Monthly Archives: October 2015

My Star Wars Headcanon

I’ve been considering to write a series of reviews for the Star Wars movies for quite a while, and with everyone (but me) being excited for the new movies and someone convinving me that Revenge of the Sith is actually a terrible movie with barely any redeeming qualities, this seems a good time to actually get around and do it.

But not today. What I’ll be doing here is making my own personal list of Star Wars works that for me define what Star Wars is and which stories and characters I like to remember. And which in reverse implies which part of the Expanded Universe I’d rather ignore and pretend not to exist as part of the universe.

  • The Classic Movies: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, obviously. I heard Disney has announced theatrical cut version on DVD or Blue Ray. I’d really like to have those.
  • X-Wing: This was my very first videogame back in 5th grade. We just had gotten our first computer and one of my friends had this game, which we’ve played many days after school at his home for many months. Story is almost nonexisting, but it was my first game and the first Star Wars thing that wasn’t the movies. So it simply has to be on this list.
  • Tie Fighter: The second game in the series. And still to many people one of the greatest space combat and Star Wars game of all time. (Mostly people in their 30s, I would assume.) This one had a pretty good story, but almost nothing from it did ever get used in any other works. The exception being the Tie Defender, which I think was possibly the worst new idea introduced by it. But to my knowledge, it’s still the only Star Wars game with a story in which you play as the Empire, and had a huge effect on getting a look inside its military.
  • Shadows of the Empire: This one was created simultaneously as a book and a videogame and takes place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The book follows Luke and Leia as they are trying to rescue Han Solo and get involved with the organized crime of Corruscant while the game is about the mercenary Dash Rendar, who is helping the rebels by following other clues that might help with the search, and the two cross paths every so often. The book has a lot of problems and the game is just very, very weird. But damn it, I was 13 and I devoured it and loved it. It’s not great, but it did a lot to shape my own image of what Star Wars is.
  • The Thrawn Series: By the end of the 80s, Star Wars consisted of the three movies, a comic series by Marvel (which got almost entirely ignored by any other works later), and the roleplaying game. There also was a Han Solo and a Lando Calrissian book with various stories that are kind of their origin stories, I believe. But that was it. Then the Thrawn novels came out and Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command changed everything. These three books changed everything. They single handedly started what became the entire Expanded Universe. Quite probably because they are really pretty good. And when you were 12 or 15 in the 90s, they were mind blowing! I read them again last winter with a group of other people, and I’m definitly going to review them as well. There are so many things that are now taken for granted that really didn’t exist before it. Not just Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is just the most magnificent villain, as well as Mara Jade and Captain Palaeon, who became very major characters in their own right. It also established the New Republic with the capital on Coruscant and Han and Leia being married and having kids, who also became pretty important characters in later books. The entire New Republic era goes back to just this one story. It’s probably the most important Star Wars work ever, right after the classic movies. Without it, there probably wouldn’t ever have been any more movies and the huge number of novels and videogames we have now might not exist either.
  • The X-Wing series: I mean the books, not the games. The X-Wing series takes place in a quite rarely seen part of the Star Wars history, being set between Return of the Jedi and the Thrawn series. The central hero of the series is Wedge Antilles, a minor character from the movies and the one guy who survived both battles against the Death Stars. After Luke stops being a fighter pilot to pursue his Jedi career, Wedge becomes the most famous and skilled pilot in the Rebellion and leader of the ultra elite Rogue Squadron. Killing the Emperor and Vader and destroying a major part of the imperial fleet was a major victory, but it didn’t remove the imperial government from power. The first storyline that covers the first four books is just about that: Destroying the Empire and establishing a New Republic. For that purpose wedge assembles a team of elite pilots and commandos, whose task is to take various secret missions to prepare the conquest of the capital on Corruscant. I really loved those books and got them again in English, but have not yet gotten around to read them. The books that follow also have Wedge as the lead character, but this time he’s creating a new special unit made up of various unique individuals specifically selected for the most unusual of missions that go beyond the capabilities of regular commando and infiltration troops. Who also travel around in starfighters and are damn good pilots, because this is the X-Wing series after all. I read the first three or four of these and while I did quite enjoy them, I eventually lost interest. But the first four books rank very high on my list, right after the Thrawn series.
