Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.

Deceived by “Deceived”; or, Using Non-Visual Description in Action Prose

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.