In Memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

It took me a while to get to this, so long that I figured I might as well hold off uploading it until the Glorious 25th of May (“Truth, Freedom, Justice, Reasonably Priced Love, and A Hard Boiled Egg”). When I posted my initial reaction to Sir Terry’s death on March 12, I promised a follow up to say just a little about what he, as an author, meant to me. And here we are.

I first got into reading his stuff over a decade ago, and I proceeded to drag the rest of my family into his orbit. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent reading the Discworld books and Good Omens, or listening to them on audiobook on long car trips. We got Hogfather on DVD when it came out (I found it not so much good or bad as kind of wonky, though with a terrific Susan—I enjoyed it, the rest of my family less so), and I even watched The Colour of Magic and Going Postal even though they were kind of bad (though I’d argue the latter had its merits). A couple of us even watched the animated Wyrd Sisters at one point (which also had its moments). So much joy and family bonding came of reading those books.

Terry Pratchett is, hands down, one of my favorite authors of all time. I can name only a handful of writers who could delight me and touch me as profoundly and consistently as Pratchett writing at his best. Heck, even most of his inferior works were well above my standard reading fare. After his death, my mother and I started reading A Blink of the Screen, the recently published anthology of his short stories, some of which were written in his early- and mid-teens, and even they are cracking good stories by and large, showcasing a command of humor far superior than I’ve managed to develop as an adult (and not for lack of trying). My literary world is greatly impoverished by his absence.

Heck, I’ve immersed myself in his works to such an extent over the years that it’s even influenced my speech patterns, (especially noticeable when it comes to my use of expletives).

And on top of all that, the sense I got both from reading his stories and from what I’ve picked up about him as a person is that he was, by and large, a very decent bloke. I believe he had some stances which I strongly disagree with, but I think he was at heart a good person, and to my knowledge he didn’t promote any outlooks which are actively horrible—not something I can say about all my favorite authors, sadly. Such a loss.

Here’s just one snippet of his writing, one of my many favorite funny quotes of his, from one of my favorite of his books, Hogfather:

The late (or at least severely delayed) Bergholt Stuttley Johnson was generally recognized as the worst inventor in the world, yet in a very specialized sense. Merely bad inventors made things that failed to operate. He wasn’t among these small fry. Any fool could make something that did absolutely nothing when you pressed the button. He scorned these fumble-fingered amateurs. Everything he built worked. It just didn’t do what it said on the box. If you wanted a small ground-to-air missile, you asked Johnson to design an ornamental fountain. It amounted to pretty much the same thing. But this never discouraged him, or the morbid curiosity of his clients. Music, landscape gardening, architecture—there was no start to his talents.

Many people have used the master’s own words to eulogize him, and why shouldn’t they, when he left such a wealth of good ones behind to choose from? I’d like to see somebody compile a list of the best ones, but for now, here’s my pick, another quote from Hogfather:

Susan: All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.


Thank you, Terry, for making me and so many others that little bit more human.


Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens first impressions

According to Entertainment Weekly, the Lucasfilm story group plans to release a slew of books, comic books, and other publications, chronicling the major events of the new continuity between Episode VI, Return of of the Jedi and Episode VII, The Force Awakens. This Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens will begin publishing in the fall.

Details in the EW article are sketchy, listing only a couple of titles and a handful of authors—it looks like the named ones will be writing YA. The only name I recognize from the list is Greg Rucka, whom I haven’t read, but I understand his run on Wonder Woman was highly regarded*. The only other thing I noticed about the concrete announcements is that it looks like we so far have three male writers and just one female writer confirmed. Hardly surprising, but discouraging nonetheless. Anyway, here’s what I think, given the preliminary nature of the information we have at present.

*Though as John Jackson Miller’s output attests, good comic book writing doesn’t necessarily equate to good novel writing. Not that his novels are terrible, they just can’t compete with his comics. (And yes, I know not everyone thinks Jackson Miller is that great a comic book writer, either, but I still do.)

You know, I was just wondering at the lack of book announcements coming out of Lucasfilm lately. I suppose I should have suspected something like this was in the works.

I find myself oddly conflicted about this development. I’ve already explained in detail why I, personally, am overall pleased with the decision to reclassify the former Expanded Universe as non-canon. So this should be no big deal, right? Why the trepidation?

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, I’m still reluctant to let go of so many of my beloved stories from the New Republic era of the Expanded Universe, and more importantly, my favorite characters who debuted in that era. If they’re being retconned out in the context of a new movie trilogy unfolding before my eyes, and the story that trilogy tells is sufficiently compelling, that would soften the adjustment process. But if the first sight we get of the new continuity is in books and graphic novels—of which we’ve had plenty over the decade since the last trilogy ended—that’s a bit different.

Also, as I pointed out in the previous post, the sequel trilogy takes place more than three decades after the original films. If we started the new, EU-exclusionary continuity with The Force Awakens, we’d be free to imagine that anything which took place in the EU and isn’t directly contradicted by the films still happened more or less as originally written. Apart from elements like Mara Jade and the Solo children, that encompasses most of the New Republic era. Any necessary gaps could have been quietly back-filled in after the release of Force Awakens, when fans will hopefully be basking in the glow of a new Star Wars film. (I’m prepared to give Abrahms and crew the benefit of the doubt that that, at least, will be worthwhile.)

Instead, we get this. I was already steeling myself up to have my favorite characters erased, but to have all the great stories taken out along with them, and not even in the films proper, but in a bunch of spin-off media? I guess the Lucasfilm story group folks don’t believe in easing fans slowly into the new status quo. Perhaps they’re just that confident that the Journey to Force Awakens material will blow even the best New Republic era stories entirely out of the water. Forgive me if I take a more skeptical approach, at least until I’ve seen the finished products.

