“Preliminary analysis indicates that our rivals have developed a safe and reliable method to simulate conditions existing on the interior of a stellar mass. The fabrication and transmutation of materials possible in such an environment guarantees significant industrial and military applications.”
— Probe Team Operations Directorate, Top Secret Report
Matter Compression is a ninth-tier military technology. It requires both Nanominiaturization and Nanometallurgy and has one immediate application: eight-strength Neutronium Armor. This all falls into line with the lessons the game has taught the player by now. Materials science equals defense. And as the quote quite explicitly tells us, this technology represents the ability to simulate the inside of a star with such detail that they can produce and withdraw huge plates of maximally-dense material.
The science fiction literature has been aware of the idea of neutronium for a long time. And, thus, the player is expected to have a passing idea that it’s some sort of super-metal. In fact, it’s a hypothesized form of matter that is made up entirely of electrically neutral neutrons instead of the mixture of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up typical matter. Since all the particles in the crystals would be intrinsically electrically neutral, there would presumably be no electrical repulsion force among them. It would thus be theoretically possible to cram them together to make a material with a density that would be completely unattainable in any other way.
Presumably, this state of matter is only achieved in nature in the cores of ultra-dense neutron stars. This is why the technology that allows it is called Matter Compression. And it’s also why the quote makes a point of referring to the conditions that obtain in the interior of a stellar mass.
Modern-day physicists are skeptical of the idea of neutronium as it is seen in Golden Age sci-fi classics. Even if the interior of a star could produce such an exotic material, it would almost certainly explode once removed from those odd conditions. This is obviously distinct from a more traditional metal, which is forged in relatively extreme conditions but takes on its strength when it is pulled out of the flames and allowed to cool to room temperature.
After some contemplation, I think it’s possible to square the modern understanding of the limitations of this exotic matter with the classic idea of neutronium as “super armor” in SMAC. The key is that this technology comes two tiers after the second-level forcefield technology Probability Mechanics. So I imagine what’s going on is that the neutronium is baked in these stellar forges and then encased tightly in what one would hope would be a permanent forcefield. This would then maintain the pressure to a degree that allows the substance to remain neutronium even while it’s bolted to the side of a hovertank.
The foregoing should hopefully give some idea of what level of science-fictional, Arthur C. Clarke style “magic” the ninth tier of the SMAC technology tree represents. The colonists are definitely in the far-future now, both compared to the player and compared to their ancestors that made Planetfall.
Which is why it’s so fascinating that Reynolds chose to highlight this technological development from the perspective of the “have-nots”, in the form of their Probe Team intelligence report. After all, most of the technology quotes so far have taken the other side, in that they usually offer a platform for someone who is conversant with or benefiting from the technology to explain what it is and what it does.
As we’ve seen before, the player is intended to be pulling away from his rivals for planetary supremacy by this point in the game. If he’s not in first place, technologically, he should certainly be among the leaders if he manages to get this far. At the very least, we know by definition that his faction has just attained this capacity when he sees this quote.
So the effect is that the quote invites the player to take a glimpse of his faction from the outside. The faction that he’s been carefully tending. The one that he’s been leading against his hated enemies, whoever they might be. And he sees that it’s pretty terrifying. It’s not hard at all to imagine being the rival leader reading this report and wondering how in the world you’re possibly going to be able to compete with that.