Stardust

by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy is an interesting genre. When most people think of fantasy, they seem to think of Lord of the Rings and its derivatives–Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, even World of Warcraft. Modern fantasy seems to be all about constructing a fiction world and populating it with “realistic” characters. Neil Gaiman does fantasy a little differently.

I hadn’t even heard of Neil Gaiman before around 2012, when my friend drunkenly told me that American Gods was one of his favorite books. I took his advice. I then read another of his books, then bought a couple more, and finally got around to reading Stardust this year. While Gaiman has plenty more out there that I haven’t read, I’m familiar enough with his style that I’m beginning to understand what he’s trying to do. I think.

In my ‘umble opinion, Gaiman cares more about creating the feel of a fairy tale than building a gritty world for his characters to inhabit. It’s the feeling that yes, there’s a real world, but you have only to draw back a curtain to find things that are absolutely fantastical. Fairy tales blur the lines between reality and fiction, either by setting their stories in a mythical past–as in the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, Star Wars, or pretty much any culture’s folklore–or by playing to the idea that the world is a big, sometimes scary, but inherently magical place. See: Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies, X-Men, Jurassic Park. These stories, these fairy tales, seem to say: “Magic is real, or at least it was real in the past. And maybe someday it will be real again.”

It’s a bit of a fine line to draw, but I think it’s tangible when you actually start reading it. Let’s take for example, oh I don’t know, Stardust. This is clearly a fantasy novel but, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this story takes place in our world. Or at least, that’s where our story begins. Tristran Thorn lives in the English town of Wall, a town named for the literal barrier between the known world and the magical land of Faerie. On a whim, a stupid promise to a girl he thinks he loves, he sets off beyond the wall to catch a falling star.

Let’s pause for a second and consider why Gaiman sets it up this way. As a resident of Wall, Tristran is vaguely aware that there’s a “second” world outside of England, but he’s about as aware of it as an ancient African would be of India. Sure, it probably exists, but if you’re never going there, what’s the difference? It’s interesting to contemplate, or to tell stories about, but it’s completely irrelevant to your life. When the foolish young man makes his promise to do the unthinkable, but not the impossible, he’s forgoing all of the knowledge and certainty about what his life would have become, and stepping into a mystery. Would the story be as effective if Tristran was living in Faerie to begin with? I’d say no. StardustTaking a young man on the edge of reality, both literally (physically living at the border with Faerie) and figuratively (moving from childhood into adulthood), gives him one chance to do the unthinkable before he finds his permanent place in the world.

The structure of the story thus established, I think it’s fair to say that the book went in some pretty unexpected directions with its plot. Tristran comes across plenty of danger in Faerie, but some of it is so unexpected that you might be left scratching your head. In addition to Tristran’s admirable mission to secure the star, Gaiman introduces a good variety of subplots involving witches, feuding brothers, and all sorts of magical creatures and settings. Though Tristran’s story is relatively straightforward, Stardust proves that Neil Gaiman isn’t necessarily interested in writing traditional fairy tales.

And of course, just because Gaiman writes fairy tales, that doesn’t mean we always get a happily-ever-after. Like Tolkien, I think Gaiman understands that a fairy tale should end not with possibility, but with possibility lost. Not every plot thread ends on a high note. While the book encourages its readers to have big dreams for the characters, many of these hopes will be dashed by the end. A young man can’t stay young forever, and the magic that allowed him to do the unthinkable will not repeat itself. Such is the nature of magic.

As an aside, I think the irony of Tolkien’s influence is that while yes, he did succeed in creating big, beautiful worlds, filled with unique characters and cultures, he never lost sight of what he was really doing. He was inventing myth out of whole cloth, creating a bible of stories for a distant past that we all know never actually existed. His works might have often contained more detail than those of the Brothers Grimm, but they were meant to accomplish a similar goal. I would posit that modern fantasy’s major flaw is its disregard for the myth-making at the core of the genre. Treating these stories as legend, rather than history, might reintroduce some of the magic that they largely seem to lack. (The Nerdwriter makes a similar point, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with it.)

