Juvenile Sealurks, when isolated from the collective planetary consciousness, perform astounding feats as underwater sheepdogs. Vasts schools of calorie rich Sporefish may be herded by only a few well trained specimens. Just don’t let them get too close to the fungus or they’ll turn on you like a Razorshark.

– Captain Ulrik Svensgaard, “Tending the Sea”

This quote displays more in the way of the Weather Paradigm than you would expect from a grizzly sea captain. If you recall the post on the Nautilus Pirates, I made the claim that they do not fit into Alpha Centauri, and that they (along with the other expansion factions) were added too late to be given enough room to grow into what they could be. The Pirates should be ruthless marine biologists, and this quote – this is it.

To be sure, it is a strange critique to level at something to say that it is lacking because it is not enough of what it is. But I want to underscore this fundamental disconnect as a way to close this chapter. The other technologies were – to paraphrase the introduction – all about finding a place in the world and to align one’s tools with reality as it presents itself. Here, in a level one technology, we find someone discussing boats (a level two technology) alongside ecological practices which are well into the future at this point. The taming of mind worms and sealurks is an immensely delicate operation, which requires more attention to detail than can be expected in these early days. It is not that the quote is not thematically appropriate – it is very much in tune with the narrative – but it comes too soon. The colonists are barely able to scrape together a rowboat, and yet here we are, isolating young sealurks to perform tricks of ecology for our benefit. (It should also be noted that the gameplay benefit from building an Aquafarm is unavailable until researching Gene Splicing, which is quite a distance away in both game and publication time.)

You have heard me say many a time that it is important to get initial conditions set up just right, so that later good results follow from inertia. You have also heard me say that it is easier to set up things properly from the start than it is to change course later. This quote is an example of that: it is tacked onto an already existing body of lore and has to act as it fits in. And it does, as long as you do not stop to think about it, which by now you do. Both with regards to Alpha Centauri, and perhaps also in relation to others things – in particular future creative endeavors. There comes a point where what you have created adopts certain characteristics, where any attempt to add or subtract something will bring unintended side-effects. The creative work is bigger than you, and if you let it too close to the proverbial xenofungus, it will turn on you like a Razorshark indeed.


Progenitor Psych

And I stood before him, and I sang unto her, and it appeared to listen. His very countenance rippled like the sea, and the sound of my own voice came back to me, distorted. For a moment I thought she was mocking me, or it was non-sapient and mimicking me. Then I understood: the sounds were not important; it was how I affected his sounds and how she affected mine that transmitted the message.

 – Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five, “One Future”

Progenitor Psych is the first technology added by Alien Crossfire, and appropriately it centers on the titular aliens. In gameplay terms, a faction needs this technology in order to communicate with the Progenitors; it is akin to the process in first contact movies wherein understanding is gradually achieved through trial and error and misunderstandings and mutual acknowledgement of these misunderstandings and so on. Equally in gameplay terms, what happens after establishing communications with the aliens is that they immediately declare war on you, rendering the whole process rather counterproductive.

In literary terms, communication with alien life forms has a rich and complex history. To mention but a few, there is Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, China Miéville’s Embassytown, or, for good measure, Philip K. Dick’s Human Is. To say that there are hundreds of instances where the main plot element is awkward first encounters with alien intelligences would be an understatement; just about every science fiction television series there is has at least one episode containing such an encounter. Listing them all would be a massive undertaking, and I suspect it would glean some insight into contemporary social psych.

Aki’s quote highlights a specific aspect of the encounter between humans and progenitors, and that is what Levinas calls face. When humans interact, they face each other, and they also read each other’s faces. Levinas uses the face as a metonymy for the immediacy of interpersonal communication: when humans are physically close to each other, they are mediated not through language but through subtle cues, facial expressions being the least subtle of them. The other person is present, and your actions have an immediate effect upon their being in the world. Conversely, how they act affect you, and so the interaction flows. If you enter into a situation with a genuinely smiling face and a gentle demeanor, the situation unfolds differently than if you adopt a frown and a gruff demeanor. Again, the same goes in reverse too. The progenitors apparently do a very similar thing, albeit in the form of resonance: subtle shifts in energy wavelengths and sound frequencies. The interface is different, but the underlying principle is the same.

