Friday, March 15, 2024

Eclipse Phase ( 2nd Edition )

First things first: thanks a bunch to Adam from Posthuman Studios for sending me a review copy. Even though I already had a copy thanks to the BLM bundle, I'm humbled and grateful for the vote of confidence. 

Now, to repay that honor with the most brutal takedown the internet has ever seen! Mwa, ha, ha!

Oh, wait, I actually thought Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition was pretty okay, which maybe sounds like kind of a lukewarm endorsement, but it's really more of a situation where my specific use case made me the wrong person to read this particular book at this particular time.  I have just finished reading all the 1st edition lore. The last thing I need is a condensed and streamlined version of the previous books that cherry picks the best parts of canon and presents them in an attractive volume that acts as a compelling entry point to this expansive and fascinating sci-fi universe. 

I mean gawd, what were you thinking? Real boneheaded move on your part. Know your audience, people (that audience being obsessive internet weirdos who buy the complete series, leave it untouched on a bookshelf for the better part of a decade and then stubbornly insist on reading it all at once - you know, the core fans).

Oh, I do have fun around here sometimes.  Anyway, my main experience with this book mostly involved alternating between approval that the rules are noticeably easier to use (though not light, by any means) and repeated deja vu. Going over my notes, it doesn't look like anything stood out as new or surprising, but religion and ethnicity are handled a bit better. You still get some of that atheist spicy take, but it no longer feels like something I should be apologizing for. 

The other big thing going through my mind right now is the same thing that always happens when I read a conservative new edition of a beloved rpg - I'm wishing it was considerably less conservative. 

It's probably my most broadly contentious rpg opinion, but I really like it when subsequent editions shake things up, even at the cost of being incompatible with each other. Maybe it's just projection on my part. I constantly feel the urge to tinker, even (no, especially) with things I love. Hell, I just finished writing 500 pages of Ukss d20 and I couldn't even get through the announcement thread without brainstorming a rules overhaul. 

However, I don't think it's pure projection. It's probably equal parts the collector's curse - a need for novelty sufficient to justify my expenditures. Though, the biggest factor is just that I love seeing multiple variants of the same basic idea (my second biggest hobby is video games, but 3rd place is collecting Tarot decks, and there are few things in this world that thrill me more than an artist trying their hand at the Rider-Waite minor arcana). Call me jaded if you must, but when someone impresses me with a cool new setting, the main thing I want is for them to do it again - by going back to square one and redesigning from first principles. To me, the mark of a successful adaptation is when it gives me a whole new set of things to complain about. 

And by that standard, Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition is not a successful adaptation. Don't get me wrong,  I'd use it in preference to 1st edition 100% of the time, but I still have all the same issues - I wish it were more openly punk, that its focus be more on factional conflict, that the TITANs and ETI were slightly less mysterious and slightly more gameable. Though only that last one comes close to being a fatal flaw for me - when a mystery is too mysterious, I'm more likely to check out than be intrigued.  . . I mean,  c'mon, why are you being so coy about the party responsible for the interdiction of Earth? Sure, there are multiple interesting answers, but they aren't so interesting that I would be served better by having the freedom to decide myself than I would by having the answer well-integrated into the rest of the setting. 

My overall opinion of Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition is positive. I still greatly enjoy the world and have high hopes for the stories that can be told in that world.  It carries the torch admirably.  . .

And I made it. I got through the entire series without getting mired in the Continuity of Consciousness debate. What? You thought I didn't notice? That I merely overlooked this major theme? No, my friends, I was sweating bullets, trying to find literally anything else to talk about. 

It's not that I find the subject uninteresting. Quite the opposite, actually.  It's more that conversations about it always seem to run in circles.  I think because the idea of copying an entire human mind is so far out of our experience that we don't have the metaphysical vocabulary to talk about it productively. 

Like, am I really going to develop a theory of asymmetrical ontology just to talk about an idea from sci-fi that is at best an untenable engineering problem on the scale of a Dyson Sphere?  It's basically the coastline paradox applied to the the most complex structure in the known universe. To even get to the point where you can talk about the implications of mind state duplicates for the nature of identity, you have to first decide how much of your brain you're comfortable losing to rounding error, because I guarantee that there's no conceivable technology that will reduce it to zero. 

Although, I'm actually probably okay with calling something a true duplicate, even with a certain amount of error.  . . provided it's the right kind of error. They say drinking alcohol causes brain damage, and you don't have people shrieking in horror about how they can't recognize themselves in the mirror every time they enjoy a glass of chardonnay, so there are probably parts of the brain it's safe to round off. I wouldn't necessarily bet my life on it, but I can see how characters in a story might be willing to take that risk.

Though on an immediate level, that means I can't really talk about this with the proper level of investment.  I'd be comfortable saying that a "suffiently similar" duplicate would truly be me, and I would then proceed to blow minds by staking out the position that this is not contradictory with the statement that "I am not the duplicate." I would then explain that I thought the mere existence of this technology would irrevocably change the very nature of our being, to become something more akin to clonal megaflora and the relative independence of each individual bud does not detract from my sense that the interconnected structure as a whole is a meaningful form of immortality. 

Except I'm not going to do that, because I don't think "suffiently similar " is a realistically achievable goal. And that belief changes what sort of questions I'm interested in. Complexity theory argues persuasively against the possibility of duplicating a specific human brain, but it also suggests that making a generic human brain might be easier than you'd expect (the Google search you want is "algorithm for creating Sierpinski Triangle"). It may even be the case that the complexity of the human brain is not a design necessity for intelligence and consciousness, but rather an artifact of biological life's low temperature tolerance, meager energy budget, and evolutionary path dependence. I.e. it's not a minimally complex intelligence machine, but rather the form an intelligence machine takes if you build it stepwise under the constraint that you can only power it with nuts and berries and thus each increase in capability must directly translate into better berry collecting abilities. 

I'm left wondering how those two tendencies - the inevitability of rounding error and the possibility that you can still achieve human-like intelligence with a simplified brain - might dovetail in a transhuman setting.  Like maybe the technology is only half baked, so that no one is claiming (persuasively) that mind state emulations are true duplicates of the people they came from, but they are still undeniably people and that's the state of the art when the singularity happens. 

The selection pressure of the apocalypse means that when the dust settles, the bulk of the survivors are the mind state emulations of those desperate, naive, or ignorant enough to think that this was a viable means of escape. Perhaps the Jovians and the inner system elites were the only ones to escape with their original bodies intact, and the punk element is driven by the fact that these guys see themselves as the only real people in a world of ghosts (not to justify their worldview, but to reify a metaphor for how bigots and the rich already view the people they oppress). After the Fall, millions of minds woke up and realized they were not exactly as they were before, and that they would never truly be the person they remembered themselves to be, but they were, indeed people and they were still alive, which means that despite the burden of that knowledge, they would have to make a life for themselves in the ashes of the world their progenitors destroyed (although, if you really want to twist the knife, increase the level of responsibility the "surviving humans" have for the apocalypse  - who built the TITANS, who deployed them in a military capacity- why it's the very same people claiming your infomorph is property/an unholy abomination).

Anyway, that's where I'm at. I read most of the published Eclipse Phase books and I'm inspired to run two fringe variants - the world of low-res ghosts and the activation of project kudzu. Maybe I'm in a pessimistic mood.

Ukss Contribution: Some asteroids deter claim jumpers by having booby traps that will fling an intruder away at the local escape velocity.  This willingness to put such a cartoon image into a role playing game with such heavy themes is precisely why I love Eclipse Phase as much as I do. 

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