Why I still can’t reconcile with the Kilo-5 Trilogy

The year is 2012 and we’re on the cusp of a whole new era of Halo.

We’ve marked the tenth anniversary with Halo Fest and a remaster of Halo 1. The Forerunner Saga has taken us back 100,000 years; the first live action feature is on the way; Halo 4’s release gets ever closer…

I have never been more excited about the future of this series.

But we’re also in the middle of another trilogy of novels, exploring the post-war state of the galaxy, and it is here that I am struggling… a lot.

Six years after its conclusion, I thought to revisit the Kilo-5 Trilogy to see how my thoughts may have changed – how I might be able to reconcile with it.

Regrettably, despite my best efforts, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to. And this is why…kiloLet’s get some important disclaimers established before we go any further.

I do have some genuine love for a number of things that Karen Traviss has contributed to the Halo universe.

‘Human Weakness’ is one of the best stories in Halo: Evolutions. It was the first piece of media to actually say “Hang on, we really need to actually do something about the awful, rape-coded torture that Cortana endured in Halo 3 beyond it motivating the Chief…” And what that story did within the limitations it had to work with was spectacular.

Nobody else seemed to want to touch this, and I’m glad Traviss did. The result was one of the best short stories in Halo.

Despite some issues I have with their execution (pun totally intended), Jul and Raia ‘Mdama carried me through much of the first two Kilo-5 books. There’s a spark of something there, ideas that a lot of us – even us naysayers – were able to connect with.

And Mortal Dictata, the final book of this trilogy, eschews much of the baggage carried by its predecessors’ mandated connections to Halo 4 in order to tell what feels like the story Traviss wanted to tell. Tears were shed, and I think that Kilo-5 would’ve been a lot more palatable if this had been a standalone book.dictata

The whole concept of Kilo-5 is not a bad one by any stretch of the imagination either. An ONI black ops team navigating the political fallout of the Human-Covenant war? That’s a great premise.

I preface the article with this because – deserved or not – there’s a lot of vitriol attached to Karen Traviss. I cannot claim to be a fan of much of her work (or, indeed, her), but I do think it worth acknowledging that she has made substantially positive contributions to Halo.

I also do not begrudge anybody who likes – or even loves – these books, nor do I mean to suggest that Traviss’s politics (which I’ll go into in due course) reflect on you for that.

Several good friends of mine got into Halo through Kilo-5, which is awesome. These books have the same value to them – and many others – as the Forerunner Saga does to me. I see you, you’re valid.

This hasn’t been written as a slight against you, nor do I intend to change your mind if you find these stories resonate with you. People like what fiction they like, that really doesn’t affect me at all.

What follows is purely my axe to grind.

Because there’s a definitive moment for me in The Thursday War which is an amalgamation of all of the issues I have with Kilo-5 and Karen Traviss, and is – to my mind, without hyperbole – the worst scene in Halo


THE DEATH OF THE READER

thursdayAt the mid-point of The Thursday War, Professor Evan Phillips finds himself lost on Sanghelios after unlocking a portal inside a Forerunner temple.

Teleported a vast distance away, he is discovered by three Unggoy field labourers who escort him to Nes’alun keep, where he meets a Sangheili named Elar ‘Nas.

Elar has been left in charge of the keep, as only women and children remain – the Sangheili males all left to assist the Servants of the Abiding Truth in their war against the Arbiter.

In the absence of their fighting force, the rival Arbiter-loyal forces of Lacalu keep have struck upon an opportunity to take Nes’alun for themselves and gain more Acroli land (the small rural state in which these keeps are located).

While Elar and her sisters defend themselves with nothing more than plasma pistols, they shelter Phillips and he is eventually located by Vaz, Mal, and Naomi-010, who come to pick him up in the heat of battle.

At this point, Vaz Beloi (ODST, ONI operative, and the “moral compass” of the team) encounters a Sangheili child.

This is what happens next…hf395

It took him a moment to realise that a Sangheili kid was standing right next to him. He didn’t know if it was male or female, and he didn’t feel any instinct to take care of it or save it from harm. It wasn’t a kitten: it was the enemy. It would grow up to hate humans and kill them.

If he looked into an animal’s eyes he could usually see some kind of self within, some living connection, but he couldn’t see a damn thing in the Sangheili’s. The eyes were empty and alien. [Halo: The Thursday War, p. 238-9]

He looks at a Sangheili child as less than an animal. Despite the awful situation these practically defenceless civilians – these women and children – are in. Despite how he almost killed Halsey in Glasslands because of the age of the Spartans-IIs, he doesn’t even see this child as a sentient being.

(Yes, Vaz’s xenophobia is an aspect of his character. Bear with me, we’ll get to that.)

It’s an especially uncomfortable angle because the Kilo-5 books are laden with heavy-handed Nazi analogies, specifically around Halsey.

When Halsey’s involved there’s a moral hill to die on, but this Sangheili child is ‘Untermensch.’

And then?

And then they leave.

Then a huge hand clamped down on Vaz’s shoulder and spun him around. Elar, the mouthiest of the hinge-head girls, loomed in his face.

“You destroy our land and then you run away.” She pointed behind her but he couldn’t see anything. “My children and my sisters can’t defend themselves against an entire keep.”

It wasn’t Vaz’s problem. He shook her off. “Not my war,” he said. “I’ve got one of my own. Sorry.” [The Thursday War, p. 244]

It was at this point that I realised I had just read the worst scene in Halo.mult232Karen Traviss has a very unique, unmistakably distinct style of prose because the third-person narration isn’t presenting the perspective of the characters, it’s Traviss herself talking.

