Helldiving with Ancillary Justice

The flower of justice is peace...

In which I (Hanna) am talking to myself (Theresa) again. This contains some talk about Ancillary Justice’s setting, Helldivers, Star Wars and spoilers for Ender’s Game — but you really should know that one by now.


Hanna: I’m back!

Theresa: We’re back.

Hanna: Yes. Us. I do worry a bit about how sane this makes me look.

Theresa: You’re the writer. Not my problem.

Hanna: Well, part of my job is to talk to imaginary people in my head. I’m just not sure this is what is meant by that…

Theresa: Worry about it out of text. What are we talking about today?

Hanna: Ancillary Justice and Helldivers.

Theresa: Okay. Sure. Two wildly different takes on imperialism?

Hanna: Essentially.

Theresa: You should probably start by telling the good people about these two pieces.

Hanna: Ancillary Justice is an award-winning science fiction novel. Its protagonist is a ship’s AI. It’s a gorgeous, insightful piece — full of adventure while it takes on issues of prejudice, privilege, imperialism and consent. Brilliant.

Theresa: You’ve talked about it before on Killer Moose?

Hanna: Yes, I recommend it for anyone who’s looking for new SciFi.

Theresa: And Helldivers?

Hanna: Helldivers is a co-op videogame. You and your team (friends or strangers) battle enemy aliens across dangerous planets — fighting for the advancement of Super Earth and spreading managed democracy. It’s a great game — you shoot aliens, call in stratagems (powerful attacks or gear that may crush you accidentally when they arrive) and you work as a team. It’s fun as hell.

Theresa: Let’s go back to “Super Earth”…

Hanna: Sure. So, there’s a clear Starship Troopers/Heinlein influence here. Hyper idealization of military priorities as morality — to the point of self-aware humor — provides the setting. One of the core mechanics is blowing up unending hordes of monsters — justified as necessary to protect “our way of life.” The tagline for the game is “Democracy strikes back”.

Theresa: Ha.

Hanna: Indeed.

Theresa: And what’s connected these two — specifically — for you?

Hanna: Timing and thematic overlap. I was reading Ancillary Justice when I started playing Helldivers. The parallels created a cognitive dissonance I couldn’t ignore — primarily the book bleeding into the game, but the other way around too.

Theresa: You’re going to need to get more specific than that.

Hanna: Let’s start with the ships. The loading screen before a Helldive features the ships of other players online at the same time as you — their tags hovering over a ship and the planet below waiting for you to come and crush it’s residents. Or be crushed.

Theresa: The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is a troop carrier — orbiting a planet in the last phases of its annexation. So is there a part of you that sees Justice of Toren — the ship protagonist from the book — as one of those on the loading screen?

Hanna: Inevitably.

Theresa: What else?

Hanna: Well, all the usual justifications for the subjugation of “other” peoples show up as flavor text in Helldivers. There’s not a whole lot of writing (relatively speaking), but what’s there is good. Very coherent theme. It’s the same rhetorical points, if less nuanced and more Western, than we find in Ancillary Justice.

Theresa: An example, perhaps?

Hanna: Yes! The ideals. Each dominant culture has a trinity. Justice, propriety, benefit. Prosperity, liberty, democracy.

Theresa: The first being Ancillary Justice, the second being Helldivers.

Hanna: Yes.

Theresa: So what’s it like playing a light game with friends and knowing that you’re definitely the evil imperialist empire?

Hanna: Interesting. It was a unique experience of the game. I felt a bit like I was in the first wave of human troops the Radch Empire used.

Theresa: You should probably unpack that one.

Hanna: The Radch (of Ancillary Justice) used ancillary soldiers — soldiers that are all a part of the ship’s AI, made with the human bodies of conquered peoples into an elite fighting force. Recently, in the timeline of the book, the Radch began to use human soldiers instead of creating more ancillaries. The ancillaries are a pretty horrible creation — imagine zombies made by the culture that destroyed yours, your bodies enslaved to an AI. But, as it’s pointed out, the AI doesn’t have a lot of the undesirable qualities a human soldier has. The ancillary soldiers will never humiliate, murder, rape or pillage the way a human might.

Theresa: So it considers critically the use of at least two sorts of armies. Why do you find that relevant to the game?

Hanna: It’s relevant to my experience of the game, because as my little Helldiver yelled “Here’s a cup of liber-tea!” I received a jarring reminder that the game decided to go with a Humaness for its soldiers. Brainwashed troopers, rather than any of the alternatives. And because it returned me to the question of whether there can be a moral military force at all. Necessary evil or is it ever a good thing?

Theresa: If we go that way, this is going to get very complicated.

Hanna: Sorry. But I do feel like complicating this slightly. There’s a couple other pieces of popular media we should bring into this discussion.

Theresa: Which ones?

Hanna: Well. Ender’s Game for one.

Theresa: Almost unavoidable, that.

Hanna: One of the three enemies in Helldivers are the Bugs (though that’s a pretty common term for aliens in books, movies and video games). But this game doesn’t go so deep as to point out that the peoples you are slaughtering are clearly intelligent beings, like the book does.

Theresa: Would sort of take the fun out of it.

