A conversation with Bungie Studios lead writer and author of Halo®: Contact Harvest, Joseph Staten
Eric Raab, Tor editor here, with Joseph Staten, the lead writer with Bungie Studios, creators of the mega blockbuster, cultural phenomenon, Halo® video game trilogy and author of Halo®: Contact Harvest. I think it pretty much goes without saying that Halo has become the greatest science fiction world to come out of the video game industry. But I want to go back to the beginning. Where did the idea for Halo: Combat Harvest come from?
JS: Initially it was a desire by Bungie to get back to science fiction after spending a good number of years working in fantasy – on the “Myth” series of games for the Mac and PC. The specific art, story and game-play elements that make Halo unique among first-person shooters came together slowly. The Halo ring itself, for example, used to be a planet. And the Master Chief – the main character in Halo – didn’t actually have a name until a few months before we shipped.
ER: I’ve worked with many great SF writers and I have to say, the world-building in Halo is pretty impressive. Can you explain the foundations of it and where you looked for inspiration?
JS: Games are the product of lots of people with really diverse backgrounds. Our artists, for example, would probably cite the monolithic stonework of ancient Egypt or the geometric patterns of Frank Lloyd Wright as inspiration for the game’s alien structures. From a story point of view, Halo is epic space opera through-and-through. And for that we drew from any number of sources – books and films alike. Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” was an obvious influence, but so is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” To get an exact answer, you’d have to ask every member of the team what they brought to the table. Bungie thrives on collaboration.
ER: I keep telling people that even if they’ve never played the video games, reading Halo: Contact Harvest sets the stage for the entire Halo trilogy storyline. You’ve obviously done a lot of writing for the video game; what compelled you to want to write a novel?
JS: I’d been kicking the basic story around for a few years, and when Tor gave me the chance, I took it! Halo has great fans, and while I wrote the book with them in mind I’m especially eager to hear how people who’ve never played Halo would react. As you said, because Contact Harvest is the start of a different story-line (a prequel, really, to the events in the games) my hope is that it’s very easy to pick up and get sucked into the world and characters without any understanding of the larger Halo universe. When I started writing, I taped a little note to my computer monitor: “Don’t write a great Halo novel. Write a great novel.” Hopefully, I came close.
ER: I may be biased, but indeed you did. Two-fold question: When it comes to SF, what writers are your personal favorites and, if there are authors that you would love to see take on a Halo novel, who would they be?
JS: Personal favorites (in alphabetical order): Iain M. Banks, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and Vernor Vinge. Obviously, some aren’t around to write a Halo novel. But actually, rather than have, say, Mr. Vinge write a Halo book, I (and I’m speaking for all of Bungie Studios) would love to collaborate with him on the creation of an entirely new, non-Halo universe.
Halo: Contact Harvest (0-7653-1569-6, $14.95 / $17.25) is a Trade Paperback Original from Tor and hit stores on October 30th!
We Can Be Heroes
by James Mallory
It’s not enough to create magic. You have to create a price for magic, too. You have to create rules.
Eric A. Burns, Gossamer Commons
There are two important magical systems in the World of Obsidian: the Wild Magic, which underlies everything in existence, and the High Magick (once known as the War Magick) practiced in Armethalieh, City of the Golden Bells. The two systems, once meant to work together, are, by the time of Kellen Tavadon, set in opposition to each other. The Wild Magic is barely a legend in Armethalieh, and the High Magick has evolved into a complex, lifeless, mechanistic system, hedged about by countless rules. As Kellen eventually learns, the Wild Magic is essentially an expression of the life force of the world, acting to keep the world in balance. The Wildmages act as the agents of this sentient force, and at times, when they are serving the Wild Magic - and especially when they are paying their Mageprices - they may have to act in opposition to their own desires and sometimes even against their own will.
By a thousand years after Kellen’s time, it’s the High Magic which has become barely a legend. Wildmages are a part of the culture of the Nine Cities, but they do their work in secret, rarely showing themselves openly. When Tiercel Rolfort begins studying the ancient magick that once ruled the city where he lives, he’s excited by the idea of a magic that “anyone can learn and anyone can do,” not realizing that one must be born with the ancient Magegift to become a High Mage, and that to master its complex rules and spells is the work of - literally - a lifetime.
There is one thing more that Tiercel does not know: the price the spells of the High Magick require. To pay a price for magic is at the center of both the High Magick and the Wild Magic. The Wild Magic requires both the Mageprice asked of the Wildmage and power to fuel the spell itself. This power comes from living beings - all sentient creatures have a small amount of power, though only those with the Magegift can wield it.
Someday I shall write a book set in the Great War which will tell of the origin of the High Magic, which was created because the Endarkened were able to Taint those who used the Wild Magic. A thousand years later, at the time of Kellen Tavadon, the High Mages had erased its connection to the Wild Magic as much as possible, but they could not erase the fact that the High Magick also required power to fuel its spells. By Tiercel’s time, the knowledge that power is necessary to cast the spells of the High Magick has been lost. So even though Tiercel discovers that he's the first High Mage to have been born in a thousand years, unless he finds some power source as great as the one the ancient High Mages had, he'll never be able to cast spells at all….