Now, yeah, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that third-person limited is a thing, where the narrator’s perspective is locked to the thoughts and feelings of a single character and takes on their qualities. But the issue here is that Traviss’s writing seems to have limited self-awareness of that, as we almost exclusively follow characters who share the exact same point of view on things.

She develops very strong opinions about the source material which manifests as an ideologue that directly influences her narrative voice.

The narration itself chooses sides, and it sides with Vaz.

Then a huge hand clamped down on Vaz’s shoulder and spun him around. Elar, the mouthiest of the hinge-head girls, loomed in his face.

Vaz is referred to here in the third-person. This isn’t his perspective we’re seeing things from, the narration itself is providing independent commentary in calling Elar “the mouthiest of the hinge-head girls.”

There’s… a lot to unpack with that…

It verges on parody how the narration jams in a lethal dose of (in-universe) racial slurs and a dash of misogyny. This isn’t the only time the narration refers to Sangheili as hinge-heads either. And why? There’s no framing device in Kilo-5 where the story is being told by an in-universe narrator (unlike, say, Buck’s commentary in New Blood).

The line “It wasn’t Vaz’s problem” adds nothing here beyond further showing that the author is rooting for Vaz.

A far more economical writer could have simply articulated this moment as:

Then a huge hand clamped down on Vaz’s shoulder and spun him around. Elar loomed in his face.

“You destroy our land and then you run away.” She pointed behind her but he couldn’t see anything. “My children and my sisters can’t defend themselves against an entire keep.”

“Not my war,” he said. “I’ve got one of my own. Sorry.”

By removing the narration (that is, by removing the voice of Karen Traviss), the reader is given far greater latitude to interpret this interaction based on their own perception of these characters. In this instance, less really is more.

Traviss, however, finds it to be very important that you are aware of exactly what you should be thinking about these characters and their choices at all times.

Writing characters has the same personality-shift effect on me as it does the reader – I’m not immune. If someone doesn’t know what I think as Traviss, K., then they won’t guess it from my books. That’s not what I’m there for. Like I say, I have one groove, and that’s reporting. Everyone has their right of reply in my books, even people I’d shoot on sight in real life. See? I can be liberal if I try. [Infinity Plus – ‘An Interview with Karen Traviss’ (11/3/2006)]

One of the central anxieties in this book is the danger posed by the Didact, should he ever be awakened.

It strikes me as rather meta that the actual didactic figure who emerges from the text is the author herself.kilo5tiredWhen I first read The Thursday War, I approached this story beat in good faith. I told myself that I was missing the point, I shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.

This event is both the mid-point of the book and of the Kilo-5 Trilogy. Surely this is going to be explored further in how it affects these characters.

After all their detached moralising about what Halsey did to children, here they’ve made an active decision to leave innocent women and children to die. That is going to have resonant effects on the team, perhaps we might see them grow as characters when the reality hits…

This situation is never referenced again.

This was the definitive point of no return for me.

Phillips, instead, is reprimanded (read: gaslit) by his comrades for being sympathetic towards Elar and her people. At worst, he’s treated as if he’s being ungrateful that they didn’t leave him to die with them; at best, he’s treated as if he’s naive for displaying empathy.

Aside from one brief, indirect mention in Mortal Dictata, no consequence comes of this. It doesn’t inform or affect the relationships of these characters, it’s just a thing that happened; Vaz goes right back to his moral crusade against Halsey and the author is with him every step of the way.

You may well be inclined to think that being complicit in the murder of women and children should be a bigger deal, a cause for some reevaluation and reflection. But it isn’t.

And there are another seven hundred pages to go until Vaz concedes that he guesses Halsey must’ve had help from other people to make the Spartan-IIs.

Speaking of Halsey, we conclude this chapter with a brief rumination from Vaz!

He still felt worse about not shooting Halsey than leaving a bunch of hinge-heads to fight for their lives. [The Thursday War, p. 260]


AUTHORIAL BIAS

vad29I am the last person to point at something and say “That’s not Halo,” but the way this beat of the story is handled is perhaps the most egregious tonal, thematic, and narrative departure from the series.

Awful things happen in the Halo universe. Atrocities of all kinds have been committed, but they actually have some weight to them – they’re not just treated as incidental interludes in the geographical progress of characters moving from Point A to B.

Karen Traviss is an infamous name in fandom because she has unambiguously stated that she doesn’t do research on the established universes she writes for.

If it’s military, if it’s a game, if it’s an IP I know nothing about (essential – I can’t work on things that I might have a pre-existing opinion on) and it has the moral grey areas I work best in, then I’ll probably give it a go if I have the time.

There is absolutely value in bringing people aboard who have a fresh, outside perspective on an existing universe. It’s especially necessary for a long-running franchise like Halo

Traviss goes on to describe her process:

First and foremost, I’m still a news journalist at heart. I want to start from scratch, ask my questions, and get answers. I want to be objective,  tell the truth, and  let the interviewees speak for themselves, without twisting their words or injecting my own opinions – to see the world through their eyes.

