Archive for the ‘ geekery ’ Category

On Endings and Fan Service

Two colossal sagas in the history of geekdom came to a close recently.

We fans have witnessed the end of both the TV saga Game of Thrones and the close of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I know that technically the continuity of the Marvel universe will go on, but Avengers: Endgame was obviously an ending–it was right there in the titles. Whatever comes next will be fundamentally different.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to both series knows that these conclusions have been received very differently.

Avengers: Endgame has closed out an audacious, improbable, often-absurd twenty-two film cinematic cycle with such aplomb and bombast that fans were blown away. Like all the MCU, such a thing should not be possible. After the dark cliffhanger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, I personally didn’t think there was any way that the architects of this sweeping, epic comic-book fantasy could pull it off and stick the landing.

But they did. They really did.

On the other end of the spectrum, Game of Thrones landed with an audible plop.

What went wrong? There’s been a lot of criticism of the writing on Game of Thrones and its seeming decline for several years now. For example: As if the entire story was taking place in a game of Skyrim, all the characters seemed to have leveled up in the last few seasons and gained the ability to fast travel wherever they needed to be.

But this kind of handwavium sloppy writing isn’t confined to Game of Thrones. The Marvel movies–Infinity War and Endgame in particular–are guilty of similar plot contrivances. Tony’s Ironman armor, which was once a merely impossible piece of technology that encased a human being in a flight-suit and weapons platform at once–now seems capable of, well, anything. The “nannites” that he developed sometime after his appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming can just fashion anything he needs on the fly. And, like Game of Thrones, our characters seem remarkably spry in jumping from place to place–even the ones who don’t have access to mystical inter-dimensional portals.

So, why do we forgive the one and not the other? It’s not because one is a superior spectacle. The production value and cinematography, along with the acting, in the last few seasons of Game of Thrones have continued to be top notch, indubitably superior to the frenetic whiz-bang flashing energy that characterizes the visual palate of the MCU.

Most of those who share the opinion that Game of Thrones took a nosedive would probably fault the character development. Thrones has thrown some curve balls at characters’ apparent narrative arcs before. Hell, subverting the audience’s expectations of how characters are supposed to develop is pretty much the show’s (and novel series’s) trademark. After all, wasn’t Ned supposed to be the protagonist of the series? Yet, his head ended up rolling into a basket in episode nine of the first season.

What made Thrones great was that characters’ choices always led to consequences that they could not foresee–that’s where the conflicts in the show came from. Because they were nuanced beings in a complex world, the dominos never quite fell how these characters thought they might. Rob Stark’s plans fell apart because he followed his heart at one point, and tried to do his duty at another. Tyrian failed because he underestimated his sister’s animus and because his political capital wasn’t stronger than his own underlying resentment of a world that had served him ill.

But at a certain point, the characters seemed to stop simply being served hands other than what the audience might expect and began to behave inconsistently with the journeys we could see them taking. They were not just thrust into difficult situations; they were forced to behave in ways that didn’t seem to fit who they had been, sometimes just episodes before.

Obviously, the central example of this is Daenerys. For many viewers and fans, she was the hero of the show. Yet, beginning in season seven, the show started hinting that she had dark inclinations and was a tyrant in her heart of hearts. Many of us who had been thrilled for her triumphs–which were again and again framed as heroic by the show’s bold visuals, rousing music, and the structure of the episodes themselves–hoped that these hints were red herrings, that in the end, Dany would be the leader we believed her to be.

But, no, in the end, she did the unthinkable and burned down the very city she had crossed an ocean to possess. With the battle for King’s Landing already won and her enemies surrendering, she just kept burning anyway.

Now, this outcome could have been well done. Dany as an antagonist could have been very interesting. But the showmakers clumsily made her simply a villain, losing all nuance. It’s as though they could not really conceive of a (female) character who was both ruthless and compassionate. They insisted on reducing her to one thing, one variable–and painted her embracing her ambition as morally unambiguous as genocidal rage. The word I read again and again in reviews online was “unearned.”

Again, I think a contrast with the MCU is instructive here. When the plot for Captain America: Civil War called for the Avengers to be divided, there were people on Team Cap and Team Tony–debating which of the two central Avengers was right. And the really interesting thing about that movie was that you could really see how both were right and both were wrong.

