Having read nearly all of the novels based on the Halo games, and having interviewed many of the people who’ve written them, I’ve always thought of these books (and the games, and the comics…) as sci-fi space opera stories. But in the following email interview with Troy Denning, the author of seven Halo novels — including the newest, Halo: Outcasts (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — he explains why these books (and games, and comics…) are more hard science fiction and space marine stories than anything operatic.
To start, what is Halo: Outcasts about, and where does it take place in relation to the games and the other Halo novels?
Outcasts takes place in November of 2559 It starts a few days after Cortana’s Guardians destroy the Jiralhanae homeworld of Doisac, and it ends shortly before the Banished attack Zeta Halo. Basically, it’s a story of two loyal allies — Olympia Vale and the Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam — who find themselves facing off in a desperate competition to acquire a mysterious weapon with the potential to break Cortana’s hold on the galaxy. Left to their own devices, they would, of course, come to an agreement to share the device and focus their energies on freeing both civilizations from Cortana’s grasp. But the politics of their species are complicated, and as much as Vale and ‘Vadam trust each other, they cannot trust the factions whom their counterparts must serve.
Where did you get the idea for Halo: Outcasts?
As usual, the plot arose from a combination of what 343 needed and what I wanted to do. In this case, 343 asked for a story about Thel ‘Vadam and Olympia Vale teaming up to oppose Cortana’s iron-fisted rule of the civilized galaxy. That left me the room to pick a setting and construct a plot of my own choosing, and I have been dying to go back to Netherop since stranding Amalea Petrov and Nizat ‘Kvarosee there in Halo: Oblivion. I really wanted to explore what had befallen its vanished civilization and turned a once-verdant world into a wasteland. To make that happen, we wanted to tie the story into Cortana and what she was doing with the Created. Outcasts is the result.
Outcasts is your seventh Halo novel, three of which — Silent Storm, Oblivion, Shadows Of Reach — were about Master Chief, while Outcasts is, as you said, about a different Spartan, Olympia Vale. Was it difficult writing about a Spartan who wasn’t Master Chief, or did that make writing Halo: Outcasts more interesting or fun to write?
Well, the three Halo novels you don’t mention — Last Light, Retribution, and Divine Wind — focused on a trio of Spartan IIIs: Mark-G313, Ash-G099, and Olivia-G291. So I’m very accustomed to writing about Spartan versions, and am well-acquainted with the variations in power levels and the way they are created. But the key to writing any of them is to remember that they’re ultimately individuals, not archetypes. You have to make sure you understand what motivates each individual, where their moral lines lie, what their weak and strong points are. If you take the time to understand that, it honestly doesn’t make much difference whether they are a Spartan II, III, or IV. The version is just part of who they are; what defines them is how they use what they’ve got.
The Halo games, novels, and comics are all sci-fi space opera stories. I assume Halo: Outcasts is, too, but are there any other genres at work in this story?
I can see why you call Halo novels space opera. They are set on a galactic scale and the laws of physics often seem secondary to the needs of the story. But I actually disagree with that characterization. In space opera, the primary conflict is good vs. evil, and there’s typically a strong romantic element.
But Halo has a lot of gray zones (nothing gets grayer than ONI), and romance takes a definite backseat to action. So I tend to think of Halo as space marines. The emphasis is on action and larger-than-life military characters.
But the deeper I get into Halo lore and the concepts underpinning it, the more I’m tempted to argue that it’s a fusion of hard science and space marines. About the same time I started to write Halo, I started to read the futurists Michio Kaku and Amy Webb, and I quickly realized there is nothing in Halo beyond the theoretical boundaries of science. Hard Light, Transentience, Neural Physics…all of that stuff is at least theoretically possible.
Even faster-than-light travel, which is usually the hard dividing line between space opera and hard science fiction, works in Halo — if you can tap and control the immense amounts of energy required.
Are there any writers, or maybe stories, that had a big influence on Halo: Outcasts but not on any of your previous Halo novels?
I would say that the biggest influence on Outcasts — and perhaps even on Halo in general — is Greg Bear and his Forerunner Saga. Obviously, he’s influenced my previous novels, most notably Retribution. But it would be silly not to point out that his work in the Halo universe is the primary — perhaps even sole — influence on Outcasts. He added so much to Halo lore that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Halo wouldn’t be what it is today without his contributions.
Other than Greg, I can’t think of any (conscious) influences on Outcasts. It’s one of those books that just demanded, for better or worse, to be its own thing.
As we’ve been discussing, Halo: Outcasts is your seventh Halo novel. And let’s be honest, it’s probably not your last. What is it about the Halo universe that you just enjoy writing about so much?
First, the more I learn about the Halo universe, the more it makes sense on a deep scientific level. When I first started to read it, I thought it was just a very detailed space marines saga, with the usual shortcuts taken for FTL travel and extraordinary human powers. But as I started to learn more about the underpinnings of the series, the more impressed I grew with the scientific grounding. That’s not to say everything in the Halo universe will exist in five hundred years — or even could. But most of it is at least theoretically possible and hard to rule out, given our current scientific knowledge. It truly is science fiction.
Second, the people. At a lot of intellectual properties, the continuity editors are very protective of the universe. Which is understandable. Internal consistency is the backbone of setting and story; break that, and you’ve destroyed suspension of belief and sabotaged the narrative. But that can be a little off-putting for a freelance author, especially when the editors (or marketing execs) are not adept at explaining the nature of their concern.
But at 343, that protectiveness takes a much more constructive form. Instead of saying “you can’t go there,” the 343 editors take the attitude of “let’s try and find a way to do it.” I can’t tell you how liberating that is for a writer. It eliminates all the angst involved in guessing what “they” want. You just tell them what you want to do, and they help you find a way to do it — a way that doesn’t violate the parameters of the universe. It would be impossible to overstate how many times their attitude has resulted in a story that was so much stronger than what I originally proposed.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Halo: Outcasts?
Yeah, absolutely. The book was originally scheduled to release shortly before Halo Infinite. But I was about halfway through writing it when I began to have shortness of breath and trouble concentrating. It turned out that a congenital heart defect had decided to activate in the middle of drafting the book, and I needed open-heart surgery to fix it. (To replace a bicuspid aortic valve with severe stenosis, for those who are interested.) At first, I thought I’d be able to finish the book before the surgery. But every time I went in for a test, they would move the next test up a week or two. At the end, I was sitting in an examination room with the surgeon, saying “I only need two months to finish the book,” and he said, “if you wait two months, you’ll never finish the book.”
So, I gave my editor at Gallery [Outcasts‘ publisher] and 343 the bad news, and they were wonderful. They pushed the book back 6 or 8 months — well beyond Infinite‘s release — so I could have the surgery. Then, when I was still too slow delivering the manuscript, they pushed it back another few weeks. I can’t tell you how supportive and helpful they were, and I’ll be forever grateful.
I’m glad you’re okay.
Finally, if someone enjoys Halo: Outcasts, and it’s the first Halo book they’ve read, which of your previous Halo novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
If they’re someone who’s reading Halo just for the fun of it, and not because they play the game, I’d suggest the first Halo book I wrote, Last Light. It’s a detective / political thriller set in the Halo universe, and it’s pretty accessible to anyone who isn’t a Halo game player.
If they’re a game player who’s interested in exploring the lore outside the game, I’d suggest Silent Storm. It’s a Master Chief story set in 2526, before the Master Chief was the Master Chief we know today. It’s a great Blue Team action story that fills in a lot of backstory concerning the early days of the Covenant invasion.