So I decided which existing characters I wanted to follow, and looked again at the raw data – the absolute neutral basic  facts, i.e. what they did and when they did it. Then I rebuilt the characters using psychological profiling techniques.  The result is that you’ll see characters you think you know portrayed differently, perhaps too differently for some fans’ tastes, but I’ve done what I always do – build or rebuild fully realised characters who behave like real people, place them in the environment, and then follow where they lead, seeing the situation and the events through their eyes. They won’t always see the event the same way and there will be contradictions – the reader has to do some work and make their mind up about who they believe. No easy answers, no heroes or villains – just people, even if those people are aliens. Make up your own mind. [Tor Forge Blog, ‘Q&A with Karen Traviss’ (1/11/2011)]

Based on what we’ve covered thus far, I find Traviss’s description of her process thoroughly unconvincing. And the issue herein is that she distances these ‘facts’ from any sort of context.

For as much as she talk about “moral grey areas” being her bread and butter, there are three entire novels (spanning 1500 pages) based entirely around giving us a single perspective.

All we see of humanity is ONI, and they all hate Halsey.

All we see of the Sangheili are these rural redneck extremists who don’t know how to farm.

If you expect to see much of Halsey’s perspective or get a broader picture of the cultural and political shifts in the setting over the course of Halo’s three longest novels, you will be left sorely wanting.

Indeed, any character who is pursuing a path to peace and trying to build bridges is portrayed by Traviss as weak-willed and generally inept, their previously established presence and authority being entirely subverted by the author’s own tough ‘n’ ready soundboards. Thel ‘Vadam and Lord Hood see some of the worst of this…halsmeme1In the chapter immediately after the quickly-forgotten events at Nes’alun keep, Parangosky makes direct reference (through the narration, Traviss once again speaking) to the ‘Halsey Haters Club’ when Henry Glassman enters the room.

Traviss takes far too much enjoyment in writing about characters delighting in how Halsey cries herself to sleep every night holding a picture of her dead daughter, calling her (in narration) a “bitch,” and seems to never once think about the fact that maybe there’s something we could do with Parangosky in these stories…

Y’know, the woman who gave the go-ahead to the Spartan-III project, where they trafficked over nine-hundred war orphans – aged four-to-six – to become suicide soldiers by the age of twelve?

There are some great moments set up where the potential exists for characters and their perceptions to really be challenged. One such example is when Jul sees Phillips solve an arum – a Rubik’s cube-esque Sangheili puzzle that is meant to teach their children the value of patience and order.

To Jul’s horror, the stone fell out.

It was marbled blue and green, like a little planet, like a tiny version of Earth, the world that had nearly been within the Covenant’s grasp. Jul almost felt more ashamed at seeing a human solve the arum with such ease [than] he did at being captured.

“It took me a few hours to get there.” Phillips dropped the stone back in the slot and scrambled the spheres again. “I used to love things like that when I was a child.”

Jul couldn’t work out if it was a psychological trick or genuine innocence, but whatever the intention it had shaken him to his core. Very few Sangheili could unlock an arum within days, let alone hours. [Halo: Glasslands, p. 340]

Traviss establishes these things, lingers on this for a handful of sentences, and then belies the notion that they had any substantial intention as they never come up again.

There’s some great symmetry here. Jul believes that humanity is a species wholly inferior to his own, and Glasslands has Thel tell Jul at the start of the story that there are honourable humans. As this first book approaches its conclusion, he meets Phillips, who solves an arum before his eyes – demonstrating an ability that is considered to be well beyond his own species’ and it horrifies him.

Characters being forced to reflect on their prejudices and reevaluate their black-and-white perceptions of the world? You wish!

From this point, neither of these things turn out to be actual character beats in this story, as Jul never thinks about them again. Like the rest of Traviss’s characters, he’s never really challenged again.

In fact, the opposite happens, where an almost comical series of events entirely vindicates his hatred of humanity – only for ONI’s genocide-by-famine plan, arming the Servants, nor the needless fridging of Raia to never come up in his characterisation in any other media. (I think this is why we love the concept of Jul, how we see the ways these threads could work for his characterisation.)

Savour these sentences in the book, as it’s essentially the only time there’s any substantial worldbuilding for the alien races where they’re not just repeating human idioms with no unique voice or culture of their own.arumIn an interview a friend of mine did a few years back with Traviss, she says:

“I don’t actually have favourites – it’s not how I work.” [Gamer Guide, ‘The Thursday War – With Karen Traviss’ (8/12/2012)]

While I think this is demonstrably untrue, even if Traviss doesn’t “have favourites” in the sense of attaching that kind of ‘love’ to a character or thing, she certainly decides what she hates.

Looking at her larger body of work provides some additional context here, as she has also been prolific for writing Star Wars novels in the Legends canon.

When she writes for Halo, she hates Halsey; when she writes for Star Wars, she hates the Jedi.

I feel it’s worth mentioning that it’s absolutely fine to hate both. Halsey and the Jedi Order are compelling narrative constructs because of their flaws and deeply problematic elements.

But Traviss’s articulation of this hatred often manifests in the universe itself and all its characters bending to match that hate.

[Lucy] grabbed Halsey by the shoulder again, spun her around and threw a punch that sent a shock wave right up her arm. Halsey hit the ground with a loud crack. Someone grabbed Lucy from behind, but the switch had been thrown and she didn’t know how to turn it off. The fury shut out all sound: her lungs froze and her skull was bursting. She fought to break free and get at Halsey, this focus of all that was threatening and bullying in her world, but she couldn’t.

If she didn’t let it all out right now, she’d collapse.

“No!” she screamed. “No! No! No!” [Glasslands, p. 316-7]

It bends to the point where Lucy’s post-traumatic vocal disarticulation – a mental illness from the trauma of watching over three-hundred of her fellow then-twelve-year-old Spartan-III suicide soldiers die – is something that can be overcome because she just manages to hate Halsey enough in the moment.

