There are a lot of people out there who don’t, and won’t, like this book.
I’m pretty sure I know why, and it has nothing to do with the plot or characters of Aftermath: Star Wars. It has to do with the book’s very existence.
You see, Aftermath, written by Chuck Wendig, takes place between the end of the original trilogy of films, Return of the Jedi, and the upcoming JJ Abrams addition to the franchise, The Force Awakens. It chronicles the effect of the fall of the Empire’s leadership and the loss of the second Death Star on one of the far-flung worlds in the galaxy, and how its people struggle against an Empire that refuses to surrender or fade into the night. I won’t go into laborious detail about it, because in the end equation, it’s not anything terribly original. Oh, the characters fill out their roles quite well, coming across more like people and less like cardboard cut-outs, and the use of present tense keeps the action well-paced and immediate rather than getting bogged down in exposition or pontification. For what it’s worth, Chuck does what Chuck does best: punchy dialog that doesn’t mess around, Hemingway-esque connective prose that’s just as short and to-the-point, and just enough intrigue and provocative ideas to keep the action from feeling too shallow or the characters too weak.
For the record, I don’t think this book as quite as good as some of Chuck’s other work, such as Blackbirds or The Blue Blazes. Merely my opinion.
The point is that, as Star Wars novels go, this is a good one. While it doesn’t quite have the grandiosity of Timothy Zahn’s works or the space swashbuckling of Michael A. Stackpole, it also doesn’t suffer from the byzantine structures of the old expanded universe. And that’s a big part of the reason why people hate it so much.
They might say negative things about the plot or characters, but I cannot imagine that a large portion of the negative reactions come from a biased perspective. While I may be biased towards Wendig’s writing in general, I am also a long-time Star Wars fan, and I mourned the loss of Zahn’s trilogy and the exploits of Rogue Squadron when it was announced that the old canon was being ejected. It hurt, to be honest.
But things change. And we move on.
In the end, you really can’t ask for a better bridge than the writing of Wendig, both between the two films and the old EU and the new. It does its job, workman-like, moving the story towards its ultimate destination and using enough familiar faces to acclimate open-minded readers to a universe both old and new. All we have to do is let go of our hatred of change and the unfamiliar. Much like a black stormtrooper, a three-bladed lightsaber, or a woman in shining armor, change is good even if it seems strange or unnecessary, and it is up to us to embrace it and see where the new journey takes us. Anything less cheapens our beloved stories, derides the creative endeavors of people like Wendig, and makes us look foolish and childish. Do better, Star Wars fans. Be better. Let go of your hate.
In honor of the whole “May the 4th” Star Wars-related tomfoolery of the day, I went back to last year and blew the dust off of this post. Enjoy!
The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.
The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.
The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.
For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.
It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.
In light of Star Wars Celebration and the new teaser for the upcoming film, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts on the first Dark Lord of the Sith to which audiences were introduced. When this post first went up, there were some wonderful comments regarding how this character got railroaded, what the Clone Wars series did to address that, and a powerful aspect of Return of the Jedi. It’s clear we’re ready for a Star Wars film that does its characters and universe true justice. I suppose we’ll find out in December if that’s what we’re actually getting.
My good friend Rick over at Word Asylum brought up some classic villains. What stuck out in his pretty comprehensive top ten list was the presence of one Darth Vader. I was reminded of what he, and Star Wars in general, were like when it was first introduced. I discussed him briefly back when I talked about villainy in general. Let’s go back a bit, however, and examine one of the most iconic bad guys of the big screen a bit more closely.
Rooted as it was in the adventure serials that people like Lucas grew up with, having good and evil somewhat diametrically opposed was par for the course. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad. And they didn’t come badder than Darth Vader. We are introduced to Vader when his stormtroopers blast their way through a Rebel spacecraft, his motivations are clear when he strangles one of the ship’s officers and he’s more than willing to turn his significant strength and wrath against his own people if they question his faith or their orders. You don’t need a manual or novelization to understand Darth Vader. It’s laid out for you on the screen and, surprisingly enough considering later entries in the Star Wars series, it’s shown instead of told. When someone does try to tell instead of show, Vader chokes the bitch. “I find your lack of faith disturbing” is all that need be said.
