Revisiting Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron (X-Wing #1)

Every part of the Expanded Universe (EU, also begrudgingly known as Legends) has its fans and devotees; but there will always be differences of opinion. Few entries in the series reach universal heights of adoration and devotion, however. You have the Thrawn Trilogy, and…well, that’s very nearly it. If you hang out in fan forums and comment threads, you’ll find criticism at some point for nearly everything else. That’s the nature of fandom, and it’s not a bad thing—we’re all entitled to like what we like and dislike what we dislike.

There is one other corner of the EU, though, for which I can’t recall ever seeing complaints. Today, we arrive at that corner, and it is great. I’m talking about the X-Wing series of novels by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston. Today, we’re looking at the first book in the series, 1996’s X-Wing: Rogue Squadron (which, coincidentally, is the first Star Wars novel not to include Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, or Leia Organa).

Rogue Squadron cover

First Edition Cover. Courtesy of Wookieepedia.

I’ll say up front that the X-Wing series has been a blind spot in my Star Wars experience. Back in my days of heavier EU reading—before I mostly switched from print to ebooks—I read whatever I could get my hands on, and I never managed to acquire the X-Wing series. The beauty of the EU, however, is in its interconnections and shared canon (more on that another time), and so I was familiar with the aftereffects of the X-Wing novels, even without having read them. It was no big secret that this is the series where the New Republic takes Coruscant from the Empire, for example. The Rogue Squadron pilots themselves appear again and again in the series. Series protagonist Corran Horn goes on to become my personal favorite Jedi (so, spoiler that he doesn’t die…?).

That last point—the matter of Corran Horn—made me excited to finally read this series. There’s not a bad or ill-conceived character here, so far at any rate; but Corran, as I said, is a favorite of mine. I’m excited to finally learn some of the background that led to the events of I, Jedi and his duel against Shedao Shai for the fate of Ithor in Dark Tide II: Ruin. Of course, the other Rogues are no slouches themselves, with such luminaries as Wedge Antilles and Tycho Celchu among their numbers.

So, let’s dig in! But, a few things first: Here is the timeline we’re using for this readthrough, starting with The Truce at Bakura, but omitting some of the children’s books such as the Jedi Prince series. We’re taking the series in order, which means that the next seven posts (including this one) will be X-Wing novels, so be prepared! Then we’ll get a lengthy break that includes some very well-known and popular novels, and then we’ll be back to this series briefly. Also note that I use the conventional fan- and behind-the-scenes system of dates that centers on the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV; this story takes place in 6.5 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin). Also, as always, Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book! It would be nearly impossible to avoid all spoilers and still discuss the novel, so read at your own risk!

X-Wing: Rogue Squadron is the story of Wedge Antilles’s reinstallation of the famous Rogue Squadron. This team of starfighter pilots was originally formed after the Battle of Yavin from survivors of other squadrons, notably Red Squadron, the squadron in which Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles flew during the attack on the first Death Star. The fledgling New Republic makes the decision to re-form the squadron for a dual purpose: To take the fight back to the Empire and strike fear into their hearts, and to inspire worlds to join the Republic. To that end, Wedge selects a diverse group of pilots: Lujayne Forge, a human from Kessel with a chip on her shoulder; Erisi Dlarit and Bror Jace, Thyferrans from powerful Bacta-producing families; Riv Shiel, a wolflike Shistavanen; Aril Nunb, the Sullustan sister of Nien Nunb; Gavin Darklighter, cousin to former X-Wing pilot Biggs Darklighter; Rhysati Ynr, from Bespin; Nawara Ven, a Twi’lek and former attorney; Peshk Vri’syck, a male Bothan; Andoorni Hui, a Rodian; Ooryl Qrygg, an insectlike Gand with a rigid code of honor; and Ooryl’s wingmate, Corran Horn, a former member of Corellian Security with a difficult past, but phenomenal flying skills. He also recruits former Rogue Tycho Celchu as his executive officer, but this comes with a price; Tycho was previously held in the notorious Imperial prison Lusankya, and the Republic refuses to trust that he has not been compromised.

The book takes our recruits through the growing pains of becoming a squadron—and not just any squadron, but Rogue Squadron, a unit famed for daring—and receiving—death. The Rogues are thrust into action early when the Republic sets its sights on Coruscant, the Imperial capital world, now held by former Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard. Isard is no easy enemy, though; and she has many tools at her disposal. One such tool is a partially-disgraced Intelligence operative named Kirtan Loor, who has much to prove—and a special hatred for one Corran Horn. The novel carries us through the first and second battles of Borleias, an Imperial world with a direct line to Coruscant—and secrets of its own. In the end, the Rogues win the battle—but not without cost, as they suffer their first losses in what promises to be a protracted war.

As can be expected, much of this first volume consists of laying groundwork for what is to come. There’s characterization to be built, settings and scenarios to be established, and emotional weight to be installed. We’re dealing with an entire squadron of twelve pilots here, plus supporting characters and villains, and many of them appear for the first time here; in short, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Don’t let that fool you into thinking nothing happens, though; one of Michael Stackpole’s strengths seems to be the ability to strike a balance, or so it seems thus far. He gives us plenty of character moments; but he also gives us the twin Battles of Borleias, great set pieces of starfighter combat. There are other, smaller battles scattered throughout the book as well. Stackpole also seems to be adept at using a minimum number of scenes to establish drama; for example, pilot Lujayne Forge only gets one in-depth scene, but it’s enough to make her death, the first in the squadron, carry a great deal of weight for her fellow pilots, and for us as readers. (I very much wanted her to live, and I’m not quite ready to forgive Stackpole for letting her die first.)

Stackpole doesn’t shy away from deaths, either. By the end of the book, three pilots—a quarter of the squadron—are dead, with no replacements yet in sight. That’s quite a number for an introductory novel. The shadow of death always looms large over the Rogues; it’s reiterated many times that all starfighter squadrons have high death rates, and Rogue Squadron more than most.  The best course of action for the reader, it seems, is to assume that if the character is newly created for this series, one should not get too attached to him or her.

As I mentioned, we focus on Corran Horn. Horn is a hotshot pilot from Corellia, a former member of Corellian Security (aka CorSec), forced to go on the run to escape the evil intentions of Kirtan Loor, who was the Imperial Intelligence Liaison at Corran’s branch of CorSec. Corran will one day be a Jedi, like his grandfather before him; but he knows nothing of that yet. Fortunately for us, it appears Corran’s future was planned to some degree in advance, because there are definite hints of his Force abilities here, although he doesn’t recognize them as such. Much time is spent discussing his past with CorSec, especially as it relates to Kirtan Loor, Corran’s father Hal Horn, and former supervisor Gil Bastra. Most of this discussion comes through interactions with Lujayne Forge, who hails from the prison world of Kessel—to which Corran routinely consigned prisoners while with CorSec—and smuggler Mirax Terrik, whose father Booster Terrik was apprehended and sent to Kessel by Corran’s father. Early hints also appear of the future relationship between Corran and Mirax, which will precipitate the events of I, Jedi.

The novel leaves us poised for the campaign to retake Coruscant—but other plot threads are left dangling as well. New pilots are needed for the Rogues, with little time to prepare and train. The squadron’s military protocol droid, M3PO (“Emtrey” for short) has secrets which are yet to be revealed. The disposition of Borleias has not yet been shown. Corran’s relationship with Mirax has yet to find its feet. Tycho Celchu’s mysterious past has not been revealed…and Rogue Squadron has a spy in their midst.

Overall: There’s a lot to take in here! I suspect that later novels won’t have to feel quite so busy, and will be able to take their time with the storytelling. That is in no way an insult to Stackpole’s work here; he’s done an amazing job of including everything that needed to be included, while still keeping the reader hooked. There’s always housekeeping to be done in the first novel of a series; but Stackpole does it with efficiency and style. I find myself looking forward to what lies ahead, not just for Corran’s story, but for all the Rogues, and even our villains. As usual, the villains start out as what I like to call “stock plus one”—that is, stock villains plus one defining characteristic. In the case of Kirtan Loor, his “plus one” is an eidetic memory on which he perhaps relies too much; for Borleias’ Imperial General Evir Derricote, it’s his provincial secret-keeping; for Ysanne Isard, it’s her sheer fearsomeness. Already the characters are beginning to develop, however—especially Loor, who is undermined and redeemed several times in the novel. Overall it’s a good mix, and sets us up well for the series. I expected that, while the series would be good, there would be nothing new; and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that that is not the case. I’m enjoying it, and you will as well.

Next time: We’ll attack Coruscant in book two, Wedge’s Gamble! See you there.

X-Wing: Rogue Squadron is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.