The Phoenix Unchained (0-7653-1593-9, $27.95 / $32.50 CAN), by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, was released by Tor in October.
Steven Brust on animals, people, and his “Vlad Taltos” series
Why is it that I put animals in my books, or, more particularly, put in people with some sort of symbolic relationship to an animal? Is it because, in human history and pre-history so many people identified themselves with animals? No, that’s the justification, not the reason.
Is it so I can explore the animal nature within us all? Yeah, right, whatever.
Is it that it makes it easier to explore what it really means to be human? No, but if the New York Review of Books ever interviews me, that’s what I’ll say.
No, it’s so I can make fun of my friends without them knowing about it.
In the world in which the Vlad Taltos novel is set, the population is divided into what are called Great Houses, each named for an animal. Some of these animals are familiar to us all, some are made up, and some are familiar but altered. In truth, all human beings are a delightful mix of personality traits, some of which can appear dominant at various times depending on circumstances. In fiction, particularly fantasy, I get to exaggerate characteristics and make animal comparisons, and when I need to, make up the animal—all for the pleasure of laughing at my friends. I love this business.
Like, that guy who cares just a bit too much about money? Orca. The one with the temper? Dragon. The manipulative bastard? Yendi. The guy with ethics but no principles? Jhereg. The one who would cut off an arm rather than be rude? Issola. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had hours of fun figuring out which House all of my friends belong in.
My latest Vlad Taltos novel—out in paperback this month—is called Dzur. A dzur is your typical big, nasty cat. The people who identify with it are of the House of Heroes.
What, exactly, do I mean by “hero?” I’m not talking about real heroes, because real heroes only happen where character meets circumstance. Nor am I talking about people who constantly look for situations where they can show off their courage—they aren’t heroes, they’re adrenaline junkies. By “hero,” in this context, I mean someone who always goes in with the odds against him—in fact, who only goes in when the odds are against him. Sounds good, right?
You know them. At a party, he’s the one who won’t venture an opinion unless he’s pretty sure everyone in the room is on the other side. On the highway, he’s the ones zipping down the empty lane that’s about to vanish for construction, expecting you to let him in. On the internet—Oh, lord. Don’t get me started. Yeah, these are the guys who have raised being unpopular to an art form. One of my dearest friends is a Dzur. He sometimes refers to himself as Captain Social Suicide. Need I say more?
So, yeah, anyway. Those guys. They’re annoying as hell, but in stories they’re kinda fun.
Steven Brust’s novel, Dzur (0-7653-4154-9, $6.99 / $8.99 CAN) was released in October from Tor.
Tor executive editor Beth Meacham discusses Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s A Companion to Wolves
Wolves. They howl through the forests of our dreams. Creatures of myth, faithful companions, deadly enemies.
How many writers have written about wolves and men? Kipling. Jack London. The founding mythology of the Roman Empire—Romulus and Remus, raised by a wolf. The idea of men who live as wolves is deeply rooted in the stories that define us.
So it’s natural that it is one of the staples of fantasy. I’ve loved animal-companion fantasy since I was a little girl—one of the first sf novels I ever read was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son. In it, the hero bonds to a great, big, dangerous hunting cat named Lura. There’s something deeply satisfying to me about idea of a telepathic and emotional bond to animals—cats, horses, dragons…and wolves.
Enter Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. You know who they are—two of the hottest new sf&f writers of the decade. Bear is the author of the award-winning series that began with Hammered, from Bantam. She’s also writing fantasy for Roc, beginning with the amazing Blood and Iron. Sarah Monette is the author of the stylish fantasy novel Melusine, and its sequels, all published by Ace.
I had breakfast with them at a convention, and they started telling me about this book they’d written in collaboration, that none of their other publishers wanted to buy. “Why?” I asked, incredulous. “Um. It’s got too much sex in it,” was the answer.
Now, this seemed pretty odd to me. Too much sex? Like, it’s a porn novel? No no, they assured me, it’s not that, it’s a telepathic animal companion novel, about men and wolves living together, and well, they decided not to pull the curtains and be discreet about what might happen when the females went into heat and the pack went into breeding frenzy.
Oh. Well, Tor has published a lot of fantasy with lots of weird sex. It sells well, not surprisingly, and we aren’t afraid of it. So I asked to see the manuscript, as they had hoped I would, of course.
And of course, given its authors, A Companion to Wolves is so much more than that. It turned out to be a deeply touching novel about the nature of honor and loyalty—a coming of age story set against a Norse-style epic of desperate battle and daring cunning. But not, um, suitable for young readers.
We’re already plotting the sequel.
A Companion to Wolves (0-7653-1816-4, $24.95 / $28.95 CAN), by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, was released by Tor in October.