Planetary energy grid

The ancient Chinese had a name for it: Feng Shui. We call it energy flow. It is the same thing, the same thought: energy is everywhere, but only a fraction of it is tapped by humans for their purposes. Now the Progenitors have taught us that we can tap not only our own latent abilities, but the latent abilities of the Universe itself.

— Prophet Cha Dawn, “Planet Rising”

The teachings of Feng Shui do indeed concern themselves with energy flows. These flows are, however, ever so slightly more metaphorical than Cha Dawn make it out to be. When applied to interior decoration – a topic both more and less science fiction than one would imagine – the gist of it is to keep the energy pathways clear, so as to allow it to flow freely throughout your domicile. When applied to one’s personal life, it centers on not leaving things undone or unfinished, since doing so will tie up your energies and prevent you from going with the flow (wherever it might take you). To phrase it inelegantly, it’s about not getting caught up in the past and allowing your present being to become the full extent of what it could be (a thought not too dissimilar from Aristotle’s notion of flourishing).

It makes sense to carry the analogy over to an energy based economy. The smoother, faster and more frictionless energy can move from one place to another, the more readily it can do what it needs to accomplish. Here, surprisingly, the Cultists find themselves in agreement with Morgan’s notion that energy is life, and thus that the more energy can be mobilized, the more life can be brought about. Where Morgan sees this through the lens of a relentless free marketeering ideology, Cha Dawn approaches it through the prism of Chinese philosophy. Both agree that the uninterrupted flow of energy is the way to go, but one wonders just how far this agreement will carry them.

As to tapping the energies of the Universe, it is an open question how much of this comes down to marveling at the Progenitor ability to perceive and alter resonance fields, and how much further Cha Dawn carries the principle into a more universalized notion of energy. It stands to reason that the colonists, upon having encountered the strange energy fields employed by the aliens, become fascinated by this new manifestation of reality that was there all along without anyone noticing. It also stands to reason that the same principle might apply to other previously hidden dimensions, just waiting to be discovered by intrepid researchers or spiritual seekers. The tangible economic results (such as the planetary energy grid) will ensure that no-nonsense, data driven researchers will keep searching for said dimensions using all available tools of the trade (tricks, as Becker would have it). The slightly less tangible results, in turn, will ensure that spiritual seekers of all stripes will dig in and use every secret recipe in their renegade repertoires to uncover yet another facet of the Mystery. It may very well be that resonance fields are the quantum mechanics of the 23rd century, sparking inspiring discoveries in the scientific realm and completely unrelated set of inspirations in its cultural counterpart.

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Thermocline transducer

The boundary between cold water and warm, the thermocline, has been important to undersea warfare for hundreds of years of man’s history. Now we have found a way to harness that power for constructive purposes. What once cloaked us can now feed us, what once shielded us from death, now brings us life.

— Captain Ulrik Svensgaard, “The Ripple and the Wave”

All water is identical, but not all water is created equal. This is an important feature of large bodies of water, where depending on what depth you are at, you encounter different temperatures. Ever so slightly counterintuitive, water becomes warmer closer to the surface, especially during sunny seasons; cold water is heavier than warm water, and thus trends downwards by virtue of gravity. The result is a heavily stratified body, with the coldest (albeit still unfrozen) water at the bottom, the warmest at the top, and a middling layer in the middle.

The thermocline is a very specific point where heat is exchanged between the warm water above and the colder water below. As with most places where heat is rapidly exchanged between one thing and another, this is a prime spot for energy generation; heat exchange being, in essence, energy in motion. Svensgaard calls it a lifebringer, and Morgan will (in a later chapter) go on to express his enthusiasm about the free energy just sitting there waiting for someone to tap it.

The thermocline is also, as you might imagine, very loud. A submarine hiding on the other side of it will be nigh invisible on sonar, shielded from listening ears by the roaring motion of water. This cuts both ways, as the very same loudness makes it difficult to ascertain where eventual pursuers are. They may or may not be in pursuit, but there is no way to know for sure unless they come down or you come up.

