Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Cryptum

Reading Journal Style

In high school, I had onstage roles in two plays: Verges, the headborough to Dogberrry’s constable, in Much Ado About Nothing and Harriet, a bearded woman, in The Werewolf’s Curse or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. While it certainly seems unfair to compare Billy St. John to the Bard himself, I did vastly prefer the Shakespearean role, mainly due to the forced direction of the line reads from the script itself.

In Werewolf’s Curse, the script had adverbs placed as direction, as well as punctuation and capitalization of full words to tell me exactly how Harriet spoke:

HARRIET. (Threateningly.) Keep it up, Giganticus, and you’ll be using your “great strength” to pick your teeth up off the floor. (Werewolf’s Curse, pp 36, Acting Edition)
HARRIET. NOW you’re getting them!?! Funny you didn’t get any before the Baron warned us. (pp 65)

In contrast, Much Ado simply had the words that Verges would say, which gave me more freedom to make the character my own (inasmuch as a high schooler could):

VERGES. Nay, by’r our lady, that I think a’ cannot. (Much Ado, Act III Scene III Line 51)
VERGES. Yes, I thank God I am as honest as any man living, that is an old man, and no honester than I. (Act III Scene V Line 10).

Fresh off of reading Harry Potter for the first time (x), my reread of Cryptum put these novels in a similar frame of comparison. In her dialogue, Rowling frequently uses adverbs to describe the way a line is said, as well as full-word capitalizations in moments of overwhelming frustration. On the other hand, both Greg Bear and Shakespeare rely on the dialogue itself and the context surrounding the dialogue to provide the emotional “sound.”

Due to the lack of stage direction in Shakespeare – barring Enter, Exit, Exeunt, Dies, and Exit, pursued by bear – a great deal of meaning is given to the words in the context of the production as a whole. Take for instance, Puck’s introduction in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Depending on the performers and directors, the fairy who lists Puck’s names and reputation has either laughed uproariously at his antics or viewed them with haughty distaste. The first response helps to paint the fairy culture overall as those who love a good laugh at the expense of mortals; the second emphasizes the impish nature of Puck and the rivalry between Oberon and Titania.

Productions can also give additional meaning to the words beyond the script provided. In Much Ado About Nothing, the argument the Hero has with her waiting-gentlewoman Margaret over her outfit seems to be, in Shakespeare’s original work, a simple setting of a scene.

MARG. Troth, I think your other rebato were better.
HERO. No, pray thee, good Meg, I’ll wear this.
MARG. By my troth’s not so good, and I warrant your cousin will say so.
HERO. My cousin’s a fool, and thou art another. I’ll wear none but this. (Act III Scene IV, Lines 5-8)

However, in Joss Whedon’s take on Much Ado takes this scene and makes it about a dress that Margaret borrowed when she was used to frame Hero. Shakespeare provides the dialogue, but each production provides the context, filling out the spaces between the spoken words.

Much Ado
Image: Margaret and Hero discussing the dress in Joss Whedon’s
Much Ado (Image from NY Times)

A script involves a process and is not, like “literature,” a finished product. The concept of the script insists that the plays themselves “are somehow incomplete, or unrealized until they exist in the act of performance.” (H.R. Coursen, Reading Shakespeare on Stage, pp 45)

In this way rereading Cryptum felt like reading a “completed” Shakespeare play. Unlike Rowling or Billy St. John, we are rarely told directly what emotion the dialogue is supposed to be carrying. While Bear does make use of italics for emphasis, they are not used frequently, and if “said” is replaced, it is done so by an equally neutral word such as “asked” or “concluded,” which the eye can quickly pass over and ignore. Thus the dialogue carries itself to a certain extent, much like Shakespeare’s scripts. Take the first interaction between Bornstellar and Chakas for example:

CHAKAS. They swear they’re using the newest songs. We shouldn’t move until they figure it out.
BORN. You assured me they were the best.
CHAKAS. My father knew their fathers.
BORN. You trust your father?
CHAKAS. Of course. Don’t you?
BORN. I haven’t seen my real father in three years.
CHAKAS. Is that sad, for you?
BORN. He sent me there. To learn discipline.
(Cryptum, pp 12-13)

The back-and-forth between Bornstellar and Chakas introduces conflicts through the ways the characters’ words play off each other. Through this brief dialogue, we are shown that Bornstellar is suspicious of Chakas and in rebellion against his father, without either of those emotions being directly stated. But while Bornstellar’s emotions are rather clear by the dialogue alone, Chakas’ is not.

