Technology: Matter Transmission

“The first living thing to go through the device was a small white rat. I still have him, in fact. As you can see, the damage was not so great as they say.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “See How They Run”

If I had to pick a single quote to introduce someone to Zakharov’s personality, it would be this one. It has it all. In three amazingly efficient sentences, Reynolds gets across so many points about the man. His love for cutting-edge science and technology is made manifest in how he’s still personally invested in the research process. And that’s really saying something when one contemplates how many centuries must certainly have passed since Planetfall.

But we also get a glimpse of his dark side. This quote is probably from an interview or a documentary. Either way, it’s definitely meant for public consumption. And he demonstrates in it a perfectly callous attitude towards cute, fuzzy little creatures. Not only does he have no regret for horribly mangling the white rat, he has gone so far as to proudly keep it on his desk as a memento.

The context leads one to presume that he didn’t plan to bring up the rat beforehand. The selection Reynolds presents here is best read as an aside. But in the third sentence, he can’t help but correct what he sees as the public’s mistaken impression of the exact degree of the poor rat’s horrible injuries. It’s mangled, yes, but it’s not mangled.

We already knew that he cares deeply about being right. It’s no accident that Reynolds chose him to introduce Intellectual Integrity so many tiers ago. But the depth of the pedantry he displays here is impressive enough to verge on autism. Given this attitude, it’s completely unsurprising that a faction founded by Zakharov and his like-minded clique would have an especially difficult problem managing their disaffected lower classes.

Moving on to the gameplay effects, Matter Transmission is the foundational technology for the second of the two final chains in the tree. It’s a thirteenth-tier economic technology that combines the previous mastery over matter represented by Matter Editation with the mysterious Secrets of Alpha Centauri to unlock the functional equivalent of the Star Trek teleporter.

Reynolds posits that this dramatic technology has three immediate applications. First, it enables the creation of Psi Gates. These are base facilities that allow units to instantly teleport between any two bases that possess one. Second, it allows the creation of the Bulk Matter Transmitter secret project, which grants bonus minerals at every base. And, finally, it allows the Blink Displacer unit ability, which lets units ignore any bonuses a defending unit might have from fortifications like Perimeter Defenses or Tachyon Fields.

As we have seen, the trend in SMAC is to advance toward a decisive conclusion in the end-game. This is in keeping with the tradition of the broader “4X” genre of empire-building games, of which the Civilization series of games is an exemplar. The idea is that it should be worthwhile to build up one’s own empire in the early game before clashing with rivals in the mid-game. If no one has won by the time the end of the tech tree approaches, then the advanced technologies should make it possible to break the stalemate and reach a decision.

This technology represents the ne plus ultra of this trend. Psi Gates shrink the attackers’ supply lines to virtually zero regardless of the terrain. Meanwhile, Blink Displacers strip away the bonuses that keep static defenders competitive even with their lower base strengths. And if there still aren’t enough units to be had, the Bulk Matter Transmitter greatly increases the productivity of the leading faction.

Enforcing this pattern to this degree enables Reynolds to expect games that only allow the Conquest victory condition to eventually end, even if every surviving faction entirely completes the technology tree. But the primary focus of SMAC is the single-player experience using the default rules. And from that perspective, the main effect of this technology is to add fuel to a rising feeling of all-consuming power.

To see how this works, recall that the player has spent much of the game focused intently on the problem of moving his units around the map of Planet. Since he’s winning, this generally means working out the logistics of building new units back in his core bases and then moving them into enemy territory. Once they arrive, he then has to form his armies up to assault enemy bases, clear them of defenders, and then add them to his growing conquests.

All of these problems are so much easier with the magic of Matter Transmission at his command. High-tech warfare against backwards rivals is often so easy that it can already feel a little like cheating. But these bonuses usually push the advantage past the point of ludicrous and into what may as well be omnipotence. Therefore, I’d argue that these rules are best read as Reynolds rewarding the player with the keys to the kingdom. By playing this long and this well, he’s earned the right to do whatever he wants with the military aspect of the game.

