Star Trek: Discovery, or, Season Two Is Off The Rails

I’ve come here to ramble today! Be prepared for incoherence and reminiscences and fanboy nerdiness and not much structure. I apologize in advance; this is what happens when I have too many thoughts, too much caffeine, and only an hour to put it together. Brace yourselves!

While ninety percent of the known world is watching Avengers: Endgame for the seventeenth time (in a week! I have to say I’m impressed!), I’m catching up–finally–on Star Trek: Discovery. I rarely ever watch things when they come out; even before I became a cord-cutter, I was not very good at keeping up with television shows in first run, and it’s worse now that I can binge-watch them. But this is as close to current as I ever get: As of the season two finale, I’m only about two weeks past the original airdate. That’s not too late to talk about it, is it? What the hell, I talk about books from the early 1900s, I can do what I want.

So: Impressions! I really love this show, if not everything about it. It takes me back to my childhood, watching The Original Series (in reruns, I’m not that old!). Discovery, for those who don’t know, takes place in and around 2257 AD, approximately ten years before Star Trek: The Original Series. (Captain Kirk’s original five year mission took place between 2265 and 2270 AD.) As such, the technology is supposed to be similar to the Kirk era, and–most notably of all–the USS Enterprise itself appears multiple times, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, whom you may remember from original pilot The Cage and season one’s The Menagerie. Not everything works out exactly as it was back then, but they do an admirable job of trying. At any rate, Discovery is the story of the crew of the USS Discovery, a scientific test vessel with a number of experimental systems not seen in any other context. Not coincidentally, this allows the production team to get away with using technology that looks more advanced than the Original Series, and explain it away at the end–a technique they’ll expand in season two with the introduction of Section 31, Starfleet’s special security division.

There may be spoilers ahead! As I mentioned, this won’t be very structured, and I may reveal things in the course of my observations that would count as spoilers. If you haven’t watched, you may want to hold off on reading this post any further.

So, without further ado (adieu? Note to self: Look up that idiom), here are, in no particular order, my observations on Star Trek Discovery, and especially season two.

Discovery season 2

  • The serialized format is working out great for this series. Every Star Trek series prior to discovery has been mostly episodic. Even where there is a series or season plot–such as the Xindi arc of Enterprise, or literally all of Deep Space Nine–most of the episodes have been standalone, with lots of “monster-of-the-week” stories. Not so with Discovery; and it’s a refreshing change. It’s not one I’d like to see in every instance of Star Trek moving forward; but arc television is in vogue these days, and at least it’s going well in this instance. Seasons are shorter than they used to be–about 14 episodes versus about 22–and there’s less room to pad things with one-off stories when you have a larger story to tell. In the age of multitudinous entertainment choices, even a former juggernaut like Star Trek has to do something to get people to come back every week (or binge the whole thing, like me), and…folks, arc-driven storytelling isn’t going away. It gets results. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I was pleased to see it’s doing good things for Discovery.
Burnham

The look Burnham makes when someone tells her “no”…for about a second, because she always gets her way.

  • The focus on a single main character is not working. I debated whether to mention this point here, or save it for the end, because this is my single greatest problem with Discovery. But I hope to end on a positive note, so I’ll put this here. While every other Star Trek series has been a true ensemble show, Discovery focuses on Commander Michael Burnham, the newly-introduced foster sister of franchise staple Spock. And Burnham is incredibly hate-able. This is the internet, so I have to go ahead and make my disclaimers before the objections start: No, it’s not because she’s a woman. There are many wonderful female characters in this series, and we’ve had a female lead before, with Captain Janeway in Voyager (still an ensemble show, but she was, after all, the captain). No, it’s not because she’s black, either–I am a-okay with that. It’s because she’s the most egregious Mary Sue I think I’ve ever seen. For anyone who doesn’t know, a “Mary Sue” (or “Marty Stu”, if it’s a man) is a self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. It’s a protagonist who can do no wrong, who has heavy plot armor, and who gets everything they want or attempt–essentially, they lead a charmed life to the point of absurdity. On top of being a Mary Sue, Burnham is a horrendous Starfleet officer. She singlehandedly starts the devastating war between the Klingons and the Federation. She does get court-martialed for that, in a case so historic it constitutes a first in Federation history; but within a few years, her Mary Sue powers kick in, and she’s back on a starship.  By the end of season one, she’s a hero, and her rank is reinstated. She consistently makes decisions so bad, Kirk would’ve been slapped all the way back to ensign rank; but there’s never any consequences, and no one ever stands up to her. When someone tries, she lowers her voice to a breathy undertone, gives them an intense stare, and says “SIR, it’s the ONLY WAY–!” and they fold like a house of cards. She’s cost the lives of countless other people, very nearly sacrificed all sentient life in the galaxy, and LITERALLY started a war, but she always comes out on top. And she’s annoying to watch, as well. It’s just not working, is what I’m saying.
If Memory Serves

