Wednesday, 27 January 2010

‘Halo Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe’ (Tor)

I’ve said it before (just down the page in fact) and I’ll say it again; if you want to get a real feel for a shared universe setting then the best way to go about it is a collection of short stories that gives you as broad a picture as possible. Tobias Buckell’s ‘The Cole Protocol’ caught my imagination so when I heard that there was a collection of ‘Halo’ stories in the offing I found myself in a state of eager anticipation. Apart from ‘The Cole Protocol’, my only experience of ‘Halo’ was trying to get Master Chief to do stupid things in the game itself and I thought it would be interesting to find out a little more about the history and background that go to make up this world...

‘Halo Evolutions’ is a collection of fifteen short stories and poems that come together as a series of snapshots to form a larger picture of the war between humanity and the alien Covenant. As with the games, humanity’s perspective on the war is the main one but time is also made for the perspective of the alien ‘Elite’ and I’d say that the end result is a fairly balanced one. It’s also interesting to see that while the Covenant are clearly defined as the aggressors, Earth’s administrative body (‘United Nations Space Command’) has a less than benevolent grasp on the outer colonies at the same time. This approach removes any sense of polarisation and makes for an earthier, more intriguing, read whichever story you’re reading. I couldn’t really get into the poetry though; nothing wrong with Jonathan Goff’s work as such, more a case of my natural preference for prose...

If you didn’t know it already, ‘Halo Evolutions’ really hits home with the message that war is hell. It really is you know, these stories all succeed in showing their readers the horrors of war and how it affects the combatants on both sides. In the midst of all the dirt and gloom though, this collection also shows that there is room for honour, love and even a little humour.
In a minute, I’ll be going through each story individually and giving some quick impressions that I had. Overall, ‘Halo Evolutions’ has a lot going for it in terms of spectacle and characters that you want to spend time with. I was left with the impression though that only fans will get the most out of this book as there is a lot of references to equipment and background history that could have done with more elaboration for the casual reader. A couple of stories are also only going to make sense if you’ve played the games already, I’m looking at you ‘Human Weakness’...

Anyway, here goes with the stories themselves...

‘Pariah’ – B.K. Evenson
This was an intriguing opener for me, purely because I’d read Evenson’s ‘Last Days’ and was interested to see how he fared in a shared universe. On the whole Evenson did really well with a sobering look at the dark side of the SPARTAN programme and what can go wrong. Soren is an interesting character to follow over the course of the story, Dr. Halsey is as well but I couldn’t help feeling that long term fans would have got more out of this insight into her character.

‘Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss’ – Eric Raab
Raab skilfully weaves the tribal workings of a Covenant slave race with the machinations of a UNSC soldier spying on them. The results were good up until an ending that came out of left field so much that it appeared only tenuously connected with the story itself rather than the shock ending it wanted to be.

‘Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian’ – Frank O’Connor
Imagine waking up after an operation to find that you’re the last person alive in the entire hospital... A marine has a similar problem when the Covenant invade his ship while he’s under the anaesthetic. What he has to do next, in order to stop the location of Earth falling into Covenant hands, makes for some gripping reading. War is about the small sacrifices that go un-noticed but mean an awful lot; ‘Midnight’ lifts the lid on such a sacrifice in the best possible way.

‘Dirt’ – Tobias S. Buckell
After reading ‘The Cole Protocol’, Tobias Buckell’s ‘Dirt’ was a story that I was looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed. At the heart of it all, ‘Dirt’ questions what soldiers actually fight for and how it all boils down to just one thing in the end. ‘Dirt’ is the story of one soldier’s journey through a changing political landscape and how it changes him, Buckell is guilty of the infodump but most of the time he incorporates into the story so well that you won’t even notice that it’s happening. A story worth reading.

‘Headhunters’ – Jonathan Goff
This story started out looking like it was going to be a mine of trivia for the long term ‘Halo’ fan and not much else. Lots of background information on the SPARTAN III’s took the focus away from the story; not so bad if you’re there for the technical detail but not so good if you’re me. Towards the end though, Goff turns everything on it’s head in a moment of sheer genius that casts the title in an entirely different light. ‘Headhunters’ is a story that’s unbalanced but worth sticking around for the payoff.

