Watched: Rouge One: A Star Wars Story

As a kid I loved Star Wars. My dad took me to the cinema to watch the original Star Wars movie, later to be renamed and renumbered into “Star Wars IV, A New Hope”, when it came to Sweden, and I loved it.

As I grew older I also grew more ambivalent to it. Like the Lord of the Rings books Star Wars was important to me during my formative years, in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But back then watching films again and again wasn’t something one could do easily, and so Star Wars floated to the back.

In the late 90’s I bought the VHS box set of the revised original trilogy, and I still own it, despite no longer having easy access to a VHS player. By that time I had become part of the Trek crowd, though, and while I still watched the films every now and again I felt the story to be shallow, and not very honest. I never was interested in watching the prequels at the cinema and I have to admit – while I have later endured Phantom Menace I never got through Attack of the Clones… and that’s it.

Since then our son became an avid Star Wars fan. He jokingly says that he’s a master of Starwarsology. Well before he could read we watched the films off my special edition VHS box set together, with me reading the dialogue/subtitles for him. As a consequence I know the original revised films down to the inflection of the Emperor. I have played Lego Star Wars with him for more hours than I care to remember. I have, however, drawn the line at Star Wars Battlefront because honestly I suck at the PS hand controls (I’m fairly good at Wii, though, and am mean with a keyboard).

I did enjoy The Force Awakens, even though I recognised several of Abrams’ mannerisms and despite the less than stellar acting. And Trek is still my Universe.

Watching Rouge One: A Star Wars Story I am finally able to put in words what’s chafing.

The movie was, as a film experience, acceptable. It balanced drama, humour and action, and while the acting was part good, part stiff (especially on behalf of the actors that were chosen for likeness to original characters rather than for their acting skills: I honestly thought that Tarkin was computer generated – the droid K-2SO was more believable), I was never bored. I might even watch it again, as a diversion, if I get a cold and a fever and has to stay in bed.

So, to get back to what chafes: Leaving the theatre I couldn’t stop thinking that the authors, and Disney, has to be exceedingly out of touch with world politics to present this film to the world.

Rogue One is the logical prologue to what used to be the first Star Wars movie. It is also an ongoing manifestation of the naivety of originator George Lucas. His simple swine herd in space story has snowballed into something bigger than even Lucas’ could ever have imagined, and Disney hasn’t exactly sat down and examined the actual content of what they bought and so instead of reining it in they have allowed it to run amok.

At first it was a story about Good versus Evil. It worked well as a one off.  But as so many before me has pointed out the presumably Good Jedi and their rebellion friends aren’t particularly good.  They manipulate, use terror instead of legal or democratic routes to achieve their goals, and they deceive to get people on their side. Of course, in real life nothing is entirely clear-cut, so why should a movie be?

The big difference is the script. Real life isn’t scripted. We stumble through, doing as well as we can. Some people have an astute moral compass but most of us has unintentionally caused harm and hurt to other people along the way.

A script, on the other hand, is a way of telling a story. Stories can be of varying kinds. They can be used to disseminate human relationships, like the endless mother-daughter, father-son dramas that litter popular culture.  They can be historical dramas, they can be adventurous and exploring. They can be used as a means to present us to different ways to handle various situations, and they can try to present optimistic or pessimistic visions of the future of humankind. They can be used to analyse and disseminate present day events, systems, and cultural norms.

Star Wars has always cared less than zero about collateral damage. In Star Wars it is acceptable to kill and maim or set people up, as long as it gets you were you think you need to be.

As the first Death Star blows up presumable hundreds of thousands of people who only do their paid jobs, as cleaners, cooks, mechanics, gets killed. At that point, back in 1977, we all believed that this was justified, for the greater good. I wasn’t old enough to analyse it, I just thought it was cool. But the pattern continues and in film after film, in series after series, violence is presented as the best way to solve a conflict, and damn the innocent. No introspection. No questioning of means and objectives and relative costs, or of the conflicts between what you say you want and how you endeavour to get there.

No thought on what story you are really telling, what morals and methods you are endorsing.