Talos IV

  • The callbacks to other series are a fanboy’s dream. From the Mirror Universe to Talos IV to the Enterprise herself, this series is loaded with callbacks to the original series. Major character Philippa Georgieu is killed in the first two episodes, but is replaced later with her Mirror Universe counterpart, in what now constitutes the earliest official contact between the two universes. The fact that her Mirror Universe counterpart is the Terran Emperor only makes it that much more fun–and indeed, Georgieu in Season Two becomes a hugely fascinating character, one whose loyalties are never quite clear. Also in season two, we get introduced to Christopher Pike, the pre-Kirk captain of the Enterprise. His ship is damaged and inoperable at the beginning of the season, and so he becomes the acting captain of Discovery, merging the ship’s scientific mission with his own: to discover the source and purpose of seven mysterious lights in the galaxy. Anson Mount plays a great Pike (in fact, this series has had no lack of great captains–Georgieu, Lorca, and now Pike). At one point, he gets a vision of his future, a future of crippling disability as originally seen in The Menagerie, and he embraces it to save the galaxy. I kind of hate knowing what lies ahead for him now. In conjunction with Pike, we also revisit Talos IV, the planet to which Spock takes him in The Menagerie, so that he can live out his life in a semblance of wholeness and happiness. And then there’s the Enterprise herself–but more on that in a minute!
Section 31 ship

Discovery meets Section 31

 

  • There are, unfortunately, plot holes. They’re not egregious, but they do exist, and they increase as we near the end of season two. For one, the seven signals–the lights in the sky–prove to be caused by Burnham (naturally), and she time travels to make them happen. But the Federation is aware of them before they happen–the entire premise of the season is that Enterprise was tasked with investigating these signals. So…did they happen twice? It’s not explained (unless I missed something–feel free to explain in the comments). For another, during the season two finale, Discovery is surrounded by Section 31 ships, and has only a very limited time to put together a last-ditch plan, for which they summon the Enterprise to help. It’s all very last-second; they’re still assembling the critical mcguffin when the battle starts. So, did we just forget that we have a spore drive that can take us anywhere in the universe instantly? For one thing, the spore drive should have been the solution to the entire problem. Discovery is carrying data that the Section 31 supercomputer needs to achieve full sentience and wipe out all life in the galaxy. Why not use the spore drive and take it to another galaxy, so far away the computer will never reach it? In part two, Ash Tyler says that if they use the spore drive to run, Section 31 will keep coming after them. Sure, but–even IF we ignore the obvious solution of running too far away–why not at least keep jumping around to buy yourselves time to finish the mcguffin? Why sit here and get shot at? There are other plot holes of a similar nature, as well.

discovery warp

  • For a season about time travel, no one understands time at all. Mostly I’m concerned here with the passage of time, not with time travel itself. I’m reminded of Star Wars, where hyperspace travel is wildly inconsistent–trips sometimes take days, sometimes hours, because there’s no standard. But Star Wars is space opera, more science fantasy than science fiction, and the technical details serve the plot. Star Trek has always, to a degree, been the other way around. Previous series have been careful to emphasize that some trips take days or even weeks–space is huge. Hell, Voyager put the ship seventy years away, and that was on the other side of the galaxy. Warp drive is not instantaneous! This is at its most egregious in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films–the same films where someone transported from Earth to Qo’nos–and thankfully, Discovery has taken an enormous step back from those films. It still plays fast and loose with travel times, though; for example, at one point, Discovery uses the spore drive to travel a considerable distance into the Klingon Empire, to Boreth, before summoning the Enterprise to join them–and the ship is there within hours at most. A few episodes earlier, the ship liberates Saru’s people, the Kelpiens, from oppression by the Ba’ul–and then a very short time later, the primitive, pastoral Kelpiens are flying Ba’ul fighters into battle. The entire second season gives the impression of rapid-fire progression, when it’s simply not possible. It stands out, because season one didn’t give that impression; there was downtime and travel time and time for projects to be completed.
cast

