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.

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 “Review: 4 books I did not finish”

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.

Book Review: Nature and the Numinous in Mythpoeic Literature

Today I am reviewing a very different kind of book. It’s neither a novel nor a writing guide, but actually a scientific book written by Chris Brawley and released last year by McFarland as volume 46 of their series Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

9780786494651_lNature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy is not popular science, but the real deal. Proper academic literature written by and for scientists. I had not heard of Chris Brawley before and didn’t find any info on him in a quick online search, but this book touches in scociology, anthropology, religious studies, and literary criticism. I’ve studied cultural studies, religion, and intercultural communication for several years and this is just the type of book we’ve been using all the time. You probably won’t find it in regular libraries, but university libraries might either have it or could get it from another university that does. If it’s a topic that really interests you, it’s also not too expensive to just buy it yourself. (The book includes a list of all the other books that have been released in the series. “Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films”, “Ursula Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism”, and “J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy” are all titles I want to hunt down.)

It’s a very interesting book. If you can read it. This is at times pretty heavy stuff. Being an American academic book, the way it is written and the content explained is relatively easy to follow. It’s nothing like German academic books where it often seems like the authors are trying to write in code to prevent the contents falling into the hands of the uninitiated and being released to the general public. (It’s easier for many German students to read American academic books in English than German academic books in German.) But knowing its audience, it does rely on a good amount of preexisting familiarity with the field and jumps straight into the deep end. Someone who is not familiar with many of the technical terms might possibly miss more than half of the information presented in it. But first semester students manage. If you really want to know what this book has to say on its subject, I very much recommend giving it a shot. Even if you don’t understand half of it, the other half might still be quite eye opening.

The main topic of the book is the numinous in the stories of Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin. The numinous is a concept that probably very few people outside of this segment of academics have heard of, but it’s not really that difficult to understand. It was introduced about a hundred years ago by Rudolf Otto to help with discussing religious experiences. The central idea is that people occasionally have moments in which they become aware that the world and life are more than just the things they normally pay conscious attention to, which results in a feeling of amazement, wonder, fascination, elation, and possibly fear. Otto argues that such experiences are universal to humans in all places and all times, but people explain these moments and emotions in a wide range of ways based on concepts from their culture and religion. Religious studies is a field that stays neutral and detached from any assumptions about the existance or the nature of the divine and limits itself to the way how cultures and communities deal with such questions, which is a segment of anthroplogy and sociology that can be scientifically studied like any other human behavior. As such, Otto did not attempt to define what could possibly be the source of these experiences, so instead of a noun he refers to it with an adjective that describes it’s most relevant quality. It is numinous. Whether people think of it as God, nirvana, eternity, or a fluke of the human brain, the people who experience such moments become aware of something that to them feels numinous. (From latin “numen”; a divine presence.)

While many writers of fantasy and their readers aproach their works as adventure stories with magic and strange creatures, some see their own works not only as entertaining diversions, but have the aim to create stories that are “eye opening” and get the reader to think about their everyday world in a different way. Not simply to change opinions, but to see more, think more, and feel more, and to experience the world and life as more than just rational facts. Brawly quotes Tolkien that “what fantasy does is to help lift that “veil of familiarity” and allows us to “clean our windows” so that we see the world clearly, and religiously.” Other authors that are examnined in this book are C.S. Lewis,Samuel Coleridge, George MacDonald, Algernon Blackwood, and Ursula Le Guin, which is a quite homogenous group as the author admits himself, with Le Guin specifically included to provide some contrast. But since the topic of the book is quite specific, concentrating on a quite narrow segment of fantasy fiction is not a serious disadvantage. His point probably comes across much clearer than if he would examine a very broad range of highly different writers and works.

I came across this book entirely by accident while looking for any possible pieces of writing advice regarding religious elements in fantasy, since I’ve long been feeling that most fantasy I’m seeing is somewhat stale or even sterile when it comes to being “magical” and “wonderous”. At some point this book title showed up among the search result and with my background in cultural and religious studies recognized it as being exactly about the kind of thing I was trying to get some insight on. Even though none of the authors examined in this book are of the kind I usually read. And though the book is not about writing advice at all, I found it extremely helpful for my own purpose. One of the big points made by the book is that both Christian thought and Western Enightenment are centered around the basic assumption that there is a clear distinction and separation between humans, the divine, and nature. If the divine does exist, humans are not part of it. Humans are also not part of nature. They look at nature from the outside and maipulate it for their own benefit or accidentally causing damage that will become a problem to them in the future. And this position is highly criticized by the examined writers and their stories often tend to tear down these distinctions and seprations. In their stories, humans are part of nature, and both humans and nature are part of the divine. And frequently play very important roles for the fate of the gods and the universe.

