thel ‘vadam

Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Author’s note: this essay was written before Halo: Envoy’s release and published before I read it, which is why the section discussing “Oasis” as a groundwork for the novel is so very short.


Jat’s was the worst death in all of Halo. It was a coldly cynical death. Empty and brutal.

And it was narratively perfect.

On three separate levels.

To begin with, I must accentuate the fact that Jat’s death is consistent within the confines of the short story “Oasis” itself. While the manner in which this simple act both follows up on threads and lays groundwork for future fiction is impressive, those are both secondary. As discussed in my last article, moments in stories need to work first in their own context before operating on a different layer, such as a reference, callback, cameo, etc. (Smoke and Shadow). Oasis” was not marketed as the opening chapter to Envoy or as part of a series. It was released in Halo: Fractures as a standalone short story. Therefore, Jat’s death needs to make sense without referring to outside media. And it does.


Solidifying a Theme

The main theme of “Oasis” is survival.

It opens with Dahlia surviving the dangerous fever, it continues with Dahlia recalling the times she and her family survived the Covenant assaults, and its main conflict is Dahlia fighting to ensure that her family survives.

The introduction of the Sangheili Jat at first appears to derail this theme. Up until his appearance, Dahlia has been entirely motivated by survival (of her or her family), but her act to save Jat’s was born out of righteousness.

This couldn’t be right, Dahlia thought. Even among the aliens, there was some kind of law, honor. You couldn’t just execute someone right there in the sand. (Fractures, p 372)

Dahlia’s choice to save Jat seems to be in direct contrast to the theme of survival. It draws attention from an enemy. It puts her life, and by extension, the lives of her family, at risk.

What Jat’s inclusion does is provide a cost to the theme of survival. Up until he enters the story, survival is something to be achieved by any means necessary, but Jat establishes that there is a price Dahlia is not willing to pay. She is not willing to be merciless.

Artwork by The Chronothaur – used with permission

Jat – both as a character and as a narrative function – continues to push Dahlia towards these choices that challenge her outlook on life and her initial stance on survival. He takes the initial theme and begins to shape it, which in turn, shapes Dahlia. The subthemes present in “Oasis” are numerous and complex, but the one that Jat’s death hammers home is change.

Joining the ranks of Benti and Olympia Vale in the category of “young women learning life lessons from Sangheili,” Dahlia goes from someone who unquestioningly hates Sangheili, especially Jat’s leader Rojka, to someone who cradles his head in death. The contrast between her and the militia who came to her rescue and murdered Jat is stark. She is told that she wouldn’t consider the Sangheili a friend if she had seen what had happened to the Outer Colonies during the Human-Covenant War.

But of course, she did come from the Outer Colonies. She did know what horrors were wrought in the war. But she changed. She changed because of Jat, and because of Jat, she lived.

And moving forward, Dahlia will survive because she is willing to change.


Groundwork

The second narrative level on which Jat’s death works is as a groundwork for future fiction.

From the novel’s title and summary, it’s clear that “Oasis” from Fractures is a set up for Envoy. We know that tensions between Sangheili and humans on Carrow are high. We know that there is are larger players at work on the alien side – Thars and Rojka – and that Sandholm will likely be targeted soon. All of this establishes that “Oasis” does not exist in a vacuum; it’s laying the groundwork for a larger story that is on its way.

 Halo Envoy cover

These all set the societal groundwork for Envoy, but Jat’s death sets the emotional stage.

Jat’s death at the hands of the colonists ensures that we know going into Envoy that the tension between Sangheili and humans is real. While there’s hope from in the likes of Dahlia, the carelessness with which Jat is dispatched escalates that conflict into which Envoy’s protagonist, Melody Azikiwe, is stepping. Even more telling than Jat’s execution is the dismissal of his death and Dahlia’s grief. It establishes that the larger community is going to reject an offer of peace, even if the offer is as great as the protection of a child. This establishes exactly what sort of stakes Azikiwe is going to be facing in Envoy.


Symbols and Metaphors

The final narrative level on which Jat and his death work is on the broader scale of the universe as a whole, as a metaphor for one part of the spectrum of human-Sangheili relations. When Halo: Fractures was first released, Archive member Grizzlei made this observation:

One of the lingering thoughts I have for Fractures is three different stories showcased three entirely unique experiences of Human-Sangheili cohabitation.

