Tag Archives: Star Wars

Old Futures

Last week I had a (very) minor emergency in that my laptop decided to pack it in. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – it was fixable, and I had most of my important files backed up (and I am now working on changing that ‘most’ into ‘all’), and perhaps best of all, I had my old laptop around and was able to keep working on that. So this is the very definition of a First World Problem, but it did still get me to thinking.

First, it got me oversentimentalizing objects again. The old laptop is the one that I wrote my PhD dissertation on, what will probably forever be the crowning achievement of my academic career. I created hours worth of lessons and lectures that helped me teach hundreds of students about the history I love. I wrote most of King in Darkness on it, the first book I ever wrote and the first thing I ever had published. It travelled with me to many places and gave me many hours of work, diversion, and entertainment. For all that, it still works pretty well, which makes me feel more than a little guilty packing it up and putting it away on a shelf, giving up on it in a way that it never gave up on me. I know, of course, that it’s just a thing, a mechanism, and that it doesn’t feel disappointed or sad to be sidelined in favour of a newer, more powerful mechanism. But I can’t help, for some reason, to assign those feelings to it, and to imagine that maybe it enjoyed the past week of being back on the job.

However, that’s really just all my own internally-generated silliness.

I also thought, as I worked with the old laptop, how impossibly heavy it seemed to be to carry around and to have sitting on my legs, how bulky it was, how clunky some of the operations were. (I still like the way the trackpad works better though) The thing is, I also remember, very clearly, when I first got that laptop, thinking how light and compact and slick it was compared to my even-older laptop. But time has passed, and my expectations of what technology is capable of have shifted.

You run into that in SF reasonably frequently, especially if you read the older stuff. Things that seemed like the amazing tech of times yet to come now seem entirely ordinary. Sometimes tech we take for granted is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘future’, suddenly, looks very old.

The Star Wars RPG I’m running ran into an example of this recently; we were in the midst of an adventure and one of the players asked about GPS. Because of course there should be GPS in an interstellar society like the one we see in Star Wars; we can’t imagine, at this point, how you could have a modern society without GPS. The problem I had was basically this: there isn’t really any evidence of anything GPS-like in the setting, and as a result the game (which reproduces the setting) isn’t really designed to cope with the implications of GPS technology. This is one of the many times that the 1970s future of Star Wars sort of clashes with our vision and expectations of what ‘advanced’ should mean and must mean, and we’re left with a presentation of the future that seems obsolete at the same time as it claims to be ahead of us.

Personally, I find these now old-fashioned futures charming, a past time’s dreams of the days ahead, and I enjoy reading about them just as much as I do visions that are still a bit more aligned with our current technological reality and expectations. My very loose theory is that if you have a really good story, with a world and plot and characters that your reader is going to buy into and care about, it doesn’t really matter if the technology isn’t exactly right. (Somewhere, a hard SF writer just got a piercing headache and doesn’t know why) One of my prime examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first stories of which came out before the advent of computers, and certainly before it was at all clear how ubiquitous they would become. So they’re just not there, which is both jarring to a modern reader, but then also kind of cool, and the stories still work, because the strength of them is more Asimov’s ideas about society and politics and people than it is ‘this is what the future will be like’.

I think this is really just an example of something else I’ve talked about before, the point lifted from a William Gibson interview I attended, where he pointed out that his books weren’t really attempts to predict the future at all, they used an imagined future to talk about the present as he perceived it. So, the cellphone and wireless-less future of Neuromancer was a book about the 1980s, not really Gibson’s attempt to predict the years to come, and thus the absence of computer tech that we take for granted doesn’t really matter. (I wonder if he’s off that idea just a touch with The Peripheral, and what he has to say about it, but that’s like a whole ‘nother deal)

As a result, I think Neuromancer (and Gibson’s other stuff, and so many other SF stories with their obsolete futures) still works really well as a novel, because it was never really about the tech or the future at all, it was about human beings and the worlds we make, using an imaginary place and time to talk about them. I guess those are the kind of stories I like best, so I don’t really mind if the future is a place we’ve already been or somewhere we’ll never get to.

On some level, I guess I like to hope that these obsolete futures still enjoy having us come to visit them, even if they’ll never be more than dreams, just as I guess I hope my faithful old laptop took a bit of pleasure in being back in the game, at least for a little while.