A second aside: Since this post went further than I expected into how myths are made and stories told, I just want to take the time to disavow JJ Abrams’ take on the “mystery box.” His view of the mystery box originates, I think, in the idea of the fairy tale, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. But Abrams seems concerned about the effect of the mystery box on the audience: what we think is in the box, what we want to be in the box, and what we’re afraid is in the box. Fairy tales concern themselves more with the effect of the “mystery box” on the characters. Abrams talks about the mystery of Princess Leia, but that mystery would be meaningless if it wasn’t for Luke’s interest in finding out who she was. Rey from The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is a classic Abrams-style mystery box. The mystery surrounding her serves no purpose in the movie, but Abrams just can’t help himself; rather than leave some things unknown, he has to stamp his work with question marks, just in case we don’t find it interesting enough on its own.

While much of Gaiman’s work is indisputably fantasy, Stardust doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a literal Faerie tale. I readily admit that sometimes the plot became a bit too weird for me, but I can’t say it wasn’t unique, or that it didn’t spark that feeling of wonder that fiction so often lacks.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams

 

The end of the academic semester always reminds me of Lando’s escape from the second Death Star; the overtaking flames, the growing heat, the awareness in the back of the mind that this time, you might not make it. My semester ended last Tuesday night, followed in rapid succession by my last work day of 2015 and, of course, my late night viewing of Star Wars. Without further ado, let’s talk about that last one. Spoilizzles below.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensThe story starts off following a single, unnamed stormtrooper serving the First Order, the heir to the Empire’s legacy, decades after the Battle of Endor. This stormtrooper, seeing his comrade die and becoming disillusioned with his job (perhaps after a few “Are we the baddies?” conversations), frees a captured Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, and helps Poe hijack a TIE fighter. Before their escape abruptly ends with a crash landing on Jakku, Poe asks the stormtroooper his name. After getting only a serial number beginning with FN in reply, Poe says, “Fuck that, I’m gonna call you Finn.”* The stormtrooper now known as Finn seems pleased with this, but he becomes separated from Poe during the crash, and he’s forced to search for water by walking to the nearest town, where he promptly finds our other new hero, Rey.

Rey is a scavenger barely scraping out a living on Jakku while waiting for her life to turn around. By the looks of things, she’s been waiting a long time, and will be waiting a while longer. Finn, aware that Poe had been searching for a small orange droid, spots just such a droid (BB-8) with Rey, and convinces the two of them that he’s a member of the Resistance. In reality, he needs help escaping from the First Order, which apparently didn’t take kindly to his Bowe Bergdahl-ing. The three of them just manage to escape in the most famous, most improbable hunk of junk in the galaxy: the Millennium Falcon. From there, they meet up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, visit a dive bar in a scene meant to be reminiscent of Mos Eisley, discover that there’s a new Death Star, and confront the First Order’s wannabe heir to Darth Vader, Kylo Ren.

Along the way, Rey discovers that she has exceptional piloting and combat abilities, but she can’t let go of her desire to run back to Jakku and await the return of her long-lost parents. She rejects an ancient artifact, a lightsaber, that calls to her, but eventually embraces her Force-sensitivity: she begins to explore her powers, first experimenting with Jedi mind tricks, and finally taking up her weapon to defend herself and Finn against Kylo Ren.

Finn and Rey. These are the new protagonists that The Force Awakens introduces. Whether it was the way the characters were written or the actors’ portrayals, I’m not sure, but I was much more impressed with Finn than Rey. Finn probably has the most charisma of any Star Wars character, ever, including Han Solo. Speaking of whom, while I mentioned Han Solo’s appearance about midway through the movie, I neglected to mention just how much the second half of the movie becomes the Han Solo Show, to the detriment of the picture. I know everyone loves Han, and I do too, but Harrison just isn’t into it anymore. John Boyega, as Finn, was carrying the first half of the movie, and Rey had the potential to blossom into a very interesting protagonist, but Han Solo just swoops in to take up all the oxygen in the second half. He now pilots the Falcon, he brings them to the cantina-world, he leads them to the Resistance, he takes charge of the assault on the new superweapon. Oh, and Kylo Ren turns out to be Han and Leia’s son, a fact that is not really treated as a twist in the movie, but just sort of gets talked about until the audience is tired of hearing it.

