SCENARIO DOCTORS: An art-centred Vancean SF thriller, not too Dan Brown

Xello comrades!

I have decided to run one of my Vancean SF thrillers for old friends in Canberra (they wouldn’t still be my friends if they didn’t like Vancean SF thrillers, would they?). I have pre-generated a group of PCs who are a team of “effectives” (clandestine operators) for an NGO, and who work under cover as an extreme sports vlogger and his support crew. In Night’s Black Agents’ terms

  • the Talent is a muscle, bang & burner, and wet worker, with a strong line in infiltration and second-storey work. He is also not awful as a cuckoo and wheel man.
  • The Camera Operator is a box man (bacon & eggs, it’s called in ASIO), wire rat, disguise expert, and backup wet worker/muscle.
  • The Manager is an asset handler, bagman, hacker, and financial analyst.
  • The Eye Candy is a medic, cleaner, cobbler, investigator (forensics), watcher, and cuckoo.
  • The Pilot (not being played this weekend) is a wheel artist, mule, cuckoo/swallow, and backup muscle.

Following a suggestion by @DrBob, I plan to have the PCs working for Human Heritage, an NGO dedicated to preserving, protecting, documenting, and encouraging the creation of new art, literature, and drama. It’s going to be set in a colony — probably not controlling a whole planet — where the education system over-emphasises aesthetics and the visual arts in the same way that other systems over-emphasis the humanities or STEM, where galleries and curators have the privileges and influence of clergy in an established church, and where politicians paint major works rather than writing books and pamphlets.

I think Human Heritage might have one of its major repositories in this colony, but that it is not as well-loved as was hoped because (a) it contains mostly reproductions, (b) it is not organised for viewing, at least not in the way locals expect of a gallery, and © its staff are not proper members of the local curatorial hierarchy.

Obviously this colony has to survive by exchanging works of visual and decorative arts for critical technological imports. It is probably rather poor. A lot of effort goes into striving for artistic recognition, and people place a lot of importance on displaying their best work, and particularly on getting it displayed in circumstances that signify its recognition.

This place is under threat from some economic or social change. Civil war? Curator-led insurrection against the government’s attempts at reforming education and constructing industry? The Empire is intent on the danger to lives and food production. The Humanity League is gearing up for major efforts of humanitarian relief. Art dealers are flocking in to buy up the loot. Human Heritage has teams and teams combing the countryside to record the vast collections of works that are in obscure homes and local galleries.

What’s going on that needs a team of highly capable effectives to deal with it. And what are they going to discover is really going on that is not best simply reported to the Empire?

I’m going to set the adventure on Arcolais.

From Who Not To Ask To Dinner — A Survey of the Galaxy’s People (a popular compendium published in 560 ADT, known for apt but unflattering potted descriptions of the societies of the colonies).

“If you get annoyed by people who photograph and blog their meals, don’t go to Arcolais, where they sketch them — in watercolour if you’re lucky. But if you must go, pack condiments. On Arcolais plating up is Art, and therefore matters, while cooking isn’t and flavour doesn’t.”

“C. P. Snow was lucky to face only two cultures, and each of them oriented within its own province towards critical thinking. Today on a chiliad of worlds at least as many cultures flourish, and for some the very act of judging a proposition true or false seems as bafflingly pointless as the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to a critical scholar of Shakespeare. On Arcolais, for example, the school curriculum emphasises aesthetics and the visual arts to the same degree that in more critically-oriented cultures education emphasises either science and mathematics or literature and history. Students become oriented not towards drawing conclusions from in one case documents and the other experiments, but towards putting beauty into materials. The visual artist on Arcolais looks down on the pursuit of knowledge by either path with the same contempt that one of Snow’s literary friends felt towards an “uneducated” titan of the physical sciences.”

“Whereas a politician in one culture my establish her credentials by writing a book about her struggle and sense of mission, and in another by publishing a pamphlet of comparative analyses of policies, on Arcolais the candidate for office paints a major work, or casts a bronze. The voters then discuss the composition, execution, and tastefulness of the subject just as seriously as if they were a policy platform or a revelation of policy and character. And if you suggest the more usual alternative that seems as irrelevant to them as a candidate’s calligraphy or flower-arranging does on Seeonee.”

— Julian Meretrichave, Mankind: history, tragedy, farce (551 PDT)

This sounds more like a parody than a working society. That may not be a problem of course.

An NPC you could drop into this is a local who has a different appreciation of art from the hierarchy’s. You say “plating up is Art, and therefore matters, while cooking isn’t and flavour doesn’t” – that suggests a chef who is running a dark dining establishment. Then you get a schism in the critical community, and people reacting based on their positions rather than their experiences.

