Monday, August 14, 2023

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is . . . a lot. It's one of those books where I really should have devoted 6-10 separate posts to unraveling all my thoughts about it. Certainly, there were many times while reading where I sort of drifted off thinking about which real-world philosophical thought experiment I was going to make the centerpiece of my trademark "not actually talking about the book" section (I have opinions about the Color Room Experiment), and, honestly, they would all have been great, thought-provoking posts (don't laugh).

But they, too, would have been . . . a lot.

So I'm thinking of taking a step away from the myriad of abstract discussions we could be having about this book, despite the obvious fun we could be having at this very moment if I revived the interminable Ship of Theseus/continuity of consciousness debate.

It's a shame, though, because I had some really great rhetorical questions lined up. I think Eclipse Phase brings that out in people because it's one of those rare games with a really intense and specific point of view. When I search for the most appropriate comparison, it's not something like GURPS: Transhuman Space, which deals with similar subjects and themes, but actually Mage: the Ascension, which also incorporates its ideology deep into the game's design. This is a book that's unapologetically physicalist and unapologetically anarchist and it's kind of great that it exists, but also, it's going to invite you to have . . . opinions.

The challenge in front of me right now is how to talk about this book if I am (theoretically) unwilling to divert for two thousand words to ponder the nature of qualia. At its heart, Eclipse Phase is a richly detailed science-fiction universe that is bold in its speculative ambitions, but noticeably held back in some ways by its point of view. In retrospect, its unflattering portrayal of the capitalist goonery of the inner-system Planetary Consortium and open fascism of the Jovian Junta were, if anything, underselling the case, but by the same token, its optimism about social media and the reputation economy didn't age well at all. And its handling of the cultural fallout of its apocalyptic backstory is borderline offensive.

A quick summary - it's some indefinite time in the future. In the realms of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and nanotechnology, humanity's knowledge has more or less become "sufficiently advanced." They've got devices that are not quite Star Trek-style replicators. They can make arbitrarily precise images of human brains and digitally simulate those images with an arbitrary degree of accuracy (I'm carefully choosing my words here, because this is the number one thing people have opinions about). They've got AIs that can recursively and exponentially increase their own intelligence.

Ten years before the game's start date, a group of military AIs, collectively known as the TITANS (obvious backronym) cross some critical threshold and begin an out-of-control process of growth, overwhelming the planet Earth and killing between 87.5 and 95% of all human beings (different parts of the book give competing numbers) before mysteriously disappearing through an interstellar FTL gateway. Now, the survivors live in scattered space habitats, fearing to return to Earth lest they be hunted by the remaining TITAN servitors, and the main cultural conflict is between the well-organized capitalists of Venus, Luna, and Mars and the scattered anarchists of the asteroid belt and beyond (also, there are some neocons in the moons of Jupiter and they just generally suck).

Structurally, this is fine. It's just an apocalypse story. "What if the infrastructure and environment supporting our current society were to vanish, to be replaced with something new, built practically from scratch?" It's a classic area of speculation. We've got all these weird sci-fi societies because most of the people in the old ones died. Fair enough.

Where Eclipse Phase gets itself in trouble is that it breaks two informal rules of the apocalypse genre - the story it tells is not a local story and there is no historical gap sufficient to explain a clean break with the past. 

These are "informal rules" because they are not strictly necessary to tell an apocalypse story, but if you're going to violate them, you've got to really raise the bar on your worldbuilding. Normally, you keep the story local in order to avoid implying your survivors represent the whole of humanity, and you make it far enough in the past that you don't have to answer questions about why a particular custom or bit of knowledge failed to endure. If you presume to talk exhaustively about every large group of survivors and establish that the event left near-complete back-ups of the entire pre-event internet, then you put yourself on the hook for talking specifically about who survived and how.

The result, in Eclipse Phase's case, is an anarchist sci-fi setting where people openly talk about eugenics and there are almost no Jewish people or Africans. Yikes.

I'm certain that there was no malice intended, and that it's just a classic case of STEM blinders failing to account for the humanities. But it forces me to grit my teeth and acknowledge that the theists have a point when they object to this atheist sci-fi setting failing to properly account for religion and I hate having to do that. This setting really needed to be more careful about the way it depicted real-world identities, and despite its fascinating worldbuilding, it has a bit of a -bro stink on it as a result.

Nonetheless, I really love this setting. It's not afraid to really push the boundaries of its technologies. In this version of the solar system, the Sun is inhabited. It's kind of brain-bending to think about. Digital intelligences download themselves into space whales that protect themselves from the Sun's corona with powerful magnets and my gut reaction is "there is no part of this plan that's a good idea," but my second, more considered thought is, "oh, so when you say that the singularity is going to change humanity in ways that are impossible to imagine, you really mean impossible to imagine. I'm on board."

I can think of a dozen ways I'd do things differently (for example, I'm wondering about a version of the setting where the biological death toll was 100%, leaving AIs and infomorph brain backups as the only survivors), but I can't help but regard this as one of the game's strengths. I rarely feel the urge to tinker with things that don't impress me.

Ukss Contribution: Turn Yourself Into a Giant Mass of Space Meat for Art! (Exclamation point in the original, but yeah, it's a mood). It's a space station in orbit around Saturn and it's made out of bacon. On the surface, it's goofy for the sake of goofy, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it's not one of the setting's harder sci-fi ideas. Like, biological cells are the original grey goo nanotech, so maybe you'd just need some core technology to encourage their growth, and then the dead cells on the exterior can insulate the live ones on the inside, and you've got a highly efficient machine for turning calories and carbon into a highly-organized structure . . . still goofy as hell, of course, but it certainly helps to establish a universe where the only brakes put on technology are self-imposed.

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