Picture borrowed from Screen Rant, because no other picture had everyone I needed. Please don’t sue me.

  • With the exception of Burnham, the cast are wonderful. Discovery seems to have parked all its bad characterization in Burnham…which is a bit of a relief, because everyone else is fantastic. Lorca, as captain in the first season (and eventual traitor), was deep and nuanced. Pike steps up to the role in excellent fashion in season two, moving from a peppy, people-loving father figure to a somewhat disillusioned–but much more grounded–seasoned leader by the finale. (Honestly, if I could have an entire series of Pike’s Enterprise, I would watch every minute and beg for more.) There are officers with a much wider range of emotion than we usually get–Sylvia Tilly is both neurotic and enthusiastic; Paul Stamets has a sensitivity that Starfleet rarely fosters; Hugh Culber plays both weakness and fury very well; Saru makes the transition from the prey characteristics of fear and anxiety to the predator traits of confidence and aggression, almost seamlessly. The late addition of Denise “Jett” Reno to the crew brings some much-needed cynicism and levity. (Before anyone corrects me, it’s still up in the air whether her real name is Denise or Jett; different sources have made competing claims.) Even incidental characters–such as Number One, Pike’s first officer on the Enterprise–are excellently portrayed.
Spock family

Spock, Sarek, and Amanda

  • …But there are always a few oddities. Let’s talk about Vulcans! In previous entries, the actors playing Vulcans have made a concerted effort to look the part. Vulcans generally repress their emotions, relying solely on logic. This manifests not only in their dialogue and behavior, but also in their facial expressions and body language. Past actors have worked to school their features into submission for this purpose, making the Vulcan commitment to logic convincing. In season two, we see Spock, who is clearly struggling with his emotions–but that’s a facet of the character arc for the season. He begins by thinking he may be insane, driven to confusion by his visions of the mysterious Red Angel. As well, he has much emotional baggage with his parents and with Michael Burnham (who honestly could drive anyone crazy). So, perhaps we can overlook Spock’s emotional outbursts–this is, after all, not the mature Spock of later years. Much more egregious, though, is his father, Sarek. Historically, Mark Lenard played the role with reserve, distance, and grace. Here, however, even Sarek can’t control himself; you see emotions struggling on his face nearly every time you see him. He should be the consummate Vulcan, but instead he’s almost a proto-Spock, struggling with the same issues–and for no good reason. (While she’s not a Vulcan, I do want to take this opportunity to compliment the portrayal of his human wife, Amanda, Spock’s mother and Michael’s foster mother. We’ve always had hints that her life hasn’t always been happy; here we get to see some of the struggle she took on when she chose to marry a Vulcan. Amanda is bitter, but also proud, and she has a deep love for her family, though it is sometimes buried beneath cultural strictures.)
Spore drive

Spore drive in use. BLACK ALERT!

  • The technology creep is unavoidable. They really do try. Honestly, they do. But this is a problem that’s been around since Enterprise, and as long as we continue to get stories set between or before previous entries, it’s going to continue to be a problem. The fact is, the real world has moved on, technologically, to the point that many of the incidental technologies of the original series are now woefully outdated–two hundred years ahead of schedule. Modern cell phones are arguably superior to communicators, for example. Touchscreens have long since supplanted buttons. A show that looks just like the original series, simply won’t fly with today’s audiences. The developers walk a fine line with trying to look just enough like the original series, while still trying to be flashy and new. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. Other times, they don’t even try; they just make a workaround later. The Discovery has holographic communication systems that are implied to be new, but common enough in Starfleet. It has the experimental spore drive that can travel anywhere, instantaneously. The Discovery and the various Section 31 ships all have graviton beam emitters. The writers then have to go to great lengths to explain why these things aren’t common by the time we get to Kirk and his Enterprise crew. Pike has the holographic technology torn out of the Enterprise (although that doesn’t explain why other ships don’t have it later). The graviton beam emitters are classified Section 31 (and experimental) tech, and Section 31 is very secretive indeed. Their ships have a form of cloaking and warp-concealment technology–something the Federation is very much not supposed to have–but again, they’re the ultra-secret security division, and not many people know they have it. The spore drive is classified after the presumed loss of Discovery at the end of season two, and never widely implemented.
McQuarrie Enterprise

