SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSITY:Broken Halos: Science, Religion, and Ethics in Halo

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture


Science fiction was born of religion. Stop! Don’t flip to the next essay . . . let me explain.
There’s a reason we love fantastic stories. It’s that we want fantastic experiences. We want them so much that we’ll take them in as many ways as we can get—through our own experiences, through stories of other peoples’ lives, even through experiences we invent. This desire for the fantastic finds constant connection to those impulses we term “religious.” Sometimes the connections are obvious, and sometimes they’re convoluted, but they’re deeply woven throughout the very fibers of the Haloverse.
Consider, for example, the story of Dr. Halsey, a character insignificant in the Halo games but important in the books. Her subplot deals with the question of ethics in science. From the outset, she questions the morality of using mechanical technology, bioengineering, and behavior modification to transform a group of children into advanced killing machines christened the Spartan IIs. She has to purposely withdraw from the children emotionally, refusing to call them by name and, instead, referring to them as “test subjects” (The Fall of Reach 26, 30–31). In addition to taking them away from their parents, Dr. Halsey turns the children into warriors, then into enhanced superhumans, a process that leaves half of them dead or deformed (60–62). At one point in the story, even Cortana wonders, “Was Dr. Halsey a monster? Or just doing what had to be done to protect humanity? Perhaps a little of both” (270). Halsey attempts to play the odds, pretend to be scientifically objective (i.e., act without human heart), and assume the Frankensteinian role of man playing God. Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, and it’s from there that we gather the connection between “hard science” sci-fi and the religious impulse.
Prometheus, the only god among the Titans to side with Zeus and the Olympians, gave mankind fire—that’s the part of the story that everyone knows. What many don’t know is that Prometheus also gave humanity techné, the practical arts. Techné, or technology, became the divine gift that offered the means for us to make our lives matter. In technology we find our godhood, and we also run into the limitations of our humanity.
But technology without humanity cannot save us. Something divine calls us to draw limits to our attempts to replace God with ourselves, and the results of such god-play through techné are always the same: Faustus loses his soul to Satan, Frankenstein creates a monster, and, in a sadly prophetic example of life imitating art, Oppenheimer created the A-bomb, proclaiming humanity’s horrid self deification when he quoted from the Hindu myth (I don’t know how to create a comment bubble for a comment bubble and so am just writing my response here and will ask you to delete it: I’m following C. S. Lewis’s idea of myth here; that myth can speak truth. Thus I tell people that I live under the Christian myth—a vision for looking at reality as a whole—one I just happen to also believe is the myth that became fact. At any rate no demeaning of Hinduism was intended, quite the contrary. But if you think that the word will be misunderstood, feel free to substitute a word like “story” or “text’): “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Technology makes the Borg (like Darth Vader) “more machine than man,” and the Forerunners create the Halos to contain the Flood. Their reward for this grand, almost divine achievement is their own extinction. Dr. Halsey finds the limits of technology in her recognition that she should have been concerned with compassion, love, and saving lives (First Strike 245) rather than rising above such apparent human frailties.
Science fiction and science itself are inextricably intertwined with our religious impulses. The connection between our own divine spark and our pursuit of technology links back, beyond the rise of science at the height of an utterly Christian Europe, to the earliest stories of human creation and achievement. There is an experience for which we hunger—have hungered for since the beginning of humanity. We use words for it like awe, wonder, mystery, or romanticism. We call it a desire for transcendence, the wholly Other, the Divine—God.
So-called realistic stories are new to human history—only a few hundred years old. The earliest human stories were the great myths of which we remain aware today, tales of divine experience and human encounters with gods. There were no other stories worth telling. These were followed in the Medieval West by epic romances. God receded from the story as a character, but the hero of ancient myth remained, evolving into the knight in search of a grail that would draw him closer to divine worlds, magical dimensions.
With the Age of Reason and the rise of scientific materialism, fantastic stories became unreasonable, the “fantastic” only “fantasy” (that is, the opposite of fact), and transcendent myth nothing but false mythology. Fiery Helios was knocked out of his sun-chariot and cast from his journey across the sky when science stripped magic from the world and told us that the sun was nothing but a big ball of gas. The problem: we still demanded sunsets be beautiful. We still demanded experiences of wonder, awe, and mystery.