The Lord of the Rings is always a good example, not just because it’s so well and widely known. In the world of Middle-Earth you have the ents, who are both like humans and like trees. And there are the eagles, who are animals that can talk and also clearly have some strong connection to heaven. In The Hobbit, you also have a man who is both a human and a bear. And of course there’s also Gandalf who has a human body and lives among humans, but also is divine in nature. Or the elves who are both like people and also at home both in our world and in heaven. Tolkien blurs the lines of what is human, animal, plant, or deity. There are no borders between them, only gradients. And this unification of human, nature, and divine certainly fits the concept of the numinous. An increased awareness of the universe as a single whole. I always wanted to create stories with a strong presence of a Spiritworld and cultures that see their world in an animistic way. Reading this book helped me quite a lot in understanding how that might work in practice.

This books is certainly not for everyone. But if you have some interest in the subject and get an opportunity to flip through it, I very much recommend giving it a look.

Names for Fantasy genres that have some merit and those that don’t

I wrote about the problems of the names used for various types of fantasy fiction at some point last year. But a recent discussion at Fantasy Faction did get me to think some more about it. People categorize most fantasy stories by different genres, which generally is a reasonable thing to do. But in practice many of these genres are not only not defined in even a loose sense, they are also often used completely contradictory. Some of them do have some real merit and are useful in helping people to get a general idea of the style of a work and to find other works of a style that they like. But others are really useless at best or needlessly confusing at worst, and in my opinion should no longer be used by people.

The Good

  • Epic Fantasy: While there is a lot of disagreement what exactly defines a work as Epic Fantasy, there seems to be very little contention about which works are included in this genre. Most importantly is obviously The Lord of the Rings, which really is the gold standard. Epic Fantasies are stories that are about a transformation of the world or a all the lands inhabited by a culture. Ofte it is the reinstating of an old order that has been lost, but in any case it leads to the creation of a better future for everyone. (Which may or may not include the villains.)
  • Urban Fantasy: I’ve also never seen any real confusion here. It’s any work set in the contemporary world, or a fictional world closely modeled after it, with the addition of magic and magic creatures.
  • Sword & Sorcery: Sometimes misused, but it is known exactly who created the term and what he was intending by doing so. Michael Moorcock wrote in a magazine that someone should create a term for the kind of fantasy that he and others were writing to distinguish it from the type of The Lord of the Rings. Fritz Leiber thought that they should call it Sword & Sorcery. So the actual definition of the genre is “the writings of Moorcock and Leiber”, and he also elaborated that he considered Robert Howard to be the best writer of this genre there ever was. What the stories of these three authors have in common is that they deal with protagonists who stand outside of regular society and its rules and commitments and fight for personal goals and by their own moral rules by facing enemies and obstacles head on, generally having to deal with supernatural threats like sorcerers or demons.

The Bad

  • High Fantasy: This term is hugely popular and used all the time. Probably because it can be applied to pretty much everything and has no actual meaning at all. What does High mean? Much? Good? Much Fantasy and Good Fantasy are not genres. The only consent there seems to be about High Fantasy is that Urban Fantasy is not included in it. That’s really not enough to go by for a genre.
  • Heroic Fantasy: This really just occured to me today, but I think it’s actually just as bad as High Fantasy. What does the term tell us? That the protagonist is heroic and does heroic things. With the implication that there will be action. Well, which fantasy story doesn’t? If you count them as fantasy, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are probably not Heroic Fantasy. But that’s also really not enough to make it a genre. Both The Lord of thr Rings and Conan are often called Heroic Fantasy and they are clearly completely different beast caterint to entirely different tastes.
  • Dark Fantasy: Really the same problem here. It doesnt really tell us anything about what kind of story we can expect other than it won’t be flowers and rainbows. And again, which fantasy story isn’t. Thankfully this never really caught on and we should just forget about it.

The Ugly

  • Low Fantasy: High Fantasy is already bad. But this is much worse. It only tells us that it’s not High Fantasy, and with that one not actually defined it has no meaning at all. Some people use the term, but there is absolutely no agreement about what it’s supposedly describing. Sometimes Conan is Low Fantasy, sometimes Narnia is. It’s completely unusable.
  • Grimdark: Grimdark is a joke that got lots of people laughing for the wrong reason. The term comes from the tagline of the wargame Warhammer 40,000, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”. The earliest versions of the game were an obvious satire of hypermasculine and hyperviolent fantasy and sci-fi and mocking the 14-year-old boys who loved and often came up with all that nonsense. Obvious to anyone but those 14-year-old boys. They didn’t get that they were made fun of and that other people enjoyed it for being stupid and ludicrous, like deliberately watching terrible movies or reading The Eye of Argon. I remember not too long ago when “grimdark” was used as a derogatory word to mock terrible gritty and violent fiction similar to that parodied by Warhammer 40k. But apparently some of the creators and fans did not realize that they were mocked and in recent years started using the term themselves. The term Grimdark now refers to both the parody of a genre as well as to the genre itself. How weird.

