Examining ‘Soma the Painter’

Anybody who is familiar with this blog, with me, knows that there are three things I just can’t get enough of in Halo.

1) Forerunners.

2) Really obscure lore (generally involving Forerunners).

3) Intertextual analysis of the above two.

Guess what today’s post is going to be about…origins6For those who may not remember, the wonderful anthology of short stories known as Halo: Evolutions came out in 2010. It was one of the first pieces of fiction made by 343, and has been instrumental in setting out a number of themes for the Reclaimer Saga, as well as potentially hinting at stories yet to come which I’ve covered regarding Wages of Sin’s hints about the future role of the San’Shyuum and Human Weakness’ hints about the future of the Domain – and I’d like to take a moment to pat myself on the back for the latter because it ended up being correct, the Domain is known to be central to the story of Halo 5.

But I digress. There’s a rather elusive story that only appears in one of the three(?) editions of Evolutions, and it’s one of the foundational pieces of Forerunner lore. Think about it, before this we had IRIS, Halo 3’s Terminals, and Origins from Halo: Legends… and that was pretty much it in terms of substantial Forerunner information, and it wasn’t even that substantial because it was scattered around their final 300 years when we know that their history spans over ten million.

We still can’t piece together a cohesive timeline for IRIS because there’s ambiguity about the time in which some of the dialogues come from, the first message from the IsoDidact for instance appears to be in the modern Halo universe upon the Flood’s return. Even with the Forerunner Saga, we’ve still only just gotten glimpses at the immense weight of their history, society, and culture.

An outlier we’ve got is Soma the Painter, and like IRIS it was written by Frank O’Connor – so it is him and Greg Bear who we have to thank for all this beautifully foundational material that has been written for the Forerunners. I’ve taken the liberty of writing up the transcript it for you (it’s only four pages long in the book) in case you don’t have the story to hand:

Soma the Painter was waiting for the suns to dip a little lower in the sky. The thing she was waiting for was called Twofire, an optical effect caused by the light from two suns passing under the horizon and reflecting on scattered clouds above. It was beautiful, and she was trying to capture it in real time, spraying smart-pigments onto a glass surface from her colour-sensing jetbrush.

From her position on the hill above Wharftown, she had a perfect view of the azure expanse of sea, with distant whitecaps beyond the reef now picking up mores of pink. She ignored the bucolic bustle of the town below and concentrated.

She had moved here for these moments; silence, unsterilised air, sounds of nature, the minuscule dangers of a real place – stinging plants and quarrelsome insects. Like the inhabitants of the town below, Soma had given up her armour in order to experience life more intimately. No more lenses, no more n-barriers, no more omniscient guides. She had come here seeking a primitive lifestyle, one demonstrated perfectly in her sagging skin, her telling wrinkles. She’d come here to love life, but also to age and die.

At 417 years of age, Soma was young to be taking this path, but hardly unique. Wharftown was filled with her peers, and more besides, scattered thinly, perhaps a million souls planted here on the massive planet Seaward, unromantically called G617 g1 by outsiders adrift on endless ocean, just as the world itself was adrift in endless space, hanging on a lonely binary system at the galaxy’s trailing edge. This was the last stop before intergalactic space and lifeless void. A fitting waiting room for death’s cool arms.

And the citizens of Seaward were all, as their society measured it, wealthy. The world itself was a secret, publicly and officially a lifeless ball of dirt, a place truly worth ignoring. Those who could afford it had found a private, expensive sanctuary from society, and great power and influence had been poured into purchasing anonymity for this beautiful, verdant world.

Wharftown sat on a rocky shard of volcanic surge, a thousand miles from the equator. There was little there but dwellings, parks, and one of the few significant stretches of arable land, most of it terraced in pretty defiance of the towering hummocks and fangs of basalt.