Svansgaard makes reference to this being a military technology now repurposed for civilian application. As readers will probably remember from previous chapters, this is a very common trajectory for technologies to have. As Virilio wrote about at length, these technologies do not completely lose their military origins, but instead contribute to an overall militarization of society, sometimes implied, sometimes overt. What was once used as a strategic feature of submarine warfare now becomes a fixture of civilian power generation. There is, however, nothing preventing these civilian installations to pull double duty as military sensors in search of enemy vessels; seeing as the construction juts out on both sides of the thermocline by design, they are perfectly suited for that specific purpose. Civilian and military applications are never fully disengaged from each other.

Adaptive economics

Humans : correct in making the leap from wealth as currency to wealth as energy. But logic failure : wealth ultimately is extension of desire, fluctuating with emotions and state of mind. Desires : when all are supported in purely adaptable system, true wealth is achieved.

— Usurper Judaa Marr, “Human : Nature”

The introduction of alien factions in the Alien Crossfire expansion brings with it a host of questions, most of which relate to their modes of social organization. There is, by virtue of them being alien, bound to be quite a few and quite radical differences between how these aliens go about doing things and the more familiar human ways we’ve seen so far. They wouldn’t be alien if they simply conformed to the economic theory of this or that human thinker of centuries past.

This, however, points to an inherent contradiction of science fiction. Science fiction is by necessity written by humans, for humans, from a human point of view. No matter how elaborate, extrapolated or extraordinary the aliens depicted in sci fi writing become, they are still limited in scope to the point of view of a single species on a single planet. When authors seek inspiration for their strange and amazing extraterrestrial entities, this inspiration will by necessity come from somewhere close to home. Alien is as human does.

This is something of a drawback when it comes to empirical correctness and science-based science fiction. It does not, however, invalidate the notion of writing about aliens in the first place. They are not meant to be depictions of actually existing little (or, in the case of the progenitors, quite large) green men, but rather to perturb and upturn our habitual conceptions of what it means to be human. By confronting the Other, we mirror ourselves.

We can see this at play in the quote above. Marr comments on the limitations of human economic thinking, and points out that there is a better, more logical way of going about things. Wealth seen as merely the fulfillment of flimsy and temporary impulses is short-sighted, and tends to lead to the accumulation of ever more useless trinkets as one momentary fad gives way to another; wealth becomes the ability to give in to desire yet one more time, as the mood shifts. Marr’s alternative, then, is to move the ability to satisfy desires from the individual to societal institutions, in such a way that everyone can do it, whilst also contributing to the overall economy. An adaptive economy does not consist of wealthy individuals, but rather of a set of economic institutions which allow for the wealth to be realized where it needs to be, regardless of the size or nature of said need.

It should come as no surprise that Marr has Planned as his preferred societal choice; what has been said so far resonates with the old adage “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Perhaps it is only fitting that Marr’s ambition to become the supreme overmind of the galaxy is built on the backs of well-cared for citizens. Indeed, it might be the only way. If this is how he treats his minions before achieving godhood, the thinking might be, then imagine what manner of wealth he might bestow once the Transcendence is completed. It would, all things considered, be a very human thing to believe.

Green

As the third and final economic policy option, Green completes the triad begun by Free market and Planned. It is worth noting that the first two options are found in chapter 2, at an earlier stage of colonial evolution. This comes down to two factors. First, both free markets and planned economies have precedents on Earth, and are thus readily available for local adaptations as soon as the infrastructure is in place. Second, while there are ecological schools of thought available to us at present, they are (by virtue of our being on planet Earth) not developed with a radically alien ecology in mind. For an economic system to be green, it has to be based on a firm understanding on the ecology it finds itself in. This understanding only manifested itself after the attainment of Centauri empathy. It is, as a popular cultural icon once noted, not easy being green.

As with the other social choices, Green does not represent a single fixed ideology, but has to be read in conjunction with the other choices made. The differences between a green fundamentalist faction (the Cultists spring to mind) and a green police state are not subtle, and neither can be confused with the economically optimized (an Efficiency rating of +4 is not to be trifled with) combination of a green democracy. The stark differences aside, what unites them all is an informed decision to make every effort possible to not disturb the local ecology more than absolutely necessary.