The Empire Strikes Back
Rick described this as being Vader at “his lowest point, when the Dark Side firmly had him enthralled.” His loyalty and dedication to the Empire has given way this obsession with capturing Luke Skywalker. On the surface, this is a straightforward motivation – Luke humiliated Vader in battle, and Vader wants revenge. He’s willing to strangle anyone, destroy anything, sacrifice entire Star Destroyers and recruit the most insidious of bounty hunters to get what he wants. His villainy takes on a whole new dimension when it’s revealed that his pursuit of the Millenium Falcon is all a ploy to draw Luke out of hiding, and when Luke does appear, Vader goes from being a merely dark villainous presence to a deep and haunting one.
Vader, we discover, is Luke’s father. Beyond his desire to corrupt Luke and seduce him to the Dark Side, Vader wants Luke to join him, work with him and help him build a peaceful, orderly Empire. He wants to establish a true monarchy by deposing Palpatine, becoming Emperor himself and ensuring his son will succeed him and carry on his goals. It’s his way of seeking reconciliation. However, rather than trying to bridge the gap between them, Vader offers to yank Luke over to his side of things. It shows just how far Vader has fallen to the Dark Side, and what happens next is perhaps the greatest moment of storytelling in Star Wars to date.
When Luke chooses to face death rather than join his father, watch Vader closely. Without seeing his face, without saying a word, Vader conveys an emotion that pierces all his Force powers and imposing armor the way blasters never could. Luke breaks Vader’s heart. Not only is this a telling moment in the relationship between father and son, there’s a reveal here even more shocking than that of Luke’s parentage: Darth Vader, a deadly and cunning manipulative bastard of a villain, has a heart to break.
Star Wars never saw anything like this moment again. It shines as the pinnacle of the saga’s power and beyond everything that comes after, for me, it remains untouched.
Return of the Jedi
There’s a huge difference between the Vader in the first two films and the Vader in Jedi. He sounds weary. He’s still driven and loyal, but the wound he suffered on Cloud City still bleeds inside of him. Inside that dark armor wages a battle between the man he wants to be – Luke’s father, someone the boy will admire and want to be with – and the servant of the Empire he has become. When Luke reappears in Vader’s life, he makes another attempt to appeal for the young man’s favor. In response, Luke searches for the smaller side of the internal struggle he feels, the man Vader once was.
Vader as a villain is no less effective in Jedi but his motivations are now far more personal, the sort of things we see in the closing acts of a Greek tragedy. Brought low by his actions, responsible for the deaths of friends and loved ones, Vader must face his own demons and put them to rest even at the expense of his own life. In the process, he finally wins the adoration of his son. The tragedy of his adult life is left far behind as he achieves his redemption. It’s this cycle, falling into darkness only to struggle back to the light regardless of cost, that defines many of Star Wars‘ better tales, such as that of Ulic Qel-Droma.
When the prequels were announced, fans looked forward to seeing what Anakin was like before becoming Vader, discovering the details of his fall and fully understanding the pathos beneath the armor. Instead, we got a whiny, willful, selfish and ill-conceived brat with no real charisma, no redeeming values and little to offer the precious few tangible threads of story laid out by Lucas. By focusing on spectacle and merchandising, Lucas tore out the fangs of his greatest success entirely.
When you have potential like this, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. Take some time to consider the groundwork that’s been laid before you build something new. It’snothard. I hate to keep coming back to this, but if I can throw together something in a weekend that people feel is better structured than a multi-million dollar production, the people that invest that money should be more willing to take a closer look on where their money is actually going.
But that’s just me. I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a starving artist, and for what it’s worth, I miss Darth Vader.
Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.
Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.
I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.
I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.
Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.
Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!
The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.
As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.
What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?