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TGRRL: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Until now, I’ve looked forward to every entry in this review series. Today, however, we come to the first review that I’ve dreaded writing; and what’s more, it’s for a book that I loved (how’s THAT for confusion?). That review is for Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill A Mockingbird First Edition Cover

First Edition Cover. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I dread writing this review because race—the central issue of the book—is still a highly-charged issue in the USA (and around the world as well, if not always in the same way). Naturally I fear to step on toes with what I may say about it, although I don’t think my views are in any way bad or controversial—but this is the internet age, and there will always be offenses and the offended, and honestly it gets tiresome. But there’s a second reason, one more dear to me: I fear having nothing insightful to say. Many books on the list are heavily debated, but few of them more than To Kill a Mockingbird; it would be well-nigh impossible to say something original about it today.

Nevertheless, we’ll give it a try!

I should say, before I get into it, that I didn’t read the book before discovering the Great Reddit Reading List—somehow my school reading requirements skipped over it, along with many other classics. However, it was one of the first books I read after discovering the list, nearly five years ago now; and so the details aren’t particularly fresh in my mind. I have Wikipedia to help me out, but if I make the occasional mistake, bear with me.

The book’s plot was made even more famous and well-known through the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck. Despite this, I for one wasn’t familiar with it when I picked up the book, and so a recap is in order. (Spoilers ahead! If you want to avoid them, skip down to the next paragraph.) Set in fictional Maycomb, Alabama between 1933 and 1935, it tells its story from the perspective of a six-year-old girl, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, although she is telling it as an adult. She lives with her brother, Jeremy “Jem” Finch, and her father, Atticus Finch; she also spends a large portion of her time in the company of a friend, Dill Harris. They are terrified of their neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, who never comes out of his house, and about whom the neighborhood adults are reluctant to speak. They develop a sort of friendship at a distance with Boo, but never see him face-to-face. Meanwhile their father, Atticus, has been appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. The book then proceeds through the lengthy trial and the events surrounding it, in which Atticus gives Tom an honest and thorough defense, and in fact proves that Tom is not only innocent, but was set up by Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell. Despite this, the jury convicts Tom, leaving Atticus to try to get the verdict overturned. However, before he can do so, Tom tries to escape prison, and is killed. Bob Ewell, meanwhile, is humiliated by the trial, and swears revenge on Atticus, the judge, and Tom’s widow. Unable to hurt Atticus, he finally attacks Jem and Scout, breaking Jem’s arm; but the children are rescued by Boo Radley, who takes them home. Ewell is killed with a knife in the struggle; Atticus believes Jem is responsible, but the sheriff believes Boo struck the blow. However, to protect Boo and put an end to the matter, the Sheriff announces that Bob fell on his own knife. Meanwhile Boo speaks briefly with Scout, and then retreats to his home again, leaving her to imagine his life.

Much has been written about the book’s impact, and about its background, especially the matter of the real people who inspired Lee’s characters (for example, Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Lee, inspired the character of Dill, while her own father inspired Atticus Finch). Better scholars than I—not least of all, Lee herself—have tackled those issues, and I’m content to let them speak. Moreover, the book itself still speaks, especially on the topics of race and racism, and by extension rape and sexism. Those problems haven’t gone away; in some regards there have been improvements, in other ways there have been setbacks, but on the whole they still exist in America, and the evils involved must still be fought. The book rightly vilifies racists, as well as those who would falsely accuse anyone of a crime, especially while committing their own crimes. It also exposes the level of racism that has been entrenched and institutionalized in the American south for decades—centuries, surely, by now—and which has not been killed off as yet, even today (let alone at the time of publication). I have nothing to add to that discussion; I can only affirm those messages.

Nevertheless the book did make an impact on me. Most of all, I was struck by Atticus Finch, who—being based on Lee’s own father, and described from the point-of-view of a six-year-old—comes across as an exceptionally good and honorable man (though not perfect even so). (I understand that the belated sequel, Go Set a Watchman, portrays him a bit less favorably; but I haven’t read it, and won’t comment further on that.) At the time I read the book, my own children—the two I had at the time, that is; I’ve added another since then—were the same ages as Scout and Jem in the story; and so naturally Atticus’s story resonated with me. The baseline of Atticus’s character is that he doesn’t buy into the racism and hate of his day, nor the self-centeredness and distrust. But that’s just where he begins; because it would be easy to be silent and let things happen as they will. He doesn’t do that. He’s pushed into the position of defending Tom Robinson, but he makes no effort to get out of it, and he doesn’t just put in a token performance. He throws himself into Tom’s defense, knowing it will probably fail, but knowing it’s right.

There’s a dearth of right in the world today. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist; but there’s a lack of belief in it. It’s easy to get caught up in the things that are subjective in the world—the opinions, the beliefs, the feelings—and forget that some things are objective. It’s wrong to murder. It’s wrong to rape (though no actual rape happens in this story—but the point still has to be made). It’s wrong to lie, especially to someone else’s hurt. It’s wrong to hate anyone, regardless of who they are or what they do—it may be right to disagree with something they do, but hating the person is wrong. Do these sound like Sunday School lessons? Perhaps so; but that’s even more reason to remember them. Men (and not just men, but I’m a man, and I’m preaching to myself here) like Atticus Finch…they remember.

Moreover, Atticus is a parent, and a good one at that. Specifically, he’s a single father, which was also my situation at the time (I have since remarried, but had no inkling of that at the time). He tries to protect his children, first from awareness of the trial, because he doesn’t want them to face the ugliness of the world at their young ages; and second, from the effects of the trial, especially the hate showered on him for his role in it. He isn’t entirely successful—his children suffer a literal attack—but still, I feel a great swell of sympathy for him (and for the children as well, of course). It was compelling to me to see a father with his heart in all the right places, and reassuring to see him make mistakes—I make my own share of them. It’s good to know that perfection isn’t required, but honor and goodness and compassion are.

I’ve heard it suggested that the book is still—ugh—problematic (I hate that word in a social justice context), because Atticus is the hero of the story—as much as it can be said that there is one—while still being a white man. No one seems to come right out and call him a “white savior”, but the implication is out there. I’d like to suggest, though, that this doesn’t mean the book is flawed. Instead, it means that one book can’t be responsible for every aspect of a complex problem. There are other books whose heroes aren’t white men, and rightly so; in fact, that field is growing every year even now. It takes many stories to illustrate every angle of this issue. I also like to think that Atticus Finch—being both a white man and a good man—stands as a rebuke to any white man who would choose racism or other evils of that type. He’s there to point out first that we can do better, and second that we have a responsibility to do better. Thus I don’t think this criticism is valid. I do  think the book is justly criticized in that it doesn’t examine its black characters thoroughly enough, and perhaps treats them unrealistically. I’d like to suggest that this is because, in-universe, the story is from a six-year-old’s perspective; but I don’t think that that is the reason. I think it’s simply that this was a blind spot in Lee’s perspective. Fortunately, other authors have and continue to fill the gap.

One thing is for certain: This is a novel that will continue to inspire debate for decades to come. I’m glad to have picked it up; its impact on me will be lifelong.

Happy reading!

To Kill a Mockingbird remains in print, and is available at booksellers everywhere.

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? With a good month under my belt, I’ve decided to increase my reading goal to 52 books for the year, or one per week on average; you can do the same, and check out the 52 book challenge community over at Reddit. So far I’ve completed ten books. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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Book Review: The Postman, by David Brin

I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic fiction. I blame Stephen King. I read his opus The Stand at entirely too young an age—I was maybe twelve, and the Complete & Uncut Edition had only recently come out—and it always stuck with me. (I suppose you can argue that it’s apocalyptic fiction, not post-apocalyptic, but you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.) As a result I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the years A) thinking about how I’d try to survive in such a scenario, and B) seeking out more such stories.

That brings us to the Fallout series of video games, which (I think) I’ve referenced before on this blog. The games take place over the course of the next two to three hundred years, in an alternate timeline where a series of wars culminated in a short but devastating nuclear attack. Many of the survivors were mutated; many others survived by living in underground vaults, which turned out to be less humanitarian shelters and more terrifying social experiments. Not relevant, but notable: the most recent entry, Fallout 76, takes place in my home state of West Virginia, with many landmarks that are close to my hometown. It’s a great series of games, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you should check it out.

I browse a few communities dedicated to discussion of—and recommendations for—books. Several times I’ve seen threads come up asking for books similar to the Fallout series, books which—surprisingly to me—seem to be in short supply. There’s plenty of post-apocalyptic literature out there, but not much that captures the foraging, survivalist, devastated vibe of the game series. And It’s really no wonder; this seems to be an issue with post-apocalyptic movies, as well. (I’d recommend The Book of Eli for a starter, if you’re interested; it’s perhaps the most Fallout-esque movie I’ve seen.) One book, however, comes up again and again in these threads; that book is David Brin’s 1985 novel, The Postman.

