Monday, May 23, 2016

I, Jedi by Michael A Stackpole

I, Jedi by Michael A. Stackpole (2/5)

It’s not clear whether the title of Michael A. Stackpole’s Star Wars novel, I, Jedi, is an allusion to Isaac Asimov’s short story collection, I, Robot, or Robert Grave’s work of historical fiction, I, Claudius. What’s more, I’m not sure which allusion would be more pretentious on the part of Stackpole, since the novel doesn’t come close to the quality of either work.

As a preteen devouring Star Wars novels, I always liked Stackpole’s X-Wing books the best. I vaguely remember his novels as great page turners that made something new out of the Star Wars Universe. I liked that only George Lucas’s perpetual survivor, Wedge Antilles, made his way from screen to page as a major character in Stackpole’s novels. After reading I, Jedi, I’ve come to think that perhaps twelve year old me may not have had great tastes in books. Either that or I, Jedi is a massive step down from Stackpole’s X-Wing series.

I, Jedi follows Corran Horn, a Rogue Squadron pilot who also served as the de facto protagonist of the X-Wing series. Here Stackpole writes in the first person as Horn, which was the first time a character not from the films was given a first person point of view. In the earlier novels, we learned that Horn is Force sensitive, but at the start of I, Jedi he has undergone no formal training. After returning from a mission with Rogue Squadron, he learns that his wife Mirax has been captured by pirates while on an undercover mission. Instead of rushing out to save her, Horn decides that he must first join Luke Skywalker’s newly founded Jedi Academy to cultivate his nascent Force powers.

The novel is split into two halves. During the first half, Horn trains with Luke and other Force sensitives at the new Jedi Academy on Yavin 4, the planet where the Rebellion launched its attack on the Death Star in A New Hope. This inaugural class, however, is tormented by the risen spirit of Exar Kun, an evil Sith Lord whose ghost has apparently been waiting thousands of years for the right time to pounce. (This subplot made me wonder why we haven’t gotten a full on Star Wars ghost story yet. Get on it, people!)

As I read this portion of the novel, something seemed off. It was as if sections of the narrative had been carved out of the novel, like we were only getting part of the story. One of the Jedi trainees, Kyp Durron, is seduced to the darkside by Kun and steals a superweapon called the Sun Crusher or some such nonsense. But none if this is all that well developed. Even the final confrontation with the big bad, Kun, occurs off stage.

A little dip into the internet makes it clear that these events are covered in The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson. This section of the novel appears to require some familiarity with The Jedi Academy Trilogy in order to have any real impact on the reader. If anything, I, Jedi, is exhibit A for why Disney was right in wiping out the Expanded Universe. When a reader must be intimately familiar with the larger expanded web of Star Wars novels in order for the story to be satisfying, the author just hasn’t done his or her job. Sure, the idea of covering the same territory as another novel from a unique perspective has potential, but the execution is way off.

The second half of I, Jedi is more engaging. Horn goes undercover with the space pirates who have taken his wife and must infiltrate their ranks. It’s a well worn narrative, but it’s fun to see it applied to the world of Star Wars. The first half of the novel does deflate some of the story’s urgency. Why doesn’t Horn run out to rescue his wife the moment he finds that she’s missing? And it doesn’t seem like his time at the academy was all that well spent. Horn ultimately finds his Jedi training unsatisfying and gives Luke a kind of douchey speech about how he’s had tougher training before and he doesn’t really need the weak sauce that Luke is serving. It’s largely self-aggrandizing and makes Luke, who should be the galaxy’s preeminent expert in the Force, look like a fool.

In general, I found Horn to be an unlikeable character. There’s one aspect of the character that conspicuously pops up again and again: his goatee. The man is always thinking about his goatee. He’s stroking his goatee or dying his goatee or finding some way to insert his goatee into the story. The man is obsessed with his own facial hair. This does lead to one of my favorite lines in the book: “I laced my fingers together and pressed the index fingers against my moustache” (306). I don’t think I have ever read of a more seductive dance between digits and facial hair.

The obsession Stackpole has with Horn’s goatee seemed a bit odd. Sure, it might just date the novel to the 90s when this sort of outlandish facial hair was marginally more acceptable. But I had a feeling that Horn’s goatee signified something deeper. I googled Michael Stackpole and found his picture, and sure enough, there it was: a stupid-looking goatee clutching the author’s mouth and chin.

There’s a distinct Mary Sue quality to Horn, which is only aggravated by the novel’s first person point of view. For those who don’t know, a Mary Sue is a term for a character who is amazing at just about everything and is often the surrogate for the author. The most obvious example is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite feigning difficulties here and there, in this novel Horn is just the best. He defeats Luke Skywalker in a duel and then lectures the Jedi Master on what he’s not doing right at his academy. Later, he’s so irresistible that the female leader of the space pirates tries to seduce him. But, you know Horn. He’s a standup guy, and, besides, he’s married. Also, he has killer facial hair.  

After spending over five hundred pages with this guy, I couldn’t wait to get away. The novel also made me think that Disney made the right choice. When it comes to the Expanded Universe, maybe they were right after all to burn it to the ground and let something else grow in its place.

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