Saturday, November 9, 2019

Transhuman Space: Deep Beyond

This book really wants me to critique libertarianism. It keeps waving the flag in front of my face, daring me to charge it, but I'm not going to be goaded.

Even though it has a list of important outer-system organizations that includes a "Duncanite Charity" called "The Free Minors Association" which specializes in offering legal aid to help "take an abusive parent to court," I am very heroically going to resist. The world does not need my half-assed political philosophy.

Oh, but it's a strain. I've gone red in the face as I wrenched my trembling away from the keyboard . . . Their society requires an abused child to initiate a civil suit against their parents, and if they do, there's a charity which "may" offer assistance. . . I don't write, because seriously, the huge philosophical blindspot that libertarianism has for children would be the work of months or years to untangle. It's the job of a serious scholar, not some yahoo with a gaming blog.

I'm beginning to suspect that Transhuman Space as a whole has a right-libertarian bias. Because you don't shove a subject that suggests horrors into a throw-away paragraph near the back of the book if you think it's a serious problem with the philosophy. Depiction doesn't equal endorsement, of course, but it looks suspicious when you spend three pages describing their for-profit legal system and not once do you mention any of the huge fucking problems with making your entire legal code based on contracts and then resolving disputes through binding arbitration paid for by the litigants themselves. It didn't even think to answer the obvious question of what happens if one of the parties attempts a procedural deadlock by refusing to agree to a venue.

And I'm doing it. I don't want to do it. Maybe I can turn away . . .

Okay, one last dig, and I'm done. This book finally explains who Silas Duncan is and it turns out that it's not a sci-fi philosopher who helped found the Duncanites, but a real guy. A 19th century naval officer . . . with the keen political instincts of a 19th century naval officer. I don't want to get too into it, because I've basically done about 15 minutes of research on the guy, and he, a captain in the US Navy, sailed down to the Falkland Islands, blew up some "pirates" who may or may not have just been the Argentine Navy, and then, as legend has it, declared the Falklands "free from all government." And all I can thinks is, if the year is 2002, and you know who this dipshit is, then not only are you obviously a huge libertarian, but you've clearly never thought critically about colonialism, like, at all.

Or, maybe you're just a US history nerd. This guy did have three warships named after him.

Still, an unreflective reverence for colonialism does put a lot of Transhuman Space's setting choices into focus. One of the more important runners through this book is "The War Under the Ice." Basically, life has been discovered on Europa. A scientific outpost has been sent to study it. Also, the Green Duncanites are there and they've been introducing genetically-engineered invasive species in an attempt to change the ocean's chemistry in order to make it habitable for their cold-adapted bioroids.

And one thing the book fails to make clear is, holy shit, what the fuck do the Duncanites think they're doing? It's the most important discovery in biological science since Charles fucking Darwin, and they're literally shitting all over it because . . . Nope, I'm drawing a blank. Because the vast empty spaces where they were previously living were basically a solved problem? Because they're mad scientists who just get off on the thought of terraforming planets, even if they have to travel to the most inhospitable regions of the solar system to find a candidate?

What they're doing is beyond interfering with scientific research. Beyond vandalism. It's a bona fide crime against humanity.

Opposing the Green Duncanites is the Europa Defense Force, which the book describes as "terrorists." But the weird thing about that designation is that they are so obviously in the right here that it makes me wonder about the other "radical preservationist" groups they're supposedly tied to. Negative Growth didn't seem to have all that great a point when they were trying to blow up the Martian space elevator, but if terrestrial law enforcement cares so little about the peaceful scientific exploration of the solar system that they'll allow the rogue terraformers of the Ares Conspiracy to ruin another planet, than maybe I've got to factor that in to my ethical calculations.

I guess that could be an interesting philosophical question, though. What if you've got a conflict where one side is 100% in the right, like so much so that it's almost funny how lopsided the disagreement is, but then the correct side is full of inflexible fanatics who are willing to use lethal force to accomplish their goals.

What the Green Duncanites are doing on Europa is a travesty - threatening to destroy, through thoughtless techbro arrogance, the legacy of an entirely separate abiogenesis, an environment that would allow scientists their one and only chance for centuries of addressing some fundamental questions about the nature of life. And they absolutely should be in jail for that. But having their habitat blown up and every cell of their body scorched by lasers so their proteins won't contaminate the fragile Europan ecosystem?

All I can say for sure is that Deep Beyond has successfully cemented my intuition that human pantropy is a reckless idea and that the survival of the human species would be more effectively secured if its adherents devoted even half that energy to preserving the Earth.

Since this is my last Transhuman Space book, I guess now is as good a time as any to get into my thoughts about the line as a whole.

It's frustrating as hell.

It's really hard to reconcile the line's meticulous attention to detail with its almost willful lack of vision. It's a sci-fi world with wondrous, transformative technology, but politics that rarely stray from late-90s - early 2000s conventional wisdom.

Why are there poor people in space? It's the books' most consistent plot-hole, from the run-down communities in L5 to the nomadic comet-herders of the deep beyond. Transhuman Space is full of charming, hard-working, ridiculously educated people getting by with nothing more than gumption, moxie, and their own personal fusion reactors. I have to figure that if the tech and resource level necessary to reach an equilibrium with the void of space and live hand-to-mouth billions of miles from Earth is a 1 out of 10, then a solid-gold space station constructed by a swarm of self-replicating factory bots has got to be about a 1.1, 1.2 tops.

Transhuman Space's greatest weakness its the refusal to engage with these questions about the ways technology can both empower the people who have access and disenfranchise the ones who don't. Funnily enough, it's the times when it's being the most "out there," that ring most true. Habitats full of a rich guy's clones, or the white supremacists who somehow infiltrated the "Jefferson Mission," or the immortal cyborg dictator of Kazakhstan or the "infomorph homeland" on Triton. These are ideas that speak to the transgressive nature of transhuman technology, the ways it is dangerous to existing social structures, both just and unjust.

In its mission to be neither a utopia nor a dystopia, it forgot to take its own "Fifth Wave" terminology seriously. The world of THS's 2100 is as different from ours as the industrial world of the early 20th century was from pre-agricultural nomads. If we're 3rd Wave, now, then Transhuman Space is attempting to describe a world that underwent a fundamental, unimaginable transformation . . . twice.

It doesn't quite do that, though I'm willing to admit that part of the problem may just be that in-setting they're jumping the gun on declaring the fourth wave over. People do tend to get over-excited when they learn terms like that. Truthfully, in the real world, we'd probably want to play it safe and say that all this disruptive stuff we're going through with apps and automation are simply the crest of the third wave finally catching up with us.

Ultimately, what I want most from Transhuman Space is an alternate setting that runs parallel to all of its intricate world-building, never contradicting concrete, established events, but rather giving them a much-needed radical spin that would subject the whole edifice of techno-colonialist capitalism to the skepticism it deserves. Maybe one day I'll just run it that way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract here and pick the concept of asteroid homesteading. Deep Beyond never quite gets down to that level of resolution, so I can't pick a specific example, but I like the general idea of families and small communities making their own custom-built worlds, so I'll allow that to inform my depiction of the Cosmic Sphere.

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