It was recently the 15th Anniversary of the Halo series. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the games, but it’s been something of a dirty secret that I’m also a big fan of the mythos. To celebrate 15 years, I thought I'd write a bit on how the unlikeliest of books changed my outlook on our entire species.
It's super geeky, but bear with me.
I first fell in love with the game as a kid in 2011: the lonely landscapes, the action, and the godly music. But curious about the character's fictional background, I read the tie-in book, Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund. Perhaps because I was young, perhaps because I was captivated with the games, or perhaps because Nylund is imaginative, the book fundamentally altered the way I think about the future. Upon reading it, I became obsessed with what humans are and what humans have the potential to become.
For many, science fiction seems to be all about the advanced technology: the spaceships, the ray guns, the laser swords, the sexy robots. But one thing that many don’t seem to appreciate is that, at its core, sci-fi is about exploring humanity.
Apes with Sharp Stones
This is because technology does not exist in a vacuum. All the technology we know exists solely in relation to humans; we are tech's creators, purveyors, and users. In that relationship, technology changes us. It gives us abilities we could not otherwise have and it promotes or suppresses our nature.
Sci-fi examines those changes. A good sci-fi story explores how much humanity can change with technology, how much of humanity is unchangeable, and in turn, distills what it is about humans that makes us humans.
This is, of course, not confined to science fiction. Anthropology and history study where our species came from. Biology, psychology, sociology, and economics study what our species is. The most advanced areas of scientific research give us glimpses of what our species can do, but unfortunately, there can be no formal study of where our species is going.
Informally, sci-fi offers some ideas of where it could go. Some sci-fi makes this explorations by introducing changes to the technologies that humans use. Stories revolve around hovercars or robots or virtual reality. This type of fiction often explores how little human nature changes in relation to the technologies available to us. The cowardly are still cowardly. The noble are still noble. Boy still meets girl.
Other sci-fi, however, makes an exploration of our species by introducing changes to the standard model of humanity. Advanced drugs make us able to compute large sets of data, exoskeletons make us able to jump over buildings. This type of fiction explores what the borders of humanity are. If someone no longer walks like a human, thinks like a human, or dies like a human, is it a human? Is an armor clad, AI-enhanced, 7-foot-tall space Marine a human?
Reading The Fall of Reach as a teenager raised these questions that I’d never considered before. As I grew older and read more. I learned that none of these considerations were new. Human augmentation has been the concern of countless militaries, philosophers, and science fiction writers. Reading through the publicized areas of DARPA’s research sounds like a look from something out of an R&D department in Halo. But no book that I’ve read so far has so unabashedly addressed the question of what would happen if we went all-in to create superhumans.
It wouldn’t just take the intense characteristic selection and childhood conscription in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. It wouldn’t just take the jet-powered armor and intense military training in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It wouldn’t just take the integration of AI from William Gibson’s Count Zero. It might take all of it.
The Fall of Reach
The plot in The Fall of Reach is pretty simple. In the story, the human species has become a space-faring civilization with access to faster-than-light travel, but the politics of the galactic empire begin to show signs of rebellion.
One scientist, Catherine Halsey, models the results of an unavoidable war and determines that it will result in an incredibly high death-toll unless the empire can quell the war before it fully begins. Halsey begins development on a technology to help the empire tactfully stop the rebellion and establish peace in the galaxy. The technology, however, is not better guns or faster ships: it’s enhanced humans.
Rather than subdue the rebellion with bombs, Halsey’s plan is to create a military strike-team capable of high-risk and covert operations, able to infiltrate rebel forces and assassinate or kidnap rebel leaders, precluding all-out war.
In order to create a sufficiently able soldier, however, Halsey cannot take existing soldiers and retrain or enhance them. Adult bodies are not pliable enough. Halsey makes the morally-questionable decision to start with children instead. The children are to begin their training at the age six, so she names them Spartans. She finds qualified candidates, conscripts them, and kidnaps them from their homes to begin the training and augmentation process.
This is where the exploration of humanity begins. The Spartans undergo several stages of development, each stage layering on enhancements and peeling away assumptions about what it means to be human. Each stage presents a bit of a theme on the bounds of humanity.
What is the natural range of human traits?
The first layer of examination is based on genetics. Before she can start, Halsey has to find children that meet genetic profiles able to accept the augmentations she has planned. Additionally, she seeks children who are already genetically gifted, born smarter, faster, and stronger. After she finds the children that meet the genetic criteria, she kidnaps them and replaces them with clones. Unfortunately, cloning technology is imperfect (which necessitates the kidnapping), and the clones degenerate quickly, losing the ability to walk, becoming mentally disabled, and dying within a few months.
This stage of the Spartan’s development sets up some fundamental questions: what are humans capable of given nothing more than their genes? The original children kidnapped for the project are very obviously humans. They’re naturally exceptional at certain things; some are stronger, others are abnormally fast. Nobody would say that an abnormally fast child is inhuman. She's just lucky to have raw talent. The children all function within the normal bounds of humanity, although they might exist at the edges of what we expect when we say human.
This stage in the Spartans development establishes the outer bounds of human performance. A human who can do better than other humans without any sort of alteration to their genes or physiology is still human, just a lucky one.
What about the clones? Are they humans?
