Star Wars The Force Awakens: So Awesome That It Doesn’t Suck

(SPOILER WARNINGS: READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL)

I have a love-huh relationship with the new Star Wars. A love-huh relationship is different than a love-hate relationship, because I don’t hate it. I love it. But it has a lot of flaws that make me go “huh” as I reflect on why I like it in spite of itself.

One reason I like it: it doesn’t suck. Sure, it relies on hitting my nostalgia buttons. It has character relationships that are totally unearned in the narrative of the story (Rey-Finn, Finn-Po). Deus-ex-machinas dripping all over the script, overrused even when considering the Force is supposed to be guiding everything and bringing everything together. At one point Finn tells Han, “We’ll use the Force!”  Han replies, “That’s not how the Force works!” Except it is.

Ok, I’ve engaged in nerd-fu with my friends on Facebook, so I’m not going to belabor the points I thought in the movie that need work. You can judge for yourself. I will also not spend too much time calling out the awesomeness of the movie, from the visuals, the dialogue that DOES NOT SUCK, the acting of the new cast that IS AWESOME (Rey is very convincing, and she more than does not suck. She kicks ass, both as an actress and a character). Kyro Ren is a believable bad guy, and I like the actor’s delivery.

There are two things I want to focus on that the movie has me thinking about. It’s not Han (I was always #teamluke as a kid anyway). It’s the Jedi.

1. The Jedi

Have I mentioned Rey was awesome? I really really like that we’re going to get a female Jedi lead. I’m also expecting that both Finn (who responded to the Force and is the only way I can buy his moral awakening with such vigor given his background) and Po (they call out his miraculous piloting skills multiple times–he’s too good not to be a Force user) will all three be Jedis.

I really hope Rey is Luke’s daughter and not the twin of Kylo Ren. I will be really upset if they make it another twin story. Too cheesy, and I would have to call bullshit on Leia and Han not telling her.

Kylo Ren is not a sith (at least as far as I can tell). He’s a fallen Jedi pupil. Luke’s training was not complete, and he was too old to begin the training. (Yoda made the same point about Anakin and look what happened to him). Ben Kenobi said he thought he could train Anakin just as well as Yoda, but he was wrong. Now Luke, whose training was incomplete, trained the new Ben (Kylo Ren) who was seduced by the Dark Side. (I mean really, should we just expect all force users to become dark siders at this point?)

I also really dig Ren’s twist on what we’re used to seeing in Star Wars. We always think of the Dark Side as seductive; he states: “I will not be seduced by the Light.” Love the nuance.

The visual queue for me that Ren is largely untrained and undisciplined is his light saber (and his temper tantrums). His light saber blade is rough, jagged, and fiery. It is unfocused, and juxtaposes nicely with the purity and wholeness of the blue saber (Anakin’s/Luke’s). This explains why Rey, an untrained but powerful force user, can go toe to toe with him.

This symbolic comparison of light sabers leads me into my next point…

2. The force, civilization, and the galaxy

Having seen the movie twice, I’m feeling the urge to re-watch the prequels (which I loathed). The Force Awakens is a offering to Star Wars fans, especially those of us who grew up in the 80s, but I think it honors the prequels as well. It builds upon the six movies as a holistic package, at least as far as I can tell.

The Force Awakens is both hopeful (a return to faith) and depressing. It shows us that there were no “happily ever afters” from Return of the Jedi. The universe is still crumbling. Civilization still shredded from the aftermath of the Empire. Rebuilding has not taken root. Luke is in exile. His student has fallen (and kills his own dad!). And Leia never became a Jedi. (Huh. Maybe we should call this episode Star Wars: Broken Promises).

But look at the larger context. The Galactic Republic shown in the prequels dominates the galaxy. Civilization is flourishing, with pockets of decadence (I think we’re supposed to believe it’s decadent, but we never really see that). It is corrupt and bureaucratic, which makes it vulnerable to Palpatine.

When the Dark Side takes over civilization through Palpatine, civilization crumbles. It tries to solidify as a fascist order (the Empire), but the more tightly the grip systems, the “more systems slip through [their] fingers.” Ultimately, it fails.

But the galaxy is already wounded. Civilization seems effectively gone, and so far all we see is a galaxy where everything is ‘frontier’. (Finn talks about escaping to the Outer Rim. The Outer Rimm houses systems like Tattooine, which in the originals we understand is outside the Empire on the fringes of civilization). Here, we’ve seen Jakku, which is much like Tattooine… it looks like an Outer Rim world, but by implication we’re to believe this is in the battleground between the new Republic and the First Order. (It’s not clear to me the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance; does the new Republic not have its own army, and if the Resistance is “resisting” the First Order, that implies the First Order is still the sovereign power, which it’s shown that it’s not when they kill the Republic… dammit. Yet another sloppy piece of world building in the movie that I will choose to overlook).

So to make the long rambling short: the desolation and despair we see throughout the world in Force Awakens is a manifestation of the price that embracing evil has on civilization, and the effect are long-term, outlasting the one who made it so (the Emperor, in this case).

