Technology: The Secrets of Creation

“And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not.”

— Soren Kierkegaard, “The Sickness Unto Death”, Datalinks

The Secrets of Creation technology is one of the three “secrets” technologies on the tree. These grant a free technological discovery to the first faction to discover them, in addition to whatever other effects they might have. Unlike the previous second-tier Secrets of the Human Brain, this one is all the way up on the tenth-tier, requiring Unified Field Theory and The Will To Power to research.

It’s also different in that it doesn’t have any other immediate application. Like Optical Computers, all it does is sit in the tree and serve as a prerequisite for other technologies higher still. This makes it another design element in the late-game that serves to accelerate the progress of the technological leader, making it more difficult for a trailing faction to catch up.

This might not be immediately obvious. Why would a mostly useless technology serve as a significant boost for the first faction to discover it? The best way to see the reason might be to think of the free technology as standing in for another on the tree. So instead of researching Secrets of Creation and then selecting a new tech, the player might as well have just spent that energy on researching that other technology instead. Thus, for the first faction here, it’s like this technology isn’t even on the tree. It doesn’t do anything and there’s no opportunity cost for researching it.

For any faction that’s trying to catch up, though, this technology is just pure cost. It’s in the way. They have to research it, steal it, or trade something away in order to get it. And they don’t get anything else for that expenditure that might help them catch up to or better compete with their rivals along some other dimension. Which might not seem so terrible until you realize that they’re already starting out behind, by definition.

But the game-mechanical aspects of this technology are less striking than a contemplation of what it is supposed to represent. Based on the technology’s effect and its prerequisites, it would seem that the player is intended to take its name literally. This represents the discovery of some final, metaphysically crucial fact underlying the creation of the universe. Something that can be derived somehow from the complete physical description of the universe while simultaneously carrying intense philosophical import. And, as well, something that Reynolds necessarily can’t postulate a concrete solution to without hopelessly cramping the vision of SMAC future.

Reynolds squares this circle by dropping in the above quote from Kierkegaard. The original quote was intended to give an answer of sorts to a similar question: what is the point of an individual’s life? Kierkegaard’s concluding pointed question serves as his answer for the crux of the matter.

But the line of questioning takes on a different flavor in the context of late-game SMAC. The “you” that the player is identifying with is almost certainly his entire faction. He’s been spending the entire game busily attending to what Kierkegaard would call the noise of secular life. And even if the first-time player isn’t entirely certain that the game will be ending soon, he must be gathering some hints from the simple fact that there’s just not much more that’s theoretically left to do. I mean, he just researched a technology called Secrets of Creation.

This makes Kierkegaard’s musings take on an even more poignant aspect. What happens when the universe grows still, as in eternity, because your people have done all there is to do? When they have learned all there is to learn? What will you think when you look back not over the trials and tribulations of a single life, but over those of an entire faction struggling to preeminence on a new planet? And then, taking a further step back, what will you think when you realize that the story on Planet is necessarily the concluding chapter of an entire species, if not the entire legacy of life on Earth?

When it comes right down to it, Secrets of Creation represents the society-wide foreknowledge of the contents of the question Kierkegaard imagines eternity will ask in that silent, contemplative moment at the end of time.

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