Like the fairy giving Puck’s introduction, Chakas’ character is open to interpretations. Is he truly nervous about the songs not working, or is he a con artist trying to assure his victim that he didn’t plan this hiccup? Here is where the “performance” of the character makes the scene complete; through his gestures and looks, we know Chakas is as dismayed at their current predicament as Bornstellar.

Essentially what Greg Bear does throughout Cryptum is what Whedon did with the small addition of Hero’s dress. For every conflict, every character emotion and motivation, Greg Bear doesn’t tell us what is going on. He shows us.

Reading Journal Genreflecting

Archive member Chronarch once compared the Forerunner Saga to Young Adult Dystopian fiction, and it is a comparison that fits surprisingly well, especially with Cryptum. While Bear may not have intended such similarities, there are some amusing examples of frequent tropes, such as the naming conventions suggested by a humor article from The Telegraph

Bolt on an adjective, or an intriguing misspelling. Don’t miss the opportunity to eek out a few extra syllables. Compound words together. Freestyle it.

– which brings to mind a protagonist named Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting. There are also many serious and occasionally subversive takes on YA Dystopian tropes.

One such trope of an Unlikely Mentor [Pop-Verse] – “usually hermits or recluses, have bizarre ideologies, and often extremely flawed in one way or another (you will notice they often have an obvious vice such as drinking).” Examples we see are the titular character in The Giver and Haymitch in The Hunger Games. The Didact, in self-exile at the beginning of Cryptum, plays this role for Bornstellar, and despite having the same stomach for liquor as Haymitch, his role is far closer to the Giver’s, even to the point of passing along memories.

Didact Halo 4 Terminals
Image: The Didact from the Halo 4 Terminals

A major difference between the Didact and most other mentors is that the Didact is, to a certain extant, the goal of the story. Bornstellar is constantly pursuing him. At first, it is because Bornstellar is seeking historic treasures and instead finds his grumpy mentor: an accidental pursuit. Later, however, Bornstellar finds himself actively seeking out the Didact’s knowledge and advice, both in-person and through the imprint left by the brevet mutation. In this way, the Didact is far more integral to the core story than mentors usually fall. Even the Giver, who comes closest, is never the goal of the story.

Another such trope is the idea of a single life-changing event that all children face. The Reaping. The Choosing Ceremony.

Today’s the day the thing happens. The one big thing that happens to you nowadays — only one Thing happens to you, and it happens to everyone. Today’s the day of the test. Today’s the day of the Sorting. Today’s the day we are Chosen. Today’s the day we go to the City and get selected. Today’s the Thing Day. Normally one thing happens, but this time a different thing will happen, because of how different we are, which is unusual. There’s only five things you can be, but I’m a different thing. Society just made everyone pick one thing, somehow. You have to wear the matching jumpsuits or else you’re the wrong thing. (The Toast)

Forerunner mutation fits into this trope, with the double bonus of a class system (Pop-verse), though it plays more like the Reaping from The Hunger Games in that it happens again and again over the course of their lives. But like the Choosing ceremony, this is what decides where a person’s position in society is and where they fit on the social hierarchy. Mutation differs from both of those by being a more provate affair. With Bornstellar, his “Thing Day,” his mutation should have been a very significant event, being from a highly-respect Builder family. Instead, his mutation was a brevet form done by an exile from a lower class than he.

