Base Facility: Genejack Factory

“My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?”

— Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”

Here it is. All of Yang’s musing on the nature of man and the genetic code has finally come to fruition with the Genejack. The Genejack, the application of Retroviral Engineering to the problem of industry, is the physical incarnation of Yang’s philosophy. So it is well worth considering what Yang has actually pulled off here.

The Genejack does nothing other than perform his duties to the best of his ability. Which makes him nothing more and nothing less than any other machine in the factory. It would be beyond pointless to give such a creature the franchise. A society largely populated by Genejacks would need to be a Yang-style Police State by default, since Genejacks have been carefully designed to have no agency of their own.

Basically everybody who isn’t Yang is going to recoil in horror at this idea. This almost certainly includes the player. If Reynolds were content to have a consensus “bad guy” in the game, he could just point to Yang and close up shop right here. And, in fact, most of the player base of the game has come away with the idea that Yang is nothing more than a monster.

But Reynolds is dreaming bigger than that. SMAC plays fair; it wants to give Yang as much of a chance to make his point as any of the other faction leaders. So let’s take Yang’s final question seriously for a moment. How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain? Whether that pain be physical, emotional, or what-have-you.

I think the answer is pretty clear: you can’t. You can ill-treat them, perhaps. But that case is more like kicking a dog or keeping your cattle in a miserable cage their whole lives. That may or may not be morally good. It certainly isn’t nice. But it’s not tyranny. You can only tyrannize someone who has some claim to political as well as moral equality. And the minimum possible bar for that claim is some sense of agency.

In a crucial way, Genejacks aren’t people. It’s like the uncanny valley problem for humanoid robots, in which researchers found that when they got just close enough to an actual human-like appearance without getting it quite right, they discovered that everyone found the resulting robot very creepy. But Yang went at it in reverse. Instead of starting with a bunch of rubber and metal and making something that almost looked like a person, Yang started with a person and shaved away enough of the right parts that the result is horrifying.

I believe that the reason why the idea of the Genejack is so creepy to most people is precisely the reason why Yang considers it such a revolutionary leap forward. It’s not merely the individual/collective divide. They’re not simple, mindless zombies, nor are they more machine than man like the Borg from Star Trek.

Imagine a public relations guy who happens to be a Genejack. He’s capable of carrying on a pleasant conversation with you, and he’ll be happy to for just as long as he thought that it was his job to talk to you. He looks and sounds exactly like a regular person. After all, he’s made out of the same stuff, he looks the same, he’s capable of many of the same feats. The sole exception, really, is that he is no longer capable of or interested in acting like a genetically-viable individual. His only interest is to serve the collective.

This is what Yang was aiming for ever since he named his faction the Human Hive. But he wasn’t able to jump straight there. As he told us before, one does not simply pick up sand from the beach and make a Dataprobe. There is a whole chain of events that has to come in between and none of the steps can be skipped.

Think about how he got here. First, Yang had to collect a bunch of the original colonists together who were willing to pool their efforts and work communally to confront the first challenges on the new world. These people were selected for the voyage but almost certainly not all handpicked by Yang when they boarded. So at first this is like a voluntary commune or a large, extended family – without the genetic ties. And even these small-scale collective endeavors have an awful success rate historically, so keeping this going is not easy. The margin for error is not sufficient at first to allow him to exile or kill very many of his people – he needs to get virtually everyone on board and focused.

Then, as the society grows, Yang has to inspire and cultivate an increasing degree of enlightenment from his followers. People have to be encouraged to continue sacrificing and working toward the goal even after they ascend from abject poverty and come to master their new home. The inherent prosperity of a bigger, more successful collective necessarily increases the individual incentive to defect. And he can’t afford to slow his faction’s growth rate to help maintain stability, as he has six other likely-hostile factions out there to contend with.

All the while, he is certainly encouraging his scientists to experiment with reeducation techniques, using the full spectrum of available techniques. We know he’s in to meditation. We also know that he has carefully structured the physical environment of his bases to advance toward his goals. The twisted warrens that serve as free Perimeter Defenses and the feeding bays Lal mentioned Yang uses for Recreation Commons are evidence of this. There’s no reason to presume Yang would miss any other opportunities to help enforce his vision as he builds up his bases.

Even his beloved Police State mostly exists to help Yang structure society so that nobody ever needs to think about anything that isn’t their job. After Industrial Automation, there’s no need for people to do any job that’s thoughtless or repetitive, so this is not at all the same thing as wanting brain-dead, zombie minions. He’s trying to breed people that are completely focused on their job to the exclusion of as much else as he can manage.

