Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Beyond the game

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space fantasy, space warfare, video games

My son has been playing the XBox game Halo, in several versions, almost since its inception late in 2001. I am sure the main draw for him is the combat and its realistic venue. What I didn't know until recently is that its developers and fans have together created quite a backstory and universe in which the combat game unfolds. Nor that it has become a multi-faceted franchise, managed by 343 Industries, a unit of Microsoft.

One facet is several series of novels, and the one that came my way is Halo:Cryptum by Greg Bear, the first of a projected trilogy. The cover proclaims it "Book One of the Forerunner Saga". To get a better grasp of the covering story and backstory, see this Wikipedia article. Here I concern myself with certain ideas.

Interstellar and intergalactic travel in the Halo universe is accomplished by travel through "slipspace", and "slipspace chips" seem to answer to the trilithium crystals of Star Trek, as an energy-conversion mechanism to retrieve vacuum energy, and as an access mechanism to the variety of subspace or hyperspace the term connotes.

The Forerunners themselves begin much as humans do, and are of similar size and shape, but go through a series of changes, as many as four, which in the book are called Mutations. This is a misuse of the word, and Greg Bear ought to know better, though he is probably constrained by the language of the franchise. Such a change to an individual is more properly termed a metamorphosis, making the protagonist of this novel, with the first name Bornstellar, a first instar who metamorphoses to the second instar halfway through. This second instar is called his First Form, and his height then exceeds two meters. His Third- or Fourth-Form father is some four meters tall, and has changed aspect almost beyond recognition. This is the way of Forerunners. (By contrast, human metamorphosis, like mammalian growth in general, occurs gradually, or we'd more readily compare ourselves with locusts or butterflies.)

A particular emphasis is placed upon the armor all Forerunners wear nearly all the time. It is an active agent, controlled by them through an AI agent called an ancilla ("female slave" in Latin), and the term is used for all AI agents, of all levels of power. Nearly all speak with female voices. This probably answers to the human prejudice in favor of being served by women in most personal matters. The armor cares for its wearer, and can keep a person alive—for not only Forerunners wear such armor—even in vacuum for a time, and even when gravely injured.

This young person, Bornstellar, has defied his family, visited the home planet of humans, and accompanied by two humans, including a re-engineered Florian ("hobbit" in recent scientific literature), goes a-treasure hunting, only to encounter the cryptum (not a crypt, which would hold a corpse, but a suspension chamber to retain an exile in time) of an ancient warrior named the Didact. The Didact kidnaps him and the humans, later guides him through a "Mutation" that eventually converts him to a sort of clone of the Didact, and then leads them all into an adventure that gets them crosswise with the highest Forerunner authority. The book ends with Bornstellar, exhibiting a mixture of First Form types, replacing the Didact, who has been executed. I find it ironic that the most powerful figure in this saga (so far) is a Librarian, and wife of the Didact/Bornstellar. Located for the time being in an intergalactic Ark, the protagonists are now in position for the opening of the second novel, due out in a year or less.

While the author has a compelling writing style, this is less of a page-turner and more of a book to keep you thinking. It bears some resemblance to the work of Olaf Stapledon, who wrote of galaxy-spanning civilizations and star-building and -destroying cultures of future men. While many epic SciFi works and series owe their vision to one writer or to a small collaboration, this is Microsoft at work, and their stable of fantasists. So far, the Halo universe hasn't become the "camel" most committees tend to create. May it remain so.

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