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.

The citizen’s defense force

As the writhing, teeming mass of Mind Worms swarmed over the outer perimeter, we saw the defenders recoil in horror. “Stay calm! Use your flame guns!” shouted the commander, but to no avail. It is well known that the Mind Worm Boil uses psychic terror to paralyze its prey, and then carefully implants ravenous larvae in the brains of its still-conscious victims. Even with the best weapons, only the most disciplined troops can resist this horrific attack.

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Our Secret War”

It is interesting that this wonder requires Intellectual integrity specifically, and not one of the other, more militaristic technologies. It would make sense for it to require, for instance, Doctrine: Loyalty: a population so devoted to the ideological cause that they would join in the base defense at great risk to their own lives. Neural grafting or Advanced military algorithms would also be good candidates – the words “chipping in” would take on a slightly more literal connotation. However, these contrafactuals are not the case, and we are left to face the conundrum of why Intellectual integrity in particular is the required technology.

As we saw in the previous post, the overall aim of said technology was the removal of error and doubt. Not by force, coercion or habit, but by Habermasian reason and the unforced force of the better argument. With a sufficiently stringent application of facts and logic, rallying for the cause of one’s own faction becomes not a duty, obligation or even a paid mercenary gig, but a philosophically borne out necessity. When all is said and done, when all the cards are put on the table, when all facts have been taken into account – it is simply the correct thing to do.

The fact that this is a secret project at all, rather than something every faction gets by default (as implemented in later civ games, such as VI, where every city gets a ranged attack after researching a certain tech) implies that there is something more going on than mere Hegelian patriotism. If the state is the embodiment of the spirit of history, as Hegel put it, then it should apply equally to all factions. The specificity and particularity of universal truth is an unsolved and unsolvable contradiction – if truth is universal, then why am I the only one to see it? Writ large: if truth is universal, then how come other factions arrive at different conclusions?

To be sure, the environmental constraints outline by Deidre in the quote above suggests that anything less than total conviction and dedication to the cause results in instant and painful death at the metaphorical hands of the mind words. Being under attack puts a certain urgency to the question of who is right and who is wrong. In the case of mind worms, the stakes are life and death. In the case of other factions, it becomes slightly murkier. Especially if a creeping doubt seeps in and suggests that the other faction might have been right all along, and that defending against them is – for reasons that can be laid out and scrutinized by the faculties of the mind – objectively wrong. As Sinder Roze implied, you need not destroy your enemy, merely win them over.

The Citizen’s defense force, thus, is less of a military endeavor than a philosophical one. However, on Chiron, these two aspects of the human condition are so intertwined as to be inseparable. Truly, the time of Plato’s guardian class has come.

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.

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.