Speaking of breeding, Yang certainly embarked on a comprehensive breeding program from the moment his pod touched land. Every generation of Hive citizens born on Planet is artificially selected to be more naturally inclined to Yang-enlightenment than the previous one. With each improvement in genetic manipulation technology, Yang has been better able to produce a series of humans that would more and more closely approximate a cell in the body politic as opposed to a free-range single-celled organism. Which almost assuredly leads to some pretty wild morphisms off the Mark I human, depending on which duties it is intended to perform.

The result that he has finally arrived at in the Genejack is, according to Yang, a massive leap forward in industrial organization. So it’s worth noting that the game supports Yang’s contention. The Genejack Factory is a very impressive facility. It serves as one of the only multiplier buildings for minerals instead of a type of energy. And it comes the earliest on the tech tree by a good margin, making it much more valuable.

Needless to say, this is an exceptionally powerful bonus. It has the drawback of generating some more drones at the base it is built in, modeling the fact that the new Genejacks need a little more external direction to keep themselves functioning. But this is not a problem at all by the mid-game. Every faction should have the energy necessary for psych spending, the facilities, or the police troopers on hand to suppress the additional drones. Certainly they can find the room in their budget in exchange for a 50% boost in mineral production.

This is all really impressive work on Reynolds’s part. But I think my favorite part about this quote is that, despite all the build up and background on Yang, the player only hears it after he builds one. To my knowledge, nothing in the interface or the previous game lore tells the player what a Genejack Factory is. There are just a couple of hints about what it does: bonus minerals; extra drones. Then he builds one. Only then does he get to find out what he’s done. So to hear this quote in the game is necessarily to be complicit in the horror.

I can still remember the first time I built one of these. I heard Yang read his quote, thought about it for a bit as the rest of the new turn processed, and then went back to the base screen that had the new factory and stared for a bit. I didn’t get all of the above reasoning yet, but I understood enough. I remember seeing the all the extra minerals and then thinking long and hard about whether I wanted to just scrap it. I don’t remember what I decided; I do know I played other games where I didn’t ever build them and plenty of other games in which I did. But I very clearly remember feeling at the time like the decision mattered.

Perhaps I’m just imaginative to a fault. Particularly for a strategy game player. But any game that can make a player feel like his in-game decisions have real weight like that is a success in my book.

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12 thoughts on “Base Facility: Genejack Factory

  1. Blake Wondrasch

    You say that you don’t think Genejacks are mindless drones (or “mindless zombies”), yet the cerebral cortex being atrophied to the point of being unable to desire anything independently would *necessarily* imply that Genejacks were nothing but mindless drones. Even animals have agency, in a certain sense- thus Genejacks are one step below even them in some ways. Take it from a biologist- you can’t go around atrophying a cerebral cortex and get a human being who would still seem normal, like you indicate with your complete implausible example of a genejack PR man… The drones more likely represent natural public outrage at what has been done than anything else…

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      They are unable to desire anything independent of the task they are given. Which is very different than not desiring anything at all.

      If you’ve ever read Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, you might have some context for what this might look like. If you haven’t, I highly recommend the book. It’s very good. But, in the meantime, here’s the link to the Wikipedia plot summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Deepness_in_the_Sky

      The relevant part of that book for our purposes is that Vinge imagines people called the “Focused”. These people have their brains physically altered by a virus that causes them to focus so intently on their work that, for all intents and purposes, they don’t really parse as people. They have no agency. They just do exactly what they’re tasked to do and desire nothing else. But it’s notable that the task is usually something really complicated. Computer programming, linguistics, and xenobiology feature prominently.

      Everyone who isn’t Focused just refers to them as part of the machinery. And yet they’re all individually very smart and creative in their narrow domains. This makes them terrifyingly effective at their work.

      Most of them come off as extreme autistics with narrow savant-like brilliance in their specialties. But there is one example in the book of an exceptional Focused individual who is focused on the task of managing groups. This is a task that requires considerable interpersonal skill, and it turns out that she’s very good at it.

      Since Yang’s Genejacks are built from the ground up instead of being repurposed from existing people, there’s no reason to presume that they’d have all the same limitations as the common side effects caused by the virus in the book. Any task you’d want a person to do, you could theoretically grow a person to optimally do. Hence a PR Genejack seems quite plausible to me. It’s essentially the meat version of the way later technologies describe growing a digital sentience around a task.

      My main problem with your interpretation of the quote is the existence of Industrial Automation as a much earlier technology on the tree. There’s a lot of implied sci-fi distance between the third-tier and the sixth-tier of the tech tree. So why would anyone derive any benefit from growing a mindless drone when you could certainly build a robot to perform the same task much more cheaply and easily? I don’t see how that adds up.

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      1. CCC

        > So why would anyone derive any benefit from growing a mindless drone when you could certainly build a robot to perform the same task much more cheaply and easily? I don’t see how that adds up.

