It is always surprising to see certain culture industry products display a degree of thoughtfulness and quality. There are niche markets which seek to produce this kind of thing, but in general it represents a new trend in the development of “cultural” commodities. After all, capitalist social relations are incredibly flexible in their ability to colonize various spaces and take the plundered goods to new grounds, including that of so-called “high art.” In the world of sf, this process is exhibited best by the transformation of “pure entertainment” products into more subtle stories populated with interesting and developed characters.
When a video game property like HALO exhibits compelling material, something has to be said for the accomplishment this represents. HALO: Combat Evolved hit the original X-Box console market in 2001, and upped the ante for those who wanted to avoid the “real life” human-on-human shooting style of the Call of Duty-style games. Fluid movements, diverse enemies, and stunning world building fostered a sense of the epic usually reserved for a very different kind of game. From the beginning, however, the storyline of HALO was secondary to its status as a first-person shooter, which almost by definition entailed filler designed to move along the process of gunning down enemies.
As sequels and novels were released, the storyline was developed into something quite unexpected. A theocratic leadership drove the alien empire known as the Covenant to wage war on the humans and to seek to activate the Halo array in order to “transcend” the physical realm into the “Great Journey,” which turned out to be a religious euphemism for galaxy-wide destruction of organic life. This storyline was introduced in 2004, during the height of the religious “values voters” period of the Bush Administration, thus implying something of a timely critique of the status quo (however covert and limited). The mysterious “Flood” virus, the ancient technology of the Halo array and its guardian drones, all of it suggested something more at work. And perhaps most critically: it was revealed that the Spartan super soldiers were genetically-engineered to combat human revolutionaries rather than the Covenant itself.
Spearheaded by sf author Eric Nylund, the project of creating an expanded HALO universe was carried out by Microsoft itself and eventually 343 Industries. Contrary to many sources, Bungie Studios—which was responsible for creating the HALO series in concert with Microsoft—was not responsible for the novels. Once 343 Industries was launched (named after “343 Guilty Spark,” an AI developed to serve the mysterious Forerunners), the project to develop the novels took place in concert with further development of cross platform works including graphic novels, side story video games, and films.
Within this series perhaps the most notable accomplishments are the original novel by Nylund titled The Fall of Reach, the Kilo-5 trilogy by Karen Traviss, the short story collections known as Evolutions, the Forerunner Saga, and the film Forward Unto Dawn which serves as a kind of prequel to HALO 4. Of these, the involvement of Greg Bear is perhaps the most important factor when considering the quality level achieved by the expanded universe. Bear is known for Nebula Award winning novel Darwin’s Radio, Blood Music (which won a Nebula for best Novelette), Forge of God, and several other well-known works. He is also known for his collaboration with a group of SF writers in the 1980s who served as advisors for President Reagan on the infamous “Star Wars” program, what Bear would later call “the vastest bluff in the blue-bottom baboon history of the whole Cold War” (Hard SF Renaissance 14).
The involvement of such talent is notable. For most authors of Bear’s caliber, such pulp sub-genres as video game-inspired military sf are usually off limits. Bear engaged in the imaginative world of the Forerunners, an ancient technologically-superior race of beings who went to war with an ancient iteration of human civilization and built the Halo arrays that give the series its name. The trilogy is a complete work of art within the world space opera sub-genre. Certainly many sf critics will look at the word “HALO” and immediately dismiss its worth, but Bear’s talents shine fully in the tragic tale of the Forerunners.
The Kilo-5 trilogy is the work of military sf author Karen Traviss, known for her unexpectedly fantastic Republic Commando series in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Those novels told a compelling story of what motivated the dissent of the Clone Troopers during the Clone Wars and gave substance to their betrayal of the Jedi, portraying the Jedi as aristocratic overlords with little regard for the individual lives of the Clones. In contrast to the rather boring explanation of mind control implants offered up for Clone Wars television show, this series provided compelling characterization of individuals in an otherwise terribly executed story line (few dispute the claim that the prequel trilogy was horribly executed by George Lucas and his creative team).
