The Future Rewound: Destiny's Transhumanism

"Once they could talk, the first question was 'Why did you start this thing?' and the answer was 'Me?” -Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

The Forever War is one of military sci-fi's seminal works, an examination of an interstellar war that renders the soldiers involved relics of a time long past, living dinosaurs transported to the future by time dilation. Tinged with transhumanism - the human race evolves into mono-ethnic homosexual clones by the novel's end - Haldeman examines just what happens when we put the exultation of conflict over the human costs of war.

This isn't an especially unusual theme in military sci-fi. Timothy Zahn's Cobra, which takes a much tamer look at how war alienates soldiers from everyday society, mimics Haldeman's earlier work and even approaches transhumanist principles in the second half of the series' run. For all its militaristic chest-beating, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers shows a soldier turned from an ordinary person with average desires into a cog in a militaristic machine, so brainwashed by his own desire for advancement that he loses sight of the larger picture.

Transhumanism and military sci-fi alike have been used by talented authors to critique everything from the Vietnam War (The Forever War) to the obsession with military technology (Dorsai) and everything in-between.

It's from these authors that Destiny pulls its inspiration, and its in these authors' shadows that Destiny comfortably sits, unable or unwilling to push forth and truly make something of its setting.

Transhumanism and Regressive Ideology

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” -Frank Herbert, Dune

Transhumanism is best described as "humans evolving beyond their current form." Whether this is accomplished naturally - through millions of years - or artificially - through the intake of drugs, cybernetic modification, or genetic alterations - is moot. The commonality is that what we once were, we no longer are; after pushing ourselves beyond natural limits, we disconnect from or struggle with that core humanity, that cord which ties us to the rest of our species.

It's tempting to think of transhumanism as mystical. Indeed, in many works, such as the Xeelee Sequence, transhumanism takes on a sort of scientific mysticism - a magic of baryons instead of mana - laid out in that most famous of Arthur C. Clarke quotes: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This is the ideology that Destiny pushes upon the player. This is how Destiny approaches its setting. This is where Destiny loses its promise.

Destiny's transhumanism - the resurrection of the long-dead, the creation of sentient AI, the harnessing of elemental forces such as sunlight and darkness - is little more than magic. Indeed, Destiny is a fantasy game in science-fiction trappings; for all the railguns and spaceships you use, you are still fighting The Darkness and visiting The Reef and protecting The Traveler and verbing The Noun.

The transhumanism of Destiny is regressive, a way to push science-fiction so far that it loops back around to the mystical. While science-fiction has always had an element of absurdity and mystic - treknobabble leaps to mind - it's always rooted in a sense of scientific wonder, of curiosity, of exploration. The belief that we have the capability to catalog and understand the universe. There is no magic in science-fiction, because magic is, as Clarke points out, just more advanced technology.

In addition, science-fiction is used best to explore extremes, isolating one particular principle of science or society or history and extrapolating on it to its utmost limit. Whether it's the radical libertarian society of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or the final evolution of the human race in Childhood's End, science-fiction is primarily concerned with the stresses that technological or sociological advancement puts upon people.

In Destiny, everything is discovered, and what isn't discovered is obscured under a thick layer of mystique. You don't find out new things, you merely discover and repurpose the old. Whether it's the reintegration of the Warmind Rasputin, the exploration of the Black Garden, or indeed any plot you care to choose, Destiny is a retrod of better times, a nostalgic callback to an era that never existed.

This obsession with its own myth, the constant navel-gazing, is Destiny's biggest narrative problem. Destiny is not interested in how you, or the people around you, change or deal with the world you live in. There are vague hints, sure, but they are buried in the Grimoire Cards, a lore mechanic which would be excellent if not for the fact that you can't actually view them in-game.

Destiny's transhumanism and mysticism is placeholder, a "To be continued..." splash page tacked onto the end of a mediocre season finale. It doesn't explore the themes it repeatedly brings up, instead content to reference the works of more detailed writers. There's real potential here marred by the lack of a narrative beyond "murder some aliens."

Collapsing Societies and the Rise of Fascism

"Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor." -Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

The ultimate tragedy of Destiny is, however, not its ineffectual summoning of philosophical transhumanist mysticism, but its inability to address its parallels to some of the most damaging political developments of humankind.

The world of Destiny is a rough one. Humankind was nearly wiped out after The Collapse, an end to a centuries-long golden age heralded by the arrival of The Traveler. Before, they traveled the stars, even to other galaxies, and pushed the boundaries of human knowledge. Now, they sit contained in a single city, sending expeditions into the wilderness to reclaim their lost territory.

On the surface, this is a fine narrative. The fall of civilization and its subsequent rebuilding is a common theme in science-fiction. When taken beyond face value, though, Destiny starts to parallel the worst of humanity.

The rise of fascism is almost always predated by a national disaster of some kind. Whether it's a defeat in war (Germany) or economic upheavel (Italy) is irrelevant; tragedy and conflict is all that is needed to allow a fascist to rise.

These fascists push a narrative of defense, of control, all while twisting that narrative to justify further atrocities. For Germany, it was the infamous lebensraum ("living room"), the notion that Germany was reduced beyond what it could handle and needed to expand to be healthy. For Italy, it was spazio vitale ("vital space"), the notion that Italy's influence had waned and that it needed to build up a stable of territory either directly or indirectly (vassals, protectorates) controlled by the state. For the United States, it was manifest destiny, the notion that the United States deserved to own, by mandate of God, the entire continent of North America.

This bears a strong resemblance to the world of Destiny. The Traveler, and by extension The Speaker, shows humanity that they have the potential, and perhaps even the right, to own the stars. Humanity is subsequently beaten down by The Darkness, which depending on your viewpoint is an ethereal force of evil made manifest, a coalition of hostile aliens, or even corruption within human society itself. After the fall, humanity groups underneath The Traveler and mysticizes its teaching. Aliens are deemed a sickness, "cast out for their sins" as one in-game theory puts it. Xenophobia is rampant. The Speaker coalesces these forces and directs them outward, setting humanity back on the path toward conquest and domination.

This isn't a stretch of thought. Various objectives in Destiny explicitly tell you to "kill them all" or "annihilate the aliens." The Speaker has this undertone of genial charisma, and is constantly telling you about how great The Traveler is and how evil The Darkness is. The various factions present in the Tower, like Future War Cult or Dead Orbit, explicitly reference conquest and killing. It's justified in the name of defense, of course, but when your narrative begins to parallel the rise of the worst leaders in human history without offering commentary of any kind, there might be a problem.

Forgetting the Past

"[...]in that flash of lucidity he became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude

Destiny is a setting without a past. In a narrative where the fall of civilization is the key point to justify all the potentially horrific actions your character undertakes, Destiny does precious little to elucidate what happened, or why, and instead pits players against unknowable elemental forces of evil. It tries to emulate the grandiose nature of Lord of the Rings while failing to account for all the ways that it doesn't live up to the promise of its premise.

You should feel, as Marquez puts it so eloquently, the crushing weight of so much past. You should understand the weight, the gravity, the magnitude of the actions that led to your journey. If you don't, it should be a decision continuously reflected upon and examined and challenged through the lens of an engaging narrative.

Destiny is unwilling to commit to any real message, and in doing so pushes the worst message of all: violence is acceptable, normal, and desirable, and you should use that violence to shape a world more to your liking.

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