Thursday, December 11, 2014

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Seasons 1-6)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Seasons 1-6) (5/5)

Technically, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not a part of the Expanded Universe.  When Disney executed their own version of Order 66, unequivocally banning the EU from the canon, they exempted all six theatrical films and The Clone Wars animated series.  But because it serves as neither quite sequel nor prequel, the series still seems like more of an addendum to the prequel films, even if it exceeds them in quality.  So I’m calling Star Wars: The Clone Wars fair game for my series of Star Wars Expanded Universe reviews.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars got off to an ignominious start.  The theatrical film was dumped into theaters at a time when the general public had fatigued on the prequel films.  The film was panned and its box office was a mere pebble next to the boulder sized hauls of the proper films.  It didn’t help that The Clone Wars movie was uneven at best.  The film made a number of mistakes that didn’t bode well for the eventual series, for which it was, in part, serving as an advertisement.  The film had Anakin take on a Padawan of his own, Ahsoka Tano, a strong headed teenager.  The two are charged with recovering Jabba the Hutt’s infant son, Rotta, who is a poorly conceived bundle of “comic relief.”  Among other missteps, the film also includes the character of Ziro, a purple Hutt who not only speaks English (or Basic in the Star Wars Galaxy) but does so in an obvious imitation of Truman Capote for no reason at all.  Although the film boasts some great action (which was true of the prequels as well), it feels undercooked.

The Clone Wars film didn’t accurately represent the complex world that the series would eventually create.  If anything, Star Wars: The Clone Wars demonstrates how rich and rewarding the prequel universe can be.  First and foremost, The Clone Wars managed to both tweak traditional elements of Star Wars while also maintaining the general aesthetics of George Lucas’s creation.  Each episode opens with the usual Star Wars fanfare along with some added arpeggio as the series title withdraws from the screen.  This is followed with a rotating series of aphorisms in the color and typeface of “A long time ago…”.  Each episode begins in media res, and a stilted, slightly campy announcer speaking in the style of 1940s newsreels brings the audience up to speed.  Within the first minute or two, each episode demonstrates that it is exploring the moral power of myth, recreating the thrills of those 30s and 40s serials, and producing stories that are diverse but also clearly a part of Star Wars. 

Although the series would continue to improve over the years, the first season is still largely confident, and the multipart “Malevolence” episodes signal early on that The Clone Wars is interested in more than simply recreating a Saturday morning adventure of the week cartoon.  But if there is a single moment in the first season that showcases the series’s ambition it might be in “Innocents of Ryloth” when two Clone Troopers form a bond with a young refugee Twi’lek orphan.  The episode briefly explores the devastating effect of war and demonstrates what happens when people become trapped between the Republic and the Separatists.  The Ryloth three-parter does not shy away from violence, and it is shot in the cinema verite style of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.  (George Lucas also used simulated hand held photography to film some of the large battles in the prequels, a style that was modeled off of World War II footage.  Lucas also showed documentary footage of World War II dogfights to his special effects team when creating the first Death Star run.)  What’s special about this episode isn’t merely that the series isn’t afraid to show violence when necessary (plenty of episodes would probably be rated PG-13), but that it was also willing to grapple with morality and war. 

The Ryloth episodes also expand on perhaps my favorite new element from the prequels: the clones.  In the prequels, the clones were cannon fodder or they were a plot point, but they weren’t actual flesh and blood characters.  The Clone Wars actually imbues the clones with their own personalities, and although they have the same genetic makeup, each clone purposefully attempts to differentiate himself from the others by styling his hair or getting unique tattoos.  The image of nearly identical grunts striving for individuality is more telling, more heartbreaking than you might expect.  There are a number of reoccurring clone characters who have slightly different personalities: Rex, Echo, Fives and Cody all become important characters in the series. And because each clone is genetically identical to the one another, they are quite literally Shakespeare’s “band of brothers.”

The fifth episode of the first season, “Rookies,” focuses almost solely on a handful of Clone Troopers manning a distant outpost, and from here it becomes clear that the series, unlike the films, isn’t interested in just following members of the Jedi Council and the Republic Senate.

 In fact, several of my favorite story arcs focus mostly on the Clone Troopers, including a confrontation between the Clone Troopers and a bigoted Jedi, General Krell as well as a season six arc that takes some of its cues from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and grapples with the notorious Order 66.  Episodes focusing on the clones also try to tease out the paradoxical role of a military grunt.  To be a member of the armed forces, you have surrendered yourself to a purpose much greater than yourself, whether it is the Galactic Republic or the U.S. government, but you have little input into the goals and policies of these overriding institutions.

The series also allows for a further exploration of the Jedi and their place within the galactic conflict.  I’ve always maintained that the prequels included some tremendous ideas that were hindered by poor execution.  One of Lucas’s cleverer conceits was to stage a war where no matter who wins, the galaxy loses.  Palpatine has engineered it so that he is the hidden power behind both the Separatists and the Republic.  In most narratives, and especially in large blockbusters, wars are always divided between the good guys and the bad buys, but here Lucas presents us with what is close to a no win scenario.  It’s made clear in both the show and the films that the Jedi are not warriors.  They’re a monastic order who occasionally must rely on violence, but only if it will prevent some greater evil.  But the Clone Wars series suggests that they have compromised their values by taking on military positions within the Republic.

Expanding on the morally tangled choices made by Jedi only deepens our understanding of Anakin’s fall to the dark side.  In a third season arc, Anakin, Obi-Wan must sneak into a nearly impenetrable Separatist prison known as the Citadel in order to rescue captured Jedi Even Piell and Captain Tarkin.  Fans of the original trilogy know that Tarkin would go on to command the Death Star alongside Darth Vader in A New Hope, and in the Citadel arc there’s an interesting exchange between him and Anakin about the lengths the Jedi should go to in order to win the war.  Tarkin believes that Jedi shouldn’t serve as generals, because their code of ethics gets in the way of victory, a point of view that Anakin, who is seen throughout the show bending the rules, appears sympathetic to.  This scene suggests that Anakin’s turn to the dark side is born out of the corrupting nature of war as much as it is his own personal circumstances.

Perhaps The Clone Wars’ greatest contribution is that it finally got the character of Anakin right.  He’s no longer the petulant teenager that we saw in  Attack of the Clones or the naïve innocent from The Phantom Menace.  Here Anakin is more impulsive and known for working on gut instinct.  A common complaint about the prequels is that there are no rogue characters like Han Solo in this trilogy, but the writers on The Clone Wars realized that Anakin could fill this role.  Because Anakin is allowed to be charming, the audience actually feels a sense of loss and foreboding knowing about his ultimate fate, which is alluded to a few times throughout the series.

