Sunday, October 27, 2019

Transhuman Space: Fifth Wave

Hey guys, I don't mean to alarm you, but I may have noticed some flaws in capitalism.

That's the tricky part about reading a book that prides itself on creating a sci-fi universe where the global political order is essentially unchanged from the present day - it winds up pushing me into the nebulous space where I can't be sure whether I'm critiquing the book or critiquing society.

The best way to describe this book is with an inadvertent self-own I got from a sidebar titled "Not Your Father's Cyberpunk." In what way is this book not your father's cyberpunk, you might ask.

Well, for starters, it's not punk.

Give me ten thousand days, and I don't think I could write a better joke than that. Transhuman Space calls its approach "optimistic," but it's a weirdly blinkered optimism. If I'm being super generous, I'd call it "naively apolitical" with the understanding that I'm using the word "politics" in the same sense as those guys who want to "keep politics out of our video games." It's obvious in retrospect that every weird and upsetting thing about Broken Dreams can be traced back to the necessity to remain compatible with this book here.

It's not that the book's bad. It is, in many ways, the model of what you want an rpg setting book to be. It is clear, concise, creative, and well-researched. You know, when you talk about Quito, Ecuador, and how its location makes it an ideal commercial space port, but you start your history section discussing the city's founding by the pre-Columbian Incas - that shows me you are not just dicking around. But in a way, the book not being bad makes my dilemma worse. How much should ideology count?

Because, make no mistake, this Fifth Wave is steeped in ideology. This is best characterized by the way that it seems to define "optimistic future" as "the sun sets on another century without the west suffering a reckoning for its many, many injustices." It's optimistic for somebody, that's for sure.

But that's just implicit bias, apparent only in the shape of the book as a whole. For a more direct example, you'd have to look . . . three pages into the first chapter. There's a section that bears the header "Doing Well by Doing Good," and it's ostensibly about a social trend of corporations that made an honest profit by helping the poor, undeveloped world gain access to critical technologies.

The centerpiece of this section is Ithemba Biotechnologies. It created a cure for AIDS, and its business model was to go to the governments of impoverished nations, offer to cure their citizens for "free" and take a mere token in exchange . . . controlling interest in state-run mines, farms, and industries. What an uplifting tale. Those poor Africans get cured of AIDS, even though they can't afford to buy it the "right" way, and all those terrible state-run industries get privatized, the way God intended.


And I don't want to get too deep into a debate about the merits of privatization. I'll be fucked if I know enough about the economic nuances to argue one way or the other. All I know is that it's a policy that tends to get pushed by the sort of people who advocate the terrible policies I do understand. However, that's not what's pertinent here. Instead, look at the way these industries were privatized.

There's a terrifying continental pandemic, people are dying, and Ithemba can save them. But it won't. Not until they hand over the bulk of the continent's mineral and agricultural resources. You see someone drowning, you call out that you have a life preserver, but before you throw it, they need to sign away their inheritance. That goes beyond capitalism as usual. It's pure evil.

Ideology is the force that lets you write that and think you are describing "Doing Well by Doing Good."

In a similar vein, Fifth Wave's account of the origins of advanced biotech is just as tone deaf. "When governments in the global north regulate genetic research to prevent environmental contamination and dangerous human experimentation, certain scientists flee to nations that will give them a blank check to do as they please in exchange for a cut of the profits? Wow, what a great pitch for your sci-fi horror game . . . It's not meant to be horror? It's 'optimistic'?! Dude."

And I guess that brings me to the part of the post where I talk about racism. At this point, it's become a bit of a ritual where I start off with a disclaimer that I'm the last person in the world who should be treated as an authority on this subject. But this time I really, truly, definitely, 100% have to say that I am far beyond my comfort zone. This is some advanced cultural studies shit, and my entire education on this subject comes from reading progressive blogs 10 years ago.

With that in mind, Fifth Wave isn't really racist in the same way that The Complete Barbarian's Handbook is racist. It doesn't trade in offensive ethnic stereotypes. Sometimes, it presents a fairly shallow view of what a particular country is like, but that can be attributed to the fact that most country entries are about a paragraph long. Where it goes wrong is in what it doesn't say.