The McQuarrie Enterprise concept art.

discovery 1

Discovery. Couldn’t find a similar angle to the McQuarrie art.

  • …But in the end, those ships are AWESOME. The Discovery is based on an early design by the legendary Ralph McQuarrie, intended to be used for the Enterprise in the canceled Star Trek: Phase II. It looks a bit silly in concept; but with a little modification, the Discovery is an amazing ship. Its rotating hull is a bit gimmicky, and must play hell with the internal geometry, but otherwise it’s impressive, and looks utterly perfect for a scientific testbed ship. And then there’s the Enterprise…ah, the Enterprise! Making its first appearance in the final moments of season one, the ship is absolutely beautiful. It appears several times in season two, taking extreme damage while covering Discovery’s escape in the finale. I should point out that there was much discussion of the ship when it first appeared–specifically, comparing it to the original series version. There are some differences, though not many. I found it interesting, though–and I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else–is that, after the ship is repaired following its battle alongside Discovery, those differences are gone, and the ship much more closely matches its Original Series profile. At any rate, nothing will ever beat the first glimpse of the bridge of the Enterprise…oh, baby, was that something.
Enterprise 3

The Enterprise as portrayed in the original series FIRST pilot, The Cage. Note especially the grills on the rear end of each nacelle. I want to point out that this is NOT the version used in the original series AFTER The Cage; a second, slightly different model was used, with other structures at the rear of the nacelles. This was later incorporated in-universe, stated to be a minor refit between 2265 and 2266.

Enterprise 1

The Enterprise meets Discovery at the end of season one. Note the grill structure on the end of the nacelles, different from that in the above picture.

Enterprise 2

Enterprise after repairs from the final battle of season two. Note that the nacelles have been changed to match The Cage (although we don’t see them glow in The Cage–but neither do we see the ship from that angle as it goes to warp, as we do here).

And that, I think, is enough for now. Things got a little out of hand near the end of season two; but with a little restraint, and a little less focus on Michael Burnham, season three promises good things to come. See you there!

 

Advertisements

The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warhammer 40,000: On Literary Universes

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: THERE WILL BE NO AVENGERS: ENDGAME SPOILERS HERE! I haven’t seen it yet anyway, and actually still need to see Captain Marvel as well.


 

MCU logo

Here we are at last: The end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Eleven years; three filming phases; twenty-two movies; eleven television series (plus two unreleased); three short films; two web series; various tie-in comics; and the usual glut of video games, theme park rides, and other media. All leading up to the glorious finale that is Avengers: Endgame! We made it! WOOOOOOO!

Except, it’s not the end, is it? Ha, no, of course it’s not! If I may let my cynical side show for a moment, Disney (Marvel’s parent company these days) has never been one to slaughter its cash cows; and indeed, even this year there will be at least one more post-Endgame film, Spider-man: Far From Home (which, let’s be honest, was the biggest spoiler of all, since Spider-man died in Avengers: Infinity War). Certainly there will be more ahead!

The Saga Comes To An End

By the same token, we recently got the first teaser trailer for the long-awaited (by me anyway) ninth episode of Star Wars, mysteriously titled The Rise of Skywalker. This time, the producers had the audacity to actually bill it as “The Saga Comes To An End”. I couldn’t help thinking Thor might have something to say about that…

Thor Does It Though

Spoiler: It doesn’t.

That’s the thing about a popular fictional universe: It’s the gift that keeps on giving. With some of our favorite franchises, we’ve reached the point that it’s generational: My parents watched Star Trek in their childhoods in the 1960s, and last week I was watching recent episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, more than fifty years later. I had my son watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when I came to the shocking realization that that film premiered the same year that I did, 1979.

