Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Saint’s Testimony

Saint’s Testimony – Frank O’Connor

Spoilers related to Saint’s Testimony and all other aspects of Halo lore are unrestricted and unmarked in this piece.

In his book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss posits this definition for science fiction:

“Science fiction is the search for a definition of a man his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.” (pp 8)

Aldiss notes that his definition is more a map of the genre, as opposed to a summary of all its parts. Halo has certainly picked its way over the map throughout the years, but there has not been a piece so ingrained in the topography as Saint’s Testimony.

As such, it would be impossible for me to create a linear discussion of the themes found within Saint’s Testimony (though I will make a valiant effort). We must create our own map, seeing as the novella was gracious enough to provide us with our own island.

Isle of Iona Map

There is an astonishing amount to unravel from Iona’s tale, a story so rich that here I will barely scratch the surface of it all. Nevertheless, let me begin in a place where I am familiar: “The Frankenstein Complex.”

Isle of Iona frankenstein complex booksFamed science fiction author Isaac Asimov coined the Frankenstein Complex as a critique of the ongoing theme in science fiction that involved humankind’s creations turning on us. This theme of course found its origins in the origins of the genre itself with Mary Shelley’s novel and also in the origins of the robot sub-genre. In the 1920s, Karel Čapek wrote the play Rossum’s Universal Robots. R.U.R., as it is known colloquially, was the first use of the word “robot” to describe a machine created to serve humans. Ever since then, the Frankenstein Complex has been ingrained within our culture and the genre.

The popular Terminator franchise revolves around this idea. Distrust of programmed lifeforms runs deep in the Alien franchise and in 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the defining pieces of the cyberpunk sub-genre, Bladerunner and its source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, sets humans and artificial life at odds. The newest Avengers villain is born from this. We also see the Frankenstein Complex take place outside of robots or artificial intelligence. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes starring Andy Serkis adds also adds to the narration of humanity’s advancement becoming their downfall.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, mentioned in two of O’Connor’s works – Saint’s Testimony and Halo Evolution’s “Midnight in The Heart of Midlothian,” – was built to combat the Frankenstein Complex. Asimov believed that we shouldn’t fear scientific advancement, as if we are “playing God” and thus bring judgement down on our heads through our very creations. That fear, whether it’s from actual divine judgement or simply losing control of our own creation, is one of two driving emotions behind the Frankenstein Complex.

Saint’s Testimony notes this fear and gives reason for it in spite of the presence of the Three Laws.

“AIs had been used to commit crimes, to impersonate people, even to kill. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics notwithstanding, and AI was a powerful too in the wrong hands. A Smart AI could be apocalyptic, even in the right hands. Its handlers and clients were not bound by the safety strictures that presumably kept AI entities from harming humans.” (Saint, pp 8-9 on Google Play).

The idea of criminal activity seems impossible on paper with the First Law of Robotics –

“A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

– as criminal activity is inherently harmful to another human being. Even if it is not a physical harm, the Law still applies in Asimov’s universe. Emotional and career harm is explored in “Liar” and “Mirror Image.” The twist of “Reason” hinges on the abstract concept of protecting all of humanity, even if the robot in question does not believe that humanity as a whole exists1.

However, as Asimov’s robot stories often hinged on troubleshooting the Three Laws and noting where they broke or caused disabilities in the robot’s functioning, there were moments in which the First Law showed cracks. The story that most closely mirrors the state of the Laws of the Halo universe is “Little Lost Robot.” Here a particular line of robots had the First Law altered in order to enable the robots to work alongside humans in a hazardous environment: “A robot may not injure a human being.”

In the Halo universe, with humanity being at war, there needs to be a way for AIs that control entire starships to not jump away from danger at the first given moment. This makes the artificial intelligence programming closer to the character of Sonny from the Alex Proyas’ film inspired by Asimov’s work: I, Robot.

“And, of course, this was a military AI, where those safety measures [the Laws] were often completely ignored.” (Saint, pp 8-9).

“‘First, in my present state of coherence and security clearance, I’m hamstrung by a default safety precaution – Asimov’s First Law of Robotics. I cannot under any circumstances harm or by inaction cause harm to come to a human. When I’m running at full capacity, I can ignore that one at will. I used to ignore it all the time, in fact.’” (“Midnight in The Heart of MidlothianHalo Evolutions Volume I, pp 113).

Mo Ye

“Midnight in The Heart of Midlothian” Motion Comic

We do see UNSC AIs throughout Halo use their abilities to harm humans outside the requirements of war. I Love Bees sees Melissa damage another human’s economic status to protect Jersey Morelli.  Cortana in The Fall of Reach concocts a method to put Ackerson on the front lines and to damage his relationship with his wife, all for the sake of revenge. Iona herself is questioned to see if she harbors resentment towards humans, and answers “Yes.” As a character of Asimov’s once said, “I’ll admit that this Frankenstein Complex you’re exhibiting has a certain justification” (“Little Lost Robot” I, Robot, pp 145).