Kylo Ren is actually a great villain. He’s introduced very similarly to Darth Vader: black armor, no face, all ruthlessness. As the movie progresses, though, we get the sense that beneath all his bluster, he’s really a pretty immature person with insecurity and a lingering doubt that he will ever live up to his grandfather’s legacy. As the movie goes along, he becomes almost the anti-Vader. He takes his helmet off frequently, revealing a handsome young man below, without the wounds that necessitated Vader’s helmet and armor. He’s powerful, of course, but he for some reason seems unable to access his full potential when it counts. And, most importantly, he’s tempted by the light side of the Force. That’s something we really haven’t seen before. We’ve seen good Jedi, and evil Sith, and good characters tempted by the dark side, and good characters gone bad, but we haven’t seen a truly evil character tempted by the light side. Vader wasn’t tempted by the light side; he embraced passion in all of its forms, and this led him to the dark side, but also led him back to the light. Ren, on the other hand, is an evil character, as demonstrated by his patricide at the climax. There’s no redemption for that character. Yet he’s still fighting off his temptation to embrace the light. That’s new.

I think this is metaphorical or something

I think this is metaphorical or something

I really liked this movie, honestly. There were, however, many decisions the filmmakers made that left me scratching my head. First and foremost, Finn’s search for identity is just abandoned when Solo shows up. The movie basically starts with a nameless, faceless, history-less ex-stormtrooper who’s trying to discover what kind of a man he is in the real world. This is an exciting new premise for a Star Wars movie, and I don’t think they could have found someone better than Boyega for the part. The guy’s personality shines through the screen, and it makes sense for a character who’s never been able to express emotion and individuality before to go wild with his new-found freedom to be himself. His offbeat way of speaking and genuine charm are far and away the best part of the movie. He’s also the source of much of the movie’s humor. But when Solo shows up, the movie just gradually forgets about Finn. Oh, he’s still there, and he’s still great, but his character arc is pretty much over before the climax. The plot turns to Solo’s attempt to reconcile with his son, and Rey’s choice between living in the past and embracing her destiny, a choice made more urgent with her capture by Kylo Ren and his goons.

There were other things too, little things that didn’t quite add up in my mind. What was the point of the faux-Mos Eisley scene, other than to evoke the feeling of A New Hope? The lightsaber discovery could have happened any number of ways, but the movie introduced a new planet, a new environment, and a new character, and doesn’t give them enough screen time to feel like a piece of a coherent movie. Ditto for Han’s confrontation with the gangs after recapturing the Falcon. What was the point? I think it was supposed to remind us, again, of Han’s first appearance in A New Hope, in which he’s almost immediately confronted by a bounty hunter who’s more interested in taking Han dead than alive. It felt instead like something out of Firefly, which wouldn’t on its own be a bad thing, except that Firefly is pretty much based on Star Wars, with Serenity in place of the Falcon and Captain Mal Reynolds in place of Captain Han Solo. I love Firefly, but that show is pretty open about being a Star Wars knock-off, and it’s not good when the real thing feels more like its much younger TV cousin.

Then there are the ideas that felt completely rushed. They introduced the new Death Star (okay, I know they make it very clear that it’s not a Death Star, but I don’t remember what they called it and, come on, it’s a Death Star), only to attack it and blow it up in the same way that the two previous Death Stars were blown up. Hell, it’s actually easier; at least Death Stars I and II had a whole movie of build-up before the final battle. In The Force Awakens, the dialogue was pretty much: “Hey, there’s this superweapon.” “A Death Star?” “No, definitely not a Death Star.” “What should we do?” “Well, let’s say it was a Death Star. It would have a trench and an exhaust port leading to the core. Torpedoing that hole could blow the whole station apart. I think we should just do that. Why mess with a good thing?” “Damn, good call. I would never have thought of that. That’s why I’m not a General, I guess.” “Damn right.”*

I’m not even opposed to the idea of a new Death Star, I just don’t know why the movie thought it could get away with only giving the superweapon about twenty minutes of build-up before its destruction. The ability to destroy multiple planets at once doesn’t make up for its lack of screen time.

Similarly, the movie builds up Captain Phasma as a bad-ass giant silver stormtroooper leading Finn’s unit, only to discard her toward the end. She’s a menacing presence, but when Han and Finn land on the new Death Star, they capture her without a fight, and she promptly lowers the station’s shields so that the attack can commence. I’m not saying that’s not a reasonable reaction in the face of death, but it kind of undermines the bad-ass image they’d been going for. Then, after a poorly-delivered one-liner from Han, they dispose of Phasma off-screen, and she’s never spoken of again. If that was going to happen, why did they need to make a special character? Any low-level grunt would’ve done the trick, and the movie already has three other major villains to keep track of.