Here on Seaward, contact with society proper was limited. Communications were almost non-existent. Supplies sometimes came silently by transorbital balloon, jettisoned by unseen starships, inflating at the bottom edge of the stratosphere, then drifting gracefully to land their cargoes. They seldom came with messages or instructions or scolding. Instead, they simply brought gifts, food, technology, and repairs. Seaward was tolerated, encouraged even by distant, benevolent friends who asked for nothing in return but the trades of energy and art that financed its existence.

Soma’s hand hovered above the glass, the delicate steely wand of the jetbrush held confidently between stained fingers. Her creased, sun-worn brow wrinkled further, its bluish fur furrowing as she stared dutifully at the horizon and squinted to keep the brightness out of her rheumy eyes. The jetbrush winked its ready state, absorbing light, tiny whirling motors ready for painting.

As the two suns moved lower, their proximity to each other increased, and momentarily, both seemed to shine more fiercely. And, as if acting on some unheard order, the clouds responded, their pink gossamer suddenly finding vermilion flame, then green, then blue. A flitting rainbow of hot colour, then just as quickly fading back to pink.

Soma blinked tears back, resisted the photic urge to sneeze, wiped her eyes with a small silk handkerchief, and looked at the glass in front of her. Sure enough, some of the colours were there, strewn not quite accurately on the skyscape she’d prepared.

Wonderful, she thought to herself. She examined the pattern and then frowned. The jetbrush had also laid down a flaw with its capture of that momentary light. A dark grey streak. A dirty charcoal imperfection drawn through the centre of the other hues in a floundering arc, trailing a sickly yellow smoke behind it.

Disturbed, she glanced back at the sky itself. The imperfection from her painting hung there in the pink sky Real. Baleful. Moving steadily and purposefully to the horizon. Something was coming. Something was wrong.

Soma the Painter folded her glass easel, hurriedly packed her things, and began the long climb down to Wharftown.


“How was this information discovered?” the Auditor asked, looking up from the report.

“Triangulation of devices. A trade beacon, a medical station, and a painter’s jetbrush,” replied the Prelate.

“Are we spying on our citizens now?” A raised eyebrow.

“Not exactly. But there are measures in place to collate unusual observations. They’re blind-checked by automatons, not intelligences. We only bubble such reports to the surface when a catastrophe or Xenovert expresses itself.”

“That sounds like spying to me,” said the Auditor. He gestured and the report vanished. “What measures have been taken?”

The Prelate cleared his throat and adjusted the front fastening of his clerical robe. His smooth, aquiline features hardened slightly as he spoke. “None. None beyond a resupply balloon for the damaged medical station. And this meeting.” Self-consciously, he smoothed his thin black fur with a palm.

“Send word to the Didact. Our test has come.”

origins7This is actually one of my favourite Halo stories. It’s tantalisingly concise, wondrously imaginative, it’s really colourfully written, and it tells us a lot about Forerunner society. Really, in retrospect we can look at this story now and go “oh, that’s what that meant!”

Seaward first appeared in Halo 3’s Terminals under the designation G617 g1, as is repeated within the story. Isn’t it fascinating that our first proper glimpse of the Forerunners is actually a group that is totally detached from the rest of the Ecumene? This is something that happens in Cryptum as well, as we don’t actually go to the centre of Forerunner governance until the very final act of the book where Bornstellar is taken to Maethrillian for the Master Builder’s trial.

A lot of the storytelling about Forerunner society is shown to us through these different groups who exist outside of it, rather than told to us by those living the high life in the Ecumene, so to speak.

There are a few particular passages that I’d like to break down with regards to their importance in what we can say, in hindsight, fleshes out some of the themes and conflicts that were carried over into the Forerunner Saga.Tue_May_5_16-49-41_UTC+0100_2015

She had moved here for these moments; silence, unsterilised air, sounds of nature, the minuscule dangers of a real place – stinging plants and quarrelsome insects. Like the inhabitants of the town below, Soma had given up her armour in order to experience life more intimately. No more lenses, no more n-barriers, no more omniscient guides. She had come here seeking a primitive lifestyle, one demonstrated perfectly in her sagging skin, her telling wrinkles. She’d come here to love life, but also to age and die.

