Wednesday, February 21, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Firewall

 I really have to stop dilly-dallying with some of these books. I read Firewall at a pretty steady pace of about 10 pages a day and looking back, my impression of it feels totally consistent, but also terribly vague - I understand what it's trying to do, and theoretically it's the sort of thing I should enjoy, but in practice, I don't.

The elevator pitch is nigh-flawless. It's a richly-detailed sci-fi future where they have body-swapping, memory-editing, and nearly undetectable nanotech surveillance gadgets and you're going to do espionage stuff in space. You can have all the tropes and beats of a spy story, but they're amplified by the technology. 

Back in the 60s, the Mission Impossible tv show would have plots that relied on ultra-realistic latex masks, because in a world where everyone is trying to ferret out each other's secrets while keeping a tight lid on their own, if you introduce even a little bit of plausible confusion about an agent's identity, you can play all sorts of games. It's great.

So, when you've got a spy story set in a future where you can just go down to the face-swapping store and just change your actual face to whatever you want it to be, that's just the same thing, but more. And honestly, when Firewall is being "more spy than actual spies" it's pretty effective as a sci-fi espionage thriller. 

Spies are constantly getting amnesia in regular espionage thrillers, but here, there's a whole host of explanations for why that might be routine. Maybe the amnesia was voluntary, either for the sake of the mission or because "need to know" is really exact, and as a true believer, you understood you really didn't need to know. Or maybe the amnesia is enemy action. If you've got a person's body under your power, you can add or subtract whatever you want from their memories. You wake up in an alley not knowing your own name or how you got there and that's something you knew might happen when you signed up for this. Hell, maybe the reason you don't remember being a spy is because you never were. You're a backup from just before you signed up and the original you is dead. There are layers and layers of mind-screw that Eclipse Phase's technology makes possible.

Where I think Firewall loses me is with Firewall itself. As an organization, it's all over the place. It's an anarchist spy agency run on democratic principles, except information is highly compartmentalized and there's a divide between Sentinels (field agents who are usually called up on an ad hoc basis) and Proxies (behind the scenes people who work for Firewall full time), so everyone is insisting that there's no hierarchy here, but also your boss can totally kill you for knowing too much (don't worry, their whole clique voted on it behind your back). That's frustrating, but it could also be an interesting commentary on the practicability of anarchist ideals, especially in the face of a highly organized authoritarian opposition. Can you defend anarchism while still being an anarchist? Here's a highly ideological spy story to explore the issue.

Except I'm deliberately misrepresenting Firewall and its whole deal. It's a spy agency inspired by anarchism to have a generally flatter hierarchy, but it's not actually the intelligence arm of the setting's anarchists. Firewall is actually the cross-over faction, the group where you can plausibly have a team composing of a Martian capitalist, a Jovian theocrat, a fascist from the Oort cloud, and also an anarchist, and they're all putting aside their differences for the sake of the greater mission - the prevention of human extinction.

And I guess there's a sense where out-of-control killer robots and sentient alien viruses are plausibly apolitical . . . from the perspective of us reading the book as a work of fiction. "Put your differences aside and fight the TITANs" is easy for us to say, and since a roleplaying game consists almost entirely of people saying things to each other, that can be the basis of the player characters' relationship. You can use whatever core book background most appeals to you and still have a place in Firewall. The ideological differences between the characters will inspire some fun banter and lively philosophical debates between the players, and in the end, isn't that what we're here for?

. . . sigh. yeah. I guess it's easy when you have so many unplayed games to let yourself forget the point of all this. Firewall is the wizard you all meet in an inn and sometimes that will compromise its thematic coherence. And that's okay.

Aw, fuck it, I'm in full immersion mode right now, so I'm going to keep complaining. The issue with Firewall is that its whole "mandate" (scare quotes) of "x-risk containment" (quote quotes) is intensely political and as an organization, Firewall's politics are kind of terrible. See, one framing of the issue is "the threat of total human extinction should inspire us to put aside our differences and work together," but another possible framing is "the threat of total human extinction is so much worse than anything else that could happen that it justifies doing anything to prevent it."

And yeah, the book really does mean anything. Firewall gets a portion of its income from human trafficking. Sure, technically, it's money stolen from human trafficking operations, but the agents they put in those organizations do a fair bit of human trafficking for the sake of their cover, and, of course, the mission isn't actually to stop the human trafficking, it's just to skim a bit of the profits.

Acknowledging, in the text, that it's fucked up can only take you so far. At some point, you have to deal head-on with the question of whether they're keeping secrets because they're doing espionage or if they're keeping secrets because they legitimately belong in jail.

Once that penny dropped for me, I couldn't help noticing the thinness of the line between "we are bravely willing to do anything in order to prevent human extinction" and "our self-assigned role of preventing human extinction gives us license to do anything." The inevitable result is that the claim that you're the one taking x-risks most seriously becomes another weapon in factional infighting, with the license to do anything as the prize. "X-risks are so important that we need to put aside our differences and work together . . . so shut your mouth and fall in line."

On some level, the book gets it, because there are a lot of rival groups that do some of the same things as Firewall, and you get to see a whole spectrum of conflictedness in their relationships, but why hasn't Firewall flown apart at the seams. Nations and religions can exist for a very long time with the burden of factionalism because they are immortal entities that are a major part of their constituents' identities. Even if you hate the other guy's guts, you're not going to let them lay their grubby mitts on the polity's central legitimacy. The name is worth fighting for because it's not just a label, it's a history. 

