Mortal Dictata – Karen Traviss
There is plenty of things that can be discussed from the book Mortal Dictata, but I want to focus on a particular topic that this book and this entire franchise has placed under scrutiny. So like Saint’s Testimony, this article will be forgoing the usual Style/Genre/Universe format.
Instead, let’s talk Spartans.
Content Warning: article contains discussion of human trafficking tactics and effects, including abuse, trauma, the exploitation of children, and mention of sexual violence.
It is rare to see a franchise explore human trafficking with as great a depth as Halo. Others have touched on the topic, certainly; Star Trek has many episodes dedicated to the freeing of slaves, Star Wars has raised questions about the treatment of the clones, and recently Mad Max: Fury Road had the famous declaration, “We are not things!” Yet I have never seen a franchise return again and again with such vigor to examine the impact of human trafficking on an individual and societal level. The most recent explorations are in Mortal Dictata (2014) – all of the Kilo-Five trilogy, in fact – and Hunt the Truth (2015), but human trafficking has been a part of the Halo universe since its first piece of canon: The Fall of Reach (2001).
Today, human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as:
“[T]he recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.” (National Institute of Justice)
Immediately the Spartan-II program can be highlighted with the abduction of the candidates to be used as soldiers without their consent. In particular, we are privy to Naomi’s, Daisy’s, Soren’s, a glimpse of John’s, and can easily infer Yasmine’s1.
Naomi and Daisy were both taken when they were apart from the safety of their homes, the most commonly portrayed method in fiction of abduction in general and not uncommon in reality. In contrast, John and Yasmine were taken in what should have been the safety of their homes. This too has a parallel in reality. In many cases, the home is not a haven of safety for trafficking victims. Theresa L. Flores, in her autobiography The Slave Across the Street, tells how she was forced through threats and blackmail to sneak out of her parents’ house night after night to provide services for a sex trafficking ring. Other times, the danger comes from within the home. Across the world, parents and guardians sell their children into the sex trade and other trafficking venues, out of both greed and desperation (Hilton, A Vulnerable World; UNDOC – Addressing Root Causes).
Soren’s entry into the Spartan-IIs was unique. Instead of being abducted from his parents, Soren was an orphan when Halsey found him and she gave him the option to choose to join or to stay on his home planet. This is the first instance we have (chronologically) in canon of a Spartan candidate being able to choose their involvement in the program.
In The Cole Protocol, we read of Jai and Adriana’s experience with the Spartan-II program. Jai was one of the children who actively tried to leave during the first session and along with Adriana as his co-conspirator, had attempted escape many times within the first few months of the program. After Halsey confronts them both, giving them the choice to leave or remain, they choose to stay. According to Adriana it’s because they “like this too much to go.” (The Cole Protocol, pp 80).
The Spartan-III program introduced in The Ghosts of Onyx extended the choice to all candidates. “Motivation,” namely for revenge, was the driving force behind the volunteers.
“They were all orphans. No qualifications beyond the Covenant slaughtering their entire family. We asked them if they wanted to get their revenge, and we took the ones who said yes.” – Chief Mendez (Glasslands, pp 269).
On the next page of Glasslands, Halsey notes that acquiring the consent of six-year-olds hardly holds up to moral scrutiny, and she’s correct.
In the United States, the minimum age of enlistment is 17 years old, and to enlist at that age requires permission from a parent (Military.com). There is a reason for this.
There is a reason that the definition of sex trafficking includes the second portion:
“Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” (National Institute of Justice, emboldening mine)
Informed consent is also required in any form of treatments or procedures in research. If a participant is not 18, then the researcher must obtain the permission of the child and the parents as well (R.I.T. Office of Human Subjects Research). This age of consent for all the situations mentioned above is to avoid the exploitation of people who are not yet capable of understanding what is being asked of them. Halsey, Mendez, Keyes, and Kurt were all asking for consent from children as old as six and as young as four, all without parental guidance.
This inability to give consent, combined with the actual abducted children, sets both programs squarely in the realm of human trafficking.
However, Halo doesn’t stop there. My greatest frustration with the film Taken, which portrays a man taking on the sex trafficking underworld in order to rescue his daughter, is that it merely uses human trafficking as a set piece, with little respect or interest in the effects of this trade. Halo on the other hand has dedicated time on multiple occasions to explore the trauma of human trafficking.
Mortal Dictata has a heavy emphasis on the trauma undergone by the parents and the children, and can strike uncomfortably close to real life. Staffan and Lena’s reaction and stressful evening after Naomi goes missing sounds very close to the news stories we hear of lost children. The police, the neighborhood search party, and ultimately that sinking feeling of fear, helplessness, and self-blame as the hours drag on without word. Even more horrific is how Naomi recalls her abduction. It, along with Staffan’s fear of molestation, carries a very strong subtext of sex trafficking.