Within Trevelyan, tensions between the volunteers and their families from Earth and Sangheilos are the typical kinda strained as expected for late 2553 but the air is filled with optimism—that it could be a better place. On Carrow, absolutely nothing is ideal. Sangheili settlers have begun to forcibly colonize a Human world, constantly encroaching on O.C.’ers territory. Well-armed, motivated, and objective militias defend both sides, and both are more than willing to utilize them for the most petty reasons. Neither Human or Sangheili colonists have the backing of their homeworlds. Lastly, on Venezia, it’s literally business as usual. Human, Sangheili—you name it—they’re on Venezia, finding peace wherever they can all for the sake of starting anew, free of any national or religious allegiances.

This is science fiction at its best highlighting no one single way of life. Post-war civilizations now prominently encourage narratives to deliver more diverse circumstances. In conclusion, here’s a wonderful monologue from Stargate SG-1, episode 200:

“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asmiov once said, ‘Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction—its essence—has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’” (Archive)

The different characters and reactions that she is describing here is could be considered examples of “ficelle characters.”

Blackwell Reference Online specifically defines the ficelle as a “character whose role within the novel is to elicit information, which is conveyed to the reader without narratorial intervention” (BRO). Probably the most famous type of a ficelle is the “foil,” a character created specifically to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the protagonist. In his essay “The Human Context,” W. J. Harvey gives the ficelle its broadest definition yet: a character that “exists in the novel primarily to serve some function. Unlike the protagonist, he is ultimately the means to an end rather than an end in himself” (p 237).

Harvey goes onto list a multitude of functions that the ficelle can serve in the story before settling into the description of one in particular, which I will likewise be focusing on here. A ficelle, or rather a collection of ficelle characters can be used to function as a means to relate and propagate the effects of an epiphany throughout the story.

While Harvey uses the word “epiphany” to specifically describe a commonality in modern fiction around 1965, it can also be viewed in broader terms, as a critical moment of enlightenment, and thus change, in a story.

In order for an epiphany to carry an impact to the story’s conclusion, we must see “its effects radiating throughout time,” which “requires that the [epiphany] diffuses itself through many characters and many relationships” (p 245). In short, we must see the epiphany affecting characters other than the protagonist, and affecting them in different ways.

The [epiphany] itself must be gradually connected with the disparate and commonplace concerns of everyday life, through a careful gradation of characters from those who are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend [the protagonist’s experience] to those who, all unknowing, are brushed by the events [leading to the epiphany] (p 245).

This gradation of characters is the collection of ficelles. Characters who are affected by the protagonist’s epiphany, and who respond in a multitude of ways in order to provide depth and understanding to the reader.

Of course, in a franchise as broadly spread as Halo, ficelles to one story may also be protagonists for another. In this essay, the terms are not mutually exclusive.

Jat is one of many ficelle characters that are an exploration of the effects of Halo’s first big epiphany.

 

Now we must ask ourselves: when was the first big epiphany of the Halo Universe? Not in terms of canon chronology – as ho boy, that’s an argument for the ages – but in terms of canon publication?

If you have followed me on Halo-related social media for any stretch of time, it shouldn’t surprise you that my answer is not the Flood/Halo reveal in Combat Evolved, but Thel ‘Vadamee becoming Thel ‘Vadam in Halo 2.

This is more than wild fangirl speculation; all the reveals in the canon leading up to Halo 2 were still consistent with the environment of the Human-Covenant War. Child soldiers? Horrendous and shocking but appropriate for the environment. Reach falling? Earth being found by the Covenant? All appropriate for the environment.

Even the Flood and Halo in Combat Evolved do nothing more than escalate the current environment. There are no alliances forged between human and alien to combat the new menace; it’s “merely” a new player on the field. The Halo ring’s threat of mutually-assured destruction doesn’t cause the combatants to back down, it’s “merely” a new asset to take or deny the other party’s taking.

Halo 2, on the other hand, breaks the environment of the Human-Covenant War. This is the story that takes Halo from a very clear “us vs. them” battle into a fight for mutual peace. And the person on which this epiphany is centered is Thel.

Strangely enough, Thel is rather passive in his Journey up until his grand epiphany. He doesn’t actively pursue the truth until the very end, and his first alliance with humanity was based on necessity and was not his idea. But once the epiphany lands, in the control room of Delta Halo, it sticks, and then goes onto create the new environment that would define the Haloverse until the events of Halo 5.

With few exceptions – Henry and Benti from “The Mona Lisa” come to mind – every human-Sangheili relationship has been defined by and birthed from Thel’s choice in the control room of Delta Halo. Some of these are hopeful, as seen in Hunters in the Dark. Others are cynical, such as those displayed in the Kilo-Five trilogy or “The Return.”

