Book Review: ‘Halo: Cryptum’ By Greg Bear

Posted Monday, February 7th, 2011 02:04 pm GMT -4 by

When you contemplate the novelization of a computer game your heart sinks to your boots, especially if the game, like ‘Halo’, was a first-person shooter. What the game will give its devotees is a very simple paradigm: explore strange spaces, meet unusual entities, and kill them. There’s nothing wrong with that but a novel has to aim higher: it needs characters you care about, an exciting plot and, this being science-fiction, a sense of wonder.

The Xbox Halo universe pits humans against an alien confederation known as the Covenant. The game’s back-story, however, features the Forerunners who had previously fought a pan-Galactic menace known as The Flood. The Forerunners used their most powerful weapons, the eponymous Halos, to deal with The Flood and then promptly vanished. The remaining Halos provide action settings in the computer game series.

Greg Bear has been contracted to write a precursor trilogy about the Forerunners and the recently released first volume, ‘Halo: Cryptum’, is the subject of this review. The novel starts with the rebellious adolescent Forerunner hero, Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting, standing with a couple of primitive humans by the shores of an inland lake inside an old crater. Over the first third of the novel, the company will travel to the central island, find the Cryptum of the title and release the exiled Didact, the old Warrior-Servant who was top commander of the Forerunners’ military but who has been exiled in a factional dispute for a thousand years.

In the next hundred pages we learn that The Didact led the Forerunners in a close-fought war with humans and their allies the San’Shyuum – the humans were simultaneously fighting The Flood and in this conflict on two fronts, The Didact finally defeated them. Bornstellar, the Didact and the humans visit the original capital planet of humanity and find the system has been sterilized: following a secret test firing of the Forerunners’ super-weapon, the newly-designed Halo, anything with a nervous system has been obliterated. At the quarantined system of the equally-vanquished San’Shyuum, a similar fate is being meted out to humanity’s old allies. What is going on?

The ensuing adventure exposes deadly factional intrigues at the heart of Forerunner society. Bornstellar considers himself a pawn in the unfolding events; others seem to consider him a pivotal player for reasons which remain deeply unclear. The novel ends with Bornstellar meeting the person who seems to have been pulling all the strings. But with all the factions still in play, their motives still obscure, we’re invited to look to volume 2 to provide answers.

As befits the Halo Xbox generation, this seems to be writing for “Young Adults”. The storyline is linear and uncomplicated, there is no sex or even much affection shown between characters and the predominant motif is Bornstellar’s continuing ignorance and confusion. The main problem with this book, though, is that very little happens for most of it. A. E.van Vogt used to say you had to engineer a crisis every 800 words: the result was some baroque plotting but how the pages turned! Here it was an effort to stay awake through pages of soporific scene description serving only to get the characters from here to there.

An additional irritation is the laziness of characterization. Bear serves up stereotypes which were ancient when Heinlein first trotted them out: the callow Hero on a journey of self-actualization, the sullen and resentful sidekicks, the warrior Guide/Old Man, the Wise Woman, the Shadow enemy. Jung’s treasure trove of archetypes has been raided again and deployed off-the-shelf. Even the science is sloppy: I have to say I am not as convinced as Bear is of the neural-lethality of “cross-phased super-massive neutrinos” (the Halo weapon, p. 274) or of the provenance of “quantum-engineered crystals” (p. 293) even as decorations.

In summary, I fear this book is too tired, unoriginal and frankly boring to be a success. It’s hard to care about the flimsy characters, the plot is wearily over familiar, the hero is passive throughout and overall, not enough happens. This is one for the die-hard Halo fans.

Photo copyright Tor Books

  • http://about.me/andrewgirdwood Andrew Girdwood

    I think the Halo book franchise has an uphill challenge. It’s just not the brand name I’d go to when wanting to read something … I think my biggest concern is that any mythology explored in the books wouldn’t be sacrosanct, it would be rolled over by any contradictory developments in the game.