This single passage tells us everything that the Forerunners aren’t. The Forerunners are presented here as being totally detached from the richness of life in the galaxy, they have little regard for the naturalistic way of things – of which Soma and about a million other Forerunners are an exception (that sounds like a lot, but the Forerunners numbered in the billions/trillions at this point so it’s really a tiny group).

We’re told about Forerunner armour and ancillas, their “omniscient guides”. This is a really awesome call… forward to Cryptum’s opening where Bornstellar has to shed his armour because it sends out electrical signals which enrage the carnivorous merse. Much of the first act of Cryptum explores how uncomfortable Bornstellar is with the reality of being exposed to the elements, his human guides having to make him sandals and a hat. This lifestyle is embraced by Soma, whereas much of Forerunner society would find this abhorrent and uncivilised.

We understand that Forerunners know things because they have a vast network of ancillas and the Domain to fill them in, but they do not understand them because of their unnatural detachment from their setting. That is largely the reason for why they were such poor guardians.

Those who could afford it had found a private, expensive sanctuary from society, and great power and influence had been poured into purchasing anonymity for this beautiful, verdant world. […] Seaward was tolerated, encouraged even by distant, benevolent friends who asked for nothing in return but the trades of energy and art that financed its existence.

Now this is interesting!

A sanctuary from Forerunner society that some benevolent benefactor went out of their way to grant anonymity in exchange for trades of art? I don’t know about you, but for me this immediately calls to mind the political struggles going on within the Forerunner Ecumene between the Builders and… well, everybody else.

After deposing the Warrior-Servants following the Halo/Shield World dispute and exile of the Didact, they became the uncontested rulers of the Ecumene and stripped the other rates of much of their culture and traditions. This forms the basis for a degree of conflict in Silentium when Librarian spearheads the expedition to Path Kethona, the voyage itself was done in order to keep the Lifeworkers politically relevant with the promise of uncovering the Flood’s then-unknown origins. Two characters, Keeper-of-Tools (a Builder) and Clearance-of-Old-Forests (a Miner), have a lot of back-and-forth about their rates. Here’s a couple of examples.

“Send greetings in earliest Digon. Perhaps Keeper can instruct you in some sort of clandestine Builder grammar.”

Keeper agreed before he caught himself. Our eyes met. Curiosity trumped any fealty to secret societies. “Builders will want to know the truth as much as any of us,” he said.


“Builders keep the deepest rituals. Something Keeper knows might stretch back to those times. Ancient phrases, meaningless today.”

“I was just beginning that degree of induction,” Keeper said, uncomfortable once more at being singled out. “Other rates have traditions and rituals, too.”

“Warriors were purged of their rituals during the civil wars,” I said. “As for Miners…” I looked over to the Miner in our crew.

“Also lost,” Clearance said. He glanced at Keeper. “Builders suppressed them.”

With this in mind, one has to wonder about the circumstances that led to Seaward being kept a secret from public knowledge. The answer to this can be found in the nature of the conflict between the Forerunners and ancient humanity, in how the Forerunners hated the idea of a civilisation existing that they couldn’t control – that might one day rise up to compete with them. Humans spread to the outer fringes of the galaxy to secede from areas of Forerunner control, and it appears that Seaward is representative of that exact same challenge to Forerunner dominance.

In addition, this is not the first we’ve heard of a group of Forerunners going off to form their own society away from Ecumene control…

This could be Uthera Midgeerrd, on the extreme outer reaches of the Forerunner ecumene, less than a hundred light-years from the unpatrolled borders of the galactic margin.

Before I entered the Cryptum, Uthera had been regarded as a far-flung outpost of Forerunner culture and design, distinctly anti-Builder in its sympathies, populated by half-renegade Miners and others who had deserted their rates.