The one potentially hopeful possibility for me, which I almost don’t dare to type, is that Timothy Zahn has been brought on board as one of the writers for Journey to. That would be awesome. Granted, his Star Wars books have been of variable quality and none, in my opinion, have recaptured the heights he attained with the original Thrawn trilogy. On the other hand, I would contend that even his worst Star Wars material is head and shoulders above the best offerings of ~90% of the other authors who contributed to the old Expanded Universe*. More than that, he’s about the only Expanded Universe author whom I trust at this point to get what Star Wars means to me—perhaps because he played such a big role in shaping what it means to me with the Thrawn books all those years ago. If anyone can, he’d also find a way of slipping in favorites like Thrawn, Pellaeon, Karrde, and even some version of Mara. And most importantly, in the latter case, even if he takes her story in a wildly different direction than he did in the EU stories, Zahn can be trusted to write her in bloody character. (Yep, still sore about Legacy of the Force.) And if it was necessary to kill Mara off for the sake of a storyline, Zahn could probably find a way to give her an appropriate send-off, rather than the bullshit we got in Sacrifice. (Definitely still sore.) Even he couldn’t fit in the Solo children if that’s not in the sequel trilogy gameplan—as seems likely—but Zahn would still come closest to generating what I loved best from the New Republic era EU and deliver it in the form of a deeply engaging, fun, and exciting story.

*And Aaron Allston, perhaps the most prolific of the exceptions—when he’s not collaborating with Troy Denning—is sadly no longer with us.

(Also on the subject of writers for Journey to, please tell me Denning either isn’t involved, or at least has been relegated to low-key projects like Tatooine Ghost, which was a decent enough story.)

Like I said, I don’t quite dare to hope Zahn will be attached to this project, and even if he is, my mind can all too easily imagine scenarios where it still all falls apart. Given the general mediocrity of the books published in the lead-up to the Expanded Universe’s fading out, and the fact that from what I can tell, the folks who presided over that pile of unmitigated adequacy are still integral to the decision-making process, I have significant reservations about Journey to the Force Awakens.

Don’t get me wrong, even in my bleakest moments, I don’t expect a clusterf**k on the level of “Legacy of the Force.” Obviously, it could happen, but it would take an incredible amount of doing—I think the chances against it are pretty good. But I do worry that it’ll be a mess of bad stories on the order of, say, Scourge or Deceived, not-good stories like Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge, and some decent but forgettable stories like Kenobi, and maybe one or two pretty good but far from amazing, stories like A New Dawn. Admittedly, the old EU had of mediocre and outright bad stories, but it didn’t have another narrative of that period in Star Wars history to compare itself against. And the way nostalgia works is that the whole of the Journey to material is going to be compared against the best of the Old Republic era EU. Not fair, but that’s how it is. Even if most of Journey to is of similar quality to A New Dawn—which would be an accomplishment all on its own—it’s still not going to live up its competition for me.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that the Journey to folks have set a really high bar for themselves in order to win me over, and nothing I’ve seen so far gives me any reason to expect they’ll clear it. Overall, I’m still optimistic about the new continuity in the long run, but for the short term, I suspect I’m in for a lot of disappointment.

Peace out, everyone

Passing of a legend

“Hmm, yes? Oh, my goodness, it’s you.”
“And that must mean that I’m …”
“Well, well. I must say, I never expected to actually meet you. Never believed in this sort of thing, you know.”
“Yes, I suppose we do. So what now, then?”
“Of course. And what, er, what is the next part, exactly?”
“I guess we might as well go, then.”
“Yes? Go on.”
“Goodness, really? Well, after all, why not?”

I wrote those words in the fall of 2012, when I was in London. I don’t know why they came to me then, but I wanted to have them ready for when this day came. I hoped it would be many more years … don’t we always?

I should have known he’d beat me to the punch; I’m sure it’s better this way.

I’ll expound more upon what Pratchett meant to me at a later time. For now, suffice it to say that I consider him probably one of the greatest writers I personally have ever read, and it seems like he was a largely decent human being on top of it. His death is a great loss, and he leaves a rich literary legacy behind him.

Anakin Solo Day, thirteenth anniversary

So here we are yet again. Another year rolls around and—oh wait a minute, the entire Expanded Universe has been explicitly rendered non-canon. Well, that changes things, doesn’t it?

Overall, I’m pretty much in agreement with Nash on this move. I mean, ever since they announced they weren’t going to adapt one of the post Return of the Jedi novels, it was inevitable that whatever they come up with will be irreconcilable with so much of the EU that there’s no point trying to salvage it. Something like this was only to be expected.

(Granted, the details of exactly what is being retained and what is being discarded are interesting to consider, and the subject of some confusion. Nash, for instance, claims that everything Lucas had a hand in, including The Star Wars Holiday Special and the two live-action Ewoks films* remain in the new canon. However, the announcement only specifies the six films, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars the animated TV show, and the folks at Wookieepedia, at least, are operating under the assumption that these are the only pre-2014 Star Wars media which remain in the new continuity.)

*The first of which, Caravan of Courage, I still have a soft spot for.

And keep in mind, both the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars series have a habit of incorporating elements of the Expanded Universe into their canon, and the PR surrounding the new canon goes out of its way to suggest that this will continue. Granted, they’re prone to changing details such as the name of the Sith homeworld switching from Korriban to Moraband, or (and I’m a little surprised Nash didn’t bring this one up), the pronunciation of the second “c” in “Coruscant” going from hard to soft, despite not being followed by either an “e” or an “i.” But I’ve always been more impressed that they included stuff like Coruscant or the Nightsisters of Dathomir in the first place—not just EU easter eggs, but stuff which has a substantial impact on continuity.

So a lot of Expanded Universe material which doesn’t directly contradict the new continuity may yet find its way back into official canon. To take an example from Nash’s video which is also near and dear to my heart: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Sadly, the overwhelming likelihood is that we will never get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy. However, the sequel trilogy takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, decades after Thrawn’s death in EU chronology. This being the case, nothing could be simpler than to have one of the characters in Episode VII mention Thrawn as a powerful enemy they defeated many years ago. For the EU fans, it cements Thrawn’s canonicity, and for those who don’t follow the EU it could serve as a bit of background flavor, like the references to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy, without need for further elaboration. Heck, you could throw in Joruus C’baoth at the same time, with the filmmakers no doubt dreaming up yet another way to pronounce his last name that contradicts what every previous narrator has come up with. And all it would take would be a single line of dialogue—nothing could be simpler.

