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         “My friends,” Chess announced grandly as he flung open the door onto the small back room. A half-dozen guys looked up from the cluttered table in front of him. “Last time, through our wits and skill, we won much treasure. Today, we will celebrate!”
         He clunked his knapsack into an empty chair and unloaded some stuff, including the ancient link-phone that stored his character sheets, onto the table, pushing bags of chips and cans of soda out of his way until he had a sufficiently clear spot. Then he looked up. They were all staring at him. “What?”
         “Yeah, about that...” Pete, a college freshman and the youngest player, smirked at him.
         “You missed it,” one of the guys seated on the other side of the table groaned. “The constable of the nearby town wanted to throw everyone in prison for stealing that treasure. We took a vote and decided to try to bribe our way out of it.”
         “We tried to call you so you could be part of the vote,” Pete added.
         “Oh, yeah. Uh, am I that late?” Chess felt disoriented. The chase must have taken even more time than he thought. “But, wait: we stole that treasure from an infamous band of outlaws that prey on travelers!” he protested.
         “Effectively cutting the constable out of his usual kickbacks, I guess,” another player concluded, sounding disgusted. “We all rolled to see how much we gave up. You weren’t here, so we had to roll for you. Actually, you lost the most money.”
         Chess sighed in exasperation. “Can I roll again, now that I’m here?” he asked, reaching for the set of dice in his pocket.
         “No.” The Game Administrator peered over the top of his eye-link glasses, where he had been reviewing some notes for the game. “It’s done.” He sounded almost apologetic. “But today we start a new mission.”

         “Damn authority,” Chess sighed, finally sitting down. “Well... then we just have to get out there and win some more.” Absently, he pulled a soda out of his pack and opened the top.
         “Definitely,” Pete, seated next to him, agreed.
         Setbacks were just a part of the game, Chess thought. They would overcome them. He took a drink and wished he could feel so positively about real life. But real life was different: he had no skills or confidence for that, none at all. The game was way better. It had rules he could understand.
         The Game Administrator tapped a few keys on his console screen, and then looked up with a sheepish expression. “It took a while to get the information from Lodestar for the new campaign, so I'm not all that well prepared...”

         “Hey,” Pete whispered, “your sister was just telling me --”
         “How do you know my sister?” Chess gasped, the game suddenly forgotten.
         The kid smiled. He was chowing rapidly through a big bag of chips, and the crumbs covered the lower half of his face. “We’re taking a poly sci class together,” he explained. “Anyway, she was telling me she’s working on that campaign to elect Swanson for mayor.”
         “Oh,” Chess answered distractedly, “yeah, she’s really into the whole politics thing.” He shook his head in confusion. “How do you know she’s my sister?”
         The kid waved one greasy hand, crumbs flying onto Chess’s link-phone screen. “Oh, we talk.”
         Chess stared at him in horror. Pete was okay... but talking to his sister? And how much had he told her about the game? “Shouldn’t you be paying attention to the class?” he asked fiercely.
         “So, in this new campaign...” the Game Administrator announced, raising his voice.
         Chess scowled at Pete, but the kid just smiled back with potato-chip encrusted lips.
         “Relax, civvy, it’s all online,” the kid laughed. “I’ve never actually met her. Never even seen her,” he added thoughtfully. “But her avatar is really cute.”

Continued next page...

Oh, come on! You're gonna kill me because I had fake sex on graph paper with a girl who barely spoke to you in real life?
- Dr. Venture
The Venture Bros.: “Past Tense” Season 1, Episode 11 (16 Oct. 2004)

         When authors set their stories among events in their own present day, that time period quickly becomes the past for their readers. All genres of fiction have the potential to show past eras and events in ways that are far more memorable than any history book, and Sci-Fi and Fantasy are no exception.
         Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne gives a farcical, but apparently somewhat accurate picture of the process of democracy in the late 1800’s. (The subject of violence in our voting history came up in the course of the national discussion over equal access to voting during this past presidential election.) The Wild Cards Series, edited by George R. R. Martin, contains vivid fictionalized descriptions of historical events and people shortly after World War II (when the Wild Card virus hits) and on. My favorite is the scene, from Wild Cards Volume I, that illustrates the Hard Hat riots of 1970, an event that is not well-known but directly followed the famous Kent State shootings.
         Illustration of past eras is not limited to events either. You only need to read Dracula to gain a better understanding of the role of and conceptions about women in that era. And many, many stories, from Wild Cards to Harry Potter successfully evoke the disturbing fears of the era of McCarthyism.
         And I’ve noticed one other thing that this genre – in which I mean to include everything from the most technical science fiction novel to the most kinetic comic book -- does really well: expands vocabulary and other general knowledge. Batman taught me words like “grotesque” (as in the facial expressions of the Joker’s victims.) And I think it was a Mickey Mouse comic book that informed me that most tornadoes in the northern hemisphere spin counter-clockwise. Now, would I have remembered that fact if I had learned it in a textbook? Not nearly as likely!



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