Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Six: Star Wars, Inc.

I just finished Book 6, Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig.  The story was fine, or better than fine. It was a slightly-above-average space opera, with gangsters, bounty hunters, Star Destroyers, pilots, meetings, betrayals, battle droids, and etc etc., and Wendig did it all in a way that made it a page turner and didn't leave time, or give much reason, to focus on some of the deus ex machina qualities of the story, as time after time people are rescued by sheer luck, or the few annoyances brought on when a writer either deliberately misleads you or forgets what he just wrote.  Overall, a B, possibly a B+.

Before I get on to the two things I want to talk about with this book, a bit about the annoyances and misleading.  I should label this a SPOILER ALERT! but since the things these paragraphs spoil are annoying, I'm not going to bother.  These two things involve a thermal detonator, and a TIE fighter.

The first one, the thermal detonator, is either an example of an author deliberately misleading the reader for surprise effect, or of the author forgetting what he wrote.  There's a scene in the book where a ragtag band (is there any other kind of band these days? All bands apparently are ragtag) of rebels is planning to sneak into a palace. One of the characters brings in a box of thermal detonators -- grenades-- and another one gets nervous. The first tells the second to relax, explaining that until thermal detonators are armed, they can't explode.  She shakes the box and says she could kick it and it wouldn't do anything.

Not long after that, the group is in a tunnel being chased by aliens.  This is the sort of thing that pops up in all Star Wars movies, the random alien event.  People hated it when the fish kept attacking Qui Gon's boat in Phantom Menace, but: the sand people attacking Luke, the trash compactor monster, the Wampa, the tentacle thing in the swamp on Dagobah, the Rancor and the Sarlacc, the Ewok ambush... and so on. The random alien attack is a hallmark of the Star Wars universe (which makes the giant squid on Han's freighter in Force Awakens no big deal, if not expected or required.)

Anyway, one of the characters takes a thermal detonator and arms it and puts it in the box and they all run, and the entire box of detonators goes off. Which directly contradicts what the author just told us. I know some people will say oh but you know if you put one grenade in a box of grenades... but that's not what the book said. It didn't say they'll only go off if you arm them or they're blown up by something else. What the book said was:

“They don’t go boom if you jostle them. I could kick one and it wouldn’t go off. Until you prime them, these things are basically just shiny rocks.”
The blowing up of shiny rocks is not the most annoying turnabout. There's another scene where Norra is flying a TIE fighter, and it gets hit.  Wendig had spent most of the previous pages explaining just how fragile TIEs are: they're fast but deadly, etc. etc. because they're so stripped down.  When she's hit, Norra realizes she's done for and aims for a group of shuttles some Empire bigwigs are hoping to get into. Just before she crashes she thinks I wish these TIE fighters had ejector seats. Then she crashes, and the next scene is her son trying not to get all choked up by her being dead, as Norra suddenly appears in their meeting point.  Turns out TIE fighters DO have ejector seats, and Norra in bracing for the crash accidentally hit it! YAY! Sorry you felt all those feels a moment ago.

There's a lot of that in the book, but those two were the big ones that stick in my mind.  Still, even with the flaws, like I said, the book is worth reading if you like Star Wars.

What I really want to talk about is whether I would have read this book if it wasn't a Star Wars book, and how Chuck Wendig maybe won the lottery when he got tapped to write this book.

If you've ever wondered how come there are a jillion varieties of Mountain Dew, or why they keep rebooting old movies and books (I learned this weekend  they're going to make another set of Narnia movies, apparently), it's because I read this book.  And others read this book. LOTS of others. It's already been reviewed 1,896 times on Amazon, for an average of 13 reviews a day since publication. It's got 7,130 ratings on Goodreads -- and it's only ranked 119 in scifi books on Amazon (1,588th overall, although I expect it was higher for a while.)