Transcendent Stories in the Age of Fact

Fantastic stories went in two directions at this time. One was fantasy; the other, science fiction, began with writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. As science removed one kind of mystery and wonder from the Earth, the human soul nevertheless continued to demand mystery, wonder, and transcendence. The place of mystery, no longer the magic wood or sacred mount, became space, the ocean bottom, the moon, Mars, and other planets. Angels became aliens, magic turned into advanced technology, dragons became dinosaurs, awe became evolutionary transcendence, God became an extraterrestrial panspermia, and salvation became the product of our own technological advancement. Our warrior heroes became scientists, their chariots submarines and spaceships, their magic swords ray guns.
Our longings for wonder, mystery, transcendence, Divinity—our deep spiritual longings, our religious impulses—are the hungers that drive science fiction stories, stories that satisfy our hunger for magic and mystery in an age that has denied magic and claimed the ability to solve all mysteries.
It is for this same reason that two primary branches of science fiction exist today. The first continues the vision of H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. The second is represented by such writers as Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, and filmmaker George Lucas. The well-known distinction of “hard science sci-fi” from “science fantasy” is close to what I’m suggesting here, but doesn’t quite capture it. Instead I’m talking about a difference between a kind of SF that demythifies Yes, I definitely want the word “demythifies” as it currently stands the cosmos and one that remythifies it. In this second category, which certainly can include an emphasis on hard science and technology, Supernature cannot be necessarily explained or reduced, religious impulses aren’t dismissed, and technology isn’t as important a solution to problems as is the human heart.
My main point so far is simply this: that even the sci-fi that demythifies acknowledges by its very existence our refusal to let our religious impulses go. Wonder, mystery, and transcendence will be satisfied. Thus we enter the Haloverse, a place where we find our religious impulses existing paradoxically in a world where religion otherwise doesn’t belong.