The commitment to not cause ecological damage is, at its core, a scientific endeavor. Although motivated by ideology, it takes quite a bit of empirical observation to determine whether one action or another has actually made an impact or not. Ecological cycles are slow, complex and encompass vast ranges of territory, meaning that a local mindset simply will not do. Monitoring the ecology requires extensive infrastructure of sensors, monitoring stations, and institutions to go through all the collected data. Said data then has to be used when making decisions as to what to build, where, at what scale and (in ecological terms) at what cost. This data-driven economy is a very different beast indeed compared to a profit-driven alternative.

The benefits of this mode of economic governance are obvious. Once the data is collected and assimilated, making good decisions becomes second nature (or, at least, not making atrociously bad decisions). It does, however, take quite a while to get into the mindset (individual and collective) that enables this mode of social organization to come into being. A person is not born as an environmental analyst, but is made into one. The individual and social learning curve involved with implementing a green economy is steep, and thus there is an inherent risk of developing into a technocratic mode of governance where only those steeped in the intricacies of ecological processes are able to form useful and actionable opinions on further economic development. Being ecologically sensitive does not preclude the potential to perpetuate a class society; indeed, it is arguably better at it than the alternatives.

The Empath Guild

Symbols are the key to telepathy. The mind wraps its secrets in symbols; when we discover the symbols that shape our enemy’s thought, we can penetrate the vault of his mind.

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Our Secret War”

With the advent of Centauri empathy, it follows that there will be specialists focusing on this specific area of inquiry. Modern societies rely on an ever fine grained division of labor, and it is only natural that communing with the ecology in general and Planet in particular becomes another field of expertise. While everyone is affected by technological changes, only those involved with developing or applying it will see the nitty gritty details of the process. The rest will see the results of said process, but will mostly be too preoccupied with their own specialization to pay any further heed than that.

The quote suggests that the new emotional maturity attained through researching the prerequisite technology is weaponized against other factions. By means of semiotics – the study of signs and symbols – the secret of mind reading will finally be unlocked. Backed up by the Secrets of the human brain, this might be more literal than a first glance would suggest. The image of supercharged 20th century media studies scholars running roughshod over the unwitting minds of 23rd century colonists is too good to pass up.

Empathetic readers might detect a slight case of scepticism on my part as to the feasibility of this approach. This is partly due to my background in media studies, where semiotics used to be the big thing but (with apologies to Barthes) has been demoted to the status of a commonly known trope, and is mostly taught as a means to give historical context to the development of the discipline. More importantly, it is due to the dissonance between the implications of the parent technology and the explications of this secret project. It makes sense for it to allow the creation of a guild of especially adept diplomats, able to broker deals and facilitate beneficial developments through strategic application of understanding and empathy (with all the advantages that comes from being a first mover). It does not, however, make sense to posit said guild as a pointed intelligence force masterminding its way into the semiotic secret vaults of one’s enemies. It is an ambition that is too emotionally small for the level of maturity it presupposes.

One might object to this by pointing out that I’ve somehow gotten stuck on the image of warrior media studies scholars. Which would be true. But I maintain – channeling the spirit of Barthes – that the author is wrong. Empathy is not an adversarial unlocking of secrets; it is about placing things in such an explanatory context that the whole notion of secrets becomes orthogonal to the equation. The implications of just what Centauri Empathy entails are not drawn far enough, leaving us with a non-specialist application of a specialist competence. Which, to be fair, is what science fiction is all about (for everyone who is not literally Asimov).

There is a slightly different possible reading of this, and that is that what is connoted is not semiotics, but discourse analysis. Which, for all intents and purposes, is a slightly more evolved supercharged 20th century media studies scholar running roughshod over the unwitting minds of 23th century colonists. This image, too, is also too good to pass up.

Biology lab

Although Planet’s native life is based, like Earth’s, on right-handed DNA, and codes for all the same amino acids, the inevitable chemical and structural differences from a billion years of evolution in an alien environment render the native plant life highly poisonous to humans. Juicy, ripe grenade fruits may look appealing, but a mouthful of organonitrates will certainly change your mind in a hurry.