It doesn't seem like a loose confederation of message boards that rate each other on a social network ("How the hell does a clandestine conspiracy get away with its own social network? That's a damn good question." - real quote from the book. The answer is probably "super-intelligent computers.") would have the same cohesion. You disagree with the group that wants to fight fire with fire and scavenge TITAN technology to use in the case of another attack? You don't have to grit your teeth and abide by the vote. You can just rebrand. It's easy when no one knows who the fuck you are.

And I realize that I've just recreated the "Judean People's Front" gag from Life of Brian, but I'm also genuinely having a personal revelation here - it's not something that just happens because lol, leftists like to fight with each other. It happens because a shared goal is not, by itself, enough to keep people together. We may both want to go to MacDonalds, but I'm not going to follow you through a burning building to get there. It's only when walking away has a price (whether in terms of identity, personal relationships, or the control of shared resources) that people will stick it out. It always seems ironic when huge interpersonal rifts form around incredibly small stakes, but perhaps that's the cause - there's only so much a person is willing to write off by walking away.

In any event, Firewall, as a fictional organization, sort of sits in this awkward place where it's written like a strong organization that has enough of a carrot to wrangle its factional in-fighting - there's an infrastructure there that would be painful to lose, its AI allies are the solar system's best cryptographers by a wide margin, etc - but at the same time, as an employer, it's kind of shitty. Sentinels canonically don't get paid. They've got super secure ego backup services, which they use to justify killing their own agents to better contain information. And yeah, if you're a particularly good agent, they'll "recruit" a copy of you after you've retired. 

It's something that circles back around to the genre thing I was talking about earlier - Firewall is "more spy than actual spies" so they do all the Bad Boss stuff you see in espionage fiction - assassinating informants, framing ethnic minorities with false flag operations, burning loyal agents, committing war crimes and terrorism if it's expedient for the mission - but it's more intense, because they've got technology that allows for a much broader scope for abuse. And if you're playing a spy in an espionage game, those moments of "wait, am I working for a Bad Boss" are essential story element. But also, Firewall still wants to be the scrappy underdog who only employs volunteers and puts everything to a vote because they're a democratic covert conspiracy. The general feeling I got is that nobody ever figured out what they wanted Firewall to actually be, and so we're getting a series of moods rather than a coherent fictional organization.

My suggested fix would be to bite the bullet and make Firewall a full-on anarchist project. The outer solar system is inhabited by a loosely organized group called the Autonomist Alliance and they need to know what's happening everywhere else, so they sort of agree to chip resources into Firewall cells, but Firewall isn't an organization, it's a manifesto. Like, literally, an influential pamphlet that circulated shortly after the Fall, and in the wake of that pamphlet a bunch of little clubs sprang up calling themselves Firewall Servers, and there's no regulation at all on who gets to use that label. If your cell has a good reputation an anarchist habitat may give you a portion of the asteroid they're mining, or let you use their cloning machine, and, of course, the unregulated AI provides superhuman SIGINT but that's the extent of the organization. The only reason it works at all is because the anarchists, with their unrestricted fabrication machines, low populations, and easy access to common elements are generally pretty rich (or would be, if they had a system that let them put a price on such things), so you're a secret agent who can't afford to be all that secret, because your anti-x-risk ops need to play to a crowd. Is that absurd? Would it cause all sorts of problems that a more traditionally-organized espionage group could avoid? Yep. Welcome to the future. It just gets weirder from here.

At least, that's my idle first pitch. I don't think you need to get too far from the default presentation to arrive at a compelling bit of science fiction. I just think the concept needs a little bit more moral and political imagination. I'm sick to death of Hard Men Making Hard Choices. I want to see Soft People of Indeterminate Gender Putting Off Hard Choices For As Long As Possible. Maybe that's something that I'm unfairly projecting onto Firewall, but hey, that's the other part of being a roleplaying game. If you're not going to tell me what really happened to the TITANs, then I'm not going to believe that your presentation of Firewall is the last word on the subject.

Ukss Contribution: Operation Kudzu. Put a bunch of cloning machines and genetic and ego information into time capsules, bury those capsules on every planet you can find, and then set the timer for 10,000 years. If something wipes out humanity in the meantime, the capsules will open and start replicating humanity wherever the conditions are tolerable enough for them to exist (which is actually pretty broad, given the available technology). 

I always feel weird when a game tosses out an idea for a much better game inside itself. That's a hell of a pilot episode - you wake up on an alien world in a heavily bioengineered body. The last thing you remember is getting your brain scanned for a long-shot survivalist project. But that wasn't supposed to activate for ten thousand years . . . 



  1. 'What if Delta Green was an anarchist collective?' is potentially an interesting question, albeit one with a fairly obvious answer.

    1. The “Outlaws” of the newest DG edition are sorta that. Of course, they’re depicted as a bit of a Mickey Mouse operation. (Not that the “Program” is really any better - it’s just that neither faction knows that.)

      Of course, “spies with sci-fi amnesia” brings to mind the film Total Recall (not the remake, obviously) - which is a good thing, because that film played it up pretty well.