ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE OLD HALO ARCHIVE, JUNE 2015
Reposted without edits, save navigational issues.
Review and analysis of Contact Harvest by Joseph Staten
Through a misunderstanding of their scriptures, the Covenant discover humanity and view them with ill intent. A barely-trained militia and two marines are the only things that stand between the civilians of the colony Harvest and the imminent alien invasion.
Contact Harvest is one of the slowest books of the Halo series. Not in a plodding manner though. It’s like taking a walk through the woods with your friend; you’re not there to get from Point A to Point B, though you eventually will. You’re there to spend time in the woods with your friend, to get to know them and the scenery a little better. Perhaps the stroll is to take you away from all the busy work you have piled up or the frustrations that have compounded in your life. It’s a chance to breathe. As such, I very much consider Contact Harvest to be a stroll through the Halo canon.
For example: the trip down from the orbital Tiara on the space elevator when Johnson first arrives on Harvest could have been told in a few sentences. Joseph Staten decides instead to spend seven pages on the descent. He takes this time to flesh out the world of Harvest through both Mack’s narration and the view Johnson has out the window. In addition, this gives Staten time to establish Healy’s character and his relationship to Johnson. As a result, the overall story benefits – giving us characters to relate with and a setting to envision.
Another method to describe Staten’s style is “cinematic,” fitting for his status as the cinematics director for the Bungie era of Halo. Staten selects a point of view or camera angle, so to speak, and describes the scene from that position before “cutting” to another angle.
The first moment that this is really made clear is in Dadab’s introduction. We follow him from the plundered human ship to his quarters aboard the Covenant one, with the scenery interacting with him in almost the style of a tracking shot. Anything that is not exposition is directly interacting with Dabab and his five senses. But as he tosses his breathing apparatus away, Lighter Than Some catches it, entering the scene through an indirect interaction before the two characters are brought together in conversation. Thus Light Than Some’s entrance feels like a cut to a new camera angle.
In this sense, it reminded me to a certain extent of Tolkien’s work. The first clue to Gollum’s pursuit of the Fellowship is given in an evocative description of the character’s footfalls all from Frodo’s perspective. But later in the Mines of Moria, Tolkien pulls back to an omniscient perspective, showing each of the characters’ reactions to the battle at hand. Cinematic, descriptive, taking you on a stroll with the characters through the world.
There is a feel of deliberateness to every line and for every situation in Contact Harvest. Some pieces of foreshadowing are clearly visible, such as Johnson closing his eyes to prevent an unsavory visual from embedding itself: “Memories have a habit of coming back, and this was a scene he’d rather not revisit.” (Harvest, pp 15). This of course pays off rapidly as Johnson leaves the mission with his own share of PTSD.
Other lines are less obvious. The stun rounds used in the militia training seem to fit in with the general science fiction topes of military training. In the context of the training exercise, they seem but a footnote. Staten does not leave it there, but rather provides a pay-off, unlooked for but effective, as a twist on a tense scene between al-Cygni and Thune.
The highlight of this deliberateness is the mass driver story told at Harvest’s Solstice Celebration.
“Pederson proceeded to explain how, not long after the DCS installed Sif in the Tiara, there had been a critical failure in her data center’s power supply. This forced all technicians to stop all activity on her strands or risk a load imbalance that would have collapsed the entire system. It had been a serious crisis, and Mack decided to solve it by using the driver to boost a new power supply into orbit.
Trying to be as helpful as possible, he shot the component right into the Tiara’s number-four coupling station. It was an incredible accomplishment. But when Sif’s technicians restored her power and she learned what Mack had done – how he could have easily obliterated her data center – Sif had not been amused.” (pp 120).
Solely from Johnson’s perspective, this is an amusing anecdote that adds to the party atmosphere. To the first-time reader, who has already met Mack and Sif, this is the origin story to the two AI’s contentious relationship. In the context of the story as a whole, this is foreshadowing. Not only is the mass driver used to damage the Covenant ship Rapid Conversion, but it’s also used by Mack’s alter ego to destroy the Tiara and kill Sif.
All these aspects of Staten’s style makes for a tightly-written, yet emotionally-appealing novel.
In his book Scientific Mythologies, James A. Herrick shows that a number of science fiction authors and scientific thinkers, such as the renowned Carl Sagan and astronomer and historian Steven Dick, have certain expectations about extraterrestrials and their faith.
“[Dick] affirms that aliens may have something to teach us about religion. ‘It may be,’ he writes, ‘that in learning of alien religions, of alien ways in relating to superior beings, the scope of terrestrial religion will be greatly expanded in ways that we cannot foresee.’” (Mythologies, pp 17-18)
Sagan and Dick both spoke of benevolent aliens making this first contact, with a deliberate proselytizing gesture. Many stories, such as Contact, Childhood’s End, 2001 A Space Odyssey, all have follow this notion that we would actively learn from these evangelical visitors about our place in this universe. Contact Harvest is not one of these stories.