These initial moments of inter-species communication are particularly fragile, as everything is contingent and can go this way or that depending on the smallest of changes. Every gesture is under intense scrutiny, and what might appear to one part as an indifferent, non-communicative action is given immense significance by the other party. There is no neutral way of being in front of someone else’s face, and acting naturally is by definition an alien concept. It places Lögstrup’s conception of responsibility front and center: every time you are in the presence of another being, you are responsible for the ways in which you affect them. When encountering aliens this is extremely accentuated, but it is no less relevant when encountering other humans.

The Weather Paradigm

I shall not confront Planet as an enemy, but shall accept its mysteries as gifts to be cherished. Nor shall I crudely seek to peel the layers away like the skin from an onion. Instead I shall gather them together as the tree gathers the breeze. The wind shall blow and I shall bend. The sky shall open and I shall drink my fill.

– Gaian Acolyte’s Prayer

The weather paradigm is, at its core, an acceptance of the fact that ecological systems will do what they do regardless of whether you want them to or not, and that in the long run it is better to adapt to it than to resist it. Rains will fall or they will not fall; it will be sunny or it will be cloudy; there will be floods or there will be drought. These things are out of one’s control, and admitting this is the first step towards being able to utilize them more efficiently.

Presented in this way, it might seem obvious. However, it takes a great deal or reflection to arrive at this seemingly straightforward proposition. For starters, this point of view looks at ecology on a systems level rather than at a human level; this is not an answer to the question “what do I need to do in order to increase the output of my farm?” Rather, it is a question of its own: where, knowing what we know about the flows of energy, water and minerals, would it be prudent to locate a farm? The difference is subtle, but crucial. In the former case, you have already decided where to grow things, and now seek to optimize for that position. In the weather paradigm, you constantly keep yourself attuned to the various flows and adjust accordingly, perhaps even moving the farm altogether if that seems the more prudent option.

This is a more overall understanding of ecology, and moreover it is a very dedicated way of organizing a society. No one person can be this in tune with the ecological system, or even gather sufficient data on their own to approach such a state. There is no “I” in “team”, less so in “ecology”. The weather paradigm is above all a societal effort, consisting of data gathering, forecasting, theoretical ecological modeling and – not least – legal flexibility. It is ecological insight turned into societal practice, on every level, with tremendous benefits following from it.

It is interesting to note that this secret project does not reduce ecological damage caused by terraforming efforts – it only makes these efforts easier and faster to complete. Understanding how a system works and how to adapt to it to get the best result does not automatically translate into being in harmony with it. Humanity at this stage might be able to understand Planet and its ways, but that does not necessarily mean Planet likes what humanity is up to. The map is not the territory.

Centauri Ecology

Planet’s atmosphere, though a gasping death to humans and most animals, is paradise for Earth plants. The high nitrate content of the soil and the rich yellow sunlight bring an abundant harvest wherever adjustments can be made for the unusual soil conditions.

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

Chiron is, as we established in the introduction to this chapter, not paradise. Rather, it is an ecological system, and can be understood as such through ecological science. Understanding Earth ecology gives the Gaians a head start in this regard, despite the differences between Earth and Chiron. Indeed, knowing the ecological makeup of the planet left behind means knowing what to look for on the planet that is now their new home, and finding out that things do not correspond 1:1 means having more information to work with.

Most of the early days of ecological reconnaissance will likely consist of getting used to the idea that this is how things are now. Ecological systems do not work on the principle that they have to be intuitively recognizable or understandable by human beings, and do not mind being utterly alien to human cognition. Especially when the ecology in question is found in another solar system, where humans themselves are the aliens. Getting around to this way of thinking takes a non-trivial amount of time, and for the time being the best course of action is just to accept the realities of ecology as they present themselves.