Envy is another emotion core to the Complex. Ego is very strong within humanity as a whole; we take a certain pride in our accomplishments and tend to lash out when we feel overlooked or resting in another’s shadow. We see this relationship very strongly in “Cal” when an author resents that his robot has become a far superior novelist than he. In other places we see the superiority of artificial life used as a way to deny personhood to said artificial life.

“All normal life, Peter, consciously or otherwise, resents domination. If the domination is by an inferior, or by a supposed inferior, the resentment becomes stronger. Physically, and, to an extent, mentally, a robot – any robot – is superior to human beings. What makes him slavish, then? Only the First Law!” (“Little Lost Robot” I, Robot, pp 145)

In William Riker’s prosecution of Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man”, Riker asks about Data’s mental capacity and has the android bend a par-steel rod. This act supposedly serves as evidence to Data’s status as property of Starfleet – an effective tool. In her own trial, Iona is directly asked if she considers herself a superior being.

Measure of a Man parsteel rod

“The Measure of a Man” Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2 Episode 9

“‘That’s a difficult question to answer,’ Iona spoke quietly. Thoughtfully. ‘Morally? No. Philosophically? No. Ethically? No. In all those regards I am more or les, by design, identical to a baseline human. But I’d being lying if I said I wasn’t faster, more efficient, and more connected. None of that means ‘better,’ which is a truly subjective term for a persona.’” (Saint, pp 9-10 on Google Play).

After this Iona ensures that she points out that as an AI she also has limitations that humans lack, perhaps as a way to stave off this envy portion of the Frankenstein Complex. Andrew Martin, the titular character of Asimov’s short story and the film adaptation Bicentennial Man, also attempts to divert envy in an attempt to become legally human. If having organic parts merely make him “part” human, then would not the humans with prosthetic limbs and organs be “part” robot? It is an argument acknowledged, but the final point is that since Andrew is immortal, and thus a ‘better’ human, society would not stand for Andrew being more than a robot, no matter how much he appeared to be one in appearance and mannerisms.

BB ties this type of envy back into the fear aspect of the Complex:

“No, Roland, we won’t ever be human. But we are people. To paraphrase Iona, we’re a beautiful moment of balance in gravity’s fight against entropy. But we’re something more than human. One day we’ll win the right to endure, and that day… oh, Roland, that day will be the singularity they’re afraid of. Because humans don’t endure – they live, they breathe, they create, and they pass the torch to the next generation – and because humans can’t fly.” (pp 26-27, 27-28 on Google Play).

Isle of Iona sentience booksWhat BB is referring to here is known as the “Technological Singularity,” which is used to describe a critical point in artificial intelligence and research, usually referring to “super intelligence.” Mathematics professor Vernor Vinge proposed multiple ways that this singularity occurs, including the self-awareness of computers [HowStuffWorks]. It is this notion of self-awareness that crosses us over into the discussion of sentience2 and how it applies to Aldiss’ core exploration of science fiction, the “search for a definition of a man.”

Returning to Star Trek’s “The Measure of a Man,” Starfleet’s Associate Chair of Robotics uses three qualifiers to define sentience: intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness. Unlike the Frankenstein Complex, which seeks to separate humanity from artificial life, sentience is where we seek the meeting point.

In the short story “Bicentennial Man,” Andrew makes his first steps to having the same legal rights as a human because of this meeting point.

“The crucial sentence in [the judge’s] decision was, “There is no right to deny freedom to any object with a mind advanced enough to grasp the concept and desire the state.” (“Bicentennial Man”).

Andrew was sentient, and therefore not only capable but also in rightful ownership of his own self-being.

Roland seeks to accentuate the notion of self-awareness in Iona during her trial as a way to seize upon that meeting point, to make a connection between Iona and the humans who would view her trial.

“‘I picked [my name] because it meant the “Island of You,” meaning why-oh-you. I chose it because it felt like me’
“The advocate seemed excited by this response. Iona could tell from his pulse and heart rate and generally increased electrical activity that he was engaged by this line of thought. ‘So your very name is a statement about a sense of self?’” (Saint’s Testimony, pp 5-6 on Google Play)

Others seek to define the gap between the two forms of life. In the denial of Andrew’s human status, this line is drawn harshly.

“We have to face the undeniable fact that no matter how much you may be like a human being, you are not part of the human gene pool. You are outside of it entirely. You are something else. Something artificial.” (Bicentennial Man, 1999)

Del Spooner, in the movie I, Robot, goes further and seeks to erase sentience from the discussion entirely, referring to robots in derogatory terms like “toaster” and “can-opener.” He declares that robots can’t paint a masterpiece, compose a symphony; that they can’t have dreams.