The Postman first edition cover

First Edition Cover

Let me go ahead and say it up front: This is the book that was adapted into the 1997 Kevin Costner movie of the same name. But I can’t comment on that; I haven’t seen the movie. Frankly, from what I’ve read about it, I’m glad to have read the book first; I’d rather not judge the book by the movie. It’s easier for me to make comparisons with Fallout; and indeed, I’ve read suggestions that this novel was an inspiration for the Fallout series. That may be true or may not, but regardless, there are definite similarities. At any rate, when I saw this book get recommended so often, I knew I had to check it out.

The Postman is the story of Gordon Krantz, a 34-year-old survivor of the Doomwar, the nuclear war that led to the downfall of modern civilization, sixteen years earlier. Gordon has been wandering and surviving for years, searching for some place with a measure of civilization remaining, so that he can settle down; but it isn’t meant to be. He is ambushed and robbed as the story begins. Left with no belongings, and lacking even decent clothes, he stumbles upon an ancient postal service jeep with a mummified corpse inside. He takes the corpse’s uniform, simply for warmth; and for his own amusement, he takes the dead postman’s satchel and letters. However, he gets more than he bargained for when he discovers that, with a little nudging, other survivors are in awe of the trappings of the old world; and so he crafts a series of lies regarding the “Restored United States of America”, of which he claims to be a representative. At first he does so only to obtain food and shelter; but the lie—and its unexpected power—spirals beyond his control, as real postal routes are established in his wake, tying the scattered settlements together. Still, he feels nothing but guilt—until the fledgling alliance of towns is attacked by a force they aren’t equipped to handle, and it falls to Gordon Krantz to save them all.

I mentioned similarities to Fallout, and they are definitely present. In both works, most of the infrastructure of civilization lies in ruins; there are bunkers and military fortifications littering the landscape; survivalists and doomsday preppers are, not surprisingly, salted liberally among the survivors (and specifically the antagonists). There are talking supercomputers, a pretender to the name of the United States, a courier system, augmented human supersoldiers, fatal diseases, resource conflicts, raiders, drug problems, laser-bearing satellites, deceptive scientists, lots and lots of guns…I could go on. Notably missing are the underground vaults that form so much of Fallout’s infrastructure and plot; that innovation didn’t come from the novel, though it’s a natural extension of a nuclear apocalyptic scenario, with some real-world analogues.

The other noteworthy difference is in the means by which the apocalypse occurred. Brin goes to great lengths to establish that humanity was by no means in a vulnerable position when the Doomwar broke out; rather, it seemed to be on the cusp of a golden age. The only exception were certain regressive elements composed of survivalists and doomsday preppers, which—under the leadership of the tyrannical Nathan Holn—metamorphosed into something similar to a heavily armed Neo-Nazi movement. Unlike Fallout, the bombs and related breakdowns didn’t cripple humanity—in fact, humanity was well positioned to recover from the war itself. Rather, it was the Holnists and others like them who brought about the downfall of civilization, by destabilizing the world in the wake of the war. As a result, even feuding postwar communities will band together to wipe out Holnist enclaves; and it is a large army of Holnists—practically a nation in their own right—who are the principal antagonists of the story. Gordon Krantz, then, finds himself forging together a free nation in the wilds of Oregon, leading them against a far superior force of Holnists. After all, there are no more bombs available; but the Holnists didn’t really need the bombs the first time, and they can certainly destroy civilization again without it.

Thus, the book becomes something more than a battle between survivors…it’s a battle between ideals. Is civilization, here in its second chance, going to be founded on freedom and equality and community, or is it going to be founded on power and oppression and selfishness? I’ll let you read the book for yourself to determine the outcome.

I was impressed with the way Gordon’s own ethical dilemma was handled. Like many other post-apocalyptic protagonists, Gordon is a bit of a relic of the old world—an idealist among pragmatists. His internal struggle is certainly one of idealism vs. pragmatism—is it better to tell the truth (that the old US is well and truly dead) or to use the lie to live another day? But, as the story progresses, and Gordon becomes more bound to the lie, it becomes less about him and more about those around him. He is faced with the question of “who will take responsibility for these people?” The book never actively condones the lie; but as Gordon grapples with responsibility, it says to him, “This is what you’ve done—now what are you going to do with it? How will you bring good out of this lie?” Ultimately that’s what he does—his lie, though never right, is turned toward the goal of forging a better future for the people in his care. He never excuses himself, but he chooses the hard path of seeing it through and making something good. That’s a hero worth following, in my opinion.

The Postman

Not sure I would have gone with an endorsement from Whitley Streiber, whose books scared the hell out of me as an impressionable kid…but that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, it brings us to the same question. Why wait for the post-apocalypse, when we face the same dilemma every day: Who will take responsibility? I won’t call it an epidemic, but there are certainly many people in our world today who refuse to ever take responsibility—for themselves, for their families, for anyone else in their orbit. That’s not even getting to the matter of taking responsibility for the world—the world is too big to consider at every occasion. Its size becomes an excuse for us; we can say we’re concerned, but there’s very little we can do to show it. However, when it comes to our own lives, and our own actions, and our own families and friends, we really have no excuse.  At some point each of us is called upon to step up, do the hard thing, stay the course, and take responsibility.  We can take that lesson from Gordon Krantz, and be the one who follows through.

Heavier material than I expected from a mid-eighties sci-fi novel, I admit. I think that’s good enough for today.

Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? With a good month under my belt, I’ve decided to increase my reading goal to 52 books for the year, or one per week on average; you can do the same, and check out the 52 book challenge community over at Reddit. So far I’ve completed ten books. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

Revisiting Star Wars: The Dark Forces Trilogy

Welcome back! Last time, I mentioned that I’ll be skipping over the Jedi Prince series for now (and probably completely, but we’ll see), as my plan is to leave out most of the children’s books in the EU. (I say “most” because I do plan to cover the Young Jedi Knights series; the events of that series get some mention in the New Jedi Order series, and thus I consider them relevant enough to merit rereading.) That brings us to today’s entry, the Dark Forces trilogy of novellas, mostly authored by William C. Dietz (with a little help). I should mention that I use the term “novellas” loosely; technically they’re graphic novels, but the ebook version I read had the text set up as novellas, with the artwork attached to the end. At any rate, I’m more concerned with the text. On the matter of the artwork, I’ll just say that it’s pretty good, and leave it at that; I’m not much of a critic of illustrations.

The timeline I’m using can be found here. You’ll see at a glance that the first book in the trilogy, Soldier for the Empire, takes place several years earlier, prior to the Battle of Yavin, which places it before my target era for this series of reviews; but I’ve included it here simply because it relates events that are required reading in order to follow the last two books in the trilogy.

soldier for the empire

Soldier for the Empire cover

Of course, “reading” is a subjective word here. Dark Forces is based on a video game series, and one that I never played, at that. At the time–1995, for the first release in the series–I didn’t even own a computer; I was sixteen years old, and still firmly entrenched in console gaming. I’ve had to scramble to research the series and see how it fits in, because the EU canon is a strange animal sometimes–not only does it include the novels and comics, but also some of the video games. This is one of those cases.

So: Star Wars: Dark Forces, released in 1995, details the events of Kyle Katarn’s defection from the Imperial military to the Rebellion, approximately one year before the battle of Yavin; he then goes on to steal the Death Star plans which Princess Leia attempts to deliver at the beginning of Episode IV (suck it, Rogue One). This much, it has in common with the first book in our trilogy, Soldier for the Empire. It then goes on to detail Kyle’s further exploits on behalf of the Rebellion; those events, which comprise the greater portion of the game, are irrelevant to the novella, and get a single brief mention in the second book. The game then received a sequel, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (aka We Sure Do Love Colons Around Here), which details Katarn’s search for the lost Valley of the Jedi on Ruusan and his battle against the Dark Jedi Jerec for control of the power in the Valley. Those events are detailed in books two and three, Rebel Agent and Jedi Knight. The games would spawn a few more sequels, mostly concerned with Kyle’s further adventures, none of which I have played; we’ll cover them only if necessary, but I haven’t looked that far ahead yet.

In the professional world, supervisors are sometimes advised to deliver bad news by way of a “sandwich” technique. You should–so the theory goes–give a compliment or good news first, then the bad news or criticism, then another compliment or good news. Well, I’m not a supervisor, and today I feel obligated to do exactly the opposite: First the criticism, then the compliment, then more criticism. Apologies in advance. Am I forgiven? Please? Great! Let’s get into it.

rebel agent

Rebel Agent cover

It’s painfully clear that this trilogy is a media tie-in. It gets exactly the amount of effort a jaded child of the 1980s would expect for a media tie-in, which is to say, not much. Now, don’t get me wrong: the actual story is great, and I’ll get to that in a bit. But the presentation makes it clear that the work was dashed off on a deadline (or so it appears; I couldn’t get confirmation of that). There seems to have been only minimal editing. Perspectives jump around without warning–perhaps the illustrations would have helped with this, but I’m not convinced–and little is done to tie the story to the larger narrative of the Star Wars galaxy. I suspect this is because Dietz was working from either the game materials directly, or from scripts; the mission- and cutscene-based nature of the games would have translated poorly to prose without adding a lot of new material. To his credit, Dietz doesn’t seem to have taken it on himself to add much to the story. I say “to his credit” because, even though it does cause problems with the presentation, it means that the games and the novels are in agreement on most of the important points (again, as far as I can tell without playing the games). To draw a comparison from another fandom: The novelisations of classic episodes of Doctor Who sometimes differ enough to be considered their own version of canon. There’s none of that here.