Topping it all off, an SPI-armoured Spartan-III punching a sixty-one-year-old in the face so hard that said SPI-armoured Spartan-III feels the shockwave up her own chemically-augmented arm and it doesn’t turn Halsey’s face into pudding (it just breaks her nose)… seems like a refutation of the whole ‘no research’ approach to me.


NO PRISONERS

traviss

Really, I don’t relate to any characters that way when I write. That’s identifying with them, and I find that very icky. Once a writer identifies with a character or has favourites, they start investing too much in that character, consciously or subconsciously, and that leads to neglecting other characters and also trying to make the reader like that character as much as they do, rather than just letting the character behave naturally. It’s very fanfic-ish. [Gamer Guide, ‘The Thursday War – With Karen Traviss’ (8/12/2012)]

Meanwhile, also from Karen Traviss…

I see Vader as a tragic character who’s been betrayed by everyone, and I can’t help thinking of the Jedi as self-serving unelected elitist spoon-benders making whoopee on Republic taxpayers’ credits. It’s an iconoclastic journo world-view. Believe me, Order 66 was long overdue. I have a couple of Jedi that I don’t want to shoot on sight, but they’re my own creations, so I could make them a little humbler and more aware of the consequences they create for others. [Infinity Plus – ‘An Interview with Karen Traviss’ (11/3/2006)]

You see, it’s the other Jedi who are awful. But my Jedi? My Jedi are the good ones – I don’t play favourites though!

It is for these reasons that Vasily Beloi earns his title as the worst character in Halo.

This isn’t even getting into how she begins No Prisoners with Gilad Pellaeon talking condescendingly to fourteen-year-old Ahsoka about her outfit in front of a ship’s entire crew, including the people under Ahsoka’s command.

“You’re not suitably attired, my dear.” His tone was very paternal for a moment. “We do not expose flesh in this ship, not only because it’s unbecoming, undisciplined, and distracting, but because a ship is a dangerous place.” [Star Wars: No Prisoners, p. 21]

Pardon the brief tangent here, but why Traviss felt this gross sexualisation of a fourteen-year-old was necessary (and I would be greatly worried about a crew and captain that finds this “distracting”), I do not know.

A far more interesting point I can think to raise here for why Pellaeon would act with a paternal tone that wouldn’t have to be pointlessly misogynistic is trying to keep a fourteen-year-old – Jedi or not – from being sent into battle…

It’s not even a natural character interaction in this universe, it’s quite transparently Traviss having a bone to pick and writing that into a character. The misogyny isn’t a good look, and it’s something that’s present throughout a lot of her writing.

Nor, frankly, is saying that anybody who likes the Jedi is a Nazi (after stating that their genocide was long-overdue, no less)…

This is the core contradiction of what Karen Traviss says versus what Karen Traviss writes.last lightIt is an almost poetic irony that, of all writers, it was Troy Denning who became the fan-favourite writer for post-war Halo stories (with Last Light and Retribution), owing to the feud he and Traviss had in their respective Star Wars works.

(This only further convinces me that the death of the Star Wars EU was, in fact, a mercy killing that freed the series from decades of baggage.)

I had hoped that, all these years later, I might be able to return to the Kilo-5 Trilogy without my own baggage from the time in which they were released…

But it didn’t feel like I was returning to a setting, characters, and universe. It felt like I was returning to Karen Traviss writing her own journalistic report on her bugbears with Halo.

I felt inclined to revisit Kilo-5 in good faith that I could put aside the things she’s said and take this independently as a Halo story…

But it’s simply not possible to separate the author from the text when they quite literally write their own voice into it (no matter how much she has historically denied this).

[…] if a reader notices my style and not the story, then I’ve failed. I want to be invisible as an author, at least in the book. This is going to sound arrogant, but less really is more, and you have to know your craft first to be able to strip down your style to its basics. No frills; just something that pulls the reader through the story and doesn’t distract them.

[…] I still wouldn’t trust the Jedi Council with my wallet, let alone with running my country, but you won’t spot that in the books. I keep my spoonbenderist views to myself. [Infinity Plus – ‘An Interview with Karen Traviss’ (11/3/2006)]


REGRET, REGRET, REGRET…

glassI honestly hadn’t set out to write this article as a caustic hit piece on Traviss herself, but while chasing a quote for this article I found myself at her Twitter doorstep and was met with a vile mess of pro-Brexit nationalism and Nigel Farage.

Naturally, I find myself somewhat disinclined towards backing her corner any more than I already have at the start of this article.

On a broader level, it really is a terrible shame that this is the legacy of the first woman to have her name printed as the sole author of a Halo book (shoutout here to Tessa Kum, who co-wrote ‘The Mona Lisa’ with Jeff VanderMeer in Halo: Evolutions, and all the amazing creative talent that has come since, and failed to be acknowledged before).

As I previously stated, I do not begrudge anybody who likes Kilo-5, nor do I think Traviss’s politics reflect on you for that. But I cannot find reconciliation with these books.

I find them so crushingly cynical, so dire in their misanthropy, that there is not an ounce of joy in reading them.

These are valid perspectives to have in Halo, but as part of a larger whole – not as the sole tone for over 1500 pages. It took several years before the post-war era media actually felt like it had balanced things out.

The whole situation with Vaz at Nes’alun keep represents the fundamental failure of this trilogy to me, how this simply does not jive with the series and its themes.