As a ficelle, Jat becomes the embodiment of both the conflict on Carrow and the one propagated by ONI’s Parangosky. A Sangheili believes cooperation is the only way to survive, but humans just want the hingeheads dead. Richard Sekibo in Hunt the Truth is a similar ficelle to Jat, his human counterpart in many ways.

 

I would just like Noah Eichen to personally understand that I am still mourning this man.

Through the ficelle characters of Jat and Sekibo, we can see the effects of a cynical take on Thel’s epiphany. Before we go further, we must first establish what exactly Thel’s epiphany is, and for that, I turn to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

The Classical Monomyth is summarized by Campbell in the following description:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1956, p. 30).

Thel’s epiphany happens when he takes his step across the threshold between “the world of the common day” and into “the region of supernatural wonder.”

The normal world [of common day] is that which the protagonist occupies before the start of their journey.  It is often a place of comfort and safety or at least familiarity. However, there is something inherently wrong within this world (Campbell, 1956, p. 37).  The hidden world [of supernatural wonder] is a realm beyond what the protagonist initially experiences.  It is full of new wisdom and dangers, and most importantly, the power which can fix the wrong within the normal world. Thel’s normal world is the Covenant, more specifically the battlefield.  The hidden realm is diplomacy and peace, and the power from this realm is the ability to destroy the Covenant. …Not just the establishment as a whole, but the ideals which it represents [hierarchical oppression].  (Hero’s Journey of Thel ‘Vadam: Introduction)

For a further discussion of Thel’s monomythic Journey, visit ArbiterAnalysis on Tumblr.

The “region of supernatural wonder,” i.e. diplomacy and peace, is Thel’s epiphany. It’s the realization that ongoing destruction, and social/galactic elevation through destruction, is not what will bring about salvation. Cooperation will.

A critical line in Halo: Escalation hammers this home:

“Finding a way to pacify the Brutes and get access to their resources is in the UNSC’s best interests. And the Arbiter knows it’s in his best interest… He’s not happy about it, but as leader of the Sangheili, he knows it’s what’s best for his people.” – Admiral Hood, Escalation Issue #1.

Even when he isn’t happy with the idea of cooperation, Thel knows it’s the right thing and acts accordingly. And, as rest of the Escalation arc shows, he commits everything to it, regardless of his personal feelings.

A perfect ficelle to Thel, Serin Osman stares at almost the exact same situation, thinks the exact same thoughts – duty over emotion – and comes to the exact opposite conclusion:

She wondered if she was telling herself that [Hood’s and Thel’s peace treaty] was a meaningless exchange simply to justify what ONI was doing. If the Arbiter really could deliver peace, then she was doing everything in her power to stoke a revolt that would remove him. But she couldn’t gamble Earth’s future on the goodwill of one individual. What was that line the Parangosky never let her forget?
It’s not the enemy’s intentions that you have to consider. It’s their capability.
Osman was going to have those damn words tattooed on her arm one day (Glasslands, p 360)

Osman, Parangosky, Sapien Sunrise, and Jat’s murderers are all on the gradation of characters that “are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend” Thel’s epiphany in a cynical light. They look at diplomacy and cooperation, and instead of embracing it, they try to destroy it. Osman and Parangosky have yet to be fully successful – and there is still a potential for Osman’s view to change – but Sapien Sunrise and the militia on Carrow brought this interpretation of Thel’s epiphany to a brutal conclusion.

And because Halo’s story is not yet complete, Jat… and the likes of Sekibo, Osman, Rhu ‘Vrath, and perhaps Melody Azikiwe, all of them, for better or for worse, are symbols of what the galaxy could one day become.


W.J. Harvey’s “The Human Context” was originally published in the book Character and The Novel in 1965. All citations here are from its reprint in the essay collection The Theory of the Novel in 1967.


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.



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Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – The Cole Protocol

Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – The Cole Protocol

Reading Journal Synopsis


The Cole Protocol – Tobias Buckell

In the fight between discovering and concealing Earth’s location, Covenant, UNSC, and Insurrection all converge on a single refugee colony hidden behind Covenant lines.


 

Reading Journal Style


Turning the last page of Contact Harvest [x] to the first page in The Cole Protocol is something of a style whiplash. Protocol is the most rapidly-paced books in the Halo line-up. It’s the 100 meter dash to Harvest’s mile run. The words aren’t there to paint a picture; they’re there to get characters from point A to B. We are often told what the characters are feeling, but not really why they are feeling it. There is a lot of focus on “telling” and not “showing.” This is what contributes to the quick pace of the novel.

I used to think that The Cole Protocol was poorly written due to this change. Rereading, I have to disagree with myself. It’s not poorly written, it’s just a lighter writing style than the other Halo books.

