“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ou“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ought to be no question what or whom governs the galaxy. It must be the Force, or perhaps those who use it. Yet Chuck Wendig, author of “Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt”, lets float some skepticism through his third-person narration. Critical to note though, the narrator’s quote above closely follows the cunning mindset of Sinjir, an ex-officer of the evil Galactic Empire.
Sinjir, who also appeared in the first Aftermath novel, teams with a small ensemble of good guys. Their struggle takes place directly following the events of “Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.” Sinjir and the gang hunt down enemies of the New Republic like so many Nazi war criminals on the run. And as the plot escalates, Sinjir feels as if he is contending with the very galaxy itself.
When I cracked open my copy of “Life Debt,” I gave myself a supplementary reading exercise (cuz I’m an English Major and reading for enjoyment just ain’t enough). My plan was to track references that illuminate what the galaxy means to Star Wars characters. As a space enthusiast and NASA geek, I often ruminate on what our real-life galaxy means to humanity. By comparison, what does the Star Wars galaxy mean to its heroes and villains? Like me, do they find the cosmos romantic?
Not especially. For Star Wars characters, space is largely just a means to an end. For Imperial officers scrambling to retain power, for rebels founding a New Republic, for exotic lifeforms whatever their persuasion, and certainly for droids slaving away, spacefaring holds all the charm of an Earth-bound freeway commute.
Star Wars characters seem disinclined to exhibit Carl Sagan sentimentality of the Pale Blue Dot kind. I’ll quash a possible exception right off. Think back to Luke Skywalker gazing longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” He isn’t marveling at the astronomical glory of the nearby stars. Rather, Luke desires to fly beyond them in a quest for human glory as an Academy cadet.
Getting back to “Life Debt,” Wendig’s characters do see metaphorical value in the galaxy. In addition to all the cosmic star stuff—planets, stars, and nebulae—the term galaxy refers to collective culture with its ships, governments, and warring factions. Star Wars characters are more than just occupants of the galaxy; they are the galaxy.
Sinjir provides a vivid example. Over the course of “Life Debt,” he and his teammates find themselves caught up in Han Solo’s quest to free Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world. Learning of yet another violent outbreak, Sinjir finds himself acutely depressed. But does he blame Imperial forces for his disillusionment? No. Guess who he blames.
“Disappointment that the galaxy confirmed for him its worst self.”
Sinjir’s disappointment overturns a sense of hope Wendig proffered earlier in the novel through a bounty hunter named Jas. She joined the New Republic because of its winning potential: “Even still, she tells herself that she’s here because right now, the New Republic is the winning side. They don’t have the whole galaxy pinned down and buttoned up all nice and neat yet, no, but the stars are drifting in that direction.”
Is the galaxy a utility or an antagonist? It seems to depend on who is speaking and how things are going for them. The galaxy contains, perhaps even determines, individual and collective fate. Characters like Sinjir and Jas fret over what the galaxy holds in store for them. When the galaxy shakes and falls into disarray, Star Wars characters take it oh so personally. How dare you, galaxy! For me, it called to mind the disenchantment with which folks today utter the slang phrase “Mericuh” instead of America.
I’ve been anxious for “Life Debt’s” release, so I set out to race ecstatically through it. However, I kept needing to put it down and take a break. To be clear, the novel’s sometimes tiring effect stemmed from something other than literary weakness. Note my 4-star rating. Rather, the novel hits quite close to home. Wendig’s galaxy, in principle and theme, is not far, far way. Especially in its Interludes—chapters that function as stand-alone short stories—“Life Debt” reflects reality. In the love, fear, anger, and violence of Wendig’s prose, I see types from our non-fictional world.
To the extent that “Life Debt” mirrors real life, it falls short of escapism. Perhaps this is why I found the novel less fun than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I enjoyed witnessing the deepening bond of characters like Sinjir and Jas as they followed in Han Solo’s footsteps. Like “Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Life Debt” showcases tightly woven ensemble action. And like that classic film, “Life Debt” contains plenty of swashbuckling fun and humorous banter. Just don’t expect pure popcorn fare. In a candid and often intense way, Wendig manages to keep this fantastical galaxy substantive....more
What is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given ShakeWhat is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given Shakespeare sonnet that harps on marriage. Again, keep most of the words. Change only the object of the poet’s affection. Science poetry, as I’ve encountered it recently, is like any other poetry. The only difference is the wellspring of metaphor.