It’s so completely blinkered towards the treatise Traviss wants to write about Catherine Halsey that not even a moment can be found to give any substantial thought – let alone focus – to the other moral grey areas (and outright atrocities) of the Human-Covenant war.

The thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion of this trilogy’s arc is a minor concession towards common sense, stating “Well, I guess Halsey would’ve needed help…”

Letting women and children die is something the narration will defend so it can round the chapter off with Vaz finding deeper regret in not putting a bullet in Halsey’s head in the previous book.halsdefence

Lastly, the Kilo-5 Trilogy is thematically incompatible with the game it was meant to build towards.

343 holds a characteristically optimistic view of humanity in the Halo universe, even as they delve into the more problematic elements of our species’ development – recovering from the Human-Covenant war not simply as a survivor, but victor. They explore how that affects the impact the UNSC and ONI has on the setting moving forward.

On this, former-creative director Josh Holmes has said:

“Another part of Halo that I always talk about […] is there’s a belief in the potential of humanity. I think this is really important because Halo has kind of a hopeful feel to it and I think you could take a lot of the stories that take place in the Halo universe and tell them in a more cynical light and it would feel completely different. […] Humanity is something worth fighting for.” [Josh Holmes, Game Informer – ‘Halo 4 Creative Director interview’ (3:20)]

The moral character of humanity is itself one of the core dimensions of Halo, and that manifests in Halo 4 is how it takes the idea of humanity being Reclaimers forward.

It turns out that this isn’t simply about being given lots of cool toys and gadgets by a long-dead civilisation, but the burden of inheriting the Mantle of Responsibility – becoming the protectors of life and biological diversity in the galaxy.

The Librarian sees this potential in humanity (there’s greater moral and political complexity in this which is explored, but at a high-level this is the concept); the Didact believes that humanity is violent and only the Forerunners are worthy of this burden.

And this further connects to the themes of transhumanism in Halo 4. Spartans are “our destiny as a species,” as Halsey puts it; the deep connection between man and machine – the Master Chief and Cortana, Spartans and Prometheans – is another key part of this.

Whereas Kilo-5 seems less like another dimension to this thematic core and is instead a refutation of it. It focuses exclusively on who we are at our worst, while championing those individuals as our moral compass – neglecting the best of both humanity (and the Sangheili) to be helpless, stagnant, and naive.

Comparatively, The Forerunner Saga managed to tell a story about the final days of the Forerunners’ gasping empire in the greatest cosmic tragedy… while bookending it with our naked Forerunner protagonist wearing a hat made by his human companions, and a great feast between these former-enemies where they get drunk and dance together at the dawn of the new galaxy.

Even with the harrowing threat of the Flood, it retains the charm, levity, and warmth that is so central to Halo. I would struggle to name even a handful of such moments in the Kilo-5 books.hf603Over the years, people have asked me about my thoughts on the Kilo-5 Trilogy. I have seldom referenced these books in the last six-and-a-half years that I’ve been writing this blog (incidentally, the same year this trilogy ended), and I realise now that I have about as much to say about them as they have to say about Halo.

Like the author’s own fixation on Halsey, it, too, is impossible to actually talk about Kilo-5 without fixating on Karen Traviss – and I don’t like where that takes me.

I don’t jive with her detached approach to writing and disregard for continuity. I don’t like how she comes across in interviews, her contemptuous misanthropy, her misogyny…

And I don’t like her proclivity for writing – across three franchises – just one type of story about the Squad™ of tough ‘n’ ready badasses who Cross Lines™ to Get The Job Done™, who are all loyal to each other and largely share all the same opinions, while being championed as unimpeachably moral.

I’ve broken a bit of a personal rule with this article, as I actively try to limit the negative content that I write on here. I have held true to that for a long time, so consider this a one-off.

I find that it is much more energising and fulfilling to talk about what I love rather than what I don’t, especially for a trilogy that ended six years ago (and has largely been only conceptually acknowledged by its successors).

On the road to Halo Infinite, and (hopefully) beyond, expect that to be my continued focus.

As for this… maybe I’ll give it another go in 2030?

11 thoughts on “Why I still can’t reconcile with the Kilo-5 Trilogy

  1. You know, reading this I couldn’t help but make comparisons (and yes, some might say it’s slightly self-centered of me) to the “Halo” novel I pitched at 343 last year. It was soundly rejected because their current publisher doesn’t accept submissions (just pick from an internal stable of their own personal authors).

    I bring this up because naturally, with so much said about why people didn’t like Kilo-5, it made me think back on the way I’d approached both similar concepts (grey areas) but at the same time avoided the missteps Kilo-5 definitely made with the characters and plot I’d built. The biggest one being that the grey areas are things that the characters are actively working to fix and solve in one way or another, and that the characters were, if flawed, genuinely good and optimistic individuals who could make ground on their problems, prejudices, and weaknesses. Kilo-5, from what I remember, never really did that. It just stayed in a mire of uncertainty (or worse, stayed negative, like the obvious specism against the Sangheili). The world in that series was very much one where no one could every trust anyone else, and that was just how it was.

    And you’re right. Halo has always been a lot more optimistic than that.

    And more fun. Which was why one of the side characters in my pitch was a Unggoy newscaster on a post-war mostly-human border world.

