Recently seen: Rogue One

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_poster

Years ago, I decided that I don’t like the Star Wars “saga”. I know that saying this is not going to make me popular with the many people that absolutely love these movies, but I am in good company: In 1990, I attended ConFiction in The Hague. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I met several science fiction writers on that occasion, one of them being John Brunner. At that memorable lunch, he flatly stated that Star Wars had been a disaster for science fiction. Star Wars, Brunner said, was a throwback to the simple science fiction as it was written in the thirties and forties, not the much more sophisticated contemporary stuff. How unfortunate that this throw-back to the thirties would be the first encounter with science fiction for almost a whole generation.

I couldn’t agree more.

I well remember seeing the original Star Wars movie, later renamed “Episode IV-A New Hope”, and being blown away by it. It was only much later that I realized that I had been blown away by the special effects, which were light years more advanced than anything I had ever seen before. But the cheesy and flimsy story so full of holes? Not so much. In fact, years later I went to see one of the reissues of the movie hoping to be awed like I was in 1977 and, by then used to this kind of special effects, was more or less bored to death.

It’s not just the silly light-sabers or The Force and connected mystical claptrap. Nor is it the space ships that look like fighter planes and perform similar acrobatics, oblivious to the fact that such is impossible in the vacuum of space, because this is unfortunately a staple of most science fiction movies. No, it is far worse. The whole background of the much-praised Star Wars universe is actually full of holes. Let me just name one. Whereas many of the more colorful scenes from these movies show numerous non-human races (but almost all of them humanoid: two legs, two arms, nose and eyes, etc), the vast majority of the Empire’s soldiers and almost all persons of any importance are human. Really? In a galaxy-wide civilization encompassing many different species? Now that we’re at it, indulge me and let me name one more hole. The Empire is built on terror and fear. Even its highest officials tremble for Darth Vader and the Emperor. And with reason, because both of these baddies don’t hesitate for a second to kill anybody who displeases them, no matter how highly placed. Historically, such reigns of terror, while often devastating enough, hardly ever endure more than a few years, or perhaps a decade at most. Read up on some cruel dictators of our time, like Idi Amin Dada (who claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland) or Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself Emperor of the Central African Republic (at the time of course renamed to Central African Empire), or -in the more distant past- look at the fate of the crueler Roman emperors. It is very difficult for blood thirsty tyrants like Bokassa or Vader to instill much, if any, loyalty in their underlings and usually sooner than later they are overthrown. But in Star Wars it is never explained why Vader and the Emperor manage to have so many people, from lowly stormtroopers to high level officials and officers follow them and do their evil bidding. Surely not even the power provided by the “dark side” of the Force can explain this.

After seeing the third movie of the franchise, Return of the Jedi, I gave up and never went to see any of the following movies. Until recently, that is, when I decided that given the popularity of the franchise, I might be wrong after all or perhaps that the movies had improved over time. So I decided to give George Lucas and the Star Wards franchise another chance and went to see Rogue One. Unfortunately, I cannot report any significant improvements and I must admit that this is likely the last movie in this series that I’ll ever waste several hours of my life on.

The main plot line of Rogue One concerns the efforts of the Rebel Alliance to obtain the construction plans of the Death Star. I guess everybody knows what this is, by now, but just to be pedantic, this is the unlikely-large space station that contains a huge weapon that can destroy whole planets. Why “unlikely-large”? Well, think about it. This humongous vessel needs almost 2 million people to operate and -at almost 100 miles in diameter (the size of a small dwarf planet)- an unfathomable amount of materials to construct it. Instead of this one ship that can be deployed only at one place at a time, a smarter Emperor could use the same resources to build thousands (or tens of thousands) of large cruisers and battleships and project power much more efficiently over a whole galaxy. Yes, I know: the Death Star is supposed to be a terror weapon capable of destroying whole planets. But then, a dozen battleships capable of firing a couple of hundred nukes a piece could just as well sterilize any planet of any life larger than a cockroach to the full satisfaction of any evil Emperor.

