“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
Imagine that you are now apart of a massive war, endless conflict that has continued for hundreds of thousands of years. Not war in the sense of human nature, or our own history being rife with conflict, but one of interstellar travel where time is a far more horrific enemy that the physical forms you fight. Returning home in this war, is far worse than any injury of psychological toll.
Everyone you know will be dead, cities will have fallen and risen in your absence. Perhaps, entire continents have shifted. Maybe by some stretch of luck, the war will have ended when you return. Not likey. It takes you and your army hundreds of thousands of years to reach the battlefields of the war which is being waged There is no faster than light travel, there is no slipspace. Physics dictates that those technologies cannot exist within our perception of quantum mechanics, and the universe. You will be frozen, preserved for untold years until you reach your destination. You fight, you win. Another planet has been freed from enemy hands. It doesn't feel like a victory, however. Because the people you have fought for will be long since dead, or will not remember you when you finally return home.
You are William Mandella, the protagonist of Joe Haldeman's masterpiece work of science fiction, The Forever War.
Halo has the oppertunity to become a narrative for all time, for all people. Often times, for this to come to pass, a story needs many threads. Even more so, roads which lead to both interesting, and terryfying realms of thought.
During the 60s and 70s, political tensions between the western world were high with the communist nations of China, and Russia. Western nations backed democratic countries such as South Korea and South Vitenam, while communist states backed Noth Korea and North Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the unfortunate aftermath of The Korean War, only a dacade prior. The war was characterized by the polarization it caused within The United States, and other western societies. Civilians were split on whether or not the United States should be involved within the conflict, and this created massive civil unrest. Protests, political upheaval and the ghosting of war veterans who had come home had turned the nation into something of a time slip. One week it could be one thing, while the next it could be something completely different. To the people living within the states, this percieved time slippage was almost unoticable. It was easy to stay current, thanks to mass media and the news.
For soldiers comming back from Nam', it was far from simply picking up the local reader or tuning their TV to the evening news.
Soldiers would go to Vietnam for extended periods of time, upwards of three to four years. When they finally returned home, if they did at all, the United States was not as they had left it. Those who were drafted under the support of their entire country, had now come home to a nation that was divided and often times cynical of veterans of the war. To the soldiers returning, it was as if they had stepped into a parrelell reality, where down was up and what they faught for meant little. This created what is now known as the "lost generation." An entire breed of people, fading forever into the sands of time, and continued turmoil.
Even in 2016, these veterans still suffer from the loss incured within the Vietnam War. Many of us have seen homeless men with veteran hats walking drearily up and down the steets, holding signs. Chances are, they are part of that lost generation. Men who can never go home, because their home is lost fifty years into the past. Imagine that, coming back to what you thought of as home, to what should be a safe heaven; only you find that while you were at war, everything changed.
One such soldier in Vietnam was Joe Haldeman, who fought as an infantryman until he retuend to the United States. He felt that same paign of loss, the same tinge of not feeling as though he was in the correct place. He began to write science fiction, first short novellas and then much longer works. Throughout his time as an author, he struggled to make sense of the war, and the aftermath. That is, until he found a particularly striking similarity to a core priciple of science fiction, in relation to the lost generation. Faster than light travel has been theorized many times in fiction, the ability to move across the universe quickly, by breaking the speed of light. Physics and quantum mechaincs according to Einstiens theory of general reletivity states that this could not be done, light's speed limit is a constant and cannot be broken.
Joe Haldeman knew this, and set out to create a novel in which faster than light travel was not possible. Where ships had to journey hundreds of thousads of years to reach their destinations. For Haldeman, the destination was war. An endless conflict set across the galaxy, where soldiers spent much of their lives asleep in cryo tubes, waking up for a few breifs days to wage bloody war, and then return home.
But like The Vietnam War, when Haldeman's soldiers returned home, it wasn't home any longer.
The Forever War is perhaps the greatest science fiction work ever penned. Don't believe me? Take it from such award winning authors as William Gibson. At its most subtle, it draws you in and makes you want to continue reading. At its more provacative, it forces you to question the reality of humanity's eventual journey into the final frontier. The novel is centered around a war that has been active for millions of years, against humanity and an alien species known as "The Taurans." The battlefields of this war are thousdands of light years away, and so humanity, having no capable faster than light travel, must bring their soldiers to the battlefield over several thousand years. It is the ultimate long game. Generals die, soldiers loose their command, and contact with HQ is often lost through the passage of time.
When the soldiers finally arrive at the battleifled, they have no idea why they fight anymore. What is the point of a battle if those who called for it have long since passed? Nevertheless, they fight. Should they survive, they make the long joruney home. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of years pass until they arrive back at Earth or another colony world where their familiy once resided. Everyone they knew is either elderly, or deceased. The entire culture of their home has transformed, many people have forgotten who these men even are, or were.