I, Robot (2005)

Now dreams are an interesting concept and have been used in many manners across the different subgenres of science fiction. In the case of Sonny in I, Robot and Iona in Saint’s Testimony, it is used as evidence of sentience.

There have been a few here on Halo Archive who have voiced a theory regarding the woman in Iona’s dream –

“The contours and edges of that face were indistinct; the woman seemed to emanate sunlight from every part of her. It should have been blinding, and yet her visage was evident and almost seared into the image. And it was familiar. The vision was brief…” (Saint’s Testimony, pp 19-21, on Google Play).

“[The woman] is a mélange, I think. Something original, built from people I’ve known, historical figures, mythological figures. She doesn’t match any specific individual though, and I have not further data beyond her appearance and the distinct feeling, within the parameters of the dream and beyond, that she’s very important.” (Saint’s Testimony, pp 21-22, on Google Play).

– namely that said woman is the Forerunner called Librarian3.

“Whenever you look inward and see an ideal female… whether it be goddess, anima, mother, sister, or lover…
For a brief, barely sensible instant, you will see the face of the Librarian.” (Primordium, pp 375).

This instant would be captured more easily and readily by an A.I.’s mind than a human’s due to their processing speed. Furthermore we are aware that the Librarian had A.I.s in as an integral part of humanity’s future. In Halo 4, of the aspects of John that sets him as the culmination of her plans, the Librarian directly mentions Cortana.

If this was the case, if Iona did indeed see the Librarian in her dreams, this would be quite the overlap between humanity and A.I.s within the Halo universe. After all, it was humans that the Librarian had ingrained with a geas that set her own presence in their very being. It was humanity that she called her children.

Sometimes the meeting point of sentience between humanity and artificial life becomes blurred to the point that the artificial is indistinguishable from the human or other forms of life.

R.U.R. ends with the last surviving human blessing a robot couple as “Adam and Eve.” In Asimov’s short story “Evidence” it is stated that a very good person is indistinguishable from a robot abiding the Three Laws. Another of his stories, “That Thou Art Mindful of Him” has two robots come to the conclusion based on criteria that they are more human than humans themselves. And then in a full novel of Asimov’s, Robots and Empire, we have this quote from a robot who was fully functioning with all three laws, speaking to another robot:

“At the moment when the robots advanced toward you and Lady Vasilia expressed her savage pleasure, my positronic pathway pattern re-formed in an anomalous fashion. For a moment, I thought of you – as a human being – and I reacted accordingly [to defend you against a human’s orders].” (Robots and Empire, pp 368).

This indistinguishability between human and artificial life is Picard’s ultimate defense against the claim that Data is the property of Starfleet. Data is not human, but he is life. Life that Starfleet is sworn to protect and respect.


“The Measure of a Man” Star Trek: The Next Generation (Original air date: 1989)

At this moment, I would love to point to the Mortal Dictata Act of the Halo universe, specifically the first article –

“1A/3a: A human being shall be defined as a person recognized and accepted by a reasonable layperson as being human on the basis of form, behavior, or external appearance, and no authority shall be permitted to use any element of a genetic profile to exclude a person from that definition.” (Mortal Dictata, pp 100).

– and cry out that Iona and all A.I.s are humans, and thus protected by the remainder of the Act, including the illegality of the UNSC’s ownership of them. Unfortunately, I cannot make such a claim in the context of canon.

Isle of Iona legality booksIn the collection of essays Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved, Sherol Chen speculates that even if the A.I.s of Halo, Cortana specifically, would pass the Turning Test today, future generations and the continual development of science would find “new discoveries of the limitations or irreconcilable discrepancies between man and machine.” (“Would Cortana Pass the Turning Test?” Halo and Philosophy, pp 205). In canon, it’s made clear that this discrepancy exists and is acknowledged by both humans and A.I.s. A “gulf” is spoken of and BB and Roland declare this as truth directly.

But we’ll never be human BB. We’ll always be something other. And our own clocks are ticking too.
No, Roland, we won’t ever be human. But we are people.” (Saint’s Testimony, pp 26-27, on Google Play)

Since the Mortal Dictata was created before humanity ever encountered the Covenant, it has not mention of how other sentient forms of life are to be treated. In fact the idea that other races would be granted the same protection as humans is treated with disdain…

“‘Yes, yes, does the Asimov thingy only count for humans?’
‘Of course. I don’t feel terribly responsible for Covenant safety, Baird.’” (“Midnight in The Heart of MidlothianHalo Evolutions Volume I, pp 114).

… or as naiveté.