So, one of the pillars of Transhuman Space's worldbuilding is that in the enlightened year of 2100, intra-human racism is largely a thing of the past. Compared to an uplifted sea lion, or a ghost-driven robot with fractal bushes for arms, there's no configuration of natural phenotypes that is going to seem that threatening. And while that right there is an . . . old-fashioned conception of racism, what really pushes it over the edge is when the gameline publishes a book with a list of very nearly every country in the world, a few of them new, complete with tables that detail their political and economic circumstances, and you somehow fail to notice that there is a startling correlation between a country's poverty and instability and the average darkness of their residents' skin (this is only barely an exaggeration, by the way - the poorest country in the western hemisphere is Haiti).

To be clear, I don't think this was any sort of deliberate political statement. My best guess as to the writing process is that it started with an atlas that got converted to a checklist that guided a whole bunch of afternoons at the library, looking up basic facts and extrapolating those into sci-fi scenarios. The counties that were poor in 2002 are generally the same ones that are poor in 2100, save the ones that house the occasional sci-fi Macguffin.

The biggest evidence for that being the process is a chart in the middle of the book that purports to break down the nations of the world by their "technological wave." The name of the book is Fifth Wave and that represents the absolute state of the art. Third wave is roughly where we're at today, and Fourth wave is somewhere in between. Interestingly enough, the USA and China, the two most powerful nations in the Transhuman Space universe, are only 4th wave. The true fifth wave is in Europe, British Columbia, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and . . . Chile.

Chile is the only South American country to make it to the fifth wave. Chile. And look, I don't want to impugn the ingenuity or the industriousness of the Chilean people. It's not implausible that they could be world leaders in robotics technology 80 years hence. However, there's something about singling out Chile that gets my neoliberal sense a-tingling.

I'm not saying the author of Fifth Wave was a Pinochet apologist, but I'm certain that whoever wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial that clearly inspired that particular bit of setting was.

None of that would be racist on its own. If your setting history says that in the next 100 years nobody does anything substantive to address the structural inequalities of global capitalism, then it's not surprising that the relative positions of the world's nations remain more or less the same. Of course, if you then go on to say that in your setting, racism is a thing of the past, that's pretty fucked up.

I guess what I'm saying is that Fifth Wave is no more racist than global capitalism itself.

I could (and probably should) point out other examples of the book putting its foot in its mouth regarding race, but I'm getting tired and it's shaping up to be 3-for-3 when it comes to 2000+ word Transhuman Space posts, so I'll confine myself to merely the most egregious.

There's a political organization, called The Human Alliance, and its basic philosophy is that radical genetic engineering is dangerous and immoral. It's notable for two other things. One; its sidebar begins in the middle of the section on Africa, and two; it is one of the only places in the book where the word "racism" is mentioned. Now, The Human Alliance is based in the USA, so the placement was probably a coincidence, but I feel like maybe somewhere in the editorial process, someone should have noticed the dissonance of putting sci-fi "racism" in the middle of a bunch of countries that were exploited by centuries of racist colonialism, especially since the so-called racism in question could be described as "opposing eugenics."

("You know, I told that Human Alliance guy about my plans to alter my child's DNA and he flipped out, I think he may be racist against pure Aryan supermen.")

It is difficult to convey how fucking palpable the irony was. On the opposite page, Chad gets its one paragraph, and it's about how "hunger-driven violence is common," thanks to "the southward march of the Sahara Desert." And it's like do you not see the connection?

The global north takes the petroleum out of Chad, burns it to fuel centuries of economic growth, but that changes the climate, which devastates the global south, while the people responsible are insulated by the wealth they extracted from the people worst-affected. That's racism. European cyborgs jerking off in MMOs while the people of Chad riot for food, and it's going on a century into the sci-fi future because the problem is structural, and then right across from that you've got a vivid reminder that there are forces at work in your setting that want to extend that structural inequality into the human genome, in essence making geographical and class-based phenotype superiority into a reality, and it's the people opposed to it who get the label "racist."

Guys, guys, guys. The "punk" bit is actually a pretty important part of cyberpunk.

