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.