While there are things that characters wrestle with, we don’t spend pages and pages on internal drama and reflection. Characters rarely experience distress over things they can’t change, and if they do, they find a way to move on. There’s no strain and losses aren’t given too grand a focus. It’s rather refreshing when nearly every other Halo story comes back around to perform a double-tap on your emotions. It’s a chance to have fun with the Halo Universe without the stress of emotional turmoil.

emotional moments

Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo Reach

Another defining characteristic of the novel is the delightfully dramatic character displays. Buckell does not deal in half-measures. While Contact Harvest went to the small details and the seemingly insignificant moments to pull out emotional threads, The Cole Protocol instead gives those moments an extra flair.

Future Arbiter Thel ‘Vadamee strips naked in front of the governing body of his keep to make a point. Spartan Adriana-111 starts a bar fight and tears a table from where it was bolted on the floor to ward off attackers. Helljumpers kidnap and hogtie Jacob Keyes in order to give him a tattoo. The AI character introduces herself with the line, “Yes, I am Juliana, goddess of the Rubble.”

These grandiose gestures fit within the story because of the style, which I find very akin to a summer blockbuster.


 

Reading Journal Genreflecting


Thriller is the best genre to use to describe The Cole Protocol. The setting and the characters are entrenched in the science fiction genre, but the story itself is a thriller. Even its title follows the pattern of many novels in this category, such as The Bourne Identity or The Da Vinci Code. As the site TV Tropes pointed out, this title structure involves “the” followed by a noun or name and another noun with government connotations [x].

“This creates a feeling of conspiracy, like the reader has just glimpsed the title on a sealed manila folder and now needs to dig through the secrets of powerful men to discover…” (tvtropes.org, “Mad Lib Thriller Title”).

Sully FUD classified

Forward Unto Dawn Episode 1

Conspiracies are most definitely prevalent in the book, both within human and alien ranks. On the human side, the UNSC and Insurrectionists are consistently infiltrating each other ranks, while Prophets dealing behind each others backs creates a web of conflicting orders within the Covenant. There are even conspiracies that don’t relate directly to the overall plot of this particular novel. Thel ‘Vadamee fends off an assassination attempt, and Spartans have become the boogeymen for Insurrectionist children.

Even though conspiracies definitely have their place, thrillers are ultimately “about power – who doesn’t have it, who’s misusing it, and what will it cost to restore some kind of balance to the world” (Genreflecting, pp 160). This is a very strong theme in The Cole Protocol and one that’s ranged from the fringes to the center of all Halo stories. There’s always been this question of who is on top of the galaxy. Before the Human-Covenant War, the Insurrection broke out because of the dispute regarding Earth’s control of the Outer Colonies. The Covenant has always been this tenuous framework that required the subjugation of one race to uplift another. In the War, the Covenant pressed onwards in a display of power in strength and numbers. Humanity created the Cole Protocol, keeping knowledge of systems concealed from alien eyes, because as Catherine Halsey once said, “Knowledge is power.”

halsey knowledge power

Spartan Ops Episode 8

These conflicts all come to the forefront in The Cole Protocol. The UNSC and Prophets are both questioned on their misuse of power. Those without power, Kig-Yar and Unggoy, human refugees, struggle to seize it for themselves in whatever way they can.

The last question on the cost to restore balance will not be answered even when the Human-Covenant War comes to its end seventeen years later, but all surviving heroes and villains find some measure of peace in the final pages. New commands, discovered purpose, moments with family, and Hierarchs who have “resolved the moment of bad blood that had grown between them” (Protocol, pp 348).


 

Reading Journal Our Expanded Universe


The Cole Protocol may be most notable in its establishment of the Arbiter’s character pre-Halo 2. Up until its publication of 2008, there was plenty of speculation but no hard facts regarding his identity. Buckell seems to take this into account. Despite the fast-pace of the book, he still gives time to flesh out Thel ‘Vadamee’s personality and provide a dynamic environment with which to interact. We see who his close friends are, how he reacts to betrayal, and his devotion to the Great Journey. Lak, his uncle and mentor, is introduced late in the book, but mentioned again in The Flood’s Adjunct. The way he deals with assassinations is in contrast to his response in Glasslands and Hunters in the Dark, set nearly two decades of war and character growth later.