Now the good: Kyle Katarn is a fantastic character. This Imperial soldier-turned-Rebel-turned-Jedi is a great addition to the EU canon. It becomes more common later to have characters who come over to the side of our heroes after a dark past, but Kyle is refreshingly different; while he attends the Imperial Academy at Carida, his defection happens almost immediately after graduation. He’s a farmboy with a scholarly education and a good heart; and he finds his way to the Force not long after, with the help of a dead Jedi named Qu Rahn. In some ways his story parallels that of Luke Skywalker (who does in fact show up here a few times), but with a few of the variables switched; instead of staying home like Luke, Kyle goes off to the Academy as Luke had wished to do, and he learns the Force without much mentoring or training (Rahn’s help is confined to a few critical nudges).

Kyle is accompanied by a cast of supporting characters who are interesting, if a bit shallow. There’s his Rebel agent partner, Jan Ors, who also becomes his love interest. Jan has the makings of an interesting character, and I can’t help wondering if she was a partial inspiration for Jyn Erso in Rogue One (certainly the two don’t look similar, but they have similar personalities, skill sets, and names, even). Unfortunately she doesn’t get the development she deserves, most likely because of the limitations of the novella format and the requirement to adhere to the game. Still, she’s alright, and I hope we’ll see her again. Then we have Kyle’s father, Morgan Katarn, the “Knight Who Never Was” (as the natives of Ruusan put it); Morgan is Kyle writ large, and I’m still angry that his story is cut short. (Apologies for the spoiler there, but then, you knew SOMEONE in Kyle’s life had to die–this is still Star Wars after all.) He gets more development than perhaps any other supporting character. There’s also Qu Rahn, the Jedi who dies early in the story, then appears to Kyle with bits of timely advice and nudges toward the way of the Jedi. If you’re picturing Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Force ghost, you’ve got it wrong; Rahn is much more positive and cheerful, and avoids Obi-Wan’s manipulation of the truth. (I admit, though, that I didn’t think he was human, until I started researching this post.) And of course, every hero needs villains; for this we have Jerec and his cadre of Dark Jedi. Most of them–Jerec included–are stock villains; but there’s the subordinate Dark Jedi named Yun, who is tempted toward the light in an interesting parallel to the way most Jedi are tempted toward the dark.

I’m pleased, as well, to see that this book (and game) places threads that would be pulled, to great effect, in the Darth Bane trilogy some years later. Here we get the first mention of the Valley of the Jedi, and of the war between the Army of Light and the Brotherhood of Darkness at the end of the New Sith Wars, and of the thought bomb that ended the war and trapped the souls of the combatants. I won’t be covering the Darth Bane novels directly here (unless I get through the post-RotJ era and choose to continue), but I have read them and greatly enjoyed them. This trilogy doesn’t seem to contradict them, but of course it seems to only be one aspect of the story, as it doesn’t include Bane or his actions. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to know we’ll revisit these characters again.

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Jedi Knight cover

Now, the criticism. It’s very hard to pin down the time frame of these books, especially from within. The timeline–and perhaps the games as well–establishes the first book as occurring in 1 BBY (for those unfamiliar, Star Wars dates are usually counted in years BBY or ABY–Before the Battle of Yavin or After the Battle of Yavin. It’s similar to BC and AD in the real world, except that you will sometimes see 0 BBY or 0 ABY, for events in the months immediately before or after the battle–something we wouldn’t do in the real-world system. Of course this dating system is a meta-system, used by fans, not the characters; there’s rarely any mention of dates within the stories, but they wouldn’t use the same system.) The second and third books occur in rapid succession in 5 ABY (one year after Return of the Jedi)–but you can’t tell by reading them! The Empire is spoken of as still being in power, and it isn’t clear that it’s the Imperial Remnant at issue here. The Jedi Qu Rahn lives until at least 1 BBY, and speaks of gathering help for Jedi-related matters, which seems unlikely so late in the Jedi Purge. The Rebellion is short on capital ships, and there’s no mention of Mon Cal cruisers as we see in RotJ; it’s continually described as the Rebellion, never the New Republic (which, if you recall, was a term already in use in The Truce at Bakura, mere hours after RotJ–a novel published four years prior to this trilogy); descriptions of Luke, Leia, and Mon Mothma all seem more consistent with Episode IV; and no mention is ever made of the events of Episodes V or VI. All in all, the story seems to fit much better if we back the entire trilogy up about four years; which, of course, we can’t do, because of the relative ages of the characters.

The villains–Jerec and his followers–are described as “Dark Jedi”, a term that occasionally gets thrown around, but rarely as often as here. I’ve never cared for the term, just as I don’t like the term “Grey Jedi”; I’ve always felt that if you’re not aligned with the light, you’re not a Jedi. I can understand the usage here, because Jerec was a Jedi before joining the Empire (he was an Old Republic Jedi sent on a long mission, who returned after the establishment of the Empire). As well, he’s not a Sith–he lacks that training–so what do you call him, if not a Dark Jedi? Still, it seems to me it would have been better to coin some new term than to have this confusion–surely he himself wouldn’t identify with the Jedi order once he betrays their ideals. As well, his followers were never Jedi in the first place; they were trained up by Jerec from the start. They certainly don’t merit the title. It also muddies things a bit to have the suggestion that there are still plenty of Jedi running around–Yoda and Obi-Wan thought they were the last for a reason. But, that’s a problem that we’ll see over and over again, so I can’t be too hard on them here for that reason. Perhaps more egregious is that Jerec and his crew are yet another in a long line of stock darksiders–stereotypically evil, each with some single defining characteristic to distinguish them (Jerec has no eyes but sees with the Force, Sariss wears all black with red lipstick, Maw is angry and animalistic, etc.) Perhaps the game develops their characters a bit more, but it doesn’t translate over, if so. This trend of making villains who are just “evil plus something” will plague Star Wars for some time to come. (In fairness, though, it does do one good thing–it reinforces the idea that the Dark Side stifles creativity and individuality, instead pressing people into a mold.)

Kyle’s path to Jedi Knighthood is not handled particularly well, especially when held up against, say, the Jedi Academy trilogy, or the Thrawn trilogy. Kyle is essentially a self-taught Jedi, something we’ve seen warning after warning against; self-taught individuals are potentially more vulnerable to the Dark Side. And yet, Luke Skywalker–who at this point should be scrounging for every Force-related ally and resource he can get–passively decides that Kyle must walk this path alone. That was perhaps the most unbelievable and immersion-breaking moment in the story for me; there’s no way Luke wouldn’t try to bind another strong Force user to himself in some way. Further, Kyle is ultimately considered a Jedi Knight–again, probably the first one in the post-RotJ era other than Luke–without any training at all. (I wasn’t joking when I said Rahn’s contributions were little more than nudges at opportune moments.) It becomes even stranger when we don’t see this Jedi in any major entries in the series for some time to come–I realize this is because those stories, such as the Thrawn trilogy, were written first, but in-universe, it’s bizarre. He almost could be considered his own private deus ex machina, and that rarely ends well. I do hope to encounter him again, but I hope his story is handled better.

Overall: I don’t think I can recommend this one. I may revise that opinion if Kyle becomes a major figure later, but I don’t recall that he does so (we’ll see when we get there). In the meantime, there are better stories on which you can spend your time, and hopefully we’ll cover some soon.

Next time: It’s another first-time read for me, when we begin to cover the X-Wing series! These novels existed when I was first reading the EU, but I didn’t have copies of them available at the time. They come highly recommended, so, let’s get started! See you there.

Happy reading!

The Dark Forces trilogy is available from Amazon and other booksellers. The related games can be purchased from Good Old Games (GOG), Steam, and other computer gaming platforms.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novellas here, here, and here, and of the video games here and here.

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Book Review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

In a recent post, I commented that I rarely read up-to-date books. As I said at the time, that’s not because I have a problem with them; it’s just that I have such an enormous backlog of older books to read, that I rarely have time to pick up recent releases. But today, I’m making an exception; I’m taking a leap forward into the last five years (sorry, those of you who were hoping for a present-day release, this is as close as it gets, I’m afraid!). Welcome to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s 2015 award-winning novel, Children of Time.

children of timeSpoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book! I’ll attempt to limit spoilers to the early chapters, but no promises!