Once these metaphysical hurdles have been acknowledged, a more physical approach can be applied. Ecologies consist mainly of flows (primarily of energy and minerals), and understanding these flows means understanding what’s what. The reportedly high levels of nitrate in the soil means Earth plants will find it agreeable, which is both fortunate and useful information. It cuts down on the need to mine minerals for fertilizer (as is standard procedure here on Earth), and more importantly it means plants will simply grow once a good spot has been found for them. These spots can be found either through trial and error (ecology being a system that works whether humans know how or not), or through systematic mapping of what flows where.

Centauri ecology is something of a reversal of Earth ecology. Here, ecology is seen as an almost mystical practice which reveres life in is multiplicity and complexity, which acknowledges the vastness of the systems in which we find ourselves. On Planet, the opposite is happening: a rigorous, scientific understanding of ecology demystifies and disenchants the world until it becomes a known quantity. The awesome and sublime fact of an alien ecology, reduced to the flow of nitrates and chemicals. It is an open question who remains in a state of awe the longest: the Gaians, who land with the expectation that this is what they are going to find, or everyone else, who are only just now finding these things out.

Command center

Superior training and superior weaponry have, when taken together, a geometric effect on overall military strength. Well-trained, well-equipped troops can stand up to many more times their lesser brethren than linear arithmetic would seem to indicate.

– Colonel Corazon Santiago, “Spartan Battle Manual”

A corollary to the concept of readiness is having somewhere to get ready. There are very specific things that need to be done before setting out to do things, and thus there is a need for someplace where these things can be the main activity. While it is possible to do these things on the natch – necessity tends to speed things up – they become more routine and efficient when preparations have been made for them. Having a command center is, in a sense, the difference between having a barracks to house the soldiers currently on duty, and having these same soldiers return home every day only to get back the next morning. It might seem a subtle difference, but it speaks to the nature of specialization: those who return home are reminded of all the other things there are in the colony, while those who live in the barracks for the duration know that this is their main activity now, temporarily or permanently.

There is a comparison to be made to long-distance hiking. It is very possible to simply pack all the necessary things into an oversized backpack – cooking gear, a tent, food, supplies – and just start walking in a direction. Once you get going, you will see the sights and become more aware of just how small you are in the grand scheme of things. However, the same is also true if there is a pre-planned route with stops along the way and infrastructure in place to remind you where to go. There is nothing saying that it’s impossible to walk the same grounds without these prior preparations, but it becomes that much easier when you know that there is a water spring this much further ahead, a cabin to take shelter in up on the next ridge, and an alarmingly vibrant presence of xenofungus due south of where you are now. Preparation is both convenient and conducive to survival.

The Spartans, of course, take this to the next level, and make a virtue of necessity. Following from the prerequisite of Doctrine: Mobility, and the Foucauldian idiom that knowledge is power, it is safe to assume that a Spartan command center has mapped the surrounding terrain in extensive detail, and placed small caches of supplies at strategic locations across the landscape. Having somewhere to get ready at a local scale is ever so gradually transformed into a readiness to fight wherever the enemy happens to show up, by virtue of knowing these places inside and out. Lal’s insight that movement creates knowledge has been weaponized and put to immediate military use.

Doctrine: Mobility

Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he cannot return to the blissful ignorance he left. Motion, of necessity, involves a change in perspective.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A Social History of Planet”

Readiness is a strange concept, being at once both intuitive and hard to grasp. The intuitive part is that for whatever you are trying to do, there are different levels of being ready for it. A simple example is going out for a walk. It might so happen that you are ready to go right this instant, and all you need to do is put those legs into motion. That is a high state of readiness. It might also be the case that you need to make some preparations before heading out – putting on clothes, eating something to keep up blood sugar levels, tell someone where you are going, etc. The act of going for a walk is still possible, but not without preparations. Readiness is a measure of how many (or, more precisely, few) such preparations need to be made between right now and being out the door, walking.

Being fast, as in able to move at great speed, is a tremendous advantage in this regard. Not only because less time is spent moving, but because it makes it possible to attack whilst the enemy is unprepared. If the attack is fast enough, the enemy is busy getting prepared to fight rather than actually fighting; it takes a while to put on boots, grab a gun and get into formation, and during that time, great damage can be caused. For this reason, speed is of the essence.