The Clone Wars expands on the mythology and world of Star Wars in a number of new and exciting ways—including the introduction of strange force-like beings that are more gods than men—but perhaps the greatest contribution to the Star Wars universe is the character of Ahsoka.  When she was first introduced, most people pegged Ahsoka as the annoying sidekick, but over the course of the series she demonstrates that she’s smart, talented and resourceful.  We are given only a few glimpses into Ahsoka’s past.  We do know that her force sensitivity was first recognized by the Jedi Plo Koon when Ahsoka was a child, but who she is mostly becomes apparently through her actions.  Over the course of the series, she demonstrates some of Anakin’s more impulsive tendencies, and the two are often competitive, sometimes acting more like friends than master and padawan.  Ahsoka also adds a necessary female character into the mostly male dominated world of Star Wars.  While the Star Wars movies aren’t completely devoid of empowered women—in A New Hope Leia ends up playing the role of her own rescuer in her escape from the Death Star—but it’s evident that most of the important characters in the Star Wars films are male.  With this in mind, Ahsoka serves as a sort of gender corrective.

The Clone Wars does so much right that it’s easy to forgive some of its flaws.  One problem the series never quite figured out was what to do with Padme.  Obi-Wan and Anakin get to fight massive space battles, but she’s stuck playing the role of the diplomat, which by comparison isn’t nearly exciting.  There are a handful of strong Padme episodes.  In “Heroes on Both Sides,” Padme and Ahsoka attempt to broker a secret peace and stop the war.  The episode showcases Lucas’s ability to use myth and fantasy to interrogate contemporary topics, and in “Heroes on Both Sides” he takes a look at the financial crisis as well as the war on terror.  It’s a smart episode that illustrates that the only way out of impossible situation engineered by Palpatine is to find a non-violent, peaceful reconciliation between the Republic and the Separatists.

But I believe the biggest misstep is the resurrection of a character who should have stayed dead. [Spoilers ahead].  In season three, we are introduced to the character of Savage Opress, a vicious force powered brute given abilities by the Nightsisters, a coven of force sensitive witches.  We later learn that Savage has a brother, Darth Maul who had been chopped in half at the end of The Phantom Menace.  It’s not clear why Maul is still alive, or why the writers thought it was a good idea to bring him back.  Darth Maul was an admittedly cool villain, thanks in large part to Ray Park’s physical performance.  But he was interesting precisely because we knew so little about him.  But we finally get to hear Darth Maul speak at length, and it turns out that he’s kind of whiny.  It doesn’t help that Savage and Maul are responsible for killing a character with deep emotional ties to Obi-Wan, but in a matter that is cheap, unnecessary, and wholly unsatisfying.  There are times when I’m not sure whether I hate the Darth Maul or the Jar Jar Binks episodes more. 

Still, The Clone Wars series is an important part of Star Wars lore that expands the story of the prequels in exciting and complicated ways.  Even when his filmmaking skills weren’t up to snuff, Lucas’s ability to conjure up worlds from his imagination always remained strong.  The prequels might falter more often than they should, but the universe Lucas created with those films is still vibrant, and this is clearly evident in The Clone Wars.  In the series, Lucas managed to take the Manichean divide between light and dark and weave a more complex tale of good people going towards damnation even as they have the best intentions.  And he accomplishes this in a universe interspersed with 1930s serials, space samurai, and World War II tough guys.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (4/5)

At this point everyone hates Frank Miller.  You hate Frank Miller.  I hate Frank Miller.  All your friends hate Frank Miller.  Your grandmother, if she knows who he is, probably hates Frank Miller too.  After many years of contributing to the development of American comic books, Miller’s talent and credibility hit a serious wall sometime in the 21st century.  His output has been so bad that people have started to wonder whether or not he was ever talented.  To top it all off, in addition to putting out lazily written drivel, he also released a bizarre anti-Occupy Wall Street rant that fully revealed his inner neocon.  Miller’s politics were never exactly subtle—in fact, if one of his characters came upon nuance, he would have likely socked it in the jaw—but there was a certain complexity to his political positions, which often camped out somewhere in the borderlands where liberals and libertarians have achieved an uneasy truce.  So judging merely by Miller’s involvement, there was little reason to be optimistic about a long delayed sequel to the original Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller collaboration, Sin City.

But, surprisingly, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has turned out to be a worthy sequel to the stylish and brutal original.  Despite the diminishing quality of both Miller and Rodriguez’s work in recent years, there must be something about working together that brings out the best in both artists.  Like the first movie, A Dame to Kill For is split into several distinct but vaguely interrelated tales.  Two of the film’s stories, the eponymous “A Dame to Kill For” and “Just Another Saturday Night,” are taken straight from Miller’s funny books where the other two, “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance,” were written by Miller exclusively for the film. The events of Dame occur before and after the events of the first film, making it a sort of pre-sequel and allowing Miller and Rodriguez to resurrect fan favorite characters like Marv.

“Just Another Saturday Night” is little more than a cynical smirk of a story that serves to set the stage for the rest.  The film’s meatiest tale is the titular “Dame to Kill For.”  Taking over for Clive Owen, Josh Brolin plays Dwight who gets pulled back into a world of seduction and double crosses by his old flame, Ava.  Played by Eva Green in various stages of undress (she’s French), Ava is the femme fatale turned up to eleven.  Able to transform herself into varying female archetypes so she fits the desires of any single man, Ava is a consummate manipulator. 
The femme fatale standard is highly problematic, but in certain films she has been made to symbolize female agency within a patriarchal world.  It would be difficult to redeem Ava, and there’s no confusing the writing of Frank Miller for a feminist treatise, but I’m not quite willing to call Miller an outright misogynist.  (Perhaps Ava’s ability to transform herself is a critique of the kinds of boxes men wish to box women into?)  And to complicate matters somewhat, A Dame to Kill For brings back the women of Old Town, an area of Sin City controlled and policed by its resident prostitutes.  If anything, A Dame to Kill For arguably tests the limits of third-wave feminism.

The two stories written specifically for Dame feel a little trim compared to those first written for the page.  In the first Sin City, there was a sense that each individual yarn could have been expanded into its own film, which is not the case in the sequel.  “The Long Bad Night” follows the preternaturally lucky Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he weasels his way into a high stakes card game and makes enemies of the unrelenting big bad, Senator Roarke (played with gusto once again by Powers Boothe).  I naturally love the noir inspired irony that for someone with unerring luck, Johnny still has a horrendous time in Sin City.  (I also thoroughly enjoyed the scene stealing cameo from Christopher Lloyd.)  By contrast, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” a more direct sequel to the first film, suffers somewhat.  The story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) and her attempt to avenge the death of police officer and her savior, John Hartigan, played once again by Bruce Willis, only this time, well, dead, seems too undercooked to have much of an impact. 

If A Dame to Kill For lacks some of the more memorable elements of the original—a dead Benecio Del Toro speaking from the grave while part of a gun sticks out from his head or Elijah Wood’s trophy room—each story seems to slide into the next more easily for a more cohesive whole.  Plenty of critics have claimed the film has come too late and audiences are used to its box of tricks by now.  I impolitely disagree.  Dame may not be as good as the first film, but I think it injects something much needed into today’s genre of comic book movies: a sense of visual experimentation. 

