“Heaven lasts long, and Earth abides
What is the secret of their durability?
Is it because they do not live for themselves
That they endure so long?”
— Lao Tzu, Datalinks
Let’s start with the gameplay basics here. Quantum Power is an eleventh-tier pure scientific advance that depends on Frictionless Surfaces and Planetary Economics. Upon researching it, it enables the production of units with a Quantum Chamber reactor and the creation of the Quantum Lab base facility. Both of these practical benefits logically mirror the main ones that accrued from the previous Fusion Power advance. As such, it’s clear that this is intended to be the next level power technology.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a moment to address the quote in context. It is likely that Reynolds selected this bit of wisdom to be reminiscent of the other piece of Eastern poetry by Li Po that was presented earlier in the game. They certainly have a similar theme in that they both speak of the longevity of the natural world in contrast to the human experience.
But it’s quite interesting to note that this one is not marked as being a part of the Yang collection. We already know that he’s a fan of the genre. And one would think that he’d be a big fan of the pointed question at the end of the selection.
This could be an accident or an oversight on Reynolds’s part. But I think this designation is likely omitted intentionally for a couple of reasons. The biggest is probably that Yang and the Hive are out of the picture by this point in the implied canon. But the most salient for our understanding is probably that Reynolds doesn’t want the player to interpret it with the Chairman in mind.
If that’s the case, then the relevant context must be the association with Quantum Power. And it is not immediately obvious why this would be. Upon reflection, my best guess at an alternate implication is actually to come at it from a Morganite angle.
By now, we know that CEO Morgan identifies energy with life. He sees it as something akin to a sacred mission to tap the potential energy within his environment to use as an input to his own system. And we know that he’s actively not interested in preserving or sustaining his long-run environment when doing so, which serves as the core of his philosophical conflict with the Gaians.
From this perspective, Lao Tzu is correct that Heaven and Earth abide so long because they do not live for themselves. That’s because they actually don’t live at all. They just exist. They’re largely static patterns of energy and not dynamic, living energy flows.
So my speculation is that Quantum Power might best be modeled as the ability to release and make use of the power lurking in the elements that make up the matter of common experience. Instead of building little stars that smash hydrogen into helium, it can unlock the energy still trapped in the already-fused earth. In a way analogous to how Environmental Economics allows the player to bring down the mountain Li Po spoke of, Quantum Power would then allow the player to coax the Earth into living for his faction. And in doing so, cause the Earth to no longer abide.
Whether or not the preceding poetry analysis has any merit, it is almost certain that the player will not see this as a pivotal breakthrough in his experience of the game. This serves as a pretty sharp contrast to the epochal Fusion Power. There are several reasons why the gameplay does not support seeing this shift as heralding a brand-new era of existence.
First, the Quantum Chamber multiplies the base HP of a unit by three. This means that it adds the same absolute number of HPs to a unit as Fusion Reactors did when compared to the base Fission Reactors. But because of the way that the combat system works, the absolute HP difference isn’t as important as the percentage change. The old Fusion Reactor was twice as good as its predecessor; the Quantum Chamber only grants an additional +50% bonus.
In addition, for many common types of units, Fusion Reactors are optimal from a strict mineral cost perspective. Terraformers, colony pods, probe teams, and the like do not get cheaper when quantum powerplants become available like they did in the fusion era. Only units with very advanced weapons and armor see the effect work in their favor.
The Quantum Lab suffers from a similar sort of problem. Multiplier buildings in SMAC generally stack additively. So, for instance, when the player builds a Network Node early in the game, it grants a +50% bonus to all energy sent to the Labs. A Fusion Lab grants an additional +50%, but it doesn’t multiply with the existing Network Node. In this sense it’s just as if the original Network Node was now suddenly twice as good. There’s no additional bonus from getting bonuses from diverse sources.
At the same time, facilities that come later on the tree are invariably more expensive in both initial minerals and maintenance energy than their lower-tier counterparts. For instance, a Quantum Lab costs twice as many minerals and an extra energy a turn as the bill for the Fusion Lab. And it provides exactly the same benefit.
Finally, by this point in the game there’s now simply less time left for investments in infrastructure to pay off. If the player has been carefully attending to his economy and been building up large bases with mammoth energy flows, such that a Quantum Lab would pay off its investment cost very quickly, then the game is almost certainly in hand already. And if he hasn’t been, then the lab probably won’t pay itself back before the game comes to its conclusion.