Halo: Glasslands by Karen Traviss – Paperback Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at the latest product of Karen Traviss’ mind, Halo: Glasslands.
“Fit for kindling” – The Founding Fields
If you want to see the worst way in which to behave in relation to writing for an expanded universe you need only look at the works of Karen Traviss. Infamous for her borderline preaching, infighting with other authors, bloated tumorous additions to series’ plotlines for the sake of pure self-satisfaction, mass fan insults and a sheer lack of research or respect for the canon; how she retains not only a career but also a fandom is a complete mystery.
Having written for both the Star Wars expanded universe and Gears of War series, she set her sights on Halo and proceeded to repeat many of her past mistakes.
Serving as a sequel to Ghosts of Onyx and supposedly the start of a post-Covenant War trilogy, Glasslands follows the story of the war’s survivors. Having endured the destruction of Onyx the small band of humans and SPARTAN II and IIIs search for a way off of the dyson sphere and back to their reality. Meanwhile tensions between the Sangheili have reached fever pitch. Despite his best efforts former Arbiter Thel Vadam finds many of his people are still heavily bound to worship of the Forerunners and seek to return to war against all unbelievers. As peace talks break down, the UNSC’s ONI branch seeks to take advantage of the fighting. To weaken the potentially threatening species and secure human dominance among the stars…
This setting is perfectly fine and seems to work overall. Where it falls apart is with the author and execution of such ideas, who turns something potentially exciting into wallpaper paste levels of drivel.
The book needed to deal with the aftermath of the war, a horrendous conflict which had driven humanity to the verge of annihilation. Earth was in ruins, partially glassed no less, billions lay dead and many colonies had been lost. The problem is that very little actually reflects this. Traviss opts to tell rather than show and besides a few conversations and referencing of the damage the war has caused, we see very little of it. One point early on is actually set on earth with two ODSTs visiting Australia, talking about the devastation with someone, but very little in the descriptions try to reflect the level of damage they discuss. Despite it being the book’s apparent aim it does nothing to focus upon the post Covenant War state of the UNSC or the level of devastation left in its wake. One of the few times the effects of the war is actually shown, on a glassed world so less, the scene is so utterly focused upon one conversation that you get barely any effective emphasis upon how horrifying the environment is. Or the characters even really talking about the fact they are standing on the heat blasted remains of what was once a thriving human planet.
The way the characters are written only makes things infinitely worse. Having read through this novel I honestly feel guilty for criticising Chris Wraight on his portrayal of the Iron Hands. As blank as they might have been at least you got some sense of their traditions. At least they were written like space marines and you could tell instantly when the person speaking was a Guardsman, astartes, Magos or Princeps. Here though? Nothing. Everything reads as if it’s being said by one person and has almost nothing to differentiate them from one another. It’s so bad that Australian characters only seem able to establish their nationality by stating “mate” at the end of every couple of sentences. At best you might get some overriding attitude or action which will give some shade of difference, but barely anything truly feels different between characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re civilians, survivors of massacres, terrorists or children turned into genetically enhanced supersoldiers. All of them are written in exactly the same manner no matter their political standing, plans or even opinions.
Two standout examples of the dire characterisation are Thel Vadam and Lucy B091. Both were characters with some dimension to them who were handled by other authors in previous novels, developing over time.
Thel, AKA the Arbiter, is an alien and quite a unique one at that. Despite having originated from a species so zealous and violent Gregor Clegane would raise an eyebrow at their antics, he is fairly level headed. His faith having waned due to personal doubt, loss and visible corruption by their spiritual leaders, yet retaining many warlike aspects. His evolution and attitude remained fairly consistent throughout the series and is one of Halo’s biggest characters. Traviss not only writes him in the exact manner she does humans, with no differentiation in descriptions, thought or style but supplants his personality. Giving him one which barely resembles anything we’ve seen before from him.