Here Rodriguez expands on what he accomplished in the original film, mixing in metaphorical images of a tiny Johnny sliced apart by Rourke or staging a car chase around Marv’s head as he remembers what happened earlier in the night.  If anything, today’s comic book films are far more conservative visually then they were a decade ago or more ago.  Marvel, the most financially successful maker of comic book films, appears to be uninterested in fusing the distinct visuals of film and comic books lest it muss up their plans for franchise domination.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was part of the reason for the departure of Edgar Wright, a unique visual stylist, from Ant Man).  Compare the relatively safe imagery of the Marvel films to the hyperkinetic camera movement of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, or the disorienting use or split screen in Ang Lee’s Hulk, or, to stretch back farther, the infusion of German Expressionism into Tim Burton’s Batman films.  Hell, even the now forgotten 90s superhero film The Shadow has some wonderfully bizarre imagery that would be deemed too out there in 2014.  I’m a fan of Marvel’s movies, but I’m also somewhat nostalgic for that period of time in the aughts when comic books were providing a new template for what was possible in Hollywood films.  In 2005, the original Sin City seemed like the culmination of a series of experiments, but in 2014, A Dame to Kill For seems wholly singular.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (4.5/5)

In the summer of 2003, Star Wars fans were attempting to recover from the one, two groin kicks that were Episode 1 (1999) and Episode II (2003).  While I’m sometimes inclined to defend segments from those movies, I also remember being exhausted by the cycle of anticipation and disappointment that accompanied the first two prequel films.  The Star Wars galaxy was starting to feel stale at that point, and after two disappointing films many fans of George Lucas’s adventures far, far away were becoming a little despondent.  It’s around this time that Knights of the Old Republic, the first Star Wars role playing game, came out and reminded a generation of players why they fell in love with Star Wars to begin with.

Unlike most Star Wars games, which often take place concurrent with the most recent film, Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) escapes the tricky issue of continuity by taking place 4,000 years prior to the events of the original trilogy.  Originally, the game was supposed to tie into the world of the second trilogy, specifically Episode II which was in production at the same time.  However, Lucasarts gave the developers, Bioware, the option to set their game in the distant past, which they smartly chose to do.  This shift in time allows the creators of KothOR to craft a Star Wars game without worrying about questions of continuity or relevance to George Lucas’s more recent cinematic creations.  In other words, KotOR rebuffed corporate synergy in order to achieve a sense of artistic integrity.  But despite the drastic temporal shift, KotOR wound up capturing the essence of Star Wars better than the prequels, much less most Star Wars videogames. 

The freedom inherent in setting KotOR thousands of years prior to the original trilogy allowed Bioware to superimpose the motifs and archetypes of Star Wars onto a new and exciting world.  Like most RPGs, in KotOR you are able to pick and choose elements of your main character, including gender and general appearance.  The class system also generally conforms to the archetypes used by Lucas in the Star Wars films, an element of the game that extends to the varying characters that join your party throughout the game.  In addition to your self-made main character, you also get to control a soldier (Carth), a Wookie (Zaalbar), a resourceful street urchin (Mission), a Mandalorian warrior (Canderous), a handful of Jedis (Bastila, Juhani, Jolee), and a couple of droids (T3-M4 and HK-47). 

Not every character is great (Carth can be awfully whiny for a soldier), but every player will have his or her favorites (I was always partial to the cantankerous Canderous and the gruff Jedi loner, Jolee).  But more importantly, these characters fit nicely within the world of Star Wars, judging by much of the extended universe, a more difficult task than you might imagine.  You could easily split the characters into those who serve to maintain order in the galaxy and those who live in the shadows of the two warring factions of the Republic and the Sith.  In other words, they’re either rogues or acolytes, the same tension that exists between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the Episode IV. 
KotOR also captures the visual essence of Star Wars.  In particular, they replicate the scope and sense of the infinite in the world of Star Wars.  While you can only explore a relatively small fenced in portion of each planet, the use of a horizon, whether it’s the dunes of Tatooine or the unending plains of Dantooine, gives you a sense of the infinite.  This extreme scope has always been an integral aspect of Star Wars, from the initial invocation of a galaxy “far, far away” to the seemingly unending pit Palpating is drop into at the end of Return of the Jedi.  And yet, so few video games have managed to really capture this visual and thematic element of the Star Wars films.

But BioWare wasn’t just content with capturing the essence of Star Wars; they also wanted to revamp the role playing genre.  For many years RPGs had been associated with turn based fighting and somewhat tedious class, weapons and magic management.  And while KotOR has maintained those core elements, they have also made the genre far more cinematic.  KotOR was released shortly before World of Warcraft, and like those similarly detailed MMORPGs it helped usher in the immersive qualities to the genre.  There’s no switching perspective as you move from the world map to the dungeons to the battles.  Instead, everything maintains a fluid third person view.  And unlike the MMORPGs and RPGs of the same era, there’s less emphasis on tedious fights and minigames.  There’s a limit to how far your characters can level up, and you can only get into so many battles on each planet.  In other words, you won’t find yourself wandering around for hours on end trying to find more random monsters to fight.  In order to emphasize story, the game makes it easier to level up by completing tasks for non playable characters rather than randomized battles. Many of the side quests are related to characters in your party, making them more central to narrative elements like plot and characterization.  All of these aspects help reinforce the game’s cinematic qualities, which seems especially fitting for a Star Wars game.

There are numerous aspects of the game that add to its replayability (that is, if you have the patients to replay a game that can take upwards of fifty hours to complete).  In order to mirror the choices made by Anakin and Luke Skywaler, the main character must choose to serve either the dark or light side of the force, a decision made through a number of choices throughout the game.  BioWare made the dark side of the force suitably enticing, since it often leads to more fights and easier solutions.  There’s a really fun assassination subplot that you must take on a few dark side points if you want to complete it.  You’re also given some freedom as to which planets you want to visit in what order, but of course there’s still a correct way of completing the game if you want to gather every character and finish as many side quests as possible (Tatooine, Kashyyyk, Manaan, and Korriban). 

The enticing possibility that you could play as a hero in the Star Wars universe has lead plenty of fans to buy subpar Star Wars games, so there’s something especially powerful when a Star Wars video game chooses not only to capture the sense of fun and adventure of the best films but also in general expands on what the medium can accomplish.  In some ways, KotOR reinforces the power of myth and archetype inherent in Lucas’s Star Wars by transporting the actions to a different time while maintaining the core aspects of that galaxy far, far away. 


Quick spoiler warning: From here on out, I’m going to discuss a major plot twist in the game and its general importance to the genre and the themes of Star Wars.

As I mentioned earlier, at the start of the game you go through the process of creating your main character, choosing the gender, class and abilities of your blank slate.  Well, the main character has more of a history than you might imagine.  As the story goes in KotOR, the Republic is in a life or death struggle against the forces of the Sith, currently lead by a former Jedi Darth Malak.  Malak’s mentor used to be Darth Revan, also a fallen Jedi.  But Revan was defeated prior to the game by the Jedi Bastila.  We’re lead to believe that Bastila has killed Revan, but in a twist reminiscent of the “I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back, it turns out that Revan wasn’t killed; rather, he was captured by Bastila and turned over to the Jedi council who decided to wipe his memory in order to bring him back to the light side.  In fact, the character you created at the beginning of the game is Revan, so you have been playing as the dark lord this entire time without realizing it.