Similarly, popular EU characters like Kyle Katarn and Corran Horn could get cameo roles, like Aayla Secura in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, or even just name drops like Quinlan Vos in Revenge of the Sith, and boom!, those characters are now established elements of movie canon. (And even if they don’t make it into the movies, EU writers who’ve been brought on to write books and comics in the new continuity could still include them.) A Wraith Squadron mention would be particularly welcome, in honor of the late Aaron Allston.

I’m not saying your favorite planet, species, supporting character, or cool piece of tech or worldbuilding is necessarily going to show up in the new canon, just that it’s entirely possible for that to happen.

Really, the only bit of EU lore which easily be brought into the new continuity this way are the post-Jedi storylines and a couple of the characters who have a direct bearing upon our main cast. In terms of storylines, as I’ve already pointed out, many of the New Republic era events can be assumed to have taken place in the past, without tying the filmmakers’ hands too much. And even if they are directly contradicted, as much as I love the EU, I find there isn’t any one storyline which I’m so invested in that I regard its loss as a mortal blow to the saga. (To explain: while I feel absence of the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a major loss for the franchise, I wouldn’t mind in principle if the details of his campaign against our heroes and eventual defeat diverged wildly from Zahn’s original story, so long as they were equally compelling.)

And needless to say, I won’t be shedding any tears over the Legacy Era, books or comics. I know both have their fans, but if I can accept the potential loss of stories I actually enjoy—like the Knights of the Old Republic and Dawn of the Jedi comics—I’m certainly not going to bat for them.

That leaves us with a handful of characters who are, to be fair, some of the most important characters in the EU at present. First off, there’s Ben, whom I wanted to like, but his storyline in the Dark Nest trilogy was meh, his storyline in Legacy of the Force I actively despised, what I’ve read of his storyline in Fate of the Jedi I didn’t care for, and whose part in Lord Denning’s Crucible was back to meh. I know Zekk and Jagged Fel both have their fans, but personally, I find them both insufficiently interesting to serve as love interests for Jaina. Tahiri and Tenel Ka I like, and will be sorry to see them go, but not devastated.

Then we have the Solo children: Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin. Now, I’m a huge fan of Anakin and Jaina Solo, and a pretty big fan of Jacen Solo (from the New Republic and New Jedi Order eras, of course, not to be confused with the awful caricature seen in the Legacy era), and you’re damn right I’ll be sad to see them go. Of course, new main characters have been cast, and at least one of the younger ones is likely to be a daughter or son of Leia and Han. However, we’re unlikely to all three Solo children, and their personalities are apt to be completely different—heck, we’ve no particular reason to believe they’ll even have the same name(s).

And then, of course, there’s Mara. Even more than the Solo children, I grew up with the character of Mara Jade. My first exposure to Star Wars was the Thrawn trilogy on audiocassette before I’d seen the movies and before I’d learned to read—she’s always been as integral to what Star Wars means to me as Luke or Leia or Han or Darth Vader or the droids. And—aside from the fact that none of the three women who’ve been cast in new lead roles for Episode VII seem likely candidates to portray Mara—I don’t see how the filmmakers could include her without completely derailing the movie.

I mean, if they just give Luke a redheaded wife who, by the way, used to be a top agent for Emperor Palpatine, the non-EU viewers would be completely at all loss. You can’t just toss off something like that in a line of dialogue, it would have to be explored in the movie, which would then distract from whatever story the filmmakers are trying to tell. (Kind of like how they couldn’t resurrect Kirk Prime in Star Trek|| without making it a story about that Captain Kirk coming back, which was not the story J. J. Abrams and co. were there to tell.) It’s especially unlikely given my understanding that the sequel trilogy is supposed to be about the new cast, with the original trilogy characters playing supporting roles—adding in a whole character arc for a new love interest for one of the characters who isn’t even one of the main protagonists seems highly dubious.

Much as it pains me, and much as I still foster diminishing hopes that I’ll be proved wrong, I’ve always assumed that Mara is one aspect of the Expanded Universe who will not survive the transfer to the new continuity in any recognizable form. A couple months after the re-shuffle though, I had a horrible thought: I could potentially see the filmmakers mentioning that Luke had a redheaded wife named Mara who died—under tragic circumstances, of course—some time before the events of Episode VII. If the character in question isn’t there any more, there’s less of a need to delve into her and Luke’s backstory. This would be the worst of both possible worlds: she technically exists in the new continuity, but as a plot device to provide backstory (and a cliché one at that), without ever getting a chance to be a character in her own right.

Sometime later, a more palatable if still unsatisfactory option occurred to me: they might preserve Mara Jade pretty much as she was through the end of the Thrawn trilogy, and just drop the part where she hooks up with Luke ten years later. If she’s not directly tied to one of the major characters, then like Thrawn, Corran, and the others, she could just be a cameo or mentioned character without raising too many questions. Even her the part about her starting out wanting to kill Luke and working with him in the end could be brought up in passing as “just one of those things” if her role in the story is entirely incidental. While disappointing, this scenario is where most of my increasingly slim hopes for inducting Mara into the new continuity lie; this way, at least fans like me can console ourselves with the thought that she’s still out there somewhere being awesome.

By far the likeliest scenario, though, is that—bar Thrawn—none of my favorite Expanded Universe characters will make even token appearance in the sequel trilogy, and furthermore, that the events of the trilogy will negate the possibility of their ever existing in the new canon.

And you know something? If this were fifteen, even ten years ago, I’d probably be livid at having so many of my favorite Star Wars characters consigned to the memory hole like this. As I’ve said, I’ll be hugely disappointed to see my fears for them confirmed—but even assuming they are, this shift over to a new canon still comes to me as a profound relief.

The reason why is simple: up until practically the very last minute, the EU authors were still busily at work ruining those characters far beyond any damage rendering them non-canon could bring. Let’s run down the list shall we?

Anakin Solo: Ignobly killed off at age seventeen in New Jedi Order: Star by Star (published thirteen years ago today), just as he was embarking on two fantastic storylines: transformation from naïve kid to mature hero, and a really sweet romance with Tahiri. Death revisited in Legacy of the Force just to twist the knife a little bit more.