  • Jedi Knight: I actually only played Jedi Knight 2 and Jedi Knight 3 (Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy). I always considered giving Dark Forces and Dark Forces 2 a try, but they are really old now and just don’t look that great. These games are the adventures of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary with Jedi training, who has a quite difficult relationship with Luke Skywalker’s new Jedi Order. He clearly is a good guy and often on the same side as the Jedi and the New Republic, but also very independent and difficult. In many ways like the early Han Solo, but clearly a diffent and well distinguished character. And the early games in particular were pretty dark for Star Wars. And the best thing about them: Lightsaber combat. In the games that I played, the lightsaber is awesome. It works like you expect it to work, easily cutting through enemies and slicing them to pieces instead of heavy impacts that take a couple of hits to deal enough health damage to kill. And there’s a lot of dark Jedi disciples to have lightsaber fights with as well. The stories of the games I played are not great, and as far as I am aware the characters or events were never mentioned anywhere else. But I like them and they feel very much like Star Wars. They are still pretty fun today.
  • Tales of the Jedi: I never really got into the many Star Wars comics. My brother had some, but I never gave them any real attention for a very long time. The Tales of the Jedi series was particularly unusual, as it was the only Star Wars work not set in the classic but instead 4,000 years in the past, at the time of the great wars between the Jedi and the Sith. Some of the characters and places were used as mythology references in the Jedi Academy novels, but that was mostly it. I think the quality is not too great, though the original storylines by Tom Veitch were quite interesting stuff. The later ones by Kevin Anderson really not so much. Their real impact came much later when the period got picked up as the setting for a videogame.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: This is one of the famous BioWare RPGs, which one might count as one of the biggest videogame series ever, going back to Baldur’s Gate in the late 90s and up to the most recent game Dragon Age 3. Counting the various spin-offs and sequels by Black Isle/Obsidian Entertainment, there have been 16 games in total by now. KotOR is probably among the most praised and once it was decided to no longer make licensed games, it led to the creation of the Mass Effect series. The first Mass Effect is very much a direct successor to KotOR with a different, but in many ways very similar setting. It is set a few decades after the Tales of the Jedi comic series and takes the name from one of its storylines. While I think the story and characters are not actually that amazing, the way the setting is represented really is. The galaxy is very much recognizable as Star Wars, but it’s also a quite different place from the later periods. Both the Jedi and the Sith are much more prominent, but at the same time everything is also much more decentralized¬† with various medium factions instead of just two massive ones. The game is a lot of fun, and I actually like the KotOR era even more than the classic movie era.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Please people! Stop reusing the same titles for various different works! This comic is the third Star Wars story called Knights of the old Republic, after the first comic and the videogame. This one takes place shortly before the game and you see several familiar places and brief appearances of characters, but other than that really is a clearly separate story. Actually two stories, following the same group of characters. The central character is Zyne Carrick, who is possibly the worst Jedi ever. In the first story he gets caught up in a big conspiracy within the Jedi order and has to go on the run while he is framed for having fallen to the dark side and having murdered several Jedi. During the adventure he also gets involved in the Mandalorian War and crosses paths with Revan and Malak when they were still renegade Jedi fighting for the Old Republic against the wishes of the Jedi Council. The second story revolves more around Jarael, one of Zaynes companions, while he becomes a supporting character to her story. Both are really damn good, and this is by far my favorite American comic, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hellboy. I plan to read it again sometime, and then probably do a review of it.