Geoff Landis may be best known in literary circles as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Mars Crossing. In the scientific community he is a highly accomplished researcher at NASA. But along the way he has written poetry. Or, as he quips on his website, “OK, I admit it: I also sometimes commit acts of poetry…”
The published result is a wonderful short volume of verse titled Iron Angels. Similar to Landis’s career, this collection straddles science and sci-fi. Some of the early poems, like “Earthrise, Viewed from Meridiani, Sol 687”, invoke distinctly Sagan-esque motifs, like Earth as a pale blue dot. The poetry links life together, both human generations and alien life separated by lightyears of space. In the age of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, such cosmic effusing counts as proverbial. And if these were the only poems Iron Angels contained, it would be a heartfelt but tiresome collection.
Iron Angels clears the launch tower, as it were, with a clever and crisply written piece titled “Christmas (When We All Get Time Machines).” Hint, if such a thing ever happens it may prove most unfortunate for the holiday. The poem gave me a chuckle even as it took me aback and made me truly think about the consequences of cheating Time.
Within the book's trim 55 pages, there is at least one shape poem, a smattering of haiku, a bit of rhyming, but mostly free verse—accessible and engrossing. At least a couple of poems blur whatever boundary might exist between flash fiction and poetry. I did not love every piece, nor find them all masterful. Yet, everywhere the verse smacked of deliberateness, of orchestrated word choice that does with text what talented painters do with oil on canvas.
Many of the poems are thoroughly grounded in everyday human experience. It is probably outright wrong to call it all science poetry. Some of the verse, including a few amusing cat poems (at least as amusing as anything on YouTube), seems like it may have been written as a diversion after a long day at the lab. Some of it is wonderfully romantic. And some of it, like “Snapshots,” is wonderfully haunting:
“I wonder, sometimes, about those people in the picture / so like us, and yet so strange. / If they were not trapped in the slippery squares of paper…”
I read contemporary poetry with suspicion. Is it truly poetry? Or is it just lazy prose slapped on the page with forced enjambments to appear poetic? Iron Angels is poetry. Moreover, Landis’s collection avoids the trap of being esoteric, intelligible only to scientists. These angels, steeped both in science and humanity, are worth invoking … and reading for enjoyment....more
Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges theirPaul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges their disparate storytelling styles. In this novel, the stately bureaucratic world of Episode III provides a framework which is quickly torn asunder--quite entertainingly--by the Wild West outer rim of Episode IV. This book comes as close to being the Star Wars novel I’ve hoped for since the now long ago and far away Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.
In Lords of the Sith, we encounter an early attempt at a rebellion against the Empire. We follow a younger, more acrobatic Darth Vader. He flanks a quite nimble Emperor Palpatine eager to take his eerie needling personality on the road. They head for Ryloth, a planet key to Galactic Trade...no, no, don’t tune me out. This novel is no trudging prequel mired in trade negotiations. We get just enough political background to justify Vader and the Emperor taking a Star Destroyer to Ryloth to quell insurrection. Almost immediately, battle breaks out and does not stop until the novel ends.
As for the nascent rebel band scheming on Ryloth, I did not find any of them especially memorable. Isval, a hot-blooded second in command is easily the most interesting. She reminds me of a younger, impetuous Luke Skywalker, though without being a brat. The cast is not especially large, which serves the novel well. We get to know a few people, spend appropriate amounts of time witnessing their internal monologues, before embarking on the next action sequence.
As stories go, Lords of the Sith owes more to Episodes IV through VI than the prequels. It’s a relatively lean ensemble piece. There is even a bit of romance, similar to what we see between Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. Isval and the rebel leader Cham struggle to keep their feverish attraction at bay while chasing Vader and the Emperor to the surface of Ryloth. Most of this novel sees Vader and Palpatine on the run, but eager to make tactical stands and show off their Sith abilities. Making them, and their loyal soldiers, the novel’s prey, creates occasional odd moments of worrying about their safety.