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7 thoughts on “Technology: Matter Transmission

    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Fascinating! My interpretation could very well stem from a blind spot of my own. It’s true that I don’t spend a lot of time talking about corpses, but I routinely use ‘him’ and ‘her’ to refer to objects in the third person instead of ‘it’ when it feels right. For instance, it would be natural usage for me to refer to a tchotchke on my desk as ‘him’, even though it’s obviously inanimate. Especially if it resembled a person or creature.

      Now that you mention it, though, I can recall reading an old murder mystery in which the detective made a point of correcting the usage in a case like this. He had referred to the deceased woman as ‘her’ before correcting himself to ‘it’ because, as he put it, properly speaking a corpse is not a person.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment. I’ll definitely have to think about this one a little more.

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  1. Anonymous

    Agreed with the first commenter; it’s always been quite apparent to me that the rat was still alive. Where you see a quote dehumanizing the Academician, I see the exact opposite: it’s clear that he’s become rather affectionate with the rat, even opting to adopt him in recognition of his sacrifices in the name of science.

    Unsurprisingly perhaps, I happen to disagree with your analyses on nearly every other faction leader in the game and the crux of their personal philosophies.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Interesting. I don’t often get people who come by, read everything, leave some comments, and then as an aside say that I’m wrong about everything without feeling the need to go into excruciating detail about it.

      Basically, I appreciate your ability to avoid the “Someone is wrong on the Internet!” trap. https://xkcd.com/386/ Glad you still enjoyed the read despite my perceived analytical deficiencies. 🙂

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I didn’t say you were necessarily wrong, simply that I disagreed.

        If you want me to expound on what I find so off-putting about your interpretations, it probably boils down to what I perceive to be your compulsion to reduce the faction leaders to mere caricatures. Other than Miriam, of course, to whom you ascribe what I would consider unwarranted tragic depth. I think this entry in particular stands out as an instance in which you seem more than happy to strip away any semblance of nuance or complexity from Zakharov’s character.

        I believe you stated that you wanted to base your blog on the experience of a first playthrough, yet I can’t help but feel that it somehow all feels very… divorced from the actual gameplay? As quickly becomes apparent during the course of diplomacy, the various faction leaders are all ultimately pragmatists at heart, though their stated ideals may occasionally come across as extreme. Somehow, I just don’t get that feeling at all from reading your analyses.

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  2. CCC

    As with the previous two commentators, I’d always thought of Zhakarov holding up a live white rat to accompany these words. It’s a nice little example of dry humour – there’s all these rumours that the psi gates turn people inside out, shatter them into a million pieces, or whatever – and then Zhakarov turns up on the holovision, holding this little white rat, and saying “the damage was not so great as they say”.

    Mind you, I’m not sure that he’s telling the truth about that rat having been the *first*. If the real first rat came out mangled, then the rat he’s showing the holovision camera might be the third, the tenth, or even have not gone through the gate at all. Especially after one considers that he would probably have wanted to very thoroughly check the original rat for internal damage, perhaps to the point of some sort of destructive scan…

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  3. custodianiseed

    I noticed the name of the work (interview, documentary, or book) from which the quote is taken; “See How They Run”, which is presumably from the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice”. If memory serves, these three blind mice get their tails chopped off after they chase after the farmer’s wife. I think there’s a fair amount of symbolic or resonant meaning in this choice of title.

    At the least, I can picture the mouse Zakharov keeps on his desk is missing its tail, which perhaps didn’t make it all the way through with the rest of the mouse. The rhyme also gives the sense of a certain sudden, disturbing, nimble mobility that echoes the new military capacities that the tech unlocks. And, the idea of the ‘blindness’ of the mice makes me think of Miriam and her salvo “how proud we have become, and how blind”.

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