Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Transhuman Space: In the Well

Finally, I can write about one of these Transhuman Space books without feeling compelled to go off on a tangent about capitalism.

I could. Despite this being a much less economically-focused book than its predecessors, there are a couple of real juicy quotes that could support years and years of arguments all by themselves. But I don't need to. In The Well is much more interested in the science fiction side of the setting, and most of its politics revolve around the ethics of terraforming, with only a hint of nationalist rivalry thrown in for spice.

Oh, okay, one quick dig at capitalism, for the sake of tradition. When talking about claiming land in outer space:
"[The Revised Outer Space Treaty] doesn't use the word 'owned,' but rather suggests that the occupants are holding the land in stewardship for humanity. The distinction amounts to nothing."
Arggh! Why, Transhuman Space, why? You've got rogue engineers illegally terraforming Mars vs militant environmentalists willing to do anything to preserve it, and you could so easily draw us in to a purely speculative sci-fi conflict, but then you have to go and write shit like this. Forget capitalism, you've just set humanity back to the 16th century. That's what people are going to fight about - the near certain knowledge that the first few generations are pulling the ladder up behind them, and that anyone who doesn't become a transhuman space-dweller as early as possible is going to get left hopelessly behind.

Which is as smooth a transition as I'm going to get into my main observation about this book - it kind of . . . sort of . . . from a certain point of view . . . completely and utterly demolishes Transhuman Space's underlying setting assumptions.

That's probably not the take-away most people are going to get from this book, but when you start to add up all the little inconsistencies, the conclusion becomes inescapable - there is precisely zero reason for any of these people to be in space. Mars is a giant money pit, even with the magic of sci-fi imprecision speeding up the terraforming process by 1000-100000%.  But even to the extent that it does have an economy, its main export is food. Food. To the thousands of people who themselves are living in outer space for no discernible reason.

There's a group that's introduced in this book, called the Truckers. They ship cargo from place to place on Mars, and they have a whole subculture, including a rigorous code of honor about always delivering cargo on time, and for a fair price, and helping out both fellow travelers and each other. Romantic. But the interesting thing about the Truckers is that they are, literally, trucks. As in, AIs or uploaded humans are put into robotic cargo vehicles and that vehicle becomes their body.

Once you've introduced that concept, it's all over. Minds are cheap enough that you're using them to haul cargo, which means that they're going to be even more profitable at the more fundamental levels of your industrial processes. Especially when you factor in the need to engineer those processes to include pointless empty spaces filled with oxygen and kept at the (relatively) sweltering temperatures necessary to preserve human life.

This is something we can attach numbers to. According to the book, "Estimates of personal wealth that include infrastructure say everyone living off Earth is fabulously wealthy!" That's a tricky statement from a rules perspective, because it could mean anything from Wealthy (150,000$) to Very Wealthy (600,000$), but either way you slice it, a fully sapient AI with average human intelligence (100,000$) + a computer to run it (50,000-200,00$) + a (frankly, over-designed) humanoid body (145,000$) is anywhere between six months and three years of life support and no more than 11 years of regular wages. If you can get away with a low-sapient AI, the cost goes down dramatically. And a ghost (software emulation of a human mind)? Sixty thousand for the software + computer, and then the regular price for the body. When you take the humanoid body out of the equation (and with it the automatic need to miniaturize the AI's computer) and put your workers directly into industrial machinery that no longer has to compromise function to accommodate human physiology? The economic choice could not be more obvious.

By the rules of the game, and, honestly, the basic common sense Transhuman Space prides itself upon, the civilization that roams the solar system should be a machine civilization. At the very least, there's no reason to send something as fragile as a human to mine heavy metals on Mercury.

It's clear that the setting started from a desired result (humans living and working in space) and then worked backwards to come up with the justification for it. That's probably why we're talking about terraforming in the context of decades rather than millenia, and why you can have 2 million people living on Mars, despite the fact that most of them would die from carbon dioxide poisoning if any of the fragile systems keeping them alive were to fail for even a short amount of time.

That's not a complaint, by the way. Because, seriously, how much of a curmudgeon would I have to be to be like, "Well, by your own logic, Transhuman Space, you have no reason to actually exist." Nonetheless, it's kind of noticeable when you've got a central conflict about how much humans are permitted to alter Mars to suit their needs, but the only reason they're even on Mars is demonstrably an irrational and bull-headed compulsion to shove a human in any remotely human-shaped niche, regardless of the cost in resources or human lives.

I just kind of wish that was what Transhuman Space were about.

Ukss Contribution: There are so many little details here that are kind of awful, but which I also sort of love. On Mars you can play as a "grizzled prospector" who may be "genetically part grizzly bear" . . . And, how can I continue as a critic after that? Seriously, how do I go on, knowing this exists?

Or maybe you want to get involved in pointless territorial dick-waving, so you buy a self-guiding seeker missile that is usually non-sapient. That's the character you build your transhumanist sci-fi around. The missile whose guidance AI slipped through the cracks during QA and wound up fully self-aware. What is that person's story?

Or maybe I should repay In the Well for granting my wish for more billionaires with ridiculous hobbies and include the guy who wanted to hoax the world into thinking there were native Martians, so he genetically engineered a bunch of fake aliens, put them into elaborate "alien" cryogenic chambers, and then had them wake up inside the fake Martian ruins he had built, where they were tricked by "records their ancestors left behind" into believing they were the sole survivors of the ancient Martian civilization. Like all the best practical jokes, it's both hilarious and pointlessly cruel.

But honestly, any one of those thing would require me to explain so much social context that I'd basically be importing half a near-future sci fi setting to get it to work. So I'll go with something simpler - the Martian settlers' culture of martial arts.  While I wish a little more had been made of the pun, it's nonetheless pretty cool to juxtapose Wuxia and outer space.

So that's a thing now. The different settlements in the Cosmic Sphere will all have their own home-grown martial arts traditions.

No comments:

Post a Comment