Halo’s Double Vision: The Negative

Religion in Halo is treated like Bantha Fodder. My own personal Halo sensei, Daniel Lewis, sees the Covenant prophets as “space popes” governing a militant “space Islam” (??). Would you be happier with “space Jihadists”? Religious language, that is, the language of the Covenant, is replete with the stereotypical language (their polytheism aside) of terrorist Jihadists. When we first meet the Covenant in Reach, their initial communiqué to humanity is, “Your destruction is the will of the Gods . . . and we are their instruments” (98). In The Flood, Zuka Zamamee inspires his troops with promises of glorious death: “The Prophets have blessed this mission, have blessed you, and want every soldier to know that those who transcend the physical will be welcomed into paradise” (210). In First Strike, fanaticism is apparent; the Covenant AI constantly screams “Infidel” at Cortana (170), and Cortana monitors the Covenant’s “excited religious babble:…uncovering the fragment of divinity and illuminating shard of the gods” (192–93) and “Minor artifacts discovered; rejoice!” (197). In Halo 2, anyone who fails the Covenant has broken the covenant and is therefore a heretic, as is anyone who challenges the truth of the Prophets, like the Heretic who claims the Prophets are false and leading the people of the Covenant to the ruin.
The Arbiter sent to kill this Heretic is the Elite who failed to keep Halo from destruction. The harshness of Covenant religion is revealed in his punishment: “Soon the Great Journey shall begin. But when it does, the weight of your heresy will stay your feet, and you shall be left behind” (Halo 2). Other cheesy religious lines include the Covenant being on a “march to glorious salvation,” and the Prophet of Regret’s mantra about turning on the second Halo ring (when we know by then that his beliefs are agonizingly wrong): “I shall light this holy ring, release its cleansing flame and burn a path into the divine beyond” (??). Yes, from Halo 2.
But what really suggests that the Haloverse has it in for religion is the introductory chapter of The Flood, where we meet Covenant characters for the first time—their characterization is laughably that of radical-fundamentalist superiority and hostility. When Ship Master Orna ‘Fulsamee speaks for the first time, he snidely refers to humans as “filthy primates [who] somehow merited an actual name” (4) and “filthy creatures” speaking a “barbaric tongue” (5). Even more telling is the Covenant’s attitude toward each other: Fulsamee compares the Prophet species to “tiny, squealing rodents he had hunted in his childhood” (5), is angered by their use of the “royal ‘we’” (6), and is incensed by the Covenant’s theology of zealous desire to “transcend the physical” The (majority of the) Covenant are hateful, angry, judgmental beings in love with death. We are meant to despise them and their religion. I’m lost on where you need a page number? I think page numbers are missing wherever I quoted from the game rather than the book. Re.: the second comment: How about something like, “The Covenant religion is hateful, angry, judgmental and in love with death, and we are meant to despise it.”?
The Prophets are authoritarian, the Elites are sycophantic, and Tartarus and his Brutes . . . well . . .savage brutes. If this is the sentence that the super-fan had a problem with rather than the one above, then I disagree with his/her assessment. We come to like one of them, the Arbiter, a little bit, but only as he comes to understand that his religion is false. I take that back; there’s another character for whom we gain some sympathy, a Grunt named Yayap whom we meet in The Flood. All this poor little guy wants to do is survive, but he only adds to our loathing of Covenant religion by emphasizing the inequality of their caste system: “The Prophets had long made use of his race as cannon fodder” (Flood 32). The triumvirate of this hierarchy, the three Prophets of Regret, Truth, and Mercy, don’t inspire any love for Covenant religion themselves (Halo 2), nor does the in-fighting between Brutes and Elites—the two leading, competing factions of this terrorist religion. I’d be willing to go with “religion of terror,” but the connotations of the games bear out the kind of “equivocation” the reader thinks dangerous. I’m willing to look at alternatives—considering the militantism of our day and the threats made and carried out against Western authors by Jihadists, I’m not looking to cause trouble for my publilsher—if you want to shy away from language that might be even a little bit construed as anti-Islamic, I’m okay with it—not looking to take my stand for freedom of speech or the like..
Most importantly, though, religion fares poorly in Halo when it comes in contact with the demythifying power of Naturalistic explanation. The Covenant religion is proven false throughout the games and books. In the first game, as in the Flood novel, it begins when we meet 343 Guilty Spark, that loveable little genocidal robot who begins to demythify the Halo. The cat (or Flood) is let completely out of the bag for us when Cortana explains to the Master Chief how the ring works and why the Forerunners built it:
Halo doesn’t kill Flood—it kills their food. Human, Covenant, whatever. You’re all equally edible. The only way to stop the Flood is to starve them to death. And that’s exactly what Halo is designed to do. Wipe the galaxy clean of all sentient life (The Flood 256).