This is an exciting novel. It does not obsess with tying every tiny string of subplot together from the movies it fits between. The plot is simple, the characters interesting if conventional. Perhaps its greatest weakness, in my mind at least, is its relative lack of humor or charm. Everyone is very serious and broodingly aware of their place in the galaxy. The novel is exciting, but it lacks the character-driven charm of Episodes IV and V. Yet, this is something I feel all Star Wars novels I’ve read lack. Capturing that charm may be impossible, given it was created by an ensemble of talent, not solely by George Lucas. So I suppose the next best thing is a really good chase across the deep of space to an exotic world tailor-made for adventure. Lords of the Sith is precisely that. ...more
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilSeeking a Particular Charm
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.
The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)
Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.
A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward
Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!
The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.
In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.
These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.
Wendig the Tinkerer
If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.
Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.
As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”
Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.
The Fate of Canons
At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”
Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.
As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most....more
There is a moment in The Martian when NASA, almost out of options, goes to China and asks to borrow a rocket. Considering the non-fictional United StaThere is a moment in The Martian when NASA, almost out of options, goes to China and asks to borrow a rocket. Considering the non-fictional United States currently has no human-rated rocket and has been buying seats on Russian rockets for years, there is nothing farfetched about this premise. But I digress. NASA asks China to borrow a rocket they have built for a flagship science mission. As China gives its answer, their representative conveys--quite reprovingly--how the U.S. is asking to take a rocket that would have been the scientific pride of a nation and relegate it to emergency taxi. The takeaway? In order to salvage a human mission, science takes a hit.
This is a real debate ongoing in space exploration. Astronomically expensive human spaceflight, mostly just an engineering feat with political motivations, crowds out cheaper and more scientifically valuable missions. Is it worth it?
In The Martian, the answer is clearly yes. A human life is at stake--an astronaut stranded on Mars after a violent sandstorm. Put the science on hold and preserve life. Notwithstanding, it means a lot to me that author Andy Weir reserves a page of his engineering thriller to wax poignant and philosophical about larger issues of science versus politics. It elevates this novel above the level of techy procedural and provides some thematic nourishment.
Though I am a dedicated space enthusiast, I had not even put this book on my to-read list. I let it slip by like most sci-fi, especially Mars stories, which tend toward the dismal. Only when the book club I attend made it this month’s selection did I run to the bookstore and buy a copy. Our book club has a good mix of age and gender, married and single. They uniformly enjoyed this book. The intriguing problem solving that drives the plot, the likability of the protagonist, the Apollo 13 style suspense, all made for a satisfied book club. If it had been a more pretentious, dystopian sci-fi novel, even a classic, I’m not sure the response would have been so favorable.
Kudos to Mr. Weir, who has provided a wonderfully entertaining novel. We call this novel sci-fi. Yet I would argue it is more appropriate to call it engineering fiction, or eng-fi. This is not a novel of scientific discovery. It is a story about applying established knowledge. The Martian proceeds from problem to solution to subsequent problem to next solution. It has a level of techno-speak comparable to the show MythBusters. Some of the finer scientific points may go over the heads of readers like me, but the context remains clear and accessible. Save the Martian! Good read. I highly recommend it. ...more
This is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author ChrisThis is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author Chris Taylor has done a great deal of homework, reaching out to key players, including within the fan community. Still, perhaps as a side effect of the comprehensive nature, the delivery feels either overwhelming or impersonal. Lots of name dropping for instance. I did not have much of an emotional reaction to the material. Was I hoping for blissful nostalgia?
In one of the keenest insights, Taylor discusses how true fans tend to hate on Star Wars the hardest. We've seen the movies so many times and no one can nitpick like we can. Taylor's book makes perhaps its greatest contribution by weaving together the various galaxies of content in the Star Wars universe. How do the novels relate to the movies to the comics to the fan clubs and so on.
One thing I will criticize is the editing. I don't normally harp on punctuation. Typos happen, especially in long form writing. But the number and frequency of typos was noticeable and distracting at times in this hardcover edition, including I am pretty sure some lines or deeds attributed to the wrong characters. Ultimately forgivable. Absolutely NOT a reason to avoid reading the book. But, for example, the famous sound effect heard in multiple films is the "Wilhelm scream" not "screen." Meh. Are you a Star Wars fan? Check this book out....more
When I apprenticed at a professional theatre company, I had the chance to observe script development. I watched other writers take their scripts throuWhen I apprenticed at a professional theatre company, I had the chance to observe script development. I watched other writers take their scripts through succeeding drafts. One character might disappear. Other characters might be combined. Lines spoken by one person in an earlier draft might be spoken by someone else in the next. It was sometimes frustrating when the writer changed something you liked, but the creative process remained intriguing.
