Why must these Transhuman Space books task me so? They're so complex. I was so smug when I started reading High Frontier. I thought I had it all figured out. But every time I made the mistake of letting my guard down, something new would appear to force me to re-evaluate my opinion.
I've not always had the kindest things to say about the various Transhuman Space supplements, but it is becoming clear to me that the series as a whole is a bona fide classic. Now, people who have followed me for any length of time will realize that this isn't necessarily the blog's highest compliment (that would be "garbage fire of awesome"), but it does mean that I think Transhuman space is something that needs to be taken seriously.
Not that I will, of course, because High Frontier has a lot of stuff that can rightfully be considered laughable.
Some of it is along expected lines, where the book will just state, as a matter of fact, some naively libertarian setting detail and then just not explore the implications. The Lunar colonies will privatize their search and rescue response? Is this an adventure seed? Are the PCs going to have to clean up the wreckage of corporate callousness? Will a poor community need help it can't afford?
No, it's just a thing, and it mostly works out fine. Same with the private space junk clean-up teams. It's not full-on libertarian "privatize the roads" - the corporations in question take public contracts, but the book just takes it for granted that private companies can Do It Better.
The funniest manifestation of this unspoken ideology is when the book talks about space craft registration and orbital law enforcement. "Flags of Convenience aren't just popular with legitimate operators who want to avoid taxes or stifling regulations. They're also a haven for various criminal organizations with a toehold in space."
I decided I was going to be really condescending and sarcastic about this, because the alternative is shouting at the top of my lungs about a world gone mad. Imagine my "oh, honey" voice as you read this next part - it's weird the way High Frontier gets 90% of the way towards understanding the problems of global capitalism and then stops.
There's this luxury resort on the moon. It's underground, but the walls project images of the lunar surface . . . the old lunar surface. Because as of the game's start date, the part of the Moon directly above the Moonshadow resort is within sight of an active mine, and thanks to an absence of "stifling regulations," the miners feel free to just dump their garbage any old place. And that's it. Nothing happens to the moon miners. There's no environmental advocates, not even strawman terrorists. There's no bad publicity. The companies get to pick and choose which laws they want to follow, so it's not even as if they have to fear a government. Thus, trash on the Moon.
Once more, Transhuman Space frustrates by presenting a world whose building blocks should inspire punk stories and then forgetting the "punk" part. The Moon is owned by whoever gets there first, and they can strip it for parts and cover it in their waste and nobody can stop them because the promise of endless economic growth puts you above the law. Humanity's legacy, a celestial body whose beauty has inspired generations of poets, scientists, and dreamers, gets ruined because that's what's most convenient, and . . . nothing. The setting is "optimistic," which means that nobody is going to get in trouble for the honest pursuit of capitalism.
Anyway, that's my standard critique. That's the thought I have to get out every time I read one of these books, lest my heart burst open and I lose my "kind of left-ish, but too frivolous to count on" credibility forever.
Where High Frontier threw me through a loop is in not being only that. A lot of this book is merely incredibly dry. There's talk of the different types of orbits, a brief mention of the fact that rocket burns in space don't necessarily have intuitive effects, a lot of talk about the geology of the Moon (rock composition, the practicalities of navigating a crater, etc), and careful attention paid to things like radiation and vacuum.
It's real bedrock space nerd stuff, which I can only imagine is the reason no one thought better of chapter 2.
One of the persistent complaints about Transhuman Space as a game line is that there's no obvious campaign model (a claim that, in general, is only true if you take its "optimism" at face value), so it appears that High Frontier is generously providing us with one. . . I assume. I can't imagine any other reason that you'd devote a whole chapter to the subject of orbiting space junk and the intrepid blue-collar subculture that cleans it up.
Reading "The Vacuum Cleaners" gave me flashbacks to The Wilderness Survival Guide. It's clearly something that received a lot of thought, and there's something admirable about its thorough, meticulous world-building, but who is this for? I'm trying to imagine pitching this campaign to my players.