I should backtrack a bit and make a confession: Sometimes I am a bit skeptical of present-day works. Of course this is nothing new in history, but many works of fiction—and especially science fiction—are a product of the social issues at large in the world at the time of their writing. That’s not a problem in itself; the issues at hand are real, and need to be addressed, and it’s not at all wrong for authors to address the issues about which they’re passionate. But my day job is in a field where I already confront many social issues face-to-face on a daily basis; and when I read for pleasure, I’m usually looking for escapism. Perhaps that’s one reason why I favor books from previous decades; while those authors also were incorporating the issues of the day, the day itself has changed, and those issues are no longer current. Past passion becomes present escapism.

Children of Time occupies a unique position. It certainly builds on technological concepts that are current (or possibly near future), but it mostly avoids present-day social issues. The book takes place over the course of several thousand years, but those millennia are viewed in snapshots, with large gulfs of time between—thus, our present with all its problems becomes the distant past, and new issues arise. The book opens in the advanced future of our Earth, at a time when humanity has colonized the solar system and reached out to the stars. Doctor Avrana Kern is a proud and arrogant scientist, devoted to a terraforming project on a distant world, an experiment which is about to come to fruition. She and her team have developed a nanovirus that encourages and aids evolution, pushing species toward sentience and civilization. She plans to seed the new world with monkeys—chosen for their closeness to humanity—and then with the virus; and then, after a few centuries of accelerated evolution, her subjects will contact an observing satellite left in orbit. However, she is betrayed by a spy among her team, a member of a radical group from home, and her ship and teammates are destroyed. Kern herself is the only survivor, escaping on the observation satellite, where she uploads a copy of her mind into the ship’s artificial intelligence, and then puts herself into stasis. However, although the virus survives, the monkeys are destroyed upon reentry to the planet’s atmosphere—leaving other lifeforms to benefit from the virus’s ministrations. Kern is left unaware of this development. The story then shifts to the future, and showcases various stages in the development of life on the planet, paralleled by the story of a sleeper ship from a now-devastated Earth, in search of a new home.

I had read some reviews of this book prior to reading it, and was aware of the high acclaim it had received—notably it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction of the year in 2016. I was concerned that it would fall into the same trap that besets so much science fiction (including some of Arthur C. Clarke’s works!): that its ideas would overshadow its characters. I worried even more about this when I discovered that the book was structured as a series of vignettes spread over a vast period of time; I was certain the characters would get lost in the overarching story. I was very pleased to see that this isn’t the case. On the human side, you have, first, Dr. Kern, who starts out as a bit of a caricature, but becomes slowly more human in character over time—which is ironic, as she becomes increasingly less human in the physical sense. Then you have the main character, one Holsten Mason, a “classicist” who studies the now long dead works of the “Old Empire”, the human civilization of which Kern was a member. Mason is a part of the “Key Crew” of the sleeper ship Gilgamesh, meaning he isn’t one of the thousands of colonists frozen in storage, but is one of the ship’s actual crew. He is awoken from cryosleep several times throughout the story—with centuries between instances, usually—to help with various crises, and eventually to help save the ship and its crew and cargo. Mason—along with a few other members of Key Crew, including his occasional lover, the engineer Isa Lain—provide us with a steady perspective despite the time jumps, and serve to tie the story together. Meanwhile on the planet, Kern’s nanovirus is taken up by various lesser species, most notably a few species of spiders, who develop in unprecedented ways. The spiders themselves live and die in normal lifespans; but Tchaikovsky lessens the impact of this segmentation of the story by recycling names. In all, we only get about four names for various spiders, but they are recycled in each generation along ancestral lines, and so we get a feeling of continuity even in a discontinuous narrative.

I repeatedly ran across comments to the effect that the book is reminiscent of older science fiction novels, of the era of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and others. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly why that would be so—what exactly is it that’s distinctive about that era of science fiction?—but I have to  say that I agree. There’s a feeling to this book that is very different from the science fiction I was reading between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s. The book is complex without being incomprehensible; suspenseful without being grim or dark; hopeful without being naïve. I have considered that this may be in part because of the way Tchaikovsky portrays the crew of the Gilgamesh; they come from a world that has pulled itself up out of the ruins of an old world, and they are still in a way very young as a society. They have been through some terrible things, but they lack the cynicism of modern America and Europe, while also lacking the wide-eyed utopianism of, say, Star Trek. They have no illusions—they know at all times that they are the last of the human race, and their survival is fragile—but they also aren’t jaded by the things that led to this situation. That attitude spills over into the tone of the book in general, and it’s refreshing.

Overall, it’s a great story, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it so. I can’t speak for the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work; I was surprised to learn that he’s been quite prolific, and that this is perhaps his twelfth or thirteenth novel, as I had never heard of him before this book. That’s most likely because I tend to pay attention to science fiction and fantasy; this is his first science-fiction novel. I may check out more of his work at some point, but not soon—unless a sequel is announced! But I hope that that doesn’t happen. Some works are worthy to stand alone, and don’t need—indeed, would be diminished by—sequels. This is one of them. (However, the prospects for such a thing are by no means settled—the book has been optioned since 2017 for a film, and we know Hollywood loves sequels. So we’ll wait and see.)

At any rate: This is a little short today, but I’ll end on a positive note: Go read this book! You won’t be disappointed.

Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? Having unfortunately not met my goal last year, I’ve scaled back a bit, to thirty books in 2019; so far I’ve completed seven. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

Revisiting Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor

I’ve been remiss, my friends–and I didn’t even realize it! Awhile back, I started a reread of the post-Return of the Jedi novels in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or EU–that is, the series of books that were decanonized by Disney a few years ago, and rebranded as “Star Wars Legends“. (I, being old and stubborn, refuse to call it that; you’ll see liberal references to the EU in this series, but no “Legends”, except, where I have to clarify as I did a sentence ago.) At any rate, I sat down to write this, the second entry in the series, and discovered to my shock that the first entry was a whopping nine months ago! Honestly, it feels like yesterday–or like, say, November 2018, at least. No such luck; it was April 2018. I have no excuse for this, my friends, and I’m sorry. We’ll try to move a little faster henceforth. In the meantime, for review purposes, you can read that post–covering The Truce at Bakurahere.

shadows of mindor front

I feel a bit strange about today’s entry, Matthew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor. I didn’t read it back in my original EU days; it didn’t exist. It’s a much later entry, retroactively inserted between the early novels. You can read the full timeline here; but with regard to the main series novels, the book is preceded by The Truce at Bakura (set about one year earlier) and followed by The Courtship of Princess Leia (three years later). Interspersed, we also have the Jedi Prince series for children, the Dark Forces video game tie-ins, and the first seven X-Wing novels. I do intend to cover the Dark Forces and X-Wing novels if possible, but I want to make a distinction between these spinoff series and those which follow the main characters of the original trilogy; there will be other spinoffs as well. At any rate, this is a first reading of Mindor for me, thus allowing me to look at it with somewhat more jaded eyes.

It’s made more strange yet by the time period in which it was published, some seventeen years after Heir to the Empire, the novel that kickstarted the EU (though not the first EU novel! More on that some other time). The EU picked up certain tropes that eventually became commonplace–notably, “Putting the Band Back Together“, as TVTropes puts it–but those tropes weren’t commonplace when the novels surrounding this one were written. By the time of Stover’s writing, they were, and he can’t resist playing around with them here. Ultimately the book almost reads more like a commentary on the EU than an actual novel; it pokes fun at many of the EU’s conventions–C3PO’s vanity, R2D2’s silent genius, Luke’s power creep and mythos, Han and Leia’s romance and snark, the Falcon’s repeated damages, the list could go on. In fact, this mild mockery is made an official part of the narrative; the book deals extensively with the idea that our heroes are the subject of highly fictionalized movies (holothrillers) in-universe as well as out of it. The story is bookended by a frame story in which Luke, trying to put his own conscience at rest, commissions an investigation into the events at the planet Mindor–but the investigator sells the story as a holodrama, with some embellishment. Therefore it’s unclear whether the version we read represents the truth, or the movie. (Brilliantly, Stover includes a scene at the end, where Luke negotiates some changes to the drama. Those changes reflect the version we’ve already read–but that only serves to further obscure whether we’ve read the truth or not, as we don’t know what else may be different!)

But, overall, I can’t complain about any of that. It’s almost refreshing, as an older reader who has become jaded about Star Wars, to read this meta-rendition of the usual Star Wars format. One gets the impression that Stover–while clearly loving and respecting the material–was discreetly laughing the entire time; and we get to laugh along with him. Had I read the book in the nineties–or even eleven years ago, when it came out–I would not have appreciated it this way. If I had picked up on the meta side of things at all–and I assure you, 1990s me would not have done so–I would have just been frustrated with it, taking it as a sign that Star Wars was going downhill. Maybe it was, in fact, doing so–we’ll deal with that much later on–but this book is not part of the problem. It’s almost soothing for those of us who are older and have seen changes to the series that we may not approve. Certainly it’s at least a fun read, and that’s perhaps what matters most.