There are a few implications to this reveal.  The tabula rasa origins of your character has long been a staple of the RPG genre.  But the Revan twist adds a meta aspect to the creation of the main character.  Just as you have conjured the elements of the main character out of thin air, so too has the Jedi council.  In other words, at the beginning, rather than just going through the normal motions of character creation, you are, unwittingly, in the role of the Jedi council remaking Revan from the ground up. 

The Revan reveal also adds a layer of truth to your dialogue choices.  While playing your character it is possible to veer from being kind hearted to callous in the blink of an eye.  Character inconsistency was always nagged me in games where you are given branching dialogue options.  Where most critics focus on ways in which dialogue options do or do not appropriately transform a game’s narrative, few focus on how these dialogue options allow you to craft your own unique character.  Of course, this makes little sense if you can be altruistic one minute and vicious the next.  But knowledge that you used to be Darth Revan actually explains your character’s extreme bi-polar disorder: any acts of evil can be chalked up to your history as Revan bubbling to the surface, even if you are trying to follow the light side.

Finally, the story of Revan and Malak ties nicely into one of the stronger aspects of the prequel trilogy.  Prior to the battle between the Republic and the Sith, the Jedi were involved in a war against the Mandalorians.  As Jedis, Revan and Malak managed to defeat the Mandalorians, but in doing so they adopted a tough uncaring attitude towards casualties.  It is suggested, then, that the necessity of victory may have forced Revan and Malak to turn towards the dark side.  Although KotOR was released prior to the completion of the prequel trilogy, Malak and Revan’s turn to the dark side seems to echo some of the themes from Episodes II and III.  Throughout the prequels, it is suggested that the Jedi have lost their way, in part because they have abandoned their role as peacekeepers in favor of becoming warriors, a choice that makes sense in their given situation, but is ultimately their downfall.  And, of course, the real threat behind the Clone Wars, Palpatine, has engineered it so that no matter which side becomes the victor, he will be the ultimate winner.  Both the prequel trilogy and KotOR illustrate the corrupting nature of warfare.  

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (4/5)

It sometimes seems as if Dave Eggers has made a career our of running away from his first book, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Where Heartbreaking was a meta-memoir centered on a self-aware and self-conscious Gen-Xer, his subsequent books have mostly looked outward.  Eggers has made a concerted effort for his work to engage with the world around him and to avoid any of the navel gazing that pervaded his memoir.  While I thoroughly enjoyed Heartbreaking, I’m glad that Eggers’s concerns have turned towards the world at large.  One element that seems to appear again and again in Eggers’s writing is the impact and role of globalization on people’s lives.  This was certainly true in Zeitoun and What is the What whose protagonists found their to America from far off countries, Syria and Sudan respectively.  But in A Hologram for the King Eggers follows a middle aged American business man as he ventures to Saudi Arabia.  What results is an intriguing commentary on the economic and psychological effects of globalization on the American middle class.

The main character of Hologram, Alan Clay, is abusiness consultant who formerly worked for Schwinn bicycles before he was let go and they moved business overseas.  Through happenstance he now finds himself working for an I.T. company that plans on presenting a new hologram system to the King of Saudi Arabia.  We spend the entire novel with Clay who can be something of a sad sack.  Ever since leaving Schwinn, he has been a man adrift, attempting to start the manufacturing of a bicycle he has designed but unable to acquire the requisite funds.  He’s low on cash and struggles to pay for his daughter’s tuition, meaning she may be forced to take a semester or two off from college.  Clay wouldn’t necessarily be a fun guy to hang around, a detriment that Eggers attempts to sidestep by approaching the character with both empathy and a dark sense of humor. 

Clay is both a victim and perpetrator of his own miserable situation.  His company began looking for ways to cut costs, which at first meant moving manufacturing to less union friendly states within the U.S., but later it meant outsourcing jobs to China.  This didn’t affect Clay at first, since he’s a part of management, not labor.  But, as has been the case with globalization over the last couple of decades, outsourcing crept upwards, eating away not only those who toil in factories but also those who toil while wearing business suits.  While Schwinn was looking towards China for cheap labor, it turned out that the Chinese also had just as capable salesmen and managers, thank you very much.  In a somewhat roundabout way, Clay had become responsible for outsourcing his own job. 

All of this results in Clay making the trek to Saudi Arabia in order to present a new telecommunications hologram system to King Abdullah and hoping to wrangle his meeting with the King into something more long term.  Except Clay himself is mostly useless.  He doesn’t have expertise in computers, and it is suggested that his value lies only in his connection to a relative of the King’s he knew in college.  Clay and his team of young computer techs spend much of their time sitting in an un-air-conditioned tent without the requisite wi-fi needed to set up their presentation, problems that Clay is too ineffectual to resolve.  Even here he seems to have carried with him his own obsolescence.

The obvious literary influence here is “Waiting for Godot,” and like the characters from Beckett’s play, Clay is continually looking towoards a future event that may never come.  The presentation with the King is continually postponed, and the presentation does not guarantee that the King will grant them the contract or lead to any further business in the country.  And yet Clay continues to chase this meeting all the way to the end of the novel.  Eggers seems to be trying to answer the question, if the world of globalized capitalism has so decimated the middle class in America, then why do the victims continue to prop up this system?  The answer seems to be that a businessman’s present is always mortgaged on a possible future where he has made that one great pitch and secured that one sacred deal. 

In addition to other such literary influences—Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Franz Kafka’s The Castle—Eggers also borrows from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Much like the titular Gatsby, Clay finds himself searching for the American dream.  Where Gatsby had to find the American dream through illegal means, Clay searches for the American dream outside of America.  One particular scene in Hologram owes a heavy debt to the description of Gatsby’s opulent parties.  Clay is invited to a gathering of foreign expats working in Saudi Arabia and when he arrives discovers a horde of middle age men and women imbibing more than they can handle and generally acting like teenagers.  At one point during the bootleg bacchanalia, a man decides to done an astronaut costume as a joke.  As he floats around the gather, he comes to represent an emptied out past, a mockery of what America was once capable of accomplishing.  One worker admits that he hasn’t built any major projects in the United States in some time.  As their own nations collapse under the pressure of global forces, this gathering of Westerners seems only capable of regressing towards childhood. 

Of course, even these displaced workers have it easy compared to the labor necessary to build the massive complexes that they are designing and pitching.  At one point Clay stumbles across a roomful of indigent laborers in a half-built condominium.  The men are living in squalor and are less than pleased about Clay’s intrusion.  (I couldn’t help but think of the moment in The Trial where K. discovers the two agents who served him being whipped by a superior in one of the rooms where he works.)  And Clay’s father was once a union-protected manufacturer.  Naturally, Clay would be responsible for outsourcing these kinds of jobs before losing his own. 

