Diaspora Phoenix. Martin J. Dougherty
Original Publication: 2002
Current Availability: Uncertain
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in December of 2010, and is reprinted here and in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
The New Era time period has attracted the most attention from fiction writers; this review covers another of those stories.
This twenty-first review covers Diaspora Phoenix by Martin Dougherty. It was published by Quicklink Interactive in a limited-edition POD book and was available as a PDF until Dougherty withdrew from work with QLI. I suspect it’s almost impossible to get nowadays, but it’s another one that I hope will return in the future and that I’m including in this review series for completeness sake in any case.
About the Story
Diaspora Phoenix feels very much like a roleplaying novel—literally, a game adventure (or in this case, a campaign) that’s made the jump to fiction. Herein a group of five disparate adventurers start out the story trapped on the planet of Darryl, that’s descending into warfare. They have to get off the planet alive.
From there, the story travels a considerable distance (literally: both many light years and almost two years of time) as the adventurer jump from one crisis to another—eventually coming together with a group of independent ship captains who will form the United Worlds Alliance.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the story makes a somewhat abrupt change, going from the story of these individual adventurers to the story of politics on the TNE stage, which offers a great big-picture view of the era infrequently seen elsewhere.
Genre & Fiction
The genre of this book, as I alluded to, is “gaming fiction”. I suspect the storyline was pulled straight from Martin Dougherty’s Traveller campaign. If it wasn’t, it could have been. As tends to be the case with Traveller gaming fiction, this novel is pretty picaresque. It jumps from one place to another, from one adventure to the next. There’s some attempt to create a bigger picture of people coming together to form a new society, but that’s mainly crammed into the last third of the book—though it’s certainly in the background before that.
Though I liked the overall shape of Diaspora Phoenix, there were three elements in it which threw me somewhat.
First is the frequent combat, which is always described in a precise (and lengthy) manner—such that it feels like Dougherty is describing Traveller combats round by round. I enjoyed that at first as Dougherty does an excellent job of detailing the mechanics of what is going on in an evocative way that you can visualize. However, by late in the novel hearing about every hit and miss was getting a little tedious for me.
The disjunction between the two parts of the book was also somewhat irking. I felt like the first two-thirds of Diaspora Phoenix needed more big-picture focus and the last-third needed more attention to the original characters. If this balance had been better, I think the arc of the story would have been superb.
Finally, I found the characters somewhat flat, making them hard to differentiate at times—especially since people were constantly entering and leaving the group.
With all that said, unlike most gaming fiction authors, Martin Dougherty is a decent wordsmith. The plotting is not perfect and there were some other issues, but overall the book was engaging and kept me reading.
Though Diaspora Phoenix wasn’t an entirely polished novel, it was a very credible first effort, and thus I’ve let it eke in a “3” out of “5” for Style.
Applicability to The New Era
In these reviews I've long discussed the “Applicability to Mongoose Traveller” of the Traveller books, but the point has come where I just have to admit that the TNE novels are largely inapplicable to Mongoose Traveller adventures—except as they discuss the most general ideas of technology and space travel. So, instead, I wanted to address how applicable Diaspora Phoenix was if you’re considering running a game in that far-flung TNE period.
In short, Diaspora Phoenix is a great reference for The New Era.
What impresses me most about Diaspora Phoenix is how its episodic adventures are pretty much a checklist of possible TNE scenarios: trying to survive on a pre-spaceflight world; unearthing a lost ship (on the surface of a moon even!); escaping a war zone; infiltrating and sabotaging a religious TED’s world; getting badly needed minerals; finding hi-tech equipment; finding survivors that have been cut-off for generations; and fighting against the other political powers of The New Era.
I’m also impressed by the story arc. Though I think the pacing is off, I find the idea of individual adventurers coming together to eventually form a nascent interstellar government to be breathtaking; it’s exactly the sort of storytelling that The New Era allowed (but which GDW never took advantage of, because they instead defined two well-established interstellar states, the RCES and the Regency).
Beyond that, Diaspora Phoenix does a good job of hitting a lot of the big-picture ideas of The New Era. Though Dougherty opts not to tell his story within the traditional setting of the Reformation Coalition, he only moves one sector spinward, to the Diaspora Sector. Thus, the Reformation Coalition is a potential threat while one of the Reformation’s big enemies, The Guild, is a big problem for this novel’s United Worlds Alliance as well.
Besides these political governments we also gets a pretty solid focus on Vampire and (even moreso) the Virus—who I feel got short-changed in GDW’s own TNE novels, but here really help to define the dangerous landscape that the Era is set against.
The end of the novel promises to open up the whole story even more, by painting politics on a big canvas, so it’s a pity that Dougherty’s Phoenix at Bay, the sequel to Diaspora Phoenix, never saw print (nor, for that matter, the rest of the five-book sequence that Dougherty imagined). Fortunately, you can get some of the details either in Traveller 1248 Sourcebook 1 or in Martin’s CotI forum posts.
Putting that all together, it should be obvious that I think Diaspora Phoenix is a great resource for The New Era that does exactly what I ask my RPG fiction to do: it elucidates the setting and provides gamemasters with ideas for adventures. I’ve thus given it a full “5” out of “5” for Substance.
Although Diaspora Phoenix has numerous creaky bits that suggest an author still learning the fictional craft, it’s sufficiently engaging to be a fun read, and it does a superb job of making Traveller’s New Era real and concrete.