Mara Jade: Stuffed into the fridge in Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice to further Luke’s, Ben’s, and Darth Mary-Sue’s storylines, after having her character gutted of competence and relevance through much of Legacy of the Force and Dark Nest. (Rereading the part in Zahn’s Vision of the Future where Mara calls Luke on “not slapping down a tipped turbolaser like Kyp Durron the minute he started showing dark tendencies” is darkly hilarious when you consider how Dark Nest and the first half of Legacy of the Force portray her as happily oblivious to Darth Ego running around doing everything short of tying young women to train tracks while twirling his mustache and cackling madly to indicate his villainy.)

Jaina Solo: Spends New Jedi Order, Dark Nest, and Legacy of the Force playing second fiddle to her God-Moded twin brother (despite presumably having equal potential), and has to be trained by the karking Mandalorians to be a match for him. Heroically commits fratricide in Legacy of the Force: Invincible, after which point she, I guess, maybe starts getting the respect she deserves? I dunno, I never read Fate of the Jedi. The final book in EU chronology in which she appears depicts her as finally having earned the rank of Master, but goes out of its way to point out that some random (male) apprentice still has the potential to match her, and shows her to be complacent with Faux Skywalker’s jackbooted authoritarianism. Also, like I said, both of her love interests put me to sleep.

Jacen Solo: Killed off in Legacy of the Force: Invincible in the culmination of a painfully trite, unimaginative, and out-of-character “yet another descendant of Anakin Skywalker falls to the Dark Side” storyline that began all the way back in the middle of the Dark Nest trilogy, and involved him murdering quite a lot of sympathetic characters, Mara included, along the way.

Tahiri Veila: The writers don’t seem to have known what to do with her after the end of her character arc in New Jedi Order, other than angst over her dead boyfriend. So, turned evil in Legacy of the Force and then redeemed, but not before killing Gilad Pellaeon*, and apparently having sex with Darth Recycled Plot. Some shenanigans surrounding her crimes as the latter’s apprentice in Fate of the Jedi, and maybe hints at a possible romance between her and Ben Skywalker, as a substitute for Anakin, just for that little added glurge.

*Probably the character who came closest to a spot on my “absolute favorites” list without quite making the cut.

Tenel Ka: Almost completely sidelined after becoming Hapan Queen Mother in late New Jedi Order. Hooks up with Jacen and has a daughter with him, both of them then going on to serve as a plot device both for his fall to the Dark Side and kind of redemption at the end of Legacy of the Force. Sends her daughter away to be raised by Leia and Han afterward and, to my knowledge, plays no part whatsoever in later story events (though again, haven’t read Fate of the Jedi).

Ben Skywalker: No impression in Dark Nest, except for his trauma from events of New Jedi Order which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and dislike of lizards, which really doesn’t go anywhere. Annoying in Legacy of the Force without displaying any particularly awesome or heroic qualities, and his big character arc in the first half is learning that assassinating people and leaving people to die aren’t actually okay. Has an extremely … disturbing scene with Vestara Khai in the penultimate book of Fate of the Jedi, which people who’ve read the series and know more about these sorts of things than I do have compared to domestic abuse. Charming. No real impression in Crucible, either.

In other words, even among the surviving characters, their situations—and in many cases, their personalities—have been f*cked up beyond all recognition*, to the point where it’s very hard to see how you could realistically have a fun and engaging storyline for any of these people. And, of course, no question whatsoever of there being any fun and engaging future storylines for the dead ones. (You can still expand their backstories, but you can’t give them any further character development.)

*Which also applies to at least some of the movie characters, as well. Faux Skywalker, for sure.

And the thing is, fictional characters are not like people. Where their story ends casts a pall upon everything that’s come before in ways a person’s death doesn’t—or shouldn’t—upon the life that has preceded it. This is because the life of a fictional character is comprised of that character’s story, no less and no more, whereas the life of a real person can never be reduced down to just a story (or even many stories).

The early adventures of Mara, Anakin, Jaina, Jacen, and the others are all irrevocably poisoned by the knowledge that this is the shit they have to look forward to, this is where their stories ultimately lead. For fictional characters? Better never to have existed than to have that as the culmination of their stories.

So if rescuing them from that fate also means obliterating them from canon completely, I may be disappointed, but I’d still call that a bargain at octuple the cost. (Likewise, while I think it’s a shame not to get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy, I’ll take that if it means we’re spared big screen adaptations of Star by Star and Legacy of the Force.)

For the past eight years, I’ve used the same sign-off for all my Star Wars related posts: “Bring back the Man Who Killed Ithor.” This was in reference to a line by Corran Horn at the end of the third New Jedi Order book: “If there ever comes a time when folks look forward to the return of the man who killed Ithor, well, we know that means the invasion is completely out of hand and things are truly beyond saving.” I took this comment referring to the invasion of the Star Wars Galaxy by the Yuuzhan Vong slaughtering populations and warping their planets into unrecognizable monstrosities and used it as a call-sign in reference to the invasion of the franchise by the grimdarks, slaughtering my favorite characters and warping their personalities into unrecognizable monstrosities.

But now, a day has come I never really thought I’d live to see. It may not have come in quite the way I would have preferred, but the ruination of the characters and stories I grew up with and loved so dearly in the mid- to late-90s has now definitively been rendered non-canon. There will be no more Anakin Solo Day posts, or Jacen Solo Day, or Mara Jade Skywalker Day—none of that applies anymore. So, long, Man Who Killed Ithor, your services will no longer be necessary.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Abrams and the other filmmakers will take the franchise in an equally bad, if not worse direction (from seeing Abrams’ two Star Trek reboot films, I have fears for the presentation of race and gender), but until that actually happens, this is still a potential win, which I’ll accept for the time being.

For the first time in over a decade, the future of the Star Wars universe is looking bright to me again.

See you in ~14 months when Episode VII comes out. For now, peace out, and remember: The Force will be with you, always.

Finnikin of the Rock review

This review is an update of one I originally wrote for another blog some three or four years ago, now, and (bar some minor tweaking) it has not been altered.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed by now, wordpress formatting is utter crap – most times, it will let you put spaces between paragraphs, but sometimes it won’t, and when that happens, you’re just plain shit out of luck. I apologize for any inconveniences the bad formatting produces.

