The Archivist and the Revolution
I enjoyed this work a lot, but I’m going to start this review with a digression.
I worry about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works of art. I feel like the genre can contain good works, but that there can be something seductively and dangerously reductive about them, that can bring out unhealthy ideas and mindsets. Those problems are on heightened display in works like the ‘Left Behind’ series, but it’s a problem that can transcend conservative/liberal biases. Zombie apocalypse works are particularly susceptible to the thin veneer they pull over the fantasy of ‘shooting other people is good actually’. There’s just something oddly seductive to the human psyche of being able to start over from scratch where you can deal with The Incorrect by blunt measures instead of the messy difficult hard work of convincing Incorrect people over time to be better. Even post-apocalyptic works where The Incorrect won can be seductively reductive: you also don’t have to worry about fixing anything, because everything is irreconcilably broken.
All this to say that I can’t actually point at ‘The Archivist’ and say anything specific about any traps the author may or may not have fallen into, here. But to have the themes so overwhelmingly tied to the trans experience… just makes me nervous, in somewhat ineffable ways. I worry about the author, and I worry about the authors of other surprisingly-prevalent works of Queer Apocalyptica I’ve seen out there, particularly in the gaming world.
I would be very happy to discover that my worries are unfounded, and that this niche actually fulfills a vital and positive role for the community, and for its outreach. But I do worry. End of digression.
The Archivist and the Revolution presents a deeply imagined world and a deeply sad protagonist. The story has a well-balanced design where you’re given an immediate goal (get enough money for next week’s rent), and then draws you into longer stories and themes as you try to accomplish that goal. There’s a lot you discover over the course of this game: about the world, about your job, and about your relationships.
The world is a post-apocalyptic setting (essentially), with the most fascinating aspect of this being your job: you pull out messages encoded in bacterial DNA by past generations. This is a real idea (though not, so far as I know, actually implemented yet), and it’s fascinating to imagine a world with hidden knowledge literally living with you, awaiting your ability to unencode the information once more. The game posits several cycles of use, loss, and regaining of the technology, meaning that any given message/information you may receive may be from a wide variety of sources, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of era. It’s a very interesting take on the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ motif you see a lot in both sci-fi and fantasy, and I loved the egalitarian spin on things: the idea that with the right bit of knowledge/technical expertise, anyone could call up a random entry in a vast encyclopedia. This was particularly relevant to the world Our Hero lives in, too: it’s an oppressive regime, where some facts are simply considered heretical. But they have no way of stopping the truth from existing, living in the very bacteria all around them.
There are two relationships to explore, both former co-spouses, both doing better than you, and both radically different from each other. I had my protagonist still be in love with both, but personally favored K, the one more on Our Hero’s level, with a kid we learned to be a parent to over the course of the story. I also chose this person as the centerpiece of the end-game, which was quite satisfying, enough that I didn’t really mind not seeing the other endings. Though I did lament the lack of ‘undo’, because I could have seen several endings quite easily with it, and it would have taken a half-hour slog otherwise. Hey, I’m digressing again.
The other former co-spouse, A, had a very interesting relationship with the protagonist, which I don’t think I’ve seen before, and which rang true for me: someone who was in the same oppressed subgroup as you, who chose to deliberately leave that subgroup, and is now doing quite well for themselves. Still cares for you, and still dabbles in your subgroup, but without real fear of reprisal or consequences. Nothing is explicitly said about this, but geez, that’s got to be inherently galling, even for someone you do care about. You want to feel happy for them. And you kind of don’t. And you kind of resent yourself for feeling that way, and kind of resent them for ‘making’ you feel that way. And again, I got all that without anything explicit in the text! It was a deft bit of relationship characterization.
[Edit: reversed K and A. Woops!]
Did the author have something to say? : Yes, quite a bit. An imaginative world with interesting speculative fiction chops, well-realized characters, and a presentation of what it’s like to be understatedly but overwhelmingly oppressed.
Did I have something to do? : Yes! There was a resource-management game, of sorts, that was deftly woven into the stories the world had ready for me.