“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.