To put that in perspective, the #67 scifi book on Amazon is by Terry Pratchett. #65 and #67 are by George R.R. Martin, #62 by Hugh Howey.  These are all people with established names. Prior to reading Aftermath I had never heard of Chuck Wendig, and it's doubtful I ever would have. If it wasn't for Star Wars, Inc., the brand, I'd have probably gone my whole life without knowing about Chuck Wendig.

That's not a knock on Wendig, or on Star Wars. Everytime I go to the library, I'm re-amazed at how many books they have: row after row after row, more than I could read in a lifetime even if I did nothing but read -- and that's not counting the ones they've de-shelved or decided not to buy. The odds are simply against finding any book on the shelves.

Aftermath is a perfectly acceptable book -- a pretty good read, not great -- but if I'd picked up a book that didn't have the Star Wars brand on it, and saw that it was about the aftereffects of a civil war in space, featuring a plucky (and ragtag!) group of rebels, I might have put it back down and moved on, since there are lots of books like that, and there would be nothing much to make this one stand out.

To get a book noticed, an author needs great reviews, or a celebrity endorsement, or a lot of luck, or a movie deal, or something.  J.K. Rowling proved that when she decided to write a thriller under a pseudonym, and suffered from lackluster sales until someone "accidentally" (wink wink nudge nudge) leaked that Robert Galbraith was J.K. Rowling. Her book had sold 1,500 copies in three months before the leak; after it was revealed (totally accidentally guys honest!) that she wrote it, she sold 18,000 copies in one week.

It's not enough to have a good story; there are lots of good stories. (There are way more bad stories than good ones, but that's for another day.) You've got to get that break -- a break like Harrison Ford had when he ran into George Lucas and was asked to read some scripts for auditions for a new movie, Star Wars. 

Chuck Wendig lobbied for the Star Wars job, enlisting a writer friend to help him get it. Most people hadn't heard of him before he got the gig. He seems to have had a slightly-better-than-middling career as a writer, dabbling in screenplays and role-playing games, before landing this job. I don't know if getting it made his other books sell better, but it seems to have helped: one of his books, released in 2011, has only 59 reviews in 5 years. His most recent non-Star Wars books has gotten 113 reviews since August 2015.

The benefit to Chuck Wendig is that he gets to write a book almost guaranteed to become a best seller, and thus become a household name among scifi readers.  But there's benefit to readers, too: as I said, I might not have picked up Aftermath if it wasn't Star Wars related.

But when it comes to that, the book is only tangentially related to the movies I love so much. Only two major characters from the movies make an appearance at all, and that's only for a brief time in what seems to be setting up another book either in this series or another seried. (Disney says they're releasing 20 books total to fill in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. I doubt I'll read them all.)  There are thermal detonators, which Star Wars nerds will recognize as what a disguised Princess Leia was holding to try to get Jabba to release Han.  There are mentions of Hutts and brief scenes on Coruscant, Naboo, and Tatooine.  There are TIE fighters, Star Destroyers, and A-Wings, as well as a battle droid.

None of these things are truly necessary to the story: if you did a search-and-replace of "TIE fighter" with, say "Viper" the book could just as easily have been a Battlestar Galactica tie-in; I'm not sure if Star Trek had individual fighters, but this could just as easily have been in that universe, too.

So really, the main reason for making it a Star Wars book at all is to simply get that Star Wars logo on the cover-- just like Mountain Dew or any other brand, but the secondary reason, I think, is to anchor the story for the reader in a universe they know.

I've read a bunch of scifi in the past year; China Mieville's Embassytown and Girl In Landscape and The Book Of Strange New Things come to mind, and before that I read The Sparrow, among other great scifi books. Each of them created new worlds, some of them really sticking in my mind -- but in each I had to make up the world almost from scratch, using clues from the author. The one I remember most is Girl In Landscape, which I don't think ever described the main aliens in it. There are aliens called archbuilders, and they are described in one way (furry and frondlike) but I kept picturing them as that weird Muppet that is just a big pipe. I tried to find a picture of it, but I can't. The point is, I didn't really know how to picture the world, which is both good and bad: I enjoyed trying to imagine it and making up my own images, but I was never sure I got it right, in case it mattered.