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “A Comparative Biology of Planet”

This quote raises and answers questions in equal measure. By revealing that life on Earth and Chiron are based on the same overall organizing principle, in the form of DNA, it answers the question of how the native flora and fauna can be analyzed and understood by the colonists. Reading a book becomes easier if you already know the alphabet, as it were. This revelation raises the question of why this shared organizing principle can be found on two different planets that – as far as we know – have never had any contact with each other. Convergent evolution – the independent development of similar features in species that are not related to each other – is a known phenomenon on Earth. Here, it mostly comes down to both species being under similar evolutionary pressure. The same pressure can not be said to exist on an interplanetary basis. Either some higher order organizing principle is at work, which affects a great number of planets, or there were some undocumented contact in the ancestral past. In either case, questions and eyebrows alike are raised.

For the colonists, having just begun to come to terms with the whole Centaury empathy way of thinking, these questions necessitate the construction of specialized research facilities designed to figure these things out, as scientifically as possible. Being able to read the DNA of the locals gives a way to understand how and why they do what they do, and paves the way (with Genetic splicing) for future advances to come. It also – for gameplay purposes – allows for the construction of stronger mind worms, and the rapid healing of already existing ones.

Being able to domesticate and breed mind worms is, to those not yet attuned to the ways of Planet, a terrifying prospect. In gameplay terms, it allows the Gaians to win a conquest victory at blazing speeds, by feat of mind worm alone. In slightly more speculative terms, we can imagine someone attacking a Gaian base with conventional weapons, thinking themselves to be making victorious inroads, only to find themselves suddenly and inexplicably flanked by mind worms. Imagine the surprise at discovering that not only are there psionically shrieking aliens at play, but also that they seem to be allied to the enemy somehow. The first time is bound to be a slaughter; the promise of a second time a deterrence.

This raises the question of just who the people who work in these biology labs are. How do you train to become a mind worm breeder? What equipment is used to facilitate the biological research taking place? How long can a person commune with the worms before becoming detached from baseline human sensitivities? How does it feel to unleash them in battle?

The biology lab asks and answers a great many questions. Some of them more comfortably science and/or fiction than others.

Centuari empathy

Observe the Razorbeak as it tends so carefully to the fungal blooms; just the right bit from the yellow, then a swatch from the pink. Follow the Glow Mites as they gather and organize the fallen spores. What higher order guides their work? Mark my words: someone or something is managing the ecology of this planet.

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Planet Dreams”

Living on a planet that is verging on becoming conscious is, in a word, weird. Not only do you have to contend with everything that goes with being on a brand new planet that works in mysterious ways – these very same ways are bound to become even more mysterious as the sentience of Planet grows. Ecological systems are complex even at the simplest of times, and adding will and intent to the mix does nothing to reduce said complexity. Indeed, the increased complexity is more than likely a manifestation of the increased sentience, the figurative and/or literal neural pathways growing into shape. In short, it is time to let go of the ecological intuitions of Earth.

Humans, being both emotional and pattern seeking animals, tend to imbue inanimate objects with feelings and sentiments. This is due to our highly developed sense of empathy and social sensitivity – millions of years of social interaction have honed these senses into finely tuned tools. When confronting a new object, our first instinct is to seek out its emotional implications. Both to understand the reaction in ourselves, and the reaction in our peers; the latter arguably more important to our everyday dealings than the former.

Extending this sense of empathy to an ecosystem is not an easy thing to do. As we have seen over the course of this chapter, these research projects do not represent easy accomplishments that happened as side-effects of doing something else. Each and every one of them took conscious efforts to achieve, and so it stands to reason that this project, too, is an important step for the factions to have undertaken during the course of settling in. For the Gaians and the Cultists (and, indeed, the Caretakers), the process is more intuitive than for other factions. For the Morgans, in particular, this whole empathy business is a sideways thing to pursue. However, somehow, at some point, they too managed to get a feel for Planet.

Knowing others to know yourself is a tale as old as time. On Chiron, it is not just a recognition of the inescapable situatedness of human beings in a social context not entirely of their own choosing; it is a recognition that the shape of the future might very well come down to how well humanity comes to grip emotionally with the fact that Planet is alive, feeling, and kicking out mindworms towards those insensitive to these feelings. Centauri empathy is not just a scientific advance in ecological sensitivity; it is a necessary step in humanity growing up.