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.

Applied Physics

Scientific theories are judged by the coherence they lend to our natural experience and the simplicity with which they do so. The grand principle of the heavens balances on the razor’s edge of truth.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A History of Science”

In gameplay terms, Applied Physics gives the player a better weapon than the default starting component. While this is one use of physics, there are other applications as well. Most theoretical physics from old Earth are probably still available in the colony databanks somewhere, ready to be perused. As any engineer is likely to tell you, however, theory is only ever translated into practice through effort. This technology represents that effort – figuring out what works and what does not, which numbers apply, how to get things done. Emphasis being on the applied in physics.

Lal’s quote speaks to this, albeit indirectly. The natural experience of the early colonists is one of having to get things done on the quick so as to ensure survival; the applicability of any given scientific theory is non-optional. However, it is also difficult to say what works and what does not until it has been tested. Things that should work in theory have a tendency to quickly turn into approximations once put into the field, the world always ever slightly larger and more complex than initially thought. There is bound to be tensions between those who want to do more of what has already been proven to work, and those who want to prove further things, for future and/or immediate reference. Under early colonial conditions, more things now has a distinct advantage over slightly more things later. Scientific theories are indeed judged.

There is a parallel to be drawn here to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. During an episode on the aforementioned motorcycle, the protagonist notices that the engine does not work as well as it should. After some investigation into the matter, it is determined that the cause of this is the high altitude messing with the fuel system; the air pressure is different than what the manufacturing specs assumed they would be. Knowing this, the protagonist is able to make the necessary adjustments to the engine, and continue on without further complications. The early life on Planet is all about these small adjustments and finding out where they need to be made. The specs are still good, but not necessarily 100% correct for the current circumstances. Effort has to be made.

This technology also represents a reclaiming of the institutional knowledge of Earth. In order to have applied physics, you have to have physicists and engineers who can do the physics and the application, respectively. Pure knowledge does very little without the social institutions which have access to enough resources to put it into use; knowing how to build a space laser in abstract is not as good as having a specialized factory with which to build them. What the early colonists have is a lot of knowledge in the abstract and very few institutions with which to apply it. Until now.

The UN Peacekeepers

If the Peacekeepers have an ethos, it is that legitimacy comes of the consent of the governed. Moreover, this consent should not be given as a result of force, tradition or servitude. In a sense, the Peacekeepers are direct descendants of classical democratic liberalism (albeit perhaps without the parts that wanted to enshrine the phrase “life, liberty and property” into the US declaration of independence). On the other hand, the Peacekeepers are also the direct continuation of the United Nations, an institution more concerned with actually existing governance than with the ideals of classical liberalism. There is a tension between ideals and practice, which is probably best phrased in the form of a question: how can individual humans flourish in a world where we are all in it together?

Being all in it together is a quite direct and tangible experience on Chiron. Earth is gone, and if the seven colonies (five in the expansion) should fail, that would mean the end of humanity. There are very real choices that have to be made in order to ensure the survival of humanity, not all of them conducive to the notion of individualistic flourishing. In the earlier stages of colonization, this takes the form of drastic measures to protect from mind worms, the elements, and the sheer stress of having to make do. In the later stages, the very notions of individuality and humanness comes into question, and the faction leader Commissioner Lal becomes something of a luddite or – to use a word which will confuse American readers to no end – conservative. At all stages, Planet serves as a reminder (sometimes a very violent reminder) that humanity either gets its act together, or goes extinct.

The tension between individual self-determination and governance comes into view in the leader quote:

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last loose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “UN Declaration of Rights”

Aside from being a poke at the US, this quote also serves to center attention on the tension at play between individuals, governments and technology. This theme will return again and again in Lal’s paratextual appearances.

The Peacekeepers being the continuation of the UN conveys two gameplay effects, both related to each other. One is a minor penalty to efficiency, which in terms of actual effects is barely noticeable, thus rendering it a symbolic modifier. The other effect is a doubling of the number of votes in council sessions, which has a larger effect on things. I see these two things as related, in that the decreased efficiency is the price the Peacekeepers pay for running the council bureaucracy. The flip side of running a bureaucracy is of course a greatly increased knowledge of how said bureaucracy works – and how to work it. This reading has the advantage of cohering to the tension described above; it also has the disadvantage of directly contradicting the in-game text informing those playing other factions that, since you won the election for planetary governorship, you now have control over the bureaucracy in question. Following this reading, it is not far off to draw comparisons to the Laconian Empire in S.A. Coreys’s Persepolis Rising: a vast infrastructure of empty buildings built in preparation for the government to come. Here, too, the possibility of despotic governance looms.

The attempts to encourage individual flourishing pays off in mechanical terms: Peacekeeper bases gain an additional Talent per four citizens, and bases can grow to size 9 before requiring specialized infrastructure for additional growth. The additional Talents can be read in two ways: directly from the paratext (“attracts intellectual elite”), and indirectly as a sustained effort to find the potential within each and every individual in order to encourage them to the best human they can be, akin to the ethos of ambitious teachers everywhere who refuse to allow pupils to settle into a role of ignorance and passive acceptance. Everyone can learn, and by gosh and golly, learn they will. A side-effect of this is that since a larger amount of citizens know themselves and their place in the world, they do not mind sharing this world with others; hence the increased base sizes.

It is interesting to note that this emphasis on individual freedom and flourishing is basically negatively defined. Which is to say that while individuals are free to pursue the goals of their choosing, these choices are left undefined. We can contrast this to the Spartan ambition of making everyone into the best soldier they can possibly be: there, the aim is clearly defined, and thus individuals are pushed towards it. The Peacekeepers, however, do not single out an individual and groom them to a specific role. Instead, citizens are given the opportunity to try out many different activities, and then allowed to pursue those that are deemed interesting or appropriate by the individual. An individual is not forced to become an artist because the state needs better propaganda posters, but rather encouraged to pursue the arts if that is the kind of human being they are. The essence of Peacekeeper freedom is the freedom to choose for oneself. To invoke Kant: no one is a means to an end, and it is commonly understood that everyone is an end unto themselves.

It should come as no surprise that the Peacekeepers favor the Democracy social policy, and are not allowed to pursue the Police State policy. It is, however, something of a surprise that the Thought Control policy is allowed. This might be seen as a contradiction, where humanity is allowed self-determination as long as it makes the right choice. It might also be seen as a result of the tension between clinging to the values of traditional liberal humanism and the realities of impending transcendence, where individuals have to be led to the next stage by any means necessary, even if those means in the short term contradict the longer term ambitions and values. The risk, as always, being that temporary measures gradually become more permanent than intended.

A transcended Peacekeeper faction would hold on to the notion of individual flourishing, and attempt to use the resources of Planet to facilitate the growth of each and every human being. It would also extend this ambition to Planet itself, and engage in extended dialogues about what Planet wants and how to get there. It would mean posthumanity as a teacher-caretaker, ever so gradually exploring what it means to exist on a planetary scale in a vast unknown universe. If the meaning of life is impossible to define beforehand on an individual level, it is more so on the level of Planet, and it would take many cycles of careful deliberation to begin to grasp where human individuality fits into all this. But – and this is the Peacekeeper hope – we will get there eventually.