Thel’s journey through this novel also provides parallels to other moments in canon. Claire, who runs the Halo blog sailorsanghelios on Tumblr noted that Thel’s willing and arrogant nakedness before the keep Elders was a sharp contrast to the shameful nakedness that we saw in Halo 2 [x]. Both of these events chronicle a change of rank for ‘Vadamee, be it rise to Kaidonship and shipmaster-status, or the fall to the Arbiter’s mantle. Whether or not it was intended, it could be seen that both instances are a sort of thematic rebirth for the character. Childhood is also mentioned, as he often spent time gazing at the stars and wondering what it held for him (pp 147). Though a short paragraph, this evokes similar imagery to the Halo 3 trailer Starry Night, which was officially canonized in the first episode of HUNT the TRUTH.

Starry Night

There’s another connection to HUNT the TRUTH as media censoring is mentioned, once again shielding Earth from certain horrors of war (pp 29). Similarly, The Fall of Reach receives two acknowledgments. On page 37, Keyes requests the transfer of a skilled pilot to his ship, something he will do years later with Ensign Lovell to The Pillar of Autumn. Among the Spartan-II candidates that stood to leave on the first day (Reach, pp 33), was Spartan Jai-006 (Protocol, pp 76).

Even the most recent Hunters in the Dark has a connected moment beyond reoccurring characters. Luther Mann’s reaction to his planet’s glassing as a child is very different to Ignatio Delgado’s. While Luther was unable to fully comprehend the act and thus found beauty in the moment, Delgado instead found a deep distrust of Covenant (pp 13). This highlights how two books similar in tone – both lighter and hopeful – can be founded on opposite themes: honesty [x] and distrust.

I will still fault The Cole Protocol for one thing. Buckell made plenty of wonderful contributions to the canon, and 343 Industries has done an excellent job on tying stories together and clearing up loose ends, but they have yet to clarify a specific disappearance. What in the world happened to Veer?




 

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The Arbiter’s Role in Halo 5: Guardians – A Symbol of the Galaxy’s Potential

The Arbiter’s Role in Halo 5: Guardians – A Symbol of the Galaxy’s Potential

It has been clear from E3 2014 when we first heard Keith David’s voice coming over our speakers and headphones, that Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam would be making his return in Halo 5: Guardians. Of course there was speculation everywhere about how large of a role he would have in the game and as we get closer and closer to the release date, the answer seems to be “very large indeed.”

343 Industries has shown a habit of showcasing certain characters before they come into play in a larger manner. Buck in New Blood, Tanaka in Escalation, Locke in Nightfall, Vale in Hunters in the Dark, and Lasky in Forward Unto Dawn. Last year we had the hype built for Halo 2 Anniversary, a remake of Thel ‘Vadam’s debut in the canon and a game in which he is arguably the protagonist. This edition, like Combat Evolved Anniversary, added terminals to improve the story, and these had a greater focus on Thel ‘Vadam. Even those that didn’t mention him directly eventually lead to a discussion of Thel and his influence in the galaxy.


Arbiter Symbol halo 5 arbiter

Halo Escalation #1


Thel has also been mentioned at the very least in every post-war novel released to-date. Buck gives a tip of his hat to the Arbiter and his troops in New Blood, Broken Circle mentions his victories against the old Covenant, and he’s appeared in Escalation, Hunters in the Dark, and the Kilo-Five trilogy. Though he has not played a leading role in any of these stories, his influence is still there and is often a major factor.

Of course all this speculation and digging for clues is neatly summed up in The Know’s interview with Chris Lee and Kevin Franklin:

“We’re not talking in detail about the story, but I can say the Arbiter is a key part of the story.” [x]

So we know that Thel ‘Vadam is key to this story, and that his role will be a large one. As for the type of role he plays:

“In some ways, it’s a diplomatic role, which is almost the opposite of what the original intention of the Arbiter was, and he is trying to save his civilization. He just doesn’t want it to collapse, and he’s not talking about the Covenant – he’s talking about Elite civilization, and Elite traditions, and things that are important to him as a member of that society. There’s so much chaos that he’s in some ways able, I think, to wrangle his status as the Arbiter to have some authority among his people. But, by the same token, it’s not an official title, he’s not a duke or a king, or a president, and so he has some significant struggles as he deals with literally a civil war on his homeworld.” [x, transcript courtesy of Halo Archive member Chronarch]

We know, due to context and the E3 demonstration this year, he will be heavily involved with these last battles on Sanghelios and despite the continuing war, we should expect to see him in a diplomatic role. While O’Connor specifically mentions Thel’s focus on bringing unity to his home and his species, I believe that we will see some cross-species diplomacy happening as well.

First, we know Fireteam Osiris is sent to work alongside the Swords of Sangheilios – with trained a liaison to the Sangheili in Spartan Olympia Vale. Second, in episode 2 of the recent Sprint series, Thel appears to know ONI’s been up to something at the very least. There’s a moment where Thel invades Locke’s personal space with what sounds to be a loaded statement about that particular naval branch: “…ONI, out of the shadows…”


sprint thel and locke halo 5 arbiter

The Sprint: Road to E3 Episode 2


This friction between the Arbiter and ONI may or may not be a main plot point in game, but I’m rather certain it will be touched upon in some capacity.