While first contact with the Covenant is a result of our identity as a species, and learning about the origins of their faith teaches us even more about that identity, it’s not an act of outreach by the Covenant. What Sagan and Dick’s theories and that branch of science fiction rely on is the ability of a species to ascend to a form of benevolent deism. Halo is almost a deconstruction of that subgenre.
The first aliens humanity contacted after the firing of the Halo rings are in pursuit of deism, but it is not a benevolent pursuit. The caste structure and racism within the Covenant are enforced by this pursuit, and the grafting of a new species into the Covenant was often an act of violence if not all-out war. The Forerunners are initially painted as benevolent, both as deities and as a mortal race. However with Greg Bear’s works and Halo 4, it’s revealed that the Forerunners are as just as violent and capable of malevolence as any other race. Precursors too, the race that the Forerunners revered as gods, have their own faults and is the source of the greatest plague of the galaxy. Even the Mantle of Responsibility is twisted by those who claim to uphold it. Halo’s universe is inherently broken, as are its species. There is no ascension to be found within another being or race. There is no one being that holds the answer or solution to all.
That’s not to say the Halo universe lacks hope, rather the hope is found in the reconciliation of the broken species and individuals to each other. While Contact Harvest takes place at the beginning of the Human-Covenant war, we still see shades of characters crossing species lines. These shades mainly come from the Unggoy Dadab’s perspective and the challenges brought to him by the Huragok Light Than Some. The efforts towards peace from Light Than Some will take over two decades to be realized, leaving Contact Harvest entrenched in the subgenres of “Aliens and Alien Invasions” and “Military SF.”
Genreflecting notes that Military SF often have “their own versions of larger-than-life inter-galactic conflict, weird aliens, and dastardly Galactic Emperors” (Genre p 351). While Contact Harvest is limited to intra-galactic conflict, Staten gleefully fulfills the rest of the requirements.
Here we follow Halo’s “dastardly Galactic Emperor” and his rise to power. Instead of having the Prophets of Truth, Regret, and Mercy already instated as the Covenant leaders, a main thread follows the schemes of the first two to become Hierarchs. This focus on the political maneuverings, especially from Truth’s (known as the Minister of Fortitude at this time) perspective is reminiscent of the Prequel Trilogy of Star Wars and Palpatine’s rise to power.
Not only are “weird aliens” present, but the weirdness is remarked upon. Great care is taken to describe what the Kig-Yar, Huragok, Jiralhanae, and Unggoy all look like upon first contact and in comparison to each other. We even get the perspective of Dadab meeting the terrifying and savage alien that is pilot Henry “Hank” Gibson. This, along with the translation difficulties between the two factions, helps to emphasize the “ultimate ‘other’” that Genreflecting notes in its section on “Aliens and Alien Invasion” (pp 369).
Despite Halo being a deconstruction of the alien religion subgenre, evangelism is not completely absent. The turning point for Dadab from fearful compliance to a willful stance against the Jiralhanae come when Light Than Some points out the lack of evangelism.
“<All creatures will take the Great Journey, so long as they believe.> The Huragok’s limbs unfurled with slow grace. <Why would the Prophets deny these aliens a chance to walk The Path?>” (Harvest pp 341).
We see two other instances in the Halo Universe in which the Covenant religion is a point of discussion between humans and aliens. Osman neatly sidesteps a religious debate with ‘Telcam in Glasslands and in the graphic novel Blood Line, Reff offers to perform last rites for Black One, to ensure that she can partake in the Great Journey.
Contact Harvest also provides parallels to Lasky’s story in Forward Unto Dawn. Lasky’s uncertainty in fighting Innies mirrors Johnson’s guilt over the civilians caught in the crossfire. While Lasky doubts his current path, in learning to fight “over-taxed farmers,” Johnson goes AWOL after a mission destroys many innocent lives. Both of these characters find renewed purpose in the war against the Covenant.
The mission that sent Johnson AWOL involved a child being taken hostage by an Insurrectionist. He stalled his shot because he couldn’t differentiate between the two heat signatures, and civilians and marines were killed by a bomb’s detonation. Later he would be haunted by this same scene, as he “imagined the perfect shot that would have saved all in the restaurant and his fellow marines” (pp 45).
Twenty-eight years later, he is on the receiving end of a similar struggle. Dr. Catherine Halsey gives the Master Chief a choice on which data to give ONI, the one with less intel or the one that would sign Johnson’s death warrant. And she gives this choice with a lesson:
“For a long time I had thought that we had to sacrifice a few for the good of the entire human race … But I’m not sure that philosophy has worked out too well. I should be trying to save every single human life – no matter what it cost.” (First Strike, pp 296)
Being written by Joseph Staten, we see plenty of other nods to the Universe and canonical explanations for certain items. The Brute Chopper, for instance, finds its origins in these pages. Another notable moment is in the Minister of Fortitude’s plot thread, as he reminisces on the origins of the Covenant. This is actually homage to a deleted cinematic from Halo 2 [x], which was scrapped for time. All these connections are due to both Staten’s own love for the universe and his respect for the fans’ understanding of the Halo universe [x].
For a more emotional reaction to Contact Harvest, check out the companion series to the reading journals: Arbiter Watch.