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.

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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.

Hab complex

The chief aim of their constitution and government is that, whenever public needs permit, all citizens should be free, so far as possible, to withdraw their time and energy from the service of the body, and devote themselves to the freedom and culture of the mind. For that, they think, is the real happiness of life.

– Sir Thomas More, Utopia, Datalinks

The process of automation outlined in the previous entry is, as noted, not limited to remote industrial settings. It also takes place closer to home. More specifically, it is used to build and maintain said homes. In the early days of the colony, everything had to be built by manual labor, which put an effective upper limit to how big a base could be. The bigger in size the built environment, the more people are required to maintain it. This relationship might be expressed mathematically, giving a rough outline of just how big a base can be before it can not become any bigger; the game shows this mechanically by limiting base sizes to 7 before building this facility.

More, in the quote above, makes reference to a freedom and culture of the mind, in contrast to the service of the body. Under conditions where a healthy base with a functioning life support system is a healthy body, this service takes the form of making sure that all facilities required for future human habitation are kept in working order. When all hands are required to do this, the opportunities to do something else are few and far between. Devoting oneself to the freedom and culture of the mind is a luxurious dream under conditions where the oxygen tanks are springing a leak every fifteen minutes. That is, until a robot can be put to work to fix those leaks automatically.

Having thus freed humans from the service of the body, the hab complex allows both for a larger population in general, and a more diverse division of labor in particular. People are freed up to become artists, librarians, engineers, designers, politicians, authors – all those activities which do not provide immediate benefits to society, but which if performed well become incalculable sources of positive change. Freed from the constraints of immediate survival, humanity is finally allowed the breathing space required to flourish.

The downside to this is, of course, that being freed from necessity has the potential to render people superfluous. Moreover, the large scale thinking inherent in automated base-wide systems tend towards the kind of functional separation lamented by Lefebvre in his description of a newly built residential block. There was only and exactly one thing to do in this new construction, Lefebvre noted, and that was to reside. The buildings were all furnished with the most modern of conveniences and appliances, built to the highest of standards, but walking through the area filled him with a sense of dread. For one, there were ironically no people there – during the day, everyone was at work, elsewhere, and during the evening they were in the leisure parts of town, also elsewhere. The only people at home were those who did not have anywhere to go; they resided, but given the lack of human activity available to participate in, it is questionable whether they actually lived.

Research hospital

Some civilian workers got in among the research patients today and became so hysterical I felt compelled to have them nerve stapled. The consequence, of course, will be another public relations nightmare, but I was severely shaken by the extent of their revulsion towards a project so vital to our survival.

— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, The Personal Diaries

This quote is a showcase for how much a single word can alter the meaning of an entire passage. For years, I thought it said “the consequence, of course, would be”, implying that Morgan momentarily considered nerve stapling the perturbed civilian workers, but then thought better of it in light of the inevitable PR blowback from such a move. The “would” indicates a potential path not taken, a course of events within the realms of possibility, but not this particular time. The fact that the quote says “will”, however, indicates that this very thing actually happened, and that Morgan at the time of writing is both dreading the upcoming PR debacle, as well as not too bothered by the fact that he had people nerve stapled. One gets the impression the former will weigh more heavily on his mind over the coming days than the latter.

The quote also indicates what kind of research takes place at this kind of hospital. An initial impression upon reading the words “research hospital” might be that it is a standard hospital which, above and beyond its routine treatments of common medical conditions, also has a special unit engaged in data gathering and research (common in cities featuring universities). The reaction of these unfortunate civilian workers, however, suggests it might be a facility more along the lines of the one used in the Vipeholm experiments. These experiments consisted of feeding mentally ill patients nothing but candy, sugar and more candy in order to study how fast their teeth would rot. One “treatment” consisted in leaving a big ball of sugar inside the patient’s mouth for extended periods of time, to speed up the process. At no point had anyone involved agreed to participate.

On one level, this is an ethical abomination whose mere mention should force a thorough bout of self-examination in anyone even remotely associated with medical practice. On another level, the data gathered from these experiments have been instrumental in treating dental patients for decades, making for robust practices worldwide. Dentistry textbooks may or may not mention the source of the data gathered there, but it would be a step down from best practices to not include said data. Medical science progresses on the suffering of these innocent people.

What Morgan seems to have in mind is a utilitarian line of reasoning where this is an acceptable tradeoff. Moreover, the fact that the research hospital facility reduces the drone count of a base raises the question of just where said drones go. One interpretation is that the overall increased level of healthcare allows these individuals to live happy and productive lives. Another is that their lives are indeed productive, just not in the way envisioned by those happy to use such phrasing. Perhaps, when the victims are long forgotten, humanity will be better off for it.

Skunkworks

The popular stereotype of the researcher is that of a skeptic and a pessimist. Nothing could be further from the truth! Scientists must be optimists at heart, in order to block out the incessant chorus of those who say “It cannot be done.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, University Commencement

There is a lot of non-scientific activity going on these days, most of it conducted by non-scientists. Naturally, when scientists notice these shenanigans, their natural instinct is to say that these things do not work and (more often than not) can not work. While correct in detail, the overall result of this impulse is a seeming chorus of people saying it cannot be done. The “it” in question varies, but the image of researchers saying “it cannot” remains static.

This is something of a challenge for science communicators. It also casts the Skunkworks, as base facility and general concept, in an ironic light. These are places where everything goes, where balls to the walls insane projects are given a green light and highly speculative, low-probability theories are tested out. The prototypical advancement of science is conducted through the steady iteration of repetition; most of it consist of a rather unglamorous going through the motions. At the Skunkworks, however, anything goes. Sure, let’s see what happens if we fire a giant space laser whilst it is half a centigrade from turning into superheated plasma! Let’s find out what happens if we reverse the polarity of a mind worm! Can we modify the morphogenetic field somehow? Do progenitors like K-pop? Let’s find out!

