Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Robosoldiers

In this exciting new anthology from Baen, we are examining the non biological soldiers of the future. This isn't as crazy as one might imagine. Older than we think, the first UAV was the "Aerial Target" flown in 1917, while a robot for antitank purposes was deployed by the Wehrmacht in 1942. Drones and robots are becoming more common on the battlefield every year. From little bomb disposal bots, to enormous fixed winged unmanned aerial vehicles. What might the future of autonomous warfare hold? These authors intend to stretch our imaginations and find out! Real thanks to Sean Korsgaard for tipping me off on the release date so I could snag it!

It's a collection of thirteen stories that I'm looking at, so here's a brief primer on each and my own thoughts. There's some gems in here and ones which expanded my own thinking about the way we might see robots in future wars. Here are the Robosoldiers, thank you for your servos!

Higher Ground (M. T. Reiten): In the sequel to Afghan War I the US is back, but this time with mobile autonomous Guardian soldiers. Clever, but not especially bright in some cases. It's a really well contained story that sets up a tactical problem, the limits of a system, and how even mundane robots could be used to deadly effect in the future.

Today I Go Home (Martin L. Shoemaker): A mechanical warrior has been found deep in the jungles of Central America along the border of Belize and Guatemala. An expat technician is called home so he can help end the threat of a now rampaging machine which kills anyone who comes near. Can he overcome old grudges and find a way to save his country from chaos? 

I enjoyed this one because it was a fairly close knit story of a technician and not a soldier. Some clever use of machine learning and programs as well, which added to an overall mystery element in a way which built some very well plotted tension.

All Is One (Doug Beason): A clever take on the future of Space Force and the potential for space based satellite surveillance. It's a bit of an "AI doesn't understand humans and that's dangerous" story which is always good to counter the 'uber AI' narrative it's proponents tell. It has a clever conclusion, but might have been on the weaker side, if only because it was constrained by the short story aspect which didn't give it enough room to make the story really eerie. I loved the subtext around the dangers of constant surveillance however, and it's something too few people think about.

Edge Case (Richard Fox): With the advent of telemetry and better sensors, a bomb-disposable bot is now the best way to save lives when an explosive is involved. This was a very clever story with an interesting twist on a bomb disposal plot with an extremely clever ending that had me yelping with surprise! Genuinely good writing and an impressive grasp of the mystery genre as well. Cannot praise this one highly enough for how it really used tropes well and did an amazing job challenging my own ideas on how one could write a story like this!

Manchurian (Sean Patrick Hazlett): A very fun story about special forces operators, a resurgent and depraved series of human experiments, and a title with a play on words which left me rather shocked by it's ending. A special forces soldier uses the terrifying weapons at his disposal to fight off a Chinese encroachment, only to realize that the enemy has weapons far deadlier than he can imagine. Not my favorite story in the anthology, if only because I'm poorly disposed towards nanite swarms in fiction, but it was a good story to subvert my expectations!

Resilience (Monalisa Foster): Honestly, this was one of the cleverest and most beautiful stories in the whole anthology. PTSD is a very poorly represented aspect of a soldier's life in fiction, often only portrayed in the negative and destructive sense, but one which is real and hard hitting. Sergeant Karlie Engel has survived a traumatic event and is running through a course of therapy with a neural implant which is supposed to help calm her racing thoughts and dampen her triggers, but what happens when that course of therapy isn't working? 

Really emotional and quite exciting in how it manages to tie things up at the end.

The Rules of the Game (Phillip E. Pournelle): The two global superpowers are once again facing off over Taiwan, and the US and China are both using advanced AI and computer learning models to predict, preempt, and overcome their opponents strategies. On one side, an advanced battle computer trying to predict and map all American moves, on the other a series of plans and machines designed to frustrate those predictions. It's a really good examination of the issues within AI learning and the weaknesses of depending on such a system can have. Interesting run at overcoming the potential advantages another side might have in using this system, while also making a poignant point about the problems in rigid ideology.

My Dog Skipper 2.0 (Weston Ochse): Can you really bring back your best friend? When a military experiment between a man and his dog, unknowingly, goes wrong, a Frankenstein's monster style situation erupts. It was an interesting take on the 'man and his dog' story, but was almost one better relegated to a horror anthology than a military anthology!

