“I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine, just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams, the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness: dark, rigid, cold, alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.”
— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “Man and Machine”
Neural Grafting is a fourth-tier military technology that relies on Secrets of the Human Brain and Industrial Automation, sensibly enough. It enables the faction that has it to build the Bioenhancement Center base facility and the Neural Amplifier secret project. Both of these are generally worth having.
It also provides a unique benefit that serves as the core of the reason why the player would wish to research this technology. After it is researched, units can then be produced with two special abilities instead of just one. So, for instance, the player could build a unit that has both Empath Song and Hypnotic Trance, so that it simultaneously has an attack and a defense bonus in psionic combat. Each ability still has its normal cost, so the new units pay for their flexibility in minerals. But in practice, this is almost always a good deal.
Which leads to another testament to the genius of Reynolds’s design. The gameplay makes it clear that this is a massive advance that you, the player, desire. But the quote makes the player think twice about what, exactly, is actually going on in his society. And Lal makes for an excellent choice for this, because we have already seen that he is the character whose perspective is in many ways the closest to the player’s.
Note that Brother Lal is uneasy with the technology, even though it seems to be working correctly and with no obviously harmful side-effects. It’s not like we’re talking about the secret basement of the Research Hospital here, full of almost-human biological horrors. Instead, the issue Lal has with the procedure he underwent is that he no longer feels as if his own mind is fully human. He has, in essence, invited a mechanical tenant into his consciousness. And the new resident’s influence is felt whenever his previous mind relaxes enough to let it in.
This is seriously good stuff. Just on its own, it’d make a cool short story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. The alien presence lurking just outside your perception, stalking you, gradually becoming you, until you look up and realize the awful, maddening truth. Or one could go in a Philip K. Dick type of direction and have the grafted protagonist gradually become unable to tell the difference between his own thoughts and the machine’s.
But it is also worth noting that Lal does not reject the technology. After all, he’s speaking from personal experience. He got the implants. And he hasn’t had them removed. Instead, he concludes with a curious, watchful perspective. Something is evolving; whether that something be conducive to Lal’s now-traditional liberal humanitarianism is what is yet to be seen.