Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Smoke and Shadow
Usually my reading journals are split into three sections: the style of the novel, its place in the science fiction genre, and how it connects to the expanded universe of Halo. Any deviation from that format is usually when one section is so broad and deep that it overwhelms the others, such as the discussion of AI personhood for Saint’s Testimony or human trafficking for Mortal Dictata.
Smoke and Shadow by Kelly Gay, however, is a different case. There will be no division between style, genre, and EU because this book makes it impossible to discuss one without the other; it’s all connected under the umbrella of fanservice.
Fanservice is the inclusion of material in a story with the intent to please the fanbase. When it is usually talked of, fanservice refers to the framing of a character in a manner that objectifies and sexualizes them with the purpose of titillation. This subset of fanservice has my contempt and will not be talked about further in this piece.
The fanservice I wish to discuss is that of intertextual references, in appealing to fan knowledge of the content. Every piece of Halo fiction has this sort of fanservice, but none abides in it as fully as Smoke and Shadow. Even more impressive: Smoke and Shadow avoids many of the major pitfalls that can happen when a story relies on fanservice.
One pitfall of fanservice use is that it may end up making the universe seem smaller than it is. Too many people know each other; there’s not enough mystery left to the universe. Film critic Steven D. Greydanus calls this the “Shrinking World Syndrome” (Decent Films):
“As a franchise plays out, very often, the more the mythology expands, the smaller the universe gets. Previously unconnected characters and events that gave the fictional universe a certain expansiveness are increasingly tied together for dramatic effect, until the whole story is about a small group of closely connected individuals.”
This is not inherently a bad thing. Darwyn Cooke “shrinks” the world of the DC universe in the Eisner-winning The New Frontier by moving J’onn J’onzz from his initial origins in Middletown to Gotham, where he encounters Batman on a number of occasions. This allows for the two detectives to play off each other and highlight the flaws in the world they occupy.
However, when it is done poorly, aspects of the universe begin feeling contrived. Yoda going to Kashyyyk at the end of the Clone Wars was no issue. Yoda having a friendship with Chewbacca was a stretch. It had no narrative echo from the originals, and it didn’t give another layer of meaning to either character. It simply made the grand scale feel smaller. If it was an attempt to “ground” the film, then Yoda was the wrong choice of character for that connection. Both Yoda and Chewbacca are too large a part of the Skywalker legacy, and in radically different ways, that tying them together feels forced.
In Smoke and Shadow, it’s precisely because of Gay’s choice of characters that the novel is able to inhabit this grey area of connective tissue between Spartan Ops, Escalation, Kilo-Five, and Halo Wars. As the main cast is a group of scavengers, they can go multiple places and connect with a variety of individuals. There is more than simple or contrived coincidence bringing these characters together; there are internal motivations driving each of them.
It also helps that many of the characters Rion connects with are secondary players in the other stories: Sav Fel’s wife, Hood’s successor, Jul’s second-in-command. They are important people that we’ve seen before, but Gay avoids placing her new characters in competition with the sort of grand scale we find in the games. She is trying to tell a small, personal story and so selects her supporting cast appropriately.
As a result, the one connection to a major character is allowed to be given significant weight, and here’s where Gay’s fanservice utterly shines. She takes small moments scattered throughout Halo Wars and its guidebook and gives them meaning, adding emotional weight to John Forge’s words and actions that we’ve already had in front of us for years.
His flip comment to Professor Anders about “one for the scrapbook” suddenly has a sweet quality about it. He’s sincere about collecting memorabilia for his daughter. The ace on his shoulder is a way of carrying his daughter with him throughout the war. And his altercation with the superior officer…
This is a point in John Forge’s history that has been reiterated thrice over before Smoke and Shadow, a single panel mention in Genesis and two different accounts in the guidebook. This act of defending a woman from unwanted advances already is a positive aspect to his character, but secondhand accounts do little justice to the perspective of Rion and the vision of Forge appearing like an “avenging angel” to protect his family.
This scene is also a testament to how much thought Gay put into Smoke and Shadow. She took two somewhat conflicting stories: Forge defending his daughter in an officer’s bar, and a grown woman being assaulted by said officer. After all John Forge being 29 gives little wiggle room in terms of his daughter’s age. What Gay does then is crafts a scene that completes both accounts into one whole:
I was wondering if anyone would bring up the guide… that took some rethinking to merge conflicting accounts about the bar fight, Rion’s age, and the assault, so enter Jillian, the “woman,” and assault and Rion still being there.
…Love the guides, too. Really tried to reconcile things in a way that wouldn’t make any previous accounts wrong, just perhaps incomplete in terms of details.