Uncovered Data (David Drake): A short, but slightly confusing interrogation story. I admit I couldn't quite piece this one together other than there was an interrogator, he was interrogating someone, and there was a kind of psychic uplink? Otherwise, I don't really know how robots were involved in this one.

The Handyman (T. C. McCarthy): Jed has signed a twenty year contract as a maintenance man on a Lunar base for the United States Marine Corps, mostly automated. Easy money he thinks, until the Russians attack. Then it's up and running to make sure his goose isn't cooked by Russian combat units, and that he has enough Jim Bean to see him through this hard run across the Lunar surface. An excellent read with lots of action in a pulse pounding story. Loved how this one just ran with 'hillbilly berates robot soldier' and made it laugh out loud fun.

The Pinocchio Gambit (Brad R. Torgersen): In a secret war over robotic systems, a system man must become an interrogator must try and feel out whether a Chinese defector is an ally or an enemy. Extremely well written look at shifting allegiances, spy games, and the potential for spy games to get very lethal very fast. 

Nightingale (Stephen Lawson): This was a real winner. When an engineer is kidnapped by a nefarious agent for personal gain, a rogue rescue team has to used its many robotic assets to get him out. I loved this one because it was a James Bond style story tied up with really cool robots that fight little battles of their own. There was a very cleverly integrated human element too, with a little love triangle that made you, somewhat, doubt the good intentions of everyone involved. Fast paced action all the way through and it wired years of backstory and forefront action into a very small package.

Operation Meltwater (Philip Kramer): What happens when an experimental probe for NASA's exploration of Enceladus gets checked out by some snoopy Russians? An action packed comedy of errors and discovery where a scientist finds himself in way over his head. 

This was one of my favorite stories in the anthology because it took a regular scientist and put him in a few amusing 'fish out of water' situations. From his confronting of a few irregular personnel assigned to the project, to his own ingenious grasp of his own project to make a third option, it was a rather heartwarming, and exciting, conclusion to the anthology. I definitely enjoyed his hard bitten pessimism coupled with a lot of weird stuff happening around him.

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Like any anthology, it won't work for everyone, and some stories are hit or miss depending on your preferences. I thoroughly enjoyed the work though and a lot of good authors have some fantastic short work on display here. Genuinely loved the combination of heart, artificial soul, technological know how and gunplay which covered this anthology. Great read for anyone who loves science fiction and robots!

Friday, 24 June 2022

Halo: The Fall of Reach

We all know the story of Halo: Combat Evolved, but did you know the story of the Spartans? Their rise to super soldiers and their history from a black ops organization to the most feared of humanities warriors? In 2001 Eric Nylund took on this task and wrote the story of the early days of the Spartan program, the origins of the Human-Covenant War and most importantly, the Fall of Reach.

As a note, I am reviewing the original 2001 publication of The Fall of Reach, not the 2012 reprint which fixed some continuity errors and expanded some of the story.


After an action packed prologue, the story begins in 2517 with Lt. Jacob Keyes escorting a UNSC specialist Dr. Kathleen Halsey to a planet in the Outer Colonies. Curiously, they tour a school looking for a 'subject' that is being examined for some obscure program that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) is undertaking. The young boy, John, is a rough, adventurous, and courageous child who, ultimately, also has a lot of luck on his side. He is considered a perfect candidate.

Fast forward some months later, and John has been kidnapped and placed in a training facility under the care of Chief Petty Officer Mendez, and he will be trained in the ways of war, strategy and tactics. He will become the ultimate soldier for the UNSC and help quell the maelstrom that is coming. Little do any of them know, humanity's first contact with a hostile alien species is just around the corner.

I've been interested in the concept of supersoldiers for a while. My own novella Reintegration, deals with the idea, and it was partially inspired by this story. The Spartans are supersoldiers made to be the last line of defence against a civil inssurection which could tear humanity apart, and how they are formed is quite a fascinating tale. Nylund captures it with a lot of discussion on why the government feels it's necessary, the extreme lengths gone to in order to make the perfect soldiers, and how it changes them over time. It also explores how, in some small ways, these children turned soldiers lose their humanity, but become it's ultimate guardians in the end.

Nothing in the novel fails to deliver, and it fleshes out the history and character of Halo protagonist John 117, who is the lens through which the player/reader sees much of Halo's world. It also exposes us to other Spartans like Linda, Fred and Kelly who are John's teammates and friends for much of the later games and novelizations who add depth to the world and the Spartans overall. Alongside stellar characters like the brilliant tactician Captain Keyes, the enigmatic Dr. Halsey, and of course Cortana, it gives a lot more to each of the characters it explores.

