First Impressions: University of Planet

AcademicianZakharov

“The substructure of the universe regresses infinitely towards smaller and smaller components. Behind atoms we find electrons, and behind electrons quarks. Each layer unraveled reveals new secrets, but also new mysteries.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

The University of Planet is probably the faction whose vision of the future society is the least foreign to a late 20th Century video game player.  That’s because they basically don’t care all that much.  They just want to build a university so that they can get back on with the work of understanding the universe.

This marks an interesting contrast to the Gaians, who we’ve already met.  Both of their ideologies are at home in modern Western academia.  But where the Gaians are political, in the academic sense of being socially and ecologically conscious, the University is much less concerned with such things.  They’re the hard scientists and technologists; the sorts of people that would make up the STEM departments.

In particular, Zakharov makes it clear in his opening quote that he’s a physicist.  Some may quibble with the fact that protons and neutrons are actually made of quarks, not electrons, but that’s not really his point.  He’s talking more about the recursive nature of the scientific discovery process.  Over the course of the history of basic physics, theories to explain some new set of phenomena at a smaller scale, illuminate and frame questions at a still smaller one.  By deeming this process “infinite”, Zahkarov is stating his belief that he expects this pattern to persist largely indefinitely into the future.  And he’s clearly looking forward to the unraveling.

The University, as its name implies, is structured a lot like a university you could find anywhere in the world today.  And as you would expect from that, their deal is the acquisition of new knowledge through the application of the scientific method.  Extending this point, it’s worth noting that their leader has the title “Academician” instead of something like “Dean” or “President”.  Clearly, among the University, administration is a lower priority than the work of pushing back the frontiers of ignorance.  This implies that the leading citizens in the University are more like public intellectuals or high-ranking academics than the formal administrative apparatus.

The vision of the University is a society on Planet in which their leaders are chosen by intellect and academic achievement, as opposed to the more typical metrics of wealth or political power.  To the average player of strategy video games, that sounds pretty great.  As you’d expect, polls of fans commonly report that Academician Zahkarov and the University are their favorites.

This makes the downside of their faction intriguing.  The University suffers from extra drones (the game’s term for unhappy or rebellious citizens) on the grounds that the University routinely engages in what is considered unethical experimentation.  And this makes total sense.  In the real world, one of the major reasons why the social sciences lag behind the physical ones is because of the inability to properly control their experiments.  If the faction is being run by physicists who are focused entirely on the acquisition of knowledge, why wouldn’t they start doing Nazi-style experimentation to settle these debates once and for all?

Is the University a gleaming ivory tower dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and technology for the benefit of all mankind?  Or is it a hellish dystopia run by a cabal of mad scientists, where everyone else exists as a mere pawn for a few amoral geniuses?  The brilliance of Reynolds is that it’s both at the same time.  Which one of these visions is more relevant depends entirely on what the player brings to the table.

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