“‘Abort, Retry, Fail?’ was the phrase some wormdog scrawled next to the door of the Edit Universe project room. And when the new dataspinners started working, fabricating their worlds on the huge organic comp systems, we’d remind them: if you see this message, always choose ‘Retry.'”
— Bad’l Ron, Wakener, Morgan Polysoft
Matter Editation represents a complete mastery over bulk matter. It’s labeled as a twelfth-tier economic technology in the game, reasonably enough. As fits the pattern up until now, it allows the creation of a new unit armor along with a base facility that enhances economic output. In this case, it’s the ten-strength Antimatter Plate armor and the Nanoreplicator, which uniquely multiplies mineral output while providing an ecology bonus. And, finally, it enables the Clinical Immortality secret project, which applies this mastery over matter to human biology to serve as the final capstone to the medical discipline.
But the quote is one of the few places in the game lore where Reynolds’s vision comes off as undeniably dated. Explaining exactly why requires a little background into the gaming culture of Reynolds’s audience.
Back in the late ’90s, software developers typically spent almost no effort on making their code portable across operating systems. Most customers didn’t even know that this would be a worthwhile feature. And the development tools that would make this easy were in their infancy.
This meant that PC gaming was a little like console gaming would be now, if virtually every game were a console exclusive. The gamer was expected to pick a hardware type and then buy games that were compatible with said hardware. And even if you might prefer to use a Macintosh, it turned out that most games were written for Windows machines running on IBM compatible hardware, because they were way cheaper and more powerful.
That meant that the vast majority of Reynolds’s PC gamer audience would have cut their teeth on DOS games. And they’d almost assuredly be playing SMAC itself on Windows 95 or Windows 98. These OSes both had the seemingly odd property of being fundamentally interface programs running atop MS-DOS, even though they looked a lot more modern than the old DOS command-line interface.
MS-DOS was originally written in the ’80s. Quite reasonably for the time, it expected that everybody using a computer would be what we’d consider a power user today. It was all hobbyists and professionals back then. So when a program you were running died on the command line, it would print out your three options. Aborting the program meant to just kill it immediately; Retry would tell it to try again, on the assumption that you knew what the problem was and could fix it, or you were actively trying to debug it; and Fail was supposed to tell the program to attempt to shut down gracefully.
Old video games were commonly laden with bugs. And since the Internet barely existed, most gamers never got patches for their games. Whatever came on the disk was what you got. So it was not out of the ordinary for an old-school gamer to have his game hit some fatal error and report this arcane message.
So the joke here has two parts. First, the idea that this annoying message has persisted under the covers all the way throughout the future history of computing is pretty amusing. And, second, now that their inconceivably advanced computation systems are hosting sentient beings and modeling entire universes, forcibly aborting or allowing the process to fail hard would be catastrophic. They really should always keep retrying.
This would be funny to the typical gamer at the time, given his experience with that dialog. Chances are, he’s hit retry a couple of times in the vain hope that he might get his game back before. Then, once that didn’t work, he had to resign himself to making one of the other two choices, both of which are guaranteed to have sad outcomes. It would be something of a miracle for an old-school gamer to hit retry and have that actually get his game back.