Thursday, October 17, 2019

(GURPS) Transhuman Space

I was pretty nervous when I picked this book. The last time I read it was more than a decade ago, and my memories had elevated it to the status of a classic. Would it hold up? Or would it prove to be another one of those things that was only impressive to me because I didn't know any better?

I won't keep you in suspense. It was indeed as good as I remembered. Possibly even better. The first chapter opens with a bit of micro-fiction that tossed something like a half-dozen heady sci-fi concepts at you in the first paragraph. And they all made sense. They all worked together to build a coherent setting whose constituent pieces were individually compelling while also enhancing the whole.

Transhuman Space is where I was exposed to a lot of sci-fi ideas for the first time. I'd never imagined the software emulation of human consciousness or 3D printing or augmented reality or space elevators. This was a near-future setting that was deeply interested in exploring the implications of its technology and creating a realistic extrapolation of the present as changed by a redefinition of what it means to be human.

 It's an absolute classic. Unfortunately, it does not succeed. It's not its fault, not really. It's just that its conception of history and politics feels impossibly dated.

I'm sure that part of it is that some portion of Transhuman Space's future is actually our past. That's always something that feels super precious when you encounter it in old sci-fi. Did you hear about the human clone who was born in 2010? What's the latest word on the reunification of South Korea and North Korea? It got started in 2012, so they should have made significant progress by now.

Of course, it's easy to be needlessly condescending about specific predictions. Transhuman Space is better than most in that it tends to err on the side of the conservative guesses. We're not nearly as close to fusion power as the book thinks we should be, but we probably could have been, had the nations of the world decided to invest in it as much as they did in the fictional universe. In some ways, it's even behind the times. You want to know what computer technology is like in fictional 2019? Imagine Google Glass hooked up to a fanny pack. For all of its much-deserved reputation for hard sci-fi perspicacity, Transhuman Space never quite picked up on the fact that no one was ever going to wear a technology that interfered with them getting laid.

But the element that makes this book feel the most dated is its overwhelming optimism about arc of 21st century history. It's not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a major war in the 2080s. But looking at it from a 2019 perspective, the remarkable thing about the Pacific War is that it happens for more or less explicable economic and ideological reasons. China, as the world's predominate economic power, has a much different stance on intellectual property than it does today, and the South Asian military and economic alliance that pirates their designs really is building weapons of mass destruction. Millions are dead, but no one fabricated a casus belli because they wanted a war for the sake of a war, and none of the various leaders' obvious daddy issues come into play at all.

Ah, so that was what 2002 was like.

Actually, I'm 100% sure that the entirety of this book's text was written prior to September 11, 2001, and that March of 2002 is merely when it was published. There's one line, in particular, that drove this home. "Moderate Arab States, led by Saudi Arabia, form the Islamic Caliphate."

Um, ooh, awkward.

I mean, in the game the year is 2049. Scientists have discovered life on Europa. Anything is possible. But, ouch. That was a misfire. And not just because of Saudi Arabia's support of terrorism. Today, we have lurid proof that declaring yourself a Caliph is a monumental act of hubris that could only result in (or possibly stem from) complete pandemonium. The only way a state is ever going to call itself "The Islamic Caliphate" is if they care so little about maintaining good international relations that they become willing to break Islam.

And I kind of feel that maybe that's something someone should have known, back in 2001, but then I look at the USA's actions in the region in the subsequent decade and I think, "holy shit, we really didn't know. The Bush administration started a war in the region, and they didn't fucking know."

I really could just post a link to my rant about the 90s influences in Trinity and leave it at that. Most of the same observations apply to Transhuman Space's version of the 21st century (regional alliances become more influential than national identity, the people of Africa decide they're just going to be Africans from now on and unite into a single state, the world in general is more liberal and more prosperous, and it's all thanks to capitalism). However, I'm going to come at it from a different angle, and talk about its failure to truly predict the internet.

It's not the biggest deal in the world, because Transhuman Space gets it sort of right. There is an internet, and it is important, but it's kind of just there. Funnily enough, I think The Trinity Technology Manual might have gotten closer, despite being written 4 years earlier, when it said that people would have the internet with them all the time and use it to whip out random trivia in an attempt to sound smart. (I suppose this resolves the nonexistent argument over who was dorkier 90s White Wolf or 90s Steve Jackson games, though I suppose it's just as likely that the White Wolf staff skewed younger.)

I don't want to over dwell on the things this book gets wrong about internet terminology, even if it would be kind of fun. Early on, it drops the phrase, "When people talk of visiting the web . . ." and I had to do a double-take. Or later, towards the end, when it suggested "Anyone registered with a com service can use a radio communicator as a cellular audiovisual phone." I had to suppress a really dry response to that, that's for sure. But that's just naive stuff. Treating the internet as another bit of sci-fi technology instead of an invisible part of daily life.

When I say that Transhuman Space didn't get the internet quite right, I'm talking about something a bit subtler than all that. It presents a version of history that is strongly driven by treaties. The Outer Space Treaty is name-checked several times, and it often seems like every region of the world gets a NAFTA to call its very own. But what Transhuman Space fails to capture about improved communications technology is how inside baseball it has made everything, both culturally and politically.

Like, right now, at this very moment, the USA is going through some turbulent political shit of the sort that would definitely be put on a hard sci-fi rpg timeline, and what is the level of discussion? I've got three different threads that I personally follow, each of which is filled with people playing amateur body-language analyst, trying to figure out if a particular photograph helps or hurts the president.