If Game of Thrones had played its cards right, we could have seen a similar tension between Jon and Dany, able to see how her ruthlessness could serve the realm and pave the way to the future, but also maybe understand that Jon and Tyrian would have believe they had to stop her.

But instead, we all had to agree that Dany had become a kind of monster and that Jon had to kill her.

Many fans felt betrayed by that turn of events, but even more were disappointed that it wasn’t handled with the kind of careful development that marked the early seasons of the show.

George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones book series A Song of Ice and Fire, warned us via Twitter back in 2013: “Art is not a democracy. People don’t get to vote on how it ends.”

That’s certainly true of his novels, but some might wonder about the larger phenomenon of Game of Thrones, the show. Is this really art any longer? I mean, certainly a lot of art goes into it. From the art of performance from a truly stellar cast to the painstakingly rendered art of the visual universe built form the labor and minds of dozens upon dozens of designers, cinematographers, computer artists, costume designers, etc.

But is a TV series really art or is it, ultimately, product?

And what does either “owe” to the audience. Some fans felt outraged by the last season of Thrones. Some say the characters “deserved” better. Some said they themselves did.

Is this just democratic critique? Voices made public via Twitter and the web that would have simply been exchanged around the water cooler in previous eras? Or is this something different? Has “fandom” become so entitled that it demands, impudently like a child king, the stories it wants and wants them now!

Why did Gatsby have to die? You shouldn’t have killed him, Mr. Fitzgerald. John Proctor should escape; Miller’s an asshole!

I’m not sure we’ve crossed a line from wishing things had gone differently to believing that they should have gone differently. Perhaps the problem is in this era of hypermedia alongside constant cycles of reboots and recycled stories, we feel that nothing is permanent, that no ending is really ever set in stone. People complained about recasting Harrison Ford for the recent Star Wars movie based on Han Solo’s early years. And lo and behold, someone sicked a deep learning AI on the movie and grafted Ford’s face onto the action of the film. I myself thought that a simple fan edit to the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones could throw some moral ambiguity into Dany’s actions. Clip out her strafing the streets willy nilly and have her just attack the red keep. Make the carnage collateral damage and make Jon Snow’s choice more difficult.

Yeah, that’d fix it.

Whether this pattern is the democratization of art wherein everyone is commentator if not creator, or if we’re simply seeing the excesses of an overly entitled generation of fans too used to a digital world that force feeds them what they like and more of it, only time will tell.

Of course, when everyone agrees you did it well, like Marvel, then it doesn’t seem to matter.

 

Assorted Musings on Endgame:

  • It may all be sound and fury signifying nothing, but damned is it entertaining. A self-referential nerdgasm that bends back on itself like a mobius strip of easter eggs and comic mythology dense enough to collapse space-time itself, a phrase that used to mark media and narratives as too obtuse for mass consumption but is now exactly the kind of thing people would talk about in this absurdly glorious (gloriously absurd?) film series. But to really appreciate some great moments, you’ve got to have been along for so many little things:
  • There’s Carol Danvers taking a head-butt from Thanos and looking schoolmarm stern as if the menace of the entire 22 movie cycle was a particularly disobedient welp. (Oh, who is Carol Danvers? Didn’t you see Captain Marvel? You had to in order to understand why she’s suddenly with the Avengers in the first five minutes of the movie–hell, you had to wait for the after-credits scene for her movie to understand that.)
  • And there’s Captain America back in an elevator with all the bad guys. But you wouldn’t know they were bad guys unless you were taking notes during his second movie when we found out they were all secretly Hydra agents who have not yet–at that point in the time stream–revealed their evil allegiance. Did you think Cap was going to pummel them to escape the elevator? No, he just pretends to be one of them by whispering “Hail Hydra.” (But you don’t really get the significance of that unless you followed the recent Secret Wars comic series, or at least paid attention to the press that buzzed around the gimmicky, attention-getting twist in the series.)
  • Pyrrhic Victory, much? Think about the world the Avengers have actually “saved.” The psychological trauma of the snap is hardly erased by the return of all the folks who were dusted. Think about what suicide rates must have been like after the snap? Hawkeye’s family may be intact because he went on a morose murder-spree, but how many other wives and husbands moved on and remarried while their significant others were disappeared? Those are some awkward “Homecomings.” And think about poor Peter Parker. Yes, from the trailers for his next movie we see that all the characters whose names we knew were conveniently also missing for five years and are still teenagers, but think about that Monday back at high school. Half the class is “new” to the other half. That’s a lot of social awkwardness. “Hey, that’s my usual seat?” and such. What about food production? Society would have ramped down agricultural production. There will have to be rations while everyone retools. The job market is going to be utterly bizarre. “This is my office!” People will have moved. Houses will have been abandoned for years. The whole economy will have adjusted to a smaller population and now, suddenly, there are going to be mouths to feed, people who want to work and to have roofs over their heads. The world–hell, the entire universe–has a lot of sorting out to do. Poor Antman missed out on all his daughter’s middle school years…wait, maybe he lucked out there.
  • My favorite part has got to be Thanos’s ship turning its guns skyward. I was like, “Oh, yeah, here she comes.”