With Rouge One Disney had a chance to change that pattern. But instead what they do is to present some kind of justification for the likes of the Brussels bombers. Rouge One tells you, the audience, that democracy is nothing and that militias are justified. At one point the protagonists could had chosen to not go with outright violence and certain death for most, if not all, in the party. They could had connived a covert plot to get the schematics. They could had been smart.

Instead they used brute force, and everyone died. Even the cooks and the cleaners and the kids that we don’t get to see. And all glory to the ones who willingly sacrifices their lives for the Cause.

The rebellion did get the schematics, death was justified, and the rebellion is just as Evil as the Empire. It chafes.

And to think that Rouge One is seen as valid entertainment while films like V for Vendetta gets blasted for being too political, too anti-establishment. But that is what happens when one is openly political while the other is more a result of no one stopping to analyse what it is that they really are doing. Or so I guess.

To be honest I don’t think it is intentional. At least I don’t hope so.

But it still chafes. And I’m still ambivalent.

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Reread: Merchanter’s Luck, by C.J. Cherryh

100% paranoia. And then some. That is the essence of the second (publishing order) Company War novel Merchanter’s Luck. It is set immediately after the Battle of Pell (Downbelow Station) and no one trusts anybody. Or anything.

For seventeen years Sandor has lived a life hiding in the margins, using forged papers and false names, and carrying whatever cargo he can find, to pay his living.  To survive he has become something of a con artist, but in the process fellow merchanters starts suspect he might be a pirate. Because how else can such a marginal ship survive, if not from black market trading, deep in space, far from stations and customs control?

He is running out of ports and is starting to despair, about life itself and the value of living it, when he is hit by the apparition of one Allison Reilly, off the huge and famous merchanter Dublin Again. A Name, as they say, whereas he has nothing. That night both his life and hers will change. Forever.

He has nothing, not even food enough, and hides his Name, not to put a bad light on the honour of the ship that once was. Still is, but now under false flag.

She has everything, but nothing too, in a different way. Dublin Again is affluent and its seniors can afford rejuv. They easily live for 130+ years. More are born than will ever be needed to run the ship and Allison has chosen the hardest track of all – that of Helm, which leads to Captaincy. The only problem is that as Helm 21 barring a grievous accident she will die without ever getting posted.

Allison get herself and her command – the three cousins in her team – onto Sandor’s ship, as crew. It is their one chance at command, at really doing what they have trained for.

Sandor, he has run the ship alone, guided by recorded messages put there by one of the three who survived the Mazianni raid on the ship all those seventeen years ago, when he was ten years old; and he starts to get afraid of the changes. He won’t accept to lose the voices he has lived with for all these years. As a result he starts acting suspicious. And Allison’s team aren’t slow to respond, adding their own suspicions to the pot.

What if there wasn’t any raid, what if the relics of a previous family they find in the cold and empty cabins really are traces of people Sandor hired and got rid of, in the dark corners of space?

Enter Alliance Force, the newfangled militia, led by ex-Fleet Mallory, with Mallory herself taking an interest in the small ship. Can she be trusted? What if she still is Fleet? Yet, their small ship has to accept what is offered – it is that or nothing…

Terse and claustrophobic prose that stabs straight at the heart… and then twists some. And some more.

If it was up to me the Company War books + Cyteen should be compulsory reading in school. Not as part of literature studies but as a way to discuss history, politics, economy, and the world we presently live in.

Go ahead!

Reread: Rimrunners, by C.J Cherryh

Many weeks ago now when I, out of some kind of desperation for ANYTHING to read while I had nothing handy except the two Cherryh books on my phone  (Heavy Time & Hellburner), picked Hellburner I did not know that it would mean a reread spree covering some of its siblings.

Downbelow Station came first and have already been mentioned – next up was Rimrunners which is distinguished by the fact that it is the only Company War book that I read but never reread. About time, then. Right?

No matter that I have an unread Culture novel (Excession) beckoning.

Rimrunners surprised me. My memory from my first and only reading of it was that it was OK but not on par with the other Company War books. Up until the very end I was wrong.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Pell (as told of in DownBelow Station) Pell needs somewhere to put the excess people they gained as refugees from the other stations, and also the newly-born Alliance need some space stations besides Pell. The logical thing is to make a second try at the Hinder Star stations, the initial first steppingstone for humankind on its way to new frontiers. Technology has made them redundant but trying to re-establish them seems a good way to solve a lot of problems at once. At least from a macro perspective.

