The Fall of Reach Retrospective
At this point, the fact that the first entry in the Halo transmedia franchise was a book prequel, not Halo: Combat Evolved, is probably not more than an interesting bit of trivia for most fans. Eric Nylund’s Halo: The Fall of Reach released October 30, 2001, a few days before the video game it served as a companion to. But this unassuming companion to an unproven game would prove to have a long-term impact on the Halo franchise beyond most tie-in merchandise. Eighteen years after its release, The Fall of Reach is arguably the single most important piece of Halo media created, and laid the groundwork for the transformation of Halo from a game series to a multi-billion-dollar multimedia franchise.
The origins of The Fall of Reach lie in the weird and wild times of Microsoft Games Studios and the creation of the Xbox. Halo was shaping up to be Microsoft’s flagship game on its unproven new video game console, and Microsoft was burning money in the process.1 Among the many tie-ins the game publishing business was exploring was books. Microsoft Game Studio’s Franchise Development Group pursued a publishing deal, and writer Eric Nylund and Eric Trautmann, then a developer with the Franchise Development Group, began talking about a tie-in book for Halo.
Creating a tie-in novel for Halo proved to be difficult, because for most of its development, Halo did not have a concrete story. When the game was first announced, the game’s plot was sketchy at best. Humans crash-landed on the Halo ring and fought with the Covenant over salvage. The Master Chief was armed with a machete and didn’t have an actual name or rank. So Trautmann and Nylund’s project was delayed while the game came together very late—so much so that when the novel project moved forward, Nylund had just seven weeks to write it, using what details had been provided from the embryonic Halo Story Bible. The entire project, Frank O’Connor would later write, went from conception to print in just four months.2
The novel project was apparently never popular with Bungie writ large. Halfway through the process, it was nearly cancelled. Trautmann described working with Bungie as sending him into a daily “pinwheel of rage”, and that the novel was only saved due to an agreement where he and fellow writer Brannon Boren agreed to make last-minute rewrites to Halo: Combat Evolved‘s script before the imminent voiceover sessions. The writing project was immensely frustrating for Trautmann, who wasn’t allowed to actually see the game they were writing for (leading to the infamous “this cave is not a natural formation” line when entering a cave that was clearly not a natural formation anyhow) but it enabled Nylund to continue working on the book.3
The result was The Fall of Reach, which became a Publishers Weekly bestseller and sold more than a million copies by 2009. Nylund would go on to sell roughly another million copies of Halo books with a series of sequels. But most importantly, it set up the path that all Halo fiction—whether in the games, novels, or live-action adaptions—would take.
The opening of the novel quickly establishes the differences between novel and game. Whereas the games thrive on the intoxication of player agency, novels exploit the limitless potential of no boundaries beyond imagination, and we get an opening that to this day remains broadly impossible to realize in a game—the Master Chief and his fellow Spartans against thousands of Unggoy. Here too we get tastes of the power of Spartans that until recently wasn’t broadly surfaced in the games as well: superhuman three-meter jumps from a standstill, pinpoint accuracy, machinelike efficiency. Looking back it’s also impressive how quickly Nylund begins to distinguish the Spartans, who would for most of Halo‘s early history be referred to as outwardly identical in their armor; it’s spritely Kelly who kicks off the early action, taking out turrets with pinpoint accuracy while at a sprint, followed by the rest of the team decimating ground and air targets with mines and tactical precision. The opening of the book is intentionally very narrow—only Chief is mentioned explicitly, with the rest of Blue and Red Team identified at this point by their callsigns—but laser-focused on setting the tone. After an impressive few pages of the supersoldiers demolishing the Grunt threat, they are extracted and return to space, where despite winning the ground battle, the war for the planet has already been lost. Chief stays on the bridge of the human cruiser he’s aboard to watch the planet glassed by the Covenant. The opening is a visceral elaboration of the few background story paragraphs of Halo: Combat Evolved‘s manual—the Spartans always win, but it’s just not enough to turn the tide.
