Wednesday 22 September 2010

Book Review: Halo - The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund

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"As the bloody Human-Covenant War rages on Halo, the fate of humankind may rest with one warrior, the lone SPARTAN survivor of another legendary battle. This was the desperate, take-no-prisoners struggle that led humanity to Halo - the fall of the planet Reach. Now, for the first time, here is the full story of that glorious, doomed conflict ...Almost on Earth's doorstep, Reach is the last military fortress to defy the brutal Covenant onslaught. But their highest priority is to prevent the Covenant from discovering Earth. The outnumbered soldiers seem to have little chance, but Reach is the secret training ground for the very first 'super soldiers'. Code-named SPARTANs, these bioengineered and technologically augmented warriors are the best - quiet, professional and deadly. As the ferocious Covenant attack begins, a handful of SPARTANs stand ready to wage ultimate war. And at least one of them - the SPARTAN 'Master Chief' - will live to fight another day on a mysterious and ancient artificial world called Halo..."


I'll be honest: I've never quite understood the love some people have for the Halo universe. I've played all of the games, from the original, Combat Evolved, through to Bungie's swansong, last week's Reach. Hell, I was one of the very few to follow the SPARTANs into the Real-Time Strategy-space in the insipid Halo Wars, thinking that the experience of the broader mythos, away from Master Chief's isolationist laser focus, might inspire some affection in me. It didn't.

From afar, I've admired the spectacles of the Halo games... the breathtaking set-pieces, the invention of the worldbuilding, in particular the complex interplay between the stock space marines - the UNSC - and the Covenant, a ruthless race of sleek alien invaders, one of whom Master Chief had to team up with a few games ago. But I've always felt Bungie got rather more credit than they were due. In terms of storytelling, the franchise has been all over the place in its myriad iterations; never once the equal of the ideas you can see straining to punch through the thick titanium armour of the awkward exposition Halo games have made their proverbial bread and butter. I've found them fundamentally sound, with bulletproof, if idiosyncratic gameplay and a rich enough backdrop to make further encounters worth the price of entry, but artistically, not a little crass.

Halo: The Fall of Reach hasn't changed my perspective on that one iota. What it's done, this updated edition of a decade-old book composed in a scant seven weeks with little to no input from the creative team behind the property in the first place (and breathe) is clued me in on all that the Halo games could have been. Eric Nylund's novel gives us a landscape as ubiquitous to this generation as the snowy kingdom behind a certain wardrobe door was to another, and yet for the first time, we have a vantage point from which to admire it. Moreover, he proffers up a context for the characters and crises of the games proper, enriching them immeasurably in so doing. High praise, this, all things considered: The Fall of Reach makes me want to play through the whole Halo saga again, with the depth so lacking in each of the games - in terms of storytelling, you understand; Bungie have the gameplay equation down to a T - now present and correct. And all because I've read a tie-in novel. Who'd have thunk it?

If this was proscribed reading for an understanding of the Halo games when it first came out, ten years ago, I wish someone had thought to tell me. Thankfully, I managed to get Eric Nylund's novel under my belt before Reach itself arrived, and as I suspected - though it may be particularly the case given that the game and the book in question are both precursors to Combat Evolved, chronicles of pivotal events occurring in concert - I enjoyed the fiction of Reach a great deal more than I have any of Bungie's other efforts. Equally, the fiction of The Fall of Reach surprised me: there's plenty of Starship Troopers-style SPARTAN on grunt action, sure, and it's narrated with an immediacy bordering on voyeurism, but the larger part of Nylund's tie-in is about the small potatoes. We begin and end on Planet Reach; between times, however, this is not a story of explosive intergalactic battles (of which there are nevertheless enough to satisfy that end of the market) so much as it is an unexpectedly personal account of the kids co-opted into Dr. Halsey's experimental program. Among them, John, candidate number 117 - you might have heard of him - who we watch evolve from a six year-old bully to a soldier, then a leader, and at last, the Master Chief; none other. As late-game guest star Cortana concludes, "The Master Chief was much more than Dr. Halsey and the press releases had indicated," and so he is.

Not just a gun attached to an arm, then. Huh.

All of which isn't to say Eric Nylund's novel is some transcendent specimen of fiction. It isn't. Its composition is as by-the-numbers as you'd expect given that only four (presumably mad) months passed between the conception of The Fall of Reach to its publication... though from time to time Nylund does have his moments. He asks the big questions - for instance "Was Dr. Halsey a monster? Or just doing what had to be done to protect humanity?" - and though he hardly gives such issues the room to develop, credit to the gent for the attempt; it's more successful, certainly, than any of the various games' attempts.

The Fall of Reach, then, isn't the book to get your other half pumped for some co-op Halo action, but what it sets out to do - which is to entertain, to intrigue, and to enrich the largely wasted promise of the fiction hinted at in the games - it does, and quick smart at that.

Now. Back to Team Slayer...


Halo: The Fall of Reach
by Eric Nylund
August 2010, Tor US

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1 comment:

  1. I just watched most of the movie, Halo: The Fall of Reach, and I felt it was insipid and vacuous. I haven't read the books, and I haven't played beyond the first proprietary game because I cannot stand consoles or Microsoft. So, clearly I'm not a fan of this universe, crafted only to take money from adolescent males and their physically older but mentally similar equivalents. I just couldn't wrap my head around the stupidity of such a technologically advanced humanity putting all of its eggs into such a tiny basket so to speak. There is a need for surgical precision, but investing so heavily into soldiers based upon some romantically idealized notion of Spartans only to kill them with experimentation is beyond stupidity. And let me address the ludicrous idea that a soldier would get over after beating fellow soldiers to death in "self-defense" simply because he's "special," by laughing hysterically. And how nonsensical would it be to design a system of mechanized suits that cannot be used by normal human beings and then use normal human beings as test subjects? Dumb. The group who sees every *common* soldier as expendable deserves whatever gruesome hell fate has in store for it. I'm glad I was never fully sucked in by this twaddle. Almost too bad I wasted any time on it at all, really. The suit is cool. The game was fun. But, honestly, it's gone way too far. It's better than Warcraft, but that's not really much of a compliment.