Book Review: HALO: Silentium by Greg Bear

When it was revealed that Greg Bear would be writing a trilogy of HALO books detailing the history and culture of the Forerunner empire, which holds such an enduring place within the canon of the HALO series, I was deeply sceptical. I had tried reading his book Eon, and found it completely incomprehensible. His writing was bizarre; I couldn't understand what the hell he was describing half the time, his jargon made no sense to me and he had no way of building a convincing image in my head to show me what he was trying to convey. He made the same mistake in his Star Wars novel regarding the origins of Zonama Sekot, so I was not at all happy when I found out that he would be playing such an important role in the HALO canon.

My fears were certainly realised with the first book in the series, HALO: Cryptum. The exact same problems that I have described above plagued that book from beginning to end. I couldn't tell what was happening half the time; it was only thanks to the Halopedia wiki that I had any idea of the plot. I found the idea of the Didact actually being two separate individuals with a shared thought imprint to be quite absurd, and I really did wonder how the hell 343 Industries and Microsoft were going to pull off a coherent HALO 4 storyline with that kind of ridiculous back-story. Things greatly improved with HALO: Silentium, in which the author at least made a real effort to show instead of tell, but it was still a bit of a dog's breakfast, despite telling an incredibly engaging story.

And now we come at last to the third and final book, which shows the Forerunner empire in its death throes, faced by the all-consuming galactic evil of the Flood. I finished this one today, and I'm truly delighted to say that this book succeeds where its predecessors failed. It is a true HALO story, and a truly brilliant work of fiction.

HALO is a big part of my life these days, but the fact is that I arrived quite late to the HALO party. I bought my Xbox back in 2009, mostly because I had always been a Nintendo guy and I just couldn't see any great games for that console. The Wii was at that time already a 3-year-old console, and it just couldn't compete with the sheer graphical power of the Xbox and the Sony PS3. The deciding factor for me, in terms of deciding which one to pick, was of course the HALO series, about which I had heard so much but never actually played. I bought my Xbox and the first three HALO games, thinking that they would be nothing more than fun diversions for a little while.

Truth be told, the first time I played HALO: Combat Evolved, I sucked balls. I was horrible at the game, and I got more and more frustrated to the point where I just stopped playing it, even on Normal difficulty. (Yeah. Seriously. I was that bad.) It took me nearly 8 months to come back around to the idea of playing it. And then, suddenly, it all clicked into place. I blew through HALO: CE in a day, came back and did it again on Heroic difficulty, then proceeded to run wild through HALO 2, HALO 3: ODST, and HALO 3. That last game completely got to me. I'd never played a game so engrossing, so vivid, so incredibly rich and detailed in terms of both gameplay and emotional connection with the characters on the screen. By the time HALO: Reach was released in late 2010, I was a gone case. Even the repeated masochistic misery of playing Reach on Legendary didn't turn me off the series. Hell, I even loved HALO WARS!

This love of HALO has extended to almost all of the additional media released around the franchise. This includes the books, the music, and the graphic novels. I really am what I say- a massive HALO addict. And I have very high standards for the expanded universe fiction. The reality is that most expanded universe fiction is, well, awful. One only has to look at the appalling state of the Star Wars saga's "Fate of the Jedi" series to see that it is very easy to take an amazing universe like the one built by the HALO series and completely screw it up with horrible writing, ridiculous plots, absurd characters, and incomprehensible dialogue.

These mistakes are thankfully missing from this book. The plot twists of HALO 4, in which the Didact reveals himself to be hell-bent on humanity's destruction, finally make sense with this book. In it, the original Didact turns out to be the Master Chief's nemesis in HALO 4- the Ur-Didact, as he is called, and the Didact that activated the Halo array (the IsoDidact) is revealed to be the sane half of the pair. The Librarian's incredibly complex and awe-inspiring plan for humanity, revealed throughout the terminals in HALO 3 and HALO: CE Anniversary, are made concrete for the first time. The mystery surrounding the Forerunners is given real weight and light, while the even more mysterious Precursor civilisation that created both them and humans is revealed to be the very source of the insane evil now confronting the galaxy. The Precursors are the Flood.