The in media res open having stablished the stakes and framing of the conflict, the novel then jumps back in time to show us the birth of the Spartans. Section 1 opens with Jacob Keyes, a young military officer, awakening from cryo sleep while on an unknown mission with the civilian scientist Catherine Halsey. Looking back it’s interesting how rough Nylund treated space travel, something the later books and games would definitely elide over. Faster-than-light trips take a long time to get anywhere, people spend a lot of it in suspended animation, and they go in and come out buck naked, eating a fluid they regurgitated to regain lost nutrients like a baby bird. In contrast to almost every single gameplay environment players experience in the series, artificial gravity is not a given.
Here Nylund also works to begin distinguishing Halo from the general themes and tropes of the humans versus aliens genre, because the focus for a significant part of the book is on humanity screwing things up with no aliens to blame it on. Early on Halsey mentions Eridanus as the hotbed of rebellion against the United Nations Space Command, hinting at the long-simmering tensions and violence that have led her on the path to the SPARTAN-II Project. This first chapter also quickly introduces the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the unease they engendered in normal people—one of the most consistent elements that has remained throughout the franchise, from Halo Evolutions to the Kilo-5 Trilogy to Hunt the Truth.
It’s also interesting in retrospect that Nylund makes no effort to obscure his interpretations of the novel’s characters. Halsey expressly brings Keyes on her mission to evaluate the six-year-old Spartan-to-be John because he will keep the secret of the unethical project they’re about to embark upon. Likewise her egomaniacal streak, paired with her insistence that her project will be the bulwark staving off civil war and ruin, is amply demonstrated:
“This child could be more useful to the UNSC than a fleet of destroyers, a thousand Junior Grade Lieutenants—or even me. In the end, the child may be the only thing that makes *any* difference.” [S01C01]
Also displayed in this section is the spark of chemistry between Halsey and Keyes that would be later developed into a romantic entanglement and a daughter, Miranda Keyes.
On Eridanus, Halsey evaluates candidate #117, John. It’s Nylund who we can credit with giving the Master Chief his first name, while his rank was the result of Bungie discussions about how highly ranked a soldier could be while still being considered expendable. Most crucially, while Chief in the games is a cool, Clint Eastwood-type, protecting humanity at all costs, at age six… John is basically a bully. He’s first encountered gleefully beating up kids to win at King of the Hill, and acts defiant and proud to Halsey. That John is ultimately selected for the program comes down to what Halsey terms “luck”, tested with a simple game of heads-or-tails using an old coin.
Much has been made of the relative guilt or culpability of Halsey and the SPARTAN-II Project, especially with regards to how Halsey is treated in the Kilo-5 Trilogy, but Nylund makes the stakes pretty clear from the start. Halsey is conflicted about her role, reassigning Keyes as he begins to grasp the reality of her plans, and justifying her actions as for the greater good—and yet not being able to entirely sooth her conscience with those justifications. From Nylund’s very first book, Halsey’s eventual change of heart regarding to her actions in First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx is well-laid. Nylund also makes it clear that Halsey is the brains behind the operation, but not its only component—oblique mentions to the ONI officials who discussed “acceptable losses” among the candidates, and her AI’s justifications to her that if she steps aside, someone else will move in make it clear that she is part of a project that is larger than any single person. Halsey’s address to the 75 children the UNSC has abducted from their families crystallizes that conflict; she is telling them the truth of their abduction, yet wrapping it in the same patriotic words that she has used to justify her actions. Halsey says she is telling the children a sort of truth, but in some ways it’s actually the same lies she has told herself.
Also introduced in this section is Franklin Mendez, the Spartan’s trainer. Halsey largely recedes from much of the central part of the book, and it is Mendez who serves as the authority figure who is instrumental in shaping John and his fellow inductees into the soldiers the UNSC wants. Here, too, Nylund is rather unflinching in the brutality of the SPARTAN-II Program, which starts from the first day with physical and emotional abuse of children. The goal is to cohere the Spartans into a unit, and it does happen—John has to quickly learn that his own strength is not enough to succeed, and forms bonds with the Spartans who would become Blue Team.