This threatens to get very silly again, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.

Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.

It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.

Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.

Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.

That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.

I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)

I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.

That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.

Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.

It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.

On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.

However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.

40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.

—–

If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.

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RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

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Last Jedi

If you follow the news at all, you’ll of course have noticed that a lot of powerful and momentous events have happened since I wrote here last. On the one hand I feel like I should write about them, because they’re important and I feel strongly about them, but I also feel strongly that this is not a political blog and that most of you don’t come here to read about my political thoughts and ideas. So I’ll leave that commentary off for now; if you happen to want to know what I think you can probably figure it out from my Twitter feed anyway.

Instead I thought I would join the multitude scrabbling for every scrap of meaning that can be wrenched from the poster for the next Star Wars movie. There isn’t much. It’s just a black field of stars, with the familiar ‘Star Wars’ logo in unfamiliar red, and the movie’s title: The Last Jedi. Not a lot of meat on that bone, but still we gnaw away.

I guess arguably some of this might count as spoilers, but it’s all my speculation (I have no inside source of information, alas) so I think it’s fine, but consider yourself warned.

The obvious thing the title suggests to me (and suggested to many others) is that Luke Skywalker will die in this movie, leaving Rey as the last of the Jedi. I suppose the safe bet is that he’ll perish at the hands of Kylo Ren, his former apprentice. Broadly this would fit with the middle movie of a trilogy, where things are often left in a fairly dark and nasty place to set up the eventual resolution in the final act. This is, of course, what happened in Empire Strikes Back where we were left with Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, Luke defeated and demoralized by Vader, and the best that could be said was that our heroes – mostly – got away. So from that, and the red logo (‘red’ in Star Wars usually denotes the bad-guy Sith, and in a more general sense means emergencies and blood), it’s a reasonably safe bet that this movie is going to have some Bad Things happen.

The death of Luke is the obvious one. From a narrative perspective, the story just doesn’t work very well if Rey goes off to find Luke in the hopes that he’ll fix all the problems, and then he comes back and actually does fix them. It’s a much better story if everyone expects that Luke will (once again) save the day, but then he either fails or succeeds imperfectly, dying in the attempt, and leaving a younger, relatively untried student to try to put things back together. That’s not a bad setup for a third movie where Rey – who is still really just a kid from a junkyard no-one has heard of – will have to shoulder a much heavier burden than anyone anticipated.

Now, lots of people have criticized that as following the arc of the first Star Wars trilogy too closely, and if Last Jedi does unfold according to expectations then it will be running from a fairly familiar playbook. (I mean, broad strokes: Vader kills Obi-Wan, his former teacher, Luke gets his act together to eventually defeat Vader) However, as very many people have also pointed out, the Star Wars story has always been kind of doing that anyway, with its ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ structure and elements plucked from other sources like The Hidden Fortress. In other words, it seems a little late to start getting down on Star Wars for telling a familiar tale; that’s kind of what it has always done. The charm has been that it told that familiar tale well, with heart and humour and flair. As much as writers (and I guess readers) sometimes idolize Original Fresh Plot Ideas, sometimes I think the important part really is that you do a good job of storytelling.

I do also think the writers have left themselves enough room to manoeuvre that even if Rey’s story seems likely to follow a well-traced path, there will be fresh stuff in there. Most prominently, Finn is a character we really haven’t seen yet, and exactly where his path is likely to lead is far less clear. Presumably he’s going to confront his First Order past a little more thoroughly, and he’ll need to figure out what it is he wants to be now that he’s decided not to be a stormtrooper – up to quite recently, his only identity. Through Force Awakens he was more or less carried along by the current of events; at some point (perhaps while recovering from his injuries) he’ll have to decide what he will be now. That’s interesting, to me at least. Who is Finn when it’s not a crisis, when there isn’t a battle to fight? I want to see the answer to that.

I’m less sure what the plan may be for Kylo Ren; the general Star Wars arc would call for some form of redemption, but I think they’ve made that a fairly difficult road this time. Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan in the first movie and was, eventually, redeemed, but Obi-Wan wasn’t his father and wasn’t a character with the resonance of Han Solo. If Kylo kills Luke as well as Han it’s going to be pretty hard for a lot of the audience to buy him as redeemable, but if he’s not redeemed by the end of the trilogy it would be a surprisingly dark direction for Star Wars. Generally, the movies say that if you want to come back from a dark place, you always can. Maybe they’ll tell us the story of why Kylo Ren doesn’t want to, but that would be a bleaker story than the franchise usually gives us. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words about an image that had only 5 words on it to begin with, so I’ll stop here. Perhaps needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next installment quite a bit.