From the perspective of the individual it is not such a good idea, though. These stations are the equivalent of the once thriving communities that got passed by when the new highway got built. Ghost stations. And the people, they become ghosts, too.

Bet Yeager is an ex-Fleet trooper that got left on Pell when her ship – Africa – had to brake from dock during the Battle. To survive she had to hide her military background but she isn’t a stationer and needs to get back out on a ship. To do so she has to lie, fake, and humiliate herself. She manages to get transport from Pell to Thule, her chance at anonymity and finding a ship, perhaps Fleet, that will turn up and take her on.

But instead of a Fleet ship the next one, when she’s almost out, is a rimrunner, a spook, the most detested of all ships, whichever side they’re on… and they don’t even run for Fleet but for the Alliance. Her old enemy. She fights to stay inconspicuous but sooner or later…

The story feel very much pre-word processing software – terse, not spilling anything but the most essential, leaving to the reader to fill in the blanks, yet showing enough for it to be a full experience.

I think everyone who think they understand how politics, society, and groups of humans work and react should read all of the Company War books. No single tome, however scholarly, can manage to so aptly illustrate the three-dimensional jigsaw society is – how most people basically tries to find a way to survive and in that end up on one side or the other, more by chance and geography than by being quintessentially good  or evil.

Enough said. Go get all those books, Rimrunners among them.

Not the most important, or the most difficult and complex. But without which the tapestry is incomplete.

Review: Persepolis (complete), by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi‘s biographical graphic novel Persepolis is, in all its nakedness and despite its heavy themes, a fast and delightful read.

Satrapi doesn’t shy away from the things that she did that are less than glorious and this is one of the things that makes Persepolis such a good read – she has a keen eye for the events that both move the story ahead and shows why things turned out the way they did.

Another thing is the way it shows that humans are humans, everywhere, whatever the propaganda says, and that no nation is homogeneous. The latter is obvious if we think about the place where we ourselves live but looking at other countries most humans tend to generalise, to think everyone is the same as long as they’re born within the same national borders.

Alone none of these are reasons to read the book. The first would only be of interest if she was a famous person before she published the work – the latter border on billboard politics and as such is uninteresting. No, what makes the book worth reading is that the core of her story hits straight home on the central themes and angsts of growing up (as a girl). Picking up the sentiments of ones parents and making a caricature of them when interpreting them too literal for adult society. Anxiousness over not fitting in. Trying to live up to what you think is expected of you.

That she do these things under circumstances very different from what western kids expect out of everyday only emphasises the universality of the experiences, and to me this is the real value, the real reason to read this book.

Highly recommended.

Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

When I decided to read The Forever War it was for three primary reasons –

A) The praise it got from people I respect,
B) I’ve read my share of Military SF and often enjoy it, and
C) It was a group read at the Shejidan site.

The last happened this past fall and for different reasons I didn’t make it, even as I acquired the book well in advance. Now was the time, though, and I took it off the shelf with great anticipation.

The Forever War has apparently been published in several various editions. The one I read is the SF Masterworks 2010 edition.

As the lead character returns from what ends up to be his last campaign, a campaign that lasted a handful of years in his time-frame but 700 years on Earth, he is informed the war is long since over. Furthermore he gets to understand that the war was due to a misunderstanding. Humanity has spent over 1000 years fighting against an opponent that didn’t ever want a fight, and that only because neither party could understand or even communicate with the other. Not until humanity had changed enough – some would say “beyond recognition” – for communication to be possible.

At the time of its original publishing in 1974 the Vietnam war was yet to end. The story has generally been interpreted as a Vietnam war story, even while it is set in the future, but Haldeman himself states his intention was to write about war in general. Either way I think the story displays naivete.

Not in how people die or in the way military leaders have to distance themselves from the humanness of the people they send to certain death. Not in what it does to the ex-military who are trying to find a place in a civil society. But in the final chapters he displays his lack of understanding in what properly leads to war. Either that or he chose to evade that issue as too hot, back in the days.

