Secret Project: The Bulk Matter Transmitter

“And what of the immortal soul in such transactions? Can this machine transmit and reattach it as well? Or is it lost forever, leaving a soulless body to wander the world in despair?”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “We Must Dissent”

Judging from the video, The Bulk Matter Transmitter is a much more impressive facility than its gameplay effects would imply. It just grants two free minerals to each base in SMAC. This is essentially equivalent to two extra Nessus Mining Stations, but without any of the limitations of the satellite economy.

This isn’t really a very good deal. When you consider that it is one of the very last secret projects, based on the thirteenth-tier Matter Transmission technology, the deal gets worse. It’s both very expensive and has very little time to pay back its cost. So only a massive endgame empire will find this to have a positive return on investment.

This is fine, though, since at this point the game is no longer competitive. A player who’s still enjoying the builder game this late is almost assuredly more interested in making cool stuff than he is in scraping out every possible advantage from micromanaging his faction. And this secret project definitely delivers on that.

There does not appear to be much of a limit on the scale to the matter transmission technology. So it turns out that the Bulk Matter Transmitter is the most boring name imaginable for a real, live stargate. Through which people are flying actual starships.

Since all the action takes place on and around Planet, it’s easy for the player to forget the level of sophistication that SMAC assumes for space travel technology. Until he’s forcibly reminded by seeing a massive spaceship flung instantly across the stars. This is the kind of feat that typically only shows up in sci-fi stories about ancient, galactic-scale space empires. So it serves as an excellent benchmark for the sheer scope of imagination Reynolds has exercised in SMAC.

And, of course, it would not be SMAC without some philosophy to go with the technological wonder. Here, we are treated to Sister Miriam taking the contrary position to CEO Morgan’s pronouncement on the discovery of Matter Editation. Recall that it was Morgan’s firm belief that the value of anything cannot escape its smallest parts. Therefore, a reassembled person on the other side of the stargate must have the same moral value as the original.

But Miriam seems to believe that continuity of a person’s path in space-time is key to anything we’d rightly consider identity. Which, if she’s right, would leave the resulting teleported person bereft of his link to his past. If not abandoned by God all together.

It’s certain that whichever faction actually built this project in canon took Morgan’s side of the argument. But knowing what we know now about Miriam’s eventual fate, it’s especially poignant to see her express doubts over the fate of the soul during teleportation. She’s not really sure what going through the portal actually means. This makes her choice of death a profound final statement of her faith in the face of deep empirical uncertainty.

I cannot help but gush again over how wonderful I find it that Reynolds was willing to play fair here. He didn’t have to give Sister Miriam anything resembling this tragic depth. His players would have been more than satisfied if he had just made her an angry, monochromatic antagonist in a black hat. That’s all most of them saw anyway, judging by many of the comments I’ve seen from SMAC players since the game came out.

But this is another instance of the true genius of SMAC. Reynolds has crafted a game that rewards the player in proportion to the effort he brings to it. If the player wants a fun war game, the game can provide that in spades. If he wants a futuristic SimCity experience, he can spend all his time carefully building up his bases just so. If he wants the joy of crushing his philosophical foes into the dirt until they grovel before him, SMAC delivers.

And if he’s willing to drill down deep into the lore, as I have here, he’ll find that the whole edifice stands up to scrutiny. Reynolds has built a futuristic world that actually works. It’s simultaneously epic in scope, self-consistent, fair-minded, fascinating to contemplate, expressed powerfully to the player, and laden with distinctive flavor. Any one of these would have made the game worthwhile. Crafting a game that manages them all at once makes this a masterwork.

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3 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Bulk Matter Transmitter

  1. northstar1989

    I’m confused. It seems like you’re ignoring that something is rather obviously *not right* with the ship after it’s gone through the Bulk Matter Transmitter- leaving it freely drifting unpowered in space… This would seem to support Miriam’s assertion that it does not transmit the soul…

    Also, the key word in the title “Bulk” is more than just a loose adjective pertaining to size. In science and engineering, the phrase “bulk matter” has certain connotations- matter that is not ALIVE, for one. So, there’s more going on here than you think, even in just the title. Likely the video is of an early test of the device- after which they discovered it was not safe to send living beings through, and only sent minerals, etc through in the future… The Psi Gates, by contrast, appear to use psionic technology to transmit the consciousness (and perhaps, soul), which is a contrast to the Bulk Matter Transmitter which appears to just be safe for use for inanimate objects…

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      You could very possibly be right. We have no idea how psionics work or what they imply in detail, other than that they must represent phenomena that we’d consider fictional or – at best – unproven in real life. So something that Miriam would recognize as the soul could be a tangible, measurable, non-duplicable property of certain collections of matter in SMAC-world.

      But I lean against that interpretation of the video for two reasons. First, as you note, it’s the whole spaceship that’s tumbling with a ghostly appearance on the other side of the transmitter. If this image is taken completely literally, then it would seem that there isn’t much value to it at all. Even the bulk matter that comes through the other side looks to have been badly affected.

      And, second, I feel that it underrates the context provided by the technology tree. For instance, by this point we’re two tiers past Self-Aware Machines. Industrial nanopaste is old hat. Pure Matter Editation was yesterday’s news. This means you don’t need anything other than minerals to generate life any more.

      So, with that in mind, let us posit for the moment that you are correct. For some reason, the Bulk Matter Transmitter doesn’t operate on Psi Gate principles. Thus, something crucial is necessarily lost in transit when sending living people through the device. I’ll call this the “weak BMT” hypothesis to distinguish it from the completely stargate-equivalent “strong BMT” hypothesis I used.

      Using a weak BMT, it would not be difficult at all to just send a large, undifferentiated block of matter through along with a bunch of nanopaste. Then, on the other side, have the nanobots cook up a precise copy of whatever spaceship you wanted to send in the first place. And if even tiny nanobots have too much soul to weak-BMT transmit without damage, then you can solve that problem by sending a seed nanobot factory along with the other side of the gate when you first set it up.

      And if you can do that, there’s no reason you can’t rebuild self-aware machines, ones containing uploaded consciousnesses (the Transcendi unlocked by Secrets of Alpha Centauri), or rebuild physical people on the other end (a la Clinical Immortality) as part of the contents of the spaceship. And, thus, even the weak BMT results in something functionally equivalent to a strong BMT using only other technology we’ve seen as prerequisites for Matter Transmission. If nothing else, this thought experiment hopefully illustrates just how crazy a place the SMAC far-future really is.

      I think the only real objection to such a scheme would be Miriam’s worries about the soul. Or, construed more broadly, the idea that philosophical identity does not or should not survive this discontinuity. Therefore, I argue that the image of the drifting spaceship at the end is best taken figuratively, as a dramatic demonstration of what Sister Miriam fears may as well have become of the voyagers when they travel through the gate.

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      1. CCC

        I’d interpreted the ghostly “ship” coming out the other end of the gate to be the soul of the ship, left behind when its body was disassembled around it, drifting forever through space…

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