Finnikin of the Rock

For ten years, the kingdom of Lumatere has lived under a curse, with no one able to enter or leave it. Trapped outside the kingdom, young Finnikin of the Rock has devoted his life to securing a new homeland for the Lumateran diaspora. In the Cloister of Sendecane, he meets the novice Evanjalin, who has dreams of the lost Lumateran heir, Prince Balthazar. With the help of Evanjalin, Finnikin now has a chance to do what he never before thought possible: bring the Lumateran people home.

Take two things which I dearly love—fantasy adventure and Melina Marchetta’s writing—combine them together, and the result is pure, undiluted win. Marchetta brings her genius (a word I use without a trace of hyperbole) for plotting and insight into the human condition to provoke a sense of wonder and giddy excitement I haven’t felt from a book since childhood.

Finnikin of the Rock employs many classic fantasy elements, but it doesn’t read like a typical fantasy novel. It’s not a story about defeating the villain or winning/ending/preventing the war or saving the kingdom or even just saving one of the main characters. Those things all happen—more or less—but they’re aspects of the story, not its main focus.

The story of Finnikin of the Rock is a story of reclamation and recovering from trauma. Indeed, the book serves as a decent companion piece to Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. At the beginning, you have the initial trauma of the royal family’s assassination, the ascent of a brutal dictator in their place, the wave of violence and terror these twin events unleash, and finally the curse by the dying matriarch of the Forest Dwellers. In the middle, the characters finally end the trauma by leading the Lumaterans home, breaking the curse, and overthrowing the usurper. For the final few chapters, you see them beginning the long and painful process of recovery and healing as they reconstruct their beloved kingdom.

Unlike Marchetta’s previous book—the phenomenal On the Jellicoe Road—the story here is of building up from tragedy, rather than building up to even more tragedy. This may cause the novel to lose out on a bit of its predecessor’s emotional punch, but on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable giving this book a blanket recommendation than On the Jellicoe Road—which some of the people I know would give up as too depressing. And when I say “lacks emotional punch,” keep in mind that’s in comparison to the greatest example of emotionally-charged fiction I have ever read. Finnikin of the Rock is still the most exciting, enthralling, emotionally engaging story I’ve read since … well, since On the Jellicoe Road.

Apart from being Marchetta’s first fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock is her first book to feature third-person narration and all-male viewpoint characters. Obviously, this was a book for Marchetta to stretch herself as an author, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The characters are a bit odd. Neither Finnikin nor Evanjalin come across as Mary-Sues, despite the former being fluent in seven languages, a master at swordplay, an adept knife-thrower, etc.; and the latter being a ridiculously resilient survivor with more than a touch of the Master Manipulator archetype.

I find myself having an especially difficult time describing Finnikin, as he feels like such a generic fantasy protagonist. Marchetta goes into sufficient depth with Finnikin to keep him individualized, and he’s certainly not a cliché hero. Coming from another author, I might even have been struck by his characterization, but he just doesn’t stick out the way Taylor Markham or Marchetta’s other protagonists do. It doesn’t hamper the story, but in this way at least, the book is perhaps not quite as good as I’d expected.

As long as I’m quibbling about the characters, I think Marchetta could’ve devoted a little more time to establishing Lucian before reintroducing him into the narrative. Finnikin spends the first two hundred pages or more reminiscing about his childhood friend Prince Balthazar, but not so much his other childhood friend, Lucian. When Lucian and Finnikin finally reunite, it should be a triumphant moment, but because he’s had only a perfunctory buildup, my reaction to this turn of events was rather tepid, and more to do with what I’d extrapolated about their relationship than what Marchetta showed in the text.

Compare that with the presentation of Trevanion. By the time he shows up, Marchetta has already established him as a deeply caring man and a first-rate badass. When he finally appears “on screen,” the reader already cares about him, and is stoked to see him kick some righteous arse. Which he does.

I’m also growing increasingly sick of the attitude in Fantasy that (to quote Niall Harrison’s review of Graceling) “monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne.” To be fair, someone does point out that the Lumaterans were so emotionally dependent on the royal family that their assassination throws the country into barbarism literally overnight, and there’s a throwaway line at the end about putting together a new constitution for the country. Yet the new ruler still demonstrates extraordinary unilateral powers – which is just fine because it’s a Good Monarch who only makes Good decrees. Blergh.

While I mostly enjoyed the romantic subplots, there was one line near the very end which made me wince. A female character tells her betrothed that when they’re married “you can touch me whenever you want. Wherever you want.”

The context is the two of them dealing with an overprotective guard. Now maybe I’m being an over-reactive Man!Feminist about this (again), but this assertion left me a little queasy. I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but here in the US, the criminal justice system only recently overturned the notion that a wife signs over all control over her body to her husband upon marriage, and she therefore owes him sex any time he wants it.

Speaking of romance, just when I was thinking ‘all very nice, but this narrative is going to be completely heteronormative, isn’t it?,’ two of the King’s Guard casually mention being bonded to each other. Later on, Lucian casually teases Finnikin by telling him essentially “I don’t bonk other men, but if that’s what you want, I’ve got a cousin who’d be happy to oblige.” Sure, Lucian’s taunt may carry a whiff of homophobia if you take the suggestion to be emasculating for Finnikin, but the sexuality of the gay characters is treated as both positive and unremarkable.

The plot and backstory are as satisfyingly complex as I’ve come to expect from Marchetta, though the twist with Evanjalin must rate at least nine KiloBrooks on the predictability scale (the twist itself, not necessarily all the associated details).

Bottom line: Finnikin of the Rock is a lovely book, downright lyrical in presentation. As the story unfolds, the reader feels both the wonder of discovering a beautiful new world and the heart-beating intensity of grand, sweeping adventure. Highly recommended.

Book review: 1984, by George Orwell

A couple years ago, I finally got around to reading Orwell’s famous 1984, and you know something? It wasn’t that great.

Now I know it isn’t Orwell’s fault pretty much everybody who reads his book knows the ending already, but a good book should still be engaging even with the ending spoiled. 1984, on the other hand, was about 80% dull.

In fact, I found the most interesting parts were the ones where Orwell was waxing philosophical and largely ignoring the story. His point about the importance of meaningless gestures (such as not betraying those we care about, even when it doesn’t help them) was a good one, and well made. Likewise, the political analyses in Goldstein’s book were interesting, though I disagree with him on a couple important details, such as the assertion that social inequality has ever been necessary or desirable.