New books I got to read. And probably review.

As much as I love The Witcher, after three books I feel like taking a break for a while and look at some other books of Sword and Sorcery. I still feel like I am not really that well read in the genre and if you want to write some interesting stories it always helps to be somewhat familiar with what others have done with it and what might be interesting ideas to follow. So I actually got myself a decent stack of new books I will work myself through over the coming weeks. And most likely write reviews for them as well.

  • Night Winds by Karl Wagner. I really love Wagner. I think he’s the best Sword & Sorcery writer after Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapkowski. After reading a first story in an anthology (which was one of the few good ones in the book) I read and really loved Death Angel’s Shadow, and while Bloodstone wasn’t as great I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve now seen people say that the stories are generally much better than the novels, so I am going with this one instead of trying out another novel.
  • The Black Company by Glen Cook. I’ve read one Black Company story in a Sword & Sorcery anthology last year and didn’t like it very much. It lacked both action and supernatural involvement and that just won’t do in Sword & Sorcery. But the series is regularly brought up as perhaps the most important one in recent Sword & Sorcery, so I’ve felt compelled to actually give at least the first book a chance. People joke that we Germans have so many snappy words for philosophy and other complex scientific concepts, and I have to admit that it is true. To me, not having read a Black Company book is a Bildungslücke, a gap in (basic) education. As a Sword & Sorcery fan and critic, you just have to know this series to be able to make any relevant comments.
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’ve been actually quite surprised to see that this is already almost 10 years old. The way everyone keeps talking about it at Fantasy Faction made me think that it was very recent and one of the books everyone is talking about these days. While it goes against the Jordan Rule of not starting a fantasy series until it is completed, it does very much match my personal rule of paying real attention to books, movies, and games that people still talk about in high praise a year or two after release. I may not always be up to date, but this way I rarely read,watch, or play something that is not really great. And it’s generally much cheaper. (I think the last game I bought within a month after release was Mass Effect 3 and I was already a huge fan of the series. Before that I can’t even remember. Probably over 10 years ago.)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I don’t really know anything about it, except that a few people recommended it, both in reply to me looking for Sword & Sorcery and nonstandard fantasy settings.
  • Trollslayer by William King. I’ve read his book Stealer of Flesh last winter and thought it was pretty entertaining. His Grotek and Felix books seem to be more well known and have been recommended to me by several people, so I’ll be giving the first one a try.

Other books I have around and which I plan to get to eventually are Times of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, Kull by Robert Howard, Warlords of Mars by Edgar Burrough, and the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole. I also have started reading Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes, but that has an infamous drawn out opening scene that I find indeed quite terrible. There’s a lot to complain so far but also some good things, which I think would all be very interesting to discuss. So maybe I can get myself to endure it and maybe it gets better towards the end. I also want to write a review of the Thraw Series by Timothy Zahn in the next few days.

The inherent racism of Star Wars

I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can get before it gets insane and embarassing. But I am also highly critical of it and more than just willing to recognize its many flaws. And, oh dear, there’s so much of them. But one of the biggest ones is one I’ve almost never see discussed anywhere.

Star Wars, at it’s very essence, is fundamentally racist.

And this has nothing to do with Lando Calrissian or even Jar Jar Binks. People have complained about the Neimodians talking in a Japanese accent and being show as ruthless conquerors driven by greed, and I can understand that to some degree. And really, the makeover of Watto in Episode II is indeed the most racist shit I’ve ever seen outside of Nazi propaganda cartoons.

 "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."
“All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

But no, I am not talking about that here. The problem I want to adress is at the same time less controversial but also much, much farther reaching. Many worlds in science fiction often get accused of being Planets of Hats, where the whole population really has only a single defining trait. Star Wars does that too. And very hard. And all the time. Even ignoring the accents of Neimodians and Gungans and any resemblance they may have to those found in some parts of the world, the entire worldbuilding of Star Wars is based on a way of percieving people and cultures that has a clear and unambigious term: Racism.

Racism, at its very core, is not specifically about discrimination or hatred or limited to any minorities. These are issues that result from racism. Racism itself is the idea that a group of people who share a common ancestry can easily be defined by a few traits that are shared among all of them. So if you have seen one person of that group, you know not only everything about that group, but also everything about every single member of that group. Racism is the idea that shared biological ancestry makes all people of that group the same in several fundamental traits.