        A robot requires maintenance. A biological being is self-repairing, to some degree. And self-replicating, so once you have a few near-mindless drones you can get plenty more for no more cost than a lot of food and a bit of time…

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      2. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        I’d buy that at the technological and ecological level of the Middle Ages. Or even, maybe, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But this is well after Industrial Automation. On an alien planet where the air isn’t even breathable. Even discounting the initial capital investment in time to grow/build (which is a huge deal on Planet – the growth rate is crazy-high), the maintenance cost on people has to be way more expensive than on any conceivable automation of a manufacturing process in a controlled environment like a factory.

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      3. CCC

        You’re never going to get a robot that’s as general-purpose as the Genejack.

        Yes, you can make a robot to carry boxes and put them on shelves. You can make a robot to assemble car doors. Or you can make a robot to paint walls. Or you can make a robot to prepare food. Each of these take substantial time for a trained professional to program – possibly taking more effort to build than it would take to just have the same professional paint the wall himself.

        The Genejack doesn’t need a professional programmer. It can do any task that a human can do, repetitively, mindlessly, after it has been shown (hopefully just once) how to do the task. And then when that’s done, it can be easily reassigned – to anything else.

        No salary. No creature comforts. It requires only food, and every calorie goes into more work. (And there’s no shortage of food, with genejacks working the fields).

        And, apart from everything else, the sight of the Genejack, toiling like a perfect labourer, provides exactly the example Yang wants the rest of his people to be inspired by…

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      4. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        I think the crux of our disagreement is that you underrate what Industrial Automation really represents. You also do not appear to agree with me on the sophistication we can conclude from the height ascended up the technology tiers. Thus, you underrate the sophistication of the economy that’s implied by the discovery of the sixth-tier Retroviral Engineering technology.

        I maintain that after the early days on Planet, brute, unskilled, 19th-Century-style labor is never the limiting factor on economic growth. Especially unskilled labor that takes years to grow and fairly close supervision in operation. But the game mechanics and the lore demonstrate that skilled labor is still a limiting input. Which is why I conclude what I do about the true nature of the Genejack.

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      5. CCC

        I see Industrial Automation as very much what we currently have in car factories here on Earth; large machines that are very, very good at one specific sequence of actions, and need to be carefully reprogrammed by skilled programmers to complete any other sequence of actions. And it’s those skilled programmers, I think, which are the limiting resource that Yang is having trouble finding, that makes the Genejack an attractive alternative.

        I admit that I’m deliberately interpreting facts in order to support the conclusion of the mentally limited Genejack, but I think that’s strongly implied by Yang’s line about the atrophied cerebral cortex; the Genejack is simply incapable of thought above a certain sophistication at all. He is, very much, a mindless cog in the machine, with a certain emphasis on ‘mindless’.

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  2. Zed Fang (@Fang__z)

    I think an interesting point is that the Genejack factory is one of the few really clearly dystopic facilities that the player is really really tempted to build. The +50% modifier is huge, and as a multiplier is in no way obsoleted by later technology (at least until you switch to an energy based build). The tech pre-requisites are also on the critical path to a lot of good stuff. It seems inevitable that unless the player makes the deliberate moral decision, you’d end up building lots of these – and thus you end up adopting Yang’s system of values.

    You talk elsewhere about Yang’s eventual disappearance from the endgame, suggesting some kind of devastating attack. But I’d kinda suggest an alternative: Yang retired.

    His quotes from “Looking God in the Eye” betrays a basic confidence in the inevitable progress of humanity. “If our society seems more nihilistic than that of previous eras, perhaps this is simply a sign of our maturity as a sentient species.” It is also addressed at a general, non-Hive audience “Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”?”

    Contrast this with his statements addressed at a Hive audience, which comes earlier: “It is every citizen’s final duty to go into the tanks and become one with all the people.” “What do I care for your suffering?” These are much more practical, much more useful.

    So what I’d posit is that Yang took a look at a the progress of social technology in the midgame and thought, “darn, I’ve won.” Every faction, including Lal are embracing his vision. Genejacks are used across the planet. Yang was always one of the oldest of the faction leaders, and his philosophy is based around not the pursuit of personal power, but the subservience of the individual to the needs of the human race. So, with humanity adopting his ideals wholesale, what is the purpose of the Hive? In Yang’s view, there is none – the Hive was an useful experiment to prove what is possible, but not necessary. He can thus retire to scholarly pursuits and aescetic virtues (I’d view Looking God In the Eye as a rebuttal to We Must Dissent) and trust in the inevitability of his victory thanks to God’s ‘loaded dice’. In terms of ingame mechanics, the Hive probably surrendered.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      You’re correct that the mid-game tech tree leads to societal changes that Yang would resonate with more than most faction leaders. But I think that you’re overstating the case quite a bit here. It matters to Yang why and how people do things, because that’s a marker of enlightenment. Just because Lal’s using Genejacks and MMI doesn’t mean that his guys aren’t still constantly preaching civilization-threatening chaos.