The concept of doublethink is particularly insightful, denoting a profound and sophisticated principle in such a way as it can be easily understood, and furthermore providing posterity with an excellent term to describe this principle in action. Though I don’t believe it ever comes up in Goldstein’s book, you can see doublethink at work in members of the upper- and middle- and even underclass’ attempts to defend the class system. Perhaps even more significantly, we can sometimes see this process at work in ourselves when we make excuses for doing something less-than-wholly justified (we’ve all been there).

But the story itself? Pretty forgettable; I wasn’t invested in either Winston or Julia, or their doomed romance. They felt more like props than interesting characters in their own right. And the plot felt more than anything like just marking time until the Ministry of Love gets its claws in the two and starts working them over.

Even the Dystopian world failed to grab me. Yes, the trilateral empire of Oceania-Eurasia-Eastasia is nightmarish in the abstract, but I never felt the visceral sense of horror that even a fictional police state should evoke. Ironically, and in defiance of the adage that an author ought to show rather than tell, I found Orwell’s Dystopia far more chilling when he describes it journalistically than when he depicts Winston navigating it as part of his everyday life.


My other problem with the world was that, O’Brien’s delusions notwithstanding, I don’t see this society surviving indefinitely in the real world. Despite O’Brien’s claims that the Party dictates human nature, what we see is that in fact the Party can only manipulate human nature to its own purposes (such as using people’s most primal fears to get them to betray those they love).


Sooner or later, some fraction of humanity always rebels at being dominated and exploited, and I don’t see any evidence that the Party is capable of either curbing or otherwise neutralizing this tendency. I can believe it’s capable of breaking any given rebel spirit just like it breaks Winston and Julia; I’ll even accept it can somehow make this change in personality permanent, though Orwell never really goes into how this works. (And thinking of real world dissidents who have endured decades of imprisonment, torture, and other abuse without capitulating makes this turn-around difficult for me to swallow without explanation.)


But the Party seems to me woefully unequipped to break rebellious spirits in large numbers (such as you would get in a mass uprising)*, and nothing in the book really convinces me that their control is so tight as to render mass resistance impossible.


*So many faces, and so few boots.

O’Brien’s other major oversight is in thinking the Party can impose stasis upon the world. If there’s anything nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s constancy. O’Brien claims the Party controls nature, but what he means is that the Party controls human perceptions of nature. Once again, O’Brien is dead wrong in asserting that reality is entirely subjective, existing only in people’s collective consciousness. He and Winston can think he’s floating all they want, but if the floor underneath his feet is electrified, he’ll die just the same.

And the thing about nature is that it’s chaotic. It’s just going to keep throwing curve balls at humanity, and the more the Party tries to assert its own ideology over natural processes, the sooner will be the time when it gets a curve ball that it can’t believe or explain into nonexistence (e.g. asteroid impact, climate change, etc.). And then Oceania is toast.

The only way the Party could remain perpetually in control would be if it completely understood both human nature and the workings of the natural world. Knowledge that complete is well beyond human capability to attain even now, and perhaps it always will be.

Add to that, even within the internal logic of Orwell’s story, you can only believe the situation is eternal if you accept his assertion that the working class has never and can never act in its own best interests without leadership from sections of the upper or middle class. And by “accept,” I don’t mean agree with Orwell’s arguments, I mean take the assertion on blind faith, as Orwell never bothers to give even a halfhearted explanation for why the underclass is incapable of action (and, indeed, the insight necessary to inspire action); he merely has his characters state that it is so.

So from my perspective, Orwell’s Dystopian vision is fatally flawed. To be fair to him, we can find similar flaws with most everybody’s vision of a sufficiently Dystopian—or sufficiently Utopian—society. This is not to say that things can never get that bad or that good. It’s just that because each individual human’s understanding of the world is incomplete, our attempts to predict how they can become that bad or that good, and in exactly what way, are bound to be imperfect.

I also have to wonder if Orwell really agreed with O’Brien that “death is the ultimate failure.” I could believe that he doesn’t, as a major theme of the book is that Winston’s greatest failure—the one which not only defeats him but converts him—is in betraying Julia. That makes a lot more sense, but if O’Brien is wrong, well, that’s yet another hole in his argument for Oceania’s permanence.

Before I read it, I was scared of this book. I knew what it was about, and I was afraid it would horrify me, scare me, depress me. As it turns out, it just bored me.

Book review: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

I first posted this review of State of Fear in 2009—by coincidence, shortly after Michael Crichton’s death. I have made some minor edits from the original to improve readability and to reflect some subtle shifts in my thinking in the intervening 4+ years. My views on the whole, though, have not changed substantially since this review’s initial publication.

Moderate plot spoilers for State of Fear follow.

When the mysterious Professor John Kenner first requests a meeting with billionaire environmentalist George Morton, Morton’s lawyer, Peter Evans, thinks little of it. But after the meeting, Morton’s behavior changes drastically. He disappears for days at a time, and he begins questioning his current pet project: a lawsuit against the United States for its involvement in global warming. When Morton dies in a car crash, Evans finds himself propelled into the midst of an environmental terrorist plot which will shake him to the very foundations of his beliefs.

I have mixed feelings about State of Fear. The plot is decent, not extraordinary; enough to keep the reader interested but not enough to carry the story all by itself.

The book’s real strength is in its discourse, and even there, it’s only a partial success. The many lectures on environmental science and on power structures are among the best and worst aspects of the book.

Many environmentalists will no doubt be infuriated by Crichton’s skepticism of global warming (or global climate change as it is more accurately known). Personally, I do not agree with many of Crichton’s conclusions (rightly or wrongly), but I feel many of his arguments have at least some merit.

The book’s Wikipedia entry contains links to several pages which will dispute the scientific points Crichton makes in his novel. But I’ve also run into other people in recent years criticizing the science behind climate change. What struck me after the first such instance was that I, personally, am in no position to evaluate the science of climate change. I don’t know it or understand it enough to have an informed opinion.