And nowhere in fiction have I ever seen this principle applied so consistently and agressively. Though I think it neededs to be added, that this is primarily about the Expanded Universe, all the novels, comics, and videogames that build upon the movies. The movies themselves are relatively free of this since it is rare to ever see more than a single individual of any species other than humans. But in the EU it’s really bad. If you have one character of a species appearing in the movies, even in a really tiny role, that character is almost always turned into the universal archetype for the entire species in all subsequent works.

Take for example the Bith. The Bith really only appear for a few seconds and have no relevance to the plot. They are these guys.

1024.7sw.ls.103012The bar in which Luke and Obi-wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca happens to have a band of Bith playing during the few minutes they stay at that place. Do we learn anything about these guys at all? No, nothing. Except that these are in a band that plays in a bar. As the EU is concerned, this is everything you need to know about the Bith. Because in the EU, the Bith are a species of performance artists and musicians. All of them. That’s what they are known for throughout the galaxy. When musicians get mentioned, very often they are Bith. It’s like the Bith have a monopoly on playing music for the whole galaxy.

Jawas_SWGTCGHere we have a group of Jawas. In their natural environment. Shoting at droids to repair and sell them. Jawas have many appearnces throughout Star Wars, but in the movies themselves I believe they really only have one significant appearance. (Other than background dressing.) And they are always surrounded by metal scrap and working on salvaged machines. Most often traveling around in their huge brown, angular trucks. Because in the movies there was one group of Jawas who had such a big brown truck, wore brown robes, and apparently salvaged broken droids to make a living. One group of 10 or 20 individuals. And what they did on that one day instantly became the template for the entire culture and nature of the whole species. You have seen one Jawa, you have seen all Jawas.

And there are virtually no exceptions to this rule. Chewbacca can fix shapeships and droids and in his backstory he used to be an imperial slave. Pretty much all Wookies you’ll ever see are good with machines and the entire species has been enslaved by the Empire. And not just the empire. In the days of the Old Republic, 4,000 years before the Empire, they were being enslaved by the Czerca corporation. Once a slave, always a slave. The whole species.

All Sullustans are good pilots, all Bothans are spies or politicians, all Verpines and Sluisi are great mechanics, all Twi’lek women are strippers, all Trandoshans are bounty hunters, Rodian culture is all about hunting, all Gamoreans are mercenaries, all Hutts are criminal businessmen (…slugs), all Chiss are military geniuses, all Noghri are super stealthy assassins, all Ithorians are pacifistic, all Corellians are roguish pilots with a problem for authority, all humans from Tatooine are farmers. It goes on and on. (And, being Star Wars, on, and on, and on, and on…)

In the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, the basic concept of racism is an actual fact. If just see one member of a species for a few seconds, you know everything there is to know about the entire species and every single individual. I can understand how it happens on a single episode of Star Trek that visits a planet only once, which then is never appearing again. But when it happens over decades and is done by dozens of writers in completely different stories, I find it rather inexcuseable.

Honorable mention goes to my favorite Twi’lek Nawara Ven, who has the distinction of being not some sly gangster but a starfighter pilot/lawyer of unquestionable integrity. But then, being a lawyer does kind of put him into a similar niche as smugglers and spies. It’s just their nature, I guess…

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Blood_of_Elves_UKRight from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

Continue reading “Book Review: Blood of Elves”

Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Last Wish
The Last Wish

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast. Continue reading “Book Review: The Sword of Destiny”

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan

Several months back I had been asking about recommendations for fantasy books. I don’t remember what exactly I’ve been asking for and the reasons why people picked it, but The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin came up a lot. I don’t even remember the other books recommended at my querry back then. Somehow I only got around to reading it now. I really didn’t know anything about it or anything else written by Le Guin but at only about 150 pages it’s a pretty short book and seemed liked a good opportunity to broaden my horizon and knowledge of classic writers. I generally turn pages at a quite leisurely pace and still took only about 4 hours to read it.

52e57e6be90796fa1882182f21167c09The Tombs of Atuan appears to be set in the world of Earthsea, which is a name I heard about before and that appears twice in the book, but otherwise it appears to be entirely a stand alone story. It’s about a young woman who becomes high priestesses at the temple complex at the very same Tombs of Atuan, being believed to be the reincarnation of the same high priestess who held the position since the very creation of the site by the other priestesses. Which brings me to me first problem with the book: The plot. In the first half of the book, nothing happens. In the second half, very little. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson once saying that generally you want to tell the audience what the story is about very quickly. As a writer you make a promise to the readers what kind of story they can expect to get and what themes it will be about. The Tombs of Atuan doesn’t have anything like that. It simply gives you some characters and some scenes, but no indication at all why you should care about any of this is and how it might become important later on. This drags on almost to the halfway point of the book until finally something actually happens. Some little potential disturbance of the status quo. But even from that point on there is no actual goal anyone is trying to accomplish, and with a short exception of just a few pages towards the end, not even a conflict of any kind.