This book fills in a huge number of plot holes and questions dating back all the way to the original Bungie trilogy, and does so in a manner that is actually quite coherent. This is no greedy money-grab from ardent fans of the franchise, this is an actual serious attempt at creating a believable in-universe setting for the Master Chief's adventures over 100,000 years after the first firing of the Halo array. The back-story blends as seamlessly as the author could make it with all of the various plot holes, contradictions, and continuity errors that have inevitably plagued the franchise, and sets up the coming HALO 5 story rather nicely- whatever that story turns out to be.

There are flaws in this book, of course. It's still not completely polished, and Greg Bear's immensely irritating "talent" for obfuscation and confusion is still very much in evidence. For instance, when he's describing Precursor artifacts, I still have no idea what the hell they look like, and he plainly doesn't have much talent for describing epic space battles with anything like the skill of, say, David Weber or Timothy Zahn. In fact he largely skips over the battles entirely, focusing instead on the relationships between various characters, such as the Master Builder, the Librarian, and the two Didacts. Somehow, he manages to succeed, despite being in my opinion a rather inferior writer of hard military sci-fi. (To be clear, as far as I can tell, his work in Anvil of Stars and Hammer of the Gods really is exceptional.)

None of this will make the slightest damn bit of sense if you're not a raving fan of the HALO franchise (like me). But, if you are, this book finally lives up to the promise of the original press release by being almost everything it sets out to be. It is grand in scope and scale, yet personal and intimate in its portraits of its characters. It is incredibly readable, yet complex and nuanced. It is, in short, everything that a truly great HALO novel should be.

Verdict: 4.5/5, really solid hard SF read

Comments

  1. I just finished this book recently, and I really enjoyed it. It had a lot of things going against it, the largest of which is that we all know the end. Most of the folks who are reading this have probably at least read in some fashion the terminals in Halo 3. I was glad he sort of washed over that part, but let it fit seamlessly into it. The real tough parts for me with Greg Bear is anything that involves a description of scenery or terrain - just a bit too lengthy so that I start to not care about what I'm reading as soon as good stuff starts happening.

    Major plot points for me that I enjoyed
    - the Precursor reveal, the power of the Flood is revived and the feeling of no escape is well portrayed, even with AIs
    - Librarian's character is endearing
    - Didact is oddly relatable in both characters
    - The continued reinforcement of 343 GS as Chakas is pretty awesome
    - Forerunners turning on their creators (though it felt like the Protoss a little too much there from Starcraft)

    Things I didn't like so much
    - "Robots" in old Forerunners' blood and bites that miraculously allows speech translation and other miraculous things?
    - Master Builder initially looked and felt like Halo 2 Prophet of Truth - mysterious, in total control, etc. Then in this book he did a major flop like PoT in Halo 3 - complete reversal of character and all sense of a manipulative politician is not there
    - Greater Ark vs Lesser Ark with more efficient/dealier waves?! AND research stations on them, in a last dire moment? It just seemed odd to me and highly not plausible.

    Overall though, I agree - 4.5/5. Great read, if you're already invested in the universe. Gives great depth to the story that we all wanted.

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    1. It's definitely the best book in the trilogy. By miles. Greg Bear tends to be quite hit-or-miss these days, in my opinion; some of his early work, though, was amazing, and I thought he really brought his A-game to HALO: Silentium. A lot of the new ideas and concepts that he brought up in the first two books were expanded upon or tied off very well in this one, and it's also obvious that he did his research into the expanded HALOverse, since the plot dovetails nicely not only with HALO 4, which was the intention anyway, but with the Bungie games as well.

      There are, however, a few notable differences between the original intent of the Bungie canon and the current direction of the HALO canon. Bungie originally intended that Forerunners be regarded as the actual evolutionary predecessors of humanity; 343i turned them into a completely separate race and species. And of course the concept of 12 original Halos, rather than 7 as specified by Bungie, just seems odd.

      And I agree, there is a strong element of handwavium going on in this book. Then again, it's sci-fi, so I'm not altogether opposed to that. What plot holes there were- and I think there were a few real howlers in there- are compensated for by the excellent writing and fast pace.

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