Of course it also has some amazing action scenes.

From Spartan infiltration missions to duking it out with Covenant ships with superior weaponry, it does a lot to give us some amazing action sequences. 

My favorite part is the whole Sigma Octanus campaign, which has some simply awesome space battle action and some very memorable moments with the Spartans on the ground. It has a particularly memorable sequence which has ignited a love affair with space battles that continues to this day in what I read and write. Nylund really nails the pulse pounding action and gets me pumped up for every alien encounter. It's a perfect companion to a first person shooter.

The Fall of Reach is a fun, and very easy read. Somewhat heavy in a moral direction, it's a fun action romp that will hopefully get you thinking on the morals of supersoldiers, but also suck you into the world of Halo and the many stories it has to tell. 

Friday, 17 June 2022

A Country of Ghosts

“The steepest places have always been the asylum of liberty.” – Baron de Tott

The Boril Empire seeks to conquer the mountains. It has coal, iron, and other resources necessary for the empire to continue it's expansion. There are no nations there, or so they tell everyone. Dimos Horacki is sent to report on this war for the broader public. He believes the nation is going to war in order to give resources to the people, not just for simple conquest, but he is soon disabused of this notion and captured by the Free Company of the Mountian Heather. Now in enemy hands he finds all his assumptions challenged in this, A Country of Ghosts.

In Margaret Killjoy's novel we are given a little slice of utopia and war in a secondary world. The 'country' of Hron is being invaded by a colonial empire as told through the eyes of this wayward observer to war. It makes for an extremely effective analysis of the world and the premises of each side.

Killjoy writes a very believable anarchist society, in a way perhaps that Ursula K. Le Guin would not have dared for her own The Dispossessed but not quite in the sci fi spectacle of Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold where the ideological conflict and military conflict are synonymous. It makes for something of a refreshing in between.

 A Country of Ghosts is a book that is meant to showcase a society, and one that the author is exploring through this fictional lens. The people of Hron are a curious mix. Many of them are the descendants of herders and isolated mountain communities who have always governed themselves and lived as they liked. Then an influx of refugees fleeing a failed revolution who have in turn revolutionized the society into a more confederal mix of refugees and mountain communities, all living in (mostly) harmony.

Young Dimos finds this confusing, hypocritical, and is a very believable fish out of water! Looking through his eyes I also found confusion, but also appreciation for the people of Hron. The secondary characters are no less deep for all that they may have the life of a mayfly on the stage of the impending war! The ways they introduce our viewpoint character to the ideas of Hron are very organically laid out and tend to flow with the story so you are gradually introduced to this world. It makes for some very fun reading, especially as Killjoy does not skimp on details in this secondary world, from the flora, fauna, and even how these people build their homes! It's all quite entertaining.

Nor does she skimp on the horrors of war. Honestly war is occasionally portrayed as invigorating, but always with a cost. You'd be hard pressed to say anyone walks away unscathed.

Just as importantly, nothing is monolithic. The people of Hron are varied, quarrelsome, and often don't get along as well as they should. Nor is it depicted as some paradise or land of plenty, but it is plenty free. The people like how they live overall, and don't care to be told what to do. It honestly makes me flirt with the idea of anarchism.

The story has it's highs and lows, with a grimly satisfying conclusion. Killjoy establishes a beautiful world and I hope she returns to it! Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

Friday, 27 May 2022

A Climate Leviathan

Recently, I was able to read Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann's book Climate Leviathan, an intriguing look at how global politics must (and will) change as a response to looming climate change. The two analyze the problem from a leftist perspective, using previous philosophical discourse, political commentary, and the truly global nature of the problem to arrive at a simple conclusion; some form of supranational entity may be the only way to address the creeping climate emergency.

They lay out their reasoning quite well, pointing out how, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin (quoting others) "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism" and this is, especially in the political and economic sphere, rather true. From the failures of the world to band together in any meaningful way, to the flub that was the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to increasing use of fossil fuels and no existent plan to meaningfully reduce their use. This is contrasted to the poisoned pill that the Obama administration took up in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis where banks were bailed out and, rather than hold those responsible to account, next to no one was prosecuted or censured for the outrageous acts that lead to the greatest recession in nearly a century.