Discovery logo

I’ve talked before about my belief that all good things really SHOULD come to an end; and I don’t want to sound repetitive. Let’s look at it from another angle: Can a series become overwhelming? More to the point, can it lose its impact through an abundance of material?

It seems that the easy answer would be “yes”. You can have too much of a good thing. The problem isn’t in identifying the issue; it’s in knowing how much is too much. How many Marvel movies are too many? How many Skywalkers? How much Star Trek is too much?

The problem here–and this is also the reason that just creating an ending, as I’ve suggested before, won’t work–is that the limit is highly subjective. Not only is each person’s level of tolerance different, but also, each person enters at a different point, with a different background. All of this conspires to say that there’s no simple way to say “enough is enough!”

40k logo

Recently I’ve gotten into the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe (hereafter abbreviated as 40k for short). For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a brief rundown. This science-fantasy series takes place in and around the year 40,000, or 38,000 years in our future. It features a galaxy in constant war as humans fight to preserve their empire (or “Imperium”) against various aliens, spiritual entities roughly equivalent to demons, and traitors from within humanity itself. The Imperium is nominally ruled by the Emperor (no name ever given as far as I know), a superhuman immortal who set out to abolish all religion and faith in order to prevent them from being used against humanity by demons, only to become an object of worship himself. After a major betrayal (the Horus Heresy) ten thousand years earlier, the Emperor is essentially on life support, throwing all of his psychic power at keeping Earth from being overrun by demons, which would in turn tear the Imperium to shreds. Meanwhile the demons inhabit a place called the Warp, which is the realm through which faster-than-light travel occurs…you can imagine how well that goes. Overall it’s an incredibly grim and dark universe (hence the popular term grimdark–not sure if it originated here, but I wouldn’t be surprised), full of constant war and bloodshed.

The 40k fictional universe is perhaps the best example of both “too much of a good thing” and “too much is personal”. The series is built on the tabletop game of the same name, which has been in existence since 1987; and as such it has changed a lot over the years, with the constant retcons that are common in tabletop gaming. One doesn’t have to play the game, though; there are plenty of books and other materials out there. Depending on how one counts, there are nearly five hundred and fifty books, including novellas and audiobook originals. As well, there are comics, YouTube videos, and a movie. There is, in short, no way I (at least) will ever get through it all–and it’s still being published regularly, on several fronts. It’s enough material that I found it a bit daunting just getting started; and even now, there’s still a lot I don’t know. I sometimes browse some of the 40k subreddits, and every time I find myself in over my head. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong; but it’s a truly insane amount of material to check out.

And yet, diehard 40k fans don’t seem to be disillusioned. What’s too much for them? How do they handle this absolute wealth of material? How do they not become overwhelmed? The answer seems to be: They pick and choose. They don’t try to do it all. They find what they enjoy, and they let the rest go.

That sounds so simple on the surface, but it’s hard to do in practicality. I want everything! I want to collect it all! I want to read every 40k novel, every Star Wars novel (hence my in-progress EU reread), every Star Trek novel. And it’s not just reading; I want to see every episode! Every movie! Every YouTube video! I want to be a COMPLETIONIST, dammit!

grimdark

Really grimdark!

I can’t do it all.

Some days I feel like I can barely do any.

When I was a kid, I felt like I had all the time in the world. Oh, I was always at least a little aware of my mortality; I remember thinking about it even then. I was a morbid kid, what can I say. But on a day-to-day scale, I thought I had all the time in the world. Now, media wasn’t as easy to accumulate then as it is now; but there was time. Time to read this entire series (and I did, on several occasions). Time to watch every movie in a series. Time to play all the video games I liked, even if they took fifty hours each.

Now I’m an adult, and I know better. It’s painfully ironic to me that as access has gotten easier, time has gotten harder.  Twelve-year-old me would have killed to be able to go on the internet and download an obscure book and be reading it within seconds. He would have accumulated all the books! Forty-year-old me knows that sometimes, that way lies madness, because I just don’t have the time for all the books. Forty-year-old me has to pick and choose.

