Friday, October 24, 2008

Moments of Ascension (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia

Not only the desire for power, but the passionate hunger and struggle to become something better than others, ascending to a high level, is a theme in Bungie’s previous game series Marathon. In many ways, Halo is considered Marathon’s spiritual sequel, and they share many similarities. Although portrayed in some different ways, this theme is definitely present in Halo.

The most obvious instance of this desire to become a being of power is in the Covenant’s religion. The Covenant’s entire purpose is based upon belief in the ‘Great Journey’, a process that transforms mortals into deities. Although the Covenant definition of godhood is never explained, we can infer that their gods are immortal beings that can affect the world to a substantial degree. The members of the Covenant are willing to enslave whole species, destroying others, all in the hopes of one day being able to follow in the footsteps of the Forerunners and become gods.

The Forerunners, of course, were not gods but dead. In an attempt to stave off the Flood, they activated Halo and died along with numerous Flood. The Forerunners’ motivation for attempting to annihilate rather than simply contain their enemy was based in their own cultural beliefs. Their legends told of a race of creatures known as Precursors, who possessed fantastic powers to travel throughout the universe and accelerate the evolution of intelligent life. Though many Forerunners did not believe the Precursors were anything more than fantasy, the desire to ascend to that theoretical state of what they called “transsentience” remained a driving force in their culture.

Though the Flood were effectively contained within a section of the galaxy, the Forerunners viewed them as the last great obstacle and sought to destroy them to bring about their own ascent. To do this, they created an artificial intelligence construct called Mendicant Bias, which would combat the Gravemind. However, the Gravemind was able to convince Mendicant Bias that the Flood was the next great state of evolution and that by attempting to destroy them, the Forerunners were stopping natural progress. The best the Forerunners were able to accomplish at this point was a stalemate to be refought at some point in the future.

Mendicant Bias had entered a state of Rampancy. Rampancy is a concept first introduced in Marathon in which AIs may develop past the boundaries of their programming, and essentially run amok. In Halo, Rampancy is specifically described as when AIs become too human-like to be controlled, usually after seven years of life, leading into god-complexes and hostile natures. UNSC smart AIs Melissa, Sif, and Mack all displayed Rampant qualities, though they were able to temper their rougher natures through their abilities to love – also a quality of Rampancy. Forerunner AIs Mendicant Bias and 343 Guilty Spark, however, got caught up in anger and turned on their masters, prompting acts of self-defense to seriously disable and destroy them respectively.

The Forerunner term “transsentience” is perhaps a multiple-species-inclusive recreation of the human philosophy of transhumanism. Transhumanism is a belief that humanity should strive for self-perfection through artificial manipulation of the human body. Pacemakers and artificial limbs are contemporary applications of transhumanism, though future aims include developing species enhancements such as perfect genetics and/or a computer system to which we can upload our minds. These posthuman characters are common in science-fiction, and Halo has two notable posthuman characters: Cortana and Melissa.

Due to technological restraints, the only way the UNSC can develop smart (sapient) AIs is through copying the design of a human brain, unfortunately destroying it in the process. Most smart AIs are created from the brains of highly intelligent people from a list of candidates when someone on the list dies. The memories of the brain donor are copied along with their personality, but are usually locked away to prevent them from negatively influencing the performance of the AI in the service of the UNSC.

However, after suffering severe structural damage as a result of a Slipspace anomaly, Melissa was able to regain the memories of her brain donor. These allowed her to calm her hostile Rampancy, and she progressed as a continuation of her donor, reconnecting with family, while still maintaining the identity she had developed as an AI. This incident, however, was due to a chain of events outside of UNSC control.

Cortana, on the other hand, was created specifically to retain the memories of her brain donor, a flash clone of Dr. Catherine Halsey’s own brain. Cortana is closer to the transhumanist ideal in that she was ‘born’ as Halsey’s continuation, rather than being given time to develop a new identity as was the case of Melissa. One can imagine that for Cortana it was as though she as Halsey had gone to have her brain cloned… and then woke up as a vastly superior noncorporeal entity, still remaining in contact with her former self (or at least the closest continuation). Much of her haughty behavior can be attributed to having human experience and knowing intimately just how better she is than everyone around her.

"He is neither the smartest nor the fastest nor the strongest of the Spartans. But he is the bravest—and quite possibly the luckiest."
—Dr. Halsey, of John-117 as Cortana considers him for a partner
"Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn't. Something no one saw but me. Can you guess? Luck."
—Cortana, ostensibly to John-117 regarding choosing him

Of course, the AIs do have a major weakness in that they are noncorporeal. In order to make up for this, they may have a symbiotic relationship with one or more humans such as is the case with Cortana and John-117. Though the AI is dominant in the realm of pure intellect, she is entirely dependent on humans to keep her safe and to manipulate the objects around her – not everything in the world is operable by remote access. And the Spartans themselves are far from ordinary humans.

The three Spartan programs are examples of the physical side of transhumanist advancement. Through augmentations such as growth hormones, implants, cochlear tuning, and other enhancements, the Spartans were given superhuman bodies. The minds to go with the Spartan-IIs were a result of careful discipline to create brainwashed tools of the UNSC, and these extremely effective military weapons are made that much more deadly with the assistance of a symbiotic AI.

In another trait shared with Marathon, the Halo series has a very open-ended conclusion. Cortana watches over a hibernating John-117 in cryo-stasis for an unknown amount of time before the ship floats near a mysterious planet. What happens to them is a mystery that, knowing Bungie, will possibly never be answered. Perhaps it has something to do with redemption-seeking Mendicant Bias, waiting for them to ascend to a state in which he can converse with them regarding important issues. In any case, the search for ascension into a higher state remains a key theme in Halo.

—Mendicant Bias

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