John Jackson Miller Talks Halo: Fractures & the Spirit of the Franchise

Author John Jackson Miller brings his extensive experience to two Halo anthologies this fall.

From ancient artificial intelligence to the Spartan program’s newest recruits, the Halo universe is going strong. Although there won’t be a new game in 2016 – even the free-to-play, Russia-only Halo Online was cancelled this August – the extended universe continues to grow in fiction and sourcebooks. Fans can look forward to two Halo anthologies this year, featuring the work of many of the best pop sci-fi writers working today, including Troy Denning, Christie Golden, and John Jackson Miller. 

In fact, Miller has stories in both anthologies this fall, the short story collection Halo: Fractures and the graphic novel anthology Halo: Tales from Slipspace. Miller has been writing tie-in novels and comics for much of his career, contributing tons of new stories to the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mass Effect universes, to name a few.

We previously spoke to him about his Star Wars work, and now he’s been gracious enough to answer some of our questions about the Halo franchise and his Forerunner story in Fractures.

Den of Geek: Did you play any of the Halo games before you were asked to write these stories? What intrigued you most about the franchise?

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John Jackson Miller: The one thing my son wanted for Christmas last year wasn’t just an Xbox One, but the limited edition of Halo 5: Guardians, and as any suggestible parent I went all over several towns looking for one. He’s far better at shooter games, so I watched him play — and also watched him catch up on some of the earlier games. 343 Industries also supplies a whole lot of background material to writers, a whole database. I also watched quite a lot of video that’s been produced. So I feel like I caught up on what I needed to know to write in the corners of the timeline that I did.

I say “corners,” because this project moved sort of in parallel with a separate comics anthology, Halo: Tales from Slipspace, which is coming out from Dark Horse Comics next month. It was actually my editor on Halo: Fractures who told me Dark Horse was doing a book, and suggested it might be cool to be in both. So research for one helped me with the other.

As to the franchise and its appeals to me, I’ve written a lot of military science fiction of various kinds — from the trader security teams in Overdraft: The Orion Offensive to the Mandalorians in my Star Wars work. Halo comes at it from a different direction — more regimented, but definitely heroic. There’s a regular military feel to some of it that I haven’t touched upon elsewhere. And the tone isn’t as unremittingly dark as Mass Effect, which I cowrote the first three graphic novels for; it’s more up my alley. So it’s a nice change of pace.

You have a lot of experience writing both comics and prose. Did you have any particular considerations in mind when approaching the two different mediums at the same time and choosing to tell two different stories within the Halo universe?

The focuses of the two anthologies in part dictated a different approach. My Slipspace tale, “Undefeated,” was crafted as a story to follow the events of Halo 5: Guardians, and is very much a military piece involving a particular ship’s crew in the wake of what happened in the game; my prose story for Fractures long predated that one, and involved different characters and setting. So right there the experiences I was trying to convey were completely different.

But to the media themselves, always in comics you’re working with a team that’s backing you up and filling in the blanks in the background. To use a film metaphor, you’re the screenwriter and to some degree you’re breaking down the scenes, but the art director and the cinematographer are doing the important work of depicting the story. In prose, you have to paint the picture entirely yourself. So I relied on my editor and the 343 Industries team to help me when it came to how specific items should be described.

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For you, what sets writing for Halo apart from writing for any other franchise?

One of the nice things is that it’s got quite a long timeline with lots of different places where you can plug into it to tell different types of stories. In the story for Fractures, for instance, I went to the far end of it to do a piece on the Forerunners during their conflict with the Flood. Thinking as a Forerunner might — and in that very different time — gives you a completely different take on things, and that lends some variety to the tie-in writer.

It’s also helpful that so much in the games has been thoroughly documented. Things that you think should have names usually do, and it’s not hard to find them. That’s the mark of a well-cultivated garden.

How did you capture Halo‘s unique tone?

I think duty is one of the elements that’s key to the series — duty to one’s unit, but also to something larger. And while the circumstances of the two stories are quite different, given where they were set and what they were about, I think that comes through in both of them. Both stories depict individuals who are cut off and lack information about what they need to do, or should be doing — and in both cases they have to step up and decide for themselves, basing their decisions on the values they’re grounded in.

In the Forerunner case, I also consulted Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga often in thinking about what it was like back then; it really helped.

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The Forerunner story Fractures is called “Defender of the Storm.” Can you talk about the themes and characters?

We’re amid the Forerunner-Flood war, but it doesn’t feel like that to my main character, a Forerunner soldier at a remote outpost. He feels like he’s on the absolute fringe of existence, and certainly the war — and we go quite a bit into what he’s going through and thinks he should be doing. He feels like he’s at a dead-end — which, for the evolving Forerunners, takes on a more literal aspect: he’s never going to be anything more, he’s stuck in his caste forever. Then he’s hit with the sudden realization that, no, in fact where he’s posted might really be strategically important after all, and he has to find it within himself to step up and take action.

Halo is full of superhuman characters, from Spartans to Sangheili. Did you want to play with the idea of heroism, or to subvert it?

Well, in “Defender of the Storm,” we have the fun element that Forerunner names often imply the character’s nature right there — so our soldier, who’s named Adequate-Observer, feels right off that he’s labeled for life, that he’s never to be any more than just sort of average. His only real friend is his ancilla, which is sort of prodding him to be satisfied with that — and then, when things go badly, to not make any risky decisions. But he tries to go beyond his limits, and what happens surprises him. It’s a fun story.

Thank you, John Jackson Miller! Halo: Fractures is out now. Tales from Slipspace is out on Oct. 25.

More from John Jackson Miller can be found at farawaypress.com or on Twitter @jjmfaraway.

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Megan Crouse is a staff writer.