Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Transhuman Space: Broken Dreams

Confession time: I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.

Sometimes, I think I'm doing a review, and in retrospect, all of my least favorite posts are ones where I let that thinking influence me too greatly. Really, whether a book is good or bad is often the least interesting thing about it.

Sometimes, I think I'm doing a critique, but truthfully, good criticism is an art of its own, and I . . . don't . . . really . . . do that. Oh, sometimes I try. And I may flatter myself to think that, occasionally, I even succeed. But mostly? I don't really work in a way that would make good criticism possible.

My process is that I take notes as I read a book, then I sit in front of my computer and skim my notes until I find something memorable to latch onto, and then I spew out a stream of consciousness until I run out of steam. Then, if the post turns out to be 750-2000 words, I stop. If I haven't reached that point yet, I find another thing in my notes that stands out and I start a new train of thought.

This mostly works because the blog as a whole is the project. I'm trying to get through my whole collection in a more or less orderly manner, which means that I read each book precisely once and then quickly move on to the next. I don't spend a week and a half meticulously going over each text, noting themes, developing arguments, and pulling quotes so I can produce an 8000 word analysis of "Random and Forgotten Optional RPG Supplement 6b, c. who the fuck cares, no one's played that game for at least a decade."

But sometimes, a book comes along that makes me think that maybe that's what I should be doing. Broken Dreams is so complex, so challenging, so . . . fucking frustrating, that it deserves a level of care far beyond my usual half-assed gonzo criticism. There's a part of me that thinks I should just pack it all in, say, "fuck it, this is a Transhuman Space blog now. November is going to be Broken Dreams month."

The last time I felt that way was with the WWII chapter of the Scion Companion, and probably for the same reason. There's this subject matter that is intensely political in a surprisingly relevant way, but also, it's kind of just a game. Like, why is this a game? At what stage of the writing process do you take this emotionally charged cultural issue and give it a +2 to AC?

I wound up taking the unusual step of tracking this book's author down on social media (semi-accidentally - there's a twitter link on his Google search results). It's not something I plan on making a habit of, but I had a burning curiosity about the political assumptions that went into the writing. I will also admit a certain fascination when I learned from wikipedia that this book and Transhuman Space: Toxic Memes were the only rpg books Jamais Cascio ever wrote, and that both before and after he worked as a respected futurist.

So that's an interesting little fact to tuck away. Apparently in the early 2000s Steve Jackson Games was all just, "hey, did you see that interesting article in Wired, maybe we should see if the author wants to write a supplement for our sci-fi game." (And Mr Cascio, if you're reading this, that's just how I'm always going to assume it went down).

Knowing that the author was a futurist only deepened the political mystery for me. See, Broken Dreams presents a very keenly observed sci-fi future, moreso even than the Transhuman Space core (and thus, by the transitive property, more than just about every other sci-fi game in existence), but it is also scrupulously non-judgemental, and I am just enough of a clod to need my political conflicts spelled out in big, bold, underlined letters. (True fact: in the part of my notes where I write about WTO operatives engaging in heavy-handed copyright enforcement by going undercover and setting up elaborate sting operations, I also include the question, "but are they villains or heroes?")

I've mentioned before that I think that Transhuman Space as a whole is a sci-fi universe rooted in the post-Soviet "consensus" - the future would be driven by open markets, free movement, regional alliances and that all these things would serve to spread political liberalism. Broken Dreams caught my eye by doing absolutely nothing to contradict that view, but also depicting the economic and cultural imperialism that would naturally follow in its wake. And so many times, while reading it, I would catch myself thinking, "is this on purpose?"

I'll give you a concrete example. There's a thing in this game, it's called "Social Transition Stress Disorder." It's basically anxiety and depression triggered by "economic disruption or transitions, encounters (particularly unpleasant or threatening ones) with new technologies, and paradigm shifts resulting from assimilation of new memeplexes." And it's the dumbest fucking thing. One of the sample NPCs has it and really, he just hates robots because he lost his job to a combination of automation and outsourcing. That's not an illness. That's just accurately perceiving the world around you and having an appropriate, if misplaced emotional reaction to your difficult circumstances.