And he does. He’s not always happy with it. But he does it, because he isn’t willing to lose his mind over completionism anymore. It’s better to have a few great memories than a million rushed, mediocre ones (coupled with a sense of disappointment at just not getting there).

He man and she ra

You two have a LOT to answer for

Frankly, fictional universes–as opposed to a great standalone story–are my downfall. I blame He-Man and She-Ra. Those characters constituted the first shared fictional universe I can remember encountering–the first time I realized it could be more than a single story, that you could have multiple parts to a greater whole. It’s all been downhill from there; the next thing you know, I’m reading up on crossovers between Indiana Jones and Star Wars; then it’s the Tommy Westphall Universe Theory (I won’t get into that here; check the link); and suddenly I’m hip-deep in 40k, and I could use a rescue mission. (Did I mention that both Event Horizon and Hellraiser have been theorized to be prequels to 40k? Oh, yes, this vein runs deep!) I love continuity-heavy stories, and love finding connections between them.

Again, that way lies madness, at least sometimes. If I can’t get all the episodes of, say, my old friend Doctor Who, what makes me think I can see all of the 419 television shows connected to Tommy Westphall (really, go check it out)? (Full disclosure: I have seen all the episodes of Doctor Who; it’s the books and comics that continue to thwart me. Madness!)

Thus it becomes a lesson in letting go. And this, I have to say, has been the hardest lesson for me. I don’t want to let go; I love my completionism. It won’t work, though; and letting go is good for me. One can try so hard to get everything in, that one doesn’t enjoy any of it. I don’t want that. I won’t live forever; I know that. It was a little difficult to accept that at forty, there’s a good chance my life is more than half over. I don’t want to spend the years I have obsessing, when I could be enjoying them instead. One of the great lies of the Internet age is that we can, at last, have it all…no. No, you can’t. I can’t. And moreover, you shouldn’t, and neither should I. We’ll just be miserable if we try. Moreover, I don’t want to pass that mindset on to my children, who are always watching. I want them to learn to enjoy things, and that’s a hard enough task without this particular obstacle.

Tommy Westphall Universe

The Tommy Westphall Universe. Did you think I was kidding?

I could draw an example from physical collection. My father collected model cars. He loved to build them, at least until his hands got too shaky to use an exacto knife. He could easily have been overwhelmed with them, had he not chosen to back off and just pick a few that he really loved. Or, my ex-wife–when we were together, she loved to collect penguins. She made the mistake of letting people know; and so, naturally, everyone gave her penguin collectibles as gifts. We were drowning in penguins! But, no matter what you collect, be it cars or birds, what is going to happen to those things? They’re going to gather dust while you’re alive (if you’re anything like me); and they’re going to be disposed of when you’re gone. Yesterday I read a “life pro tip” that said “Sell your valuable knick-knacks and collectibles while you’re still alive. You’ll gain some value from them that way, and your family is only going to sell them when you’re gone.” Or, worse, throw them out.

In my case, I chose not to collect them in the first place. I used to collect lighthouses; now I’m down to three at home–two of which were handmade by my dad and my uncle–and one small crystal lighthouse on the desk at which I’m typing this. They were gathering dust instead of memories, and that seemed to be a crime to me. I got rid of some, and stopped collecting more.

It’s harder for me to stop collecting stories. Stories are intangible, and easy. They aren’t easy to process, though; books or television or movies or audio dramas, they all take time. I only have so much of that.  I’m still struggling with this lesson; every time a Humble Book Bundle comes along, I forget this lesson as if I was Dory from Finding Nemo. But, no one is going to read my ebook collection when I’m gone; I don’t even know how to pass it on. If I don’t have time for it now, I shouldn’t be collecting it at all.

One day, maybe I’ll learn that lesson for good.

How’s your reading this year? I’m working through the 52 Book Challenge via the subreddit of the same name, and you can join us here! So far I’ve completed 24 books, putting me a little ahead of schedule. You can join me on Goodreads, and post your own challenge!

Happy Reading!

 

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.

Previous

Next

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

Previous

Next

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.

jedi knight

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.

Previous

Next

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.

shadowspawnzoom

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.

Previous

Next

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

Previous

Next

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!