With these somewhat depressing facts in mind, the authors both critique capitalism and the current liberal/neoliberal establishment that, as yet, has proven almost completely incapable of meaningfully addressing climate change. With no national solution (no single country can address or alter the global climate trajectory) to the problem, the authors posit a Hobbesian Leviathan which takes on supranational importance to govern the global response to the climate emergency. It would be, largely, the existing capitalist/liberal system we know, with tweaks to allow for supranational action. This is contrasted between the 'Climate Behemoth' which is a reactionary rejection of Leviathan where reactionary elements fight and defeat it, making a muddled, uneasy, and disunified fight at regional scale or simply national against climate change.

In contrast to those, we see Climate Mao, an authoritarian supranational entity which would be swept up by not only a populist clamoring for action to mitigate and adapt to the climate emergency, but also punish those responsible. On a global scale this would be rank authoritarianism of the worst kind, while also a means of cathartic solution to popular unrest as those deemed responsible (even their descendants) meet an unkind fate.

The authors stress though that none of these would be in any sense democratic. Mao is the most notably authoritarian, but Leviathan, despite coming with the trappings of liberal democracy, would still command the power and respect to crush dissent largely beneath its heel, and have the justification of saving the world in order to quash any other objections to its programs.

Only one imagined system, dubbed Climate X, would see this not come to pass. A decentralized and supranational, but not quite coordinated, movement of resistance to control, green energy initiatives, and effective decolonization of the modern neoliberal/capitalist systems and other statist means of control. It is moderately utopian in its vision, but the authors stress, not impossible or unimaginable. They lay out no specific goals, and only some examples, but offer it as a tantalizing image of a world where many old inequalities are torn down, but not one which is perfect.

Interestingly, this is not the first I have encountered the idea that planetary governance may be the only way to mitigate the worst fallout from climate change. In the world of The Expanse for instance, after centuries of climate disaster, the nations of the world prove unable to fight the devastation in isolation and so abdicate their political sovereignty in exchange for help to the UN which works to right the wrongs of a ravaged planet. In the Star Carrier series, we see something similar with the Terran Confederation and other supranational entities having banded together to help mitigate the damage. And in Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 we see a world just hinting at better multinational collaboration for future cooperation.

While science fiction often is often only an examination of the present through a futuristic lens, it does say something that you can find many works envisioning the horrors of climate change only being capable of being resisted by humanity (more or less) united. As the authors of this work posit, fighting climate change in isolation is most likely going to be impossible, leading to supranational organizations and demands to fight against it, or even correct further damage. While this is, for now, only the speculation of some political wonks and science fiction writers, science fiction has occasionally been predictive rather than merely speculative.

Climate change and the various crisis it will entail is a threat to all of humanity, and despite this many people pretend that they can hide from the effects, whether with walls or money. A change in the planet though, is a change for everyone, and as changing weather patters, wildfires, and extreme weather events have shown, even the wealthy and powerful in the West are not immune. Whether we willingly, or unwillingly band together to fight this crisis remains to be seen, but the speculation on the nature (or necessity) of a potential Climate Leviathan is there, and does deserve some pondering on.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Second Sleep

In 1468, a young priest is sent to bury his predecessor in a remote village. In arriving he sees that the man was distinctly odd, with a number of coins, bone fragments and bits of glass from the ancient world in his collection. Did his seeming obsession with the ancient world lead to his death? What does he know of the lost world of the ancients?

For you see, this is not our 1468.

In his new novel, Robert Harris delivers another exciting tale of alternate history. The world is only just rising from peril, and it is enduring a time of The Second Sleep. Some spoilers follow.


I've reviewed Harris's work before, Fatherland being a staple of the alternate history genre, but he delivers exciting reads in straight historical fiction and thrillers as well. This new work of his is merely another excellent exploration on these themes with a twist. Considering it came out in 2019, just before our own cozy catastrophe took place, it seems fitting to review it after the fact.

Young priest Christopher Fairfax sets out from Exeter to a small village called Addicott St. George, where he is tasked to perform a funeral and at least perform mass for the people until a replacement can be sent. There he discovers that all is not as it seems in this little village. The people are dour, rural, and insular, which bothers Fairfax as he goes about his duties and tries to flee as quickly as he can. Unfortunately, bad weather traps him in the little valley, and he thus must work to do his duties. 