In Rogue One, this almost becomes a caricature. To demonstrate the huge power of the Death Star, a city on the planet Jedha is targeted and destroyed. Really! A whole city!! With one shot!!! OMG!!! This enormous feat discourages a majority of the rebels, who are ready to give up in the face of so much power. Yeah, right. Ever heard of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Why would folk commanding enormous spaceships capable of untold mayhem be impressed by the destruction of just one city? Surely people who can travel faster than light are also capable of harnessing nuclear power…

So after having thrashed the Death Star and the procurement policies of the Empire, what do I think was wrong with Rogue One? For a starter, there’s the overly dramatic music, which after 10 minutes at most becomes really irritating. I love trumpets, really, but too much of a good thing is simply too much. The story line is overly formulaic and simplistic to a fault. The characters are all cardboard-like and it is very difficult if not impossible to identify with any of them, good or bad. They just go through the motions, without anything more complex than “saintly” or “pure evil” coming into play. And then there’s the rambling grand finale of the movie, when the main characters go to a planet named Scarif to break into the Empire’s archives and steal the plans for the Death Star. Not surprisingly, things don’t go all that smooth and mayhem ensues.

Sure, this results in a lot of action and great special effects, but logic has fallen victim to these effects. I’m not even talking too much about the fact that this high-tech Empire saves its valuable archives on some sort of VCR cassettes that are stored in a huge vault and have to be retrieved mechanically. Seriously? There really is no handier way of doing this? And despite the fact that a lot of highly sensitive super-secret material is stored here (like the plans for the Death Star), there sits this huge broadcasting antenna on top of the archives, just to make things easier for any spies, I guess.

To make life even easier for said spies (but rather miserable for the regular operators, I guess), all controls for handling this emitter and antenna are handily located outside and on top of that huge tower. That way, we can have some harrowing scenes with gaping depths that our heroes threaten to fall into. Apparently solely for the purpose to offer spaceships zapping by an opportunity to shoot at these heroes, the joy stick (!) that is used to align the antenna is rather inconveniently located on a walkway sticking out from the tower. The Emperor and Darth Vader should do something really nasty to the incompetent engineers who designed this tower, they deserve it!

And what’s the deal with robots in the Star Wars universe? They never seem to do much of anything useful, are often hilariously clumsy (like C-3PO), and generally only seem to exist for comic relief. They certainly don’t do things that humans couldn’t do, either, which I think defies the whole purpose of robotics. Let me finish with one final blooper. Near the end, the rebels, who have all but given up, learn of the attack on the Imperial archives and reverse course completely, deciding to join the fight. They are based on a different planet, presumably in a different star system altogether. Nevertheless, within minutes of their decision, they are in orbit around Scarif shooting it out with the Imperials. Well, that’s because of their FTL drives, of course…

So was there nothing I liked in this movie? Well, yes, there was. As I have mentioned several times above, the special effects are really very good and at time breathtaking, the more so because I saw the movie in an IMAX theater in 3D. The vistas of strange planets make you dream of future vacations… But is that enough to carry a more than 2 hour movie? Not as far as I am concerned.

Recent Reads: David Weber et al., A Call to Arms

call to arms

 

David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope, A Call to Arms. Baen Books, 2015, 477 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8156-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

David Weber is not the guy you go to for deep ideas and thoughts. Weber writes space opera and he does that exceedingly well. This book is another good example of his talents, even though this time he has been assisted by two co-authors. A Call to Arms is the second volume in the Manticore Ascendant series set in his “Honorverse“. This series tells the story of the early Star Kingdom of Manticore and its rise to prominence among the nations of the known galaxy. As with other books in the series produced by Weber, the strongest part of his stories is his description of politics and how decisions are being made.

