“And when he has brought forth and reared this perfect virtue, he shall be called the friend of god, and if ever it is given to man to put on immortality, it shall be given to him.”
— Plato, “The Symposium”, Datalinks
Here it is. We have finally reached the end of the technology tree. Centuries have almost assuredly passed since the moment a handful of fragile colony pods came to rest upon the surface of an alien world. Upon researching this technology, their literal and philosophical descendants now stand at the Threshold of Transcendence. The threshold can be passed by constructing the associated Voice of Planet secret project, which starts the countdown to the end of the game.
Transcendence, in SMAC, represents the end of the human era. Whatever comes next will necessarily represent a dramatic shift in what it means to be a person and a society. One that’s so much sharper than anything that’s been envisioned to this point that SMAC no longer attempts to represent it in the game world. Recalling the dramatic impact of many of these prior technologies should help to demonstrate the full weight of that statement.
But what exactly does this technology do? What is it meant to concretely represent, other than telling the player the game is about to end? Answering these questions first requires us to take a look at its prerequisites.
In SMAC, the Threshold of Transcendence requires Temporal Mechanics and the Secrets of Creation to research. We have already seen that Temporal Mechanics implies a complete understanding of psionics. But what may not have been obvious then is that it also implies a complete understanding of society-wide ethics. The Social Engineering and Base Management screens have been constant companions for the player for the duration of the game. And it’s only at Temporal Mechanics that it’s guaranteed to be possible to select every Social Engineering choice and to assign all the most effective forms of specialist.
On the other hand, whatever their contents, the Secrets of Creation are obviously relevant to the final fate of humanity and the universe. It’s also worth pointing out that they require the Unified Field Theory, in turn. This means that this inclusion as a prerequisite implies that the people at the end of time need a theoretically complete picture of fundamental physics in order to move to the next phase in existence.
But it’s just as interesting, in my view, to see what on the tree isn’t actually required to win the game. Temporal Mechanics recursively implies all three ninth-tier technologies and all five eight-tier technologies. But it’s actually the Secrets of Creation that’s required to pick up the final seventh-tier Unified Field Theory.
As an aside, it’s kind of mind-blowing to realize that it’s theoretically possible to master time itself without a truly correct and satisfying fundamental physics. There’s a potential SMAC universe out there in which the people of Chiron just kept muddling through to the top of the tree with increasingly accurate domain-specific theories. All the while, they lacked the single, revolutionary flash of insight that could have came centuries before.
So that leaves seven technologies that are unnecessary for transcendence. They range from Frictionless Surfaces, up through Quantum Power/Quantum Machinery, Singularity Mechanics, and the parallel three-technology chain at the top that starts with Graviton Theory and runs through to Controlled Singularity. The common theme uniting these breakthroughs is that they’re all physical in nature. They’re about particles, not people.
Thus, SMAC posits that transcendence must stem from something more than, or different from, mere scientific empiricism. Reynolds has always seen the fantastic powers and the exciting promise of new technology as tools rather than as ends. In this, Reynolds stands squarely within the tradition of the greatest science fiction.
From the beginning, the resonant themes of the game have been centered about genuinely meaty philosophical questions. How should we live? What is best in life? Which ethical principles are eternally true and which are only contingent upon circumstance? What values are essential to the human experience? And what parts of our lives will we want our far-future descendants to look back on and treasure as central to the legacy we have left them?
Reynolds presents the faction leaders as a detailed existence proof that these questions can be satisfactorily answered in at least seven different ways. The quote that accompanies this technology would lead one to believe that, whichever path one chooses to walk, they each imply an end state in which this perfect virtue is somehow made manifest. Or, in other words, for a faction to find itself at the Threshold of Transcendence means that the people have come to embody a final and complete solution for philosophy itself.
Metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and even aesthetics are all solved problems. And not only in a theoretical sense. At this point, the entire society is an instantiation of a completely correct, self-consistent philosophy. But Reynolds has left it for the player to determine whether or not the society his faction has painstakingly built has resulted in a true utopia or the final triumph of evil, invincible for all time.