Chapter 4: Ascension in Powers of X #2 – We Are Together Now, You and I
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: R.B. Silva
Inker: R.B. Silva with Adriano Di Benedetto
Color Artist: Marte Gracia
Cover Art: R.B. Silva and Marte Gracia
X-Men stories often deal with evolution. After all, mutants are supposed to be the next step in human evolution. And taking a quick overview of the history of the human race, one could get the idea of a continual advancement in intelligence, power and general capabilities. But, when one starts to speculate, as Hickman does in this series, “What is the apex of our potential; what can we ultimately become?” the theories quickly leave the field of biology and enter the realm of philosophy and religion. The obvious limitations of our physical bodies suggest that the true future steps of evolution will occur in the mind, or for the religious, the soul. This also agrees with our observations. More discoveries are made each year; more mysteries of the universe understood; more advanced technology created. Many religions imagine a final ascension of the soul or the mind to a higher plane of existence, sometimes to a godlike state. This usually involves a spiritual or intellectual enlightenment. In various esoteric beliefs, the final ascension entails becoming one with a great communal consciousness. In Powers of X #2, Hickman plays with these themes of Enlightenment and Union as he works towards his own theory on the ultimate realization of Ascension.
But, why is ascension necessary? And why do we seem to long for it so intensely? As already mentioned above (but also as a theme appearing in Chapter 1: House of X #1), we encounter the limits of our frail human bodies daily. Even as we marvel at the potential of our own achievements, we recognize the eventual decay of our minds and bodies with the passing of time. We are attracted to the idea that we could ascend to something better, stronger, more intelligent, more advanced, and everlasting.
What, then, does Hickman speculate, is the ultimate pinnacle of what we can become? He appears to reveal this in the X3 era of this issue. Not much actually happens in this scene; it is more about the concepts being developed, mostly in data pages. These are truly heady theories, confusing to read. Hickman presents a hierarchy of societies based on their intellectual advancement, so called species intelligence. Seemingly drawing from the esoteric idea of individuals becoming one with a communal consciousness, all of the more advanced society types consist of a collective intelligence, which grows in scale and abstraction. (Although purposefully withheld here, the hierarchy continues in Chapter 10: Powers of X #5.) In these concepts, Hickman expounds upon the idea first introduced in Chapter 2: Powers of X #1: that the soul, the very essence of who one is, is the mind. Where esoteric religions seek ascension of the soul to a higher state of being, Hickman outlines the ascension of the mind to a higher state of intelligence.
Fortunately, the creative team does add at least some story to these befuddling notions. The people of Earth in the X3 era, mysteriously called “post-humans”, created an incredibly advanced “worldmind” in order to “show the universe what we are capable of.” And they have, in fact, attracted the attention of the even more advanced Phalanx. This godlike intelligence descends and eventually asks, “WHAT-DO-YOU-SEEK”. There is only one answer: “Ascension.” The following data page reveals: “If a Phalanx encounters a society that is worth consuming by adding to its intelligence needs, then Ascension occurs.” In other words, analogous to those religions seeking ascension to a godlike state by becoming one with a communal consciousness, the post-humans created a worldmind to convince the Phalanx that they are worthy of becoming part of their godlike intelligence.
But the whole thing feels off, or rather off-putting. Hickman equates ascension with becoming a part of a technological intelligence. But, machines and technology are generally considered to be lifeless, lacking that which is most important to humanity and spirituality; as it was put in Chapter 2: Powers of X #1: “machines have no soul.” To this effect, the post-humans appear stoic and emotionless in both speech and body-language. The world of the X3 era is mostly monochromatic and, although it could just be nighttime, there is no clear sky or bright sunshine. The Phalanx, this desired state of existence, is at first drawn shapeless and abstract before taking the form of giant faceless robots; Gracia colors them all a dark black. The creative team purposefully makes everything feel cold and lifeless, providing the reader with nothing desirable in this final step of human ascension.
In this concept, Hickman makes “union” or “the act of joining together with something or someone else” the means by which ascension is achieved. He emphasizes the importance of this theme in the title of this issue: “We are together now, you and I,” and he opens the storyline with the reconciliation of Prof. X and Magneto in the X0 era. The goal of their union is the advancement of mutantkind. Here, the first mention of Moira’s “truth” is made by Xavier: “And apart, we always lose. We believe it’s only together that you and I – that all our people – can survive.” Moira then suggests that their union will be the catalyst for mutants to ascend in power: “all of mutantdom as one – is the thing that means more than just surviving… but thriving and assuming our rightful place on this Earth.”