With Star Wars, as with Star Trek and Battlestar and all other franchises/brands, we get a ready-made world that can have things plugged into them. Just saying "outer rim planet in Star Wars" gets people to think of what that would look like in that universe: dusty, old cities, nearly-broken tech, everything sort of corroded and rundown (a lot like Firefly, too). Star Wars has a brand: Tatooine, the rebel base on Hoth, Dagobah: all scruffy (ragtag!) outposts, whereas the Empire's centers are shiny and cold and Logans-Run-ish.  The words Star Wars are a shorthand for what to expect and how to interpret and fill in the gaps in the story.  Consider two sentences:

The rebel ducked under the stormtroopers' lasers, then aimed his blaster back to provide cover for the droids as they tried to open the door.


The soldier ducked under the guards' volleys, then aimed his own laser pistol back to provide cover for the robots as they tried to open the door.

Those provide probably two very different images.  Just the word droid alone (which Lucas has copyrighted and so maybe you can't even use it in another story) connotes a specific kind of image.

That's the case with all major brands: if I tell you something came from McDonalds you will know what to expect. Same with Apple, or Coke or any other brand.  Star Wars, for good or bad (mostly good, I think) has become a brand, like anything else. It's no longer just a creative idea or a good set of movies or the EU or anything. It's a brand. It's the Burger King of scifi stories.

I wrote, the other day, a long piece on why people seem to want to think there's something wrong with The Force Awakens. I don't know if I'll publish that, but I will bring up one comment about it that lots of people make: that it's too corporate, that it caters to the fans too much, that it seems to just remix and update the earlier movies.

Well what do you expect? I LOVED The Force Awakens, but I'm on record as saying McDonald's Cheeseburgers are the greatest food ever invented.  But seriously, when something has become brand -- as being bought by Disney shows it has -- it can't help but cater to the fans.  Everytime a brand tries something new it gets destroyed over it, losing money and retreating back into its brand-ness. If Star Wars had rebooted into something different, people would have gone insane. Look what happened when George Lucas tried to put a serious spin and some politics into his movies with the prequels.  People hated it. And that was only halfway into the creation of Star Wars, Inc. Suppose they had made Luke Skywalker a villain? Or had the Empire not have a doomsday weapon? People would probably have freaked out.

Once something becomes a brand, the creators lose control of it, a bit.  A while back, we DVRd the Toy Story Halloween special to pre-watch to see if the boys would like it. 10 minutes into it, we gave up: it wasn't the Toy Story we'd come to like and we deemed it too scary for the boys. Toy Story has been a brand since it was created -- as has Pixar, which is why their movies have started seeming a little disappointing to people. They can't take risks anymore.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. Superhero comics only started taking risks about 50 years into the art form, and even then they repeal everything and recreate it and declare it alternate universes and the like. Superman can't die, and Aunt May can't come back to life, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a lot of great stories within those strictures.  You might even stretch the boundaries a little, permanently, if you're given enough time (I understand that Doc Ock is now Spider-Man, or at least was for a while.)  But mostly you're stuck with the format you came to the prom with.

Aftermath shows both the good and the bad of that.  It's a perfectly serviceable story that a middling-talented writer like Wendig begged to write, because his story of plucky (ragtag!) rebels on a distant planet would have died a quiet, lonely death if it didn't have Star Wars glommed all over it; and I never would have read a perfectly serviceable story if it wasn't for the existence of Star Wars, Inc.  But the more things become brands the less creativity there will be overall. I'd rather read one great book by China Mieville or Mary Doria Russell (or David Mitchell or Kim Stanley Robinson or Andrew Leon or Nigel Mitchell or Bryan Pedas & Brandon Meyers) than 20 "perfectly serviceable" Star Wars books that can't get beyond the boundaries of their brand-ness.

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