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