A major character in Ghosts of Onyx, Lucy was one of two survivors of the pyrrhic Operation: TORPEDO in which an entire company of SPARTANs was wiped out. Rendered mute from the trauma of the experience, she was a constant presence and helped to add to a subtle “war is hell” message in the novel. There were no prolonged sections inside her head and her distinct lack of speech only emphasised upon how devastating a SPARTAN’s life could be, emphasising that through all the training and armour they were still human on some level. Traviss proceeds to wreck any sense of this by, not only failing to understand this subtlety, but also turning her into a viewpoint character. One who thinks and acts just like every single other person and who gives absolutely no impression of mental scarring or personal horror, only that she doesn’t seem to want to talk. Worse still, this aspect is reduced to a ham fisted effort to needlessly demonise a character for little to no reason.
Said demonization and the ultimate failing of the novel is the treatment of Dr. Catherine Halsey. Creator of the SPARTAN II Program, established scientist and expert on Forerunner technology, and political strawman extraordinaire of Glasslands. Unfortunately it would take an entire essay to fully analyse just how botched the use of her character is within this tale, as such consider this the short version. Along with the sudden removal of all intelligence, backbone, vague indication moral standing or competence, she is used as Traviss’ chew toy. A figure constantly on the receiving end of any and all war related arguments about genetic enhancement, cloning or creation of weapons; even when they’re used with great regret and reluctance. She is written to suddenly consider herself above good and evil, without a soul and is openly compared with Josef Mengele. Someone who now suddenly completely embraces an Ubermensch and sees other human beings as effectively only subjects of scientific interest. This includes her lover and father of her daughter, Jacob Keyes.
Every character in the novel is written to argue against Halsey; constantly humiliating her and utilising her for their own preaching. Or rather Traviss’ preaching, with their new poorly redefined characterisations serving as her mouthpieces. Why? Because she created the SPARTAN II Program and Traviss personally hates genetically enhanced soldiers, superior figures which do not originate from warrior cultures and weapons developers.
Who are the characters used to argue against her?
Margaret Parangosky, head of ONI who is now trying to drive the Sangheili to borderline extinction with civil war. Rather than just supporting the human friendly side she considers bombing them both in secret to be completely justified. ONI was also involved in not only commissioning the SPARTAN II Program (a fact the story completely ignores, apparently pretending Halsey set it up as a subject of curiosity) but also the SPARTAN III Program. One which, unlike before, used the soldiers for mass suicide missions and as cannon fodder. She and ONI are also supposedly this story’s heroes.
Franklin Mendez, Senior Chief Petty Officer of the UNSC. Drill sergeant of not only SPARTAN II recruits who willingly put them through hell, but also of the SPARTAN IIIs. Someone who worked with Halsey and had no problems helping send young children to their deaths even after the new program was initiated. The book ignores any actions by him in favour of hypocritical speeches towards Halsey.
And finally the SPARTAN IIIs, specifically Team Saber. SPARTANs who were trained not only by a Mk. II, and are alive because of the IIs sacrifices, but also know that Halsey had no involvement in turning them into soldiers. In fact she went so far as to try and prevent the Program going ahead, sabotaging it before they could be sent into combat.
Yet all of them hate her with every fibre of their being and we’re expected to support them.
This reaches truly insulting levels when Lucy punching Halsey in the face somehow cures her of her inability to speak. Ignoring the fact this should have outright killed the unenhanced woman in her mid-sixties, this is connoted as if this were a child striking back against an abusive parent. Not only succeeding in making little sense, but undermining a part of Lucy’s character and writing deep personal trauma as something which can be overcome in an instant. Charming.
That final point might have been long but it highlights the biggest problem with anything written by Traviss: They’re not novels. She doesn’t write stories, tales or any kind of fiction which features multi-faceted characters or even moral grey areas. What she writes is personal filibusters. Poorly constructed, terribly written, badly disguised essays preaching her personal beliefs and trying to shout down any counter argument. As such this doesn’t deserve a verdict. Goto, Campbell, Hopeless; whatever the quality of their work on some level they were at least trying to write something for other people to enjoy. Something with actual characters, a plot and ultimately a story. Glasslands? I can’t even find myself capable of recommending it out of bile fascination. Avoid both it and any of this author’s works.