Most of these speculative ventures will, inevitably, not work. Null results are also results, however, and a non-trivial amount of knowledge can be gleaned from the process of repeatedly trying supposedly impossible things. For one, there is now more experimental data than there was before. For another, the scientists, lab technicians, engineers and everyone else involved will have gained valuable on the job experience. The most immediate benefit of this is better trained science crews able to conduct a wide variety of experiments. A slightly less immediate, but potentially more significant, benefit is the opening up of conversations along the lines of “hey, remember that time when we did x? what if we tried it on y?”. Even if x didn’t pan out, the impulse to try it again on y just might.

If this makes you think of Feyerabend, the firebrand agitator against methodology in scientific exploration, then you know where this is headed. The key to reading Feyerabend, however, is to do it from the point of view hinted at in Zakharov’s quote: as an optimist seeing the potential things within reach that are yet to be done. Science is fundamentally a process of retroactively verifying and corroborating, but it is not only that. Zakharov and Feyerabend, optimists both, argue that it is very pessimistic indeed to reduce science to a mere process of going through the motions. Zakharov goes ever so slightly further, and adds that sometimes the scientifically prudent thing to do is to build a prohibitively expensive and ethically dubious facility specifically dedicated to conducting the most outlandish experiments possible. After all, it just might pan out.

Pressure dome

When beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.

– Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”, Datalinks

The pressure dome is a very weird building. What it does is that it allows a base to be submerged under water. Since this is a very situational thing that only ever happens on rare occasions, there really is no need to build it unless you specifically find yourself at risk of being submerged. (It also acts as a recycling tank, but at twice the cost, it’s easier to just build the tanks.) From a gameplay perspective, the pressure dome is an edge case.

It is interesting to ponder the in-universe reasoning behind restructuring a base in such a way that it could withstand a sudden onslaught of ocean, however. Not merely a momentary high tide which sweeps across the base to then recede in short order, but a permanent submersion under the waves. This requires being able to resist an immense amount of pressure, both from the sheer weight of the water, and also from its moving around back and forth. Overall, it is a massive feat of engineering and architecture, which should be commended.

The ordeal is made easier by the fact that a base is a sealed system from the word go. Everything is already indoors, so there is no need to enclose the plazas, street grids and other public amenities; all that is needed is to harden the exterior shell of the base such that it can withstand the water. At some places, this means strengthening it structurally. At other places, this means smoothing out surfaces to minimize the areas that are in actual contact with the sea. Only the edges of the base have to withstand the pressure; the interior only has to withstand the whims of its occupants.

Given that this is an extensive effort in preparation for an unlikely event, I imagine that the cases where a pressure dome is actually built is marked by a high degree of anticipation. On the one hand, if it is deemed necessary then it means that the ocean is on approach, arriving sooner rather than later. On the other hand, there is no real way to know whether the dome will actually withstand the pressure until it is fully submerged. If it holds, it holds. If it does not, then the base is flooded with water and subjected to the remorseless fang Melville alluded to.

Perimeter defense

Having now established a secure perimeter, we have made ourselves relatively safe from enemy incursions. But against the seemingly random attacks by Planet’s native life only our array of warning sensors can help us, for the Mind Worms infiltrate through every crevice and chew through anything softer than plasmasteel.

– Lady Deirdre Skye, “The Early Years”

Being inside a building is, more often than not, an advantage when it comes to being on the defensive. The sheer presence of solid physical material between yourself and everything on the outside confers all sorts of advantages – warmth, the ability to organize your daily activities through specialized rooms, and of course the inability of things to enter in except through the door. Being thus sheltered from cold, chaos and calamity, you are ready to face the world on the occasions when you venture outside.

These advantages are all incidental, however, and differ from the sorts of protection afforded by constructions specifically built to create a difficult-to-conquer regions. Urban warfare is made difficult by the sheer fact that getting from point A to point B is difficult unless you already know the geography and can navigate the city streets. It is made a nightmare if the city is intentionally designed to include defensible positions, choke points and kill zones without cover. There is defense, and there is defense.

The Perimeter Defense represents an active investment in these kinds of intentional defensive architectural features. In a sense, it is the militarization of architecture. Given that life on Chiron is almost exclusively happening inside the built environment of bases, it by extension means the militarization of entire lifeworlds. Yang makes no secret of this, and intentionally built his bases underground specifically with this in mind. On Chiron, the dividing line between civilian and military endeavors is blurry at best. To quote from Virilio’s Bunker Archeology:

Anticipation and ubiquity are war’s requirements, and distance or prominent obstacles must not impede intelligence or reconnaissance. On the one hand, one must see all and know all, and, on the other, must create masks and screens infinitely tighter than any nature offered – than any of those we have dissipated or surpassed.

We can see this dual dynamic in Deidre’s quote. On the one hand the Perimeter Defense will defend against human enemies; on the other hand, only sensors can defend against Mind Worms. Defensive architecture will only take the colonists so far – the defense must go on the offense, as it were, and include anticipatory equipment that can see the enemy (be it human or worm) arrive from a distance. The effect of this is a society which at every point in time anticipates an incoming attack. Even when no attack is incoming, the preparations made for its eventuality has an effect on the present. It becomes part of the everyday mentality, even if it is rarely addressed explicitly. A base is a home, but it is also a bunker. By necessity, design, or both, that is the home the colonists built for themselves.