Hologram at times trades in a kind of pessimism that’s absent from most of Eggers’s output, but Eggers doesn’t view globalization as a monolithic wrong.  As you might guess from someone who has written about the possibility of helping others, he sees real possibilities in our ever shrinking world.  Clay strikes up an unusual friendship with his driver, a Saudi Arabian that spent some time in the States while attending university.  He also has a growth removed by an international collection of doctors, one of which is a female Saudi doctor.  There’s definite nuance in Eggers’s depiction of the lived experience of those experiencing global economic upheavals, for those willing to look, anyway. 

While not everything works in the novel—Clay seems too pathetic to strike up a relationship with two separate women—it still manages to evoke a sense of immediacy as it engages with our ever-changing world.  Hologram isn’t Eggers’s best book, but it points to how literature—a term that conjures up dust-gathering tomes on a shelf—can get in the ring and duke it out with other genres desperately trying to explain our world.  The novel is capable of representing economics with far greater detail than a sloppily written New York Times op-ed or better expresses the lived experience of those affected by godlike forces of the market than an academic paper.  If nothing else, Eggers’s work, as a whole, tells us that the written page and lived reality are constantly entwined.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Star Wars: Dark Empire I

Star Wars: Dark Empire I (2/5)

If Heir to the Empire reintroduced Star Wars to the novel format, then Dark Empire reintroduced Star Wars to comic books.  Dark Empire was a major event that ushered in the era of Dark Horse’s reign as the next guardian of Star Wars in comics.  Of course, it’s not like Star Wars hadn’t found their way into the comic book format previously.  From 1977 to 1986, Marvel comics published a Star Wars series, but the results weren’t ideal.  The Marvel iteration of Star Wars has largely been ridiculed for introducing a new main character that pretty much looked like Bugs Bunny in space.  Perhaps as a corrective for Marvel’s perceived unseriousness, Dark Horse doubled down on the dark and gritty aspects of Star Wars.  Unfortunately, the results are just as laughable as Marvel’s giant trash talking bunny.

Dark Empire I takes place after the events of Heir to the Empire. The Empire has fallen into its own civil war among different warlord factions, and in order to sew confusion, the Republic has used commandeered Star Destroyers to swoop in and further decimate Imperial forces.  As the story opens, Han and Leia are rushing in to rescue Luke who is leading troops on the ground.  But after they finally fight their way to Luke, an anomalous “Force storm” sweeps through and picks up Luke and Artoo like Dorothy and Toto in the tornado.  The Force storm is both figuratively and literally nebulous.  It’s not clear what its purpose is other than to separate Luke from his friends and to whisk him towards the series’s big bad, which also happens to be the big bad from the films: the Emperor. 

Early on in the 90s extended universe, artists weren’t shy about bringing back fan favorites.  Not only does Dark Empire I resurrect the Emperor but it also showcases the return of Boba Fett.  For me the question of what to do with the Empire in the extended universe was somewhat tricky.  It would be nice if these stories fully illustrated how vast this galaxy is instead of rehashing major conflicts from the first trilogy.  There were times when the main villain was so strong that it hardly matter—Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, for instance—but resurrecting the Emperor results in a serious case of diminished returns.  The Emperor’s rebirth is attributed to, what else, clones.  But it’s a little more complicated.  Through the magic of retconning, The Emperor has always been a quasi-ghostly being who is so infused with the power of the dark side that he burns out his physical body and must replace it with a new clone body from time to time.

The Emperor has whisked Luke away in order to offer him, once again, the chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  (Presumably, the Emperor created the Force storm, but like a lot of the comic’s story, this isn’t exactly clear).  Improbably, Luke decides to agree to join the Emperor in order to defeat him from inside his organization.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Luke’s plans look something like this: first, ally with the Emperor; second, become consumed by the dark side; and, finally, the Emperor is destroyed!  I think there are a couple of steps missing from this process, and I have a problem with the idea of joining the dark side being treated in the same manner as going undercover in the mob.

While Luke is playacting his own version of Donnie Brasco, the Republic is fighting off World Devastators, the next iteration in a long line of super weapons that plagued both the New Republic and unimaginative Star Wars EU fiction.  Naturally, the World Devastators, which feed on a planet’s raw material in order to produce more weapons for the Empire, are an even greater threat than the Death Star.  Declaring whatever new technology the Empire has conjured as even more dangerous than the Death Star became routine in 90s Star Wars stories, presumably an avowal made by an Imperial commander while giving his audience metal horns and being backed by a gnarly Dave Mustaine solo. 

Sensing that Luke is in trouble, Leia convinces Han to mount a rescue, but instead of heading straight to Luke, the two make an inexplicable detour to Nar Shaddaa, a moon that is completely inhabited by lowlifes, bounty hunters, and other assorted criminals.  It’s not clear what Leia and Han wish to accomplish by visiting this place, but it was probably just an excuse for the writer to reintroduce Boba Fett who shows up to chase Solo and his wife.  If Boba from the films was a man of few words, coolly carrying out his mission, then the Boba of Dark Empire is his inbred cousin.  While chasing Han, Boba Fett is continually bumbling as he tries to kill his mark.  If you hated how Boba Fett died in Return of the Jedi, then you will absolutely loath what they have done to the character in this comic.  I will concede that the artwork of CamKennedy, best known for his work on Judge Dredd and 2000 A.D., really clicks during the Nar Shaddaa section of the work.  There’s something about his rough, cynical artwork that melds well with Star Wars’s underworld, even if it seems unsuited to the wide angle battles in other parts of the story. Kennedy would go on to serve as an artist on a Boba Fett series later on, and, likewise, his artwork captured the grittier aspects of Star Wars surprisingly well. 

The entire narrative is pocked by those unnecessary explanatory captions where the author over explains everything that’s happening.  So the reader is presented with an image of the Republic and the Empire battling and the caption then explains that the Republic and the Empire are battling.  You would think that with the judicious use of these captions that the reasoning of Han, Luke, Leia and the rest would make sense, but you would be wrong.  The dialogue is alternatively bad and hilariously bad.  Perhaps my favorite moment in the whole series is when Leia mans the guns of the Millenium Falcon and says to herself, “Luke is right…I can feel the Force moving through me…guiding my hands in the terrible task of war!”  In fact, most of the critiques of the prequel trilogy, that the characters were thinly drawn or that the dialogue was stilted, could just as easily be leveled at Dark Empire I.

And yet, over the years Dark Empire has received a mostly positive reputation, and it’s often found on lists of best stories from the Star Wars EU.  Part of its reputation might come from the fact that, as the title suggests, it’s a rather dark story.  But it’s the kind of dark that confuses humorless cynicism with adult storytelling, the kind of “mature” narrative that most early teens are susceptible to.  Over the years a lot of those teenagers who first read Dark Empire have grown up, and if they ever revisit this series, I can’t imagine they would be anything other than disappointed.  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (3.5/5)

By 1991 the Star Wars series had been in a carbonite type deep freeze.  Return of the Jedi had come out eight years earlier, and in the interim Star Wars fans were tossed mere scraps, including two laughable made for television Ewok films.  If you wanted a decent Star Wars story between 1983 and 1991, then you pretty much had to start writing fan fiction.  Aside from the actual quality of Heir to the Empire, I think its reception, then and now, is clearly colored by the fact that when published in 1991 the novel served as a veritable oasis at a time when fans of Star Wars had been trudging through the desert.  That might seem like hyperbole, but not only has Heir to the Empire made it on just about everyone’s list of best stories from the Star Wars Extended Universe, but the entire trilogy was also voted onto the list of NPR’s 100 greatest sci-fi and fantasy novels.  (It beat out Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man!)  While I’m not sure Heir to the Empire qualifies as one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy stories of all time, I can understand why people hold the book in such high regard.  Zahn has a real talent for creating new characters who fit within the Star Wars galaxy while also writing old favorites in ways that make them believable simulacrums of our celluloid heroes.

