Halo: Cryptum is a vastly more intelligent novel than the others it shares its franchise with. The writing style reminded me of Roger Zelazny at times, in that it described very visible, very exotic scenes while still keeping things very vague. This is understandable coming from Greg Bear, a Nebula-winning writer. The reference in the acknowledgements to his son being a Halo fan might explain why he agreed to write this. The story starts out as something of a “Tom Sawyer in space” adventure, with a very young adult feel that surprised me after the bloodiness of the other Halo novels. The feeling persists as the novel goes on, but the transformation of the main character brings it into a different sort of realm from most science fiction novels with human protagonists.
(There will be spoilers in this review, since a lot of the concepts are by nature spoiler-y, but would be hard not to discuss.) Of course a lot of the appeal of Cryptum is finding out how its elements fit into the canon of a game that they don’t really feel like at all. In Halo, Forerunners are the deities of the antagonistic Covenant. They are a plot device: the ancient, all-knowing species who create the titular Halos. In Cryptum, we never quite see what the Forerunners look like. With description such as “slitted eyes” and “massive hands” I pictured them as something along the lines of the Elites. As others have pointed out, Greg Bear might have been leaving the physical description open in case 343 wanted to design them in future games. It also makes sense for the alien point of view character to ignore describing things that would be normal to him but are not to a 21st century human reader. Because of that viewpoint, the reader is led to assume things--things such as the fact that the first planet they’re on is actually Earth, or that one of the “human” characters is actually something resembling a hobbit. But the subtlety is appreciated. Bear knows how to write the science fiction as a sort of mystery--he releases an IV drip of clues that let the reader figure things out at a the satisfying pace he wants them to.
The main character is, at first, almost entirely a vessel for the reader, or as much as an alien can be. It seems almost too obvious that a first-person-shooter game should have a first-person protagonist in its tie-in novels, although it didn’t bother me overmuch that there wasn’t a single viewpoint character in other Halo fiction. His role as a vessel could explain Born’s unusual introduction. (I had to look up his name, since it is very rarely used in the novel. It is a shortening of the poetic names Forerunners apparently bestow on themselves and their servants.) The first few chapters are almost entirely in medias res, with flashbacks showing how Born got to the adventure he’s in. Because of that, the reader doesn’t get much of a sense from him of what a typical Forerunner child is like, or whether indeed he is one. He is, like Tom Sawyer, child adventurer incarnate. While I wanted a vision of a banal “day in the life of a Forerunner” to set the whole thing up and explore them as a species, Born is immediately tossed into a world that is almost as alien to him as it is to the reader.
By the end of the book he is no longer himself. The Forerunners seem used to transformations, and Born becoming a voice for the Didact is unusual to him, but not so much that he ever protests it or thinks it more unusual than any of the other optional ways of growing up that are presented to his species. The changes he goes through leave him someone completely different at the end of the book, having grown up through a process of replacement. A human character could not quite have taken the same leaps, and this definitely sets Cryptum apart.
It is an oddly austere universe that Born adventures through. The huge swaths of time are so casually mentioned that they make any single human endeavor, nevertheless campaigns like those of the ODSTs, seem tiny and insignificant. All the human accomplishments that gave Halo its unique and repeating components have analogs here. That’s understandable: of course the authors know that Halo readers like powered armor, and that they like A.I.. However, it is a bit daunting to learn that when Doctor Halsey created both, she was in fact just re-doing work that had been done by the Forerunners (or Precursors) thousands or millions of years ago. Referring to the Forerunner’s A.I. as “ancilla” is a great touch, though; I absolutely love it. We almost get a steampunk version of Halo in the first chapter, with a clockwork boat singing to underwater monsters, and Born’s ancilla (a transparent blue female, of course) talking to her Forerunner charge via his armor. However, it again makes me think something like “How important could the twenty-two days that Noble Team had together be if all of this other stuff was going on for millennia?” If all this happened and none of the humans in the Halo games have any idea, why do they matter? Conversely, why do the Precursors and the Forerunners matter if they were all forgotten? Is ignorance an inevitable fact when one is faced with the scale of the universe? I simply do not like, on a personal level, the idea that as a species we might have lost millennia of history, and spent all this time on paleontology and cosmology, completely missing the fact that our species was once engaged in high-tech interstellar war before we were forcibly de-evolved by the winners of that war. That’s just not progress right there.
But the musings the book sent me on aren’t really the point. Establishing a pre-historical science-fiction world was, presumably, the mission Greg Bear was given. And he did accept it and perform admirably. The writing, though almost entirely descriptive, flows infinitely better than other Halo novels. (Which, yes, is sortof like saying that someone scored a D instead of an F: it’s not a huge achievement. I would, though, give Bear a B.) He makes up a lot of technology, but instead of being overwhelming it condenses into an overall feel of the universe inside the book. Its faults probably lie with the people who commissioned it and plotted it out.
Endless repetitions on the “ancient lost species” theme is one of the things that Halo is criticized for. It is very stock science fiction: to compare a game that came out within years of Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2 also features an ancient lost civilization that came up with massively powerful weapons. Star Wars uses this trope (best evidenced by the tombs of the Sith in Knights of the Old Republic).
And in Cryptum, we find not one lost civilization, but two. The Forerunners have their own legends from the past, the Precursors. I couldn’t help but find this a little ridiculous. Halo, for me, has always been about looking into the future. Greg Bear instead seems to want to push the universe in the opposite direction, into an endless succession of grand lost pasts. To an extent, it does lend the universe gravitas. But it also gets a bit extreme.
However, you might say, connecting the Forerunner time period to the Halo stories we know is one of the implied purposes of a tie-in novel. A reader could go through huge swaths of Cryptum without reference to anything that really smacks of Halo. The ways in which it does can be surprising. I raised an eyebrow when the main Forerunner characters casually mentioned that humans had once not only been a wide-spread spacefaring race, but had been comfortably allied with the San’Shyuum. In Halo, these aliens are the Prophets, enemies of both the humans and the Sangheili, and fond of complicated headwear. In Cryptum, they are described as a race which is well-suited to interacting with humans, and “obsessed with the idea of youth” to the point of being hedonistic.
However, Cryptum’s lack of Spartans, Halsey’s daughter AI, or indeed, almost entirely of gunfights didn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. It was a different type of tie-in novel, obviously penned by someone who knows how to make worlds. The Halo references are there-- the ringworlds themselves occasionally float through and are as massively destructive as they are whispered to be in the games. I could roundly praise Bear for using one of my favorite techniques that fan fiction writers use: making it sound like original fiction at first, just to make the world that much more solid. I’m not sure the main character was enough of a character at all for me to be waiting with baited breath for the next book, but Cryptum was something I would definitely recommend to a Halo fan. After The Mona Lisa, it’s the best out of the bunch.
I’d just want to make sure that the person I was recommending it to was a fan of sci-fi, adventure, and alien worlds in general first.