The Star Wars is based on a rough draft screenplay by George Lucas which later evolved into Star Wars. I snatched a copy off a display of newly acquired graphic novels at my public library. This resulted in a highly enjoyable Saturday impulse read. Like my experiences with play development, I was struck by this comic book’s collection of familiar characters, settings, and dialogue—familiar, but often quite different.
I am giving this graphic novel a 3-star review based on story quality, but as a fan experience it was easily a 4-star excursion. Keeping in mind this is an adaptation of a screenplay, not a strict rendering presumably, I am not sure at whom my criticism is best directed. The story seems choppy, often jargon-laden for jargon’s sake. Yet the drama remains well-focused around the fate of Princess Leia. Some panels come with little or no context, feeling aggressively abrupt. Perhaps the roughness of Lucas’s draft was aggravated by the intentionally blocky nature of comic book storytelling?
Parts of the story feel underdeveloped or poorly supported--in particular, the love story between Annikin and Leia, who in this version are not related…hopefully (early draft indeed). Part of what made the romance element of Star Wars the movie work is it played mostly on swashbuckling sexual tension and schoolboy crush. We didn’t see full-on romance in the first outing. Things were allowed to simmer with entertaining results. Here the characters go from telltale antagonism to Romeo and Juliet melodrama in the blink of an eye. Not plausible, and exacerbated by Lucas’s rough attempts at lyrical dialogue (which we know from the film prequels can make it into a final draft).
Still, driven by the tension of a looming Death Star, The Star Wars makes for high energy space opera. It feels more violent and less funny than the finished cinematic product. Yet, as the fantastic cover art by Nick Runge portrays, this earlier draft contains the richness of Lucas’s vision, even if it lacks the charm infused by the movie’s cast and designers. I recommend The Star Wars for fellow fans of that galaxy far, far away....more
There are some knee-slapping couplets in Ian Doescher's Shakespearean adaptation of Star Wars: Episode Four. I want so much to quote a few here, but qThere are some knee-slapping couplets in Ian Doescher's Shakespearean adaptation of Star Wars: Episode Four. I want so much to quote a few here, but quoting the best of them feels like a literary spoiler. This is no mere parody. Doescher turns A New Hope into a stageable play of the Elizabethan kind. I read it to myself, but this book cries out to be done as a table reading among friends.
It should come as no surprise that the melodramatic robot C-3PO translates easily and colorfully into the world of the Bard. More amusing is how well Han Solo's brusque dialogue adapts to the same poetic tone. But then, duh! Han is quite like Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. Luke and Leia remain obnoxious and precocious. R2-D2 becomes a wonderful Shakespearean clown.
My chief gripe would be Doescher's indulgent use of asides. Perhaps it's my already knowing the subtext of Star Wars that makes this frequent actor-to-audience exposition seem unnecessary. Still I feel it is fair to say the author overuses this device. On the flip side, the author gives livelier voice to working class Storm Troopers. He also provides the principle characters with thoughtful, and original, soliloquies. Not all of it is brilliant, but it's certainly richer than the fanatically lean dialogue of cinema.
This fun adaptation is truly designed, and likely most enjoyable, for people who are equally fans of both Star Wars and Shakespeare. That may seem obvious, but a person who is only well-versed in Star Wars will miss any number of references to multiple Bard plays. Sure, there are obvious references to Hamlet, but many more exist. I'm sure I missed my share.
Without slowing up the plot, this play offers its share of commentary on the merits and weaknesses of Lucas's space opera. This includes obligatory foreshadowing of Luke and Leia's siblinghood and a nod to the Greedo-Han shooting controversy. Like the conspiring senators in Julius Caesar, the characters in this adaptation are fully aware they are playing out a classic tale.