Assorted Musings on Thrones:

  • Honestly, I’m still too aggrieved to geek out about much of anything in the Thrones finale. But part of me can’t blame Dany for going rage-monster. I mean, poor Missandei. And wouldn’t you be pissed off if it took you like ten minutes to conquer King’s Landing even though your stupid advisors were all like, “Oh, don’t attack it yet, let’s go drag a wight from the north to not convince the evil queen that we’ve got to kumbaya and everything.” Losing her two dragons and her best buddy/hair-dresser was completely unnecessary. She could have taken King’s Landing in the first episode of season six without losing half her army at Winterfell and then marched north to defend the realms of men with the throne in her pocket and all three dragons. Maybe it was realizing all that that made her just decide to fuck it and burn the place down.
  • Oh, but anyone who’s surprised that neither Jon nor Dany ended up on the Iron Throne wasn’t paying attention. I 100% knew that neither of them would rule Westeros. Doesn’t mean I wanted one of them to turn into a homicidal maniac, sheesh.
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The Marvel Formula Has Reached Its Limit

So, I just found this mostly-finished post in my unpublished drafts. Since I’m about to write about Avengers: Endgame, I might as well put this up, too. 

Spoilers ahead for the latest Marvel outing: Captain Marvel.

MCU, blah, blah. Ten years. Blah, blah. Twenty-one movies. Blah, blah.

I have long been fascinated with the enormity of the interconnected universe crafted by Marvel Studios under the guiding hand of ur-producer Kevin Feige. But I’ve already talked myself to death surveying its dimensions, its peaks and valleys.

Captain Marvel feels like a flat plane in that landscape. In telling the story of Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot cum intergalactic superhero, the film takes few risks and mostly just pulls the trigger on Marvel’s tried and true formula: Action, check. Witty banter, check. Um…geez is that the whole formula?

By now, that formula is pretty darned familiar. It’s worked well in most of those twenty-one films, and even in some others. By now, the DC comics universe, such that it is, has shifted away from its dour and glum early films toward following the same playbook. The much ballyhooed Wonder Woman was basically a pretty standard fare Marvel movie. I haven’t seen Aquaman, but it seems like it was on script, and the upcoming Shazam’s trailer definitely suggest it’s a paint-by-numbers Marvel clone, too.

Captain Marvel doesn’t have anything like the emotional depth of Black Panther, nor the ideas at work that made Winter Soldier a stand out, which is a shame. There was a lot of room to build in both, really. By making Carol a neophyte in the Kree military, the script misses the chance to make her more complicit in the horrors of war–something that could have added more dimensions to her discovery of their betrayal and of the real nature of their conflict with the Skrulls. The Skrulls, too, are handled poorly. Their leader’s conversion from potentially insidious infiltrator to misunderstood good guy wastes an opportunity to paint the duality of warfare with any nuance, as does Jude Law’s character’s overt about face toward cartoon villainy at the end.

Marvel movies are always at their worst when they are serving the gargantuan MCU itself instead of their own stories. Iron Man 2 was one of the low points of the whole enterprise because it was more interested in setting up SHIELD and the Avenger Initiative than anything else. Age of Ultron was okay at best because it was overcrowded with character introductions and dangling plot threads.

So, too, with Captain Marvel. This movie isn’t really about a character named Carol Danvers who is abducted by aliens and given super powers only to discover her true identity. No, this movie is about putting another piece on the board for Avengers: Endgame. It’s entertaining–mostly–and gives the fans what they want–and then some. But, ironically, given Carol’s tagline, it may go fast, but it doesn’t take us any higher and it doesn’t go any further than it needs to.

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.