But the story begins not with Luke, Han, and Leia; it begins with Grand Admiral Thrawn, a red eyed, blue skinned Chiss who, after the demise of Emperor Palpatine five years earlier at Endor, has taken over the remaining imperial forces in the outer rim.  In a retcon to the films, the Empire is represented as racist (speciesist?), preferring to promote only humans into the ranks of the upper echelon.  On the one hand, considering that the work of Leni Riefenstahl and the Third Reich form the visual template for the Empire, this makes a certain amount of sense.  But considering the vast diversity of species within the Star Wars Universe, and considering the films never hinted at this policy, it seems somewhat counterproductive.  Still, the fact that Thrawn achieved the Empire’s highest command despite this policy of discrimination tells us a little about his skill as a leader and tactician.

Questionable retconing aside, Thrawn is a wonderful villain for our heroes.  Where Vader was quick to anger and would execute underlings at a steady clip, Thrawn is reserved, mindful.  When not occupying the bridge of his Star Destroyer, he’s often in his quarters studying hologram images of art created by different species from a myriad of different worlds.  Of course, he’s doing this in order to better understand the culture of these people so that he can get inside their heads and understand how to defeat them.  In the tradition of the erudite villain, like Hannibal Lecter, Thrawn can appreciate both tactics and aesthetics.  Part of Thrawn’s scheme to reassert the Empire as the central power in the galaxy involves recruiting Joruus C’baoth, an insane cloned Jedi master.  In order to convince C’baoth to aid him, Thrawn collects a bunch of small lizard-like creatures, the ysalamirir, which have the power to dampen a Jedi’s use of the force.  He also promises C’baoth that he will deliver Luke, Leia, and the twins Leia is currently pregnant with.

Of course, all these machinations are unknown to Luke Skywalker and the now married Leia and Han Solo.  They’re busy attempting to rebuild the New Republic, which also appears to be teetering on the brink thanks to political infighting and a lack of resources.  Han Solo is tasked with recruiting smugglers into legitimate shipping operations for the new government, but because it’s not clear how long the New Republic will last, many of these illegal operators are wary of taking any sides so long as the Empire is still a power player.  Zahn does a wonderful job of capturing the voice of not only the three main characters but also of secondary characters like Lando Calrissian and C3PO.  Even Admiral Akbar and Wedge Antilles make appearances.  But he’s especially great at capturing Han’s sardonic charms, something that’s not easy to mimic. 

The book is well plotted and has the easy momentum of a snowspeeder on Hoth.  As the protagonists attempt to unravel the mystery of who is attempting to kidnap Luke and Leia, Thrawn is drawing them and the fledgling Republic into further traps.  I don’t want to give away too much plot, but Thrawn’s plans come to a head on Mykyr, the planet where he collected the ysalimiri and home to the criminal operations of smuggler Talon Karrde.  Karrde is another great creation by Zahn.  As a smuggler with a code—he appears to have a sense of duty towards anyone he views as his guests—he fits nicely within the Star Wars galaxy.  Likewise, Karrde’s mysterious underling, Mara Jade, appears to hold a burning grudge against Luke Skywalker for reasons that even Karrde is unaware of. 

Perhaps the only drawback during this section of the novel is that because of the ysalimiri, Luke is without the powers of the Force.  I can only imagine the disappointment of fans who waited eight years since Return of the Jedi in order to read about Luke swashbuckling across worlds as a full fledged Jedi Knight, only to have the author take away those powers.  The ysalimiri are a somewhat dubious plot device to begin with (they’re strangely reminiscent of the controversial midichlorians from the prequel films), but using them as Luke’s kryptonite somewhat deflates the novel’s action and adventure. 

There are a few other aspects of the book that are creakily constructed.  Despite C’baoth being positioned early in the novel as integral to Thrawn’s schemes, he does very little throughout the course of the story.  Leia does not get much attention, and she’s essentially shuffled off to the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk where she’s forgotten for a long stretch (a chapter following Leia even ends on a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until much later in the story).  There’s a little more retconning here and there that, as someone who’s protective of the original trilogy, I could have done without.  For instance, the novel suggests that Emperor Palpatine used the Force in order to increase the performance of his men during the battle of Endor.  (Was he also doing this while simultaneously attempting to turn Luke to the darkside?)  The prose is mostly serviceable, and while this makes for easy, fast-paced reading, it would have been interesting to see how an author might try to remake George Lucas’s visual palette into language.

Still, for those hungering for Star Wars adventures beyond the films, Heir to the Empire may very well be the perfect place to start.  Zahn does more than give us adventures with our favorite characters in a galaxy far, far away; he adds invaluable characters, places and concepts to this world.  Without a doubt, Heir to the Empire shows what creative minds can further conjure beyond the original trilogy. 


I would like to touch upon one issue that I remember having with some of the Expanded Universe novels when I was a kid and that reading Heir to the Empire really reminded me of.  In the sticky concoction of influences that make up Star Wars, the novels always include far too much science fiction.  In an article about Heir to the Empire, Ryan Britt argues that the novel brought science fiction into Star Wars.  He argues that the ysalimiri demystify the Force and that even though the Clone Wars were mentioned in the original trilogy, making C’baoth a clone feels more like hard sci-fi.  I don’t agree with all of Britt’s examples, but he has a point, especially about the ysalimiri. 

Zahn’s non-Star Wars work is in the genre of science fiction, and it shows in the novel.  There’s a lot of technobabble that belongs more in a hard sci-fi world like Star Trek than in Star Wars.  Kevin J. Anderson, the other major author of the Star Wars EU novels, also writes primarily in the genre of science fiction.  The problem is that Star Wars is only partly a world of science fiction.  I remember as kid starting to realize that Star Wars and Star Trek had very little in common with one another beyond similar titles.  This made me happy since I never had to choose between these two distinct series. 

While Star Wars has some elements of science fiction, mostly culled from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the old Flash Gordon serials, the space setting is used simultaneously as a means of escapism and a mythical projection outward.  In other words, this unreal setting serves as a means for us to forget our surroundings and delve into another world for a few hours and a new version of mythology’s tendency to project us backwards and outwards.  Myths never take place at the time they are being told.  They always take place in the past in order to provide gravitas and to create a sense of continuity between the mundane now and the transcendent world of myths.  Using space as a setting for mythic storytelling has always been one of the genius aspect of George Lucas’s creation.