…And this way we still get the physical assault (as well as a verbal toss at Rion) and one p-ssed off daddy.
(Kelly Gay’s “Tweets and replies,” 30th November 2016, minor edits for readability from Twitter-speak (I have more than 140 characters to work with here))
Gay may rely on fan knowledge for the reveal of Rion’s last name to carry the appropriate shock value, but she doesn’t rely on the love that fans already had for John Forge to carry the heartbeat of the father-daughter relationship. She put in the work herself, and as a result, she has converted a number of Halo fans, myself included, who hadn’t found John Forge to be an engaging character into fans who were invested in the legacy he left behind.
I say none of this to thumb my nose at Halo Wars; I hold it to be one of my top four, if not top three, Halo games in terms of story. It did a phenomenal job of creating memorable characters. But this is what an expanded universe can do: expand the characters, the setting, the universe. Gay certainly seizes upon that opportunity.
It’s not just Forge that gets fleshed out, but Gay’s selected supporting cast does as well. We see what happened to Sav Fel’s wife after Kilo-Five’s stint on Venezia, and we get to see what sort of personality she has beyond a shrieking Kig-Yar matriarch. We get the backstory behind Gek’s scar and a glimpse of what he was doing before Requiem. Even Hood gets a small treatment as we learn what sort of discipline he faced after losing The Spirit of Fire.
We also get a poignant expansion on the Mgalekgolo. In The Flood, we learned that the pairs they always come in are bonded, and when one is lost, the other is overwhelmed with grief. In The Ghosts of Onyx, we learn that the Hunters can communicate with the other races, but it’s on a different level, in which their intentions and words are more felt than heard. When Rion is cornered by the lone Hunter on the Covenant ship, the moments from both of those novels tie into the Hunter sharing its grief with her through those subsonic vibrations.
No matter whether it’s a character or a race, Gay wastes not a single moment to draw from or add to the existing universe.
Smoke and Shadow’s original characters are hardly given the short end of the stick either, and that’s another way that Gay dodges a pitfall: a reliance on fanservice to carry the story.
This is ultimately what held back the Star Trek novel Provenance of Shadows, which is halfway to being a masterpiece. In the portions of the story that diverge from the main timeline, the story and characters sing like the best that science fiction has to offer. In the portion that adheres to the main timeline, it feels like the author is just listing off events, hoping that our familiarity with the episode or movie will carry the emotional punch for us. As a result, moments as poignant as Spock’s sacrifice during Wrath of Kahn are treated as dull rote.
Another way this pitfall can occur is a reliance on aesthetic. One of the complaints I saw leveled against Forward Unto Dawn while it was still airing was the fact that we had to spend the greater portion of it following the cadets about, and it wasn’t until the final part that it truly “felt” like Halo. Now this I will thumb my nose at. While Halo is a very action-heavy franchise, it’s not the action that makes Halo. Halo is at its best when it shows meaningful connections between characters, and those connections are what make the action meaningful. Forward Unto Dawn would have been a far lesser movie if it chose to accentuate the Halo aesthetic over the character development. By choosing the reversal and saving the fanservice (in all its “spray and pray” glory) for the final part, Forward Unto Dawn made the fanservice mean something. Not just to long term fans, but to newcomers, and especially to the characters we had been following for the entire movie.
The cast of Smoke and Shadow get the same treatment that Forward Unto Dawn gave to the Hastati cadets. Each one of them is given distinct personalities and motivations, both small and large. Kip has his mission from ONI. Cade, like Rion, is running from loss. Lessa and Niko have their own, smaller, more personal motives: Lessa wants to be parented; Niko wants a raise. All these internal desires play off each other, crafting a dynamic that is unique to these characters.
Of course, this set-up of a crew of scavengers is going to garner comparisons to Firefly, but such comparisons are not inaccurate. What made the crew of the Serenity feel like family were the small scenes between the action and plot points. The small breaths of characters connecting. The Ace of Spades’ crew is no different. Whether it’s Lessa internally struggling on how to open up to Rion, Cade and Rion having multiple heart-to-hearts, or a moment of playfulness between Rion, Cade, and the siblings, Smoke and Shadow gives a heart to this crew the same way Forward Unto Dawn did for the cadets.
As Smoke and Shadow is far more embedded in what we known of the Halo Universe than Forward Unto Dawn, Gay does not have to wait to the final act to let swing wide ye fanservicey gates. In addition to all the characters she brings in, there are little threads here and there across the book, referencing both common and obscure knowledge in the lore.
