To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utterTo hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.
Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.
Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?
The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.
Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.
One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.
Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.
This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?
I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel....more
When revisiting my earliest brushes with depression, two episodes come to mind. The first involved being persuaded by a loved one that Santa Claus wasWhen revisiting my earliest brushes with depression, two episodes come to mind. The first involved being persuaded by a loved one that Santa Claus wasn’t real. The second, and much more significant at the time, was discovering that actress Carrie Fisher—portrayer of Star Wars’ Princess Leia—had married. I won’t say I loved Ms. Fisher. I was 8. Infatuated? Yes. Love? Maybe the puppy kind. But discovering she had already wedded wreaked havoc with my fantasy.
As I grew up, my early obsession with Carrie faded. Then, last week I saw her new book, The Princess Diarist, on display at the bookstore. I read one of her irresistible press interviews and knew I had to read the book. Per the press, this book reveals Carrie’s affair with Harrison Ford during filming of the first Star Wars film. If I’m not mistaken, her affair with Mr. Ford was already known, or at least authoritatively rumored. I swear I remember their liaison being asserted in the book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor.
To any fans professing shock, and any reporters depicting this discovery as startling, I say, “Duh.” As for me? Not shocked. Not surprised. Not thinking less of Harrison or Carrie. Little jealous maybe … of both. And so are many of you. In any case, I found the book hilarious and poignant in its catharsis, which is to say quintessential Carrie Fisher.
The chief selling point of The Princess Diarist is the inclusion of excerpts from 19-year-old Carrie’s journal written during the affair. These excerpts comprise the middle third of the book. They include both prose and poetry, and you can see the snappy pointed writer emerging. But the more I read Carrie’s journal, the less the book seemed to be about hooking up with Harrison Ford. The deeper Carrie talks about Harrison/Han—both in the journal and in hindsight—the deeper she explores her being Carrie/Leia.
To this day, Carrie thrives on clever writing. Her humor leans into you. She has a lot of fun with prose, delivering gotcha wordplay. She revels in naked ironies and unflattering implications. Yet looking back, Carrie describes herself as clever but not intellectual, well-read but less than scholarly. More than anything I’ve ever read or seen about Carrie, The Princess Diarist reveals head-on how much pain she has coped with as a woman and as an artist.
When I reached the excerpts of Carrie’s journal, I silently accepted that I would be reading this book in a single evening. She reveals a 19-year-old being extremely hard on herself. It foreshadows the emotional and chemical challenges she would come to endure. It’s honest. It’s self-indulgent. It’s full-on late-teens angst.
As I read these passages, a supreme realization hit me deep in the gut, in an emotional place where I sometimes regress to being an 8-year-old boy. Wow, I thought, Carrie Fisher is letting me read her journal.
I didn’t steal her journal. She offered it to me. I read on, equal parts 8-year-old gawker and 41-year-old courtier. As a writer, but more importantly as a ruthless self-critic with his own melodramatic teenage journals stashed away, I felt Carrie had given me a gift. Reading further and further, I felt as close to her as I have ever been or ever may be. Not in a worshipful way. And not in a fanatical or prurient way, I don’t think.
With the journal excerpts complete, Carrie mostly dispenses with discussions of Harrison. She moves directly into the love affair fans have with her, whether she wants them to or not. Here too, the details feel both awkward and inevitable. Carrie says, “My affair with Harrison was a very long one-night stand.” Compare this to her description of signing autographs for paying comic-con fans as a “celebrity lap dance.”
Occasionally the narration feels pulled along taffy-like with overwrought sentences. Yes, it’s a stylistic choice to which far less accomplished writers like me might aspire. Still, where the prose grows effusive it seems to lack the poise of a masterwork (this criticism is not made of the late-teen journal excerpts, which are priceless). Nevertheless, I highly recommend The Princess Diarist. It contains the thoughtful reflections of a talented and troubled writer. We’re all troubled. Carrie stares down the trouble and turns it into fearless prose and candid reflection.
Whatever the merits or downsides of The Princess Diarist’s exposé content, for me it comes down to this. A long time ago, a smitten 8-year-old boy dreamed of getting close to Carrie Fisher. This week his dream came true....more
I’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increI’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increases in strength from things that didn’t kill them. And all the while they just keep being likeable. What’s a devout pessimist like me to do?
For me, the answer was to preview astronaut Mike Massimino’s soon-to-be released book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” Talk about likeable optimist! As astronauts go, “Mass” is an all-star. He flew on two shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He also excels at popularizing science and engineering, in part through appearing as himself on the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite my affinity for pessimism, Massimino’s “Spaceman” won me over. He tends to do that to people.
I’ll spin it with this analogy: Mike Massimino is to Twitter as Neil Armstrong is to the moon. Through social networking and undeniable likability—in addition to intelligence, courage, and hard work—Massimino has fueled popular support for space exploration like few others. His book “Spaceman” tells the story of how he rose from a normal childhood to an extraordinary career within the tightknit yet super-competitive corps of NASA astronauts.
An unabashed fan of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” Massimino draws on those films to craft a thrilling prologue describing his first launch into space. Yet this book rewards readers with more than just high-flying thrills. Throughout “Spaceman,” Massimino incorporates elements of history, politics, culture, and human nature to craft a fascinating and engrossing narrative. The result is a complete and balanced picture of his journey, often humorous, in the tradition of good old-fashioned page-turners.
Speaking candidly, like Massimino often does, the most thrilling passages for me involved the author’s struggles to pass NASA’s eye exam. NASA rejected Massimino three times before he finally made it into the astronaut program. Similar to watching “Apollo 13,” I found myself tense up witnessing just how close Massimino came to being rejected by NASA (a fourth and final time). As a pessimist, I often fret about how obsessed we humans are with stories fixated on simple If questions. With Massimino’s thought-provoking adventure, I am heartened to observe a publisher—and soon readers—embrace a story focused on the richer questions of Why and How.
As I read how Massimino overcame his ocular limitations, I noticed a parallel with Hubble Space Telescope’s own visual impairment. Both suffered from flawed lenses. Frankly, Hubble and Massimino had every right to fail. Yet they both succeeded. Delicately orchestrated planning combined with dogged effort enabled both the man and the machine to overcome their initial sight defects.
The word “human” shows up often in “Spaceman.” Attributing this to a writer in need of a thesaurus would be a mistake. As Massimino worked his way through the academic ranks of engineers, he labored in a specialized topic called “human factors.” I’ll let the man holding a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering explain it. “Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you.”
“Spaceman” succeeds because of Massimino’s keen sense of human factors. The result is a book capable of satisfying a wide range of readers in addition to space enthusiasts like myself. In a conversational manner, “Spaceman” relates the remarkable journey of an eager kid from Long Island who made it all the way to 350 miles above the Earth’s surface. There he repaired arguably the most important science instrument ever built. The risks, the costs, the times NASA came up tragically short, are discussed with candor. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism steeped in gratitude and faith for human potential.
I strongly recommend “Spaceman” by Mike Massimino for optimists, pessimists, and of course, for all the starry-eyed young men and women who currently dream of Mars. Explorers like Massimino remind us how fantastic an adventure life can be, no matter how unlikely success may seem.
DISCLAIMER: Jake received a complimentary advance “Uncorrected Proof” copy of “Spaceman” from Crown Publishers....more