I recently walked into San Quentin’s library and noticed on a whiteboard a list of books. I asked the clerk, Kevin Rojano, “Which one of these would you want reviewed in our newspaper?” The bright-eyed 23-year-old recommended Halo.
Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund (2001) is the first in an ongoing series of the videogame-based novels. It takes place in the 26th century. Humans have settled on planets throughout the galaxy. Aliens attack “Reach”—a first strike that jeopardizes all of humanity, including earth. Tasked with taking down the aliens are augmented soldiers led by Master Chief Spartan-117, aka John.
Corporal Harland, rescued by the “Spartans,” described them as follows:
The one in the lead stood over two meters tall and looked like he weighed two hundred kilograms. His armor was a strange reflective green alloy, and underneath matte black. Their motions were so fluid and graceful—fast and precise, too. More like robots than flesh and blood.
Rojano adjusted his black-rimmed glasses and told me he read all 12 Halo novels in San Quentin’s library. He likes reading sci-fi and fantasy. He’s currently reading The Way of Kings, the first in The Storm Light Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.
“The Storm Light Archive reminds me of Halo,” Rojano said. “You got this dude who’s a nobody and then he gets all these superpowers to do good,” which is a plot that reminds me of The Red Badge of Courage (1895) where the innocent young protagonist, Henry Flemming, becomes a hero.
Though Halo doesn’t make a case against war the way Dalton Trumbo argued in Johnny Got His Gun (1939), the Spartans’ reliability, allegiance, conformance and loyalty are character traits that make them likable, even though sentimentality, warmth, kindness and empathy are not there.
Author Nylund portrays Spartan-117’s perception about himself and others as follows:
The Master Chief would never question his orders, but he felt a momentary stab of bitterness. Whoever set these camps up without proper reconnaissance, whoever had blindly trusted the satellite transmissions in an enemy-held region, had been a fool.
Nevertheless, Nylund makes up for the missing ingredient of social substance by creating an action-packed “videogame read” that’s mission driven, like Ernest Cline did in Ready Player One (2011).
In addition, Nylund writes battle scenes that are descriptive and easily conceivable for special effects in today’s cinema. As an example:
Archer missiles impacted seconds later, exploding through chunks of hull and armor, tearing the alien ships apart. The frigate that had taken the MAC round in her engines mushroomed, a fireworks bouquet of shrapnel and sparks.
Nylund also succeeds in visualizing the mysterious nature of first contact with an alien species, the same way authors John Sandford and Ctien did in Saturn Run (2015).
As to character comparison, I found in a screenplay, Hindu Kush, written by Gabriel Tolliver, an ability to combine plot, narrative and the social impact of war through unlikely characters that are drawn together for a mission-driven story.
Tolliver introduced a distant, so-called enemy (Afghans) to fuel American hatred toward a culture they don’t understand and take a dig at the politics behind war.
In one scene, a Taliban, Masood, tells an American officer, Kipling, “If we are not fighting you, we’re fighting each other over the poppy and timber.”
Kipling responds, “Like Bloods and Crips.”
In another scene, Masood comments to Kipling, “Are drones the future?” Kipling selfishly responds, “Hope so. I don’t have to be here.”
Masood makes his perspective relevant. “We call them the Bangano, which translates into thunderclap,” he says. “I almost got killed by one of your Obama drones several years ago in Pakistan. Left a meeting early to check on one of my children, who had fallen ill.”
Kipling tells him, “Lucky for you,” and Masood laments, “I’m tired of war. I want a future for my children.”
Kipling concludes, “Well, I think you’ve earned that.”
Halo is not insightful regarding the effects of war on opposing forces, nor is it a “meet you halfway” story about settling differences. Halo is a “zero sum game,” in an endless galaxy.