Finally, I believe that there will be a more personal bent to the diplomacy of Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam in Halo 5. We know that Thel has contact with Locke and Fireteam Osiris, but there is a hint that suggests he had contact with the Master Chief and Blue Team before Osiris’ arrival.

“Suniaon, the Covenant’s final stronghold. That is where you’ll find the Master Chief and the Guardian he seeks.” [x]

Here is admittedly where I step further out into speculation, relying on themes and parallels rather than solid fact. Not only does Thel have a foot in both camps – Blue and Osiris – but he also makes a very strong foil to each of their leaders.



John, for the first time in his life, has gone AWOL. He’s been lost and missing before, but this has been the first time he has actively left the UNSC on his own accord. He, as we’ve been told in advertisements, is beginning to question the validity and purpose of the UNSC. Furthermore it has been said time and again that Cortana’s loss has affected him and challenged him to understand what it meant to be human [x].

Locke is single-minded in his duty. While this does provide room for his moral convictions, it’s also been seen to get in the way of making human connections. We see this a little in his discussion with Buck. The former ODST is concerned about how their actions will be perceived among the rest of the UNSC. Locke, despite admitting an emotional connection, seems to keep the thought from burrowing too deep[x].

Thel’s own journey has taken him through both places that John and Locke are now traversing. We witnessed Thel lose his own identity in the disgrace following Alpha Halo’s destruction, and he was challenged to learn what it meant to be Sangheili. This at last brought him to the point where he began to question the Covenant and Hierarchs before ultimately disassociating from all of it.

“‘We think we’ve lost the gods, but we haven’t,’ ‘Vadam said. ‘We’ve lost ourselves.’” (Glasslands, pp 59)

Before this, his sense of duty led him to follow the Hierarchs unquestioningly, which included the hunting of his own kind, like Sesa ‘Refumee in Halo 2. At the Rubble in The Cole Protocol, Thel also brushes off the concern expressed by the oldest of his team in order to complete his task.

This status as a foil to both Locke and John would place Thel in a prime position to be the bridge between the Spartans. If he’s not too busy trying to piece his homeworld back together.



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Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – First Strike

Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – First Strike

Reading Journal Synopsis


First Strike (The Definitive Edition) by Eric Nylund

Alpha Halo was not the end of the war. The Covenant continue their genocidal campaign, the Master Chief, Cortana, and a team of survivors must race to Earth and stop the Covenant’s advance. This novel follows up on the events and characters of both Fall of Reach and The Flood and sets the stage for Halo 2.


 

Reading Journal Style


The first thing I need to note here is that it has been years since I last read First Strike, and I was more partial to rereading portions of the other novels due to the characters involved. So what I am about to say is a testament solely to Nylund’s writing abilities and not my own nostalgia.

Even more so than in Fall of Reach, Nylund has an incredible ability to define the camaraderie between the Spartans and between other characters. By the end of chapter one, I knew exactly what Fred, Kelly, and the rest of the Spartans meant to each other. It was small touches, like Kelly and Fred volunteering to take the more dangerous mission, Kelly covering for Fred when he makes a communications blunder, and Fred grabbing Joshua as they leap from the doomed Pelican. These sorts of gestures extend throughout the book, as we see snippets of how individuals from varying military branches interact within the new ragtag team assembled here.

blue team

Halo Escalation Issue #10

Many times we hear that a sequel should build off the previous tale – not just in terms of plot, but character development. Nylund does a rare thing in that in his second excursion into the Halo Universe; it’s not just the plot or the characters, but the theme itself builds off of his previous installment. The Fall of Reach was defined by character growth; First Strike, though a plot-driven story, is defined by character relations. The development of these thematic relationship statuses between characters is a combination of rapid establishment and Nylund’s distinctive style of repetition.

Beyond the close-knit community of Spartans, we see this theme when the crew of the Pelican is pulled aboard the Longsword fighter. The relationships between the incoming characters and the Master Chief are defined within moments.

johnson cortana chief

Halo 2 Anniversary

“With a lightning-quick motion, [the Chief] drew the newcomer’s pistol and aimed it squarely at the man’s forehead.
‘You were dead,’ the Chief said. ‘I saw you die. On Jenkins’s mission record. The Flood got you.’
The black man smiled a set of perfect white teeth. ‘The Flood? Hell, Chief, it’ll take more than a pack of walking alien horror-show freaks to take out Sergeant A. J. Johnson.’” (pp 63).

“‘At ease, Corporal,’ the Master Chief said.
The Corporal’s eyes finally locked onto the Chief. He shook his head in disbelief. ‘A Spartan,’ he muttered. ‘Figures. Outta the friggin’ frying pan – ’” (pp 65-66).

“He wore the black enameled bars of a First Lieutenant.
‘Sir!’ the Chief snapped off a crisp salute. …
The lieutenant settled to the floor and lazily returned the salute.” (pp 66).

“She saluted the Chief. ‘Petty Warrant Officer Polaski, requesting permission to come aboard, Master Chief.’
‘Granted,’ he said and returned her salute.” (pp 67)

After this five page introduction of major characters and their relationships, Nylund puts his use of repetition to work. Unlike the over-exposure of this style in Fall of Reach, First Strike hits just the right balance, especially in the connection shared between Cortana and the Master Chief.

First Strike, though set between Combat Evolved and Halo 2, could be seen as a precursor to Halo 4 in terms of Chief and Cortana’s interactions. After absorbing a massive amount of information on Alpha Halo, Cortana finds herself overwhelmed by the data that she’s constantly cataloging and analyzing. This in turn makes her short-tempered and absent-minded. While it’s not actual rampancy, it does set both John and Cortana on edge.

chief cortana bridge

Halo 4

Cortana has concerns about being able to do enough, and do it fast enough, to keep her crew and the Master Chief safe.  John in turn worries about Cortana’s wellbeing, having admitted to himself that he could not consider her expendable equipment. These themes are defined in far more depth in Halo 4, but they have their roots all the way back in this novel.

In a further indication of how this book is defined by inter-character relations, even one-scene wonder characters of the novel are placed in settings acutely defined by how they connect and interact with others. When Lieutenant Wagner returns to Earth to bring the news of Reach’s fall, he sets the stage to showcase the calm and collected Admiral Hood butt heads with the aggressive Colonel Ackerson. In turn, Ackerson relishes in the assumed demise of his rival.

halsey reach

Halo: Reach

When Kelly, Fred, and Joshua are sneaking past the Covenant front lines in stolen Banshees, it’s the strained relationships between the Sangheili and Unggoy that allow this un-scheduled flight plan passage.

When we get our first glimpse of our villains for Halo 2, the Prophet of Truth and Tartarus, this sets up the changing relations between the races of the Covenant that we would see a year after the game’s original publishing.

And here you must forgive me for grafting a portion of my Arbiter Watch piece into this reading journal, because this aspect of relationships is absolutely fundamental to the claim I am about to make.

Thel ‘Vadamee is in First Strike.

thel on bridge

Halo 2 Anniversary Terminal

I don’t mean the mention that Tartarus gives at the end, complete with his own pet name for the future-Arbiter. I mean that we actually see Thel ‘Vadamee on the bridge of the Ascendant Justice, pages 91-96, fighting hand-to-hand with the Master Chief and getting chucked out in an escape pod.

I know that this is an old theory that was considered debunked when Halo: The Graphic Novel came out and Seeker of Truth was revealed to be the fleet’s flagship. However, the updated canon actually supports this theory, as well as Nylund’s deliberate use of relationships here in First Strike.

The canon is discussed over in the Tumblr piece[x], so here let’s focus on the relationship aspect.

As we’ve established, even characters that appear for just one scene in this novel are given a relational reason for existing. Throughout the rest of the assault on Ascendant Justice, enemy positions are given, enemy actions are described, but they aren’t given character. The Sangheili fought by the Master Chief on the bridge is.

thel pose

Halo 2 Anniversary Terminal

“The Elite drew a plasma pistol and fired at the Lieutenant – but never took its eyes off the Chief.” (pp 91).

“The Elite removed its helmet and dropped it. The plasma pistol clattered to the deck a moment later. It leaned forward, and its mandibles parted in what in what the Chief guessed had to be a smile.” (pp 91-92).

“…this Elite was tough, cunning, well-trained…” (pp 94).

“The Elite’s mouth opened, and it snapped at the Chief. It was angry or panicking now… he felt it getting stronger.” (pp 95).

Furthermore, the relationship between these two characters – the Master Chief and the Sangheili – has a progressive arc. When the Sangheili first appears on the bridge, disengaging its active camouflage, the Chief’s response is almost nonchalant: “Even with the shield malfunction, he was confident he could take a single Elite.” (pp 91).