... Oh yeah, and I totally noticed how the author shortened the serial number of the trash compactor by one digit to fit the iambic pentameter. *pats his nerdy self on the back*
Suffice it to say this book is no slapdash work of fan fiction. My hardcover edition came as a Christmas gift. Yet, had I bought it myself at list price, I would not have felt ripped off. Furthermore, if Doescher tries his hand at another episode, I'll buy a copy. This is the most satisfied I have been with a bookish Star Wars offering since Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy....more
This year, I needed a good read for the Christmas holiday—something entertaining, accessible, and not requiring much effort; something I could read wiThis year, I needed a good read for the Christmas holiday—something entertaining, accessible, and not requiring much effort; something I could read with lots of distractions occurring around me. Jurassic Park proved to be a great book to digest while simultaneously participating in a bustling extended-family Christmas.
As a bonus to Jurassic Park’s considerable entertainment value—what’s not entertaining about a big island where dinosaurs stalk an ensemble of stock characters you either love or love to hate?—it also proves a thoughtful read. Indeed, thanks to preaching author Michael Crichton does at the outset, and copious preaching he does later through the prophetic mathematician Ian Malcolm, this book is vigorously thoughtful. It strikes a cautionary note on the risks inherent in scientific research and development. And in convincing fashion, Crichton shows how the underbelly of science is all the more troublesome thanks to capitalism and profit seeking. Plus there is no end to the big scary dinosaurs chasing people around.
If the owners of Jurassic Park were as effective at wrangling dinosaurs as Crichton is at overseeing character and theme development, this would be one boring novel. I was especially impressed with Crichton’s ability to call back motifs established earlier in the story. For example, he explores the notion that the young, human or other, have keener senses than adults. The effect is that children are catalytic elements in culture. They get things moving, they incite trends, and their behavior provides mandates for adults otherwise preoccupied with maintaining the status quo. Crichton employs this notion early on with the human children, and later comes back to it in a surprisingly touching way with the dinosaurs.
I said Crichton uses stock characters, which is not to say his characters are static. Of particular note, it is interesting to watch the degeneration of park mastermind John Hammond, specifically in his obsessive attitude toward children. A similar metamorphosis of attitude occurs as the dinosaurs become increasingly threatening. The humans begin to see the animals as ugly. Initial wonder degrades into bitterness and hatred. Crichton provides engrossing nuance like this without slowing down the story. Only in Ian Malcolm’s increasingly charismatic speechifying about chaos theory does Crichton’s storytelling begin to feel heavy-handed.
It has been many years since I visited the techno-thriller genre. Jurassic Park was a fantastic journey back into the realms of science gone awry and technology gone bad. As I said at the outset, it was a great read during the always frenzied holidays. Much of my reading was done with nieces and nephews scurrying past or during sporadic breaks from family activities. Crichton’s well-woven yarn was easy to jump in and out of without becoming superficial. Highly recommended!...more
1. In Cloud Atlas, the character Robert Frobisher refers to an incomplete book he is reading as a half-finished love affair. This notion is one in a f1. In Cloud Atlas, the character Robert Frobisher refers to an incomplete book he is reading as a half-finished love affair. This notion is one in a flood of fantastic insights in the novel. However, my love-affair began with the recent film adaptation. To fall in love with Cloud Atlas is to fall in love with a half-dozen storylines separated by decades and centuries. It is to find kinship among an ensemble of characters living in distinct cultures and places. As Frobisher says in the film: “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”
2. Unlike some, I did not find Cloud Atlas inaccessible, either on film or in print. What is cryptic about a sextet of storylines exploring the same themes: love, loss, captivity, and the quest for liberation from tyrants? As one storyline examines, what were the personal costs for past societies deeming slavery not only acceptable, but divinely sanctioned? How might analogous struggles play out today, or centuries from now? Author David Mitchell establishes explicit links between these stories, but avoids the trap of conveniently spelling everything out. It is a needy audience that requires everything to be tied off and explained. The rewards of Cloud Atlas come from realizing the tales’ unifying themes.
3. As the novel progresses, the independent storylines harmonize. A 19th century slave and a futuristic clone servant face similar perils and outright abuse, recognizing they are pawns of the rich and powerful. Other characters face analogous quandaries in their love lives and professions. Yielding sometimes happiness, sometimes tragedy, they harness philosophy and mythology while making desperate forays into intimacy. Time and again, our oh-so-human struggles are repeated and validated in bittersweet fashion. By halfway through the novel, the effect is choral.