Unlike the originals, they don’t excel at anything. Quite the opposite. They quickly develop diseases, degenerate, and die. Nobody would say that a person with a disease is not human. But if you’re prone to diseases that no other human would contract, are you still human? The clones, whose genes are improper copies of humans', don’t necessarily meet the basic genetic criteria of being human. If parts of the human genome are improperly replicated in a person, does that person still count as human?
There is no clear answer to that question, but while the original children set the upper-bound of natural performance, the clones beg the question as to what the lower bounds might be. The parents of the kidnapped Spartans watch in terror as their once-blessed children fall ill, literally overnight, and slide into decrepitude. If they discovered that the children were clones, would they still consider them children, or something else?
What can humans become with training?
The second layer of development is based on training and education. After the Spartans are kidnapped, they’re taken to a secret military facility to begin a lifetime of indoctrination, training, and military service. By the time they’re 14-years-old, the Spartans have the bodies of adult Olympic athletes, are incredibly well-educated, and perform more cohesively and efficiently than any existing military teams.
This may sound like an appealing set of skills and and traits, but by that age, the Spartans no longer act in a way that appears human — they have no social skills and serve only to complete missions. In exchange for their exceptional training, the children are deprived of family, friends, and liberty. They are put into bunkers and given a highly-regimented schedule. Their physical training is a militaristic one; if anyone treated a child in that manner today, it would be seen as abuse and torture. They're taught to devote and sacrifice their lives to save their empire.
This introduces the next question on performance and humanity. Given the genetic baseline we start with, what is it that humans can become with strict amounts of teaching and training?
We can see some examples in sports today. Michael Phelps began swimming at the age of 7. Usain Bolt was competing by age 12. They exhibit capabilities that no human could achieve without a lifetime of work. These dedicated athletes have a singular focus on their sport and their entire life revolves around their performance. They are, however, incredibly abnormal.
Reaching the limits of human potential requires the sacrifice of a “normal” life. It’s circular — a person can’t have a normal life and also be exceptional. Being exceptional necessarily means being different from normal. Those exceptional levels of performance require sacrificing the normal human experience. Which introduces a followup question: without a human experience, are the people who achieve those levels of performance still human, or are they something different?
There isn’t an obvious answer. Our current industrial education system has low standards and poor process, but even then, the average American is significantly more educated than humans 300 years ago. If any well-educated, college bound 17 year old went back to 1716 to meet his peers, his level of technical knowledge would not only be foreign, it would be godly. He might be burned at the stake for being a witch.
While we might consider the conscription of 6-year-olds a crime, we’re willing to tolerate more mild forms of it in the public school system for the purposes of having an educated population. What Halsey does to train her Spartans is a difference in degree. While a lifetime of strict training can result in incredibly proficient human, is that level of ability something we want to subject our species to?
What can humans become with augmentation?
The final layer of development is in unnatural augmentation. Once the Spartans complete their training, they’re given a two sets of enhancements.
The first set of enhancements changes the degree to which their natural abilities are expressed, taking traits that genes give to humans and reinforcing them. Their muscles are made stronger, their bones more dense. What could humans do if their natural abilities were artificially enhanced? It would be impossible for non-enhanced humans to compete with physiologically enhanced people; beyond the best training of even the worlds best athlete. Indeed, an athlete on performance enhancing drugs is removed from competition because they are seen as someone a non-enhanced person could not compete with. We wouldn’t say that a person on steroids is not human, but what about a person with unbreakable bones?
The second set of of enhancements grants the Spartans with abilities that nature did not provide, offering new abilities and traits. The project puts the Spartans in an exoskeleton and gives them brain-computer interface to directly connect to computers. The exoskeleton gives them the ability to survive in environments otherwise inhospitable and provides extra-sensory inputs. The Spartans can take bullets and detect motion with their suit’s radar. The brain-computer interface allows them to connect to an artificial intelligence which grants the real-time battlefield logistics, information, and strategic advice.
A man that can run faster than another person is still a human. But a man that can see through walls and take a bullet is Superman. Once a person can do something that no human could do naturally, is that person still a human?
The lines are blurry. We are constantly breaking the bounds of human ability with technological enhancements to our abilities. For example, everyone can move across land at hundreds of miles per hour in a loose exoskeleton called a car. Everyone of us has a second brain that allows us to store casts amounts of detailed information for perfect and quick recall. That second brain is a phone.
The connection to a suit and a brain interface reduce the amount of friction between the human and the super-human ability. The less friction there is between the individual and the enhancement, the more integral to the person it seems. Our clothes are a light exoskeleton but we see them as a regular extension of our bodies. We do not see cars as similar extensions. Both a person in a car and a person in armor can survive powerful impacts, but the second one comes off as an alteration to the person where the first does not. At which point are we creating tools, and at which point are we altering our physiology?
For Catherine Halsey, the exoskeleton was the final piece of the Spartan project. The Spartans were not complete without that layer of armor and integrated AI. In the Halo fiction, the next stage for humanity includes a full integration with non-human parts.
Thinking of the Future
Now, 15 years after the first Halo game, I think more than ever about some of these questions of human ability and performance. These concepts apply to very relevant problems we face today. What do we do about the prevalence diseases of modernity brought about by too much comfort? How do we modulate and capitalize on the interactions between people and AI? How do we address that fact that, as we cure more diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, accident prevention becomes that much more important? No science fiction book can answer those questions, but it can provide some fun ideas.
Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund