Halo’s Place In Science Fiction – Glasslands

Glasslands – Karen Traviss


Reading Journal Introduction


The Kilo-Five trilogy is so strongly linked together that it is near impossible, now that all three are published, to speak of them and their style in a wholly disjointed manner. Nylund’s books all interlock yes, and The Forerunner Saga has a thousand overlapping threads that I can hardly count, but there is still enough change in the style, the characters, and the story in order to view each book as distinct. In this sense, the Kilo-Five trilogy feels like Lord of the Rings: a single book split into three parts. As such I will still write three pieces for the Kilo-Five trilogy with a lean towards each novel, but will be referencing and commenting on the trilogy as a whole throughout all three.


Reading Journal Style


The style of the Kilo-Five trilogy is all about perspective. Traviss equips a third-person limited view, which allows contradicting statements to exist side-by-side and still add to the story. It especially becomes interesting when broad generalizations are made about the different races, and then have the actions or viewpoint segments of a member of that race support or diverge from the stereotype. It also helps to play on our expectations, comparing them to that of the viewpoint character. Two of my favorite moments in these expectations come with Jul and Osman’s assumptions regarding the Arbiter.

“‘Vadam wasn’t quite as tall as Jul had imagined. Somehow Jul had expected someone iconic, unreal, as befitted a fleet commander, but ‘Vadam simply held himself as if he were much bigger.” (Glasslands, pp 58-59)

“She’d expected the Sangheili to pack the audience chamber with as many intimidating hinge-heads as they could dredge up, to make a spectacle of the humans coming cap in hand to talk terms. But the room was smaller than she expected, and deserted except for a massive figure in full Sangheili armor standing silhouetted against the light of one of the long, narrow windows.” (Glasslands, pp 357)

   Thel Hood Halo 3

Halo 3

These outside expectations and perspectives of well-known characters given from new ones allows us a look both into the personalities of old and new acquaintances alike.

Perspective also makes the stories feel oddly small. There’s civil unrest across the Sangheili race, but we follow a husband and wife trying to care for their family and keep them safe. A war breaks out in a matter of days, but we follow an unwitting visitor-turned-refugee and a couple of old Admirals touring a ship. The Insurrection is rebuilding itself, but we follow the story of a grieving father and an estranged daughter.

This focus on the individual stories is what makes these books work. Grand shifts are happening in the political and societal cores of the galaxy, and while it would be intriguing to track those trends, they would mean very little if we did not see how it affected the people living in these years.

That isn’t to say the perspective style is without its faults. It still can cause consistency and flow issues within the story as emotional and plot threads appear to be dropped in favor of others.

The only consistency issue that truly stands out to me revolves around Halsey’s internal thoughts in Glasslands. After getting into the first of many arguments with Mendez, she resolves to treat the Spartan-IIIs with respect.

“‘Thanks, Spartan,’ she said. Do I mean that? Yes, I think I do. ‘I’ll try to find you a steak.’” (Glasslands, pp 42)

Halsey Spartan Ops 4

Spartan Ops Episode 4

Yet for the remainder of the book, she seems to forget her own development and continues to think and treat them as unstable experiments. On one hand it does take practice to develop new mindsets and break old ones, but Halsey never shows any progression besides putting on a front to be concerned for Lucy. By the time she leaves the Dyson sphere, there is no conclusion to her promise to Tom to find him a steak. Even if her external actions remained unchanged, it would still have been rewarding to see Halsey trying to remind herself of the resolution she made, especially as she is such a self-aware character. However, I think the negative way the Spartan-IIIs and Mendez view Halsey and view Halsey’s treatment of the IIIs are perfectly fine and would still fit with Halsey’s own struggle to alter her behavior.

A larger flow issue came with Mortal Dictata.

Upon rereading these books, I came to appreciate the slow burn that was the Venezia plot. My first read-through was with the yearly release of each novel, and thus I lost focus on this troublesome colony world in deference to the more immediate Sanghelios dynamic. This absolutely benefited the story when it came to the ongoing Earth/Colony dispute; it already felt present and relevant. It also allowed for the seamless blend of how the Spartan-II program affected colony citizens on a personal level, as opposed to the militaristic (as seen in The Fall of Reach) or even the mythological level (as mentioned in The Cole Protocol).

However, the effect this had on the Sanghelios conflict was jarring. Phillips’ emotional dilemma regarding the Sangheili that began in The Thursday War is quickly transferred to Naomi’s plight in Mortal Dictata. The removal of Jul as a viewpoint character was far more noticeable than the removal of Halsey or Parangosky, as the two women continued to have a presence and influence even in their absence. Jul was also a viewpoint character for the first two books, which lead to the feeling that the trilogy was Jul’s story as well as the Kilo-Five’s.

Jul Escalation Issue 14

Escalation Issue 14

Ultimately though, it is difficult to place too much blame on Traviss for the removal of Jul’s and Halsey’s stories as the trilogy continued. 343 Industries clearly had plans for these characters and Traviss could only take them so far before she began encroaching on said plans. It is rather similar to the restrictions Dietz had in writing The Flood.

Despite the issues that the perspective style brings to the surface – and no style is without issues – it was still a good choice for these novels. As I mentioned in my first article here on Halo Archive, this period in the Halo universe has become one where the black-and-white of good guys versus bad guys has been eradicated, resulting in varying shades of grey. Contradicting statements, high emotions, and hypocritical paranoia are essential to this changing galaxy.


Reading Journal Genreflecting


In the analysis of Hunters in the Dark, I mentioned that the Kilo-Five trilogy was entrenched in the science fiction paranoia defined by Philip K. Dick: “It’s not just “what if” – it’s “My God; what if,” in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming’” (Genreflecting, pp 340). The trilogy latches onto that fear of the “other” and the certainty that the “other” is out to get us (pp 369). This fear is the forward push for all the characters throughout the Kilo-Five trilogy, and it’s an interesting take because it shows us both sides of the fear.

It’s not just “The aliens are always coming,” it’s also “The humans are always coming,” and “Earth is always coming.” Here’s where the perspective style really shows its strength, as Kilo-Five blends the science fiction genre with conspiracy thrillers. For Jul ‘Mdama, Staffan Sentzke, and Catherine Halsey, the fear is of THEM.

“THEY are out there, and the readers know it. THEY control government, the media, and the churches; and THEY are determined to keep their secrets.” (Genreflecting, pp 166).

THEY, of course, are ONI. The boogeymen of the Halo universe. Ever since the beginning, we as readers have been taught to be wary of THEM. Yet the likes of Jul and Staffan only have a vague notion of who THEY are. For Jul, it’s all of humanity, with their deceit and relentless colonization. For Staffan, it’s Earth, who took his daughter and abandoned the Outer Colonies during the war. Both of these trace directly to ONI, the destabilization of Sanghelios and the kidnapping of the Spartan-II candidates, but both can only conceptualize ONI as “humanity” or “Earth” as a whole. Halsey, on the other hand, knows exactly who ONI is, to the point that THEY becomes HER.

“‘We’re honored,’ Halsey said, but Lucy saw real dread on her face for the first time. ‘It’s the Empress of Naval Intelligence. That’s Margaret Orlenda Parangosky.’” (Glasslands, pp 337).

Another aspect of conspiracy thrillers noted by Genreflecting is that “Only one person, with a little help from his friends, can expose the truth about their agenda.” (pp 166). From the outset, Kilo-Five looks to follow this trend. Jul is the sole sane person, able to see the human threat. He will dethrone the Arbiter and expose humanity’s deceit. Staffan is the grieving father, determined to find the proof about his daughter’s kidnapping. But as Hunt the Truth so devastatingly demonstrated, THEY win, or at the very least, THEY don’t lose.

HuntTheTruth Episode 13

Hunt the Truth Season 1, Episode 13

Jul escapes from ONI but not before they have used him to develop a bioweapon against his people. Staffan discovers the truth about his daughter, but his ship is taken from him and he is forced to go into hiding.

Another subversion of the conspiracy thriller is that ONI is not always THEM. This ties back into the Dick’s definition of science fiction, back to the fear that aliens are at our door with ill intent: the Sangheili are always coming. Chol Von’s actions are driven by the fear that the Covenant, this time lead by the Sangheili, will return to bring the Kig-Yar into submission again.  For ONI, the fear is that the Sangheili will return to finish the genocide they started all those years ago. In her viewpoint chapters in The Thursday War, Admiral Parangosky of ONI frequently cites her motto “capability, not intent” as a way to identify threats. On one hand, this keeps paranoia lowered. If someone has ill intent but is incapable of acting upon it, there is no threat. On the other hand, it’s the source of frequent paranoia. It doesn’t matter if the Arbiter intends to make peace with humanity; if he’s capable of attacking Earth again, he must be destabilized. It doesn’t matter if all Staffan wants is to discover what happened to his daughter; if he’s capable of glassing a portion of Earth, he must be removed. This motto of “capability, not intent” becomes a fear chant. The Sangheili are always coming. The Insurrectionists are always coming.

In this way, Kilo-Five is a unique look at a trend in the alien invasion narrative. The Science Fiction Handbook by  M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas notes that in many stories of alien invasion, authors take a stance of “any means necessary” to eradicate the threat. The Handbook takes particular note of anti-communist and Red Scare-era pieces, an time period from which the Kilo-Five trilogy appears to draw a lot of political and societal notes. The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein is given specific attention, as there is a gleeful tone given to the final assault on the alien aggressors’ homeworld (Handbook, pp 29). In contrast, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game displays open contempt for the “any means” philosophy; the titular character is at odds with his trainers who embrace these strategies. The Kilo-Five trilogy lands in the middle, again due to the perspective-based style. Characters approve or disapprove in varying measures, but the narrative itself makes no comment.


Reading Journal Our Expanded Universe


The perspective style also leads to each viewpoint character being a microcosm of Glasslands’ overarching story and themes. Nowhere else is this more present than in Lucy’s chapters.

As noted, Glasslands has a very large theme of distrust and paranoia and paranoia is the first emotion that we as a reader share with Lucy: “Get it before it gets us.” (Glasslands, pp 98).

She knows that something else is in the structure; something not human. Her gut instinct and all her experience tells her that if it’s not human, it’s a threat. This fear of the “other” and the uncertainty of the other’s motive are major factors for the Kilo-Five team with the Sangheili, Jul with humanity, Staffan with Earth, and Halsey with the Spartan-IIIs.

This perceived threat of Lucy’s is revealed to be a friend, ally, and help. Kilo-Five and Halsey both experience this. Serin understands that the Arbiter is sincere with his pursuit of peace. Halsey recognizes that the Spartan-IIIs are to be treated like the Spartan-IIs, but like Lucy, the discovery sometimes happens after the trigger has already been pulled.

Lucy’s act of trust towards Prone To Drift is a demonstration of vulnerability on her part, and it’s also where she takes a step ahead of the others in the story. It’s in The Thursday War and Mortal Dictata that the value of this vulnerability to establishing trust is explored by the Kilo-Five team. While Glasslands has a few moments of this development, the relationship between Lucy and Prone is more foreshadowing of the future both of the Kilo-Five trilogy and of the universe as a whole.

The return of Lucy’s voice is also an interesting thematic parallel to other portions of the Halo canon1. Lucy’s loss of voice is shown to be a combination of guilt and a devaluing of her self-worth, and she reclaims her voice through the defense of another. John-117 could be interpreted to have lost his voice metaphorically. He, along with his Spartan brothers and sisters, have been referred to as the “wind-up toy soldiers,” the machines that were just following orders. However, the two occasions we have seen him take a stance in defiance of authority has been to protect someone else.

Del Rio Halo 4

Halo 4

In The Flood, there’s a moment in which Major Silva of the ODSTs is briefing John on the situation on the Halo ring, and making sure that the Spartan understands the chain of command. His words quickly become derogatory and pointed.

“‘[Natural selection] is what happened to the Spartans, Chief: They died out. Or will, once you’re gone. And that’s where the ODST comes in. It was Helljumpers who took this butte, son – not a bunch of augmented freaks in fancy armor. … Do you read me?’
The Master Chief remembered Linda, James, and all the rest of the seventy-three boys and girls with whom he learned to fight. All dead. All labeled as ‘freaks,’ now dismissed as having been part of a failed experiment. He took a deep breath
‘Sir, no sir!’” (The Flood, pp 103-104).

The other iconic moment of John’s defiance comes in Halo 4, this time against Del Rio and in defense of Cortana. Both are moments in which John reclaims his metaphorical voice – his agency – to protect another.

On the flip side is Serin Osman. In Mortal Dictata, when Staffan finally learns the truth about what ONI did to the children kidnapped to be Spartans, he strikes out with his words, calling all of ONI into accountability and targeting Serin directly with an accusatory “you.” As a Spartan candidate herself, as a child kidnapped right along side Naomi, she wanted to distance herself from the accusation, “but she was ONI now, nearly CINCONI, and so far she’d done nothing to put it right.” (Mortal Dictata, pp 352).

As misplaced as her guilt is, it still stems from the same notion that returned John’s agency and Lucy’s voice. Serin believes that, as ONI and as a person exceptional enough to be considered for the Spartan-IIs, she could have made a difference and protected people. Since she did not, Serin believes that, in this conversation with Staffan, she has no right to a voice.


For more Halo analyses, take a peak at DilDev’s tumblr:  ARBITER ANALYSIS.

  1. There has been an ongoing discussion regarding disabled representation and the return of Lucy’s voice in Glasslands. This interpretation should not be used to disregard any portion of that dialogue.


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2 comments

[…] use of characters emotional truths in the perspective-based writing style discussed in the Glasslands analysis is what I think causes a great deal of the split in the fandom over these books. The […]

It appears that you missed the critiques of the Halo Mythos, Ender’s game, and the post-Cold War global state that Traviss made. On the other hand, I read the kilo five trilogy 2 years ago and I have not read many works of Phillip K. Dick so I might be mistaken about a few things. Regardless, I’m going to blunder ahead with my own meandering comment while hoping I make some sense:

Traviss’s first critique is of the spartan program which comes from Osman who laments something like: “They took children who could’ve filled leadership and intelligence positions and transformed them exclusively for front line combat operations.” Osman and other characters go on about how impractical and unethical the First World Child Soldiers idea actually is. An idea put forth by Orson Scott Card in the Ender’s Game series where the most intelligent children of future society are trained and placed in charge of military operations. Considering that Halo was initially conceived of as a strategy game, perhaps the child soldier aspect of the Spartans was carried over because it sounded hard core. Obviously, Someone must have been a big fan of Ender’s Game when they were sketching out details of the Halo universe, but they couldn’t grasp the nuanced practical elements.

All of this brings us to Traviss’s next critique of Ender’s Game itself. In Ender’s Game, the title character is chosen for service because after defeating a bully, Ender continues to pummel his opponent under the justification that it would deter future aggression. The exact wording eludes me but it’s (again) something like: “When your opponent is down, keep kicking them because each kick wins you future fights.” Parangosky uses the same words to justify fostering Sangheilli civil war, developing weaponized GMO crops, and building massive warships. Orson Card and Parangosky both failed to realize that each kick could also cause future conflicts much more severe than fisticuffs. I think subsequent Ender’s War novels explore the escalation and fallout, but in Traviss’s stories, the folly of control and safety through excessive force is exposed much more quickly.

The illusions of future victories brings us to Traviss’s final critique, that of the Post Cold War Global State. The initial mission of Kilo Five was to covertly supply arms to a faction that would ordinarily kill them on principle. That was literally what the CIA did with the Mujaheddin back during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Mujaheddin weren’t opposed to the soviets because they loved freedom. The Mujaheddin hated the soviets because they were outsiders and because the soviets wanted to provide education for girls. When the soviets left, the holy freedom fighters then declared war on the next nearest heathens: North America and Western Europe. Thus history (future history?) repeats itself: ONI covertly supports Sangheilli anti-human Isolationists who battle the Arbiter and the UNSC, thereby creating a new generation of Sangheilli who seek revenge on humanity. I don’t remember if the Russian ODST trooper brought any of this up.

And that conclude my big long rambling analysis. I should have posted this as it’s own article but I’m too busy to establish myself in this online community. Hopefully you enjoyed reading what I have written. Send me a message if you agree or not.

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