The debunking of Covenant religion continues in Halo 2. The Covenant thinks 343 Guilty Spark is an Oracle, a label that the floating bot finds annoyingly inaccurate. When the Flood is released, a Prophet announces the finding of a second Halo, promising that its “divine wind will rush through the stars, propelling all who are worthy along the path to salvation” (??).These quotes come from the games themselves—whatever game is most recently referenced (in this case, Halo 2) Now that they have the “sacred icon” (the Index), the “Great Journey” will begin and bring salvation to all. But we shortly thereafter learn from Gravemind that 2401 Penitent Tangent’s containment and the Prophet of Regret’s “Great Journey” are the same. Gravemind continues: “Your Prophets have promised you freedom from a doomed existence, but you will find no salvation on this ring” (??).Halo 2
The Arbiter eventually comes to believe this truth, telling Tartarus, “There are things about Halo even the hierarchs do not understand” (??). Halo 2 Tartarus calls this “blasphemy,” even though he has heard 343 Guilty Spark complete the demythification of Covenant religion. When asked, “What are the rings?”, 343 nonchalantly answers, “Weapons of last resort,” created by the Forerunners to destroy all “potential Flood hosts,” thus halting the spread of the Flood. When all else failed, the Forerunners activated the rings, killing themselves and all other sentient life in the galaxy. The Arbiter pleads: “Tartarus. The Prophets have betrayed us”
There are some religious nods in Halo, first appearing in the form of technology and names. John is a Demon, Tartarus the head Brute; weapons have names like Mjolnir armor, Shiva nukes, Scarabs, Shades, Ghosts, Wraiths, and Banshees. Additionally, there are the UNSC AI’s otherworldly avatars: a mermaid, a samurai warrior, and “one made entirely of bright light with comets trailing in her wake” (Reach 114). But these are only words and appearances, applying mythic allusions to a mythless vision of the religious. At best, this method only connects back to the theme of techné and man’s attempt to make himself divine through technology, a god-play that Dr. Halsey learns to reject.
The love of technology is apparent in the books and born of the game’s feature of offering great variety in weaponry. In The Flood, Captain Keyes offers this hope: the fact that the Covenant does not make new technology but scavenges among other cultures for it “may prove to be their undoing” (132). By the end of Halo, of course, we know that the Covenant’s scavenging of “holy relics” or “useful technology” (The Flood 270) leads to the release of the Flood and the possible extinction of all races in the galaxy. More ominous is the creature Gravemind’s self definition to John—“I am a monument to all your sins” (Halo 2¬—emphasis added)—suggesting that the Flood may have been produced by human technology.
Technology is thus both the divine hope and annihilation of humanity. Dr. Halsey understands the dilemma. To save humanity she has had to act inhumanely toward a group of children, turning them into gods of “machine and nerve” (Halo 2). Says Halsey, “that’s what the SPARTAN II project was all about, wasn’t it? Playing God for the greater good” (First Strike 124). Eventually Halsey comes to the realization that this was a mistake. This is her final lesson to John:
For a long time I had thought that we had to sacrifice a few for the good of the entire human race. . . . I have killed and maimed and caused a great deal of suffering to many people—all in the name of self preservation. . . . But now I’m not sure that philosophy has worked out too well. I should have been trying to save every single human life—no matter what it cost (245).

It is this new understanding that technology makes us gods only by destroying our humanity that Dr. Halsey puts into action at the end of First Strike, first in giving the Forerunner gravity crystal to Locklear to destroy (274–75, 284), and second in explaining to John the choice that lay in his hands regarding saving Sgt. Johnson from death at the hands of the ONI through objective, scientific experimentation (245–47). John struggles with the moral dilemma, finally deciding Sgt. Johnson’s life matters more than the technological advancement his death might produce (335–36).
Admiral Whitcomb shows his understanding of this dilemma in a sincere and overtly religious moment in Halo. Realizing that he is about to sacrifice hundreds of sailors to save Earth, he nevertheless laments: “Hundreds for billions. . . . Duty be damned . . . I’m still going to burn in hell for this. . . . Go, Cortana. Get us out of here. And God forgive me” (282). In the end, however, religion as it appears plainly in Halo receives a consistently negative treatment, either by making it, at worst, the source of all evil, and, at best, ancillary and flat.