The strict government trope is certainly in play, as Forerunners impose their rule on the other species with force as well as keeping up a social hierarchy between rates. Learning this was actually a bit of divergence from what a great deal of the canon had established previously, setting up the Forerunners to be benevolent martyrs when they were as flawed as any race. Greg Bear acknowledges that with the opening chapter of the book:

The Forerunner story – the history of my people – has been told many times, with greater and greater idealization, until I scarcely recognize it. (Cryptum, pp 9)

Ironically, this is where we come to the point that Bornstellar differs from some of the more modern YA dystopian heroes. Bornstellar himself romanticizes the history of his people, days of “[h]istoric glory shined so much brighter” than the present. Other YA protagonists have not such history to romanticize. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Tris Prior (Divergent), and Thomas (Maze Runner) are born in years that are dark and have been dark for years. There’s no old glory to seek in these stories, and no record of it like that which propels Jonas in The Giver. In this case, it would be easier to relate Bornstellar to a small, mousey protagonist named Matthias:

“Oh, Father Abbot,” he sighed. “If only I could be like Martin the Warrior. He was the bravest, most courageous mouse that ever lived!”
…Once more the Abbot’s heart softened towards the little mouse. “Poor Matthias, alas for your ambitions. The day of the warrior is gone, my son. We live in peaceful times, thank heaven, and you need only think of obeying me, your Abbot, and doing as you are bidden.” (Brian Jacques, Redwall, pp 15, 16)

Both Bornstellar and Matthias are those who look towards the past for adventure and glory, only to Namely becoming a sort of reincarnation of an ancient warrior with an uncanny resemblance to said warrior. There is also an inscription tied to the warrior’s memory that drives both of them ever onwards. “I – Am That Is” and “You Are What You Dare.”

Reading Journal Our Expanded Universe

There are somethings that can be horrifying on a conceptual level; the idea of it is something you know you never want to happen. For the first ten years of the Halo franchise, the titular ring’s effects was exactly that, and to a certain extent, that’s all it needed to be. Widespread, nondiscriminatory death on a galactic scale was bad enough of an idea to motivate our heroes and us as players to stop the rings’ activation.

Then, in 2011 and again in 2013 and 2015, we were given a closer look at what it meant to be caught in the fire of a Halo ring. We were shown exactly what awaited the galaxy.

In Cryptum, the focus is on the environmental destruction. While we’ve seen plenty of areas with emotional devastation in fiction, most of it tends to be dry and barren, skeletons bleached by the sun. When the protagonists visit the planet Faun Hakkor on which a Halo was tested, they don’t just find a barren wasteland. They find decay.

All that remained, apparently, were mosses, fungi, algae, and their combined forms…
“All oceans and lakes and rivers are sour with decaying matter. Sensors indicate extensive ecosystem collapse.” (Cryptum, pp 132-133)

Perhaps it’s the originality of a “wet” version of a destroyed ecosystem, but the thought of innumerable bodies slowly decomposing together seems far more horrifying than piles of dry bones.

In Silentium, the horror takes a step back from the visceral and instead communicates the idea of loss. We are given a suddenly glimpse of a new species before they are snatched away forever.

There is one last patch of communication, somewhere below, within a great dense cloud – perhaps a star nursery. A new and precocious civilization acquiring its voice only now, having eluded both the Forerunners and the Flood… sending its first plaintive, hopeful signals.
Crying out for attention. Heed us!
I do not understand what they are trying to say. Do not know what they might have looked like, cannot imagine what they might have done, had they been born in more fortuitous times.
And then… even that young voice is gone

My galaxy is dead. (Silentium, pp 329-330)

Most recently, Shadow of Intent made the fire of Halo personal. This was the point when the horror moved completely outside of the abstract and told us what it would feel like as individuals to be hit by its blast.

The energy wave, or whatever it was, slammed into the Half-Jaw’s mind. One instant he had the complete memory of that day in the tide pools. The next moment, he did not – and never would again. When the energy wave hit, the foremost thoughts in the Half-Jaw’s mind were scoured clean. And when the light from the orbital finally faded from his eyes, Rtas was surprised to find he was screaming.
He was not the only one. (Shadow of Intent)

Within the few moments after being caught on the edge of the ring’s range, Rtas struggles with basic motor skills and remembering his own language. The event is so traumatizing that when the ring powers on again, shaking with a “deep, almost inaudible hum that shook their skulls inside their helmets,” Rtas and his companion have to fight back panic.

These three instances combined give a far more complete picture of what exactly we are fighting against every time a Halo is activated.

For Mary, my 5th grade reading buddy. Thank you for making me feel tall. <3

DilDev has a TUMBLR for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WORDPRESS site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for CHRIST AND POP CULTURE (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).

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