Something quite interesting I’ve noticed a while back, is that most of the Star Wars works I really like and regard very highly don’t actually involve the movie characters to any considerable degree. The Thrawn series being the notable exception. I like the movies, but the heroes are the heroes of that story. Their story. Seeing them turned into statesmen somehow isn’t really doing it for me.

As you also might notice, no stories from either the Clone Wars or the New Jedi Order eras (and I don’t even know what this Legacy era thing is). I think the main reason is that they don’t really match with what I consider the true form of Star Wars. They feel more like spin offs with quite different styles and aesthetics. I actually wasn’t really happy with most stories set in the late New Republic era. The Correlian Trilogy was probably the last thing chronologically that I’ve ever read. And yeah, I wasn’t a fan. These stories also focus a lot on politics and seem to me to have lost the swashbuckling adventure style of the first two movies.

What I would put into science-fiction that aims to be realistic

My personal perception of science-fiction of the past decades is that there seems to be an absence of the great visions of how technological advances will change life in the future. From the 50s to 70s, such stories seem to have been all the rage. When I look at popular “science-fiction” today, it’s mostly “post-apocalyptic distopia”, “superheroes”, and the occasional “space adventure”. None of which really deal with the finer aspects of science or technology. If there is amazing technology, it’s generally handled just like magic, with no actual scientific basis. I think part of it might quite possibly be that we had an unusual boom period of scientific discoveries in the late 19th and early 20th century, that is a highly exceptional moment in human history. Quite often we believe that the trends of the last two or three decades will continue forever, with progress accelerating always faster. But I don’t think that’s the case. What happened in the late 19th century was truly extraordinary with whole new fields of science and technology being opened to us, which eventually lead to nuclear power and digital computers a few decades later. But since the 60s, progress has been mostly refinement instead of huge breakthroughs, which I think is a much more normal state for scientific and technological progress. A hundred years ago we made a huge leap forward and have been riding that wave ever since. But of all the possible problems of engineering and nuclear physics, it was the easiest ones that people figured out first. There are still many great discoveries to be made and we’re probably never going to run out of them, but with each one the bar is set higher for future scientists and inventors. A hundred years ago, two people could make a huge discovery by working a few months in a drafty shed. Today it takes hundreds of people working for decades with a massive budget. And the usefulness of any new discovery will be ever more difficult to anticipate in advance. At least until someone has another huge breakthrough that opens up a completely new field of science that nobody had imagined to exist. But that certainly makes it a lot more challenging for science-fiction writers to understand the research that is currently going on and make educated guesses how those future discoveries might change everyday life.

Personally, I don’t expect that life in 2115 will be as drastically different from life in 2015, than how life now is different than from life in 1915. While my interest in fantasy is much greater than in science-fiction, it still entertains me to think what kind of world I would predict if I were to write science-fiction stories set in 2115.

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Review: 4 books I did not finish

For me thie last month was one of great disappointments. I played Dark Souls and watched the early seasons of X-Files, and both failed to live up to my expectations and had me quit at some point. I’ve also been trying to broaden my horizon in books instead of reading more Witcher or Robert Howard, which I already know I love. I ended up starting three different fantasy books and stopped reading all of them. For various different reasons, but also some that are very much the same. Since I have completed neither of them, I can’t do actual review of them. But I think that none of them are actually truly bad and each one has some great things about them. So what I’ll be doing is to give a short summary of each book, also including one I tried a few months back, and the reason I quit reading, as well as going into some more detail what they all have in common that had them fail in entertaining me. This is not “4 books I don’t like and the reasons why”, but instead “4 examples of novel openings that failed to capture my interest”.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