The the Force Awakens is also a new-New Hope. Han and Leia still have tenderness towards each other. Rey finds her (father?)? Through sheer will and faith alone, Rey goes toe to toe with a (semi)trained dark Jedi. And Rey offers Luke his light saber to ask him to come back because the galaxy needs him.

And even a storm trooper refuses to surrender his inner humanity and rises as a hero.

The Light cannot be overcome, no matter how long the stretch of the shadows of the Dark.

Human Lives Matter: Racial Politics in Fantasy

(Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist, or a social scientist.)

Black Lives Matter, the most recent crystallization of racial politics in our nation, has prompted me, among other things, to pause and question the use of race in fantasy and science-fiction, to include re-evaluating how I approach fantasy races in my Ahmbren Chronicles books. If I think about the most influential models in fantasy and science fiction which divide characters into races in such a way where racial differences and inherent natures are highlighted, I would look at Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

In the real world, civilization has moved through periods of time where it was (wrongfully) asserted that races had different characteristics. In the literature of our past, people of the “negroid race” were called savage. Inferior. Of animal passion.

Biologically, it’s been proven that “race” isn’t actually a thing. There is no such thing as race on a genetic level. The color of our skin is no more an indication of aptitude, character, or morality than the color of our hair or eyes. I share with the author of the linked article that I also didn’t learn that race isn’t “real” in the biological sense until I was in college.

Race is a thing, I would propose, in the social sense. A combination of ethnicity, physical characteristics, and a line of ancestors extending back through particular cultures to particular geographic regions. There is a racial effect, an experience, we all have, and each of our racial experiences are different from the other races. To be Caucasian in the world (anywhere in the world) means we will have a different cause-effect response from the cultural system than if we are Black, or Asian, or Semitic. The level of difference, and whether our race gives us advantage or disadvantage depends on the area of the world. In most instances, being white in Europe or North American presents a certain set of advantages. Being Caucasian in Asia, the Middle-East, or Africa provides an opportunity to be the outsider, with what that might mean across a wide spectrum of experience. To be non-Caucasian in Europe or North America also leads to a different paradigm than if one were Caucasian. So, even though race isn’t real from a biological perspective, it would be false to say it’s not real from an experiential and cultural perspective.

So what does this have to do with fantasy fiction?

First, let’s look at Tolkien and Roddenberry. Two writers who created concepts of race to help define their characters, and two writers who approached it from completely opposite perspectives.

Tolkien took concepts from British and European folklore and solidified them into the foundational tropes of modern fantasy: elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and halflings. Dungeons and Dragons built on this, and a great many fantasy books, my own included, inherit from this legacy. In Tolkien, race matters. I mean, it matter a lot. The elves truly are better and superior than the other races, simply by virtue of being elves. Dwarves are more susceptible to greed because they are dwarvish (there’s even a view that Tolkien’s anti-semitism manifested in his design of the dwarves, where he stated that they were based off of [his stereotypes about] the Jewish people). Humans are easily corrupted because they are human (which is fine if you think of the problems of mortalkind and the temptations of power, but Tolkien makes this a racial thing… and I’m not even going to get into the fact that Tolkien’s black humans all throw in with Sauron). And Frodo is able to resist the ring’s power long enough to complete the mission because it is a characteristic of hobbits. In summary, though Tolkien did have variance in his characters due to their morale center (e.g., Boromir and Faramir made different choices when it came to the Ring), his characters were defined first and foremost by their race.

Roddenberry took the opposite approach. First, although Star Trek correctly Humans, Klingons, and Vulcans as different species, they are, in my opinion, analogous to races for all practical purposes. Because Star Trek has always been socially aware. Roddenberry deliberately wanted to show the commonality in his races, that no matter how alien they were, they still had faces and eyes that express human emotion. Kirk tells Spock at some point, “We’re all human, Spock.” Roddenberry believed in the shared experience of the soul (my words/interpretation) and the common bond of human experience. In Star Trek, races are much more treated as different cultures (assigned to different physical costuming), but the heroes are heroes because of shared moral values based on a universal philosophy (the needs of the many) rather than by virtue of their race; the villains are villainous because of evil values based on a universal philosophy (disregard for suffering in exchange for personal or political gain) that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. In other words, the characters shape who they are based on choices rather than being defined by their race.

To bring this back to fantasy and my treatment of race in Ahmbren, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with my approach to race. Now that I think about it, I was influenced by Tolkien’s approach. I did not pattern my races on real-world stereotypes, and I believe Ahmbren is more nuanced and socially aware than Middle Earth (I also studied, metaphorically, at the feet of Roddenbery, and wanted to make my elves and orcs more “human” than Tolkien did). But there is still a fundamental racial influence on my characters. When I started building my world, I decided to make each race’s character focused around a question they held to be their ultimate philosophical question. They were as follows:

  • Sidhe (elf): What is beauty? What is perfection?
  • Human: What is useful? What is practical?
  • Ratling: What is profitable? What is negotiable?
  • Gnome: What is possible?
  • Orc: What is heroic?
  • Dwarf: What is valuable? What can I make of value?
  • Troll: What is correct?
  • Seelie (elf): What is natural? What is true?
  • Troglodyte: What can I endure? What can I survive?

