Monday, April 11, 2016

Halo: Glasslands review

    Halo remains one of my favorite sci-fi franchises. The setting is a book, comic, and video game series featuring military characters doing battle with an alien theocracy known as the Covenant. The Kilo-5 novels, which starts with Glasslands, chronicles the events following Halo 3 when the Master Chief has disappeared, the Covenant has been defeated, and an uneasy peace exists between humanity with the various former Covenant races.

    The premise is the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) has decided to start arming insurgent alien religious groups with weapons to rise up against the strongest remaining Covenant state. Admiral Parangosky, leader of ONI, believes this is the only way to guarantee humanity's survival against future aggression despite the current leadership being friendly with humanity. Given the author Karen Traviss' familiarity with real-life blowback from doing the same with the future Taliban during the Soviet-Afghanistan War, I can only assume the foolishness of this action was deliberate.

    Meanwhile, Doctor Catherine Halsey is marooned with a group of Spartans on a Forerunner shield-world, unaware of the events of Halo 3. Doctor Halsey is attempting to make up for her crimes in creating the original Spartans by protecting them from the destruction of the galaxy at the hands of the Flood. Not knowing this has been prevented, the group slowly begins turning against her as Chief Mendez vents his decades of guilt over the same project she's trying to atone for. It gets worse for Doctor Halsey as Captain Serin Osman, a Spartan-II program "washout", plots revenge against her for the kidnapping and body-horror she endured.

    As these events go on, Sangheili (one of the Covenant races) Jul'mdama has grown to hate and loathe humanity. Refusing to believe his current government's path is the right one, he chooses to ally with the very same religious fanatics currently being armed by ONI. It's a twisted collection of plots, subplots, and counter-plots which all come together in a prequel for the events of Halo 4.

    What's interesting is all of this is built on the organic foundation of Halo's politics and faction rather than anything typical of video game sci-fi like ancient artifacts or some dastardly villain setting plans in motion. It all flows from the fact, post-Halo 3, just about everyone working together to defeat the Prophet of Truth and Flood still hated each other.

    I've been a big fan of Karen Traviss and her writing since her days writing for the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I loved her Republic Commando books and even had a neat little pen-pal relationship with her on for a short while. I even sent her a package of my books back when I was a very-very crappy writer. Hehe. While I didn't always agree with her portrayal of characters in those books, I've rarely met an author who was nicer to her fans. I also felt she was a great fit for the Haloverse as she does excellent military science-fiction depictions.

    The Kilo-5 team is an interesting collection of individuals and I have to say I enjoyed spending time with them. I enjoyed how they're able to wrap themselves in the comforting warmth of patriotism and doing what was necessary even as the narrative makes it clear they're somewhat deluding themselves. As we see in Halo 4, their actions will have terrible consequences for humanity but they trust their superiors to know what they're doing even as the book slowly unravels that trust.

    I was particularly fond of Spartan-II Naomi who came off as an adorable cutie despite being raised as a supersoldier. I also enjoyed the character of Black Box as the A.I. vacillated between ruthlessly manipulative and supportive. Captain Osman is also a somewhat tragic character as she has allied herself with ONI out of misguided rage and personal loyalty but the consequences of such may well be her becoming the same sort of person who created her tragedy in the first plans.

    Some fans may have difficulty with the treatment of fan favorite Doctor Halsey who is called out repeatedly for her kidnapping of children to create the Spartans. I believe Karen Traviss is aware of just how hypocritical Chief Mendez and Admiral Parangosky are being, though, attempting to project guilt from their own sins on her.

    Indeed, Doctor Halsey says Mendez's remorse is an illusion since he repeated the crime without her a decade later. Much of the book depends on irony and self-justification which is something which fits into spy fiction as we see everyone attempting to play off their shady deals as the right thing to do, no matter how dishonorable or brutal those actions may be. The other guy is always bad and thus anything done to them is justified.

    I especially liked that we got into Doctor Halsey's head about the fact she's just lost her daughter, Miranda Keyes, and that she doesn't have any beliefs or remaining loved ones to provide her comfort during this time. The fact the UNSC is turning on her during this just makes it a double gut-punch. Doctor Halsey may have done some awful things but she was a humanized character and the engine which enabled her actions moves on without her. Some of the writing is overwrought with Doctor Halsey talking about being a soulless being but I can't help but assume she's confronting her own guilt.

    This is a entertaining military science fiction novel but sometimes goes a bit overboard in depicting its characters reactions. I think they'd be a bit more subdued personally with their self-righteousness given the moral ambiguities of their work but, despite this, I think it was really entertaining and encourage Halo fans to pick up the trilogy before playing Halo 4.


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