Halo’s Double Vision: The Positive

But it’s not all atheism and negativity in the Haloverse. Overt religion may take its hits, but religious sensibility exists in subtler forms in Halo; humanity cannot break itself of the hunger for divine encounter. This appears in its most subtle form as the presence of religious metaphors in Halo.
The Spartans are a metaphor for divine presence in terms of their stature, battle prowess, and, especially, in their role as heroic inspirations to other soldiers. All who look at them do so with awe. Halo 2 begins with an award ceremony celebrating the Master Chief’s recent successes in battle. John would have none of it, but Sgt. Johnson reminds him that “[f]olks need heroes.”
The ancient and as yet mysterious Forerunners come across with the same quality of indifference and distance that we find among the gods of Greek tragedy. Cortana, conversely, makes an apt metaphor for the general idea in religion of the Divine Presence coming into an oracle and the specifically Christian vision of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. She is the voice who enters John’s armor to speak truth and provide guidance through his world. And she is the Sanctifying Spirit that helps him “utilize the suit more effectively” (Reach 236, 252).
The Haloverse also has its own hell, and the Flood are its demons. They hunger for sentient souls, possessing bodies and minds, as is gruesomely described in the possession of Captain Keyes: “As Keyes began to lose touch with the rest of his body, something foul entered it . . . polluting his brain with a hunger so base that it would have made him vomit, had he any possession of his own body” (The Flood 175). The Flood forms take normal bodies and turn them into grotesque versions of their former selves: “The alien’s skull was canted at a sickening angle, as if the bones of its neck had been softened or liquefied. It hung limply down the creature’s back, lifeless—like a limb that needed amputation” (The Flood 223). The Master Chief enters this hellish world beneath Halo’s surface without the divine presence of Cortana, who remains in the ring library (Halo). There he finds the helmet of a marine named Jenkins and replays a video massacre. As for Jenkins, who is possessed but remains partially aware, “[s]omehow, without actually dying, he had been sentenced to hell” (The Flood 276).
Halo 2 presents the metaphor of a Christ figure in the unlikely person of the Arbiter. He is unjustly accused of heresy, hung by his arms in a fashion that resembles Christ on the cross (he’s even standing on a cross in the cut clip), tortured to symbolic death, resurrected as the Arbiter, and given assignments intended to lead to his death as a scapegoat for the high council. He fights against the religious leaders of his day and saves all sentient life when he stops the firing of the ring. Finally, there is the apocalyptic threat of the firing of the Halos. Even as 343 Guilty Spark demythifies the Covenant religion, revealing the horrible truth, the gamer experiences the magnitude of this revelation: Armageddon is at hand.
Thus, while religion is consciously marginalized in Halo, religious symbolism pervades the story, contributing to the ritual experience of mystery and magic that the game creates for its players. But that isn’t all. The hunger for wonder and awe inherent in all of us is present beyond symbols in the game. It’s present in the very nature of the game itself.
To play the game is to experience wonder and awe. The act of taking the journey as a first-person shooter is what creates the experience—that, combined with a filmic quality to the graphics (especially the cut clips), pulls us into the Haloverse, making us characters in the movie. As Halo opens, Gregorian chants over filmic images draw us in with graphics and sounds that the X-Box was able to bring to new levels for gamers. I find particularly effective the use of this music early in Halo 2, when the Master Chief floats through slow motion space to deliver a Covenant bomb from Mac platform Cairo to an enemy ship. He’s like an avenging angel, descending from the serenity of heaven to wreak destruction on Sodom.
The best games are immersive in this way: not appealing to left-brained intellect, but right-brained imagination, the faculty in us that makes wonder possible. Immersive games have the same kind of mythic appeal we experience when entering Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is to enter a complete world, what Tolkien called a “sub-creation” (“On Fairy-Stories” 60), a world that is consistent and complete and has already been going on for thousands of years.
We get this depth of age in the Haloverse through such elements as the finding of ancient Forerunner artifacts and allusions to the past like the “taming of the Hunters” and the “Grunt Rebellion” (Halo 2). It’s true that Halo is, at times, its own worst enemy in this regard, throwing in Grunts that sound like Jawas, pop-culture audio bytes like “cheeky monkey” (Halo 2), and silly phrases in the bottom right corner of the display, all of which serve to add a campiness to the Haloverse that identifies its unrealestate. These drawbacks, however, are minor; they add some humor, and the sub-created experience of wonder remains powerful.
In addition to fulfilling our hunger for wonder, awe, and transcendent experience, Halo also fulfills our desire for mystery. To play the game is to experience one mystery after another. Even though these mysteries get explained as the player progresses, these explanations come only after hard-fought experience, like divine revelations of untold things. And with every mystery solved, new and deeper mysteries arise, satisfying our continual need for wonder.
The first mystery we encounter in Halo is the game itself. Every new level requires hours of familiarizing oneself with new topography and architecture, and with discerning what tactics will bring victory—all of this while being constantly shot at. The rewards for solving these mysteries are plot advancement (in each new cut clip) and new mysteries at every turn. Each new struggle finds new levels (literally) of revelation and, as such, a struggle to enlightenment, like the discipline of virtual monks following their intricate eye/hand mantras to Nirvana, a game controller replacing prayer beads.
Think back to your initial encounter with Halo for another great example of experiential mystery. It’s your first time through the story, so you’ve maybe been playing for five or six hours. You know who the enemy is, you know who you have to face—more Covenant. Suddenly you start seeing dead aliens everywhere. Something’s not right. Then you hear fragments of marine com, hysterical fear in the voices. You find a helmet belonging to a guy named Jenkins, and from his point of view watch in filmic flashback the rise of a new enemy even deadlier and more horrifying than the Covenant. Suspense is high till the mystery is revealed, and you finally face the Flood yourself. Then mystery quickly follows mystery in the form of rapid-fire plot twists: 343 Guilty Spark, who seems to know you (“Reclaimer”) and is happy to see you, followed by Cortana’s revelation that Guilty Spark and his laser drones are yet another new enemy and you have to destroy Halo or humanity is doomed.
Then, in Halo 2, you are John the Spartan, sinking into a lake when suddenly a booming, venomous voice says, “This is not your grave, but you are welcome in it,” and tendrils reach up and gently take hold of your body. We meet the god-like Gravemind, whose origins are shrouded in darkling hints. It speaks in rhyme, its revelations convoluted and half true. The Arbiter calls it a “parasite,” offering the first hint of its connection to the Flood. Even as it demythifies the Covenant religion, it adds mystery by what it reveals and by its very presence.
The books have their own share of mysteries to add to the Haloverse. These include the mysterious space/time warping crystal in First Strike, Dr. Halsey’s secret plan with Kelly (First Strike 334), and, most especially, the fact that John and the other Spartans find the Forerunner language to be strangely familiar, having the appearance of Aztec symbols to John (Reach 223) and Greek writing to Fred (First Strike 142). This familiarity, along with John’s ability to operate the Halo controls instinctively, in a way that “almost seemed hard-wired, like his fight-or-flight response” (Flood 170), brings us to the Haloverse’s greatest mystery of all: Who were the Forerunners? Ample clues are given throughout the games and books, clues that most Halophiles have probably already linked together and to which Halo 3 will hopefully provide answers. I have my theory, but here I’m not as interested in answers as I am in the experience of transcendent mystery that questions and clues provide.
Halo is an experience of gaming that plays to the very religious impulses its overt treatment of religion decries. It is in the first-person (shooter) confrontation with mystery and with dark and ancient forces other than ourselves that Halo achieves what science tried to eliminate and sci-fi tried to satisfy. But it can’t be eliminated. It can be satisfied only for a time.