With all that said, the book is not in any way lore-breaking–no small feat this late in the EU’s life, I assure you! It gives us the story of an early post-RotJ battle against one of the numerous Imperial warlords who arose in the wake of the Emperor’s death, one Lord Shadowspawn (which is not ostentatious at all, eh?). Luke Skywalker leads a New Republic task force to the warlord’s base in the shattered Taspan system, where an Imperial experiment in gravity manipulation has destroyed a neighboring planet and filled the system with asteroids, leaving only one planet–the titular Mindor–to serve as Shadowspawn’s base. When his ship goes down, Leia–far away, negotiating a peace treaty–gets an impression of danger through the Force, and unwittingly sends Han Solo and Chewbacca to check it out. Realizing they are gone, she bullies Rogue Squadron into taking her in pursuit, only to be followed by Lando Calrissian–still a Republic general–with a larger fleet. Predictably, things go off the rails immediately.

Of course, the warlord isn’t all he seems, and–again predictably–he has plans for the last Jedi in the galaxy that extend beyond simple military conquest. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that the basics of his plan are nothing we haven’t seen before, although the mechanics of it are interesting. This, too, pokes fun at the EU as a whole–how many enemies have had plans to control, manipulate, or even displace Luke Skywalker? But again, it’s the presentation that redeems it. Stover–like the investigator in the frame story–knows he’s working with a legend, and instead of treading lightly, he just runs with it and has fun.

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Rear Cover Art. Courtesy of Wookieepedia.

There’s a lesson for me here, I think; and consequently, I’m glad to have read this book for the first time here, just past the outset of this reread. I appreciate Star Wars for what it is, and for what it’s meant to me over the years, and for all the ground it’s broken. (And yes, I know, it didn’t originate most of these tropes; it compiled and popularized them. But there’s something to be said for that, as well.) But I never want to be the kind of fan who takes it so seriously that I get angry about it. I don’t want to start arguments or fights; neither do I want to finish them. The day this isn’t fun anymore is the day I put it down. While there are lessons to be learned from the series–as with any fiction, especially that concerning heroic characters–it’s still primarily for enjoyment and pleasure. If I can’t take–or make–a little joking about it; if I can’t read it without laboring over what these people are doing to my franchise; if I can’t talk about it without whining about where it’s gone; then it’s time for me to give it up and move on.

I’m not there yet. I hope I never am. Life is too short for that. Certainly I’ll go on having opinions about Star Wars; for example, I generally think the EU stories are of better quality than what Disney is doing with it, which is, you know, why I’m writing this in the first place. But even as I have those opinions…I’m still doing this for the fun of it. I’m still excited about Star Wars, just as I was in the nineties–but perhaps with a more mature outlook. Or so I hope. I hope it’s the same for you, readers.

Next time–and may it not be another nine months!–we’ll cover Dark Forces: Rebel Agent (assuming I can get my hands on a copy). It will also be a first read for me; although I was certainly into the EU when it was published in 1998, I was not aware of it at the time, or of the game on which it is based. I’ll try as well to take a look at its immediate prequel, Dark Forces: Soldier for the Empire, which occurs several years earlier, but can’t be ignored if we’re going to include Rebel Agent.

Happy Reading!

Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of this novel here.

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TGRRL: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

After ten fiction entries (and the Bible, which, while non-fiction, I’ve skipped over for now), we finally come to the first (covered) non-fiction entry in the Great Reddit Reading List! And a curious and fascinating entry it is: Richard P. Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, published in 1985.

surely you're joking first edition cover

First Edition cover, as far as I can tell.

This book is the first that made me question the selection process for the list, I admit. To refresh: The list is compiled from a number of “best/favorite books” comment threads on Reddit’s /r/Books subreddit, based on total number of votes for each selection. Therefore I wasn’t surprised to see many famous and/or much-discussed fiction selections; nor was I surprised to see a range of topical non-fiction books, skewing heavily toward history and philosophy. Even the occasional joke entry (Everybody Poops, really? The Monster at the End of this Book? But you bet we’re going to cover them, jokes or not!) isn’t surprising—Reddit is known for massively promoted jokes, some of which even go mainstream on the internet at large (looking at you, Boaty McBoatface!). What seems to be rare are biographies—and especially biographies of Nobel Prize-winning physicists, who aren’t generally regarded as the most entertaining of individuals.

Feynman (died in 1988) may or may not have been different; I suspect physicists in general are a more fun-loving lot than we usually believe. However, he did take things to a level that alternately annoyed or bewildered his colleagues, and it’s those experiences—transcribed from taped conversations with his friend Ralph Leighton—that form the core of the book and its sequel, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Just in case you had any confusion about the type of person we’re dealing with here, consider that title!).

I’m going to go out front here and admit up front that I have forgotten a lot of the content of the book. As I type this review, I’m having to refresh my own memory. It’s not that the material was forgettable—it isn’t—it’s just that it’s overshadowed by the tone, which is so much more memorable. Richard Feynman sounds very much like a man I would love to have known, although I doubt I could ever have kept up with him. He makes the most complex concepts of physics sound sensible and simple (though this is by no means a physics text), and makes the most mundane events outrageous and fun.

Nevertheless, a few things do stand out. Notably, Feynman talks at length about his obsession with safecracking and lockpicking, at which he became quite good; naturally this resulted in pranks on his coworkers. He also talks about his work with the Manhattan Project which was intertwined with the tragedy of his first wife’s death. He talks about his musical interests, and his family life.

The book ends with a chapter titled “Cargo Cult Science”, which is taken not from Leighton’s tapes, but from a commencement address delivered by Feynman in 1974 at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman described a South Pacific “cargo cult”—a real phenomenon—in which local tribes observed wartime airdrops and landings; then, later, desiring for the drops and landings to continue (for their benefit, of course), they would construct nearly perfect replicas of airstrips and related structures in hopes of causing the plans to return. Of course they didn’t, because something essential was missing—these weren’t, after all, real airstrips. Feynman used this example in a scientific context, warning of researchers who would engage in activities reminiscent of real science, but without following the scientific method. Such researchers would not question themselves or their theories, and thus would ultimately stifle real research and progress. He suggested that researchers must engage in a high degree of honesty in order to hold themselves to the correct scientific standard. For example, a cargo-cult science practice might be to use another experimenter’s results instead of a control group in your own experiments; this would be an invalid practice, because what if the first results were wrong? The whole experiment thus becomes flawed. Feynman argued against such practices.

I’m no researcher, and I doubt that you are, either, readers.  Nevertheless there’s a lesson here for us, because in the age of the social-media internet—which Feynman did not live to see—it’s become a cargo cult world. It’s commonplace to rely on what we see on the internet instead of looking into it ourselves—the memes have become our experimental control, so to speak. Don’t be a cargo cult reader or viewer; don’t be the kind of person who just repeats things without looking into the truth of them. While it’s true that we don’t have the time or resources to reproduce every experiment or study out there, we can at least be honest in the second level of research—that of fact-checking ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and those around us to do that, because we run the risk of hurting ourselves and those around us if we don’t.

Perhaps that’s a grim note on which to end, but it’s also a responsibility, and one that I love to see people take seriously. In that way, it’s a good thing, and a service to ourselves and others.

Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? Having unfortunately not met my goal last year, I’ve scaled back a bit, to thirty books in 2019; so far I’ve completed two. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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Book Review: Starmaker, by Olaf Stapledon

If you’ve been with me for awhile–or at least long enough to know me for book reviews–you may have noticed that I rarely cover new or very recent books. There’s a good reason for that: I rarely read new or very recent books. It’s not that I have anything against them; it’s just that I’m so far behind on great books of the past that I’ll never catch up!

accomplish

But I’m not alone in this, nor in my love for–especially–classic science fiction. To that end, I recently discovered the existence of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. This award, founded in 2001, exists to recognize and promote some of the great science-fiction authors of the past, who may have fallen out of print and out of common knowledge. Unlike most literary awards, it’s not an award for a particular book; it’s for the author, and so various works by each author may fall under this umbrella. Naturally, I was hooked at once! And so, I assembled a list of authors and books, using the article I linked above, and set out to dip my toes in this particular forgotten pool of science-fiction.

I will say up front that I’m not planning to make a series of posts about this. I already have The Great Reddit Reading List to work through; and frankly, it’s going to take me a very long time to do that. I don’t need another series (especially considering that I have multiple Doctor Who review series running over at the Time Lord Archives as well). However, I do like to cover interesting things as I cover them; and so occasionally entries from the list of award winners may show up here. No pressure!