As Crichton points out, there’s a lot we don’t know about how our planet works, and that includes climate science. He obviously has made up his own mind that climate change is not a significant danger and, unfortunately, ends up imposing that interpretation upon the story. He begins by saying “we just don’t know enough about the Earth to evaluate whether climate change is really a serious threat or not,” but by the end the message has morphed into “there is no serious danger of climate change at all.” This not only undermines the original point he established, but is a much weaker one. (Certainty in general is a more difficult argument to make than uncertainty.) I think he’d have done his case more good to leave it at saying climate change is not a certain thing, and including his own belief that it likely isn’t a problem, than trying to force that conclusion onto the reader.

However, Crichton still has some insights that should make environmentalists, progressives, and radicals take note. First there’s the arrogance. A major point he raises is we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. But he also aptly displays our unfortunate habit of assuming we know what’s going on, we know what’s best, we know what needs to be done, we know better than everyone else. Am I the only one who spots the conservative stereotypes being spun right back at us?

The character of Ted Bradley beautifully illustrates the arrogance and racist romanticism of Western progressives’ ideas of life in “underdeveloped” nations. (Granted, a lot of the more “logical” characters’ responses are equally biased and problematic, but that doesn’t negate the point.)

And then, of course, there’s the young eco-terrorist who excuses his actions by saying “We’re trying to save the planet!” And his justification for implementing a plan that hinges upon getting several hundred people killed? “Casualties are inevitable in accomplishing social change. History tells us that.”

Along with the arrogance goes close-mindedness. My creative writing teacher in college 1st year once remarked that “liberals are very close-minded,” and she had a point. Crichton illustrates this fact with the various characters’ knee-jerk attempts to dismiss evidence that conflicts with their worldview (in this case, their ideas about climate change) as propaganda manufactured on behalf of industry or some ultra-right wing conspiracy. In other words, their instinctual reaction when confronted with evidence which calls their beliefs into question is to dismiss it out of hand. Do I detect another conservative stereotype being thrown back in our faces?

Best of all, there’s the lecture by Professor Hoffman where he explains the politico-legal-media complex. Hoffman’s analysis of this entity, its purpose, its methods, and the “state of fear” it intentionally creates to further its own selfish interests is correct almost down to the last detail. His worst slip-up is failing to include big business; corporations (and not just industrial corporations) in his list. The big companies have just as much to gain from the “state of fear” as the government and the judicial system (and they own the major media outlets, anyway).

Unfortunately, Crichton’s (and thus, his characters’) obsession with climate change muddies the message. The way Hoffman and Kenner hurl accusations against climate change activists seems to suggest they don’t realize that if the PLM didn’t have climate change to manipulate people into submission, it’d use something else. The powers that be are doing far too well staying the course while the rest of humanity suffers (and occasionally prospers) just to give up because their prime source of fear has dried up. To modify a line from James Donovan: “If there were no existing crisis to terrify the people, the establishment would have to invent one.” Hoffman’s allusion to the transition from Cold War to climate change as main focus for the “State of Fear” suggests he knows the truth, but this quickly gets overshadowed by his and Kenner’s rhetoric about the Great Climate Change Deception.

Ending the threat of climate change (whether real or only imagined) will not put an end to the horrendous loss of human life that Hoffman and Kenner lament—only dismantling the diseased politico-economic structures which are the source of the titular “state of fear” will do that.

One more positive piece of discourse: As Morton points out at the end, environmentalist groups have been assimilated into the establishment and are, therefore (to an extent at least), now part of the problem. In many ways, the cooptation of environmental groups mirrors the cooptation of labor unions a century earlier. True, the unions’ ostensible purpose should put them in direct conflict with the establishment, but they’ve been built within a framework which requires the establishment’s existence, even if it’s only as antagonist. In much the same way, national militaries require a national enemy (usually external) to validate their own existence. So the labor unions, and the environmental groups, have a vested interest in keeping the structures which necessitate Crichton’s state of fear in place.

At other times, though, the discourse is less successful. Ted Bradley is obviously too hard-headed to accept even the idea that climate change is unproven. After his first argument with Kenner, the reader has got the formula down cold. Bradley is the straw man, continually offering up weak arguments about climate change as well as other Euro-American myths about the “natural” world for Kenner to knock down, but not satisfied with Kenner’s arguments no matter how strong they are.

By the end of it, the reader is left feeling nostalgic for Kenner’s conversations with Evans and Sarah, problematic though they were. It’s painful to watch Bradley go up against characters like Kenner, Sanjong and even Henry, knowing full well he’s going to be steamrollered. At least Evans and Sarah were capable of intelligent discourse, rather than sticking to dogmatic drivel.

In “The Science of Science Fiction Writing,” author James Gunn cites rationalist Isaac Asimov as saying that generally his (Asimov’s) villains were as rational as his heroes. Asimov’s reasoning, as quoted by Gunn, runs as follows: “If it were a western, where everything depends upon the draw of the gun, it would be very unsatisfactory if the hero shot down a person who didn’t know how to shoot.” There’s a lesson in there Michael Crichton would’ve done well taking to heart.

The other problem with using Bradley as the main voice of opposition for the last part of the book is that since Bradley is so extreme in his views, Kenner and the other author surrogates end up taking the opposite extreme. Bradley has a romantic view of native life, native villages, and native peoples. In seeking to prove Bradley wrong, Crichton has his characters cite the most horrific counter-examples he can find … thus giving the impression that all village life is savage and terrible, and the backward villagers would much rather live in cities/be better off with a Western education.

… In other words, in his attempts to puncture the “Noble Savage” myth, Crichton makes himself into a colonial and neocolonial apologist. (Crichton neglects to mention that the misery of modern village life is partially due to centuries of past colonial oppression as well as present neocolonial economic oppression—often aided and abetted by the local governments; Crichton is correct that you can’t put all the blame on the Big Bad West.) This colonial-era racism is even more blatant when you consider that the only person of color on the protagonists’ side is so thoroughly Westernized that the book makes a point of mentioning his British accent. Contrast with the ultra-traditionalist natives of Gareda Island who hate white people and eventually eat Ted Bradley (as heavily foreshadowed earlier in the book). Yes, the racial politics in this book are really that bad.