‘Blunt Instruments’ – Fred Van Lente
‘Blunt Instruments’ follows a team of Spartans on a mission where a misunderstanding is likely to prove fatal... I liked this tale as it cuts to the chase and just gives you the facts, no messing around with the need to place it in some kind of context. The bit where everything suddenly makes sense is a real shock to the system!

‘The Mona Lisa’ – Jeff Vandermeer and Tessa Kum
This story of an encounter with the Flood, on an abandoned prison ship, ended up being the highlight of the book for me. Vandermeer and Kum (although Vandermeer has said that he was strictly playing second fiddle here) combine to place all the right kinds of emphasis on the story itself rather than the background history. Haunted spaceships are always cool and the ‘Mona Lisa’ is no exception with danger lurking round every corner. A taut pace is maintained throughout in an entertaining tale that has you wanting to find out more about the ‘Halo Universe’, not being put off by ‘information overkill’.

‘Palace Hotel’ – Robt McLees
Master Chief’s actions in and around the campaign on New Mombasa left me feeling cold and I’m guessing that this is because I’m still new to his story. His mission (kidnapping a Covenant Hierarch) is made out to be important but I never really got a sense of exactly why this was. His meeting a familiar face from the past also lost some of it’s emotional resonance as McLees seemed to expect his reader to have a closer connection with the characters than I actually did. Some great ‘all action’ combat scenes though!

‘Human Weakness’ – Karen Traviss
Having read and enjoyed a few of Traviss’ books, ‘Human Weakness’ was one of the stories in this collection that I was most looking forward to reading. It was a real shame then that this story, which explores the unique predicament of being an AI in the ‘Halo’ universe, was a disappointment. Much is made of the setting that the story takes place against but it was one where a prior knowledge of the game is needed if you are to get the most out of it. Apparently it’s quite a pivotal point.
Traviss also moves away from her strengths as a writer of military sci-fi (troop movements, engagements etc) to write a more introspective piece about the nature of artificial life. Ultimately, this is a move that didn’t work for me. The length of the story means that any sense of tension is dragged out and lost and I just didn’t get the sense that Traviss was as interested in the thoughts of an AI as much as she is in the thoughts of a regular grunt in a warzone.

‘The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole’ – Eric Nylund
The one story that I thought would demand some prior knowledge ended up giving me everything I needed (via flashbacks etc) to know without coming across like a massive info dump. One of those stories where you get to spend time with a fully rounded character that you’re glad you got the chance to know a little better. Fans will no doubt appreciate this one more but as a character study it definitely works for the casual reader.

‘The Return’ – Kevin Grace
The war didn’t just affect humanity and the end of the war leaves members of the Covenant looking for a new purpose. The internal journey that an ‘Elite’ takes in this regard is worth following; especially as he is standing upon the results of what should have been his greatest achievement which has been soured... An interesting journey to follow but, again, one that assumes a reader must have a certain level of background knowledge (as to how the war ended) if they are to get the most out of it.

The memo following ‘The Return’ hints at further developments for the future of the Halo universe, I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens next...
It’s this feeling of interest being whetted that saves ‘Halo Evolutions’ being a book for hardcore fans only. While you do need to be a fan to get the most out of it, there is enough here for the casual reader to get stuck into as well.

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten


Thomas C said...

I have read up to head hunters and I would have to say that dirt was my personal faveriot I really felt his pain. I thought it was well writen.

Anonymous said...

i absolutely enjoyed the first part or evolutions (part 1). The impossible life and possible death of Preston J. Cole really hit home for me. When i finished i felt as though i knew him all my life and suddenly felt a wave of sadness run right thru me. The ending was great aswell. Dirt, Pariah (I felt very bad for soren)and all the other stories did great. Thumbs up to Eric Nylund and all the other authors, really a great read!