“Captain said to big old John Henry,
That old drill keeps a-coming around.
Take that steam drill out and start it on that job
Let it whop, let it whop that steel on down
Let it whop, let it whop that steel on down.”
— Traditional, Datalinks
Let us begin with the quote. In making this selection, Reynolds is expecting the player to have encountered the name John Henry before and at least have some fuzzy idea of who he was. Which is not unreasonable given his presumption that his audience will largely be American.
John Henry is an American folk hero. As the legend goes, he was a worker building a 19th Century railroad. This was arduous manual labor. It required considerable strength, stamina, and agility to do it well. And John Henry was said to be the best of all the men set to the task.
One day, a man from a steam engine company shows up with a brand-new machine. The representative promises it can do the work of men like John Henry faster and better than they could possibly do with their hand-held tools. John Henry has a lot of pride in his work and naturally takes issue with claim.
So they have a race. It’s man versus machine, with all the Industrial Revolution era connotations that implies. The dignity of labor versus the inherent mechanization and impersonalization that increasing capital intensity brings. It sets the desire for a folkway to continue, with all its attendant flaws, against the creative destruction of Progress.
The legend says that after an epic struggle, John Henry won his race with the steam engine. But the massive exertion of effort took so much out of him that he dies at the moment of his triumph. It’s a classic bittersweet hero’s death.
In SMAC, the player encounters this quote after researching Industrial Nanorobotics and building his first Robotic Assembly Plant. This is the second facility that serves as a multiplier for minerals. But, unlike the earlier Genejack Factory, this plant does not bring with it any extra drones.
The callback to John Henry here obviously isn’t intended to be anything more than an analogy. After all, by the ninth-tier of the technology tree, all of the work that John Henry might have recognized as real labor has long since been automated away. In fact, the big breakthrough here seems to be that the colonists are now able to replace their previous large, bulky robots with swarms of tiny nanoscale machines.
I think the real reason why Reynolds chose this quote was to get the player to recall and take Sister Miriam’s previously stated concerns about intelligent nanobots more seriously. After all, late-90’s science fiction reading strategy game players are very highly unlikely to be anti-technology. Besides that, people have been contemplating the idea of the end of work brought on by increasing technology for hundreds of years, for both good and ill. And so far there’s still been plenty for people to do.
But there has to be some point in the arbitrarily distant future when humans stop being economically valuable for virtually any purpose. From this perspective, the problem with the Luddites isn’t that they were wrong so much as they were early. Certainly, SMAC posits a rate of technological advance that makes the idea thinkable at some point within its scope of imagined future history.
This fear of economic replacement by machinery is the major theme of the legend of John Henry. By applying this quote to this facility, Reynolds is using a literary technique that he’s used several times before, but that really shines when he uses it to illustrate the endgame. The implication is that the state of affairs people were afraid of back in John Henry’s time has finally come true on Planet. The Robotic Assembly Plant really does contain within it the seeds of mankind’s obsolescence.