The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
Halo Evolutions is owned by Tor Books
It’s a bit of a toss-up with 2007 and 2015, especially when you start arguing what your actually counting, but 2008 is looking to be the most jam packed year of Halo content with two games coming out (including the first Halo game NOT developed by Bungie), a few different comics, and of course this collection of short stories which is much longer than any of the books released so far; so much so that we’re not gonna get through each story today and will instead split it across two weeks. That certainly wasn’t the plan, especially since I usually cover two novels at a time in these pieces, but with each short being its own thing with a beginning, middle, and end, I wouldn’t be giving them their due diligence if I tried to crunch it all into one piece, so without further ado let’s get started!!
Halo Evolutions (2009) – Short Story Collection
The book starts with an introduction by Frank O’Connor to try and… I guess the word is “justify” why this is a short story collection instead of another novel. I mean I guess anytime you change up the formula you’ll want to explain it (I couldn’t tell you if the Halo book fan base was perturbed by this news), but what I found pretty fascinating in this little section is the insights into Frank O’Connor’s mind as his word choice and writing style is… well I guess the word is “INTERESTING”. I like that he compared a short story collection to a box of chocolate and then called that a “Gumpian phrase” which I am totally going to add to my vocabulary, and his use of the word Chateaubraind to describe some of the meatier stories in here is kinda funny because I had to actually look up what the heck that was, and I feel like Mr. O’Connor had to of done the same thing because it’s probably the LAST dish you’d want to use when talking about a short story collection. Chateaubriand is large center cut of tenderloin grilled between two less tasty pieces that are discarded after cooking which to ME unintentionally throws some shade at certain stories in the book which IF that was intentional here I’m curious which ones he was talking about. For me though, the most interesting tidbit is O’Connor name dropping the first anthology he read as a kid which was Great Space Battles by Stewart Cowley and Charles Herridge. I looked at it a bit and it’s definitely up my alley as I was on a Retro Sci-Fi kick about a year or two ago, and you can see little bit and pieces of what could have inspired some of Halo in the included illustrations, so if nothing else he’s given me something else to add to my reading list.
Written by BK Evenson
I’ve made no bones about my eye rolling disdain for the framing of the Spartan programs and how often humanity is subsumed for duty in service of this ridiculous premise; the fact that they could have just had Super Soldiers but felt the need to go the extra mile and make them CHILD Super Soldiers kidnapped and conscripted into military service for what is ultimately (according to the text of this franchise) justifiable means to an end. I have a hunch based on some things I’ve half heard about future things in the franchise that they’ll eventually come around to my side of thinking (at least somewhat), and this story is perhaps the first real examination of that cost outside the context of trying to justify it. Unlike the books which follow the exploits of the SUCCESSFUL Spartans, this is the story of one of the not so lucky ones named Soarin; a Spartan who didn’t get to die in battle and save humanity but instead was deformed by the body augmentation procedure. He doesn’t die like so many of the others and he DOES have heightened strength and agility which probably puts him a step above your standard Space Marine, but he’s not allowed to return to duty and is given a desk job to while away his life away from the guilt ridden eyes of those who put him and every other Spartan through that procedure.
He eventually starts listening to another coworker who turns out to be a Insurrectionists spy and since he’s of no use to the people who told him he was needed to save the galaxy, he ends up helping him in a somewhat ill-conceived heist that will hopefully give him the meaning and purpose in his life that he feels was so harshly ripped away from him. Now I’m not SAYING that this story was directly inspired by Ephialtes in 300 which came out three years before this book, but I’m not NOT saying that. The parallels are certainly there and the coincidence of them BOTH being about Spartans seems at least a LITTLE significant, but Soarin is definitely more fleshed out and his betrayal has a lot more weight to it. Then again, I was always on Ephialtes’s side as the Eugenics practicing Spartans were always kind of jerks, but in any case the story ends up having a lot more dimension than I was expecting from a series that otherwise leaned away from challenging ideas. It acknowledges that it’s not enough to just do whatever’s necessary to win the war; that every decision has consequences that not only need to be wrestled with ethically but dealt with humanely. It’s not even the fact that Soarin is deformed that is heartbreaking, though the descriptions of his torment as the augmentations twists his body into this shape are pretty hard to hear, it’s that he no longer has a place after the USNC filled his head with this need for duty and molded him for this one purpose. They broke him and rebuilt him as a tool with one purpose, and when he no longer became of use to them he was cast aside for someone else to use instead. The story ends with Soarin and the Insurrectionist spy getting their stolen ship shot down before they reach orbit and only the spy’s body being recovered. I mean even if he DID survive that he PROBABLY wasn’t still alive after The Fall of Reach, but it’s a good note to end the story on as the specter of the UNSC’s awful choices are not going away and the consequences are something they will never be safely away from.