He does though, come upon a mystery. The old priest had a collection of items from before the apocalypse, coins, plastic, dolls and a complete Apple iPhone on display. Alongside them, a series of heretical books that seem to challenge the teachings of the Church where the world was destroyed by the Beast. At the funeral he meets local notables John Hancock and Sarah Durston, who verify the priest had strange doings. A minor tension mounts between Hancock and Fairfax as they both seem to vie for the affections of Lady Durston. The mystery deepens as they learn that there is supposedly a treasure hidden near where the old priest died. They set out to discover more about his yearnings for the past.

In turns out that the story has picked up up roughly eight centuries after an unspecified calamity which has been identified as the Apocalypse of John from the Book of Revelation by the people at the time. It is an interesting response as, in a similar story to A Canticle for Leibowitz, the people living through this calamity have knowingly thrown off the technological society of their forebears and then wrapped the fall of the old world in religious significance, which has been spun into official history by the power of the Church in order to keep England (mentioned as now unified under Church and Crown) in order unlike the calamity of the bad old days.

With this forceful renunciation of technological society, old superstitions come back hard. Ghosts, demons, evil spirits, and other ideas are rife in rural areas, and even some cities. The Church does little to dissuade these ideas, and even frowns on many innovations. Wind, water and muscle power are the primary movers of society, and though they have not lost access to gunpowder, the weapons of the day are crude in comparison to those that came before the Apocalypse. Harris also paints a haunting picture of a world where the old has washed away, the glories of the 21st Century looked on at like ancient Roman ruins, and barely a trace of the ancient world still stands. It's emblematic in how many of the (now ancient) manor houses of England are either in ruins or barely kept afloat by proud aristocratic families.

That this old history is presented as a minor mystery is a bit odd. Everyone knows the world collapsed, and it seems that the Church also helped tie society together again, which meant that at some point in the past the collective trauma of the Apocalypse pushed people to adopt this story that the world did indeed end - in a way. After eight hundred years much of that would be forgotten, and Church teaching would have calcified into a more mystical version and other histories might indeed be suppressed. But with everyone knowing technological society collapsed, one of the main mysteries (especially the how and why) never quite gets addressed satisfactorily. Indeed, for what one of the major revelations turns out to be in the end it is barely hinted at, at all and could have provided a much more compelling drama!

That being said, the obfuscation of the calamity, the Church efforts to cover up the past, and the way society has regressed, does create an interesting crusade to find out about the old world. The mystery and interplay between characters is fun as it shows a healthy skepticism amongst many which runs up against rigid attempts at imposing order on society in the after a calamity long ago.

While perhaps not the great mystery it was meant to be, it certainly paints a vivid picture of a world which has moved on from its former glory. Humanity has survived, but has it thrived? The characters present interesting contrasts and make for some amusing drama, while showing us just how people live in this world. It also reminds us that no society is immune from decline or collapse, and raises disturbing questions about just how secure our own world is. Fascinating reading.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Cinco de Mayo

Every year in the Fifth of May, many Americans mistakenly believe they are celebrating Mexican independence day (It's September 16th by the way, the Cry of Dolores). While this is often a veneer for eating many tacos and getting drunk on tequila, the Fifth of May is in fact an important day in Mexican history. However, it was not a moment of independence, but instead when a Mexican force which, by conventional wisdom should have been overrun and scattered, held out and threw back one of the armies with the highest prestige in Europe. Let me tell you the story of the true Cinco de Mayo.


It begins in 1861, not a great year for a lot of people, but after a nasty little civil war the Mexican government under Benito Juarez decided that in order to get their house back in order and get around to running the nation they would need some financial relief. This not being the era of the IMF, that meant they needed to default on loan payments to the European powers. The powers of Europe, primarily Spain, Britain, and France, didn't much care for that and decided to sign the Convention of London, in which they declared they would use force in order to make Mexico pay its loans back.

Thus in October of that year, an allied fleet landed at the port of Veracruz and took hold of the important port city. The intention was that Mexico would be forced to divert at least some of its national incomes to paying the foreign powers, but one man had much more grandiose ideas.

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, who had overthrown the Second Republic and established the Second Empire in a coup, had grand imperial ambitions. Exiles from the conservative side of Mexico's previous civil war had whispered in his ear that he might gain glory, and perhaps more importantly, money from engaging in an adventure to overthrow Juarez and his republican allies. Napoleon, readily agreed and dispatched 6,000 men to the country under the command of Count de Lorencez, Charles Latrille. Lorencez was the scion of a minor noble family born in 1814 he had studied Saint-Cyr and graduated in 1832, earning the rank of colonel after service in Algeria. He fought in the Crimea, fighting in the successful French assault on the Malakoff Redoubt earning his rank as a major general.