But then I thought: It's not an illness. There's a sidebar describing the "treatment" and a price list for the "anti-STSD medicine" and oh . . . my . . . god . . . the developed nations in Transhuman Space have medicalized the perfectly natural reaction to the stresses imposed by late stage capitalism and they're selling pills to "cure" the "disorder" they both invented and caused.

And of course it was on purpose. So much of this book could be converted to an over-the-top cyberpunk satire by . . . doing nothing but imagining the text wagging its eyebrows suggestively as you read it. There's a microfiction where the narrator is flying a drone into the cone of a tornado to capture full-sensory data for a VR audience and they spot a dead body flying through the debris, and then shortly thereafter learn that the footage has tripled in price. An espionage thriller where the MPAA action-response squad plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with digital pirates trying to smuggle cracked movies through the sneakernet is one of the default campaign models. If you're genetically engineered, you may have to pay a licensing fee to a biotech company before they unlock the DRM on your sperm.

Fifth Wave capitalism is terrifying, and I've confirmed with the man himself that it was all by design.

I guess I was thrown off by all the talk of technological "waves." This has struck me as potentially (though not necessarily) problematic. There's a temptation to view history as linear. You compare two countries and one has internet and advanced medicine and twenty different kinds of mayonnaise and the other does not, and maybe you think the second country is like the first country's past. You think it needs to "catch up," to "develop." It doesn't have internet or advanced medicine, and only four kinds of mayonnaise and maybe you start coming up with some spurious correlations. Maybe you start to think of history in terms of counting mayonnaise. Country two gets its fifth mayonnaise and that's "progress." They'll probably get the internet around mayo 10 and MRIs at mayo 18, like life is just one big game of Civilization.

But in reality, the fates of the two countries are intertwined. Country 1's internet is made from minerals imported from Country 2. Their medicines are derived from the traditional knowledge of Country 2's indigenous population (who somehow do not get their own WTO secret agents working to protect their copyrights). Yet despite their connection, we often say that the "advanced technology" of Country 1 "imports" materials from the "undeveloped" Country 2. Even at our most critical, we tend to use language that reflects the same hierarchy (i.e. "Country 1 exploits Country 2.")

Yet wouldn't it make more sense to talk about the "Country 1 + Country 2" system? If you've got a magical technological device that has a critical component made from a mineral mined with slave labor, you can't just abstract that out of the process. It's not "the device is made by well-compensated labor" and "the mining was done by slaves." It has to be "the device was made with slave labor." In GURPS terms, tech level 7 is "information: internet, transportation: jets, rare earth extraction: slaves." Country 2 isn't Country 1's past, Country 2 is the system's present.

To bring it back to Broken Dreams, I don't quite buy into the idea that technological waves are a geographical phenomenon. The "fifth wave" nations economically exploit the "developing world" in a variety of ways - through using their markets to offload overstock of obsolete tech, or to extend the long tail of mature, but saturated technologies; through exporting industrial and medical waste to their landfills; through pressuring their governments to allow unlimited IP rent-seeking. And if, say, revenue from draconian copyright enforcement goes to fund Indus River Studios' latest production, then maybe it's all just a case of the benefits of the Fifth wave being unfairly distributed.

I think Broken Dreams probably understands that on some level, because all the facts are there. I don't think you can write, "the hyperdeveloped states have taken an interest in regions, but not always to the benefit of locals" and not have an awareness that all that stuff you've just spent the last 70 pages saying about the lopsided economic relationship between the two is a huge part of it. However, this particular quote also does a great job of demonstrating why so much of this book tasked me. "Not always" is a very soft way of putting it. Very generous to the "hyperdeveloped" states. Sometimes that hedging reads as an endorsement of the system.