4. We industrialized folk are not so different than those who came before. Style and slang evolve dramatically; however, the themes of humanity change little. Even as the impatient, 21st century reader in me craved stunning plot twists and clearly-defined action, my deeper self found inspiration by meandering through the appropriately convoluted chain of events. Within the multigenerational turmoil, the longings of various characters braided together and revealed their sublime universality.
5. Any of us could be characters in Cloud Atlas. For example, I may not be literally enslaved. But I live in a society where billions of dollars are wielded by a few to dictate the course of our entire culture. Any given casino owner, not especially more intelligent or ethical than me, has a far stronger say in the course of society. I declare the myth to be any belief that he sails at the top, and I float in the ignominious middle, because of some divine decree. The disparity of our stations ought naught be reduced to a single in-vogue ideology. As great storytellers know, the truth is murkier.
6. Reading the book helped me settle on a favorite character: troubled composer Robert Frobisher—a quintessential struggling artist driven on by golden opportunity, dubious choices, and prevailing circumstances. Of course, there were at least five other characters who could just as easily have become my favorite. Their stories are every bit as relevant. As Cloud Atlas depicts, there is a kinship among humans that persists across time and throughout generations. One can get lost in the nuts and bolts of this grand idea. And the novel or movie that does it justice is necessarily complex. Still, as Frobisher comes to realize in plotting his course to fulfillment: “If one will just be still, shut up, and listen—lo, behold, the world’ll sift through one’s ideas for one…” ...more
When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fWhen I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.
Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.
Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.
Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.
Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.
Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.
Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way. ...more
Disclaimer: Part of my difficulty getting into this novel was a bias toward the chapters set in space. That is an area of great interest for me; howevDisclaimer: Part of my difficulty getting into this novel was a bias toward the chapters set in space. That is an area of great interest for me; however, I think author Lydia Netzer does a good job of thematically linking the sci-fi subplot to the main earthbound storyline. Robotic colonization of the Moon notwithstanding, this book is ultimately about exploring a woman’s haunted soul.
Shine Shine Shine is something of an interdisciplinary novel, which is what drew me to it (via the moon mission element). At times this multi-faceted approach enriches the story, at other times it causes the plot to lag and wander. Regardless, there are some great lines. From Chapter 5, here is one that masterfully sums up the protagonist’s journey: “Sunny sat like a rip in one of the landscape paintings on the wall, a little hub of disbelief in the center of a perfectly good hallucination.”
Netzer mines her share of prose gems by infusing housewife fretting with galactic conceit. Here is great example from Chapter 19: “But the wig sat on her head, doing its job, keeping the roof up, keeping the stars up, keeping the planets aligned.”
Still there are times when Shine Shine Shine feels stylistically overindulgent. There is something excessively rehearsed about the prose, like a magician waving a coin one too many times in front of your face before making it disappear already. I sometimes grow tired of intentional use of fragments, of ritual choppiness, of trending stream-of-consciousness so you can score big with otherwise pedestrian cadences. It’s almost as if the novel wants to be a prose poem.
Netzer plays incessantly with chronology as well and throws in a major spoiler or two in case you were thinking of losing interest. Would the novel seem as compelling if it ever took a chance on being straightforward? I don’t know. In any case it is a good novel, at times incredibly good.
As the portrait of a troubled woman and the planet-sized forces pulling at her family, Shine Shine Shine is a worthy piece of fiction. The characters are interesting and believable. The plot is an assortment of conventional developments artfully arranged to amplify effect. For me, the book’s greatest attribute is exploring real-life dynamics against the backdrop of a post-Einstein universe. Netzer displays a keen understanding of how physics and math can generate existential crises every bit as tormenting as the age-old question, “Why does God allow suffering?” ...more
Perhaps my favorite scene in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the one where Palpatine entices Anakin toward the dark side by recounting tPerhaps my favorite scene in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the one where Palpatine entices Anakin toward the dark side by recounting the story of Darth Plagueis—a Sith Lord who manipulates the Force in an effort to become immortal. I love the scene in part because it focuses on personal relationships as opposed to bureaucratic procedure. It also emanates with the most spiritual strains of Jedi and Sith lore. So when I saw a new Star Wars novel titled Darth Plagueis, I snatched it eagerly from my library’s New Release shelf.