I'll admit, this book puts me in a terrible spot. I don't want to get in the habit of judging these things too ideologically. I mean, if a book is offensive, that's one thing, but if it's like this one, and merely oblivious I don't know what the fuck to do. I don't object in principle to a sci-fi rpg where liberal capitalism continues to win, any more that I'd be inclined to ding a fantasy rpg for making monarchy look good.

But look, Fifth Wave talks about the changes in economic class brought about by mass automation, and it divides a "modern" society into three groups - the underemployed, who have been made completely obsolete by technology and survive on welfare, the professional class, which works in slow-to-automate knowledge jobs, and the leisure class, which lives off investments. And it doesn't seem to realize that the first class and the third are basically the same. Right? Wealth, from the labor of the only people in society who work, gets taken away in taxes to support the many and gets squirreled away into capital, to support the few, but somehow it's only the underemployed who get cast as "unskilled."

There's this myth of upward mobility. The "Eloi" character type even makes it a point to say that "the term is misleading as many leisured people have reached their status through decades of hard work." And I have to call bullshit. The Transhuman Space setting has superhuman AI. Literally every job is replaceable, and thus there's a hard cap on how much any wage-earner can make. Wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of capital. The idea that it's possible to save your way into wealth by living long enough is a laughable fantasy.

I guess at some point, Transhuman Space's conceit that the rising tide will lift all boats and that a system conditioned on built-in and expanding inequality will somehow right itself without a catastrophic movement towards justice starts to feel less like an ideological disagreement and more like a basic failure to observe the world. It's a utopian vision in the most literal sense of the word - it's no place.

But maybe I've let the past 16 years make me jaded and cynical. Let's call it a product of living in a cyberpunk world, without the cyber.

Ukss Contribution: I must confess, there was a part of me that hoped the Space Elevator thing would be a permanent running joke. But it's the coolest thing here, so in it goes.


  1. This may be my favorite post on this blog.

    That said, I am going to spend the rest of this comment obsessing over a single word.


    I almost want to track this book down for the express purpose of finding out what's going on there. I mean, they can't have REALLY made a character archetype with the premise of "the seemingly-idle rich are actually really proactive and competent" in their futurism-themed game, and then named it after literally the single most-prominent critique of the idle rich in futurism history.

    ...can they?

    1. There's not that much too it. I already quoted the most outrageous part, but here's the entry in its entirety:
      Earth’s leisure class is large, powerful, and rather unpopular among people who aren’t members. Many English-speaking citizens of Earth refer to the leisured as “Eloi,” after the pretty and rather helpless creatures in a famous H.G. Wells novel. The term is misleading, as many leisured people have reached their status through decades of hard work – and sometimes ruthless struggle. As with the Dilettante type, Age, Contacts,Independent Income, Status, and Wealth are all appropriate advantages. Useful skills include Economics, Law, Merchant, Politics, and Savoir-Faire. Many super-elderly people acquire some level of medical training in order to understand their own condition and treatment; this implies some level of Diagnosis.

      In-setting, it's an insult, but the book goes out of their way to remind us that the insult is not warranted (but then it uses the insult as the label for the character type . . . it is indeed confusing)

    2. ...I suppose that's the sanest thing which could have been filling that gap. Thanks for the clarification!

      Oddly, I suddenly think the single most utopian thing in Transhuman Space might be the implied existence of a general public the majority of whom:
      (1) understand the social subtext of The Time Machine, which has inevitably been diluted by all adaptations;
      (2) see a 200-year-old literary reference as a meaningful insult; and,
      (3) are actively angry at the rich as a group, rather than merely a few high-profile jerks who are viewed as fringe cases rather than symptoms of a systemic problem.

      Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that this language is roughly equivalent to me framing discussions of racism in terms of, say, Olaudah Equiano, the angry socialists of Transhuman Space (please, let me believe they call themselves "Morlocks") seem to have a more widely-understood grasp on the problem than their predecessors today. Plus, they coined a much catchier name than "the 1%," which is always a boon to any movement.

  2. I continue to love these posts. The additional dialogue in the comments is some wonderful frosting, too.