So yeah! A pretty good start to the book that surprised me with how much it felt like a story and not just an extended justification of the Halo’s questionable lore! Hopefully the rest of the stories are similarly reflective of the franchise!
Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss
Written by Eric Raab
And of course as soon as I’m doing praising this book, it slaps me in the face with THIS story. I have complained about many aspects of the extended Halo lore, from its shaky politics to its occasionally creaky structure, but this is a new one for me as this story is just disturbing. Not in any way that’s the least bit insightful like The Wall or Us, but in a way that just parades misery with such detail that you can’t help but think someone is enjoying this a bit TOO much. The story is essentially a small group of humans being held prisoner by a small band of Brutes in some forest on some planet for some reason. The details were a bit lost on me, but what shone through clear as day was how much the Brutes LOVE to eat humans. The entire story from beginning to end either threatens to have its characters gorily eaten in front of us with the Brutes making good on their promise throughout, and I just couldn’t stomach it.
While it’s not TECHNICALLY cannibalism in the most pedantic sense, it’s of that same ilk as the Brutes are a fully sentient species and think, act, and talk as would any human character, and it’s not like OTHERING of cannibals is antithetical to the… well I GUESS you’d call it genre. The main character has the nickname Kip which the book lets you know is an allusion to nineteenth-century novelist Rudyard Kipling, and while I’m not all that familiar with his work, the story definitely feels like the less savory side of those turn of the century pulp adventure novels where our (usually white) hero has to either have to conquer or fend off a savage foe. It just feels so out of place in the Halo universe which certainly has its dark sides and has occasionally indulged in a bit of gore but never felt as grotesque as having to hear these Brutes gnash their teeth on human bones. Thankfully it’s short so it doesn’t waste too much of your time but I hated every word of it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s even the slightest bit squeamish about this kind of gore.
Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian
Written by Frank O’Connor
Bringing things back down a bit, we’ve got a very straightforward no nonsense little action yarn about the last ODST on a ship that was overtaken by The Covenant; written by none other than Bunge Head Frank O’Connor which from what I understand is far from the last time he’ll be dabbling in the Halo extended universe. Nothing too fancy, just a guy named Baird who goes to sleep for some routine medical care waking up with the ship’s AI Mo Ye telling him that he’s the only thing standing between The Covenant and the destruction of Earth; you know, the usual stuff! The whole story is a breeze to get through which is good for such a singularly focused story, but there are a few odd details here that make the story stand out. They make a big deal about Baird’s big forehead which seems like an odd thing to fixate on and the only thing I can think of is that they’re trying to draw some aesthetic connection between him and the past with his Cro-Magnon brow, but if that’s the case it’s kind of half-baked and doesn’t amount to much. The other thing that stands out is how brutal this is at points as we once again indulge in a bit of the ultraviolence as well as some hardcore drug use as the AI basically dopes this guy up to his eyeballs before sending him out there as a one man killing machine; albeit for a very short time.
It ends on a bittersweet note which I won’t spoil here, but even with that I found myself enjoying this short trip through the eyes of the last man standing quite enjoyable. That said, can at least ONE of these stories lighten things up a bit!?
Written by Tobias S Buckell
Okay, so while I wouldn’t call this a “lighthearted romp” or anything, it’s probably the best story we’ve had so far and is honestly one of the best things I’ve read in the entire Halo canon. It’s a story about an ODST solider who kind of end up being as big a part of the franchise as the Spartans as they are more or less the Colonial Marines from Aliens; tough as nails soldiers with a chip on their shoulder but usually end up as cannon fodder for the monster of the week. This time the monster is WAR ITSELF as the story follows Gage; a snot nosed angry young man who leaves his farm and his dad on Harvest to join the Colonial Army before eventually moving on to the ODST after an Insurrectionist terrorist attack nearly kills him and ACTUALLY kills a bunch of his friends. We follow his career as he’s training to be an ODST right as the Covenant destroy Harvest and end as these stories must; with him spilling his guts on the battlefield and telling a fresh faced new recruit his sad tale. The framing device is a LITTLE bit silly as this is a pretty lengthy short and the idea is that he’s telling this ENTIRE story to the kid while his insides are scrambling to his outsides, but it’s a story and some literally license is warranted. What’s a little LESS warranted though is the way it beats you over the head with its use of the word DIRT; just in case you forgot what the story was called.