These military considerations tie in to Lal’s quote in a simple yet important way: you are always someone, somewhere, doing something. Regardless of whether you are planning a sneak attack or a lengthy walk across the landscape, you have to take into account all the steps necessary to get to where you want to go, and the preparations associated with that. Mobility means changing your relationship to where you are, just as it changes where you are. Depending on whether you plan on being in one single spot forever, or on being in multiple places at different times, your ways of thinking differ radically.

The same goes for mental places. Those who have never been somewhere only have access to the information they have been told about this place, true or false. This information morphs into mental images and representations of that place, which can then further solidify into stereotypes or misconceptions. The act of simply going to these other physical places changes the mental landscape significantly; suddenly, there is a wealth of new information available, rendering those previous ways of thinking obsolete. Upon discovering that things are pretty much the same here as there, better communication and understanding can take place between groups of people. Conversely, discovering that things are done differently elsewhere can put things taken for granted into perspective.

Like Matthew Arnold said: the likelihood of the best possible knowledge in the world happening to exist right here, right now, is rather slim, considering the vast amounts of world out there. The only way to find out is to go there, and the readiness to get moving (physically as well as mentally) is a virtue not to be underestimated.

Recreation commons

The entire character of a base and its inhabitants can be absorbed in a quick trip to the Rec Commons. The sweaty arenas of Fort Legion, the glittering gambling halls of Morgan Bank, the sunny lovers’ trysts in Gaia’s High Garden, or the somber reading rooms of U.N. Headquarters. Even the feeding bay at the Hive gives stark insight into the sleeping demons of Yang’s communal utopia.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A Social History of Planet”

Here, it might be prudent to take a step back and look at something we have taken for granted up until this point: faction differentiation. Particularly, faction differentiation in the context of 1999 civ games. Even more particularly, in comparison to Civ 2, where the only difference between civilizations were the faction names and which generic icon were used to represent their cities. In terms of gameplay, Rome played the same as the Aztecs, Americans or Russians. This made for balanced playthroughs, but it had the strange side-effect of turning history into an aesthetic preference.

Having different factions with different strengths and weaknesses was not something unknown in computer games at the time. It was a key feature of Starcraft, released the year before SMAC, and more so in the Master of Orion series, of 4X fame. It has, over the years, been ever so gradually implemented into the main line of Civ series. But it has always been more prominent in offshoots (like the contemporary Test of Time) or mods (Fall from Heaven 2 for Civ 4 in particular) than in the main series.

This conservative approach is not motivated by technical feasibility, as demonstrated by the fact that SMAC pulls it off. Rather, it has to do with the subject matter at hand: history. Fiction has a distinct advantage over history in that it makes inherent sense – all the characters are known, all the forces at play have been defined, the things that happen can be explained in terms that already exist within the narrative universe. Fiction is a limited object, with a beginning, middle and end. History, on the other hand, has neither of these things. Everything is an interrelated blur of unknown variables affecting other unknown variables until things turned out the way they did, and we only ever remember the things someone bothered to write down. In fiction, you can expand at length about the differences between characters, since you are at liberty to make things up as you go along. In history, you have too much and too little information to make any definite statements one way or another before venturing deep into the subject matter, and even then most of it is educated guesswork. The implicit claim of the Civilization series to reflect history has had to contend with this state of things, thus discouraging wild leaps into characterization and faction differentiation.

All of this leads up to Lal – like a thinly veiled Herodotus – telling us that although facilities share the same institutional functions across factions, they manifest in radically different ways. Suddenly, we face a radical multiplicity: a rec commons is not a one-size fits all facility, but fourteen different implementations of the insights into Social Psych. All factions face the same inherent tendencies of dronehood, and each faction implements different preventative measures towards it. This is not only an efficient way to breathe differentiation into mechanically identical pieces of gameplay, but also an interesting heuristic to apply to one’s understanding of history. Then as now, humans face the same problems, and have to solve them somehow; bread and circuses is more than a mere historical curiosity.

In Civ 2, every identical civilization could build the Colosseum. In Alpha Centauri, the different factions build the same buildings. Only, as Lal implied, they do not.