Since those renegade Miners and rateless Forerunners were known of, perhaps that’s the reason why Seaward was kept under wraps. Uthera was occupied before the Didact’s first exile, and Silentium never explicitly states what ended them. Forerunners setting up their own society has been done before and been met with apparent failure, since the Builders got into power and exiled the Didact this would be one of the first things they’d turn their attention towards. Hence the need to keep Seaward a secret.cea7If this group of Forerunners who live more naturalistic lifestyles away from the Ecumene were known to the public, then what would stop the other oppressed rates from expanding outwards and defying Builder rule? At the same time, it’s like a mirror to the Insurrection in the modern Halo universe – history circling back upon us.

I think that the Lifeworkers were behind Seaward’s anonymity, it’s a pretty sure fit that this group of Forerunners dedicated to naturalism and understanding life, who still have some political influence remaining, would want to conceal this. And all they asked for in return was art. We know that the Builders were repressing these kinds of cultural forms of expression among the other rates, so perhaps the Lifeworkers sought to preserve the work of these Forerunners like many do during the reign of a totalitarian government.

It’s interesting because it seems like these were the years where really radical breaks from tradition were occurring, like the new pattern of mutations brought up in Cryptum when Bornstellar meets Splendid-Dust-of-Ancient-Suns:

“I am part of a new pattern. More… natural. Some call it atavistic. But rather than being subjected to many mutations over a matter of centuries, we undergo an economical series of changes over a single domestic year. Our endpoint is less rigid, less distorted and ornamental.”

“Who’s we, Councilor?”

“We come from Builder families, mostly, but a few among us are Warrior-Servants.”

Be wary. The Didact would of course object to this deviation from tradition. At least, I presumed that was the cause of his reaction.

Splendid Dust continued. “This leaves us with fewer inherent distortions of both anatomy and mind. Fewer prejudices… some say, less imprinted wisdom, as we have fewer mentors. We were in fact supposed to supplement that deficit with studious use of the Domain, but that’s difficult now.”

Control is what the Forerunners valued most, it was their comfort zone – tradition was there comfort zone. This is why the whole thing with the armour is so thematically relevant, how uncomfortable they are when confronted with these entirely natural forces we barely even notice. The idea of mutations being used by these young Forerunners, Builders at that, to expunge prejudices and even allow them the ability to smile was a huge innovation, and the idea of more liberal Forerunners must’ve been a nightmare concept to their elders.

But this sadly came too late to mean anything in the long run for the Forerunners as the Flood had already knocked down their door.reclaimer17Which leads us to the final quote…

“Are we spying on our citizens now?” A raised eyebrow.

This region of space was obviously being monitored because Seaward was “the last stop before intergalactic space and lifeless void”, and the Forerunners knew that this is where the Flood would come from – outside the galaxy.

With this in mind, it beautifully set up the endgame of the Human-Flood war where the Flood purposefully retreats outside the Milky Way to make it look like the humans had found a cure and beat them back. There were Forerunners who knew that the Flood would return, hence all the political conflict between the Warrior-Servants and Builders, so it only makes sense that they would keep this region of space under surveillance.

However the very coy reaction from the Prelate throws in some substance to the idea that Forerunner citizens are being spied on, the exchange is a really interesting reflection of the story in Conversations From the Universe where we learn that the Prophet of Truth has sanctioned Jiralhanae spies to monitor disgruntled Sangheili military commanders who are asking too many questions.

Just from these few extracts in this very short story, we can see a number of very clear seeds for the narrative that Greg Bear would pick up on just a year later for the Forerunner Saga, and he in-turn has sown many for future expansion over the course of the rest of Halo’s history. It’s always fun to go back and look at what we missed all those years ago, what we were confused by or skipped over altogether. I imagine that we’ll still be at this ten years from now, and who knows where the Halo universe will be at that point?

That’s all from me for now, happy reading Spartans!

[Thank you very much Halo Archive user Anton for hooking me up with this story again!]

9 thoughts on “Examining ‘Soma the Painter’

  1. I’d never heard of the story “Some the Painter” before reading your analysis of it, yet it is an interesting story that shows how nuanced the lore of the Forerunners is and can be.

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