But not all good books need to be about plot. There are many amazing stories in which the plot really barely matters at all. But these stories have other areas in which they shine. Worldbuilding can be one of these things, but The Tombs of Atuan has almost none. Almost the entire book takes place in the same temple complex at the tombs, with all the scenes happening in only four locations. The temple is build next to an ancient religious site in some kind of desert where the protagonist has been for as long as she can remember. We don’t learn anything about the desert, nor anything that lies beyond the desert. We’re not really being told anything about the geography, the culture, or the history of this world. All we’re ever told is that some of the current rulers are referred to as god kings and that this has not always been the case. It’s just this one temple that also is very much lacking in any actual history and even though all but one character in the story are priests there is never a single word about their religion. The underground tunnels below the temple are somewhat interesting at first, but unfortunately the entire book is very sparse on visual descriptions or mentioning sensations of any kind. And the protagonist is going in and out of the tunnels so frequently that they pretty soon become very mundane and lose the potential mystery and spookiness they might have had. And why is it called the Tombs of Atuan? It doesn’t seem to be any kind of burrial site at all. And I think Atuan is just the name of the land in which it is located. The title sounded curious, but it’s really “The Tunnels under the Desert”, which doesn’t sound not nearly as snappy.

Both plot and setting feel quite lacking, but in these two regards my feelings for the story are mostly indifferent. Where the book starts to have a real problem is with the characters. For the first half of the book the protagonist is slowly somewhat developed as we get several scenes of her being brought to the temple, trained, and eventually taking on more and more responsibilities of being the high priestesses as she grows up. And she did start to somewhat grow on me as she became more strong willed and fierce, especially in her relationship to the other two old senior priestesses. Once the established order gets a teeny tiny bit desturbed in the middle of the book, though there’s still not really any plot starting to become visible, there seems to be some attempts to make the story about a crisis of faith. But it just doesn’t work at all, because at no point is there any mention of what the characters might believe in. There’s occasional rituals, but they seem to serve no purpose and we are never told anything about the ideology or dogma of the priestesses. There’s just a vague feeling of doubt and unease. But doubt of what? Why is the altar a giant empty throne? What are the Namless Ones to whom the site is dedicated? What’s the role of the Twin Gods? Having no name or being twins is not a religion. It’s just empty words.

Even though the protagonist did start to grow on me, once things start to happen, she immediately falls apart, becoming highly insecure and unable to deal with the situation. And all because of the arrival of a man! She doesn’t instantly fall in love with him, but you still have a story in which nothing happens the entire time until a man arrives in a place inhabited only by women and eunuchs. The book is 45 years old and I understand that we now have very different expecations of a fantasy story than back then, and also take objection to things people may not have thought anything about. But once things start to actually get tough, the “heroine” immediately becomes very winy, helpless, and frankly annoying and has to be figuratively dragged along by the male character to not lie down and die in despair. At first it appears that she is under the influence of some dark supernatural force that tries to errode her will and that of the man as they start to become a nuisance. But once they are free of that influence, she still goes on like that.

For some reason the big showdown of the story happens about four fifths into the book. But it doesn’t end and you basically get a terribly overlong epilogue that takes up the entire final fifth. And in a way, the protagonist only gets worse from there on. After having escaped from danger with the man he promises her he will bring her to a safe place but then continue on his way. And then she apparently falls in love with him completely out of the blue. She gets even more moody and dramatic than before and at one point takes a dagger in what seems to be an attempt to kill him but can’t go through with it. And a while later instead decides that he just should drop her off in the wilds so the elements and wild animals can kill her. And the whole time she needs that man to tell her that she’s wrong and that it’s not so bad, and that she’s a wonderful person and did so great, and blah blah blah. Lack of plot and weak worldbuilding I can excuse. But the characters are really quite bad. And there’s only really five of them. None of which are in any way interesting or likeable. But a young woman being super whiny and dramatic and needing a man to help her live is just terrible. And this from one of the few great female fantasy writers of the 20th century.

To make it all somewhat worse, I also thought the writing felt very bland. Nothing evocative, clever, or snappy about it. So the question of “Yay or Nay?” really only becomes a formality.

Nay.