In 2525 the trainees undergo the brutal augmentation procedures that turn them into the formidable superhumans they were meant to be, but it comes at a cost; their numbers are basically halved by deaths and disfigurements. These losses are part of John’s lesson, imparted by Mendez—the difference between spending and wasting lives. This forms what could probably be considered the basic theme of Nylund’s work: questions of honor, sacrifice, and what “winning” really means—or costs.
As an aside, it’s in this section that Halsey receives a list of augmentation drugs and procedures, and their side effects. Most famously, there is the “catalytic thyroid implant”, with a stated risk of elephantiasis and suppressed sexual drive. This bit about sexual drive has always been a point of contention and misunderstanding in the fandom, especially as it regards Spartans and romance. Main point is—it was always listed as a risk factor, not a guarantee. And yet fans still argue about this!
Recovering from his augmentations, John gets into a fight provoked by a group of ODSTs to test his newfound strength. The ODSTs, another Nylund contribution to Halo, are probably a good example of a subtle alteration to the book in media since. Nylund calls them the 105th, implying ODSTs were a single division rather than the more expansive group shown in subsequent media, and their reputation for “success” and “brutality” was softened. Here is established the animosity between ODSTs and Spartans, which plays significantly into some other works like The Flood, although it’s been largely reduced or minimized in more recent media.
Demonstrating their superhuman attributes, the Spartans receive their first mission in September 2525 to capture the Insurrectionist Colonel Watts. The mission is a success, but is quickly overshadowed by news of hostile first contact with an alien threat, the Covenant. The stakes are quickly set up: the Covenant seek humanity’s destruction, and in response, the Spartans are going to be given their most potent weapon, a suit of battle armor called MJOLNIR. Mendez exits, leaving John with his lost coin he won years earlier, and encouragement that surrender is not an option.
The Spartans receive their MJOLNIR at Chi Ceti IV, but the arrival of the Covenant forces an impromptu battle. Nylund’s strength in plausible-sounding sci-fi combat is evident, as he renders the helplessness of being trapped aboard a damaged ship and the dogged determination and technological advantage of the Covenant. Nylund’s battles are tense affairs that often take pages but last mere minutes. John leads his team to board the alien vessel, giving readers their first encounter with the Covenant—Jackals. Though the Spartans are victorious at destroying the ship from within, it comes at the cost of Spartan Sam-034’s life, underlining Mendez’s advice to John and setting up the arc of the rest of the novel—the humans can win, but it comes at a cost.
The final section of the book jumps forward to 2552 and details the events leading up to the eponymous fall of Reach and the immediate events before the game. Here Nylund reintroduces Keyes, as well as introducing the present situation: humanity has been ravaged by decades of war, the Outer Colonies destroyed. The Cole Protocol—requiring destruction of ships or AI to prevent data leading to Earth or other colonies from falling into Covenant hands—is also introduced.
The Covenant attack Sigma Octanus, but Keyes engages the enemy ships in a rather clinical but thrilling game of maneuvers and wits, using a strategically placed nuke and their own plasma torpedos against them. Keyes gets to demonstrate his tactical prowess in a way the game never offers; the Covenant deposit a few dropships to Sigma Octanus and escape the system. While Keyes and the UNSC fight a pitched battle against Covenant reinforcements—again using brilliant tactical maneuvers to underline how fundamentally outmatched the UNSC is against the Covenant Navy without these flashes of brilliance—the Spartans are sent to the ground to deal with the invasion force there.
Halo is, overall, not a gritty war franchise, a la the beach scene of Saving Private Ryan; it’s generally a much more PG-13 action adventure romp. But on occasion, the franchise highlights the real nature of warfare, and the ground battles in The Fall of Reach tend to be highlights of that aspect. Readers are introduced to the ground war on Sigma Octanus via the beleaguered Marines of Corporal Harland’s squad, retreating from a Covenant attack that has left poor Private Cochrane riddled with explosive Needle shards, leaving his insides “meat”. The games to this day have not reached that level of viscerality.
