“Red-hot iron, white-hot iron, cold-black iron; an iron taste, and iron smell, and a Babel of iron sounds.”
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Datalinks
Nessus Mining Stations are considered the third kind of economic satellite in SMAC. Where the Sky Hydroponics Labs delivered one nutrient per base each and the Orbital Power Transmitters delivered one energy per base each, Nessus Mining Stations do the exact same thing for minerals. Following a pattern Reynolds has established throughout the game, this mineral-boosting facility comes later on the tree than the equivalent facilities that grant nutrient or energy bonuses. Sky farms came on the sixth tier as part of the transition to the mid-game, while mining stations require the eleventh-tier Self-Aware Machines technology to produce.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider these stations from the perspective of the fictional world SMAC is portraying. It’s clear why the player wants to build these: free minerals for every base regardless of the local terrain is obviously a good deal. But why would it ever make sense to go all the way to the moon to dig up bulk minerals and return them back to Chiron? After all, it’s been possible to drill massive boreholes into the surface of the planet since the fourth tier of the technology tree, which could very well be a couple of very eventful centuries in the past by this point.
It appears the game actually models the answer. All minerals produced by a base are included in the ecological damage calculation. This is the system that determines whether Planet will respond negatively to the player’s terraforming efforts by causing fungal pops and spawning wild mind worms. But minerals that come from orbit are omitted from this consideration.
This actually makes a lot of sense. The balance between the player’s need for minerals to win the game and the havoc wrought on Planet’s ecology by the quest for said minerals has been a core theme of the game. But if it’s now possible to get many of the needed minerals from Planet’s dead moon instead, there’s less need for conflict.
This reasoning was also inherent in the other space-based economic facilities as well, though the effect is more implicit there. The game informs the player after the first fungal pop that Planet doesn’t like most terraforming efforts. The ecodamage formula reflects this with a term that makes it so that farms, roads, sensor arrays, and solar collectors cause damage just by existing, even though the main driver of the final value is mineral production. But since sky farms and power satellites don’t exist on the map, they don’t factor into this calculation, and thus the resources they provide are inherently eco-friendly.
The quote that accompanies this facility comes at the whole phenomenon from a different angle. Dickens was describing a factory in 19th Century Britain, which so happened to be the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. Presumably, the quote is encouraging the player to conceive of the new mining stations on Nessus as just as crowded, noisy, and dangerous as the factories of Dickens’s time.
But there’s one notable exception between the old image and the new. The old image of a factory was crowded with people. This is now the age of Self-Aware Machines; as such, the mining stations on the moon are perhaps best envisioned as single, giant, mechanical beings. Their conception of their selves would then extend to each self-contained, autonomous complex.
It’s worth noting that Reynolds’s SMAC future does not consider this level of AI development to be an existential threat to humanity as a whole. There’s no way to inflict a robot or “grey goo” plague on your rivals in the way that it is possible to use tailored retroviruses. This is quite interesting given that, in the years since Reynolds released the game, plenty of futurists have gone on record as saying that they see significant danger in the creation of real, general AI.
To be fair, the player sees Sister Miriam express some worry about the issue. But nothing in the technology tree or the game mechanics directly support this. In particular, Reynolds does not postulate anything about the development of AI necessarily leads to the abandonment of any faction’s core values. Each faction is philosophically stable in the presence of AI.
The fundamental reason why this is, I think, is because Reynolds wanted the game to be human-centric. In the context of the technology tree, the late-game factional struggle is largely about what kinds of people we want to build ourselves into. The argument over what types of social organization are right and good is secondary in comparison.
The structure of the technology tree supports this by making amazing cybernetic, biological, and psionic enhancement of people come far before true AI. By the time real AI erupts on the scene, it does so firmly at the command of entities we might fairly consider more than human. They have evolved from present-day humans, step by step, and their factions are still guided by largely recognizable, if exceptional humans. Where AI is necessarily alien, Reynolds postulates transhumans are still human in some crucial sense.