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.

Advertisements

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.

Children’s crèche

Proper care and education for our children remains a cornerstone of our entire colonization effort. Children not only shape our future; they determine in many ways our present. Men and women work harder knowing their children are safe and close at hand. And never forget that, with children present, parents will defend their home to the death.

– Colonel Corazon Santiago, “Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide”

The inclusion of this building in the game amuses me. Given that Alpha Centauri is an American game, it is by necessity framed through an American lens. The implication of including what is basically a child daycare center, and having it require an extensive research effort to even become available as a construction option, is that the whole idea is so outlandish as to belong to the realm of science fiction. While this framing was probably not the intended narrative outcome, it does say something that the one way to get proper childcare facilities, from a US point of view, is to build a giant spaceship, go to another planet and discover (after lengthy scientific investigation) that the treatment of kids is something of a big deal. It has hard to shake the feeling that this hard-earned insight could have been gained through a less circuitous method.

One such method might be to turn to the pragmatist John Dewey, who wrote extensively on the nature of education and learning. Education is a system for instructing people (primarily children) with various skills deemed necessary for functioning and participating in society. Learning is the processing of information and acquisition of new useful skills, and a vital component for relating to the world. The two are only ever tangentially related, where the things a child actually learns while in school might differ substantially from what the curriculum has to say. To paraphrase a section from Democracy and Education: education is only effective in so much as the child actually cares about what is being taught, and merely going through the motions of being educated is neither necessary nor sufficient to learning. For one thing, the learning outcome of a particularly boring lecture might be a proficiency for falling asleep even on uncomfortable chairs during suboptimal noise conditions.

Here on Earth, not picking up something while in school is likely to not have too severe consequences. For one thing, if something is important, it will come up in context once it becomes relevant. As long as the major skills are acquired – reading, writing, numeracy, some general sense of what society is and how it works, some basic science – the rest can be remedied retroactively. There is no one lesson which teaches you a vital life skill where you will fail as a human being if you don’t show up on that particular day. The connection between learning and education contains sufficient redundancy to allow for less than 100% retention.

On Chiron, there might very well be such lessons. How to quickly seal off breached areas, how to affect emergency repairs on malfunctioning equipment, what to do in case of mind worm attacks – any moment can become a catastrophic situation, where the swift application of critical skills means the difference between life and death. It therefore becomes imperative to minimize the gap between education and learning; perhaps the effort required to accomplish this paradigm shift is the reason for not placing this facility on tier 1.

Another method is to turn to children’s author Astrid Lindgren. The various depictions of children and how they relate to the world is instructive with regards to how they can more readily be taught what they need to know. Rather than viewing things in such alienated terms as “learning outcomes”, Lindgren teaches us to see the world as a child: as big, scary, and full of interesting mysteries. These mysteries will inevitably be explored, regardless of what the grown-ups have to say on the matter; the drive to explore can either be dismissed as irrelevant to the learning process, or incorporated as a vital component of it.

Both Dewey and Lindgren have the distinct advantage of being available to us right here, right now. No interstellar journey required. To bastardize a common expression: given enough sustained lack of attention, any sufficiently existing body of knowledge becomes indistinguishable from science fiction.

Energy bank

Life is merely an orderly decay of energy states, and survival requires the continual discovery of new energy to pump into the system. He who controls the sources of energy controls the means of survival.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

There is an old saying that you can’t take it with you. ‘It’ refers to money, and the implied destination is the afterlife, whatever it might turn out to be. With money being what we are used to seeing – currency and bank accounts – this is an eminent truth, rooted deeply within the material conditions of our situation. On Chiron, things are ever so slightly more metaphysical. If life is energy (and energy is life), then you can indeed take it with you, either through an orderly unleashing of the accumulated power into the general environment (presumably to the same state of entropy you went to), or through some sort of symbolic outburst which causes some big event to fire which ultimately culminate in – nothing.

