The danger of thinking too much about something before putting words to screen is that someone else might end up publishing a piece first that says what you wanted to in a better way.
This just happened to me! There’s this blog called “It Came From the Bookshelf” whose author John Frazer is reading through and reviewing his entire RPG collection, and he recently published posts about the Transhuman Space corebook, Broken Dreams and now Fifth Wave.
Now, the main thing Mr. Frazer noticed in these posts is exactly the thing I wanted to write about when I published that post on the cyberpunk genre. Turns out that post started out as a big blob of text that discussed THS. I decided to split it off into a series, published part 01, and somehow never got around to polishing the rest of it enough. I gotta get my shit together right now, or else there will be nothing left for me to say that Frazer hadn’t said better.
What I Wanted to Say
Transhuman Space always bothered me at a fundamental level and for the longest time I lacked the words to precisely explain how. Now those words are out there!
Transhuman Space markets itself as Big Idea Science Fiction inspired by what were at the time of its writing the very latest Big Ideas. It’s in a way a conscious rejection of the dystopic and apocalyptic tropes of “90’s RPG cyberpunk”, and one of the things that bogged me down was an effort to describe what that genre is all about. I’m still going to do it, but not today.
The game likes to name-drop the authors that inspired it, not just in its bibliography but in the text itself. There’s Alvin Toffler who came up with the concept of technological “waves”; there’s Richard Dawkins with his memetics; and there’s Ray Kurzweil with his idea that we’ll be able to become immortal software gods Any Day Now.
However, there’s another person whose influence over the setting is possibly greater than that of the others, whose ideas are so taken for granted that he’s not acknowledged anywhere in the books. I’m talking about Francis Fukuyama, the guy who wrote the infamous “The End of History?” essay. This essay kinda codifies the idea that Western liberal capitalism is the ultimate political and economic model for humanity. You reach that, you win History, and everyone else is just playing catch-up to you.
The essay was written in 1989, and it went from “well-received” to “gospel truth” in the eyes of the developed West when the Soviet Union fell in ‘91. It was expanded into a book in 1992, and influences a lot of terminology even today. A “developing country” is just one that’s on the way to becoming a “developed country” like the US and Western Europe are; if it has trouble making the transition it’s because it has not embraced the tenets of the Ultimate Model with enough gusto.
This same view is at the bedrock of Transhuman Space’s worldbuilding. The nations who were “developed” at the end of the 20th century remain so at the end of the 21st. Those who were “developing” also mostly remain so - they’re better off than they were a century ago, perhaps even better off than the US was a century ago, but they still have some “catching up” to do. The game’s definition of “better off” is directly correlated to technological development. Better toys equals better society. The whole “memetics” thing is part of that, since its main narrative function is to make sociology into a hard science whose development happens in lockstep with the other hard sciences.
Those who deviate from this model are pretty much the setting’s designated bad guys, particularly the TSA. See, they follow this ideology called “nanosocialism”, and you know it’s a dangerous and pernicious mode of thinking because it has socialism in its name. Its core tenet is a rejection of the concept of intellectual property, a concept which the core book asserts is vital to maintaining peace, progress and sanity in a society that doesn’t have to worry about material scarcity. It’s the only way a honest, hard-working corporation can make money these days! And if corporations can’t make money, technological progress stops! That means all progress stops! You don’t want that, do you?
So the TSA are villains because they want to reach that state of technological and social bliss enjoyed by the “proper” Fifth Wave nations by pirating their tech instead of “earning” it. And of course they are all authoritarian dictatorships who make weapons of mass destruction because if you already stoop to Internet piracy no other badness is beneath you. The books try to present some semblance of neutrality and even suggest you could run a campaign where the PCs are working for the TSA or another info/nanosocialist outfit, but it does that with the same perfunctory tone of someone suggesting it’s technically possible to play as stormtroopers in Star Wars D6. Its published example scenarios always show the TSA as antagonists.
Then there’s the nations in the asteroid belt and outer solar system, whose anarcho-capitalism tends to be viewed as the next step in the refinement of the “end of history” model. Everyone knows government regulations are the greatest impediment to progress, so it makes perfect logical sense to do away with them entirely. I mean, no wealthy CEO in their right mind would use unfettered capitalism to exploit their fellow sapients. We’ve won History, that doesn’t happen anymore!
I remember seeing a lot of forum posts by diehard THS fans that insisted it was basically a realistic utopia and totally not cyberpunk, and I was silly for thinking it was or should be. My response to that is simple.
Transhuman Space is absolutely a cyberpunk setting in every detail except for one: it’s told from the perspective of the sinister corporations. If you took almost any William Gibson novel and rewrote the story so it was told from the perspective of its villains, their tone and setting would look a lot like Transhuman Space’s. The gloomy Cristopher Shy art that peppers every book in the line is not dissonant with the tone of the setting: it is, and has always been, spot on.
And now I’m really glad to find out I’m not alone in thinking this.