Although his characters are certainly not interchangeable and individually clearly recognizable personalities, characterization is not always his strongest point. For example, much is made of the fact that the protagonist of this series, Travis Long, yearns for rules and a structured environment. Despite this, Travis seems to be functioning best when things are at their most chaotic and after a while the repeated references to this character trait becomes a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, Weber generally succeeds in making his characters believable, even the “bad guys”, something that many writers usually have the most problems with.

There’s one notable exception to this. This book describes a period in the development of the Star Kingdom where some local politicians try to defund the Navy as much as possible to further their own political goals. Of course, they are shown to be at the wrong side of history when the Kingdom is attacked by mercenaries and only barely escapes being conquered, thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the severely underpowered Navy. When the dust settles down, it turns out that these politicians stick to their positions and continue to work to deny the Navy the funds it needs. Here, Weber fails to make this believable. Faced with the clear-cut evidence that there are dangers to which the Kingdom is exposed and against which it needs to defend itself, one would expect even the most hard-headed idiot to change his position. Instead, Weber’s characters maintain their obviously wrong stance and he fails to make it clear to his readers why on Earth (or, rather, on Manticore) these otherwise not stupid people would do this.

One thing I have come to appreciate more and more was that the names of characters in this series are “normal”. What I mean with this is that we don’t have to deal with the unpronounceable (and almost impossible to remember) names used in his Safehold series or the gimmicky names that he used in his early Honorverse novels (remember the cheesy “Robb S. Pierre”?)

A Call to Arms provides good reading, an engaging story described in a believable way. If you’re allergic to politics, you’d do better to avoid this book, and most of Weber’s other work, too. Weber does not provide high literature, but then, he does not pretend to nor (as far as I can tell) does he even aim to do so. Still, I always look forward to a new book of his, certain that it will provide a number of hours of enjoyable reading and diversion. If I have one quibble with Weber, it is perhaps that lately his story lines seem to slow down more and more, with each new book in his different series advancing the greater story only incrementally.

What happens on Tschai…

I recently wrote about Close to Critical, a 1950s novel that I first read in the late 1960s. Some time after that I read City of the Chash and its sequel, Servants of the Wankh  (in Dutch, it wasn’t until the late 80s that I started reading mainly in English), the first two volumes in the Planet of Adventure series. It took me some time to convince myself to read the books: the blurb on the first one said that it was “brilliant and hallucinating” (‘briljant en waanzinnig’) and that somehow put me off as it sounded like some experimental prose that I had tried (and failed) to read. However, I was a voracious reader (during school vacations 2 or sometimes even 3 books per day) and ever since I had read Robert Heinlein‘s Orphans of the Sky while at an astronomy camp in the summer of 1968, I did not read anything but science fiction. So at some point, I had actually read all science fiction books that our local library offered and found myself forced, despite the off-putting “maniacal” and the fact that I had never heard of the author (Jack Vance, 1916-2013), to give these books a try anyway. That was a fateful decision, leading to a lot of joy (reading many more wonderful Vance novels and stories) and a lot of anguish (impatiently waiting for the next volumes in the tetralogy to appear, which took more than a year – something close to eternity when you’re 16 years old…).

Where Hal Clement had shown me the wonderful and amazing worlds that science fiction writers can imagine, Jack Vance blew me away with the strange and alien cultures that his mind produced. Some of his most alien cultures were actually human… In fact, as I learned later, the Planet of Adventure series is a somewhat atypical example of Vance’s work, which most often describes human worlds and cultures and much less often includes alien species. Well, Tschai, the world on which these novels are situated, contains not just one, but at least four separate and very different alien species: the Chash (which come in three very distinct varieties: the decadent Old Chash, the more dynamic Blue Chash, and the barbaric Green Chash), the Wankh (in later editions called “Wannek”), the Dirdir, and the indigenous Pnume. There’s a fifth alien species, the Phung, but it remains unclear whether this is really a separate species or an insane variant of the Pnume. When an explorer from Earth, Adam Reith, crashes on Tschai, he finds to his bewilderment that it is also inhabited by humans, in an even more bewildering diversity of peoples, races, tribes, and varieties. These humans are the descendants of Neanderthals and other humans taken from Earth by some of these aliens in prehistoric times. Each one of the four alien species has a specialized variety of humans to serve them (with the interesting exception of the Wankhmen) and that have evolved to resemble them physically (the Dirdirmen, for example) or mentally (the Pnumekin). The other peoples of Tschai are descendants of members of these client races that for some reason or another were expelled from their communities.