What makes it work is its very solid character writing. It’s not so big that the individual characters don’t feel important, and it’s not incredibly dark or brutal like many of the more focused stories can be; certainly less so than what we’ve gotten so far in this short story collection. Gage is not a perfect solider or even that much of a heroic figure stuck with impossible situations which allows him to be believably flawed in certain areas, and the tension between the UNSC and the outer colonies plays out in a convincing way as he and his fellow nobodies in the military go back on forth on the issue. They aren’t the ones who get to make the sweeping policy decisions that control their destiny, but they can sure has heck complain about them and it just feels so much more human and compelling than any number of heroic speeches from martyred commanders we’ve seen previously. Now most of this is great character work is in the first half and once we were getting to the second which focused a bit more on the ground warfare against the Covenant I started to lose a bit of interest. But then out of NOWHERE, it turns into a freaking heist story to steal a vault full of gold and I wanted to give Mr. Buckell a big hug for finding a way to squeeze something like THAT into the Halo universe! It’s not exactly an Oceans style scheme that’s impressive in its complexity and the moment where things go tragically wrong is about as blunt as the book’s use of the word DIRT, but I found it to exceedingly fun and rather gripping when the rubber has to inevitably hit the road.
The story ends on a mostly bittersweet note as Gage’s humanity proves to be both the salvation of many people as well as his own downfall, but I’ll frankly take this noble bit of self-sacrifice over Halo’s usual interpretation of such which involves feeding children to nukes or letting political dissidents get blown up for the greater (and coincidentally enough the more CONVENIENT) good. Good, bad, Human, Covenant, just give me some interesting characters and let’s see what fate can throw at them!
Written by Jonathan Goff
Now this on the other hand is much more in line with what I expect from the Halo books. Not necessarily a BAD version of it, but still has plenty of eye rolling moments and some iffy framing. We’re back to the good ol’ Spartan III program which I THOUGHT only had the one mission at the start of Ghost of Onyx before Spartan III Part 2 started up and were still in training, but apparently some of them did make it to the front lines as Headhunters; pairs of soldiers sent in for covert operations to take out entrenched targets. This story follows two of them, Roland and Jonah, who are on a mission to take out yet another Covenant base that’s there to dig out some sort of Forerunner artifact, and as you’d expect things don’t go as planned. The first that stuck out to me about the story is the odd decision to have these long diatribes and explanations about what are ultimately insignificant details about their armaments and tactics before resuming with whatever it was the characters were doing. I get the feeling that this is just another thing that separates me from a particular subset of the Halo fandom as I can see the appeal in this kind of minutia in a certain context, but for the story just stop in its tracks and halt all its momentum to explain how a helmet works or the most tactically advantageous way to knock a tree down, it’s hard for me to get invested in this story as it was going on.
Again though, that attention to detail is probably something that will appeal to fans looking for something more focused on the tech and combat than the story and characters, and for what it’s worth it’s at least well written enough that it held my attention until the end and there ARE some bits and pieces within the story that I genuinely enjoyed. Very rarely do the humans and Covenant talk in any meaningful way other than shouting one liners at each other and there’s this pretty intense moment where they have a captured Elite and more or less taunt him with questions which not only creates an interesting clash of ideas but reveals the deep pain behind the words being spoken in a way that was pretty disturbing yet incredibly captivating.