There’s nothing like starting at the top; and so I started with the first name listed in the article, Olaf Stapledon (05/10/1886-09/06/1950). The book I picked up was his Star Maker (link is to Amazon; you can get the Kindle edition for $0.99–note he’s listed as “William Olaf Stapledon”). The book was published in 1937 in the UK.

Star Maker (link to Wikipedia this time) is the story of an unnamed protagonist who, unexpectedly, finds his consciousness adrift in the universe. He quickly learns he is drifting through both time and space; and soon he learns to control his course. He discovers a species of beings similar to humans, with similar lives and problems, and is able to attach himself to one of them. Soon both of them learn to leave their bodies and travel together, eventually meeting up with a large group of like-minded individuals, who travel together backward and forward in time, seeking more like themselves. They eventually begin to trace the course of civilization, in anticipation of a great unity of minds that will reveal the being–the Star Maker, as he calls it–that created the universe. (He’s very careful to draw a distinction between the Star Maker and God as commonly depicted, because he makes the point that all of the cultures they meet have various gods, all of whom in some way reflect the Star Maker, but incompletely so.) In the end, he does so, and is both dismayed and wonderstruck by what he finds.

The book is a bit didactic, reading more like a series of lectures, or perhaps a travelogue–but that’s not unusual, given its era. It certainly doesn’t cover the usual conventions of a modern novel, and that may put some people off. However, it will be attractive to anyone who’s ever been enchanted by, say, Gulliver’s Travels. On the other hand, if you’re looking for action and adventure, this is not the book for you. Nevertheless, it’s been praised in the past; notably, Arthur C. Clarke considered it “one of the finest works of science fiction ever written” (Wikipedia, again).

There are some ideas here which become much more common in later science fiction–especially, the idea that humanity (and other forms of life) is progressing toward a sort of group mind, a global (or even galactic or universal) consciousness that will represent a utopia of sorts. I haven’t had the time to properly research the idea yet; but I wonder if this book is the ur-text, the prototype for that idea in fiction. (Thanks to Ken Jennings and John Roderick of the Omnibus! podcast for that wonderful term, “ur-text”, which I will most definitely use as often as I can.) Certainly I don’t recall seeing it in any older texts. We’ll see it come up again and again, though; perhaps the most famous example I can give you is the planet Gaia (and possibly later Galaxia) in the latter novels of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which exists as a single united mind. The book also wrestles with the concepts of life and death, of individual worth and contribution to a whole, of the meaning of history, and of man’s relation to God (or, if you prefer, creation to creator). With regard to that last: Stapledon appears to be a proponent of theistic evolution, the idea that God started creation, but then allowed it to evolve on its own; but Stapledon seems to suggest that some form of guidance was involved, as similar patterns arise repeatedly on many worlds.

Oddly enough, in my opinion, Stapledon’s narrator doesn’t seem to be particularly affected in the end by what he experiences. Oh, he’s certainly wonderstruck; but there are no great life lessons, no great changes. He barely passes judgment on the things he’s seen. I think there’s a theme in that, although I don’t think it’s what Stapledon intended: I think it illustrates the idea that no matter what happens to us, we still have to keep going, keep living. We may be exalted by the events of our lives, but underneath it all, we’re still human, and that’s an essential part of us. The narrator returns to his own life, and carries on. (Must…resist…temptation to make a point about politicians…)

Anyway. It’s an interesting read, but I found it a bit of a slog; I’m certainly familiar with this style of writing, but it’s not my preference. Still, I’m glad I read it. I was surprised to learn that the book’s influence has been quite extensive; in addition to influencing a number of famous authors, it is responsible to some degree for the sci-fi “Big Dumb Object” concept known as a Dyson Sphere (creator Freeman Dyson even suggested they would be better known as “Stapledon Spheres”). I love digging into obscure-but-influential material such as this, and learning the sources of things that I as a reader (or sometimes viewer) have taken for granted. It’s not the easiest read; but if this type of material is your cup of tea, you’ll find it enjoyable and fascinating.

Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? Having unfortunately not met my goal last year, I’ve scaled back a bit, to thirty books in 2019; so far I’ve completed two. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

TGRRL: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

My take on what I have called The Great Reddit Reading List can be neatly divided in two: Those books that I read prior to discovering the list, and those that I’m reading as a result of the list. (If you want to be picky, you could further divide into those I’ve read already as a result of the list, and those still to come—sadly, that third category would probably be the largest, but I’m working on that!) Today’s entry, Robert Heinlein’s famous and popular Stranger in a Strange Land, is one of the second category—those I’ve read as a result of the list—but it’s an early entry into that category. That means it’s been a few years now, and as such my memory of it has started to settle, and I’ve had to review a bit in order to discuss it.

stranger_in_a_strange_land_cover

First Edition Cover. Borrowed from Wikipedia.

I frequent several relevant subreddits–/r/books, /r/sciencefiction, and /r/printSF come to mind—and the consensus seems to be that people have a contentious relationship with Heinlein. While he’s certainly regarded as one of the godfathers of science fiction, he also has a reputation for being a difficult or sometimes frustrating read. That has not been my own experience so far; but, I’m a relative newbie when it comes to Heinlein (I’ve never even read Starship Troopers, y’all! Or watched the movie!). I was briefly convinced that I had read some of his work—short stories at least—in my younger days, but after some research, I don’t believe that’s the case. As far as I can tell, Stranger is the first of his works that I’ve read, followed later by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which is also on the list, and which we’ll cover…eventually). Still, perhaps that will allow me to look at it with fresh eyes.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of a young man, Valentine Michael Smith, who was born to a pair of human space travelers on Mars, and left there upon their deaths. Being raised by the indigenous Martians, his outlook on life is very different from that of humans on Earth; and when he is found on a subsequent expedition and brought to Earth, the changes are profound, for Smith and for everyone who encounters him. His dubious legal status—and fabulous wealth, inherited from his parents—bring great political and physical danger. He is rescued and taken in by an author, doctor, and lawyer named Jubal Harshaw, who attempts to understand him. He eventually founds a religion of sorts based on his Martian ideas and religion, with the end goal of changing human society from the inside out, and advancing the course of history. He is eventually killed—though persisting in a form of afterlife—leaving Jubal and other followers to carry on his work.

While Stranger’s concepts have not passed wholesale into culture (the way that those of our last entry did), they have had some widespread influence. Most notably the verb “grok” has passed into the English language, especially among fans and those with interests that connect back to the novel. Its literal meaning is “to drink”, but by extension, it means “to know or comprehend; to love; to be one with” (thanks again, Wikipedia!). as well, the ideas embodied in Smith’s Church of All Worlds carried over to a real-world incarnation of the church, founded in 1968, which still exists today. In the book and in the organization, polyamory was promoted, along with nontraditional family arrangements, and other social libertarian ideas.

I’m not sure that I would call the book controversial these days, though I daresay it was controversial at the time. Had its ideas been promoted in a more mainstream venue, surely it would have been more hotly debated. It perhaps benefited from the fact that science-fiction was still a niche market (an abundant one, perhaps, but still niche), one that didn’t have the credibility it has gained since. Remember that Heinlein is one of the giants on whose shoulders modern SF authors stand; but giants don’t get much admiration in their own time.

I can say with certainty that some of the book’s concepts—the polyamory, the classic phrase “Thou art God”, the ecumenism—would have been frowned upon in religious circles, of the type in which I grew up and still live. I’m not complaining; I also believe that monogamy is the intended design for humans, that there is only one correct path of salvation, etc.—I’ve never hidden the fact that I am still a Christian. As I pointed out in my last post, I hold that in many ways, fiction gets a pass on those matters, just for the sake of being fiction.

With that said, however, there’s another side to the issue, one which Stranger highlights nicely. While all fiction can be read as fiction (and thus get a pass on the things it proposes), not all fiction is written from that viewpoint. Heinlein is quite critical of the American governmental and financial systems, and of organized religion in America (and possibly in general).  As far as I can tell, the views reflected in his work are his actual views, not simply created from whole cloth. Sometimes he may take them to extremes for descriptive purposes; I suspect, for example, that although he is in favor of a communal spirit, he isn’t seriously advocating eating the bodies of our dead in order to be one with them! But the broad strokes are true-to-life. What do we do with that?

I’ve struggled with this issue from the other side of the desk: as a writer. Many older authors, like Heinlein, filled their works with their own beliefs. There are certain things they take for granted, and so their characters live in those worlds and take them for granted. One example here is Heinlein’s view that the future would bring about non-traditional family structures, a topic which will show up again in the polyandrous, matrilinear families in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Not a controversial topic if it’s simply fictional; but Heinlein seems to have believed this would be a better future, and so he portrayed it often. I have struggled to do the same in my work…there are many things I believe strongly in my own life, but my characters and stories seem to be detached from that. In essence, I’m telling stories with no agenda other than to tell good stories, while Heinlein and other classic authors very clearly have an agenda. It’s not the same agenda across the board, but they all want to promote something. I just want to promote the pleasure of reading a good story.