Over the years and decades, I re-read these novels several times. So much so, that I actually could point out on a map of Tschai the different places visited by Reith in sequence. I don’t recall when I read my old Dutch copy of the tetralogy for the last, umpteenth, time, but recently I decided that I wanted to read the novels yet again, but this time in their original English. I wasn’t disappointed. Within a week of the arrival of my new copy, I had finished it (it was a busy week, so I could not read as much as I wanted…). The books, I am happy to report, have withstood the ravages of time quite well and are still a fascinating read.

The narrative follows Reith, who tries to obtain a spaceship to return to Earth to warn humanity for the threat that these alien species represent. His quest takes him all over Tschai, which provided Vance with the canvas on which to paint dozens of different human cultures, each with its own peculiar habits and strange religious beliefs. Vance is not a writer who waxes philosophical about how such customs, rituals, and religions emerge or how a culture gets established. However, when reading a book like Planet of Adventure, I really cannot imagine that someone would only read this as an adventure novel and nothing more. One simply is forced to wonder how all this came about. In some cases, this is obvious. The Dirdirmen, for example, believe that they originate from a Primeval Egg, which lay partly in the sun, partly in the shade on the Dirdir homeworld. When it hatched, the Dirdir emerged from the sunny side and the Dirdirmen from the shaded side. As one of Reith’s travel companions, the Dirdirman Ankhe at afram Anacho says: “They are Sun, we are Shade… The Dirdir are the highest form of cosmic live; Dirdirmen can only emulate and this we do, with pride”. To approach this ideal Dirdir form as much as possible, the Dirdirmen have practiced selective breeding for many millennia, supplemented with surgery and the use of artificial body parts. The Dirdir, in turn, mostly seem to barely acknowledge the existence of the Dirdirmen. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the origin of this creation story must be the Dirdir themselves, who have made it up to keep the Dirdirmen in their place as useful servants.

The books are filled to the brim with inventive concepts and ideas. For example, on Tschai money does grow, albeit subterranean, not on trees. One might expect that this would make it easy to become rich. Not so. Money remains scarce, because it only grows in one particular region and the Dirdir use this as their hunting ground, where they return to their pre-civilized feral state and hunt the humans that search for money, roasting and eating their prey. Fascinating and puzzling are the decadent Yao, where individuals have a plethora of personal names, each to be used only in precisely defined circumstances that are almost impossible to grasp for outsiders. Some rituals look silly to us, like the sect that considers the act of ingesting nourishment to be something intrinsically personal, not to be performed in public, much like we think about sex. My favorites in the book are the mysterious Pnume, with a recorded history of millions of years. Although the fourth volume of the series plays almost exclusively in their underground realm (somehow, “subterranean” seems out of place and “subtschaian” is awkward), they remain at the end only slightly less mysterious than before.

When reading these descriptions of wonderful, mysterious, silly rituals, cultures, and religions, I find it impossible not to reflect on how real-world religions, rituals, and cultures came about and wonder whether some of our beliefs and habits have perhaps a similar, almost trivial, origin, where someone or some group made up something to further some selfish goal. That, of course, is what good science fiction does: it makes you think.

In short, these books have remained as fascinating as when I read them for the first time, almost half a century ago. Of course, knowing these books so well, by now the surprise is gone for me, although the sense of wonder remains. So I envy you, if you don’t know Tschai yet, because there is no equivalent to the sensation of discovery that you get when you read these books for the first time.