And even with all these little pieces, she avoids yet a third pitfall: fanservice pulling the audience out of the story.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan disarms an assailant in a seedy bar. This scene in Attack of the Clones is an homage to A New Hope, but even though it’s a little on the nose, it’s not distracting. It doesn’t force the viewer out of the moment because A New Hope doesn’t need to exist for the scene to make sense in Attack of the Clones. It lives in its own context and then operates on a different layer as fanservice. Other moments in Star Wars work less well, such as Finn activating the chess set on the Falcon or C-3P0 and R2’s cameo in Rouge One. These moments serve little else other than to remind the viewer of that one thing that happened that one time in canon.
Like Obi-Wan and his bar fights, Smoke and Shadow’s moments of fanservice are clear but not distracting, because they make sense as story pieces first and as fanservice second.
- “Boren’s Syndrome,” which was first established in First Strike is the ailment that causes the death of Rion’s grandfather, which leaves her an orphan and gives her the impetus she needs to head for the stars.
- As the crew gets frustrated digging for information, Rion explains their problems by blaming the records of glassed planets, though Ben Giraud could have told them as much.
- The ace of spades that John Forge carries with him, as I mentioned before, also provides meaning to the name of Rion’s ship.
- Kip’s origins as an ONI man comes from the bioweapon attack on Sedra in Nightfall, and as someone who had a hard time distinguishing between Locke’s three subordinates in the first two episodes, the description of the ONI recruiters as “three identical men” certainly got a chuckle from me.
- The Banished get a shout out as well, in Rion’s recall of the other salvagers, pirates, and worse that she’s come across over the years.
- And in my favorite callback moment, Rion interacts with Forerunner technology in the exact same manner that John-117 did back in The Flood by William C. Dietz.
The Flood was written long before the franchise had established the Librarian-imparted geas, but the way Dietz wrote that moment –
He stopped at the source of the light, a pair of small, glowing orbs hung suspended above a roughly rectangular frame of blue matte metal. Floating within the frame were a series of pulsing, shifting displays – semitransparent, like Cortana’s holographic appearance, though there was no visible projection device. The display’s shimmering geometric patterns nagged at him, as if he should recognize them somehow. Even with his enhanced memory, he couldn’t place where he’d seen them before. They just seemed…familiar.
He reached a finger to one of the symbols, a blue-green circle. The Spartan expected his finger to pass through nothing more than air. He was surprised when his finger met resistance – and the panel lights began to pulse more quickly.
“What did you do?’ Cortana asked, her voice alarmed. “I’m detecting an energy spike.”
“I… don’t know,” the Spartan admitted. He wasn’t sure why he touched the “button” on display. He just knew it felt right.
[Cortana asked], “How did you know what control to push?”
“I didn’t. Let’s get the hell out of here.” (The Flood, pg 84-85)
– still holds up as an accurate model of how a character unfamiliar with the geas present in all humans might interpret its effects. And Rion, who has been entirely removed from the in-canon reveals of the Forerunner legacy, apes John’s reaction with an added touch of Ellen Anders to boot:
The room was smaller than she imagined, a circular space with a massive central column and two corridors leading off into darkness on either side. But it was the console that drew her. It was clearly made for a being taller than the average human. The display contained more strange symbols and shapes, pulsing blue and oddly hypnotizing.
Her attention snagged on a domed pad with the outline of what looked like a hand. Her fingers twitched. She reached up.
Cade grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”
His grip was firm and unyielding. For just the briefest of moments, she wanted to fight him, to jerk her arm away and slap her hand on that pad. “I don’t know.” What was she doing? The sensation passed, leaving her curious and a little shaken. She searched Cade’s face, trying to ascertain if he was similarly affected. “You don’t want to touch it?” (Smoke and Shadow, pp 1712-1713 on Kindle)
There are countless more connections, many which I left off this list for the sake of space, and very likely many that I missed. And as much as each piece of fanservice enriches the story, Smoke and Shadow stands on its own, to the point that it easily feels like the start to a new series.
The conclusion does carry a sense of closure – Niko got his raise, Lessa got parented, Rion saw her father’s face for the first time in years – but this also seems like a launch point. The ONI plot was introduced, but hardly concluded, Little Bit was introduced, and while Rion now holds the first solid evidence she ever had with finding her father, it is merely another bread crumb. What’s more is that Gay has proven that these characters stand on their own merit. She used the universe around them not as a means to prop up a weak story, but to embed a good one into the very heartbeat of the franchise. I will gladly step back aboard the Ace of Spades for as long as she’ll fly.
PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.