If the book is about the Vietnam war anybody thinking that war being based on miss-communication should go home and read up on the history of the region.

If the book is about war in general anybody thinking war generally being based on a lack in communicative skills should go home and read some history, too. Especially with focus on political and economic history. Because every known war has, at the core, been about power – either as in independence wars (of which Vietnam was one of the last in the row of wars that ended Western sovereignty over former colonial holdings) or for control over natural resources or economically or militarily strategical sites (in modern times the Gulf wars comes to mind, even if the ‘Nam war also qualifies) or over territory in general (many local conflicts) or for ideological hegemony. Whatever the cover story is. War entirely based on a misconception regarding the intentions of the opponent is, while not totally improbable, highly uncommon.

Because he manages to totally evade this fact – the political side of war – I cannot take either him or his book, however acclaimed, seriously.

Apart from this Haldeman knows what he want to tell the reader and he keep close tabs on that line, not for once deviating from the track. He seems to know military mentality, how a military organisation works, and what it feels coming “back” to civilian life. (I say “seems to” because I myself is clueless and thus can’t judge him.) Also, he can write.

However, I would not recommend The Forever War other than as historically interesting to those trying to understand the 1970’s.

Onwards, to my next read :)

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

So, at last – Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl. A near-future story set in a world where we have run out of oil all the while genetic science has its heyday being used by the corporate world as a way to more or less covertly own and commandeer all of the world and its peoples.

Welcome to Thailand. A nation set on isolationism as a way to avoid ceding its national sovereignty to corporate America. The greenhouse effect has brought a rise in the water table so half of Bangkok is now more or less sunken while the other half is kept dry by way of dikes and pumps. A fight is on with the isolationists on one side and the ones favouring trade with the world outside on the other; when we enter the story we don’t really know who to side with but it is clear that confrontation is impossible to avoid.

As if this wasn’t complex enough Bacigalupi adds a vat-grown human being, debating if this really is a human or not, and we follow her in her ongoing and daily humiliation. Because in isolationist Thailand anything not from within is impure. And anything genetically enhanced is a symbol for the devil enemy from abroad, something that deserves abuse. And abuse she takes, until one day she lashes back…

As the Chinese are said to curse – may you live in interesting times. The people in this book certainly do so.

The story is well written and well imagined but roaming a territory defined by William Gibson, Ian McDonald and, to me, containing much of Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  It very much feels like a first novel, trying to stake out a part of that land for his own. Yet, and perhaps because of his territorial neighbours, whom I love so much, I recommend this book highly.

Fast, fun, imaginative; not without originality; good penmanship, a fluid mind. And with one foot clearly set in the now. Because the world he describes is a result of how we presently treat our planet and our fellow humans. As extrapolations go, not very far-fetched. Which is scary.

Read it.

Review: Rising Tide – The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War, by Walter J Boyne

First I want to thank Hakkikt, down on Tasmania, for his mention of this book, on the Recently Reads thread over at Shejidan. Without that mention I never ever would had found it.

Second I want to buy this book. I thought this would be a prime candidate for a library loan, but as soon as I got it in my hand I knew I wanted it on MY shelf. Having actually finished the book I still plan to get it.

This suggests it was a good book, and that it was. It is based on interviews made with Russian submarine officers, many of them commanders, and through these stories the history of Soviet submarine corps is sketched – triumphs and disasters alike, and always with a look at the policies and politics that motivated the decisions. We get behind the scenes in covert actions against the US but we also get to hear how politics killed people through means of defective materiel forced through the production process in too much haste, and we get to hear it from the people who were affected by it.

Rising Tide can be read by anyone; no need to know much about submarines or munitions, thankfully, but a knowledge of the Cold War and about recent history makes for a better reading experience.

My main complaint is a small one. Every now and again the repressive culture of the Soviet Union, firmly based in a lack of respect for human life, is alluded to, as it was specific to Soviet. In reality this has a much longer history and has taken different faces as time has passed. Also I think the story would had gained if the passionate tone of the last third of the book had been more present during the previous two thirds. These are minor points, though.

A readable book, for anyone with an interest in the subject matters – politics, history, and, to a lesser degree – management and psychology. And of course for all those of us who think submarines, much like space ships, are fascinating ;-)