  2. Love following you and reading . My biggest disappointment with this series is simply how it reminds me of Halos wasted parts. Cool ideas that ultimately go nowhere (ONI and the resurrected Insurrection? Nah, the Created! Jul dying in a cutscene!) make me weary of Halo Infinite. That said, another solid article. Any idea when you’re going to do a Halo Wars 2 breakdown? 😁

    1. I think that, in the place of Glasslands, there should’ve been an anthology novel (like Evolutions and Fractures) dedicated to short stories from a multitude of perspectives in the post-war era. That was the key ingredient of what was missing here, and it took a VERY long time before it felt like we’d reached an adequate balance after the Kilo-5 Trilogy was done.

    2. Probably something similar as to how the fall of the Empire was handled in the original Star Wars Expanded Universe, where many Imperial remnants took their shot at taking over the galaxy, while still having divisions and civil wars against each other, considering how big the Covenant Empire was and how their industrial and population centers were barely touched by the war.

  3. Good read! Made me notice a bunch of things in the K5 trilogy I’d only subconsciously absorbed. I still enjoy the series, and Karen Traviss’ Star Wars works as well, but I cannot deny the questionable themes in them. I guess now it’s my turn to reconcile.

  4. Glasslands was my first Halo book and I still think Kilo Five was just cruel towards the Sangheili. The line cited from Thursday War proves it.

  5. As someone who devoured Traviss’ Republic Commando series when it first dropped, and who practically inhaled the Kilo 5 books, I really appreciate how your article takes some time to point out genuinely good things that Kilo 5 brought to the series, and doesn’t bash those who find something worthwhile in the Kilo 5 trilogy.

    Having recently revisited Traviss’ works with a more critical perspective, honed by further reading in the Halo and Star Wars universes and examining some alternative perspectives on the issues she talks about, I found that your article makes a lot of good points. The perspectives of the characters are indeed blinkered; and I think it makes some elements of the plot, like Halsey’s interactions with the Spartan IIIs and Mendez on Onyx, nearly unsalvageable in my opinion. But I think that it is possible to get a lot more out of the series and the characters if one reads against the grain as one would with a historical primary source for academic writing: the character’s biases and flawed perspectives can sometimes tell us a lot more about the reality behind events than the things they actually say or do. This, of course, is something that goes on in critical analysis too, but I hope I won’t sound too presumptuous when I say that I think I have a somewhat unique perspective on the matter.

    One of the reasons Traviss resonated with me when every other voice in both fandoms seemed to despise her work is that a great deal of her strident soapbox rhetoric and dogged determination to (to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson) beat whatever target draws her moral ire like a mad dog with mange every chance she gets is very familiar to me. Several members of my family have a bone-deep dislike of French Canadians, and since I was very young I was immersed in an environment of all-or-nothing rhetoric where they were attacked and scapegoated on any number of issues. I still love these family members, and their anger is borne out of political and personal grievances I find understandable and sympathetic, but I’ve learned to look past their black-and-white understanding of the group they blame for their issues, and sincerely wish that they could let go of their anger.

    And having grown up in this environment, having re-read Kilo 5 and RepComm recently, I’ve realized why Traviss resonated with me so much back then, and why I never found that Kal Skirata’s hatred of the Jedi or Vaz’ attitude towards the Sangheili poisoned those characters for me the way it did for other readers.

    It’s because, despite all her talk about “not having favorites” and writing based on “clear facts” nobody writes prejudice, its sources and its effects on those who hold to these prejudices like Traviss does.

    The one area I actually disagree with you on in terms of this article (which I hope you can forgive me for since it’s central to my thesis here) is the idea that the narration is intended to in any way be objective or neutral. It may be third-person, but the language it uses, the way it describes events and people, and the judgements it makes change wildly from character to character. When Jul is in the cockpit of the story, the writing reflects his mistrust of humans and his frustrations with Sangheili “weakness”. When it’s Vaz’s turn, hinge-head starts coming out to play as a descriptor, and so on and so forth. I think it’s deeply revealing that Traviss’ prologues are almost always in first person: she may be able to switch up the pronouns and step back to third person, but she never quite relinquishes that deep subjectivity of a first-person viewpoint. This hurts the writing in a lot of ways: not least when she gets didactic about her chosen Big Issue of the setting, and the reader is abruptly expected to suddenly accept the omniscient rightness of her arguments because she has the Narrator Card and is waving it around.

    But I think it has its upsides too. For starters, it makes Traviss, in my opinion, absolutely peerless when writing combat or tension. I know that’s a bit of a Michael Bay attitude to things, but I think it helped to give the firefights of Star Wars and Halo some real grit and stakes that the writing of both series had never really provided before. The blinkers turn from an irritation or something to keep in mind and read around into something that makes fighting chaotic, focused and intense, and really rams home how terrifying, brutal and dangerous it would be to fight a Sangheili when you are a normal-sized human and it is two meters taller than you and roaring fit to wake the dead. The narration is tinged with that terror, and the characters express anger born of that fear.

    This may seem like a bit of a digression, but Traviss showing us a glimpse of that kind of messy, hectic combat goes a long way to explaining Mal, Vaz, Devereaux and co. and the things they say and do throughout the narrative. I’ll focus on Vaz here because he’s probably the best example of what I’m trying to get at here, and was the character whose PoV I was most interested in throughout the series.