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I can’t quite leave it without saying something about the horrible shootings in St. Foy, Quebec, when innocent people were murdered while they were at prayer. There was horror, there was a great deal of confusion. Authorities called it an act of terror, which it was, and eventually it emerged that the perpetrator was a white man with hard right-wing views. We don’t know everything about what led him to act exactly how and when he did, but the broad strokes of the story are all too evident.

This is what happens when people promote ideas of division and intolerance. When we say that this or that group shouldn’t be here, or that this particular religion is a danger, or that people who live their lives a certain way cause some kind of hazard, we naturally create a climate of fear and crisis. Given time, eventually some distressed, frightened and hateful soul will lash out against these enemies we have created. You can only tell people they’re in danger for so long before they’re going to react, and all to often people react with violence. We know this. I like to tell myself this isn’t a deliberate orchestration, but we should know well enough not to do this any more.

You can’t preach hate and division and then wash your hands of the consequences. Think very carefully about the ideas you spread and the ones you fail to denounce. The end point of intolerance is what happened in St. Foy. No political agenda you may have can possibly be worth the slaughter of people who have done nothing to anyone. If Sunday night’s massacre horrified you, then stand firm against the ideologies that led to it.

We can’t have it. I believe we won’t stand it. I believe the tide runs very firmly in the opposite direction, that society will become more and more diverse and that we will have more and more different kinds of people, and it will be wonderful. Of course, it only happens if we make it happen.

We do that through resistance to what is not right, to calling what is wrong what it is, and through being the kinder, more tolerant, welcoming people we all want to live with. The future is ours. Let’s go get it.

Thanks for reading.

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Rogue One Trailer

The trailer for the new Star Wars movie Rogue One is out, and I gather it has caused a lot of fuss, both the happy clamour of excited fans and (apparently) the gnashing of teeth by people who are (for very stupid reasons that I’m not getting into here) Very Upset by what they’ve seen. There’s probably a lot of indifferent people in the middle of those extremes as well.

Since I was roughly the last sapient being known to science to give my thoughts on The Force Awakens, I thought I would do a snap reaction to the Rogue One trailer. I may or may not be procrastinating doing something else. Hush.

What I think is this – there’s not a lot of meat on the bones but it looks pretty cool. I mean there’s AT-ATs and stormtroopers getting beaten up with a stick (does that armour, in fact, protect them from anything at all?) and Mon Mothma and what looks to be a good heaping helping of Star Wars action. Which should be fun, although as Phantom Menace taught me, best not to get too excited yet. Heck, there have been plenty of bad movies with good looking trailers.

The main thing that I feel like I can say something more meaningful about is our main character, Jyn Erso. She seems like she’s going to be pretty interesting. They’re at least sowing the seeds that she may be a less than lily-white character who may not be perfectly idealistically aligned with the Rebellion and is closer to being an actual criminal.

Obviously this sets up a fairly standard SFF (and, well, other genres too) redemption story arc for the character with A Troubled Past, and if I was placing any bets that would be where my money would go. On the other hand, it would be potentially interesting to have the main character of Rogue One be genuinely a difficult person with some shady parts to their past and personality.

For one thing, her line ‘This is a rebellion, isn’t it?’ from the trailer works well with this; if you were really running a shoestring revolt against an overwhelming power, you wouldn’t really get to pick and choose who all the people you’d need to work with would be. You’d probably end up having to make some difficult choices and difficult alliances if you wanted to accomplish your overall goal, and maybe end up wondering exactly how far you could go in that direction without ending up badly compromised. That might be intriguing territory for a Star Wars movie to look at, and it would be easier to do with one that doesn’t have all our thoroughly heroic heroes in it.

Because look, most of the Star Wars heroes and heroines are more or less thoroughly good people (and don’t give me any crap about Han Solo, I’m not even sure he gets ‘redeemed’ as much as stops pretending that he’s not a huge softie) and it would be interesting to have one who might honestly not be. Maybe Jyn Erso is thoroughly competent, very good at what she’s asked to do, but also kind of an unprincipled jerk. (Again, no, that’s not Han Solo.) That would be a neat, and unique, addition to the Star Wars pantheon.