Facing him would be Ignacio Zaragoza, a republican general who was a confidant of and fiercely loyal to President Juarez. He had under him some 4,000 troops who were a motley assortment of army regulars, militia with odds and ends, and locals with whatever came to hand. They were expecting reinforcements, but they would not arrive in time for the French assault. He did however, prepare to defend the town by positioning his men on two forts that had been built to defend the town in the late civil war. 

Fort Loreto and Fort Guadalupe defended the town of Puebla right along the French line of advance. To capture the town the French would necessarily have to assault these two forts. Knowing he faced a far better armed and more experienced force, Zaragoza dug a trench between the two forts along the saddle of the two hills on which they sat.



The French meanwhile, were quite overconfident in their analysis of their capabilities. The 6,500 men under Lorencez's command were veterans of recent wars in Europe and China, and armed with the latest modern Minie rifles and artillery. Such was his disdain for his Mexican opponents Lorencez declared that his men were “…so superior to the Mexican in terms of race, organization and moral discipline that now at the head of 6,000 soldiers I am the master of Mexico.” Indeed, most observers thought that the French would handily win the upcoming battle.

Overconfident at winning a skirmish with Mexican forces on the 28th of April, as Lorencez's French troops approached Puebla on the 5th of May at a leisurely pace. So overconfident was Lorencez that he decided he would attack the Mexican fortifications head on. His officers attempted to dissuade him from this course of action, but with what he assumed were superior men and weapons, he decided to bull ahead anyways. 

French cannon began a bombardment of Fort Guadalupe, but poor terrain, and getting too close made it difficult to aim. The defenders were further protected by their trenches and the masonry of the forts. Having fired off over half their ammunition, Lorencez ordered his troops to advance. A glittering array of French Zouaves supported by marines advanced a 12pm noon, only to be driven back by withering Mexican fire from their trenches. Lorencez decided to change his tactics, and this time made a diversionary attack south of Fort Loreto, while again sending his Zouaves up the center covered by marines. This proved more successful and the Zouaves actually managed to rise the tricolor along a section of the Mexican line before being beaten back again. In this action, fierce combat ensued against the French diversionary attack led by Mexican leader Porifio Diaz.

Finally, Lorencez allowed his men to rest and bombarded the Mexican forts again. By 2pm he had used all of his artillery ammunition, but was determined to launch a do or die attack and assembled all of his remaining men to launch an assault. This time the French advanced, making it to the Mexican line and fighting hard, and the battle became a general melee. After an hour of fighting, it began to rain turning the battlefield to mud, and Zaragoza, who could not believe his luck, ordered his cavalry under Diaz to strike the French in the flank. This unexpected attack demoralized the French and inflicted further casualties. Fearing the worst, and seeing no hope of breaching the Mexican lines, Lorencez ordered a withdrawal and dug in for an expected Mexican counterattack which did not immediately materialize.

It was an amazing victory for the Mexican forces. They had lost only 83 killed and a 132 wounded, while inflicting over 700 casualties on the French. In total, the French would lose 462 dead and 300 wounded. A humiliating reversal for French troops, and Zaragosa would say "The national arms have been covered with glory.”

Zaragoza was soon reinforced to a strength of 12,000 men, and while he pursued them and attempted to assault their positions at Orizaba, a French counterattack convinced him to retreat back to Puebla where he would fall ill and pass away a mere four months after his great victory. His incapacity meant that the Mexicans lost the Battle of Cerro del Borrego in June, leaving both armies where they had started. Tragically, their failure to drive the French to the coast meant the French would return with 30,000 men a year later and besiege the town again, and inflict a humiliating defeat on the Mexicans at the Siege of Puebla. A further four years of war would see a short lived French occupation, and finally an expulsion of the puppet monarchy installed by the French.

The 5th of May, once the war was won, became acknowledged as a great victory against the odds. In a battle no one expected Mexico to win the French were driven back at great cost, while Mexico could proudly say they had brought great honor to Mexican arms and won the first battle to maintain their independence. So raise a glass of cerveza and have some hot peppers and cry Viva Mexico!