I actually greatly admire how committed Transhuman Space is to presenting a version of 2100 that is neither utopia nor dystopia, but simply a continuation of history, for all its ups and downs. In a way, that's a bold artistic statement all on its own. But it utterly fails to convey how history repeats itself as farce.

There's an idea floating around in this book. They call it memetics (and it's not the book's fault, but it took all my willpower not to laugh out loud when it talked about "powerful memes"), and it's basically the rigorous quantification of psychology. The people of this sci-fi future can scan your brain and emulate it with a computer program. They know what makes a mind tick. And one application of this knowledge is that a sufficiently advanced AI can make what amounts to near-perfect advertising for whatever ideas you might want to disseminate (less certain concessions made to its semantic expression and the influence of other competitive super-memes).

In the setting, the existence of memetics is widely known. People are aware that corporations, governments, and activists have access to high-tech, nigh-magical methods of persuasion and that they use them all the time. Transhuman Space posits that this means people have come to accept that culture and ideology are contingent on environmental factors and as a result take a more casual approach to their own beliefs. Disagreements that would have caused wars in a less enlightened age are now seen as part of the vigorous marketplace of ideas. Why fight when you can just outflank your opponents with superior memery?

And it is at this point that I wanted to shout at the book, "you are not writing about human beings, you are writing about aliens," because we live in a world with multiple-choice truth, and it didn't take manipulative super AIs to get us here, just a lot of people talking loudly, all at once, so much so that you have to curate, to maintain your own sanity, and then, without noticing, the curation becomes bent by bias and you find yourself in an echo chamber. "Facts and Logic" become the prizes of your various cultural grievances, just one more frontier to fight over, and if you lose ground, then maybe it's just smart tactics to change battlefields and silence your opponents with physical violence.

There's a section where they talk about ubiquitous computing and its potential for surveillance, and apparently, "In practice, this sort of "Big Brother" monitoring is restricted to a few states or colonies with authoritarian regimes." And it's almost as if they never stopped to consider that maybe your online photo album would be the one do it, building up an elaborate psychological profile of you so accurate it could predict you were pregnant before you yourself even took the test, and it would use this information to try and sell you pickles and ice cream, but we all sort of just put up with it, because what are you going to do, not share your photos online?

I thought briefly about what it might be like if Facebook had Transhuman Space-style memetic technology, and I don't think anything but a dystopia would be honest.

But then, every decade seems to have its obsessions. For the 90s (and in my opinion, the 90s didn't truly end until 9/11/2001) it's the idea that the sun will never set on liberal capitalism. For the 2020s? My guess is it will be something like, "nobody has any secrets, but also, somehow, nobody knows jack shit." I can't really fault a near-20-year-old game for following its obsessions, rather than mine.

UKSS Contribution - Oh, I so desperately want to choose the Space Elevator. It's such a cool idea, and I don't know if I'll ever get another chance. However, there was something, right near the start of the book, that captured my attention more directly.

The opening fiction has a bit where space marines fight martian gangster robots to liberate a factory where they produce biological androids for sale on the black market. You know, your typical space stuff, nothing to get too excited about. But the organization that deployed them was interesting, "Hir Majesty's Government."

That was something that passed me by the first time I read the book. I don't think we need to retread how unwoke I was. I just thought it was a typo. This time, I decided to double-check. I consulted the glossary in the back, and sure enough, it was a deliberate gender-neutral pronoun. Sure, the definition used some . . . outdated terminology to refer to transgender people (not to mention that "hir" is the wrong pronoun to use for a lot of trans people), but hell, 2002, this wasn't even on my radar. So I figure this is something you have to grade on a curve.

I have previously resolved that Ukss was going to have a gender-neutral character who wasn't a fabulous stage performer, and if we ignore the obvious overlap between that concept and royalty, this is probably going to be my best opportunity to introduce one. So that's the Ukss contribution. Hir Majesty, the Sovereign.


  1. Loving these. Editing comment, for a change of pace. I wasn't aware of which game line Transhuman Space was from... you don't mention it (I think) until the 13th section of the article (counting page breaks). Even then it's in such passing that I'm not even 100% certain it is actually from Trinity. Maybe going forward if it's not too much of a pain, include the game line like parenthetically after the name of the book, in the title?

  2. Sorry. Technically, it's for GURPS, but mostly it's just its own thing that uses GUPRS for its rules. I compared it to Trinity because they have certain worldbuilding assumptions in common.

    1. I failed at coming to the right conclusion!!!! Woe is me. Like I said not a big deal, doesn't really impact what you're working towards I'd say, but would be nice just for the factualness of it.

  3. Yeah, I can't imagine a world with perfected memetic techniques as anything other than a planet of the truly insane, because everyone would be changing their minds all the time as this or that advertising hit them. I suppose it would be a war of meme-driven optional access, where people turn off various sources and prevent counter-exposure as commanded by their memelords, until a competing meme source tries another vector, like one of those trucks that only exist to show ads to traffic.

    People would simply be irrational, as commanded by the memes. Awful.


    1. One of these days, I'd kind of like to do a campaign world based on the implied setting of the Dollhouse season 1 finale (the series finale is set in the same world, but makes a few decisions I find questionable). I like the idea that this mind-controlling tech just gets out there and it turns out that using it easy, so society collapses as the ruthless prey on anyone with scruples.