This all sits a bit uneasily with my feeling that one of the things I like about Star Wars is that you have Good vs. Evil and not a lot of the shades of grey stuff that is immensely popular at the moment. (Look if you’re waiting for me to adopt entirely consistent positions on things, you’re gonna be waiting a while) I think there’s room to still do that and still tell a story that would still be Star Wars – Good vs. Evil. I think it is worthwhile recognizing that in the pursuit of good goals, sometimes things happen that are less than good. I think it’s definitely worth recognizing that even people who do very good things are unlikely to be perfect. Even if we decide, ‘yes, this is a good person’ in the end, there are probably some parts of them that are less than ideal. Except Galahad, and Galahad is no fun.

Now again, I don’t think that’s actually what we’re gonna get and what will happen is we’ll get a movie about Jyn who comes from a rough background and doesn’t trust anyone and looks out only for herself learning to be a part of a team and commit to a cause that’s larger than she is in that fairly standard Becoming a Hero way, and that will probably be a perfectly entertaining movie. It would just be a little more interesting, to me, if we got a character who (say) doesn’t like the Empire, but also doesn’t really like this whole Republic thing either, because governments in general can’t be trusted or just rip you off, but she’ll work with the Rebels for now because they’re helping her blow up Imperial stuff.

Anyway. Those are my quick-draw thoughts. December seems a long way off, although I’m sure we’ll get lots more teasers tossed our way before then.

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Star Wars

Goofy idea postponed yet again (at this rate I may never do it!) because, as you may have seen on the Twitter, later last week I was finally one of the last sentient creatures roaming the surface of the planet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m gonna ramble on about that a little bit today. In the interests of the last few entities wandering around out there who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, including especially the part where Jabba the Hutt turns out to be the new head of the Jedi.

One of the interesting things in waiting so long (in the safe damp darkness underneath the rock where I live) to see the movie was that I got to see a bunch of reactions to it before I went myself. Overall the tone of these seemed to be positive, although there is/was a significant minority of negative outcry as well. So I was ever so slightly sceptical as the stupid preshow smartphone games and previews finally ended and the iconic Crawl O’Text began to make its stately way up the screen.

My first reaction, honestly, was relief. Star Wars was back.

I should explain. Through my teens and into my early twenties (not quite a long, long time ago but verging upon it) I was an enormous Star Wars fan, perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree. I absolutely loved the original trilogy of films, and could have done most of the dialogue from memory. I had Star Wars posters all over my walls, played all sorts of Star Wars games, and was frequently kitted out in Star Wars t-shirts. I was deeply invested in the franchise, to say the least. Then Phantom Menace came out, and some friends and I rented out a VIP screening room to watch it on the first possible day. The movie started. I still keenly remember sitting there trying to convince myself that the movie wasn’t shit, and eventually failing. I had looked forward to a new Star Wars movie so much, and it was awful.

As a result I waited for the reviews on Attack of the Clones, heard it was shit, and so … never saw it. I never even considered seeing Revenge of the Sith. The movies sold tons of tickets so I just basically filed away Star Wars as a franchise that was no longer ‘for me’ and put it away in the ‘fond memories’ category. Time passed and I thought about Star Wars less all the time (probably a good thing) until the news started to trickle out about new movies being made, and then The Force Awakens came out.

As I said, with some scepticism I (eventually) went to see it, and again, wow, Star Wars was back. Part of it was (of course) the return of familiar characters like Han Solo and Leia, but they also just got the overall tone and feel of the movie very nearly exactly right. I’ve seen the movie criticized for ‘playing things too safe’ and being too much like the original trilogy and I guess especially A New Hope, but for me a movie that looked and felt like the Star Wars movies I had loved was exactly what was necessary. Maybe the next two movies will take more ‘risks’ but I hope they don’t do too much, because fundamentally the Star Wars setup works pretty well.

One of the things I enjoy is that you have characters who are clearly Good, if somewhat flawed at times, and characters who are clearly Evil, and the story the movie tells is essentially a conflict between these. I think part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars as a setting is its (usually) unapologetic presentation of a confrontation between Right and Wrong and an overall narrative that suggests that, in the end, evil will be defeated. I think that’s a story that twangs something very deep inside us, it’s a story we’re sort of culturally primed to like, and part of why stories like Star Wars and Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf are the ones that we keep coming back to.