    • Nigel Seel

      While at the same time the author’s hands are tied by the existing backstory shipped with the game. I’m not sure this uneasy relation ship has ever been made to work.

  • http://www.sciencefiction.com Dirk Van Tilborg

    Unfortunately, any property that has ‘owners’ and is translated into a different medium has more than their hands tied. It’s practically a straight jacket. Look at comic books. The rules are don’t change the character, but somehow something has to happen during the course of a story. Very difficult. Any author/director/writer that can make a video game story interesting within that context has impressed me.

  • Vangarian

    Sheesh, Nigel. What’s your problem. I found the story refreshing for its lack of first person shooter style of writing. Furthermore I found the main character’s lack of “characterization” to be perfectly believable. He only about 12 years old to begin with you twit. What do you expect. As for that crack about “cross-phased super-massive neutrinos” being unconvincing. Maybe you didn’t read his statement at the beginning of the story to begin with about expressions used in the story being equivalent human expressions. So are neutrons that pass through neuron synaptic flesh at light speed considered lethal…yes. You accuse Greg of being unimaginative with this story. I accuse you of being unimaginative period. What stories have you written Nigel. After you’re dead and gone, Greg Bear’s stories (All of them) will continue to be read by thousands of his readers

    John Vincent Garland

    • Mjm Css

      I wouldn’t be quite as severe to Nigel as Vangarian, but I broadly agree with what he’s saying. I’m a postgraduate student of English literature so I think it’s fair to say I’ve read my fair share of good writing, and Bear’s prose – descriptive, spare and not at all “young adult” – was pitch perfect for the book. It may not signify as “good writing” because it’s unpretentious and clean with hardly a wasted word, but I thought it was amazing – not by sci-fi standards, but by any fiction standards you wish to apply.

      His ability to create a world completely unlike anything I’d ever read made Cryptum, at times, transcendent and always deeply engaging. Couple this with his well-used motif of responsibility and hypocrisies of the advanced society and the image of a race with lives so automated it becomes their downfall (see Mendicant Bias) and you have a multilayered, tight and incredibly well constructed novel.

      I played Halo as a teenager and am by no means a die-hard fan, but this book – far from being tied down by a pre-existing universe – has almost nothing to do with the video games. I hope if you read the above review, you scrolled down, read this and are willing to give it a chance. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed.

      • http://interweave-consulting.blogspot.com/ Nigel Seel

        Greg Bear’s recent work has been disappointing but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped being a good writer. There’s no doubt that the quality of writing in ‘Halo: Cryptum’ is quite ‘literary’ as compared with that prevalent in the FPS community. My problem with the novel, as with other recent works from Bear is that one senses he’s lost the enthusiasm and excitement which propelled so much of his earlier work. Even *quality* painting-by-numbers is still just joining-the-dots. However, I did say in my review that the book would be appreciated by Halo enthusiasts so perhaps my point is confirmed.

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  • Tucker

    I read the book personally, and found it terrible. Greg Bear is a good author, but this was a letdown. I couldn’t follow the story nor could I get a detailed description of the characters

  • James

    This isn’t even one for die-hard Halo fans. Speaking as one, the story is so far below the line of acceptable quality that I don’t even recognize it as canon.

    As for Greg Bear himself, he’s a great idea man — but his execution is usually lacking.

  • Kaleb647

    I was a ‘young adult’ when I first started playing the Halo games with Combat Evolved in 2001, I think this reviewer has more than a few misconceptions about the Halo universe and it’s fans, he’s simply too unfamiliar with it to provide an adequate review. Also, Greg Bear is a highly successful science fiction writer, considered one of the best. By the way, the comment about no sex or affection. Really? Just because there’s not f%$#ing in the book doesn’t make it an un-engaging read only meant for young adults. Also, anyone know what he’s talking about when he mentions unoriginalilty?