However, the moment the two step into battle, the Sangheili proves to be a difficult adversary, being capable of removing two of the Chief’s allies from the fight while keep the Spartan at bay. At last, only with the help of Locklear and Johnson is the Master Chief able to defeat the Sangheili by tossing him alive into an escape pod and jettisoning him.

Why would Nylund, who demonstrated such deftness of storytelling, take this much time to write out a one-on-one encounter between the Chief and an enemy? The only other times we’ve seen him do this was when the moment was or was initially intended to be the first encounter of a new threat – the Hunters at Sigma Octanus, the Sangheili at Reach, the Jiralhanae on the Unyielding Heirophant. This attention to detail with this particular Sangheili, alongside Tartarus’ line about “the incompetent” who lost Ascendant Justice, the introduction of three other major characters of Halo 2, and the canonical support to this theory, convinces me that that this Sangheili was indeed our future Arbiter, Thel ‘Vadamee.

Because ultimately, First Strike is defined entirely by relationships between characters, and what better soil can you find for the root of the relationship developed between John-117 and Thel ‘Vadam than the writing of Eric Nylund?


 

Reading Journal Genreflecting


I’ll be departing from the Science Fiction section of Genreflecting this time around, because a different type of book continually pressed into my consciousness while reading First Strike. I kept thinking of Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia series. Treasure Island, a book I haven’t touched since the seventh grade was always lurking in some back corner. It took me a while to place it together, but First Strike is a road trip book.

The main plot of the story – and the novel is very much plot-driven – revolves around the importance of getting from place A to place B, with innumerable obstacles between. The starting point is Alpha Halo, and Earth is the destination. Chief and Cortana must locate and take control Slipspace-capable ship, rescue a team of Spartans from a Covenant-controlled sector, survive an unprecedented and devastating battle, locate a place for repairs, and destroy a massive Covenant fleet heading for humanity’s homeworld. The goal is to reach Earth; the plot is the actual journey.

One genre that is defined by this journey-centered plot is Wagons West – a subgenre of Western Fiction. Page 215 of Genreflecting describes this type as:

“The way west was filled with danger from accidents, disease, and violence…”

Replace “west” with “home,” and you’ve found yourself with a very solid description of First Strike. Part of the journey-centered plot requires survival to be threatened multiple different sources. While survival in-and-of itself is not the goal in First Strike, it is a requirement for the Master Chief and his team to warn Earth. As a result they encounter war fleets, dangerous radiation, damaged ships, and a battle in Slipspace.

To emphasize the dangers of the way west/home, the subgenre may have multiple side characters succumb to threats. If the threat is large enough, main characters will as well. The one actual Wagons West story that I have read was The Overland Trail by Wendi W. Lee, and this novel about a wagon train did exactly that. There was a very large cast of characters, most of them having died by the end of the story. Again, First Strike is the same; the final number of people arriving at last at Earth is a fraction of the initial cast.

The second part of the Wagons West description is as follows:

“…and often families were involved imbuing this stories with relationship as well as survival issues.” (emboldening mine).

There it is again, that core theme of the novel. Relationships. Walking hand in-hand with the survival of the journey-centered plot. A true Wagons West. In a manner of speaking.

Of course First Strike lacks many of the trappings of the Western genre, and I would not place it even in the category of SF Westerns like Firefly and Cowboys & Aliens. However, in performing literary analyses, you will find that a lot of themes and writing styles cross between genres, which is the mark of a genre’s evolution and the evolution of literature in general.


 

Reading Journal Recommendations


Unfortunately I have very little experience in the Western genre of fiction, but I can give you other stories that have the journey-centered plot.

To again re-iterate a recommendation from my Fall of Reach post: The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell. Six books about a stranded military fleet, deep in enemy territory, trying to make it home.

Two of Robert A. Heinlein’s YA novels don’t necessarily have an end goal in-sight, but the journeys provided really capture wonders of space travel. Time for the Stars is a more reflective piece, and Have Spacesuit – Will Travel is a lighter fare with plenty of heart.

Finally, let me give a very strong recommendation to two (three) classics.

Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Don’t let the species of the characters dissuade you. This is a tale about home, companionship, and leadership. This is a brutal and emotional odyssey, tinged with love and hope. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It’s the pair of road trips that has been embedded in the cultural consciousness since their original publication. A resurgence came in 2001 with the first of the Peter Jackson films. What also was released in 2001? Halo: Combat Evolved. No, that’s not a coincidence; it’s a sign. Go read these books.


Reading Journal Arbiter Watch

Want more thoughts on The Flood? Head over to to DilDev‘s  tumblr for an installment of  “Arbiter Watch,” analyzing the canonical evidence for Thel ‘Vadamee’s appearance.



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