When I started trying to catch up with fantasy books that have come out or become popular in the last 10 years, the Malazan series was obviously one of the biggest names I’ve regularly came across. Normally I would never attempt to try a series of 10 doorstoppers, but praise for this one is so great that I thought I could at least read the first book and then decide if I want to do the whole thing. But it turns out, I could not. I don’t think I got very far with it either. The writing was nothing objectable and the scenes presented in a quite engaging way. This one was a while back, so I don’t remember very clearly, but I think I got introduced to four different characters. And at least within the limited amount of exposure they got in my reading, they were all totally bland and forgetable. Young nobleman, young female soldier, mysterious man on some special mission. And I think some kind of weird queen. And then I lost interest. I got introduced to several characters and to several locations and situations in which they find themselves. But I did not get any information on what role these people play in the story or their world and why or how these scenes are relevant to the plot. Usually I always try to go into a story pretty much blind. Vague praise of the qualities of a work get me interested and then I want to experience it myself without knowing where exactly the story will go. But since I was already at the point of giving up on the book, I tried looking up a brief and general outline of what the story is about. Then I asked people who love the series to try and explain to me what the story is about. And they couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand their replies or found them unhelpful for what I wanted to know. The fans themselves were not really sure what the actual story is. Aparently this behemoth of printed paper keeps on going about different people doing various things that don’t really follow any primary plot. I can appreciate abstract narratives and stories relying mostly on characterization. But I need a goal or purpose for the combined efforts of the characters. From what I can tell, this series doesn’t have that. Continue reading

Retro Game Review: Thief

Thief: The Dark Project is one of the classic games from my teens, wich had gained an outstanding reputation back in the day, but for some reasons I’ve never really got very far past the first two levels. It’s a fantasy stealth game, and you could probably call it the stealth game that defined the genre for PC games. The same year, Metal Gear Solid was released for the Playstation, but even though they are completely different in almost any way, they both made the concept of games in which you secretly sneak around instead of killing all enemies popula. It was released way back in the great year 1998 (on the same day as Baldur’s Gate) for PC, and despite its age I was able to get it to run under Linux with WINE (with only an acceptable amount of trouble). I added some fan mods mostly for stability, but it also added some minor improvements like the night skies and water surfaces. I have to say it still looks pretty good for its age. Many games just a few years older have aged much worse when it comes to graphics. But this one is completely servicable. Audio is superb and I didn’t have any problems with controls or any glitches during play. My first impression had always been classic middle ages with a few anachronisms here and there, but as I got deeper into the story I discovered it to be actually following pretty closely to classic Sword & Sorcery traditions. It’s far more than breaking into castles and stealing gold coins and silver cups and candle holders.

Thief-the-Dark-ProjectThief is the story of Garrett, a master thief who in his youth was trained by the Keepers, a secret society of lorekeepers who also have knowledge of semi-magical stealth skills, which come extremely handy for Garrett during the game. Some halfway decent shadows are enough to make him practically invisible, even to people who are standing right next to him and looking straight at him. The other two important groups of the settings are the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is where the Sword & Sorcery elements really start to take center stage. The Hammerites are a religion of smite-happy fanatics who have tremendous power in the City, while the Pagans are a group of wild men and women who live deep in the woods outside the city walls and worship an ancient and dark god of fertility and chaos. During the course of the game, the Pagans become the main antagonists for Garrett. As he delves deeper into their hidden lairs and learns more of their ancient religion, the game is getting more and more surreal and fantastic. It reminded me a lot of some of the more bizare adventures of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The intro should give you a pretty good impression.

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Game Review: Dead Space

I’ve not really written much this month. And why? Because I was filling up some of the gaps in my collection of Playstation games. Among them being Dead Space, which I actually played once before five or six years ago but gave away or traded it for something else after I was done with it. Now I played the whole thing again and there’s really quite a lot to talk about in it. I usually don’t play Horror games because they are – yes, you’re right – too scary for me. Dead Space is one of the exceptions. Compared to oldschool Survivial Horror games it is relatively tame as the scariness goes and it’s set in a setting that I generally don’t consider particularly scary to begin with. I grew up with spooky Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and it was only many years after having seen Alien that I learned that most people consider it a horror movie. Alien lifeform infiltrating a ship and altering the people on board is an old hat for me. If you’re not immunized to stories of this type, it might be much more scarier, though.