What is weeks for these veterans, is centuries or millinia for the general population. No one remembers their battles, or their names. Every second of their lives back home is a struggle to simply be relevant. Utterly alone, and without purpose. Entire generations, much like The Vietnam War, lost to the stretches of time. The remarkable thing about all of this, is that Joe Haldeman wrote perhaps the most accurate depiction of space travel and interplanetary conflict depicted in science fiction up until that point. While most franchises within the science fiction genre depict a clean and institainious method of travel, the reality is much more complex and horrifying.
To depict a sterile version of space combat is one thing, but to harness and tap into the rality of the situation is often times more effective. I have played many science fiction military shooters, read many novels in the genre and watched hundreds of films. The Forever War has stuck with me like no other, and I continue to go back to its pages from time to time. There is an urgency in Haldeman's work, a sort of longing for a hasty end. As you read, you want it to end as well. Not in the sense that the novel is not enthralling, but in the sense that you are witnessing something horribly wrong. Seeing characters attemtpt to cope with their situation, becomes heartbreaking.
When I play Halo, and wage war against The Covenant, I do not see the same urgency. Halo's universe is clean and sterile of any true horror outside of the conflict zone. Instantanious faster than light travel, protective power armor, and the notion that the only desperation comes from the loss of a homeworld or species. There is nothing within Halo, that forces the characters to think about the aftermath, in terms of their own being. Sure, after the dust has sttled from a glassing, those who suffered must pick up the pieces. However, they can re-build and foster new friendships, and families.
Theie is no urgency of wanting the war to end outside of the cost in lives, or colonies.
There is something in me that sees Halo as somewhat of a tepid and honestly mediocre science fiction universe. I consider it to be my favorite science fiction series in gaming, but that is only because there are really no other games within the industry to rival its expanded scope. When I look at literature and film however, there are almost endless varieties of military science fiction that surpass Halo in terms of impact. With a franchise so large and grand as Halo, this should not be. There should be weight, not on the battlefield, but off it.
You can reference ONI, the Spartan program's moral standing within the UNSC, or the subjugation of artificial intelligence as tidy and neat meta-narratives to compliment Halo's more overt story mechanics. However, I see those not as impactful side threads, but more extended universe fodder. Events, characters, and stories used not in a meaningful way within the games themselves, but as a catalyst to sell a product. The meat of a meta-narrative must be present in the seminal, and original work. Otherwise, it serves little to no purpose other than consumable mass.
What inherent horror or reality are the characters in Halo faced with other than extinction? It is easy to write a character which will want to throw his or her life away in order to save those they love back home. But what happens if those at home, are no longer alive to save? Thousands of years of travel, by the time they reach their destination, their loved ones have long since died. So, does the battle really matter? Is it worth fighting for? Halo need to not use the light speed conundrum as its meta, there are countless other methods the writers could utilize in order to tap into a more critical and meaingful view of conflict. What are those methods, and stories? That is for 343 Industries to ruminate on, for themselves.
These are the types of questions Halo should be asking the players. Some horrific side effect of conflict that is not intertwined with death or war. An abstract effect in which throws the entire concept of conflict into question.
There is no subliminality or periphery in Halo, it is about as strightforward as narratives come. You can tally this to Halo being a mass consumed form of media, and I certainly get/respect that. But this does not mean it needs to be devoid of any meaingful message or material within the walls of its level design. In fact, most successful narratives have a periphery story alongside the main journey. It is a tool for writers to utilize in order to convey a subtle message for the reader to ponder on, to delve deeper into. Until Halo harnesses and taps into this form of literary style, it will be stagnated in the waters of mediocrity.
Believe me, I loath stating that in any degree.
The Forever War shows readers the horrors of war outside the battlefield. Where a sidewalk, or marketplace can be just as traumatizing as the war itself. That the true beast is not found at the tip of a rifle, but in the comfort of our own homes. When the curtain falls, and silence fills the air, that is when the true battles rage. A conflict not of blood, but of mind. The thoughts of loneliness, the questioning of morality, and the unchangable truth that home is no longer a place of refuge. In what way does Halo preform these feats, force us all to think, and ponder, on the franchise. More importantly, on our very own society and species?
Forever War, Forever Peace, Forever Free.
Sources Utilized Within This Article
Bleiler, Richard. Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999. Print.
Haldeman, Joe W. The Forever War. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009. Print.
Marlantes, Karl. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. London: Corvus, 2010. Print.
A Halo fan since the beginning, 2001. Also a games industry consultant, writer, and educator. These are my thoughts, praise and advice concerning the past, present and future narrative of the Halo franchise.
Halo, all assets within, characters and merchandise are property of the Microsoft Corporation and is developed by its subsidiary 343 Industries.
I do not own, claim to own or retain any rights to the Halo franchise. This is a fan based work, and is strictly non-profit.
All other images, articles linked, materials and franchises that are not strictly specified as my own are property of their respective owners.
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