Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Passing of Obedience

Babylon 5: The Passing of the Techno-mages, a trilogy of novels released in 2001, three years after Babylon 5’s television run, posits that the role of technology in a society – how the culture responds and adapts to and assimilates it – is a manifestation of its cultural, religious, and philosophical beliefs. Furthermore, the books hold that the inverse is also true: a society’s beliefs are a manifestation of its technology. In Jeanne Cavelos’s work, the two are intricately and inescapably intertwined, one bleeding over into the next until they are inseparable; it is not for naught that the Ouroboros, the snake continuously eating its own tail, is a visual motif that consistently pops up throughout her series.

This is primarily witnessed through her explorations of the Shadows, the most ancient of the ancient races left in the galaxy. Although seen somewhat extensively throughout B5’s five seasons – they comprise the show’s main antagonistic force, after all – detailed information about their history, the mechanics of their technology, and relations with their servants are reserved exclusively for the books (which includes The Shadow Within [1997], the first B5 book to be granted the coveted status of canonicity by creator and showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski, and the first novel to ever be written by Jeanne Cavelos). The Shadows, seen by the Drakh, their most loyal servants, as the high priests of a dark and ancient religion (their god is a spherical being that looks suspiciously close to a Shadow in its spider-esque “encounter suit”), communicate with their acolytes by tapping into a region of their brains that has no evolutionary value whatsoever; its only purpose is to allow them to become the mouthpieces of their masters. Mr. Morden, a human who willingly chose devotion to their cause, is manipulated in a similar manner: an implant at the base of his brain allows him to not only hear the words and thoughts of the Shadows, but also rewards his obedience by releasing endorphins. The utilization of technology is so subtle and effective, the man doesn’t realize how thoroughly and completely he’s controlled – or that he’s being manipulated at all.

That the Shadows use their tech to thoroughly subdue and dominate their servants, commanding absolute loyalty and ensuring total order – this despite their professed devotion to the sacred principles of chaos – is best represented by the principal instrument of their holy crusade, their fighters. The Shadow ships have as their core a living person, culled from the lower, more inferior races, using the naturally-occurring and -superior processing powers of the brain to carry out the vessel’s computational demands. In the process of transforming an individual into a computer chip, which combines technological as well as telepathic steps, the person’s personality is thoroughly shredded, driving away memories and dreams and emotional connections and instead instilling only the joys of obedience to the machine, to the Shadows themselves (which they enthusiastically call “the liberators”), and, acting as a bridge between the two, the Eye, a network situated deep within the heart of Z’ha’dum, the Shadows’ homeworld, that coordinates the fleet of starships and commands planetary defenses – and which has as its central processing unit another living being.

The Vorlons are the antithesis, of course, to the Shadows, from their ideological convictions to their appearances, and the implementation of their technology would seem, on first blush, to reconfirm this. The Vorlons’ vessels are biological, but not reliant upon biological samples from other races to fuel them; they are engineered to be semi-sentient, but not as a result of consciousness being ripped from their pieces-parts. Nonetheless, the end result, as well as the underlying methodology, are strikingly similar: carrying out the host’s instructions is rewarded with joy (artificially in the case of the Shadows, stimulating the relevant sections of the subject’s brain – but just as artificially for the Vorlons, as their ships are designed from the ground up to exalt in obedience and revel in order), resulting in a master-slave feedback loop whose forging will forever last the test of time. Subjugation and a total disregard for life are the cost of proving one’s rightness and righteousness.

In this way, timeless mortal enemies are shown to be stunningly similar – a development only figuratively, not literally, hinted at in the series proper – and, also in this way, a trilogy of books that was initially conceived by Straczynski to simply be about the techno-mages, a small and mostly narratively irrelevant group within the larger Babylon 5 mythos, becomes, in Cavelos’s hands, a quick but penetrating survey of the Vorlons, the Shadows, their ossification within their own relations to their technologies (and, of course, to one another), and the war that has waged between them for thousands, if not millions, of years; in other words, what was to have been the smallest and most specific of stories transformed into a sweeping and epic tale touching upon the breadth and depth of the entire B5 universe.

