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Transhuman Space
Jamais Cascio, 31 Dec 03

BD cover Cyborg Democracy had a post yesterday about the game series Transhuman Space. I note this for several reasons. The setting of the game is interesting and provocative. A game like this is a different way of thinking about the future. And I'm one of its authors.

Transhuman Space is a role-playing game setting. (No, not on a computer. This is old-school paper & dice role-playing, kind of like Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, people still play games like these, although the number of players is way down from 10 or 20 years ago.) It actually comprises 11 books, covering what the world of 2100 looks like on Earth and throughout the solar system, and doing so in as scientifically and conceptually plausible a manner as possible -- there's no faster-than-light travel, telepathy, or humanoid alien life. I wrote two of the books: Broken Dreams, just released last week, which looks at the developing world and the global politics of intellectual property in 2100, and Toxic Memes, due out in the spring, which examines conspiracy theories, political movements, urban legends, and the like in 2100. (The links in this paragraph will take you to the description pages for each book; the images are linked to larger versions of each cover.)

Most of the books (including mine) run about 100,000-150,000 words, with only about a quarter of the text focusing on game mechanics. The rest is detailed exploration of what life may be like a century from now, from the minutiae of popular food trends and clothing styles to broader issues of environmental conditions, political struggles, and the extension of human rights beyond what we currently call "human."

If you haven't read a book like these, you may be surprised. Unlike (say) a series of novels set a hundred years hence, Transhuman Space is not tied to any single story line or set of story lines; as a game setting, the intent is to allow users to construct their own stories. As a result, the books read less like game manuals and more like the offspring of a good travel guide (with lots of information about places and the kinds of people you'll find there) coupled with a stack of issues of The Economist (with detailed reports on politics, economics, and technological developments around the world).

This meant, that, as an author, I had to spend a lot of time thinking through the connections between the various developments (political, social, technological, environmental, etc.) and how they may play out over the next 96 years. I was limited in part by not being the author of the original scenario; I was stuck with many concepts and models I didn't necessarily agree with, but had to work with. It was very much like working with on a scenario-planning project with a big client already set in its ways.

Both books connect to my work on WorldChanging. Broken Dreams posits a world where developmental leapfrogging hasn't worked, and where forces of collaboration and openness get slammed down by incumbent political and economic institutions fearful of their potential. In many ways, Broken Dreams is the world I fear might happen if we lose.

Toxic Memes gives me a chance to play with ideas about how society and technology co-evolve. In it I explore the evolution of reputation management networks, arguments for and against assigning "personhood" to constructed beings, and how life is changed by constant access to communication and information networks far denser and richer than anything we have today. Toxic Memes is, then, a contemplation of the various tools and resources people will have a century from now to shake things up.

If you happen across any of the Transhuman Space books, particularly the core book (called simply Transhuman Space, written by David Pulver), I would encourage you to check them out. I doubt you'll agree with every bit of the scenario the series presents; I don't. But I do think that you'll find that reading the book(s) will spark quite a bit of thought and conversation. What would you do if your life span quadrupled? If you worked with a machine that claimed to be as self-aware as you are? If there was no such thing as privacy? If you could feel what another person felt simply by hitting a website? If you could reshape the way you thought? Games like Transhuman Space let you explore questions like these -- and more -- in the relative safety of the present.

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James don't you think that Transhuman Space could be developed into a soap to reach millions of teens who need exposure to creative thinking on possible futures?

Posted by: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 on 1 Jan 04

There's certainly abundant material in the TS books that could be used for drama. I was involved in the production of a couple of different science fiction TV shows in the late '90s, though, so I'm a bit skeptical about how fully the ideas would be allowed to translate to the screen. Still, if any producers out there want to give 'em a shot, drop me an email...

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 1 Jan 04

fwiw, i thought the new issue of the IEEE spectrum was particularly good!

and then there's matt jones' predictions :D

also as an aside i thought SDB made a convincing argument about why computer sentience (short of advances in quantum computation?) is unlikely :D

oh and if you haven't read it yet, brian greene had an awesome op/ed in the nytimes today!

Posted by: smerkin on 1 Jan 04

Thanks for the links, [smerkin]...

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Jan 04

Or Linkfinder General, it seems.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Jan 04

My own contribution to the field is an adaption of a much tamer space opera-ish background:

If it ever comes out, the special Singularity issue of "Whole Earth" magazine will include a quicky review of the base _Transhuman Space_ worldbook.

Way, Way, Way, back, I contributed a paragraph or two to the society-building chapter of the first edition of _GURPS Space_, to the effect that really far-out tech might result in a society where Adventuring As We Know It might be impossible, or so frigging strange as to be unappealing.

I admire the chutzpah of the Transhuman Space authors for trying to prove me wrong!


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 5 Jan 04



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