Sunday, February 12, 2012

Halo: Primordium Review

The second novel in Greg Bear's Forerunner Saga, Halo: Primordium takes a different perspective from Halo: Cryptum. While Halo: Cryptum was a tale told by the Didact and ended with Bornstellar assuming that role and title during the events of the Forerunner Civil War, Halo: Primordium has a far more human angle.

Beginning after the events of Halo 3, a Forerunner Monitor is being interrogated by the Office of Naval Intelligence, a Monitor that claims to once have been the human, Chakas. Chakas was a companion to Bornstellar and the original Didact, but was captured by the Forerunner Master Builder during the Forerunner Civil War and taken away 100,000 years ago. ONI is quite concerned and curious about the Didact (furthering my suspicion that he'll appear in some form in Halo 4) and to further enlighten them, this Monitor continues his tale, Chakas' tale.

Awakening among the wreckage of a crashed pod on an unknown planet, Chakas is injured and under the care of a young human named Vinnevra, only to discover that this planet is actually a Halo, one in which many humans have been stranded and are being experimented on for unknown purposes.

Together Chakas and Vinnevra, along with her grandfather Gamelpar, venture out through the surface of Halo in search of both answers and of Chakas' friend Riser whom was also captured by the Master Builder. What, and whom they discover, however, is far more terrifying than anything they could possible imagine.

Like Halo: Cryptum before it, Halo: Primordium is an extremely unHalo-like story that's definitely set within the Halo universe. There are Monitors, Forerunners, Flood, etc., however things were far different 100,000 years ago than they are in the current 2553 time frame. The games and other fiction have always grounded the Forerunner-Flood conflict in more plausible, scientific concepts, whereas Halo: Primordium continues Bear's far more fantastical approach.

How the Forerunner's build the Halo rings, how their armour and ships behave, it is more akin to "magic" as ancient humans believed as opposed to more realistic science. Structures and ships assemble from the ground, base materials and hard light, holograms are tangible things that can physically interact with others, and the Forerunners have limited control over time itself. Extremely powerful, very fantastical.

Suffice it to say if you're looking for a traditional, hard military Halo tale you won't find it here, but what you will find is a wonderfully woven story with strong character development and many simple, human qualities. Bear does write a compelling story and he's certainly thought his plot points through. Yes, there is retcon to be found in this saga, however the Forerunner-Flood conflict was always presented with the barest of facts and much assumption, so it's easier to justify or expand upon what was revealed before. This is in stark contrast to Traviss' work in Halo: Glasslands, for example, which retcons things in the current timeline and has really made a mess of key established canon. In Halo: Primordium the Terminals found in Halo 3 are called into suspect, allowing for the saga's retcon to more easily become the proper canon, however several variances in the core narrative are reconciled with the traditional fiction by novel's end.

One key fact that I find quite surprising with the Forerunner saga though is the implementation of the Flood. Seeing as how the Forerunner-Flood War was always the key background point regarding the entire Halo fiction, you would think the Flood would factor largely into this saga. And yes, while the Flood are certainly present, they remain more of a background element and a driving force for the actions of various factions and individuals in the story.

Instead of the Flood that we know from the games, infesting bodies and turning them into Combat Forms to pit the player against, 100,000 years ago the Flood truly did behave more like a truly lethal virus. Hosts would be infected by spores or "dust," and as the sickness progressed the body slowly mutates and then becomes a lump of simple flesh, adding to the overall Flood biomass. Heroic and desperate battles of the Forerunners fending off the Flood are quite lacking from this saga, and the focus is truly on Forerunner politics and philosophy and how it's all being twisted and perverted in the face of the greater theory of the Flood-threat. In the case of Halo: Primordium, humanity's budding re-emergence as an important species on the galactic scale in the face of Forerunner opposition also comes to the forefront, giving readers something a bit more familiar to identify with.

So while Halo: Primordium, like Halo: Cryptum before it, delivers a tale most would find different than expected for a Halo story, it is remarkably well done science fiction woven with a touch of fantasy, and it's a novel that any science fiction fan can pick up and enjoy; no knowledge of the Halo franchise or games required. Some may see this as a weakness but I personally see this as a strength, as it broadens the appeal of the overall franchise while providing solid entertainment and back story to all.

Halo: Primordium ends leaving the reader with more questions, and I anxiously await the next novel in the series and will enjoy rereading Greg Bear's tale to see what other juicy details I missed.

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