This is as good a way as any to get us to the characters themselves and the part of the story that reminded me once again what I don’t like about this franchise and what I’m hoping we move away from at some point. In the books, there’s always been a running thread of doing what needs to be done for the greater good; no sin too great that it’s not worth doing if it saves people’s lives. We saw it with Spartan II where they kidnapped children, we saw it with Spartan III where they sent kids in third rate gear to die in a suicide mission, and we see it throughout this book as soldiers are used, abused, and transformed into blunt killing machines or worse because the alternative is death. It’s a theme that CAN work and we just saw it work in Dirt as Gage’s humanity slipped away more and more over the course of the story and how the last shred of it in him lead to his death. Here though (and with A LOT of Halo’s written media), it edges far too close into glorification and gives these broken men, women, and even children, a triumphant end that ends up justifying the events that led up to that moment. Roland and Jonah talk a lot throughout this story and their interactions and the author does a pretty good job of giving that loss of humanity room to be explored as Jonah in particular seems completely in denial of how this life has traumatized him and left him completely unable to function outside of a battle. That’s good and gets at the heart of what I feel at least the Halo lore should be about… but then the ending is no different from any other heroic last stand where his and Roland’s sacrifices make a genuine positive impact for humanity. There’s no closure on their discussions about being state sanctioned sociopaths, there’s no redemption or self-reflection for the horrific violence they inflict on The Covenant in revenge for the violence they inflicted on Humanity, and in the absence of a moral or even much of a conclusion beyond everything going BOOM, it leaves too wide a gap to justify the more pernicious aspects of the lore.
Still, I might be in the minority of having a problem with this and there’s an argument to be had that a story doesn’t have to literally hold your hand through a moral lesson, so I’ll extend the olive branch here and say that it’s fine if this is the kind of content you are looking for in Halo. It’s not for me, but it’s too well written in spots (when it’s not just going off on its own tangents) for me to say that it’s outright bad. Trust me, I’ve SEEN bad in this book so far, and this isn’t it!
Written by Fred Van Lente
Well would you look at that! It’s the OTHER side of the problematic Halo coin! So along with the valorization of inhumanity we have the issue of vilifying the Other; not just creating an enemy with an ideological or complex reason for hating the Humans, but creatures that are more or less inherently evil and therefore justify the horrendous things Humanity does to itself to fight them. The more recent books like Contact Harvest and The Cole Protocol have actually done a pretty darn good job of giving more depth to the various races of The Covenant so it’s not something that pops up TOO often anymore, but boy do they go back for it in this story as a covert Spartan team is sent to destroy a giant Covenant structure collecting fuel from one of the many colony planets before glassing it. It’s actually a pretty solid premise and kinda brings to mind old Western Stories or even Laurence of Arabia where a guerrilla force has to put a dent in the machinery of its enemy, but sadly the writing is just not strong enough to get the most out of the premise. There’s simply no personality to the giant structure which is just called THE BEACON, and there’s nothing interesting going on with any of the Covenant running the operation. You don’t have an Elite supervising everything who wishes he was anywhere else, or a Jackal looking to make some cash on the side; it’s just kinda THERE just waiting to be attacked like a level in a video game. The only thing that gives this story any real sense of identity is also its biggest flaw which are the Yanme’e (the annoying flying bug dudes from the games) who are literally ENSLAVED to work on this Beacon and dig for the precious resources that it sucks up. The Spartans find one Yanme’e who has been MUTILATED and is begging to help them destroy this thing so he and his colony can be free which sounds like a great idea and gives some depth to the Covenant overall, but the story once again falls short of its potential. Really it’s the only thing of note about this story so we’re jumping straight to the end where the Spartans are halfway through their mission and it turns out the Yanme’e are actually all EVIL and just start killing everything because… I don’t know; it’s a twist I guess?
Halfway through this story I was wondering why they didn’t go with the Huragok’s as previous books have shown them to both be sympathetic to the humans AND woefully mistreated by The Covenant and perhaps an earlier draft had them in here (the Yanme’e adeptness with certain technology seems to indicate as such), but if you’re going to go with THIS kind of plot turn it probably works better to have the creepy bug monsters instead of the adorable floating balloon animals. I’ll give it the faintest praise in that it’s ANOTHER Spartan mission and it has its fun moments, but I’m just exasperated at the idea that we’ve once again missed an opportunity for nuance and perhaps even a bit of catharsis to just hammer home the ALIENS ARE BAD story once again. Would this story really have broken anything in the Halo lore if the Yanme’e WERE sincere in their hope for freedom and weren’t just looking for a way to have a prison riot? The story even hangs a lampshade on this rather callous outlook at the very end, but I’ve read enough of these that I’d rather just roll my eyes than give them the benefit of the doubt.
Well that was pretty exhausting and we’re only about halfway through the book so let’s call it a day and pick it up next week! Join us next time as we take a look at the second half of Halo Evolutions!