The Spartans’ arrival, too, is treated as awe-inspiring—Harland is for a moment unsure if the approaching armored bipeds are human or Covenant—and the mass and size and mechanically fluid movements of the Spartans are described. When John is introduced here for the first time in his “contemporary” incarnation as Master Chief, he’s described from Harlan’s point of view as an it. Aside from brief points in the games, the alien and awe-inspiring element to the Spartans is rarely highlighted, but Nylund makes the full use of it here.
At this point, Nylund introduces the final key element of a familiar Halo story—the Forerunner macguffin, though the Forerunners themselves will not be name-dropped in the novel. The battle over Sigma Octanus was for a unremarkable-looking rock, which contained a pattern that was not Covenant in origin. Halsey’s AI Cortana realized that rather than a language, the patterns are stars—deriving a stellar address that leads humanity to the ringworld Halo, sparking the events of the first game.
The final action takes place on Reach, where humanity is planning a desperate operation—sending all the available Spartans to capture a Covenant vessel, find the Covenant homeworld, and abduct the Covenant leadership. Cortana is to serve as an asset on the mission, and she chooses John as her carrier—likely in part because being derived from Halsey’s own cloned brain, Cortana favored him. Their first test, combined with the new MJOLNIR armor that Chief wears in the game, is a pretty thrilling action piece, with Chief beating an attempt by ONI officer Ackerson to kill him by deflecting a missile in midair. It’s another example of the books being able to display the Spartans’ full abilities better than the games, and the first example of the trope of “duplicitous ONI agents” that would play out time and time again in Halo‘s earlier installments.
Reach is treated as the closest thing John has to a home, and so when it comes under attack by the Covenant it’s more than just another human colony to him. Despite the Spartans’ skills, Reach falls—and Master Chief flees aboard Keyes’ ship Pillar of Autumn, setting up the events of Halo: Combat Evolved and leaving him the only Spartan seemingly standing.
It’s fair to say that Nylund’s influence is outsized compared to the actual novel’s intrinsic qualities. Master Chief’s major arc is “he starts losing”, which isn’t really a personal growth so much as something that happens to the character. In serving as a direct lead-in to Combat Evolved (which very much did not address many of the same themes) The Fall of Reach often feels like it’s missing something in its final pages. Contemporary reviews of the book were mixed, with some reviewers complaining about Nylund’s exhaustive detail, and others the simple plot and serviceable rather than remarkable writing. But it’s inarguable that Halo readers found something to latch onto, and would serve to build the universe in a way that was vital at a time when Halo was not an established franchise and new media was not regularly releasing.
The always-engrossing TV Tropes site contains a listing for “early installment weirdness“, a page listing the ways in which later popular fiction often has an uneven or inconsistent feel to its early works. Very rarely is a pop culture phenomenon ever fully envisioned in its opening installments, and given the behind-the-scenes development of Halo: Combat Evolved and of the Fall of Reach, it shouldn’t be surprising that Nylund’s work had inconsistencies that would have to be smoothed over.
The biggest fundamental changes to Nylund’s work have had to do with the fact that The Fall of Reach acts as a standalone prequel to Combat Evolved, and at times created too tight a timeline for the later expansive stories of the franchise. In particular, it had humans not meeting many of the members of the Covenant until very late in the war, with Master Chief facing off against Hunters for the first time at Sigma Octanus, and Elites only at the fall of Reach. Starting with the novel Contact Harvest in 2007 and Halo Wars in 2009, the early years of the Human-Covenant War were substantially rewritten, with virtually all the members of the Covenant seen to a heavy degree.
The number of active Spartan IIs, conclusively stated by Nylund repeatedly in the book, was also something that has been continually redefined. While Nylund himself gave some wiggle room on saving some of the Spartans on the planet—Halsey mentions that Gray Team is too far remote to be recalled—the number of surviving (and killed) Spartans would be adjusted repeatedly in later media, with some deceased or crippled Spartans in fact being rehabilitated to swell the numbers of possible characters for use (perhaps most notably, the three Spartans Alice, Doug, and Jerome of Halo Wars.) The identical nature of the Spartans, something Nylund continually underlined, was ultimately eroded starting with the customized armor of Halo 3, Halo Reach, and on.
