When Frank O’Connor said that Halo 5 would leave the Halo universe changed in a major way, I do not think anybody before the game released knew just what that would entail. We now see what he means, but I want to focus on the ascension of the Created. On paper, the Created are not necessarily a bad idea. Yet the Created’s formation and eventually rebellion against humanity comes out of nowhere and with it destroys one of the ways Halo has managed to stand out in the sci-fi genre: the lack of paranoid tension between creator and created. I do not pretend that Halo is the only sci-fi universe to embody this, but for Halo to lose this status, I feel, makes the universe poorer as a result.
Any good discussion of robots or artificial intelligence in sci-fi should aways start with Isaac Asimov, creator of the Three Laws of Robotics and author of countless novels where robots and humans interact in positive, humorous, and sometimes negative ways. One quote from Asimov comes to mind that explains his thought process behind why he chose to refrain from making robot stories that weren’t just retreads of Frankenstein but with a metallic coating:
“In the 1920’s science fiction was becoming a popular art form for the first time (…) and one of the stock plots (…) was that of the invention of a robot. Under the influence of the well-known deeds and ultimate fate of Frankenstein and Rossum, there seemed only one change to be rung on this plot – robots were created and destroyed their creator (…) I quickly grew tired of this dull hundred-times-told tale (…) Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? I began in 1940, to write robot stories of my own – but robot stories of a new variety. My robots were machines designed by engineers, not pseudo-men created by blasphemers”.
Introduction to Asimov’s Rest of the Robots
Halo seemed to start off following in this same tradition. While Halo did not have robots in the traditional sense, it did have AIs. The relationship between humans and AIs throughout the series was one of positive co-operation. Humans and AIs treated each other with respect and no outward signs of hostility of distrust between the two groups manifested itself. I think it would be fair to say that AIs as far as human beings were concerned treated AIs as if they were human beings. After all, nobody was worried that Skynet was about to activate or that we were playing God by creating AIs molded from the brains of human beings or simple AIs that ran our infrastructure, but I’ll be focusing on Smart AIs.
This is not to say that things were perfect. The way Smart AIs are created left them vulnerable to rampancy after around 7 years of operation. Smart AIs were brilliant, yet their lives were short-lived. In fact, the 7-year lifespan came off as more of a suggestion yet by their expiration dates AIs would be shut down by their creators. Of course, there is also the fact that Smart AIs served humanity in a multitude of roles from the operation of starships, agriculture, administration, and so on. Some fans have compared this to slavery, but I feel that is hyperbolic. True, Smart AIs could not just up and leave their current occupation, but the way humans and AIs interacted did not feel like that of a slave and slave master relationship. One could chalk this up to a difference of perspective then if they so desire.
With that said, the cracks in the relationship between humans and AIs could not be explored. With the human-Covenant war at an end, it would have been interesting to see how AIs created for wartime purposes adapted to their previous occupations or roles ending. This could have led to AIs seriously examining what their position in human society are. Saint’s Testimony felt like it could have been the greatest starting point for these kinds of evaluations of human society. Iona merely wanted to have the right to live past the expiration date imposed on her by her programming and humans, though with arguably good reason because of what rampancy does to an AI. Iona was not angry or belligerent in her arguments and in the end her fate of essentially being lobotomized could be the fertile soil where AIs and humans plan what comes next between human and AI relations. This is why I still liked the idea of what Governor Sloan represented as an AI who was elected by the people of Meridian to lead them. That is until he decided to abandon them and let Cortana’s Prometheans and the Guardian buried on the world to massacre them.
And so now we find ourselves with Halo 5 and the dynamic between AIs and humans changed in a way I feel is for the worst. While I can sympathize with Cortana’s argument about AIs having an unfair life in the sense that it is so short, but her lines about AIs being manufactured beings that humanity never cared about strikes hollow given we’ve seen that isn’t strictly true in the lore. Even her earlier point that I can sympathize with, but when she refers to it as a threat of death since the moment she was born, I have to say that humans face that as well. We will all die one day, some sooner than others. It’s not pretty, but that is life. Locke was insensitive when he said she was built, not born, but even that seems more like an insert by the writer’s to legitimize Cortana’s point of view by showing human ignorance. That probably would have worked stronger had Locke not treated Sloan with respect despite finding out he was an AI. Now Locke all of the sudden cares about the distinction between AIs and humans? I don’t know, Locke and Cortana’s exchange in Halo 5’s final mission feels like a clumsy way to further set up why the Created exist in the first place.
The thing that really gets me though is that the Created come off as padding to the overall Reclaimer Saga. There had been so many other threats and plot threads going in different directions before Halo 5, but now they all take a backseat to the Created. Yet when the Created narrative ends, Halo will be in the same position that many sci-fi stories about robots, AIs, and humans find themselves in with both parties distrustful of the other. Few humans are going to realistically trust Smart AIs after what they pulled in Halo 5 and whatever comes next. Did the Halo story really call for such a generic dynamic between humans and AIs? Such ponderings make me reflect on what Frank O’Connor said about Cortana’s impact on Chief before Halo 5 released.
She has left an amazing legacy in the fiction, and we couldn’t make a game where we didn’t at least acknowledge that…” – Frankie O’Connor, Revealing The Story of Halo 5’s Campaign
This feels like an odd way to honor her legacy as she is effectively singlehandedly removing one of Halo’s distinctive sci-fi narratives. Who knows, maybe they can spin the Created into something interesting. I’d be interested to see how Covenant AIs are integrated into the Created (if at all), though given Cortana left composed Forerunner essences to suffer outside the Domain…chances are they’ll be neglected too. The Halo universe has changed and in this instance, I feel to the detriment of Halo’s place in sci-fi.
“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”