Saturday, 30 April 2022

There's Something About Halo

Back in 2001, one of the greatest First Person Shooters was released. Halo: Combat Evolved quite memorably pit Robocop alongside the Marines from Aliens against scary dogmatic aliens on Larry Niven's Ringworld, oh, and there were zombies! Or more seriously, in the year 2552, the UNSC Pillar of Autumn flees the Covenant destruction of Reach and making a blind slipspace jump, discovers the eponymous Halo.


From there, a new game franchise was born. Going on it had a brilliant first trilogy, spin off games, and numerous outrigger novels which expanded the world of the Halo series into numerous planets, ships, battles and other moments which gave us exciting new ideas and characters. The series has continued recently to the newest installment in the series, Halo Infinite, and while it has given us more Master Chief, something hasn't felt quite right about the plot. That there is now a new television series, which confusingly creates a new timeline (the so-called Silver Timeline) we can expect to see more unique content in that universe. 

Though is it good?

Many would argue no. Now while there's not a whole lot to be said for the depth of Halo's plot - which can be boiled down to "shoot the bad aliens and blow up the ancient artifact" - the outrigger novels have had some gems. The 2001 prequel novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, by Eric Nylund does a wonderful job expanding the universe, the backstory of the Spartans, why they were created, and the beginning of the Human-Covenant War which is the backstory for the series conflict. It is a personal favorite of mine because it examines all the really dark thinking that goes into creating a unit of supersoldiers. This is not really explored in the videogames, but in the novels it creates a backstory that is interesting enough to be adapted in multiple formats and influence the portrayal of the Master Chief from then on.

The games themselves then proceed to get a bit weird. In the sense of upping the ante, Halo 2 begins with the invasion of Earth, which is supposed to be the pivotal moment of the Human-Covenant War, except that doesn't get resolved by the end. Halo 3 returns to Earth, and then somewhere else, and another Halo installation... the storytelling is a bit of a mess.

It can't really be a new surprise then that the new TV series is, while visually stunning, a chaotic mess. In it's first episode it probably breaks the cardinal rule of Halo and shows the Master Chief's face. Over six games now it's been hinted at, he's been vaguely described in the books, but otherwise we never saw the Chief's face. In all of these series from the games, and even to the books, Master Chief has remained a faceless vessel for us to project onto so that we could imagine ourselves in this universe and having these adventures, and enjoy him as an audience surrogate. In a live adaptation, Master Chief as a character in and of himself can be a fatal mistake.

This is compounded by having an overarching plot that was already seen in Halo 5, Master Chief goes rogue, but the reasons are just awful in the television series. In the game, Master Chief is going after the AI Cortana who has been his companion and friend since the first game, players are invested in his journey to re-establish contact with her. In the TV series meanwhile, he touches an alien artifact and is somehow able to simply break years of training and indoctrination and decide to go rogue in favor of an rebel kid who he's just met. An odd decision for a series with some well established relationships which have been done better.

So Halo storytelling being bad is nothing new, but could it be improved?

Arguably we have the template for that already. Eric Nylund wrote The Fall of Reach and Halo First Strike as well as Ghosts of Onyx among other stories like The Impossible Life and the Possible Death of Preston J. Cole (an unsung hero of the backstory) showing that he, unlike so many others, probably gets the themes and stories to be told in Halo better than anyone. From the exploration of the why of the Spartan program, the tortured emotions of Dr. Halsey, it's creator, to the wild military exploits of humanity's greatest admiral, he captures the essence of what it means to fight and thrive on the bitter edge in this universe. It's dark, witty, and full of edge of your seat action.

If the games had done more of this, arguably they might have been better for it. The false crescendo we got in Halo 2 with the invasion of Earth for instance, most likely needed to be done away with. A videogame following the attempts to get home and the struggle to link up with the UNSC to fight on against the Covenant would have been a more suitable plot, with some wonderful moments to be exploited in space or on alien worlds. The third game being the penultimate Battle for Earth, to save mankind's homeworld, would be more climactic and given the conclusion of the trilogy far more emotional punch.

I won't say too much for the second trilogy, as that is a far longer dissection than I am prepared to undertake today! However, a more structured plot, a few familiar ideas and themes, and the games could have indeed been much more effective in their storytelling, almost as effective as they were in delivering excellent gameplay.

Overall, Halo has had an enduring presence in popular culture since it's debut two decades ago. From some amazing games to an enduring story for super soldiers the Halo series stands strong in science fiction.