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Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath - Life DebtAftermath – Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Looking over other reviews of this book, it seems folks are very hot or cold on “Life Debt.” As the second book in the new Aftermath trilogy, “Life Debt” has a lot to prove. We’re past the point of being able to say “well, this is an introduction to a brand new expanded universe, so give it some time.” At this point, we need to start seeing some payoff. The question is; do we?

Yes. And no. Man, this book is all over the place.

First, I have to say; I really can’t stand reading fiction in the present tense. I’m sure this isn’t the first book I’ve read in the present (pretty sure Aftermath was like that too, though I listened to that one on audio, so it wasn’t as distracting), but man, it was a problem here. My attention kept sliding off the text; I likened it to the feeling of stepping on a slick rock in a stream. I just could not stay on the page. Present tense. Not a fan. Let’s move on.

There are some amazingly good things here, even so. Let’s talk about Han Solo. I’m not sure whether author Chuck Wendig (who seems like a really cool guy, I follow him on Twitter and usually like his content there) watched Harrison Ford’s entire body of work on DVD repeatedly or if Disney let him follow Ford around for a month with a tape recorder or what; but when it comes to Han Solo’s dialogue, Wending FUCKING NAILS IT. And he nails it so well that it’s made me realize just how much previous authors struggled with Han’s voice. Wendig’s Han sounds like movie Han. It’s incredible. It makes me wish I’d listened to this on audio. I still might anyway.

Wendig’s original characters are back and I like them, especially Sinjir, who adds a good amount of snark every time he shows up. But here’s where “Life Debt” runs into a rather strange problem and I’m not sure it’s one anybody could have predicted or could do anything to fix.

I read my first Star Wars novel in 1994 (I think). It was only a few years into this idea of there being such as thing as an “Expanded Universe.” The prequels had yet to be announced, ditto the “Special Edition” of the original trilogy and the feeling at the time was that the novels were going to be Star Wars going forward. And I read them all and devoured them, and I promise you, this is not going in the direction that you most likely think it is.

This is not nostalgia for the old EU. I still have all my old Star Wars books. I’ve gone back and paged through them as an adult. You know what? A lot of them are fucking terrible. Absolutely awful. There are gems there, but they are few and far between (no surprise, Timothy Zahn’s work stands out as a solid gem). So it’s not as though I’m nostalgic for the old EU.

But there’s this weird feeling that results; the fact that the old EU is there and that it formed at a more impressionable age for me, and the fact that there’s just so damn much of it, all that contributes to a feeling that it’s “what’s real.” And that makes a lot of Aftermath feel like, well, fan fiction, for lack of a better term. I keep having this feeling that “Rae Sloane” can’t be the person who tries to pull the Empire together, because that role was supposed to go to Thrawn or Daala (even though I hated Daala). I know that Disney owns Star Wars now, I know that “canon” (which is a term I don’t like anyway) is whatever the creative director of the IP says that it is, I know that all of this will tie into the new movies eventually, I know, I know, I know. And yet. I feel like I’m reading fan fiction. Fan fiction written by a professional, mind you, and even with the annoying present tense, Wendig on his worst day is better than the atrocity that was the last original EU novel “Crucible.” Even so, the feeling persists.

We’re talking about fictional universes and yet, my mind wants to draw a distinction between the “real fiction” and the “pretend fiction.” Even being aware of it isn’t enough to stop the feeling. It’s very odd.

It might be that the new stuff will continue to accrue and eventually supplant the old EU. Maybe it’s just a question of time and the amount of content. I’ll be interested in seeing where it all goes.

So, should you read “Life Debt?” I’d say yes. It’s a good book, with great moments, and a few problems. But this is Star Wars now and there’s a lot more to come. I think it’s worth sticking around to see how it goes.

View all my reviews

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Thoughts On Tauriel

Who the hell is Tauriel, you might be thinking to yourself. It’s a reasonable thought. She’s the ninja-elf-archer lady featured in the new Hobbit trailer. Played by Evangeline Lilly, she’s an addition to the Hobbit cast that doesn’t appear in the book. If you’ve read the Hobbit or if you saw part one of the movie, you can imagine why the filmmakers might have felt the need to modify Tolkien’s pristine work: it’s literally all dudes in Middle-earth, otherwise.

Seriously, it wasn’t until Galadriel appeared in her cameo during An Unexpected Journey that I realized she was the first (and ultimately the only) woman in the entire film.

I don’t care that it’s otherwise accurate to the book; it feels off. It feels weird. It reminds me how I felt the moment that I realized there are precisely four women in the Star Wars universe: exactly one badass princess, one rebel leader who doesn’t get named in the movie, and Jabba’s slave girls. And three of those women don’t appear until Return of the Jedi!

Well, I guess there’s Luke’s aunt in the first movie. So, five women total. Glee.

I’m glad there’s at least one female character in the next Hobbit movie. We can acknowledge that these books, however, wonderful they otherwise were, were written in a time and place where nobody was talking or wondering about this kind of thing. Fine. Great. I’m not proposing we rewrite the books. But that doesn’t mean we have to stick to every convention, especially not when these are the stories that are shaping the next generation.

The majority of kids growing up now are not going to be re-enacting the books. They are going to do exactly what kids have always done when they watch a movie. After the movie, they call a character when it’s time to play. “I’m Aragon!” “I’m Legolas!” “I’m Luke!” “I’m Han Solo!” I wonder how it feels when the only character that looks like you is a minor or supporting role. Or a villain. Or doesn’t exist at all. I literally can’t imagine it, because I had the privilege of being sci-fi/fantasy’s most targeted demographic. It probably doesn’t feel too good, though.

At least Star Wars had Leia and Lord of the Rings had Eowyn (although I’ll note she wasn’t part of the Fellowship a.k.a. the main characters,so . . .)

Without Tauriel, the Hobbit is a movie about fifteen dudes. I don’t mind the idea of a movie about fifteen men sharing an adventure together. What I do mind is this implied idea of a world where women don’t seem to exist. That strikes me as odd. What I do mind is that in a cast of fifteen protagonists, there are approximately zero women (although, to be fair, most of the dwarves are purely ancillary characters themselves).

I’m glad there’s someone that the younger girls get to call when it comes time to play. Until we get to the point where more inclusive sci-fi/fantasy books have been around long enough to become classics, this is the road I hope we take. I hope we continue to carve out some characters for the girls, even if they don’t exist in the original text. Frankly, I hope this goes further! Why not pull a Battlestar Galactica and change a male character into a female one? The Hobbit could have spared a dwarf or three for this purpose.

Let’s not stop with adding women, either. Let’s see some homosexual characters. Transgender characters? Sure! Some non-white characters that aren’t orcs, klingons, or any other variant of the “noble savage/barbarian hero/warrior race” archetype. Yes, please.

In short, let’s hope for sci-fi and fantasy created that cater to people of all demographics, not just mine. ‘Cause, you know what? I had  plenty of heroes who looked like me growing up. I got to have Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne and quite a few other heroic characters to identify with. I was spoiled for choice. A lot of kids weren’t, though. A lot of them were ignored or marginalized.

There are enough stories and characters that everybody should have someone. And don’t tell me it’s unimportant; growing up, these are the stories that provided the lens through which I engaged the world. These are the stories that helped make me me.

My stories told me, over and over, that I looked like the hero, the protagonist, the main character, the star. If you wonder what privilege looks like, that’s it right there.