Traviss’ work on the Kilo-5 trilogy exemplifies the same quality she took to Star Wars. It is set in the days after the Human-Covenant War’s end with the collapse of the Covenant caste system and rise of religious fanaticism among the Covenant’s remnants. ONI, the cloak-and-dagger agency responsible for the Spartans, has created a covert team to funnel weapons to these fanatics in an effort to promote instability among the ex-Covenant forces. In the process, a Spartan will come into contact with her father, whom she had been taken from as an infant in order to be turned into a genetically-engineered super weapon. It turns out that the kidnapping of Naomi to combat revolutionaries resulted in her father becoming a revolutionary himself, a fitting commentary on the cyclical madness of counter-insurgency.
The series deals with the aftermath of war and its subsequent political instability, insurgencies, black operations, and so on in a masterful way. Perhaps its one weakness (and a consequence of Microsoft’s control over the art) is the ways in which it merely hints at the causes of the original human insurgency. Rebellious colonists are portrayed as settlers bristling against national control, evoking imagery from “the Frontier” mythology that dominates ideology in the US and other settler colonial states. The use of excessive force in counter insurgency efforts and the kidnapping of children to begin the super soldier program is really as far as the grievances go in the work. A good place for creative content to flesh out the series would have been a further exploration of the rebellion’s original causes, particularly in light of the characters developed in the final novel of the trilogy, Mortal Dictata. A limited number of references to resource extraction by the core planets of the human civilization does not override the overwhelming portrayal of the revolutionaries as more or less irrational terrorists.
Traviss’ AI character BB (short for “Black Box”) is perhaps the most interesting science fictional aspect of the series. BB deals with the ramifications of splitting consciousness into multiple iterations and recombining them, the consequences of being unencumbered by a body, the pain of losing identity through a degradation of one of those parcelized consciousnesses, and the relationship of AI to the human nervous system (the strong AI in HALO are all modeled on human beings). Traviss deals with a similar character in the short story “Human Weakness” in the first volume of Evolutions, which examines the infamous Cortana AI who accompanies the Master Chief in HALO 1-4.
Forward Unto Dawn is a remarkable accomplishment for a film given its constraints and budget. It develops compelling characters, examines the dark side of the UNSC’s counter-insurgency, and demonstrates the dramatic shock of the fall of Reach during the initial Covenant invasion. This is in sharp contrast to the recent Nightfall production, which starts off with much promise before descending into a bizarre survival story with a limited connection to the broader storyline. Importantly it introduces the character of Locke, who is set to star alongside the Master Chief in the upcoming HALO 5: Guardians. The first third of the film is well executed, but then it descends into an uninteresting and affected survivalist piece that is best forgotten.
What is key here is the ways in which formerly dull products of the culture industry are being developed into more complete works of art. As audiences become more sophisticated and artistic experiences are developing across multiple platforms of story-telling, the desire to raise quality is becoming a standard of profitability. During the 1990s, Hollywood exemplified a dismissive attitude towards quality in sf productions, putting forward the paper thin Star Wars prequels and the laughable Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin Godzilla film. In recent years, the big studios have brought more talent and storytelling into their films, reviving those aforementioned properties with more depth and care. What this says is that audiences are oversaturated, heavily involved, and exhibiting the qualities of fandoms—which is to say, rather than being passive consumers, they have become reflexive critics.
In some ways this is heartening, and the consequence is a culture industry that takes the intelligence of its audience more seriously—at least in some cases. There are of course notable exceptions (Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.). But in other ways this is a consequence of displaced energies, not unlike the sophisticated analysis of sports that many millions of individuals are capable of displaying. As our creative and critical faculties are turned away from a political system that shuts us out, we turn those energies toward entertainment spectacles which then function as objects of ideological production, reflection, and displacement. Thus, first person shooters become compelling story lines with developed characters, but nobody much has any idea what “Obamacare” really is or why exactly the US is at war across the entire Middle East.
The production of these spectacles in itself and what they portend for our future is the subject of a future post, but it is a compelling issue to ponder. Even as we enjoy an improvement in the art of pulp fiction it is symptomatic of a crucial loss of perspective and agency during a very dangerous time in our political lives. The fact that such spectacles mention colonial counter-insurgencies but fall short of fully appreciating their causes and consequences is emblematic of the limits of such work, and the limitations of sf when placed in the hands of corporate power.