Another example: The Transpacific Socialist Alliance has a "(somewhat) irrational fear of the Fifth Wave citizens becoming immortal supermen." To me, given the context of the rest of Transhuman Space, it seems like this could just as easily be the "(mostly) rational fear of the Fifth Wave citizens becoming immortal supermen." There's a weird tension between the bulk of the book demonstrating why the TSA has a tremendously good point, but then the bulk of the TSA states being patterned on the worst of 20th century Marxist-Leninism. It's like, if the TSA actually walked the walk on its egalitarianism, it would too obviously be the designated heroic faction (a complaint familiar to anyone who has read the thematically similar Eclipse Phase).

I don't know what it takes to be a futurist. I don't know if it is reasonable to expect someone in 2003 to foresee the threat of a rising illiberal capitalism, although I suspect that even if it was, it's probably too much to ask from an rpg supplement. I think I'll have to take it as a miracle that the contradiction between "automation is an unalloyed good, so much so that people who are distressed by it are diagnosed with a psychological disorder" and "widespread copyright infringement threatens the global economy" actually made it to the page, even if I am so dense that I'd be more comfortable with a giant neon sign that pointed to the relevant passages and said "WARNING! IRONY HERE!"

As if we couldn't work out for ourselves the absurdity of believing both "replacing a working man's sole source of income with a complex robot is a technological marvel" AND "replacing an artist's sole source of income with ctrl+V is a terrible crime". As if it weren't obvious that this particular combination of ideas is part of a memeplex that privileges capital and disregards labor. Then again, maybe infosocialism is an easier pitch when you can just say, "it's basically making Patreon a public utility."

Let's see. Wrap-up time is coming and I still have a few odds and ends.

There was probably no good way to write The Islamic Caliphate's treatment of women, but I'd have preferred one that centered itself in a female perspective. All the talk of how governments negotiated womens' rights to make peace among themselves felt a bit too objectifying.

Kazakhstan is an example of what could happen if all of the setting's technology had been isolated under the elite's control and used in the most abusive way possible, and it's kind of great to have this creepy location where an immortal king uses ubiquitous surveillance, mind-altering cybernetic implants, and an incorruptible robot army to maintain control. However, if I'm being super-cynical, I can't help but think that the core book's promise that the 22nd century is not a dystopia really just means that violence happens only where it's currently expected.

It would be very helpful to know exactly how effective memetics is. Sometimes it's portrayed as near-perfect psychological manipulation, allowing its wielders to control how others act. Other times, you get things like political protests being described as "memetic warfare," and that doesn't seem very effective at all. Maybe I should have read the Fifth Wave book first.

I'm guessing that playing with a "Hamas" model bioengineering template may have seemed less fraught in 2003 than it does today.

On a similar note, I thought that the Congo deploying a limb-destroying bioweapon was in poor taste. Maybe this is one of those cases where the big, condescending warning text would have been warranted.

Okay, so that's about 2/3rds of my notes. And only 2300 words. I may have a knack for this after all. Overall, I'd say that this is a very smart book. Maybe too smart, for rpg purposes. GURPS has this weird organizational issue where the system is so generic that a supplement like this one can just be 90% sci-fi riffing. Even when it is focusing on mechanics, something like the Sterile disadvantage has about 6 words of system terminology and two paragraphs of explaining the setting.

As a piece of literature, it's fascinating, but I think that means that most of its value is as literature. Still, Broken Dreams will make you think, and I'm sure we can always find an application for that.

UKSS Contribution: One of these days, I really am going to get my last chance to include a Space Elevator. I just have to hope it's not today, because unfortunately this book has something even cooler. Zarubayev, the dictator of Kazahstan experimented with making digital copies of his mind. Then, in a move whose outcome he really should have seen coming, he put two of those copies into badass robot bodies and made them his top generals. Naturally, they were just as ambitious as he was and rebelled, throwing the country into chaos. I think I could definitely get some use out of an event like that.


  1. SPOILERS: If you're really super worried about the space elevator passing you by, you'll get another shot at the Zarubayev thing when you get to the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.

  2. I love that this book exists, and that this piece of analysis exists.