dead_space-1689615Dead Space was released in 2008, like a whole bunch of other great PS3 games, and while not one of those games that achieved immortal fame, it was still very well recieved and has a lot of great fans. The kind of success game developers can reasonably hope to achieve with a new series. The setup is very simple. The deep space mining ship Ishimura has send a distress call from a remote planet and the company sends a small repair team consisting of a computer technician, an engine technician, and three guards. You play the mechanic Isaac Clarke (little joke here that sci-fi fans should easily spot), whose girlfriend Nicole is also one of the medics on the Ishimura, who had send him a strange message before contact with the ship was lost. When their shuttle arrives at the Ishimura, the whole power is out and the automatic landing system malfunctions, causing them to crash into the hangar bay. Inside the Ishimura everything is in chaos and the whole crew gone. But no three minutes later a swarm of berserking space zombies tears two of the guards to pieces and answers the question where everyone has gone. With the Ishimura being out of working order and the shuttle wrecked, Isaac has to crawl through the giant mining ship, trying to find a way to escape while keeping the ship from crashing down into the planet. And of course try to find out what happend to Nicole and saving her if possible. Good thing he’s an engineer and not some kind of useless space marine or theoretical physicist. Overall, the game feels a lot like a blend of¬†Aliens, Event Horizon, and The Thing. You could also call it Die Hard on a Spaceship. With zombies! Or, as I believe the correct technical term goes, serious fucked up shit.

This is an excelent trailer, by the way. It gives a good impression of what you’re going to get and, more importantly, doesn’t give away any details of the story. I watched this one years ago and quite liked it. And I think it was the only one I watched, which allowed me to go into the game completely blind. Which I think really was very much worth it. Many of the other trailer I’ve seen now give away way too many unexpected revelations in my opinion.

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2008: Also a pretty decent year for videogames

A year ago I wrote a post about the many incredible and amazing games that were released in 1998. Yes, I was 14 and everything was best when you were in your teens. But I think even then the list speaks for itself. Over the last months I’ve been completing my collection of PS3 games that I played but never owned myself or that I always wanted to give a try one day. And today I noticed that quite a surprising number of them were all made in 2008. It’s also quite the impressive list, I would say.

  • Februrary 12: Penumbra: Black Plague
  • April 24: Valkyria Chronicles
  • June 12: Metal Gear Solid 4
  • June 23: Battlefield: Bad Company
  • July 24: Siren: Blood Curse
  • August 22: Stalker: Clear Sky
  • September 25: Wipeout HD
  • October 13: Dead Space
  • October 21: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
  • October 21: Far Cry 2
  • October 27: LittleBigPlanet
  • October 28: Fallout 3
  • November 7: Gears of War 2
  • November 11: Call of Duty: World at War
  • November 11: Mirror’s Edge
  • November 18: Left 4 Dead

There were also Prince of Persia 2008 and The Force Unleashed, which are not highly regarded but I still think are a lot of fun, and Overlord got released on PS3. Probably won’t be long until we see the first games for 2018 being announced. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the trend continues.

Fantasy needs monsters

When I got back into fantasy books a year or so ago, I noticed that there seems to be a quite pronounced scarcity of monsters and nonhuman humanoids in the vast majority of works. When you talk with people about Sword & Sorcery, many have a very firm stance that it has to be human-only and that you can’t maintain the structure, dynamics, and themes of the genre if you include elves, trolls, or dragonmen. Today I came across a short article on another site which I’ve read and very much liked a while back, by a person whose opinions and understanding of the workings of fantasy I usually very much agree with and respect. The main thought was that monsters should be very rare and be limited to the truly unnatural, with a very distinct separation from normal wildlife. And I very much agreed with it, since it helps to ensure that the encounter with an actual monster will be something special and that the audience feels like there’s really an extraordinary danger.