That might not be the exact one you want, but it needs to be someone who is doing something that is generally not recognised on the world as Art, but clearly could be. It’s subversion from within, as opposed to someone saying “why don’t we pick leaders on the basis of their ability to make an economy work” which would be subversion from without.

More parodic would be an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of deal, a hugely charismatic person who says that his air sculptures can only be appreciated by the finest æsthetic sense.

These are not properly descriptions, they are colourful pieces by writers with pungent views to advance, like futuristic P. J. O’Pourkes. Indeed we haven’t yet seen a piece by anyone who had actually been to Arcolais.

The reality is of course that the artists and aesthetes of Arcolais are a privileged class like monks and priests in mediaeval Western Europe, supported in comfort on the income of landed estates and other bequests, while most people have to work at the usual things, and there are merchants getting rich in the usual way, being resented in the usual way, and decorating their unaccountably grand houses with other people’s art that they have bought. The journeyman artists who grind out quotidian pieces for export are despised by the curators and teachers and artists-in-residence who have salaried positions in fine art, but they consider themselves a cut above mere mechanics and farmers.

Some piece could have brought attention from concealed technical details rather than concealed cultural details a la Dan Brown.

With the empire’s monopoly on access to interstellar travel any opportunity to move technical information incognito could drive interest. It might even trend to corporate espionage. Consider if merchants moving art try to smuggle information which offers a competitve advantage in the details of a painting.

It might even be a terrible blunder. Someone thought it was clever but to any trained eye the math is clearly visible. Tradesman artists on Arcolais could be laughing at schemes no one else has noticed are occurring.

How is graffiti treated? Terrible crime or hot commodity that could lead to a very wealthy and connected person stealing a piece of valuable infrastructure because of what Space Banksy puts on it? This might even lead to a specialized form of insurrection where graffiti is desired by wealthy collectors but arouses violent disgust in the masses so getting about with the right street artist virtually guarantees heavy economic disruption in an area.

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Is their art all ‘low tech’ things like oil paintings and pottery? Or do they go in for augmented reality/virtual reality art displays? i.e. could someone create Second Life and make beautiful landscapes or virtual cathedrals for people to log in and admire? If yes, then the obvious nefarious plot is some brain-hacking to make money (you emerge with a sudden desire to buy a burger at McDonalds) or gain power (you will be voting for the Tate National not the V&A in the next gallery election) or sway public opinion (Tracey Emin wants everyone to think her unmade bed is beautiful).

Alternatively, these people must have food production, otherwise the cliche of the starving artist becomes plant-wide! :grin: Perhaps it is automated vat-grown gloop and cloned meat. In which case, someone is tampering with that to gain power/sway opinion. Drugs/nanites in the food means everyone now loves Tracey Emin’s art!

Or someone is about to do the biggest art installation in the world’s history, with the unwitting participation of anyone who has eaten Gloop Number 3b in the last month: Masque of the Red Death or The Zombie Apocalypse - Live! Something grim which will involve people becoming piles of corpses as ‘art’.

No idea what ‘cuckoo’ and ‘swallow’ mean. Apart from a guess that a cuckoo impersonates something it is not OR hands you something which isn’t what it seems.

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Looking at the planetary data sheet for Arcolais, I notice that it is a highly salubrious planet. The annual climatic variation is very high, but it’s about 10°–13° cooler than Earth, so the tropics are very comfortable. There’s plenty of water, and an Earth-like atmosphere. There’s land for billions of people, but the population is only 72 million. Average population density is tiny (1.4/km²), but most likely that’s because the colony has only spread across a small fraction of the available land.

Arcolais could make a motza selling land to settlers.

And if they would bring some capital and industrial skills that would be nice: the development level is only 5.3, which makes Arcolais rather poor by interstellar standards (about like GURPS TL 7 incomes in a GURPS TL 10 setting).

Political conflict over immigration is likely.

“Come to Arcolais! (In your application for immigration, please include catalogues and reviews from your last three gallery shows.)”

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Pretty much the former. All it’s material art.

Absolutely! Art and aesthetics are the core of the curriculum at the schools, the way literature and the humanities are in the UK and Australia. There are STEM students! They are just looked down on as uneducated the way that literary intellectuals looked down on scientists according to C. P. Snow’s vision of England in the 50s. By no means is everyone an artist any more than in 50s England everyone was an historian, classicist, or literary critic. Most people are farmers and industrial workers. When politicians are on the hustings they put forward policies (which the people are little worse prepared to judge than in modern democracy) — it is when they want to get talked about and burnish their reputations as being serious and important people that the make art instead of writing a book.

According to Night’s Black Agents (an RPG about spies) “cuckoo” is spy slang for an under-cover specialist or social infiltrator: someone who gets access by pretending to be someone they are not.

“Swallow” (i.e the type of bird) is a KGB term for the bait in a honey trap: a seducer or seductress.