    IMO, getting that reminder about how terrifying it is to face down even a Grunt when you are a squishy ordinary human, combined with seeing Vaz’s backstory, helps to explain his prejudices a lot. He’s only just recovered from a disfiguring scar received dueling an Elite, and later reveals he nearly choked to death on his own blood. Mal’s own narration also notes that he’s had a bad breakup and has been in a pretty miserable mood. The first chapter we see him, he’s walking through the ruins of Sidney and having an impromptu ceremony in memory of a fallen friend’s last request: a request they can’t fulfill properly because said fallen friend’s favorite bar was levelled by the Covenant. The fact that when Vaz initially meets the first Sangheili who isn’t trying to kill him it’s on the vitrified surface of a glassed colony- one of dozens that him and the rest of Kilo 5 have seen- further explains his deep and enduring loathing of the Covenant.

    We know, of course, that this is unfair on his part: that Parangosky is wrong, that the Sangheili genuinely *can* coexist, that Hood and the Arbiter are not naive idiots who don’t understand that peace is impossible but actually on the right side of history here. But Vaz, Mal and Devereaux had a very different experience of the war, one that didn’t end with a grand team-up aboard the Ark to save the galaxy but rather the fighting killing millions on Earth in a final stand that might well have been the end of humanity had the fighting not abruptly petered out.

    Likewise with the constant hatred of Halsey: none of Kilo 5 aside from Naomi have full insight into the Spartan II program. What information Vaz does receive is from Osman and BB, two characters who have been heavily influenced by their service under Parangosky (who, in my opinion, is the *real* worst character in Halo and a far more egregious example of Traviss playing favorites, as she makes massive strategic errors which will result in terrible bloodshed and gets dibs on hammering Halsey from the bully pulpit despite greenlighting all of Halsey’s work to begin with). As such, their perspective is naturally deeply unfair to Halsey (an attitude the narrative rewards frequently), but this scapegoating of Halsey also, to my mind, is an attempt to cope with the revelation that the UNSC initially abducted and essentially tortured six year old children, not to fight a genocidal alien threat, but for use as a domestic counterinsurgency unit which would be willing and able to carry out any order- no matter how brutal.

    This is how Vaz can still bear the description of “moral compass” after doing what he did at Elar’s Keep and attempting to kill Halsey. In the former case, his perspective is deeply informed by prejudices which have been validated for most of his life, and which he’s yet to have honestly challenged. And in the latter, he’s just read a file explaining the traumatic capture and indoctrination of Naomi, his friend (and possibly love interest? Traviss never really commits to either angle exclusively) who asked him to read it for her because she wasn’t sure if she was ready to know the details of it. In both cases, it’s a radical expression of an instinct to protect the people closest to him, who he cares about- though once again, in the blinkered, red mist-laden state of mind he’s in when he nearly kills Halsey, he doesn’t really consider that if anyone has the right to decide if Halsey should face punishment for what the project did, it’s Naomi, the person she actually hurt, and that Naomi’s own feelings on Halsey are deeply complex and certainly not inclined towards murder.

    That’s the tragedy of prejudice, is what I’m driving at here. It’s something very familiar to me. Whatever experiences and grievances might initially create it (nobody would blame Vaz or the rest of Kilo 5 for being a little skittish about Sangheili after the pain they had inflicted on them and humanity as a whole), it’s quick to grow into a savage and unreasonable thing, masking shame and fear with a cloak of righteous anger, warping the way we see the world until wrong is right and right is wrong. It makes itself seem rational and logical, and everyone who doesn’t share in these prejudices seem foolish and deluded: can’t they see that those creatures are dangerous? Can’t Hood see that the Sangheili at their core will always be those seven foot tall warriors who gutted Manny with an energy sword, who glassed Imber and Jericho VII and Harvest and Madrigal? And so on and so on.

    Kilo 5 is a worthwhile read as a reminder of how extraordinary it was for John and the Arbiter to reconcile, for the Swords of Sangheilios to make peace with the UNSC and fight alongside them to end the Covenant, because it contrasts that forgiveness, the crushing but worthwhile burden of letting go of old wounds and allowing truth and reconciliation to be the order of the day with a very different cast of characters and sets up the coming challenges that humanity and the Arbiter will face. ODSTs and Kaidons alike who do not know the whole story, who have yet to find closure after twenty years of all-out war, who are embittered by the losses they suffered and still deeply hateful and suspicious of each other- fairly understandable issues, but ones that must be overcome in order to move forward and heal from the war.

    Kilo 5 don’t know it, but they aren’t the clear-eyed heroes, Orwell’s rough men ready to do violence to defend humanity from the real threat. *They are the real threat.* They are the fist of Parangosky, a nonagenarian who has bent ONI into a shadow state founded on warped and delusional prejudices about aliens, the Outer Colonies, the civilian government and the pro-peace lobby artfully disguised as wisdom and truth, a dogma every bit as enduring and dangerous as the Covenant’s genocidal theology. The leader of Kilo 5 is Parangosky’s successor, a perfect example of her terrible legacy just as Vaz is an example of the sort of prejudice that peacemakers like Hood will have to overcome. A cast-off of the Spartan II project manipulated by Parangosky’s patronage and approval and targeted squarely at Parangosky’s longtime rival, fed a steady diet of her prejudices until she regards her mentor’s aphorisms as gospel truth and seems too fixated on Halsey to even *consider* that Spartan II was achieved with ONI manpower and funding, and that Parangosky is the only person who could have provided Halsey with those things.

    If only Traviss had realized it.

