Technology: Secrets of Alpha Centauri

“You waited so long to heed us, earthdeirdre,
Almost we pruned you, as we may yet prune your branches.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations with Planet”

Secrets of Alpha Centauri is a twelfth-tier pure scientific technology. Like the other two Secrets technologies, it grants a free technological advance to the first faction who discovers it. Each time this “Secrets” bonus is granted to any faction, the game interface explains to the player that the bonus technology is coming from the intellectual ferment that surrounds discoveries with such exciting theoretical implications. So it is worth taking some time to figure out just what exactly this technology represents.

Let us start with this technology’s prerequisites. The Secrets of Alpha Centauri can only be unlocked by a faction that has mastered both Sentient Econometrics and Centauri Psi. This might seem like a strange or random mix of prerequisite technologies, but they’re actually very carefully chosen.

On the one hand, we have Centauri Psi. This is the top-level technology in the chain that represents humanity’s increasing understanding of Planet as both a psychic, sentient mind and an ecology-wide meta-organism. By the time this chain has stretched from Planetfall all the way up into the mid-game, the psionic properties of the mindworms have been artificially recreated and there is seemingly little left to learn about how Planet physically operates.

And as we have seen before, Sentient Econometrics was the technology in which the colonists on Planet discovered the ecological context in which the Planetmind has grown and died back over the course of millennia. We can infer that this discovery was something of an accident from the name of the technology, its prerequisites, and its Commerce rating effect. All together, it’s clear that the people who developed these algorithms were really looking for a way to set AIs to the task of making money by better measuring and rationalizing the economy. But it’s this surprising spin-off application that leads to plumbing the Secrets of Alpha Centauri.

So, putting these things together, we can see that the Secrets of Alpha Centauri must be mostly about understanding the detailed operation of the Planetmind. And if this is the case, it’s probable that this technology is best read as the Planetmind-analogue to the early discovery of the Secrets of the Human Brain. The fact that the game treats this in a similar fashion to that previous tech by delivering a free breakthrough is therefore highly suggestive.

The first line of the associated quote would also support that assessment. In that light, Planet sees Deirdre as finally “heeding” what Planet was trying to tell her. Presumably, Deirdre has made achieving this understanding an urgent priority for both moral and practical reasons. So the fact that she can only really get it now, when she is in possession of these secrets, implies that this tech must bring with it the mental machinery necessary to process Planet’s messages in the light in which they were sent.

This technology also grants four mechanical benefits that are all related along this theme. The first is the ability to double the effect of the old Centauri Preserves by building the new Temple of Planet base facility. The second is that the full map is revealed in the event that the player never got around to launching satellites. This effect is thematically important but will almost never be relevant in a real game.

The third benefit is that it increases the energy yield by one from fungus squares. This seems like a small bonus. And, in fact, it will not likely be immediately obvious to the player that it’s even being applied. But given what energy means in SMAC, along with the fact that the first energy unlock came from Centauri Meditation, I think it’s probable that this bonus implies the increasing ability of workers to tap into the local Planetmind through the fungal stalks.

The final benefit is that it unlocks the final specialist type. It is now possible to assign population units as “Transcend”. In the game, this causes them to yield two Economy energy points, two Psych energy points, and four Labs. This is a huge bonus. It’s so huge that it obsoletes both Empaths (who provide the same Psych and Energy but no Labs) and the old Thinkers (who provide fewer Psych and Labs energy without the Economy). Summed up, it’s even more energy than the player can typically get from working a thermal borehole. And the player can now get it from any spare population point.

The Transcendi are supposed to represent people who have chosen to take transhumanism to its logical final conclusion. They have completely abandoned their physical form and their biological inheritance. Instead, they have chosen to instead either inhabit the datalinks as digital sentiences or to psychically join with the Planetmind and run on the fungal substrate.

Given all of that, it is quite intriguing that Planet would finish the quote with another threat toward Deirdre’s faction. To prune her branches, in this context, can only mean to attack and destroy a couple of Gaian bases with waves of mindworms. One would think that her +3 Planet rating and laborious centuries of research and scrupulous secret project effort would be sufficient to have made her canonical peace with Planet.

But this is explicitly not the case. Reynolds has chosen instead to arrange things such that the end of the game will likely be marked by increasingly severe fungal blooms. Rapidly increasing mineral output is intended to lead to ecodamage, which increases the rate of fungal pops even for naively managed factions with high Planet ratings. And, on top of that, depending on the level of global industrial activity, it’s quite possible that global warming can take place. This causes the off-map ice caps to melt and drastically raise sea levels around the globe.

The overall effect is supposed to be a dizzying combination of threat and promise. The empire that the player has spent the whole game carefully building up, maintaining, and growing is supposed to feel like it is shaking itself apart at the seams as the end of history approaches. This is a very different feeling from the experience of the end of a typical strategy game. Usually, the player is in the most danger at the very beginning, before he has spent the length of the game ensuring that his position is secure and strong. The end is when these efforts are being rewarded with the long-sought victory.

But Reynolds wants the end of SMAC to emotionally echo the state of Earth as depicted in the introductory video. The chaos, strife, and heedless rapid progress on the part of both the colonists and the flowering Planetmind itself have brought the world to the breaking point once more. This time, though, the difference is that the player and his faction are here to prevent the historical tragedy from simply repeating. If he plays well, the cycle will be broken on his terms, and the true promise of the future will finally be realized.

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2 thoughts on “Technology: Secrets of Alpha Centauri

  1. Jack

    I have a slightly different read on “you”/”your branches” in the quote. I see the “you” as referring to all humanity on Chiron being wiped out by Planet (or possibly the Gaians specifically), and “your branches” referring to the other factions, who do not yet understand the Secrets of Alpha Centauri.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      That’s certainly possible. I lean against that broader interpretation for two reasons.

      First, we know that Planet’s final flowering is going to be apocalyptic. This is described in Sentient Econometrics and is almost assuredly known to both Planet and Deirdre at this time.

      Second, we know that Planet can tell the factions apart (e.g. “earth[leader_name]” in the vignettes, differential faction Planet scores, mechanics of transcendence). This would seem to indicate that Planet thinks of each faction as the corresponding meta-organism akin to itself.

      Put those two points together and it seems pretty unlikely to me that Planet would choose to refer to the other factions as Deirdre’s branches.

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