And then there are the mages themselves. Originated when the Shadows, eager for an armed forces on the ground that would complement their powerful starfleet, gave their technology as a series of implants to the now-extinct Taratimude one thousand years ago, during the previous Great War, the techno-mages are unique amongst all of the Shadows’ “allies”: whereas living beings are deposited into the Shadows’ machines, becoming subsumed and consumed both by them, the mages are the inverse – which also means that the mages, free of the subservience that the Shadows’ other tech demands to function, possess free choice (a curious anomaly for a race so dedicated to exacting control). And it is this freedom of choice that has plagued their order, in one form or to one degree or another, since its birth, manifesting itself in their desire to become one with their technology, to bond fully and completely with the machinery intertwining itself throughout their bodies, even though all but a handful aren’t aware of the true origins of their mysterious implants. Unsurprisingly, the only way the techno-mages can conceive of achieving this equivalence is to obtain perfect and unwavering control over their tech, which is programmed to compel belligerent actions and spawn chaotic behavior.

The desire for a (roughly) symbiotic relationship and the thirst for dominance traps the mages in between the two remaining First Ones, a cultural position reinforced by the tactical situation they find themselves in: the most powerful of the younger races, their allegiance is wanted by the Shadows in the upcoming war to finally assure a definitive victory against the Vorlons and their partners once and for all; the Vorlons, eager to keep such a potent weapon out of their enemies’ hands, will wipe them all out if they acquiesce to their creators’ demands. The techno-mages, as such, do something unprecedented in the cycle of the Great Wars: they chart a third course, rejecting both of their parent races and striking out on their own – a move which presages what the rest of the interstellar community will do under the leadership of Captain John J. Sheridan and Entil’Zha Delenn (albeit the latter do it for the betterment of all the younger civilizations, establishing a political and economic alliance, while the former do it for simple self-preservation, retreating to a hiding place to wait out the war).

But it is in another rejection of the status quo bequeathed to them, one that may or may not be subsequently followed by another galaxy-wide echo (the story materials taking place towards the end of Crusade, the canceled B5 spin-off, and well after it simply aren’t clear on this point), that the mages most definitely and defiantly represent the promise of an alternate, better way of life. Over the course of the order’s history, the techno-mages moved away from the raw and primal destructive capabilities of their technology and instead turned their attention and intentions towards creation, transitioning themselves from soldiers to magicians, from tools of destruction to bringers of wonder and mystery. In the process of broadening their abilities, they also made them shallower, losing the sheer power that the order had in the days of the Taratimude – until Galen, fresh out of apprenticeship, inadvertently stumbles upon the ancient and devastating capabilities long buried over. It is precisely in rediscovering how to wage war on the ground in the same fashion that the Shadow ships do so in the sky that he learns the secret to the mages’ Holy Grail: complete and total union with their implants. Instead of attempting to fully and masterfully impose his will upon the wild, unpredictable beast that is his tech, he bonds with it; rather than command it, perpetuating the Shadows’ and Vorlons’ unbreakable bond of master and slave, he embraces it, treating it as a partner in his existence, a move which is so impossibly difficult to conceptualize exactly because it is so simplistic and straightforward.

By literally becoming one with the tech, entering a thoroughly symbiotic relationship – and not the shadow of it that the Vorlons approximate with their technology – Galen manages to circumnavigate the layers of programming the Shadows coded into it, scrubbing both it and him of the incessant, unerring call to arms and leaving behind only peace; chaos is exchanged for stillness, wrath for love. Even the color of the implants is changed, going from a cold grey to a warm gold. In this way, techno-Galen is able to interface with a Shadow ship by simply merging its personality temporarily with his own, making the master-slave loop unnecessary and unnecessarily intrusive for both parties. The lesson of the story is simple: it is not technology, an evil entity, that destroys or disrupts society; it is the will of the people surrounding the tech that codes it to. And any adverse programming, or evil that emanates from it, can be dissipated with the same quality that remedies all wrongs in all peoples in all times in all places:


This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010

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