- Review -
Chapter One, "Transhuman Space", details the future history of the Earth, its nations, technology, conflicts and trends, from the present day to the year 2100, which is the 'default' timepoint for the setting. Chapter Two, "The Solar System", presents brief details of the entire solar system in the year 2100, from scorching Mercury to the eerie darkness of the outer system to Pluto and beyond. Chapter Three, "Encyclopedia of Transhuman Space", is just that - an encyclopedia explaining everything from biotech in the year 2100 to terrorist groups and the nations of Earth. Chapter Four, "Characters", is a collection of character templates and additional advantages, disadvantages and skills for use in the Transhuman Space setting. Chapter Five, "Technology", presents detailed descriptions of technology available to adventurers, including military gear, computers, personal implants and the like. There are three appendices, covering spacecraft design, vehicles and space combat. Finally, there's a glossary of terms used throughout the book, and a bibliography to provide you with fiction and nonfiction from which to plunder ideas.
Transhuman Space is a new near-future, hard scifi setting from Steve Jackson Games, designed for use with the GURPS system. Actually, it's billed as being "Powered by GURPS", which is apparently not quite the same thing, but as far as I can tell it's pretty much straight GURPS. The setting emphasizes biotechnological advances (genetic engineering figures pretty strongly, for example) as well as emergent nanotechnology, but humanity has spread throughout the solar system, with settlements on Mars and stations orbiting most of the planets. The outer system - Jupiter and beyond - has a definite frontier feeling, with a very low population, and plenty of places to hide. The predominant powers are China, the European Union, the United States, the Pacific Rim Alliance and the Transpacific Socialist Alliance, and the setting is very realistic and detailed.
The book sports a suitably evocative, glossy cover and numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout, all by Christopher Shy. The artwork is largely unobtrusive and conveys some of the atmosphere of the setting. Text size, tables and sidebars are all clear and well presented. The contents are arranged fairly logically, although I did find myself flipping around a bit to track down particular pieces of information, and there are some strange choices of information-location: for example, the UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) is presented in the Characters chapter rather than the Vehicles appendix - and, yes, your character could indeed be a UCAV! The Index is fairly good, so you shouldn't have to spend too long searching for information.
I'd been looking forward to Transhuman Space since I saw it billed on the SJG website a couple of years ago. I love science fiction in general, but I particularly like plausible science fiction - spacecraft that can't jump to lightspeed, no force-screens to hide behind, no transporters to beam you out of trouble in the nick of time. Here was a setting that promised a realistic future history of the human race, and, in my opinion, it delivers. The sheer richness and depth of the setting, the broad scope of its imagined history, and the scary plausibility of it all are testament to the love and dedication that has gone into this project. I've run a couple of GURPS campaigns, including an interstellar campaign, for which I used Dave Pulver's excellent GURPS Space sourcebook, but with Transhuman Space Dave Pulver has set a new benchmark for other "realistic" scifi settings to aspire to.
There's so much in this book that it's difficult to do it justice here, but I'll try anyway.
One of the things I like most about TS is the history of the 21st century, presented in Chapter One. Why? Simple: it seems entirely plausible to me. By the year 2100 there have been no nuclear wars, no nanotechnological plagues of grey goo, no cataclysmic takeover by Artificial Intelligences. Sure, there are AIs about - you can take a digital character if you like - and there's advanced biotechnology - you can have a new body built for yourself, and you can extend your lifespan almost indefinitely - but humanity has adapted to these technologies the way it always has: falteringly, granted, but with resourcefulness and cunning. People have incorporated technology into their lives. Computers are ubiquitous: you probably have an implant in your head (which might house a friendly AI to be a constant companion, or, more sinister, a puppet AI which controls your every action!). Unless you came from one of the poorer nations of Earth, you probably have at least basic genetic upgrades, and you may have prehensile feet to help you in your job as a spacer, or fur, or claws, or filter lungs to filter out the dangerous fine dust of Mars. But despite all this technology, the world is still familiar. People still have affairs, get into fights, and swindle their employers out of money; they're still human. There are terrorist groups that object to the settlement of Mars, a "nanosocialist" bloc straddling the Pacific, including the nations of Indonesia, Peru and Thailand, which fought a brief war with China, and numerous other power groups which can easily be incorporated into your campaign. It's all quite believable, and that means that it's easy to take it seriously and really get involved in the setting.
As a European, it's also nice to see a future which isn't draped in the Stars and Stripes. The EU is still composed of separate nation states, but it's extremely technologically advanced and very, very wealthy. China is the major power on Mars; the US is trying to win back economic pre-eminence by opening up helium mining operations at Saturn. India and South Africa are upcoming powers. Overall, though, there's no single dominating culture, which makes for a more interesting and complex campaign, and is pretty realistic, if you ask me.
Social trends are covered in some detail, and here there are plenty of sources of conflict. For example, the legal status of an AI depends on the country it's in. There are also bioroids - humanoids grown using a combination of nano and biotech, pretty much like replicants in Bladerunner - which are used as indentured labourers in many places, including the US and China. This may be a little unrealistic - after all, it's tantamount to slave labour, which I can't see happening in the next hundred years - but it provides a neat source of social conflict. Indeed, a bioroid may house an AI rather than a human brain, in which case it could be in especially big trouble if it sets foot in the wrong country! Europe flies the flag for tolerance and liberality on Earth - in the EU, bioroids are free citizens, although their creation is banned. Elsewhere in the system, though, there are even more liberal places.
So - you might be forgiven for thinking that I've been payed off by SJG to endorse their product. In fact, I have a few complaints about TS.
The main problem I have with it is, sadly, GURPS itself. Because it's designed as a universal system, it can get very slow and clunky, especially during combat, which is great if you're a simulationist roleplayer and don't mind having to roll 6d6 for each bullet that strikes an opponent... I find this pretty annoying, and have adopted a much simplified combat system which uses much fewer dice - and we get to use polyhedrals, hurray!
The GURPS rules for building and using vehicles and spacecraft are, in my opinion, clunky and overcomplicated, even the stripped-down version presented in TS. I appreciate that the result is a very accurate system for flying aeroplanes and space freighters, but I find it completely unusable. I would be willing to sacrifice quite a lot of realism if it meant a faster, smoother gaming experience, but that's just my personal preference. If you like a good simulation of reality, then GURPS is for you.
Another grumble of mine is the lack of any useful maps of key locations. It's not a problem in the main TS sourcebook, because it provides an overall picture of the whole solar system without detailing anywhere in particular, but the other sourcebooks which I've seen - covering Earth (Fifth Wave) and the inner system (In The Well) - don't have any maps either. I would have liked to have seen some maps of the places detailed in these books, such as Quito (a major spaceport in the 22nd century) or some of the Martian cities. Never mind; serves me right for being lazy.
All in all - if you can stomach GURPS, you're going to be in scifi heaven with TS. If not, just convert it your favourite system. The setting is simply awesome, and frankly I intend to buy and read all of the sourcebooks anyway, just because they're so damn interesting.