      And if you fast-forward to Transcendence, a non-Yang ending probably means that what Yang identifies as the race will be lost. The rest of the faction leaders fundamentally care about abstractions. Run down the list mentally for a moment: Deirdre’s non-competitive utopia; Morgan’s energy-soaked paradise; Lal’s free society; Santiago’s triumph; Miriam’s heaven; Zakharov’s perfect knowledge – none of their visions really require physical people. Robots, AIs, transcended consciousnesses, aliens … any of them would do as the substrate. What matters to them is the pattern.

      But Yang’s concerns are focused on a particular concrete instantiation of humanity. He’s clearly willing to be flexible on what it means to be human, but I strongly suspect that uniting with a purely alien intelligence would be a very fraught prospect for him. It would be very easy for this to be done in a way that leads to what he sees as the final death of the relevant collective in a way that even military defeat to a group of rival humans wouldn’t be.

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      1. Matthias

        Interesting. I always thought that the final transcendence victory resonated very clearly with Yang’s stated goals at the beginning. (And that’s another beauty of the game: people like to see Yang as the designated bad guy, but still work towards a transcendence victory.)

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  3. Anh Nguyen

    I feel solaced by the fact that you can grow that “Genejack” Drone into Citizen and Talent too, with sufficient “Psych spending”. The allegation that they are dumb muscled,mindless zombie or flesh robot is too hard too believe especially with the previous tech being industrial automaton, and living human body is more costly than machine or robot for maintenance, the flesh body isn’t also that durable for efficient industrial process.

    So i think more likely, the “Gene jack” is built with more about management concern, that modern day technician or researcher or manager whose agenda you can’t be sure, is he/she a slacker, theft, factionist, vandal, or generally a selfish and petty person that the modern day Human Resource department generally have to deal with. Now with Genejack, the manager can be feel assured in assigning people into working the industrial process, without uncertainty and liability that is subversive toward the process, naturally the efficiency goes up.

    When it says about brain atrophy, it doesn’t say how much, to what extend does it atrophies, it certainly can’t be completely atrophied, otherwise the creature won’t survive at all, let alone being useful for anything, if the designer had bothered to design, the creation should achieve maximum efficiency compared to the naturally occurring counterpart. I think it is a mild case of induced, controlled autism where the Genejack is engineered to be excelled at his designated field and undistracted by possible agenda like politic or just general human vices like laziness or selfishness, not unlike a modern day education parents sacrificing their prodigious offspring’s social life for the education. Perhaps not every part of human body and gene is actually productive, beneficial or ideal, and truncating them like cancer tumors, warts, is already been familiarized in modern day society.

    All in all, i’m being apologetic for the Genejack factory, but with valid facts like available room for modification such as cyborg augmentation tech, Clinical immortality tech, humane UN Peakeeer, pious Miriam’s Lord Believer and green Gaian still able to adop Genejack factory, the ability to spend Psych to turn them into Talents, and the Genejack factory tech lead to “Homo superior” tech indicates that Genejack is actually not a step away, but toward becoming “Homo superior”, consider the Genejack to be the proto “Homo superior”, with further modification and nresource spending to become full fledged “Homo superior”.

    I feel solaced, after contemplating this Genejack Factory elaboration… because I feel reluctant to forfeit the Genejack factory to lose the race to The Secret Projects or Transcendence.

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  4. Anh Nguyen

    Let me summarize this:

    – Genejacks are proto Homo Superior Talents (the evolved humans in the future) that are much more productive than normal Talents, you just need to give them due respect, just 4 Psych is enough for them though.
    – Genejacks hold managerial or key working position, not dumb muscle general labor, their presence causes base-wide force multiplier impact in production and possible security vulnerability from their working perk and privileges yet their drone number never scale proportionally with base’s population like Prokhor Zakharov’s drone, always an elite minority, thus they are not mean for dumb muscle general labor work.
    – Dumb muscle general labor is neither productive or efficient, unless it’s a medieval economy without machine, robot, telecommunication, high technology, advance economic theory and their optimized configuration, probably won’t even hold their own share compared to the original crew from the ship Unity who are gifted talents by our modern standard already, let alone making the entire base 50% more productive.
    – If Genejack factory is so immoral, unethical, why not even a faction with their strong ideology barred from adopting it like their Social Engineering, or at least with faction specific altered effects.

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