The only other notable characters of color in the book are a femme fatale in the beginning, and Henry, the educated islander. On the one hand, he has a Western education, and argues for the benefits of, essentially, Western civilization over native savagery. On the other hand, he apparently betrays the main characters to the savages in question (or something). I’ll leave it to the reader to make up their own mind what all that is supposed to signify.

And on top of all that, some of the discourse (mostly the scientific lectures) is just plain boring.

Okay, that’s probably more than enough of that, let’s talk about the story.

Like I said, the plot is decent but hardly thrilling. Basically, it involves Evans, Sarah (Morton’s secretary) and Kenner, traveling around the world like James Bond thwarting the dastardly schemes of the Environmental Liberation Front. The tension is occasionally exciting, and some of the conventions—such as the mini-octopus as assassination tool—are compelling enough to keep a modicum of interest, most of the time.

Peter Evans is a bland character, with such traits as his weak-willed manner and somewhat quirky love life doing little to flesh him out. He’s okay as a protagonist, though the part where he contemplates the moral implications of Kenner having killed three eco-terrorists and concluding “Screw ’em,” irked me.

His reasoning runs thusly: “There were bad people in the world. They had to be stopped.” From there, Evans and Crichton immediately jump to the conclusion that “stopping” said “bad people” can only mean killing them, without even considering the possibility of another alternative. It’s an outrageously narrow-minded and self-serving position to take. Yes, killing is wrong, but they’re the bad guys, so that makes it okay.

Granted, this facile and, if you think about it, downright terrifying reasoning for ejecting some human lives from the moral universe is a staple of Western culture, and hardly unique to Crichton*. Still, given all Crichton’s moralizing elsewhere in the book, the fact that he not only concludes “some people just need to be killed,” but utterly fails to explore the implications of who gets to make that call and by what authority and by what means their unworthiness for continued existence may be established is even more reprehensible than in most such cases.

*Brandon Sanderson’s second “Mistborn” book, The Well of Ascension and the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are two face-palmingly blatant examples from recent years.

Sarah is also fairly dull; her most interesting moments come during the action sequences. The relationship between her and Evans is the painfully standard romance you can find in practically any Western literature.

George Morton is an eccentric gentleman, and probably my favorite character in the book. A well-intentioned person, he’s apparently far enough removed from Crichton himself that the latter can bear to portray his hypocritical side, which adds dimension to the character. His ambitious plans for the future outlined at the end of the book at least somewhat make up for Kenner’s extreme pessimism (more on that in a minute).

Morton’s idea for an environmentalist group “Study the Problem and Fix It,” is not only amusing, but it raises some important philosophical points. The idea of an organization whose purpose is to work itself out of a job certainly has merit—better that than an organization which stagnates by an obsession with continuing its existence over and above fulfilling its’ mission statement.

Nicholas Drake is a two-dimensional villain: he has to raise a certain amount of money for his organization to keep his salary. He probably believes in the threat of global warming, too, despite all the counter-evidence in Crichton’s universe. Ideologues can be like that. However, the question of what Drake believes doesn’t come up either way. The fact that this aspect of his motivation is apparently insignificant to the story indicates the extent of his characterization. When I first began to suspect Drake would turn out to be a villain, I hoped that at least he would retain some amount of character beyond simply being the opposition for our intrepid heroes. No such luck. Crichton could’ve learned a thing or two from Dan Brown.

Ted Bradley is an obnoxious, self-satisfied, sexually harassing jerk and perhaps worst of all, is convinced he knows The Truth. In other words, he’s probably the most multi-dimensional character in the book. Sure he’s flawed and dangerously naïve (or arrogant, or both), but he also genuinely cares about the good of the planet and of his fellow human beings. In other words, he’s a lot like most real life heroes, villains, and people who are morally neutral. And unlike his fellow rich environmentalist Ann, he had the courage or conviction or both to stick with the main characters even after learning about the cannibal natives. I dunno that I liked him, exactly, but he was an interesting character and I didn’t want him to die, if only because he’d already taken so much flak as Crichton’s Straw Environmentalist punching bag already. Which, of course, is why Crichton killed him off and no one else. A little vindictive there, Mike?

In a note at the end, Crichton says that a book where “so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues.” That note led this reader to wonder who, exactly, the author thinks he’s kidding. John Kenner is obviously Crichton’s mouthpiece in State of Fear, in much the same way that Socrates was Plato’s in the latter’s famous dialogues. Except that Crichton is no Plato, and he doesn’t pull it off nearly as well. Socrates the character is pretty cool, Kenner is … a Mary-Sue; he’s clearly only there to be the stick with which Crichton bludgeons his view of reality into the other characters, and the reader.

Even this might not be so bad, except that Crichton sacrifices characterization for discourse. Kenner is not only Better Informed Than Thou, he’s also Holier Than Thou, “I have an apartment … I do not own a car. I fly coach.” Wait, I thought you were the one who didn’t believe climate change was a real danger, so why not own a car? But anyway, while Crichton is right to point out that celebrity environmentalists can be very hypocritical, it’s not like the rest of us are pure as snow, either. We all have flaws, including Crichton, and (if he were a real person) including Kenner. But no, Kenner in the book is blissfully free of any intentional character faults.

All that aside, I spent the last third of the book hoping desperately for Kenner to be wrong. Not about his views on climate change, I knew Crichton was too wedded to his mouthpiece on that score, but about something, anything. But no, Kenner, it appears, had to be completely right about absolutely everything.

And to top it all off, he’s so damn negative. His little speech to Bradley towards the end about everything you do having unexpected, negative consequences was supposed to be an argument for cost-benefit analyses, but it came off sounding more like “Nothing you do can ever really make things better because any positive changes you make will be balanced out by negative changes somewhere else” the implied corollary being “so why bother trying?” Again, I’m sure that wasn’t what Crichton meant to say, but it’s what he said. Thank goodness for Morton.

Sanjong is Kenner’s token POC, good little colonized sidekick. That pretty much covers the extent of his personality. At least he didn’t die, though. Or turn out to be evil.

Bottom Line: There’s some good discourse in here (even if I disagree with a lot of it) but it’s often mishandled, and the plot and characters are too generic and mediocre to carry the story by themselves. A good time-waster, but if you’re looking for a thrilling narrative, compelling characters, or deeply thought-provoking philosophical arguments, I advise you to keep looking.