Then there’s Rey. Rey wasn’t the worst thing about this movie, and like I said, I really think she would have been a great character if the movie hadn’t embraced Han Solo as its driving force. But her perfection and invincibility, gradually revealed over the course of a single picture, make me wonder where the character can go from here. With the possible exception of Luke, she’s clearly the most powerful being in the movie. She learns how to perform a Jedi mind trick without having been taught, or even having seen it done. She bests Kylo Ren with no lightsaber training whatsoever. I mean, Luke never beat Vader, at least not without embracing the dark side. How can Rey beat Kylo Ren already? If she’s already the most powerful, the only thing they can do is make her a potential villain, and I don’t want them to set up a new protagonist who’s tempted by the dark side. We’ve seen that series. Twice. Anakin was tempted by the dark side, and gave in. Luke was tempted by the dark side, and rejected it, redeeming Anakin in the process. There’s no third option. There’s nothing else to do with that plot line.

Here’s how my Force Awakens would’ve gone. I think the first part would be much the same. Finn and Poe land on Jakku, get separated, and Finn finds Rey. Instead of immediately getting attacked by the First Order, they take 10-15 minutes to talk and get to know each other a little bit. The problem with Rey essentially comes from her lack of characterization. While I think the filmmakers intentionally tried to create an air of mystery about her, she ended up feeling pretty hollow to me. Leaving her history blank was a good move, but some time with Finn could’ve built up the aspects of her personality that aren’t, “I’m good at everything.” Plus, it would’ve built a more solid foundation for the strong relationship that’s so necessary in a movie like this.

Anyways, the First Order comes, then Finn and Rey board the Falcon and flee on their own to fake-Mos Eisley. They spend more time with that seemingly omnipotent alien lady, who then becomes a real character rather than a plot device. The climax of this movie would involve three plot elements coming together: Rey’s discovery of the lightsaber, a symbol of her destiny and latent power; the appearance of Han Solo, who can lead the protagonists to the Resistance and possibly even the disappeared Luke Skywalker; and Kylo Ren’s attempt to capture BB-8 and capture or kill Finn and Rey. The two protagonists come clean, set aside the deceit, and open up to one another for the first time, making them both stronger and able to face Kylo Ren. As the protagonists escape the New Order, Han has a brief moment with Kylo Ren, in which it’s revealed that the two are father and son. Rey, seeing Han’s danger, finally takes up the lightsaber, helps Han and Finn escape aboard the Falcon, and decides to seek out Luke, now that BB-8 and R2-D2 have given her his location. The film ends with the reveal of a First Order superweapon, many times more powerful than the Death Star, destroying a series of planets and threatening the destruction of the Republic.

Ideally, the next movie would end the way this one did, with the Pyrrhic victory of the Death Star’s destruction at the cost of Han’s life. Kylo RenLet’s face it, we have to get rid of Harrison Ford, who isn’t exactly doing the film any favors with his “acting.” I think that would allow for another movie of the audience wondering what kind of a person Kylo Ren is, because once he kills Han, that’s it, he’s evil. Rey could spend time with Luke, growing more powerful, leading to her first real confrontation with Ren, which she wins. But then the problem still remains; if she can beat Kylo Ren, what’s the conflict of the next one going to be? Ren can’t be redeemed, but maybe he can be used as a tool by Luke, and the third movie’s conflict could revolve around Rey’s reluctant involvement in a plan to use Kylo Ren as a weapon against the First Order, a situation made all the more difficult by the reveal that her parents were Jedi that were murdered when Ren abandoned Luke’s training, leaving Rey stranded on Jakka.

But hey, what do I know. Some of what the filmmakers did, I’m sure, was done this way for a very specific purpose: they need to set the next two movies up. Assuming they know what they want to do over the arc of a trilogy, they probably had a lot of stuff that they had to get through in this one so that they could hit everything they wanted in episodes VIII and IX. I get that. But I’m not reviewing episodes VIII and IX, however good they might turn out to be. I’m reviewing The Force Awakens, and The Force Awakens has problems with awkward pacing, lack of a central idea, too many characters, and a plot that keeps shifting focus.