I now very much think that I was wrong about it. Much of contemporary fantasy could be accused of being mostly a fictionalized version of the middle ages with the occasional sprinkle of magic here and there, but very little fantastic elements as far as the plot is considered. But even that would not be correct as many of these worlds are really more like 20th century societies in fictional lands that use technology that superficially looks medieval. I mentioned the relationship of humans, nature, and the divine in my review of the academic book Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, but I am going to lay it out again in this article that is directly at fantasy writers. The idea that nature is something that surrounds human cities and is separate from the human world, and that the divine aspect of the universe is located in a completely different place or dimension is very specific to modern western thought. It has been argued that the foundation for this is already found in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when humans were instructed by God to rule over all animals and plants, but it really developed to its current form through the ideas of Enlightenment and Humanism. (Which since the late 19th century got exported throughout the whole world together with the western education system and the modern principles and procedures of science that were based on that conception of the world, so it’s not strictly a European and North American thing anymore.) But in the kinds of societies after which almost all fantasy lands and cultures are modeled this whole concept fairly alien. Even in medieval Christianity, where the distinction between humans and animals was pretty clear, God was generally assumed to work directly in the everyday world, either actively or through agents. And the believe that there were other human-like people living in distant parts of the world was very widely spread. The land of the dog-headed men was a frequent topic among explorers and even the church had serious debates about what to do with them once their land is found. A quite common opinion was that they should be baptised and integrated into the church, just like all other humans. Assuming they are not already Christians.

Fantasy is obviously something you can’t do wrong. Pretty much every world imaginable can be well suited to be the setting for a certain kind of story. But lots of writers, and especially fans, make a pretty big deal of these worlds accurately portraying the technology of various historic periods and places. And often having fictional creatures around is perceived as being too fanciful and unrealistic. But at the same time there is generally no effort made at all to even somewhat approximate the way these people saw the world. We’ve had an interesting discussion at Fantasy Faction a while back about the possibility of “mythic fantasy”, and another one just last month about fantasy books in which religion and religious believes play an important part. (In both cases the search for existing works came up almost blank.) When you look at epics from antiquity and the proto-historic periods before it, it is very easy to see how very mucg similar they are to modern fantasy books, which have of course been very much inspired by them. But in those epics, the borders between human, nature, monster, and gods is often so thin and blurred that it’s not really there at all.

The book I mentioned above examines a small number of 20th century fantasy writers who went against that and deliberately set out to tie human concerns together with nature and the affairs of the gods. The gods don’t make any appearance in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always clear that there are higher powers at work and that Sauron, Gandalf, and the elves are all major players in a conflict that is much greater than the kingdoms of man. In The Hobbit, Beorn is both a man and a bear, but different from either. You have eagles who are taking direct action in the struggle between mortals and immortals, and trees who walk and talk like humans. And of course all the talking spiders. Pretty much everything that Tolkien did was mindlessly copied countless times without understanding why he did it and what their purpose was. But this dissolving of the boundaries between humans, nature, and the divine was almost universally ignored, perhaps because it was too subtle to even notice without understanding it. There’s not really a lot of different creatures in Middle-Earth when you compare it to most roleplaying games and videogames, but all of them do not exist to create contrast between the natural and the unnatural, but to make such a distinction disappear. In European myths about fey beings, they always are as much part of nature as they are divine, and most of the time they also look very similar to humans. Even the classic fairytale witch is not just a regular old woman who knows a bit of magic, but also a monster. (Maybe I write an article about how the witch is the female counterpart of the ogre one day.) In any attempt to create “mythic fantasy”, the path into the world of spirits and magic should not lead through the wardrobe or the rabbit hole, but instead it needs to be identical with our own. In many mythologies, the Underworld is not another dimension, but an actual cave system that can be entered through any deep enough cave. To have fantasy that is in any way inspired by myth and tries to capture its essence, I think monsters are not just permissible, but mandatory. Without them and the dissolution of boundaries they present, any work can not go beyond the scope of pseudo-history.