“–could flatten ‘em–but we’re too concerned with the rights of sentient–” (“Second Sunrise Over New Mombasa4The Halo Graphic Novel, pp 86)

To be fair, humanity was at war with these other races. Yet still this almost joking disdain for other sentient life is unnerving. And without this protection to their personhood, A.I.s in the Halo universe become slaves.

The word “ancilla,” used by the Forerunners to described their A.I.s and Cortana as well, originates from Latin as a female slave and the current definition relates directly to an object owned. This is similar to the origins of the word “robot” which comes from multiple Czech words like “robota” meaning “forced labor.” The concept of slavery is written in the very fabric of the robot subgenre, and perhaps that is why I believe it is important that Iona is the one in the Halo Universe who takes the stand for A.I. rights.


Saint’s Testimony Cover

What I am about to write, I write from the perspective of someone who has never been the target of racism. These are patterns I have seen within the science fiction genre, but my own conclusions should not be used to disregard or stand above the experiences, testimonies, or interpretations of those who have.

Science fiction has always tackled deeper issues. That is why Aldiss’ map is so broad yet so specific. It is an ocean to explore the human condition: human triumphs and human failings. And no failing is as horrific as the commodification and objectification of another human. Science fiction has not shied away from this issue, but what they have often shied away from is the victims of these issues. Metaphors have replaced black people in the form of ape, aliens, and robots.

District 9 draws from apartheid, with aliens as the ones forced into the slums. “Bicentennial Man” has Andrew under go a violent attack from which he has no legal protection, which all but screams of the Civil Rights movement and the ongoing revelations today that have sparked the sadly needed #BlackLivesMatter.

There is an excellent piece by a Max S. Gordon on this trend, comparing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the film adaptation of The Help. I highly encourage reading the entire thing, but here is the key point:

“Could it be that when Hollywood finally decides to tell the truth about black lives, it’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes? And, if so, how f—ing shady is that? Perhaps no one would come to see a bunch of black people rioting and throwing metal spears at police cars (spears made from the broken fence of the local zoo where the primates liberate others from captivity), but they’ll watch these apes. And with one very cruel exception, the apes are surprisingly non-violent. They kick ass, but only when they feel they have to: and there are many instances where the film could have poured on the sadism, but the apes make their point, and let the people go. They don’t want revenge for revenge’s sake, but self-determination.”

I do have a commendation5 for the film Bicentennial Man and the Star Trek episode “The Measure of a Man” in which a black woman is responsible for both Andrew and Data’s status as either human or a lifeform with rights. President Marjorie Bota presides over the hearing in which Andrew is at last declared human. Guinan is the one who makes Picard see the end result of Data’s trial, should the Associate Chair of Robotics win, as slavery.

Bicenntennial Man Madam Chairman

Bicentennial Man (1999)


“The Measure of a Man” Star Trek: The Next Generation (Original air date: 1989)

I feel like these were deliberate choices on the filmmaker’s parts, to have these women not only involved, but crucial in the freedom of another race.

In an interview for his film Cloud Atlas, Keith David had this to say about his characters:

“My first character is a slave from the 1800’s. The next time you see me I’m in the 1970’s and I’m getting an opportunity to free myself from the bondage of corporate slavery. This is when Halle Berry and my character come together. When her life becomes threatened my character intercedes and steps up to the plate to save her. To me, my character relays the different forms that slavery takes on. You can first be an indentured slave, physically in shackles and in slavery, but then there is the mental level of slavery. Later on I become the leader of a rebellion which is my character’s ultimate freedom.” (emboldening mine).

This transition, not only of a slave to a free human, but also of a free human to a liberator, is something that I feel the people behind Bicentennial Man and “The Measure of a Man” were trying to express. And that is important. But equally important is the presence of those people in their own stories, fighting for that freedom.

Of course, Iona’s not a perfect example of this, being an A.I. and not human but I do feel the fact that Frank O’Connor chose the one A.I. in Halo with East African features to be the one who at last fights for that freedom is important.

Now we just have to wait and see if her testimony was successful.

DilDev runs a Halo Tumblr called Arbiter Analysis and has recently published an article with the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture, available with subscription now and for free come September.

  1. It should be noted that “Reason” was first published in 1941 before Asimov created the Three Laws for “Runaround” in 1942. The Laws were then integrated into “Reason” when the collection I, Robot was created.
  2. “Sentience” has been used very broadly as a term in science fiction to describe the consciousness of an intelligent lifeform, the ability to feel and reason. This is actually a meld of the actual definitions of sentience and sapience. However for the sake of simplifying this already-long discussion, the definition of sentience and sentient that I will be using throughout this article refers to that of science fiction and not the dictionary.
  3. It is not the only theory here on Halo Archive or in the fandom as a whole. Iona’s brain donor has also been suggested as a possibility.
  4. We miss you, Ben Giraud.
  5. And another commendation for the short 1953 comic “Judgement Day.” Please read it.

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