Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pitiable Heroes, Cold Mothers, and Halo: Glasslands

For a long, long time, the Halo fandom lurked in my life. I was never into it before college, usually playing the games when my (male) friends wanted to. I heard about the novels and found myself unduly distracted by the shape of a Spartan’s faceplate instead of really caring about the game’s plot or even knowing there was a fandom. Master Chief was the ideal human tank.

Then I got into Reach and Halo novels (sortof) and Reach fanfic and Red vs Blue. I’m a little more open to seeing the Halo universe from different angles now. It’s still strange, though, to see the newest novel in the franchise, Glasslands, basically recast the Master Chief as, instead of an indestructible  player avatar, a pitiable hero.

Glasslands is a deconstruction of heroes. There are no good guys: everyone seems to be betraying someone else, and feeling guilty for it. There are two main storylines, one focusing on humans and one on Elites. The good things that are done are to right old wrongs. The human government is trying to make peace with the Arbiter’s faction of Sangheili, but the characters the book follows are soldiers, spies, and soldier-spies working behind the UNSC’s collective, decorated backs trying to make the Elites go to war with each other. The Halo games were very straightforward: Master Chief and Cortana were the good guys, and through them the player shot expendable aliens. It was simple. Glasslands is not, or at least not as much. It rarely tells the story from the point of view of the Spartans, and much more time is spent talking about how morally wrong it was to create them in the first place.

Karen Traviss is known in the Star Wars fandom for exalting her pet culture of warriors, the Mandalorians, and bashing the Jedi as super-powered elitists. She undermines the heroism of the Spartans in the same way that she undermines the heroism of the Jedi, but in Glasslands she makes the reader pity instead of hate them. A long discussion with a trusted source led me to a character that Traviss treated similarly to how she treats Halsey: Ko Sai, the clonemaster of Kamino in Traviss’ Star Wars series. Here too a Doctor Frankenstein-esque mother figure metaphorically births super soldiers specifically to doom them to war. I haven’t read the Republic Commando series, so can’t really comment on the similarity, but it seems that Traviss has got an underlying concern. (That or sci-fi just tends to have the super soldier trope and she finds their creation more or as interesting as their action.)

Regardless of authorship, the debate in Glasslands about whether the creation of the Spartans was worth the price of winning the war were interesting. Some very vivid scenes plus some exciting new developments about the Halo universe (Spartan-fours?) make this one of the better Halo books and one I don’t regret buying (unlike First Strike). I loved the focus on emotion: Halsey’s guilt or lack thereof, Paragonsky’s complicity and devious scheming, Osman’s conflicted relationship with her own status as a failed “half-Spartan”. (Note that all are female characters, two over the age of sixty.) And don’t get me wrong, Traviss can write a fight scene: her one big Spartan vs Covenant set piece was frightening and memorable, without the stiffness of the other Halo authors.

Traviss’s portrayal of the Spartan program reminded me all very much of the Freelancer program from Red vs Blue, or the Jedi order for that matter: you follow characters that made great friendships and had good times in these programs, but ultimately they’re doomed to fail and be exposed as morally corrupt.

How much that corruption actually matters, though, I think comes down to my relationship with the games. When I play Halo it’s because I want to feel like I am a Spartan, and reading Fall of Reach made me feel like I knew more about what it was to be one. It also introduced me to Halsey. While she was cold and calculating during that book, I also felt that she was a complex female character (I hesitate to say “strong female character”, but that is a pet peeve for another post.) Halsey, it is fair to say, enabled Halo, the game. Because of this, I’ve been lead to care for her and identify with her, so seeing her as a war criminal-- compared to Stalin or Dr. Mengele--was a bit unsettling. The focus was on the fact that she took Spartan-two candidates away from their families, and my thought process on it went sortof like this: so what, she took kids away from their fictional parents in order to create fictional super-soldiers, which then enabled a real Halo game, I mean enabled humans to win the war. I think that’s justified. (Halsey doesn’t.) Lost parents is practically a prerequisite for being a hero in sci-fi. I recognize the flaws in this logic. Also, if the Halo universe hadn’t gone this route eventually I probably would have said it wasn’t realistic enough.

 Disregarding my confusion about the meta aspects of Halsey, I definitely recommend Glasslands to Halo fans, especially if they’ve read the previous books. I’m tempted to say “please skip the other books, they’re terrible”, but for plot purposes they do explain a lot of things that keep the beginning of Glasslands from being baffling. Traviss kept me reading, wondering what was going to happen to Halsey, Naomi, Lucy, and the ODSTs. (This really is a very female-heavy book, although we get distinct male characters as well: the rebellious Sangheili ‘Telcam and ‘Jul, the devious human academic Phillips, the aforementioned ODSTs, and a snarky, male-coded AI.) It offered interesting insight into a different kind of expanded universe, the Covenant-human interactions, what Spartans wear under their armor, what AI do when no one human’s around, and what sort of grocery stores cater to Jackals. There was some stiff dialogue and it was still what I’m beginning to think of as tie-in novel prose, boring stuff that’s supposed to be the background of plot. But it was a fun, exciting story that left me wanting to loudly talk to people about it. I’m glad that enough people had that eighth-grade-Halo-session experience that there’s tie-in material and fans still here ten years later. It’s not just lurking any more.