Though there is plenty to compliment in veteran Star Wars author James Luceno’s novel, I came away deeply disappointed. This book is not what I expected, and frankly, this book is not what publisher Del Rey bills it as on the dust jacket. Darth Plagueis’s Frankensteinian excursions into the Force do not drive this story. After an engrossing opening, which ties off Darth Plagueis’s relationship to his master, the novel quickly sinks into the same sludgy bureaucratic opera that mired the plot of Episode One: The Phantom Menace. The bulk of this yarn plays about as mystically as a cop procedural. Law and Order: Sith Unit would have been a more honest title.
It could be argued that Darth Plagueis is not even the main character. Sith all-stars Palpatine, Dooku and young Darth Maul keep wresting the spotlight from him. While adequate back story is provided to explain Plagueis’s obsession with immortality, his macabre Force experiments remain on the periphery of a plot too invested in Republican politics and backroom business deals. The Sith Lords, herein billed as mystical zealots, come over largely as stoic crime bosses. What colorful personalities they sport at the outset are quickly steam cleaned away to conceal their powers from the Jedi. A justified storytelling choice? Yes. But not an especially interesting one.
What is more, in the most egregious missed opportunity of the book, Plagueis’s greatest feat of Force manipulation gets mentioned only in hindsight. Ever notice how The Empire Strikes Back, a critical and fan favorite, is as much a lean ensemble play as it is a grand action film? Now imagine Luke’s training by Yoda not being depicted as it transpires. Instead, picture Luke all but dropped from the middle third of the film while Darth Vader and the Emperor have conference calls with coconspirators. What a disappointing Empire Strikes Back that would have been.
I picked up Darth Plagueis because I wanted—and was promised—a mystical fantasy. Instead I got a complicated and rather impersonal history of organized crime in a galaxy far, far away. Perhaps hardcore enthusiasts of Star Wars novels had a different experience than me. I freely admit to being a fair-weather fan of this sprawling subgenre. It is my impression that this novel was written solely for readers who devour every Star Wars novel published. That may be okay, but it strikes me as a franchise growing too insular and selling itself short....more
With the previous two collections of Little Green Men comics, I gave artist Jay P. Fosgitt four-out-of-five-star ratings to keep him honest (because iWith the previous two collections of Little Green Men comics, I gave artist Jay P. Fosgitt four-out-of-five-star ratings to keep him honest (because if you don’t keep Jay honest, he stays honest all by himself). With Small Package, BIG Fun! I bestow my first five-star rating on his work. I do this not because I need a favor. I do…several in fact. Sadly, Fosgitt is one of those ethical artists who stays true to his vision and doesn’t appear on the verge of selling out to anyone. Oh, well.
No, with sincerity, I give this collection a five-star rating for the same basic reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Return of the King the Best Picture award. Like ROTK, Small Package, BIG Fun! provided the full-circle effect. It helped me realize what an adventure this series has been, and just how much fun I’ve had along the way.
The premise, as a reminder, is a trio of stooge-esque aliens who set out to conquer Earth, but discover upon arrival that they are only three inches tall. It is a great comedic premise and Fosgitt executes it wonderfully yet again. This installment is at its best when the green guys are interacting with young children. Blending human innocence with alien naivety yields not only humor, but charm…butterscotch-like charm. Comedy with children also provides what may be the best turn-the-page-for-the-payoff moment in the whole series. I laughed out loud but can say no more without a spoiler.
The Little Green Men series, which also includes Go BIG or Go Home! and It’s a BIG World After All!, is geared for young readers. I maintain it is wonderful for adults too. The series reminds me, not coincidentally, of how much I enjoyed cartoons like Popeye as a kid. This is the art form that introduced so many of us to classical narratives and reading for enjoyment. Also by way of selling point, this edition comes with a nice pin-up by Little Green Men co-creator David Hedgecock (color by Tim Durning). Great job, Jay!
DISCLAIMER: Childe Jake, the writer of this review, personally knows and admires Jay Fosgitt and littered the above review with bias. Furthermore, he thanks Jay for this latest chance to hone his love-fest review style!...more