That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good, compelling, ‘shades of grey’ story, obviously you can and I enjoy them immensely at times. (Battlestar Galactica was almost entirely shades of grey, by the end, and it was a fantastic series) At the same time, I think that not every story needs to be grey, that there’s an undeniable appeal in a story that gives you clear Good Guys and Bad Guys.* In a lot of ways, I think we ultimately want it to be true that there are truly good forces in the world, and that in the end the bad things in our society and our world can end up being defeated.**

That’s one of the things fiction can do very well: provide an inspiring or comforting vision of the way we would like things to go in the real world, something we can look at or read and think ‘yes, this is the way it should be‘. Perhaps it can be that way in the real world. Perhaps we can make it that way. I think, at times, fiction can be an aspirational text, the goal we’re aiming for, and in a very loose way Star Wars can be that for some people. Certainly I think there are examples there that can excite, motivate, and inspire you, if you let them.

I think that was part of the reason that teenage me got so into Star Wars. It was an ultimately positive vision, and I tend to like those. As I’ve said before, right now I think we get more than enough examples of it being difficult to find unproblematically good figures in the world and plenty of examples of what is wrong going unconfronted or uncorrected that it’s nice to not get that in my fiction as well. I think the new movie, in this particular way and in a lot of others, remembers what was really fun and good and enjoyable about the first trilogy of films and gives it back to you. I guess you could say that’s not very daring or ambitious, but I think it’s also very welcome.

Ok, I’ve already written a lot about this movie and I’m not going to go on very much more about it, but I want to address one of the most loudly-expressed objections to what we got in The Force Awakens at least a little.

I read a lot of criticisms of Rey’s character prior to watching the movie, primarily that she is a ‘Mary Sue’ – (briefly) one of those (often very annoying) characters who have every special talent, can do everything and handle anything. In my opinion, it doesn’t hold up. Rey does get to do a lot of cool things in the movie and is at the forefront of most of the action. However, that’s because she’s what we call the main character, or the star of the show. So of course she’s leading the way, that’s what main characters do. You can’t go into (say) an Indiana Jones movie and complain that Indy does everything; that’s what protagonists or main characters do.

<Gonna get slightly spoiler-y here for a second>

 

 

 

Rey also does exhibit a fairly wide range of talents, although again in part that’s just a hero being a hero. However, even by the movie’s internal logic, they make sense. She’s good at fixing starships because she’s been taking them apart her whole life. Presumably that’s also why she has an idea of how to pilot one; she’s done the equivalent of growing up in an enormous junkyard and therefore having a basic sense of what to do with a car. She turns out to be really good at it because of the Force. I mean, you can hate that as an explanation but it’s imbedded in the Star Wars setting. Luke was a great starfighter pilot with no training because of the Force and does probably 98% of the things he can do because of Space Magic. Same deal with Rey, in fact if there is a criticism here it’s that it’s quite so close to Luke’s story.

 

 

 

<spoilery stuff ends>

I suspect some of the criticism of Rey comes from people trying to justify being unhappy with a female lead. That’s immensely disappointing and distressing, for reasons that I trust I don’t have to lay out here. She’s a great character, well acted by Daisy Ridley, and I’m already looking forward to the next part of her story.

All right, that really is it for this week, except to say that if you are one of the remaining sentiences out there on the planetary crust who hasn’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I’d recommend it as a good time.  Thank you for indulging what became a more than slightly bloated, fanboy-ish gush of a post. Normal service will resume next week.

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* – Yes, of course I’m aware that it’s possible to problematize Star Wars by thinking about innocent bystanders on the Death Star and that ordinary citizens might possibly like the order provided by the Empire and so on. I think it’s clear, though, that this isn’t the vision the story is intending you to pick up. It’s fun to read against texts and unravel things, of course, but you also have to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

** – Avoiding spoilers, but of course in the original trilogy and in this new movie these victories don’t come without various kinds of sacrifice. That’s generally the way the narrative goes in these kinds of story though, isn’t it, and (without getting too anthropological) I think it’s another useful part of the message. Evil can be defeated, but not trivially, not without commitment. That’s one of those things that you sense is true as soon as it’s suggested to you.

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