This doesn’t mean The Force Awakens wasn’t an awesome movie. It was, and it was one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in a while, funny and exciting throughout. But I can’t ignore its faults just because I love Star Wars. There are many things it could’ve done better, things that could’ve taken it from a B to an A+. As it is, we’ll have to content ourselves with a good movie that didn’t quite live up to its potential.

*Might not be actual dialogue. I haven’t memorized this movie yet.

Hellhole

by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

 

I guess it’s possible that you’re less nerdy than I am and don’t know who these people are. Brian Herbert is the son of Frank Herbert, who created the Dune series, the first of which I recently read. It was pretty dope. I wrote a review that you might not have read. I haven’t read anything else by Herbert fils, but he’s pretty much science fiction royalty.

I know Kevin J. Anderson for a slightly nerdier reason. He wrote a great book, that just happened to take place in the Star Wars universe: Tales of the Bounty Hunters. For those of you who don’t read novels based on blockbuster motion pictures, Bounty Hunters relates the story of the bounty hunters that Lord Vader assembles to track the Millennium Falcon. If you haven’t seen the movie, die.

This is a serious science fiction pedigree. Stumbling across it while browsing the Public Library, I couldn’t resist taking it home. Unlike most things I decide to take home, it still interested me the next day. (Or: “Unlike most things I decided to take home, it was still there the next morning.” A more accurate joke.)

Ahem. Hellhole was pretty good. Like a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, it starts off by introducing more characters than the reader can keep track of; if you read these kinds of books, you know the “I don’t give a fuck!” introductory chapters that I’m talking about. But that’s alright, because (hopefully) we’re getting to know a world that’s worth the effort. The characters here include: General Adolphus, exiled leader of a rebellion who now leads a struggling colony on an inhospitable planet; Diadem Michella, dictator of the the Constellation and enemy of Adolphus; Keana Duchenet, the Diadem’s daughter; Vincent Jenet, a new arrival to Halhomme; and many others. There is no single ‘main character’ around which the novel revolves, and there are several subplots of varying importance to the story. As this is the supposed first of a trilogy, hopefully these plots will have more impact later on.

Moving right along to my gripes with the novel. The beginnings to sci-fi and fantasy novels are always a little slow, because they have to simultaneously introduce the setting, the characters, and the plot; the author has a lot on his plate right from the get-go. I understand that. But the whole book had that feeling. New characters and plot points kept introducing themselves, and I never really felt that the story had begun. It all just seemed like exposition.

Now, I think a major problem was that the chapters were very short. Each character would have a roughly five-page chapter, and then a new narrator would take over. This made for a speedy read, but left me feeling a little bit unsettled. It was hard to get into the characters’ heads. I wouldn’t say that they were thinly drawn, but with so little time devoted to each one, I never truly felt situated in the story.

My hope is that the next two books will have longer chapters, and perhaps fewer narrating characters. I would feel more immersed in the world if I spent, say, 20 pages taking in events from a single point of view. I hate to compare father and son, but I will anyway. Frank Herbert had a few characters telling their stories, and allowed for some nuance in the way they interacted. The characters of Hellhole were simply not as compelling in this way. While I doubt that the authors would change the structure at this point, I think it might be for the better.

Of course, the advantage to having innumerable characters and short chapters is that there’s constant action throughout. It also had a solid sci-fi plot, and if a little seemed borrowed, well, whatever. It seemed to draw a little bit on Dune (obviously), Star Wars (obviously), Starcraft (surprisingly until I found out that Anderson had written fiction set in that universe), and others. That’s a sweet combination.

*MOTHAFUCKIN SPOILER ALERT* Why’d there have to be aliens? I know aliens are a sci-fi staple but it was going so well before that. It was a pretty jarring transition. “Hey, this is a sick novel about the future of humanity, still dealing with similar problems Different day, same shit. Oh wait, aliens.” It’s not quite a twist, because we all knew it was a possibility, but it is a disappointment when an enjoyable book falls back on such an obvious cliche.

Overall, though, I can’t deny that Hellhole was pretty enjoyable. The authors have been writing sci-fi for a long time, and they know what they’re doing by now. It took me a while to read, for a variety of reasons, but it was a page-turner that had its share of surprises.

Despite its flaws, Hellhole is a decent science-fiction novel, though it doesn’t do much to expand the genre.