Sunday, May 26, 2013
There's a reason that Vernor Vinge, in his classic SF novel A Fire Upon the Deep, dubbed the galactic internet the "Net of a Million Lies." His novel is a great example of an ancient singularity awakened and once again gone awry, with far reaching consequences for many. I thought of the novel, and of Vinge's name for the internet (and let's face it, back in 1992 he nailed an emergent property of the real world 'net with this name)in the context of a recent controversy at the margins of SF gaming .
People have pointed out similarities in the settings and themes of two recent SF RPGs: Eclipse Phase and Nova Praxis. I see them myself: the themes of singlarity, transhumanism, and a resulting planetary disaster. These are fairly common themes in contemporary SF.
I'd be surprised if game designers weren't playing around with them.
And I see enough differences between the two games to think each one is quite original.
But time for a reality check. There are apparently some people out there who believe that Eclipse Phase invented the themes of singularity, transhumanism, and planetary disaster. This kind of colossal ignorance really needs to be challenged.
First of all, within our little planetary gaming community, Phil Goetz and Anders Sandberg invented the first game dealing with the themes of the singularity and transhumanism. It was called Men Like Gods (an H.G. Wells reference) and you can download it here for free. The downloadable version in the link is dated 2004, but I know the game was first published online in the mid-to-late '90s.
There is also the shared world-building project Orion's Arm which goes back to 2000. Orion's Arm also deals with transhumanism and the singularity, and has been a favorite site for SF gamers for a long time.
Finally, of course, there is GURPS Transhuman Space.This was the first professionally published RPG dealing with the singularity and transhumanism. It won the Grog d'Or in 2003 for Best Role-playing Game, Game Line, or Game Setting. It was a more optimistic future than Eclipse Phase or Nova Praxis, but one I dare say where the solar system is on the brink of terrorists and/or corporations unleashing a thousand different catastrophes.
Sarah Newton's Mindjammer originally came out in 2009 as an original setting and transhumanist SF toolkit for Starblazer Adventures. It will be rereleased in a much expanded edition for FATE Core in 2013. Newton's setting combines positive, optimistic transhuman themes with the sweep of space opera. Her setting is influenced by the fiction of Cordwainer Smith and Olaf Stapledon, but it is a very unique and original positive take on our transhuman future.
Of course, Eclipse Phase, which won the 2010 Annual Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game, combined themes of singularity and transhumanism with planetary disaster. That was its key innovation, and it led to a wonderfully dystopian setting with a clear role for PCs. They are members of the Firewall, a protective conspiracy with many elements similar to John Clute's notion of a pariah elite.
The singularity-transhumanism-planetary catastrophe triptych genie is now out of the bottle. And these themes are going to continue to combine and recombine in new and different ways.
That being said, Eclipse Phase did not invent the concepts of the singularity or transhumanism.
The origins of the concept of the singularity go back to the 1950s: you can read about its history here. I think the concept is profoundly theological (which is one reason it is also called The Rapture of the Nerds), but it makes for some fun gaming. Arguably the concept is also derivative of the works of earlier philosophers such as Spinoza, Olaf Stapledon, and Teilhard de Chardin.
The concept of transhumanism goes back at least to J.D. Bernal's 1929 essay "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil." You can read the essay in its entirety over here at the wonderful web-archive Marxists.org.
Of course the notion of planetary catastrophe goes back thousands of years as theology and mythology. The Late Victorians were quite obsessed with the notion, and it is in this time period that we begin to see the theme first presented in science fiction and the scientific romance.