    That’s kind of the fly in the ointment here, all of this requires dispatching Traviss as swiftly as she fridged Raia for this stuff to make sense. Traviss did not intend any of this: Kilo 5 are right to hate Halsey and it’s all her fault. Her journal really is Mein Kampf with pictures. There’s no such thing as peace with the Sangheili and Hood is a fool to attempt creating it. Parangosky’s plans to arm ‘Telcam and prepare a bioweapon to cleanse Sangheilios of life are reasonable and sensible rather than incredibly short-sighted and virtually guaranteed to backfire.

    But I believe that when Kilo 5 is read with this perspective in mind, there is actually quite a lot to get out of it when one considers Halo’s themes and the need to forego revenge and bring an end to the bloodshed of the war, and especially the issues underlying the Mantle of Responsibility when it’s compared to ONI’s own deeply patronizing attitude towards humanity and the UEG and how that drives it towards extreme, self-defeating measures in the name of defending both those things.

    The real problem with Kilo 5 is that it only shows us half of an arc. We see the cast of Kilo 5 get their hands dirty and face a foe which glaringly highlights the moral rot behind ONI and the UNSC; but we never get to see them get a more nuanced take on things. I want to see Vaz and Mal overcome their prejudices: I want to see Phillips stick up for himself and argue Sangheilios’ case (it would be neat if Devereaux was able to serve as a bridge between Phillips’ perspective and Vaz, Mal and Naomi as an ODST herself with her own bigoted opinions about Sangheili and experiences in the war, as opposed to that random romance getting hucked into play in the middle of The Thursday War and then forgotten about). I want Kilo 5 to reckon with the fact that leaving women and children to die was wrong, even if they couldn’t see it at the time. Most of all what I want is for this process to undo Parangosky’s legacy, the poisonous attitude towards security and potential threats that gave rise to the Spartan II program in the first place, ONI’s existence as a sprawling octopus puppeteering the UNSC.

    I was hoping that Osman entering the games and popping up in other media might show us this process, where having Kilo 5 as a group of loyal people she can be honest with and trust helps to give her the confidence to guide ONI down a better path. Where her sisterhood with Naomi and Phillips’ optimism and Mal’s brash confidence are positive influences that change her for the better after a lifetime of being alone with no one but Parangosky to rely on. Where Vaz is redeemed, where his stubbornness, outspokenness and determination to protect the people around him and do what he thinks is right are not warped into justifying murder but instead help him to speak truth to power.

    I think that would be pretty cool to see in Halo and a genuinely fun and interesting subversion of “hard people making hard decisions while hard” and the arcs which Traviss originally gave to these characters. That’s why I wrote this whole spiel- Jesus, 3000 words, sorry about that- and why the trilogy’s infamy and Kilo 5’s status as personae non grata still bring me down. It’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll see them again in any capacity, and if we do they may well just be killed off to bring an end to a storyline 343 no doubt regards as an embarrassment. All I can do is hope, I suppose.

    In any case, I apologize for making you wade through what turned out to be an essay in itself. I’m sure you’re a busy man, and my writing is not half so polished as your own, but I hope I was able to lay out a compelling case for the defense- not an innocent verdict, but at least a charge of manslaughter rather than full-blown murder, if you will- and that I might have changed your mind about some aspects of Kilo 5, or at least provided an interesting new perspective on much-maligned material. I could definitely go on, but I think I’ve already tormented you enough. Thanks again for reading, and for writing a very interesting article which finally helped me to articulate a lot of my own thoughts on the trilogy.

    I hope you enjoy Halo Infinite!

    1. There is absolutely no need to apologise for writing up this most extensive essay, as I found your perspective thoroughly compelling and exactly the kind of critical lens that the Halo community needs!

      The way in which your own personal experiences with family relate to how you were able to see Traviss’s storytelling from a different angle is brilliant, and I think your exploration of these things is incredibly convincing – a proverbial key to a door that has remained locked for me over the last decade to help me better appreciate these books.

      Suffice it to say, my next readthrough (whenever that may be in these ridiculously busy times) is something I aim to be informed by the perspective you’ve shared here.

      I don’t think I have much more to add to this beyond a hearty thank you for your time, not only in reading the piece but for this essay in response! I hope you enjoy Infinite as well, and, who knows, perhaps some of these things around Osman and Kilo-5 WILL pay off at some point in the future.

      1. Thanks for replying so soon! I really appreciate it, and I’m glad you got something out of my little mini-essay here. I have a lot of thoughts on this trilogy and a lot of elements of the canon (like the Insurrection, the Outer Colonies and Sangheilios’ culture and politics) that it touches on, and very much enjoyed the chance to get my thoughts out onto the page. It’s a credit to the quality of your own writing that you were able to nudge my ADD brain into gear to put out a proper response.

        As for Infinite, Osman and Kilo 5, we can but hope. I look forward to your next article on Halo! They’re always a delight.

  6. I just finished the first two and started the 3rd Kilo-5 book. After some reflection, the treatment of Halsey made me a bit angry and I am glad I’m not the only one. My specific grudge and I think it’s been echoed a bit in this amazing piece is the lack of accountability for all the senior leadership of Oni as if they were all in the dark about the Spartan II program. Parangosky, Osman, BB and the rest of Kilo-5 all want to claim Halsey acted autonomously, etc without any acknowledgment of the saving of humanity or holding Oni responsible (empathy at the very least) for kidnapped kids and cloning. Right, wrong or indifferent, there is plenty of blame to go around. To grandstand about the SIII program as being morally-just because the children were parent-less is also ridiculous. The issue of shades of grey that is the culmination of the end of the human/covenant war has been forced through a BW lens of the everyone vs Halsey. It’s lazy writing, IMO.

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