"You fly around space, collecting dangerous debris before it collides with valuable satellites and vulnerable habitats. There's some really precise rules for spotting objects in lower and higher orbits. Think of it like a treasure hunt, except none of the treasure is especially valuable. . . I mean, there are complications sometimes too. Some of the garbage is old military stuff that may be booby-trapped. Some of it may even be active military equipment that is so classified it doesn't appear on any of the charts. Then you'll have to very carefully run away and sort out jurisdictional issues after the fact. There may even be times when you're called upon to play 'garbage detective,' and find the original owner of a derelict bit of space debris so you can determine who must be billed for cleanup under the requisite international treaties."
I mean, I'm not saying it's a bad idea for a campaign, but I've never had a group of players who wouldn't treat it as a joke.
The most challenging part of High Frontier, however, are the chapters on the L4 and L5 colonies. I wouldn't say that they break from Transhuman Space's overall philosophy, but it does seem like editorial control was a bit looser in these chapters. Some of the colonies feel almost speculative.
This isn't always done in the most effective way. For example - Margaret, the all-female space habitat/lifestyle dojo, is just a mess, politically. I can't even with regards to its take on gender. I literally. . . can't . . . even.
If I have to try. . . I guess it's like politically lesbian TERFS, but it's from 2003, so maybe that's a little bit woke and it's okay to use the phrase "elective hermaphrodites" to refer to what we'd call nonbinary people, because the context is advanced biotechnology giving people control of their physiology as well as their presentation and identification . . . and that's(?) why it's okay that there are no visible trans people, because medical treatments in 2100 are so effective it would take a molecular scan to out someone. In any event, the population of Margaret is greying because there's so much gender equality on Earth that the younger generation doesn't need feminism, and never mind that in this timeline Saudi Arabia still doesn't let women drive, because they don't count for some reason. Despite a constant refrain in the setting being the way advanced geriatric medicine means the young can never escape the domination of the old, "patriarchy" gets scare quotes in the text because who has time to figure out what that even means.
Sometimes, Trnashuman Space can be just totally exhausting. There are plenty of interesting things here, social, economic, and political fracture lines that would be ripe for both engaging conflict and stimulating speculation, but which never get off the ground because the books seem pathologically adverse to asking the tough questions. It's like there's this complex and fascinating sci-fi world and we're learning about it by watching CNN.
There was a little glimmer of something, though. One of the habitats was originally the vanity project of an arrogant billionaire, but unbeknownst to its creator, one of his closest associates was actually an infosocialist infiltrator, who goaded him into giving in to his hubris and bankrupting his company to create a space station that was also a work of art. Then, through complex financial fraud (that doesn't actually seem very plausible in Transhuman Space's world of savvy capitalists), the billionaire's primary creditor was an infosocialist front company. And now this subversive conspiracy of . . . data pirates, operates out of a state-of-the-art space station and works to undermine the economic order of settled space through, frankly, some over-the-top spy shit that was probably meant to build them up as a threat, but which kind of wound up making them seem pretty cool.
I'm not sure if the IAs ("Intellectual Artistes") were meant to be a heroic resistance movement, but the very fact that they are reasonably admirable (much is made of their pacifism and respect for pan-sapient rights, in contrast to the bad socialists from Earth) and also willing to act to oppose the obvious injustices of 5th Wave capitalism made them a refreshing break from the line's otherwise monolithic politics.
I don't know how they got in the book. My hunch is that since High Frontier had seven credited authors, a bit of ideological diversity could happen to sneak in around the margins. Maybe that's too cynical, though. Maybe it's just a case of things in orbit being pure sci-fi inventions, and thus freer to explore wilder ideas.
Once again, I'm finishing a Transhuman Space post both humbled and physically and emotionally drained. There's a lot I didn't cover, but I kind of want to get started on my next book before forever. Ultimately, I think this series is shaping up to be a real "critic's" rpg. It's brilliant in ways you really wouldn't want to duplicate and bad in ways that are fascinating to unravel. But honestly, I don't think it's possible to play it without first hating it just a little.
Ukss Contribution: There's this billionaire, and I think the book wants us to think of him as a bit of a creep, who builds an expensive space station and fills it with thousands of clones of himself. I'm sure in 2003, this was one of the book's more shocking and fantastic sci-fi conceits, but all I can think now is "yep, that basically tracks."
The hardest thing to believe about Transhuman Space is that more billionaires aren't doing similarly bizarre and offputting things with their historically unprecedented wealth.
Still, a tin can flying through space stuffed with the clones of one narcissistic weirdo is a pretty amusing idea.