Wednesday, September 22, 2010

VGBC #2: Halo: Contact Harvest

Title: Halo: Contact Harvest
Author: Joseph Staten
Published: 2007

Halo: Contact Harvest is a perfectly abysmal videogame novel. The prose is readable, the plot is comprehensible, the characters have some degree of complexity, and the fictional universe is serviceable, if not compelling.

For an entry in the Video Game Book Club, these are all unforgivable sins.

Dammit, Joe Staten, you didn't give me a lot to work with here. Contact Harvest is actually a decent sci-fi paperback, and despite a few flagrant fouls - the medic named Healy and the one-armed captain with a robotic prosthesis straight out of Starship Troopers come to mind - blatant absurdities are few and far between in this book. And once you've accepted that you're in the Halo universe - or, even more simply, that you are reading a sci-fi paperback - you've already dismissed most of these, anyway.

The story of Contact Harvest, which is inexcusably coherent, centers around young Staff Sgt. Avery Johnson, who I guess grows up to be the badass with the gruff voice who orders you around in the games. Haunted by his past and indefensibly nuanced in his internal monologue, Johnson is caught up in the beginnings of the Terran-Covenant war. After an initial skirmish, Johnson is sent to Harvest - apparently some kind of Space Kansas - to toughen local farmers into a functional militia to defend the breadbasket planet from the approaching Covenant. Harvest's infrastructure is overseen by two AIs, whose internal monologues we are also privy to: an uptight Cortana-type called Sif and an aw-shucks Dubya-type called Mack, each of whom will become major players in the battle to come. There are also some other characters we give a shit about way more than we should.

Meanwhile, in a series of interspersed chapters, we are presented with a deplorably sophisticated portrait of the alien races of Covenant. Our protagonist for most of these sections is the preposterously-named but inexplicably likable Dadab, who is an Unggoy, or, as I understand it, one of Those Squeaking Little Bluish Guys With The Backpacks. He makes friends with another alien named (in italics, naturally) Lighter-Than-Some, who is a Huragok, or, as I understand it, a Covenant Native American. Staten uses these sections to flesh out the history and culture and religion of the Covenant, which is a particularly shitty thing to do, since now I have a clear understanding of and empathy for the beings I am going to repeatedly shoot in the face. Thanks, bro.

After some political machinations by Those E.T.-Looking Dudes In The Hoverchairs, the Covenant forces are sent to Harvest to eradicate the humans. Said holy crusade is, unbeknownst to everyone but the ruling E.T.s and the reader, entirely fabricated bullshit, making the massive conflict an entirely preventable war of volition and thus lending a disturbingly real-world sheen to the proceedings. Look, I'm not saying Halo: Contact Harvest grounds the mythology of a popular sci-fi videogame franchise in the flawed logic of the Bush Doctrine, but I am saying I'm pretty fucking mad at Joe Staten that his Halo book made me even have that thought. Or any thought, period.

Anyway, there's a climactic final battle, Johnson survives but the Fall of Reach can't be far away, yada yada yada. Let's just get to the
review criteria, shall we?

Fan Service Rating: KILLTACULAR out of 5 Stars
As the lead writer of the Halo games, Staten ought to know a thing or seven hundred about the franchise's mythology. My guess is that fans of the series will geek out over the copious backstory in Contact Harvest, although as a casual Halo player, to me it all sounded like a particularly dense episode of Deep Space Nine. Master Chief doesn't appear, but that's probably not an issue for fanboys since he apparently wasn't invented yet. Bro.

Of course, with all this attention on mythology, Staten occasionally lapses into Comic Book Store Guy gems like this:

No one had known that the Infusion Incident, as it came to be known, was the most important of many small grievances that precipitated the Unggoy Rebellion, a civil war that ushered in the Covenant's 39th Age of Conflict, and brought about a radical restructuring of the Covenant armed forces.

And I'm not accusing Staten of outright plagiarism, but I'm pretty sure this passage -
They had spent many of the holy city's artificial nights gathered around energy cores, suckling from communal food nipples and assisting each other in the memorization of glyphs and scripture.

- is directly ripped from Dianetics. Sneaky, Lord Xenu, very sneaky!

Explicit Callouts to Gameplay Rating: GRENADE JUMP out of 5 Stars
Contact Harvest is much too busy cleansing our Thetans to bother much with explicit callouts to gameplay, but there are a few instructive passages here and there. "In a war zone," we're told, "the Warthog's lack of roof and doors made it a dangerous ride." Oh, so that's why my dudes always get killed while I'm driving. Good to know. At one point there's a lengthy description of that one maneuver you do in the Warthog where you press the left bumper to skid, but since I can never pull that off without plunging off a cliff in the game I just kinda glossed over that bit.

Awesomeness of Front Cover Rating: BOOM, HEADSHOT out of 5 Stars
If you look closely, you'll see that the Ray-Ban-wearing, cigar-chomping, armor-eschewing, bicep tattoo-displaying Sgt. Johnson has a full clip of ammo in his Battle Rifle. NOT FOR LONG, BITCH.

Ridiculousness Rating: NOOB COMBO out of 5 Stars
This book is, unfortunately, well-written enough to pull off taking itself seriously for the most part. But Staten still manages to squeeze in the occasional fart joke:

Lighter-Than-Some deflated some of its gas-sacs with an obstinate toot.

And poop joke:

During the pause, an Unggoy named Yull idly scratched his hindquarters with a finger and offered it to another Unggoy to smell.

And sex joke:

She had always been partial to males with virile plumage. [...] With all the blood rushing to her shoulders, Chur'R-Yar began to feel deliciously faint.


The Minister of Fortitude had smoked too much.

Guilty Pleasure Rating: SPLATTER SPREE out of 5 Stars
Dammit, I didn't feel nearly embarrassed enough about reading this book, which, as I've said, is a sickeningly legitimate work of science fiction. There are even moments of sublime poetry:

Standing in the middle of the lowest tier, Avery couldn't see the falls past a border of magnolia trees, but he could hear them: water crashing against rock, like an endless peal of thunder - reveille for a world not yet awakened to its peril.

Of course, these are generally offset by groaners like,

"Bugger off!" Byrne yelled as the insect tumbled past.

And then there's the female military officer who has a spaceship named, I shit you not, Walk of Shame. I would feel significantly more guilty about reading Contact Harvest if Staten intentionally threw that phrase out there as a nod to any frat boys who might pick up the book as a distraction while their conquests padded around their dorm rooms collecting their clothes before embarking on an actual walk of shame.

Overall Infinite Lag Rating for Halo: Contact Harvest: KILLTROCITY out of 5 Stars
This book didn't suck nearly enough to qualify as a solid entry in the Video Game Book Club. Reading it, you will have far too few moments of clarity where you realize you're squandering your few remaining brain cells on a videogame novel. It's slim pickings for masochists, entirely lacking the oppressive inanity of Mortal Kombat, or next month's entry, StarCraft: Shadows of the Xel'Naga.

Screw you, Joe Staten. Recommended.

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