A big hurdle in power generation is what to do with it. To be sure, being able to produce monumental amounts of energy during peak performance is impressive, but it is not necessary to do so at all times, and it would cause the machinery to degrade at too fast a pace to be sustainable. It would also burn fuel for no particular gain. Most of the time, what is needed is a moderate output, with a little extra on top to prevent brownouts. Producing at maximum capacity would thus be both wasteful (seeing as no one uses the power generated), and counterproductive. You can’t take it with you, as it were.

An economy based on accumulated energy turns this on its head, however. Not only is cranking up the generator to the max profitable – it is the very definition of profit. It still runs into the same hurdle of having to go somewhere. The surplus that is not pumped into the energy grid for consumption has to be put into some sort of storage – a big honking battery, to use a technical term. By calling this facility an energy bank, the game is ever so slightly making a pun out of the situation – it is both an accumulation of batteries (a bank) and a financial institution. It would have been sufficient to simply call it a bank, but it would not have conveyed just how intertwined power and wealth are.

An interesting question arises with regards to just who is put in charge of these institutions. On the one hand, ensuring a steady supply of power is crucial to life on Chiron. On the other hand, as we have seen here in our own timeline, there is profit to be made by being able to direct the flows of currency. It is possible that these banks are merely big backend batteries that hum along with only occasional maintenance. It is also possible that they become a reincarnation of the power companies of yore, who were none too discreet about how power can mean both energy and political influence. As with the recreation commons, I suspect it differs from faction to faction.

Hologram theatre

Richard Baxton piloted his Recon Rover into a fungal vortex and held off four waves of mind worms, saving an entire colony. We immediately purchased his identity manifests and repackaged him into the Recon Rover Rick character with a multi-tiered media campaign: televids, touchbooks, holos, psi-tours—the works. People need heroes. They don’t need to know how he died clawing his eyes out, screaming for mercy. The real story would just hurt sales, and dampen the spirits of our customers.

– “Mythology for Profit”, Morgan Stellartots Keynote Speech

The quote you just read does us the service of doubling down on the bread and circuses aspect of drone management facilities. The difference between a how a hologram theatre and a recreation commons is presented is stark and telling. The latter are different, unique, an expression of the values and virtues of the different factions that build them. The former, however, are sites of standardized marketization and products ruthlessly focus-tested so as to generate maximum output per energy input. In short, here too we see the difference between the fledgling outposts of the last chapter, and the emerging rapidly advancing civilization we see here. It takes a village to raise a child, but a keynote speech requires a lot more infrastructure than that.

This is not to dismiss the Morganite market cynicism as pure ideology. There is a grain of truth in their assessment that simply telling it like it is will not produce the desired outcome. People do not go to the movies to revisit the traumas and troubles of daily life; quite the opposite, they go there to escape. This is true both for those seeking to maximize profit and those who merely wish to keep the populace complacent. Bringing forth the full frontal mind worm fury in full-resolution hyperrealism is counterproductive. Distraction is the name of the game of popular culture. But, to quote George Lipsitz:

For all their triviality and frivolity, the messages of popular culture circulate in a network of production and reception that is quite serious. At their worst, they perform the dirty work of the economy and the state. At their best, they retain memories of the past and contain hopes for the future that rebuke the injustices and inequities of the present.

We can not postulate that popular culture is an accurate representation of the world as it is, in some sort of true form. We can not, however, go all in and claim it to be all lies. The most useful way to think about it is somewhere in between: there are some true things shown in the theatre, some false, but social reality is constituted by the things people see and talk about. Most of the images and topics of discussion have, throughout the centuries, tended to come from the theatre – be it stage, screen or hologram.

It is tempting to speculate about what kinds of cultural artifacts the different factions create. The Spartans might reimagine 300 in about as many versions; the Believers would make at least one vid about the one pair of footsteps; the University would simply upscale the old Carl Sagan classics. What the Cybernetics or the Cultists are up to is anyone’s guess, though I imagine there’d be quite an underground market for a very specific kind of vids wherein the two different factions meet and greet.

Aquafarm

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.

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.