I’ll admit to some guilt over that. I’ve often asked myself if this is the best use of my talents (not that I’m using my fiction talents much these days anyway, but that’s another story). Should I be promoting something? Should  I be pushing a message? But when I consider how to do so, I often come up blank. My first love is the story, and adding layers to that purpose seems to be a burden.

Nevertheless, the point remains: Many authors do exactly that, and Heinlein is one of them. Although I believe we can read his stories for the fun of it—I certainly did—they leave us with questions that we must answer for ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we all come to the same answers—we won’t—but we all have to take these various messages and decide, at the bottom, if we agree or not. Will that in turn affect our enjoyment of the story? Yes, I think—and perhaps unfortunately so; but there we are.

However, I’ll leave you with one observation: There is power in passion. Heinlein is clearly passionate about the things he believes (or was; he passed away in 1988). His stories resonate even today, because of that passion. Whether you walk away agreeing with him or not, you walk away knowing an impact has been made. That’s a quality to which any author can aspire.

Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? Having unfortunately not met my goal last year, I’ve scaled back a bit, to thirty books in 2019; so far I’ve completed two. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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TGRRL: The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

And now we come to the first recent juggernaut of the Great Reddit Reading List. Brace yourselves! Not for my exquisite prose, of course—you already know there’s none of that here—but for the unending cultural impact of this series. And I do mean series; today we’re looking, for the first time, at a series of books as a whole, rather than a single entry. (We missed an opportunity with three of our previous entries—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, and Ender’s Game—but I didn’t create the list, folks, I just report on it.) Buckle up!

harry potter cover

Would you believe a first edition hardcover sells for as much as $55,000?! Only 500 were printed, of which 300 went to libraries.

I sometimes think that young Harry Potter fans today must live in a strange world. For them, Harry and his friends have always been a gigantic presence on the pop culture landscape. They can collectively say to my generation: “You merely adopted Hogwarts; I was born in it, molded by it!” (Apologies to Bane for that paraphrase.) And they’re right. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, to you Brits) was released in 1997, the year I graduated high school and started college. I believe it was the first big media craze of my life—certainly there were others, but I was largely unaware of them when they happened—and when I say “big”, I mean it. EVERYONE was reading and/or talking about Harry Potter.

(Side note: I say “and/or” because I was living in a very curious environment at the time: I was a Bible college freshman. With all due respect to my teachers and the people in that community—who meant very well, I assure you—Bible college was a strange place to deal with Harry Potter. Anything that smacks of the occult at all is viewed with a degree of suspicion, even fiction. There were long debates about whether Harry Potter was good or acceptable reading material for Christians; it got to the point that one of our professors “took one for the team” and read the first two books—this was after Chamber of Secrets came out—and essentially reviewed them for the campus, passing a judgment that basically amounted to “chill out, folks, it’s a kids’ story”. But don’t let this give you an unjustly dark opinion of the Bible college environment; while this may have been an overreaction, there are good reasons for the debate underneath it. Perhaps someday I’ll post more about that; for now, just rest assured that the books came to be accepted as the fiction they are. And, I should add, that is also the stance I’ve always tried to take: That fiction is fiction, and while it’s best if it promotes virtuous things, it should also be accepted as fiction, and acknowledged to not operate on the same terms—and judgments—as the real world. In this project, I’ll be reviewing many books that probably would have been frowned upon in college, but none were outright banned.)

The story, for those who live under a rock, is the tale of a young boy named Harry Potter, who learns on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard, the son of a wizarding couple who were killed ten years earlier. Moreover, he’s not just a wizard; he’s a famous wizard; the “boy who lived”. This is because his parents were killed by the greatest dark wizard of the age, who then tried to kill the infant Harry as well, but in doing so was struck down by a mysterious power. The series then proceeds through the next seven years (six of schooling, and one on the run) of Harry’s life as he overcomes challenges, makes new friends, learns to master his magic, and repeatedly faces down the now-returned dark wizard who once tried to murder him. The series also went on to spawn a series of movie adaptations (eight instead of seven, the final book being long enough to split up).

The list of accolades the series has received goes on and on. As well, it made its author the first billionaire author (in terms of money made directly from writing) in the UK, and possibly the world, I’m not entirely certain. She has since given away much of her fortune, but remains quite wealthy, and continues to make absolute piles of money from the series, while still occasionally tacking on new material. It’s become a cultural touchstone of sorts: raise your hands now, who knows what the word “muggle” means? Yeah, that’s what I thought. And Rowling’s work certainly does deserve success; it is, in a word, good. The series is well constructed; the story is well told; the characters are well developed. It does a rare thing, in that it starts out as a series for middle-grade children, but grows up along with its audience; the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is as mature, dramatic, bloody, and tense (and long!) as any adult novel I’ve read.

I followed the series as it grew up, though I was already an adult (nominally at least) when it premiered. My friends and I were all following it together, all racing to finish each book as it came out—and by the time of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (book five), I was working as a corrections officer in a jail. Imagine the incongruity of three or four uniformed officers, standing on a recreation yard with fifty inmates, talking about Harry Potter! But it was fun, and as books go it was exciting, and we had a great time with it. Therefore, I feel almost obligated to recommend the series: if, somehow, you’ve made it this long without dipping your toes into the wizarding world, go check it out! Even if you’re not a reader (and if so, why are you here?), check out the movies—although not identical to the books by any means, they’re certainly well done, and live up to the reputation set by their source material.

But, it’s me, and you know I can’t post a review like this without finding something about which to be melancholy. So, here it is: Potterheads, it might be time to let go.

There, I said it. But before you burn me at the literary stake, hear me out!

I posted back in December about what it’s like to grow older with my favorite fiction. Speaking mostly from the perspective of a video gamer at the time, I talked about how I’ve discovered I don’t have time to do it all. I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work out. The lesson I had to learn is that sometimes you have to let go of that desire to collect everything, to do everything. Experiences—whether it be games, books, movies, television, life events, vacations, I could go on—aren’t like Pokémon; you can’t, and shouldn’t, catch ‘em all. It’s more important to choose good things, which will result in good memories. That was a hard lesson for me, and I’m still struggling with it; but I still believe it’s true.

J.K Rowling, as I said, continues to tack on new material constantly. Some of it—such as the revelation that Dumbledore was gay, or the more recent tidbit that wizards used to, um, relieve themselves anywhere and everywhere and magic their excrement away—has been controversial. Some of it has just been minor, or maybe even tedious. Some of it may indeed be interesting. I’m not going to knock her for continuing to tinker with this universe; authors do that all the time, and this is her baby, after all. As much as we might like to argue that it belongs to the fans, it belongs to her first. She has the right to tinker with it until she dies, if she so chooses. (Side note: That’s the hard-to-accept but beautiful thing about canon: There doesn’t have to be one. You can accept the parts you want to accept, and ignore the rest if you like. Some franchises, such as my beloved Doctor Who, even rely on that fact.) The question isn’t “is she right to do that”; the question is, “what will we readers do with it?”

I propose that, by obsessing over it, we may do ourselves a disservice. Harry Potter fans can be quite obsessive—something I understand, because I’m a Doctor Who fan, a Star Wars fan, and a Star Trek fan, and we can also be quite obsessive. What I don’t think I’ll ever be—for any franchise—is the kind of fan who puts the “fan” in “fanatic”; the kind who shapes his entire life around a fandom or franchise. I’m in no way suggesting that all Harry Potter fans are like that; but some are, as are some Doctor Who fans or Star Wars fans, etc.  By all means, love your hobbies, my friends; but we miss out on so much when we steep ourselves in one series or franchise to the exclusion of all others!  So, maybe don’t hang on Rowling’s every Tweet. Maybe if she says something about this series that you don’t agree with…let it go. Don’t get worked up. Maybe even read or watch something new.

I worry, as I type this, that this will be seen as a slur against J.K. Rowling or her work. By no means! I reiterate that I loved the books as I read them. I loved the movies. I still think they’re fantastic. I even may rewatch or reread sometime—a local classic-movie theater ran some of the movies last year, and my whole family had a great time watching them again. My point, then, is that there’s a wide world out there—and Harry Potter deserves its place in that world; but, being the juggernaut it is, it may sometimes be too much for one life. That’s okay; it just illustrates that there’s so much out there for us to explore, and we can’t do it all, but we should experience what we can, and enjoy it.

This has been a little scattered, I think, but I’m always open to comments. Happy reading!

It’s a new year, and a new reading challenge! What are you reading this year? Having unfortunately not met my goal last year, I’ve scaled back a bit, to thirty books in 2019; so far I’ve completed two. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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