The Timeless Wish

Still, Halo leaves us in paradox. The Haloverse is one that satisfies the hunger for mythic encounters but demythifies the Divine, reducing it to the merely material. It raises humanity to godhood but denies godhood to humanity (in fact, it punishes their hubris). Halo proves (even as it tries to deny) that our spiritual longings can’t be set aside. To end there, however, would be sad. This game, and others, may satisfy those longings for a time, but, in the end, the hunger returns. Hopefully, the first-person (and increasingly filmic) game hails what I think the waning of Realism does: if the twentieth century was an experiment in finding man’s place in a world without God, the twenty-first century will hopefully be an experiment in finding God’s place in man’s world.
But even that wouldn’t be enough. The thesis I’ve been weaving throughout the content of this essay is simple: Hunger proves the existence of food. Our own hunger, then—here in the Natureverse—for transcendent experiences, for wonder, awe, mystery, Divinity, and immortality, is proof of the existence of such food in the transcendent, wondrous, awe-inspiring, mysterious, Divine and immortal verse of Supernature to which ours is attached. Our religious impulses, these hungers for food unseen, which many of us nevertheless have tasted in experience, are not mere ignorant, unscientific stupidity. Perhaps we are returning to this realization in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ll even take it farther, achieving more than just finding the place of God in our world. Perhaps we’ll eventually come to understand our place in His.

Dietz, William C. Halo: The Flood. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Halo. How to cite?

Halo 2. How to cite? Thanks!

Nylund, Eric. Halo: The Fall of Reach. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

—. Halo: First Strike. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Olasky, Marvin. “Spreading Salt.” Interview with scholar Alvin J. Schmidt. World
Magazine. 16 April 2005.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Ed. C. S.
Lewis. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1968. 38–89.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Quoted by Alvin J. Schmidt. See Olasky.