Star Wars is a collage of so many diverse influences, from David Lean’s epics to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, that it would be shame to overemphasize its sci-fi roots.  In fact, I would argue that Star Wars has more in common with fantasy than science fiction.  That’s not to say that science fiction authors shouldn’t work on Star Wars properties.  But I do hope that after this latest reboot of the Star Wars EU, Lucasfilm will decide to bring in a broader set of creative minds to work on the Star Wars novels and comic books.  It’s a big galaxy; let’s not make it smaller.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Forty Years Later

How to Build a Universe thatDoesn’t Fall Apart Forty Years Later; Or, My Trip through the Star Wars Expanded Universe

 With the recent announcement of a third trilogy in the Star Wars saga, fans of George Lucas’s brainchild have, naturally, found themselves cycling through a complicated series of emotions, but mostly those of fear, anger, and other states of being that could lead one to the dark side.  I too have felt some trepidation about three more film entries into the world of warrior space monks, light swords, and intergalactic war.  Some of these concerns have already been plastered across the internet, so I won’t rehash them here.  (I will say that one of the things that bothers me about Abrams is that he seems like such an obvious studio choice that you could almost hear a studio exec telling his friend over a cell phone at brunch, “You know that guy who redid those other star movies?  Well, why don’t we just get him on board our star movies?”) 

After this initial rush of dread, I started to think about the possibilities inherent in the world of Star Wars.  George Lucas crafted a unique and inspiring box of toys that have allowed plenty of creative minds to conjure some imaginative continuations of his world.  Like plenty of geeky children growing up in the 90s, I became interested in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) that was having something of a renaissance in the lead up to the new prequels.  I’ve decided that for my blog, I should revisit some of the ancillary works derived from the Star Wars Universe but not directly from George Lucas himself.

Here, I should probably provide you with a brief overview of my take on the prequels.  The short version is that the first two are incompetently made while the third one is mostly an enjoyable film that only falls flat towards the end because it’s tasked with doing the heavy lifting that the first two films failed to accomplish.  But others have gone over what’s wrong with the prequels (at length).  What’s rarely mentioned, however, is that the prequels are filled with great concepts that are poorly executed.  I quite like the idea that we follow Anakin from his days as an innocent child to his turn to the dark side, even if the lines poor Jake Lloyd had to deliver would have been impossible for even the most accomplished actor.  I love stories about romantic relationships stifled by monastic orders, like the famous the letters between Abelard and Heloise or the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  But there is absolutely no chemistry between Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman.  Still, when the characters kept their traps shut, the audience was often treated to impeccable displays of action choreography, special effects and spectacle.  For whatever reason, directors half George Lucas’s age are mostly incapable of staging action nearly as well as him, and this holds true even for the much maligned prequels.

But there is one crucial aspect of the original trilogy that holds true for the prequels as well: they are both immaculate examples of world building.  In recent years, when I watch any one of the six main Star Wars films, I’m reminded of Michael Chabon’s brilliant essay, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes.”  Reflecting on some fictions’ ability to invite others to join in the process of creation, Chabon writes:

Readers of Tolkien often recall the strange narrative impulse engendered by those marginal regions named and labeled on the books’ endpaper maps, yet never visited or even referred to by the characters in The Lord of the Rings.  All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure.  Through a combination of trompe l’oeil allusions, of imaginative persistence of vision, it creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and Web sites. (54)

Well, there are obviously no maps in the Star Wars films on par with the now iconic one that opens up each book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Lucas’s galaxy still engenders flights of imaginative fancy through the alternating elements of that which is cloaked and that which is elaborated. 

First, the elaborate detail of the Star Wars films is awe inducing, which has only become truer as special effects have developed over the decades.  But let us just take the Mos Eisley Cantina scene as an example.  That scene is striking for a variety of reasons, not the least among them is the fact that we are introduced to a dozen or so species built out of the imagination of an extremely talented makeup and special effects crew.  You can imagine how overwhelming that scene must have been to audiences in 1977, especially considering they were probably used to the elongated ear and funny eyebrow aliens on shows like Star Trek.  This brings me to the fact that the origin and background of these creatures are completely cloaked, allowing the viewer’s imagination to conjure a million unique backstories.  Lucas provides us with the raw materials as well as the open space necessary to build a world in our own fecund imaginations.  The incredible detail with which Lucas painted his galaxy has lead many people to wonder what other stories are out there, what other tales there are to tell, while the mystery of what’s hidden gives us space to craft these narratives in our own head. 

I still remember the first inkling I had that in Star Wars, unlike some other imaginary worlds, there is an entire universe of stories that appear to be happening even as we are following the three main characters.  It was when I realized that the fighter pilot, Wedge Antilles, appears in all three films, first helping destroy the Death Star, then fighting AT-ATs on Hoth, and, finally, destroying the second Death Star.  As a kid it blew my mind that a single actor would reprise his role for what amounted to maybe five minutes of screen time over the course of three films.  I became quickly enamored with Wedge because he seemed to be at the center of all these major, galaxy changing events, but he was just an everyman.  He wasn’t royalty, he didn’t win the heart of the princess, and he wasn’t secretly the chosen hero.  He was just a damn good pilot fighting for a cause he believed in.  Realizing that Wedge appeared in all three films made me understand that this galaxy extended far beyond a handful of characters.  Wedge was another means for Lucas to develop a sense of simultaneity in his world. 

By carefully crafting these blank spaces, Lucas has invited plenty of artists to collaborate in creating this universe, which they did in droves starting in the early 90s.  At the time, I read a number of EU novels and comic books, and I’ve played plenty of Star Wars video games in my day.  (I especially liked Michael A. Stackpole’s Star Wars: X-Wing series, which, naturally, followed the exploits of Wedge).  But it’s been many years, and I cannot be certain that the works I enjoyed were any good and the ones I hated were actually bad.  Besides, the Star Wars EU was quite the cottage industry back in the day, and there are plenty of well regarded or infamous works that I’ve never touched.  Now that Disney, the new owners of the Star Wars universe, have effectively put a lid on the EU, it seems like now is as good a time as any to see what I missed out on during my early days reading Star Wars novels and comic books before this portion of the Star Wars Universe is reimagined by Disney.  (Fans appear to be upset about the fact that Disney has stated unequivocally that the EU isnon-canon, but since they never really were canonical, I don’t fully understand what the big deal is).  My plan is to drop some reviews here and there over the course of the next year as we lead up to the release date of Episode VII.  I just hope I don’t become completely consumed by 90s nostalgia in the process.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Niketown by Vern

Niketown by Vern (5/5)

The pseudonymously named Vern, author of Niketown, is perhaps best known for his book Seagalogy, an extensive analysis of the filmography of Stephen Seagal.  It’s an impressive work of popular film criticism that offers up a robust taxonomy of the themes and reoccurring motifs in the work of Stephen Segal.  In Niketown, Vern’s first novel, he uses his extensive knowledge of narrative tropes in order to both fulfill audience expectations and to continually challenge them.  Although it’s a relatively slim novel, Niketown is brimming with ideas, and it’s an absolute joy to see an author take his readers into new and unexpected places by pushing at the limits of genre fiction.

