Volume 17, Number 04, Fall 1999

GURPS Alternate Earths 2

By Kenneth Hite, Craig Neumeier, and Michael J. Schiffer

(Steve Jackson Games, $19.95)
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
Fall, 1999

One of the longstanding strengths of Steve Jackson Games' GURPS roleplaying system has been the rich inventiveness of its settings. The Alternate Earths 2 worldbook develops half a dozen more such settings in the popular genre of parahistory. Apart from the general ingenuity of the authors, this collection will be of interest to libertarians specifically for a number of reasons.

In the first place, it’s a pleasure to see a few familiar names here. One of the settings, Cornwallis (a world where the American War of Independence failed), has Hayek as a major cultural figure, Mises as the finance minister of the Austrian Empire—and Alissa Rosenbaum as a Russian novelist of heroic railbuilding, eventually purged in a very late Russian revolution. David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom turns up in the bibliography for another setting, Midgard, as a useful source on ancient Icelandic law.

Beyond these brief notes, the political imagination here will be congenial to libertarians in an important way. Most political theorists believe in a spectrum of political institutions from democracy at one end to dictatorship at the other, and take any objection to democracy as a call for dictatorship; Kipling's A.B.C. stories are often read that way, for example. From a libertarian viewpoint, democracy appears as a midpoint between anarchy and leviathan. Hite, Neumeier, and Schiffer seem to rely on a similar model; their imaginary worlds differ from 20th century democracy roughly as often toward less authority as toward more.

One of the timelines in this volume, Midgard, has a Vinland modelled on ancient Iceland, but with less drift toward oligarchy, given the more extensive room for settlement in North America; such features of Icelandic law as a poor man's right to sell his claim for damages to a rich man with the power to prosecute it are clearly explained. Another timeline, Caliph, based on a Muslim rise to world power, has an independent international judiciary without powers of enforcement, together with large areas of the world that have no sovereign governments, but rely on local governments for law enforcement and private foundations for social services. Cornwallis, despite its monarchical background, has a movement toward free trade and economic deregulation inspired by Hayek and Heidegger. These are not utopias nor purely libertarian societies of any sort, but it's clear that the authors have at least encountered libertarian ideas and taken them seriously as models.

More generally, this is simply an excellent job of building fictional worlds. All of the authors have done serious work in history and related fields, and it shows; they have a keen sense of how historical changes take place and of how to give an imaginary society the complexity and unpredictability that make it seem real. Technologies, economies, legal systems, and cultures are worked out with the care of good science fiction.

GURPS Alternate Earths 2 will probably be of interest mainly to gamers. But nongamers can take a moment of pleasure in knowing that this sort of material is being published.

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