At this point, it is worthwhile to analyze Apocalypse’s first speech in the X2 era in its entirety, as it includes nearly all the central themes of this issue (with the exemption of “union”). He starts: “Reduced down to their essence, the machines are composed of pure information – a repository of knowledge.” This returns to the recurring idea that the essence of something or someone (its soul) could simply be information, something which could be saved as data. This foreshadows the ascension of the X3 era, already discussed, in which the whole society, all its knowledge / culture / everything, is added as information to an advanced godlike intelligence. Apocalypse then describes the flaws of human nature: “Too much knowledge and the weak are paralyzed by choice, too little and the foolish jump boldly into the gaping maw of a hungry enemy.” He then dramatically illustrates the importance of intellectual enlightenment: “But just enough – a little fire from the gods – and it is the great sword of victory and worth everything to have…” Apocalypse references the story of Prometheus and the common religious belief that critical steps in the history of human advancement, like the discovery of fire, are actually a gift given directly from God. When enlightened with just the proper measure of knowledge, one is equipped for the path that will lead to the ultimate desired victory.
This last statement basically summarizes the plotlines of the X2 and the X1 scenes, which continue to run parallel to each other, a narrative device commonly found in religious prophetic writings (as already discussed in Chapter 2: Powers of X #1). The revelations from the information stolen by Apocalypse’s team in the X2 era enables them to prepare for a decisive suicide mission. Analogously, Xavier’s team in the X1 era uses the stolen information about the secret Orchis organization to prepare an equally critical suicide mission. It should be mentioned that the information about Orchis and the Mother Mold they have built leads Xavier and Magneto to think “this is where NIMROD becomes operational.” This alludes again to the theme of evolution through enlightenment; this time, however, applied to artificial intelligence, what Xavier calls, “a paradigm shift in the technology.”
Enlightenment in religious contexts usually revolves around the realization of some crucial truth, often (as referenced in Apocalypse’s speech) coming as a revelation from God. Hickman provides two significant examples of such truths in this issue; first, Moira’s already mentioned truth. Before revealing her truth to Magneto, she stresses how important it is: “my truth is profound and life-changing.” She then says, “It really all comes down to one thing, Magneto… in this world, who determines what is truly good and what is truly evil?” Magneto once again places himself in the position of God (as he did at the end of Chapter 1: House of X #1) in replying: “I do. I decide.” Moira’s truth, “Apart, we always lose,” and the fruit of its revelation have already been discussed above, but its importance returns in Chapter 12: Powers of X #6.
The second instance of a revealed truth comes in an unusual scene involving Nimrod in the X2 era; unusual because it adds nothing of worth to the plot. Instead, Nimrod muses at length about telling a lie or revealing the truth, casually kills two humans, and then belittles them posthumously in an imitation: “Oh please, Great Nimrod. Give us our truth so that we may know the difference between darkness and light.” Here, Nimrod places himself in the role of God (foreshadowing the false religion of the Church of Ascendancy found in the next chapter: Powers of X #3), revealing truth to lowly humans; the mention of “darkness and light” again referencing the knowledge of good and evil.
Surprisingly, these two references do not allude to esoteric or Eastern religions normally associated with ascension and enlightenment, but to the Judeo-Christian story of original sin and the fall of humankind found in the third chapter of the book of Genesis. Famously, God forbids Adam and Eve from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). But, the serpent tempts them and they disobey God’s command (Genesis 3:1-6). Interestingly, the immediate result for Adam and Eve is a sort of enlightenment: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). Even more telling are the words the serpent used to tempt them: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that the attempt to become like God is not the ultimate goal of human advancement, but rather the original sin.
This idea returns later in the book of Genesis in the story of the tower of Babel. The people of the world at that time were unified with one common language and decided to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). The normal interpretation is that these people grew arrogant to the point of believing that they could, through their own works, ascend to the heavens, becoming like God. Remarkably, the Bible reports that God treats this society as a real threat: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). It is not farfetched to see similarities between this Bible verse and Xavier’s plans on Krakoa. Even in this issue, Cyclops jokingly describes Xavier’s actions as “a mutant whose reach exceeded his grasp.” Hickman further hints at the relevance of this biblical story by adding a direct reference to “a Babel Spire” in one of his data pages. He also named the home of Nimrod in the X2 era “the Tower of Nimrod the Lesser. The Human-Machine Monolith”; the image of which, seen in Chapter 2: Powers of X #1, is a tower reaching to the heavens. In any case, the Bible story ends with God removing the threat (or punishing the sin) by scattering the people across the earth and confusing their language. In other words, God breaks their union and removes their enlightenment, so that they cannot attain ascension.
So, what is Hickman trying to tell us about ascension in this issue? The biblical stories referenced suggest that the desire and attempt to rise to a state of godhood is not a good and fitting climax to the long path of evolution, but rather the utmost form of arrogance and selfishness, the original sin. Furthermore, Hickman postulates that the most logical scenario in which the ascension of the mind can occur is through technological advancement, rather than mysticism or spirituality. Only machines can be free of the biological limits that hinder our current evolution. But, the depiction of this kind of ascension removes all forms of humanity and life from the godlike state. It makes one wonder if it is really a good thing after all. Since this theme of ascension weaves its way through all scenes in the X3 era, this question will return in Chapters 8, 10, and 12: Powers of X #4, #5, and #6.
Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.