Niketown follows ex-con Carter Chase as he is recently released from prison for a botched robbery of the Nike superstore known as Niketown.  Chase has to deal with an onslaught of problems as he enters the world outside of his jail cell.  Both of his parents have passed away—his father years ago from medical problems and his mother shortly before his release due to an unexpected accident.  He also has to decide whether or not he wants to walk away from the Niketown job completely or to turn around and get revenge on his partners who betrayed him.  And if this weren’t enough, Chase discovers that his brother has mysteriously gone missing. 

Perhaps the novel’s cleverest conceit is how it deals with Chase’s attempts to reenter “polite society” after being locked up.  Because he has spent years in prison, Chase’s release acts a sort of time warp.  He’s not used to the way in which people seem wholly consumed by their cell phones or the changing fashion trends or the idea that people actually refer to themselves as “foodies.”  What’s even worse, the world he finds himself in has been taken over by advertising.  The Pepsi Company has even taken out an advertisement on the grave of Chase’s mother.  Chase appears to have a better sense of decorum and values than just about everyone he encounters.

As a character, Chase is a wonderful creation.  He’s someone who has messed up in life.  Before being shipped off to jail, he spent his time occasionally pulling off haphazard robberies, but he knew what he was doing was wrong right up until he was locked up for stealing from Niketown.  (When taking on the Niketown job, Chase comforts himself with the knowledge that at least he’s stealing from a faceless corporation and not some mom and pop joint.)  He’s someone who wishes to atone, but at the same time he looks at the world around him and finds that there’s nothing sacred anymore.  The old rules of what’s acceptable in society have shifted over time, and while Chase’s shock at where we as a culture have arrived may in part be a result of his time tucked away in jail, much of it has to do with an unyielding sense of right and wrong, even if he isn’t always capable of following his own moral compass.  In one particular scene that stands out, Chase goes online to check in on old friends and acquaintances from high school, and he finds himself both jealous and disgusted by the bland, yuppie lives they’ve created for themselves.  Chase is a man fighting against time, both on a personal and a larger cultural level.

Vern sets up the novel as both a mystery and a story of revenge, and while these elements form the spine of the narrative, Vern is confident enough as a writer to take us down several detours along the way.  In an interview, Vern says his fiction was inspired by Richard Stark’s Parker novels, George V. Higgins’s Friends of Eddie Coyle and the writings of Elmore Leonard.  You can definitely see the influence of these authors on Vern’s writing style.  One of my favorite moments in the book, the actual set up and execution of the Niketown robbery, reminds me of Leonard’s cast of crooks who aren’t stupid, exactly, but they are just a little dumb.  But to Vern’s credit, he’s never fully beholden to these authors.  He has fashioned a world that is familiar and yet still one step removed from ours, and, likewise, he is working in genres that have certain expectations attached to them, but he never feels obliged to fulfill those expectations.  Vern has taken the crime fiction story and infused it with satire and pathos in equal measure, which is quite an accomplishment for a first novel. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Future of the Left - How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

Future of the LeftHow to Stop Your Brain in an Accident (5/5)

These days it’s easy to be pissed off.  Six years after the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression, Wall Street continues its game of risky bets while the rest of us are shouldering a tepid recovery; when it’s not trying to replace school teachers with computers, Silicon Valley seems intent on producing time wasting apps and obnoxious looking techno-glasses, and they almost certainly will be the next financial bubble to burst; the U.S. government has been spying on its citizens and foreign leaders for years, and they somehow managed to convince the nation’s largest media conglomerates to defend the practice; while maintaining a go nowhere war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is also haphazardly bombing “terrorists” halfway around the world, making it that much easier to recruit more terrorists; and instead of getting upset at the state of things, the masses are too busy staring at their cell phones or watching vapid reality television shows.  I think we can all admit that the world is well and truly fucked. 

At least this seems to be the assessment of the sardonically named, Future of the Left.  Hailing from Wales, Future of the Left can spit vitriol like none other, and their latest album, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, is no exception.  Over the years, lead singer Andrew Falkous has mastered the angry rant.  You may or may not know what’s making him irritable, but you can be certain he is truly, righteously enraged and, from the sounds of it, probably for good reason.  This kind of indignant anger can be difficult to maintain for the long haul, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise that How to Stop Your Brain, the band’s fourth full length, somehow manages to be the band’s best album yet.  The crew in Future of the Left has crafted a series of bone hard songs capable of tackling any target within sight.

The album starts off punchy with the stuttering “Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow,” an explosive diatribe from a naïve everyman living a world that has left him behind.  The song’s narrator repeatedly insists he’s “just a man of simple things” before describing his powerlessness.  In a line that deftly weaves between absurdity and commentary, Falkous sings, “Once I dreamt of owning my own home/and renting six bedrooms…but ambition encoded in an economy dominated/by forces so deep they confound themselves.”  Here, a typical middle class man expecting to live out his boring bourgeois life is stymied by economic forces so convoluted even the supposed geniuses on Wall Street couldn’t keep the under control. 

The strength of Falkous’s diatribes lies in how you could imagine them delivered either by the homeless many down the street or by an ultra-righteous protester shouting through a bullhorn.  This is evident in what for my money is the album’s triptych centerpiece: “Singing of the Bonesaws,” “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine,” and “French Lessons.”  These are perhaps the three strongest back to back songs in Future of the Left’s career, and they’re a superb showcase of the diversity and dynamics of the album.  In “Bonesaws” Falkous affects a fake upper class English accent in order to narrate a twisting tale of reality television and existential epiphanies.  The song plays out as if the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel had decided to start a punk rock band.  The posh faux-accent serves as a mask for the depressing emptiness of popular culture, including a new reality television show where a man dressed as a bear who is angry about losing his pension chases down Kim Kardashian.  During the filming of the show the entire crew suddenly comes to the conclusion that “They have wasted the precious gift of life which has been/given to them by science!” and begin self-mutilating themselves.  There are too many fantastic lines in the song to recount here, but I’m a particular fan of this swipe at the BBC Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal: “Our survey says pedophiles run the BBC/But look at the alternatives!” 

“Ketamine” showcases Future of the Left’s ability to allow a song to build until they completely let loose in the last third of the running time.  Helpfully, it also matches a superlative song title with a killer song.  (My pet peeve is when an amazing song title is let down by the song it’s attached to).  The explosive ending to “Ketamine” fittingly leads into the relatively understated “French Lessons,” the one song that isn’t engulfed in fury.  While Falkous’s lyrics are just as surreal, the song, which ostensibly touches upon relationships and drinking for twelve hours straight, feels honest even as it’s obtuse. 

There are plenty of jabs at the music industry throughout the album, which makes sense considering Future of the Left avoided the usual recording rigmarole by fundraising online.  This populous support may have helped reinvigorate the band, because How to Stop Your Brain manages to best even their 2009 effort Travels with Myself and Another, which was such a fantastic album that at the time I was certain they would never beat it.  At this point, it’s probably best not to underestimate this band.

These days it’s easy to be pissed off.  But at least while Future of the Left are around you can take comfort in the knowledge that rage is not only cathartic, it’s the only conceivably sane reaction to the world we live in.