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.


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.

The Nautilus Pirates

The Pirates represent the biggest break between narrative and mechanics of all the expansion factions. One the one hand, it makes perfect mechanical sense to have a faction that focuses on building water bases – those are a part of the game, and players have probably built one or two of those during their playthroughs. It makes for interesting (and ever so slightly overpowered) gameplay. On the other hand, it can take decades for other factions to build even the smallest of rafts, and the Pirates start out with not only a boat but also an entire aquatic base capable of surviving everything the ocean has to throw at it. On day one.

This is a strangeness that all expansion factions share. All of them (except the aliens) emerged out the already existing factions, and presume that the human presence on Planet has developed to such a degree that they can do their thing. In Arrival, the University transports an alien artifact by boat, and are surprised to find that there are pirates on the high seas coming seemingly out of nowhere (both in terms of a successfully executed ambush, and in terms of not knowing to look out for Pirate ships from experience of earlier attacks); the backstory is ever so sketchy, but it is suggested the faction formed long enough after Planetfall to be able to be a surprise.

All this just goes to show that writing stories for games is hard, as you have to take into account both the things that would make sense in a narrative, and what would make sense in terms of what a player sees on the screen. The two may or may not be the same, which only adds to the difficulty. (Neal Stephenson readers might recall from Reamde the prolific writer for an in-universe online game – which was definitely not World of Warcraft – who wrote extensive books on the lore of the game, but who, as it turns out, had not played it even once during his many years of authoring.) In the case of the Pirates, what we have is a strange disconnect between what we know and what we do. Especially when we consider that the Pirates do not actually do very much in the ways of pirating (other than being at sea), and that in any event the Data Angels are mechanically better at it.

Most of the incongruity surrounding the new factions comes from the fact that they are social rather than ideological. By this, I mean that they are premised on the existence of other factions to justify (and make possible) their ways of being. In order to pirate the shipping lanes of others, there has to be shipping lanes to pirate; in order to establish global datalink superiority, there has to be a global datalink; in order to be a human born on Planet creating a cult to wipe all the other humans out, these other humans need to exist. There are ideological components to these factions, to be sure, but if we took away these external factors, these factions would either fall apart or turn on themselves. If your whole reason for being is pirating – what do you do when you run out of targets to pirate?

The other-directedness of Pirate ideology can be seen in the leader quote:

The sea… vast, mysterious… and full of wealth! And the nations of Planet send their trade across it without a thought. Well, the sea doesn’t care about them, so it lets them pass. But we can give the sea a little hand in teaching the landlubbers a lesson in humility.

– Captain Ulrik Svensgaard, “The Ripple and the Wave”

The use of the word “landlubbers” in the defining quote – one of the few pieces of text afforded to the faction – is significant, in that it immediately establishes the Pirates as, well, pirates. There is us, the sea people, and there is them, the landlubbers. Out of all the possible ideological stances the faction could have assumed, this is the one they ended up with. And this is the biggest flaw of this whole arrangement. Why, after travelling the great interstellar void and by all accounts representing a seventh (or fifth) of everything that remains of humanity – would you settle on being a watered down third-hand caricature of Moby Dick?

Ultimately, it comes down to one single, unescapable thing: the Pirates do not fit in to Alpha Centauri. Not just because all the quotes they should have been given were already written for the Spartans (see especially Doctrine: Initiative), but also because they simply do not make sense. They relate more to Earthly literature than to the ecological realities of Planet, and in the final analysis all they end up being is one great missed opportunity. They could have been ruthlessly pragmatic marine biologists waxing poetic about the nature of Planet and its hidden depths (oceanic and metaphysical), but, alas – landlubbers.

Instead of speculating where a Pirate transcendence would lead us, I will end this section with an exchange from chapter 36 of Moby Dick. Not just because it is thematic for the Pirate faction, but also because it fits all the other factions as well: just how far are you willing to go to follow your convictions? Given that Alpha Centauri is all about ideological convictions, it is a question worth keeping in mind at all times:

“But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale! art not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.”