Perhaps a year ago, being a Star Wars fan and interested in trying out some mass market licensed sci-fi, I picked up a copy of Star Wars: Deceived at my local library. That I chose this particular title as my first exploration of Star Wars novels since the Thrawn Trilogy was no accident: “Deceived” was also the title of the absolutely amazing cinematic trailer for the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Star Wars:The Old Republic. I swear those four minutes were better than the entirety of the Prequel Trilogy, but we’ll leave that argument for another day. Here, were are discussing the novel Deceived.
Or, rather, we are discussing why I did not end up reading the novel Deceived.
Whether Paul S. Kemp is in general a good writer of science fiction in general or Star Wars licensed fiction in particular I do not know. Whether Deceived was a good novel that fit into and enhanced the Star Wars canon, I do not know either. The reason is simple: I stopped reading before the end of the first chapter. I did so because that first chapter was essentially a “novelization” of the aforementioned, amazing MMORPG trailer.
In those few pages I managed my way through before finally giving up in exasperation, disgust and even a little sadness, I learned something terribly important: Star Wars belongs in a visual medium, be it film, television or (my favorite kind of Star Wars) comic books. While it would be unfair to say that there was no literary value in Star Wars, or that there have been no good Star Wars novels, the fact is that Star Wars (and George Lucas’ beloved creation is hardly alone in this) was created for a visual medium and its greatest strengths trade on that medium. STar Wars is about swashbuckling adventure: super-space-samurai laser sword fights, asteroid field laden space dogfights and capital ship battles, and pulp fiction monsters brought to grotesque life by stop motion and/or computer generated graphics. And where it isn’t visual, it’s aural: the woosh of land speeders, the crackle of lightsabers, the pew-pew-pew of blasters and, yes, the thunderous ijn-space explosions. Certainly there is (melo)drama and some character development in Star Wars, but these are neither particularly well realized nor central to what makes Star Wars what it is.
All that said, I want to reiterate that I am not criticising Mr. Kemp for his writing. I am certain that given the anticipation for the upcoming MMORPG and the popular reception of the Deceived trailer, orders came from on high to include, even start with, a literary transcription of the battle seen in the cinematic trailer. The problem was that it was indeed a transcription — a beat for beat, action for action, verbal description of what happens in the trailer. The thing is, transcribing a primarily visual event, however exciting it may be upon seeing it, almost always results in a boring or, worse, confusing description.
Think for a moment about the last time you described in words a primarily physical event or undertaking to a freind. Maybe you were telling a coworker about how you almost hit a deer on the way to work that morning. Think about how you describe it, the language you use. Think about how you enhance that language with visual cues: mock steering, inflection and facial expressions. Now, imagining writing it all down and sending it to your coworker in an email. Under which circumstances do you think your coworker would be more rapt by your tale of near-deer experience?
That first chapter of Deceived was like that. The author was telling me what he saw when he watched the trailer — the architecture, the costumes and, of course, the space-kung-fu action. What he did not tell me was how it felt to be in that battle, or what it smells like when a lightsaber cleave a jedi in two, or how the dust from the initial assault crash made it hard to breathe. Worse yet, I had already seen the trailer (probably a dozen times) so the description lacked even novelty.
Again, the point of all this is not to harp on Kemp’s writing — here’s a link to his books on Amazon; buy some of his stuff! — but to talk about how action sequences, particularly those we traditionally experience visually in films and television, are conveyed through prose. Deceived merely happened to be so jarring, likely due in large part to how intensely visually satisfying the cinematic trailer was, that it prompted my reflection on the subject.
The strength of prose, I think, is that it has the power to engage all of our senses equally. It is true that humans rely on our sight most of all, followed by our hearing, but all of our senses work together to build the simulation of the world through which we move every day. At any moment, any one of our senses can grasp us and force us to relive a moment in our lives — the smell of a specific perfume, the feel of a particular fabric against our skin, the taste of a one spice over another. It is easy and even a little lazy to focus the vast majority of our effort as readers and writers on just two of our senses, especially since other media are so much better suited to utilizing sight and sound to convey meaning and atmosphere.
So, how do we go about this. How do we use prose to describe a laser sword fight between psionic Shaolin space-monks, without merely transcribing their movements? On top of it, we still have to convey a sense of place and motion, meaning that we cannot simply abandon visual elements, either.
In my next post, I will be giving it a try, as a writing exercise and experiment. In the meantime, feel free to give your thoughts on anything from Paul S. Kemp to Star Wars novelizations to the use of non-visual elements in action-scene description.