettling or horrific feeling you could get from realizing that the dungeon itself is alive.

Trey: I think it's perhaps rpgs have tended to be rather conservative in their approach to fantasy. From a practical standpoint that presents a low bar to entry, perhaps. There are rpgs with living dungeons though, 13th Age, for instance. Mostly nonbiological but I think there have been a couple of those.

Anne: The Borg Cubes in Star Trek are kind of like living dungeons. I mean, the ships themselves are entirely mechanical, although they function more like bodies than like starships. The Borg themselves are cyborgs, but their bodies seem to be mostly robotic, with only a vestige of biology remaining. In that case, the individual Borg are kind of like cells within the body. 

Trey: Very true! It strikes me that the Rorschach and its cells introduce a way to deal with the problem of the typical, distasteful narrative of dungeoneer in D&D. If dungeons arrive unbidden and spew forth creatures that you can't communicate with and want to kill you, well clearing them out is a bit easier to justify.

It's kind of the premise of my "Apocalypse Underground" series of posts from years back.

Anne: I wonder if that's something that living dungeons often have in common? They represent a threat that almost has to be explored because of the danger it poses. Roadside Picnic's like that too - the Zone appears one night, and everything inside it is contaminated and ruined by its appearance. At least some of the people going in are the ones who were displaced by it showing up.

Trey: That's a good thought. People who are displaced and lose their homes and livelihoods may need what valuables can be wrested from the dungeons.

to be continued


bombasticus said...

"Epochal." All time A list post. Maybe the shape of things to come for the fan conversation in general, I hope!

Dick McGee said...

"If dungeons arrive unbidden and spew forth creatures that you can't communicate with and want to kill you, well clearing them out is a bit easier to justify."

That is literally what most living dungeons in 13th Age do. Their occupants may have autonomy and be capable of independent existences, but that isn't always the case. Dungeons filled with creatures that are effectively part and parcel of its alien physiology are also common, particularly with non-sapient residents like constructs, some undead, slimes and vermins. Some dungeons send out monsters that raid an pillage, sometimes bringing back loot and prey to the dungeon, sometimes displacing surface world residents and even ecologies and effectively conquering the area while leaving the dungeon behind. Other dungeons are content to act as enormous traps, luring adventurers to their doom while leaving their surroundings largely untouched. And some of them change their "hunting strategy" (if that's what it is) over time, or in response to certain stimuli.

So yeah, the "dungeon as mega-entity" thing has been done in fantasy as well as scifi. Not just recently either, I can recall adventures for various games in the 80s and 90s that took place inside sea monsters and other gigantic creatures. Heck, I'm pretty sure there was a simplistic pseudo-RPG based on Snit's Revenge in the 70s, although that one is more scifi than fantasy.

Trey said...

Yep. I mentioned 13th Age, though its just a name check here. We said a little more about it in the conversation but that was cut for brevity.