“‘Underwear,’ [Naomi] said suddenly. There: it popped up out of nowhere, out of context. ‘Oh, god. I woke up and someone was undressing me.’” (Mortal Dictata, pp 380)
“The noise and movement told her she was in a car, and a woman was undressing her. She started struggling. … Naomi started kicking and screaming for Mom. She wasn’t sure exactly what people like that did to you, but she knew it was bad and wrong, so bad that the teachers warned the class about it regularly.” (pp 381)
While Naomi and Staffan are core to the story in Mortal Dictata, the entire Kilo-Five trilogy is an exploration of the effect the program had on Serin Osman. Dendritic-Trees wrote astutely on this damage:
“I feel like, on some level, Serin is sort of afraid that she’s going to disappear again. Because she’d had an identity as the Spartan Serin-019, and then that was taken away from her, and after that Parangosky got to her, and she ends up with this new story she tells herself; that Parangosky saved her after she was stolen from her family by Dr. Halsey, and then discarded, etc. And the name that goes with this story is Serin Osman (which Serin straight out says in Glasslands is a made-up identity that doesn’t have any real connection to anything, its a name that goes with the ethnicity people tend to assume she is, she doesn’t actually find out she really is Turkish until the end of Mortal Dictata). And its just kind of sad, because of course, Parangosky is terrible, and hasn’t saved her at all, she just brainwashed her twice.
And everything that happened to her is so classified that the only other people who really know about it are her, Paragnosky, the other Spartans, and they all have a totally different story which is ‘we are special and chosen and so was Serin but she died.” And I just feel like she spends a lot of the trilogy essentially saying “I happened. My life happened. Oh God someone has to believe me.” But the only two people she has are Parangosky and BB, and she’s going to outlive both of them by years and years, which is just exacerbating the walking pile of abandonment issues that is Serin.
Except then she finally opens her file and it turns out that it didn’t happen. She wasn’t stolen from a loving family at all, she left a terrible, neglectful one more or less willingly and she’s been beating herself up over something that didn’t happen for 30 years.
And tragically enough, that’s really where the trilogy leaves her. She’s not Serin Celik, and she’s not Serin-019 and Serin Osman is based on this utter misunderstanding of her own history, so even though the story leaves off with her visiting Alkmini Leandro, the only person who ever rescued Serin without an ulterior motivation, its still kind of bittersweet. Although she did get a hug. Which was nice.” (Tumblr Blog Post)
Other victims of human trafficking in the Spartan programs were the flash clones. I Love Bees discusses the clones with a touch of humor, albeit rather morbidly. Aiden Maki attempts to convince medical student Kamal Zaman to help him flash clone celebrities in order to make money off of celebrity appearances. Kamal’s research into the horror that would be the clones’ lives does nothing to dissuade Aiden’s enthusiasm. Another flash clone mentioned in the canon is Cortana’s brain donor. Halsey cloned herself and used the tissue from the new, living human2 to create Cortana. Within the Halo universe, despite the titular Mortal Dictata Act, clones are born into the galaxy as property.
It was Benjamin Giraud’s questions regarding the clones – “Did their handlers touch them? Did anyone look in their eyes? Did they have names?” – that made me realize the extent to which Halo has been exploring the nuances of human trafficking. That first question: “Did their handlers touch them?”
In 2012, the non-profit, trafficking-combating organization Women at Risk International found “Sweetie.” Sweetie is a child born into slavery, to a seventeen year-old victim of sex trafficking. Because her mother is owned by the brothel, so is she.
“After Sweetie was born, she was left in a cardboard box, beaten when she cried, and never held or soothed. Her slave owners do not want her to know normal affection, so that she will not fight her fate as a prostitute.” (WAR Intl. Sweetie Update)
In each of these situations and in some I haven’t covered, there is a level of emotional control exhibited over these victims, which is one of the primary tactics used by traffickers to recruit and keep their victims. Naomi is told that her father won’t come for her. Jai and Adriana are threatened with a brain damaging serum and the loss of their friendship. Daisy is told she has no home left. Serin’s worth was tied to her ability to be a Spartan. The Spartan-III program had a particular emphasis on forcing the children to compete to make the cut, tying their worth into their Spartan status in a similar fashion to Serin. And we can only speculate as to how the clones were conditioned to accept their sudden, unfamiliar surroundings. These children all had the weight of the galaxy forced on their shoulders, and they were told to carry it through to the end because it was their destiny, their duty, and their responsibility.
“The Covenant has made orphans of you all. I am going to give you a chance… to destroy the Covenant.” (Ghosts of Onyx, pp 70)
“You will be the protectors of Earth and all her colonies.” (The Fall of Reach, pp 33)
“Did I have a choice? Perhaps. But as a terrified child, physically hurt and threatened, I didn’t feel that I had a choice. And that is all that really matters. … I felt the safety of my family, and security of my father’s job was mine to protect. I planned to keep my reputation and my pride intact. Instead, I was damaged physically and emotionally.” (The Slave Across the Street, pp 118)
This article only scratches at the surface of human trafficking and its portrayal in Halo. There are other factors at work, including the effect on society, who is targeted, who are the traffickers, how some have risen out of the trauma, and the attempts people make to justify its existence. The discussion that can come out of examining Halo’s portrayal of the reality of trafficking is massive, and I hope 343 Industries doesn’t stop talking about it any time soon.
- Mortal Dictata, “Homecoming” Halo Legends, “Pariah” Halo Evolutions, “Scanned” Halo 4 trailer, and I Love Bees, respectfully.
- Recall that the creation of an AI from brain matter destroys the organic tissue.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) – http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html?ref=menuside
Hilton, Elise Graveline. A Vulnerable World: The High Price of Human Trafficking. 2015
Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 (United States) – http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/226844.pdf
Global Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 (UNDOC) – https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf
Full Sweetie Updates – http://warinternational.org/sweetie/
DilDev runs a Halo blog on Tumblr [Arbiter Analysis], is attempting to upkeep a general media blog on WordPress [Dillon Development], and has written one of Christ and Pop Culture’s featured September articles [Enemies and Friends in the Halo Franchise].