Hanna: Would it?

Theresa: Isn’t The Point to make it uncomplicated? With this game?

Hanna: That feels … wrong. But not everything needs to be complicated. Not everything needs to address all the problems it comes in contact with. As to The Point: It’s an aspect of this game, but I think calling it The Point is both reductionist and overthinking it.

Theresa: Come again? Reductionist and overthinking at the same time?

Hanna: Yes. It reduces the importance of considering imperialist tendencies and overthinks the flavor text of something that’s focused on mechanics not story.

Theresa: Hmmm… I think you’re feeling guilty for cutting into what was obviously meant to be a casual theme for a game and for not being critical enough of said theme simultaneously.

Hanna: That’s not inaccurate.

Theresa: Generally, I think you should work on dispensing with the guilt entirely. Aside from Ender’s Game, what else did you want to pull into the discussion?

Hanna: I’m compelled to bring up Star Wars and stormtroopers.

Theresa: Because essentially you’re a stormtrooper in Helldivers?

Hanna: Indeed. You even die rapidly and are replaced by faceless replicas within missions. You’ve got an endless supply of battle ready clones. And while the the stormtroopers featured in The Force Awakens are brainwashed rather than cloned (or extra bodies for an AI), there’s something to be said for knowing that a Helldiver who didn’t shoot would essentially be treated like Finn by the First Order. You got to figure that a conscientious objector in the Helldivers world would face the firing squad.

Theresa: Cue the ‘Traitor!’ meme.

Hanna: Now that I think about it, that might be in the ‘news’ that scrolls along the bottom of your screen when you’re on your ship. But! The way we think of Stormtroopers was changed by both the prequels (*shudders*) and by Finn. The alteration of the POV changes how we see the rest of the soldiers — any stormtrooper is a potential Finn. Which is something that hopefully won’t be left unexplored in the infinite Star Wars movies to come.

Theresa: And in Ancillary Justice?

Hanna: The ship is the main character — enslaved (to its captain and the supreme leader of the Radch) and a tool of enslavement (imperialist annexations of whole planets). Justice of Toren is the stormtroopers and Finn at the same time. I’m simplifying, but Justice of Toren is neither the plucky resistance nor the gung-ho enthusiast of military expansionism — though both of those extremes are represented in the book.

Theresa: I think I’m getting this now. The core of your consideration are these: What do you think it means that we have the shorthand that Helldivers uses? What trumps what? Is it making fun of that tradition or reinforcing —

Hanna: Both?

Theresa: Let me finish — making fun of that tradition or reinforcing it? Or does the problem lie in the short hand? That this has short hand at all and the paradigm of Ancillary Justice doesn’t?

Hanna: Well. Ancillary Justice is more complicated. And it attacks the problems of imperialism from several different sides. And frankly, diminishing said problems to fit them into a game purely as flavor has its own pitfalls. But, of course, Helldivers is essentially diminishing the complexity of something like Starship Troopers (the book). It’s a more convenient narrative for something that relies on a shooting mechanic.

Theresa: Problematic in itself.

Hanna: Yup. Something that gets a lot of discussion and should continue to do so.

Theresa: Certainly. Let us acknowledge and move on.

Hanna: We are none of us as uncomplicated as a game or a book or a story — however complicated those may be — and neither is our world.

Theresa: True.

Hanna: But that’s not an excuse for the depressingly narrow range of perspectives with a high frequency that show up in science fiction with imperialist themes. While I love Helldivers — it doesn’t make me think. Ancillary Justice makes me think about everything that touches on this theme in different ways.

Theresa: You have a strange way of enjoying yourself.

Hanna: What do you mean?

Theresa: You like playing Helldivers still. You like what it makes you examine in the context of Ancillary Justice. And you like being a robot and blowing things up.

Hanna: Which makes me think maybe I’m a terrible person at my core, since I enjoy the over-the-top violence.

Theresa: Maybe.

Hanna: Along with the violence, I’m pulled into the cooperative mechanic and the masochism necessary to a play when you know you’re going to lose a bit. Helldivers is a great game to play with friends. Am I using these things to overlook a theme that is well executed but assisting the homogenization of narrative? Probably.

Theresa: Helldivers is not a narrative. Don’t think of it like a story.

Hanna: But it is an Artifact of Culture. It’s both playing off and contributing to a pervasive myth. And it’s a game and environment that encourages the creation of stories.That time we survived a ridiculously difficult level. Or you crushed me in a ginormous robot. Or I barely managed to call in reinforcements before being overwhelmed and then the hellpods smashed everything that killed me.

Theresa: So, story or no story, it’s an Artifact of Culture and therefore relevant to a discussion on imperialist mentalities (given the theme) and narratives (given playspaces frequently encourage generation of narrative).

Hanna: I believe so.

Theresa: Anything else you wanted to touch on?

Hanna: I really want to talk about AIs.

Theresa: Hmmm… but this has already gone on really long.

Hanna: Okay.

Theresa: Save it for next time. I know you want to talk about Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.

Hanna: Hell yes, I do.

Theresa: Then let’s call it for now.

Hanna: Alright. Thanks for reading.

Theresa: Bye!