Perhaps almost as large an incongruity, although a more subtle one, is the characterization of the Chief himself. The adult Chief is a generally different character than the game’s version; more prone to doubt and fear, less wry, and altogether a touch more brutish. Nylund’s Master Chief has his fight or flight response triggered by a hologram, and seems at times perplexed by basic concepts like a peaceful settlement to conflict or anything beyond fighting. Nylund’s Chief is the epitome of the video game’s log line of Chief as “built for war, bred for combat” to a degree that is considerably softened in most other portrayals.
When Bungie announced its last Halo game would be the prequel Halo: Reach, many fans expected some sort of adaptation of The Fall of Reach. They were mistaken: Reach ended up retconning a huge swath of the final portion of The Fall of Reach in rather drastic ways, which prompted fan outrage; a testament to how beloved Nylund’s work was by 2010 is the fact that the arguments were for making the game non-canon, not Nylund’s book.
With the understanding that Bungie was never all that enamored of Nylund’s book in the first place, from the personality given to Chief to perhaps the existence of any Halo media beyond their own, their choice to tell their own story and ignore precedent makes some sense. Bungie treated the books, including Nylund’s, as lesser canon, and felt within their rights to overwrite it.4 Perhaps in something of a dickish move, Nylund still contributed to Reach, writing the excellent Halsey’s Journal that came with limited editions of the game and did put some effort into smoothing over the retcons the game’s campaign introduced. Likewise, the 2010 reissue of The Fall of Reach added more explanations for the changes, as well as adjusting some of the aforementioned discontinuities. They don’t totally erase the slightly off-tone feel of the book, especially as the franchise continues to grow—when discussing his mission to capture the Covenant leadership, for example, Master Chief mentions capturing a Covenant ship would be a difficult task even for a Spartan, seemingly forgetting the fact that he had already attempted to do such a thing according to the more recent novel Halo: Oblivion. Perhaps then, The Fall of Reach stands as a testament to how much the Halo franchise has grown, and its occasional oddness is only because of its own success.
Despite these massive changes, the thematic core of Nylund’s work endures, and indeed was the fundamental blueprint most of Halo‘s fiction followed for the first decade of the series’ existence. Halo was fundamentally military sci-fi told from the perspectives of the Spartans and human soldiers. Forerunner tech served as an inscrutable motivator for conflict. Humanity won isolated conflicts that staved off extinction for a bit longer. It could be said that this was a fairly narrow genre, but it served the franchise well.
The enduring appeal of Nylund’s work is also evident in the fact that when it was reissued, it was only slightly altered to adjust for some of these retcons, not substantially changed. The book was adapted twice, into a comic series and an animated film (with uneven results.) It even served as the basis for one of the drafts of the ill-fated Halo live-action film. To this day it’s likely the best-selling Halo novel, and certainly is the most influential. With so much changed, massaged, altered, or just retconned from The Fall of Reach, it should still be noted that the broad template of the Human-Covenant War Nylund helped devise remains intact, as well as the general shapes of its expanded universe characters that later authors would expand upon. Without Nylund, would Halsey have ever become the major player in books and games? Would Blue Team have ever reappeared in Halo 5? It seems unlikely. Nylund turned what could have been merely a cash-in book to the foundational scaffold that the entire Halo expanded universe would be grafted. Not too shabby for a book turned around in a few weeks.
- “The Complete Untold History of Halo: An Oral History.” ↩
- The Fall of Reach (2010 Reissue): Forward. ↩
- Trautmann, “Episode 005: DC Reboot/Eric Trautmann”: The Science Fiction Show. ↩
- MTV, “Bungie On The Contradictions Between Halo: Reach and Halo: The Fall of Reach Novel.” ↩