This was great from a story-building perspective, because it gave me a guide post on how those races’ cultures interacted, and what inherently motivated the personalities of the characters.

And yet, I’m now bothered by this, at how fundamentally a kind of racism is built into my world. Even if it is with fictional races. Based on the world I’ve built, I can’t just wipe it away and say all those races are the same, because in this world, race has biological reality. Trolls and ratlings are physically different from elves and humans. Sidhe elves cannot cross-breed with humans (biologically incompatible), and this doesn’t even account for the wolven (werewolves) and vampires, which also have racial characteristics that fundamentally shape their character and personality. (If sunlight kills you and you must drink human blood to survive, it will have a definite impact on your personality and character).

At this point, those biological differences are baked into the world design. I could write this off as fiat accompli at this point. Except that in the story, it also presents itself as cultural differences. Which means the reader is going to unconsciously experience the racial differences much the same way we perceive racial differences in the real world: along the lines of culture and ethnicity… because I’ve explicitly made all the races human-like (a la Roddenberry), but perhaps mismatched upon a Tolkienesque structure.

I doing so, I feel I’m doing a disservice to the reader. Why? Why do I think this is dangerous? Because I’m encouraging a mode of thinking, of mental experience, in the reader that reinforces the idea of race (as distinct from culture) as having a defining effect on the moral character, preferences, and aptitude of a person.

And I don’t like that one bit.

How to address this? By having my characters start to challenge this notion. I wrote a scene today where I call out the fundamental racial “Prime Questions”. I attribute that to an in-world philospher, and I allow the character to challenge that. In essence, I took a choice made in world-building, projected that choice into the world as an “understanding” within the world, and in doing so, I can start to change the world from within. (Is there some hidden wisdom in here?)

In this scene, when Tomly states the evidence “is in all our cultures”, I’m deliberately alluding to the logic of Mein Kampf, to state that to judge a person’s inherent worth (genetic or biological) based on any particular culture leads to the ultimate in evil and suffering (i.e., the concentration camps). Although this story doesn’t deal with concentration camps, this “Nazi light” that I’m shining on Tomly is the first indication in the book to Joy that something is fundamentally wrong with him. And although Joy (Meara) doesn’t know of Hitler, or Mein Kampf, the reader may pick up on this. And Joy can recognize the rationale is fundamentally flawed and deceptive. And as her mother, Aradma, said at the end of When Dragons Die: Evil is that which conceals the fundamental truth of the universe. Therefore, this is her first real clue that Tomly is evil (the reader already knows this from the prologue).

Here’s the scene (unedited draft):

“Do you think each race is bound to such a philosophy?” Joy asked. “Those questions were written by a historian. He didn’t include all races, and in the end they are one person’s opinion.” Darklings and wolven were offshoot races of humans, and assigned the same question. Gorgons weren’t known about at the time, and vampires didn’t exist yet. “It’s not as if such ‘Prime Questions’ were prescribed by the gods.” She tucked her hair back behind her ears as if it were distracting her from her work, purposefully revealing her dead eye in the process.

He paused. He frowned. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “I do. I think the evidence is in all our cultures. The kind of civilization we produce flows from our nature.”

She gripped her paintbrush. She wanted to stab him with the pointy end. “Couldn’t our cultures have simply been the natural unfolding of history?” She asked. “The accident of our birth? The circumstances of our peoples? I don’t think those questions are universally binding.”

“You mean we have no inherent nature?”

She took a deep breath. Maybe she could change his mind.

“Everyone has natural tendencies,” she said. “But culture shapes us even more. I think Epiphontiles confused race for culture. Perhaps each person has inclinations and tendencies inherited from their parents.” She pointed to her canvas. “I can paint on white linen or black linen. There’s red linen and blue linen, or any base color I’d like to start with. Perhaps that is race. To a certain extent, the nature of our mortal creature, our bodies, are different. Ratling fur, gorgon eyes, human apishness, troll tusks, elf lifespans… If the color of the linen is my race, the pigments available on my palette is my culture. The brush strokes are my choices. I can be born into other cultures and have a different palette. Queen Seonna’s seelie children have an orcish palette, I would wager. Or I can visit other cultures and add to my palette, like I’m doing now. With enough paint and depending on the choices of my brush strokes, I can paint a dwarven vista on elven linen. Or a human portrait on gnomish linen. So no, I don’t think such questions are racially binding, and in the end I believe we’re all people. The mortal races are all rational with the capacity for choice, and that commonality of spirit runs deeper than the accident of our birth. And at the end of the day, even all the varieties of linen we use starts the same tan color before it’s dyed or bleached to become a canvas.”

So, I hope I’ve planted a seed that allows Ahmbren to grow beyond it’s racially flawed construction. One of the saving graces of Ahmbren is that I’ve set very little in stone about the understanding of the world, and that the understanding reflects the characters’ understanding (of Ahmbren’s history, religion, or metaphysics). Thus as characters grow and change, the understanding and experience of Ahmbren can also change without destroying the integrity of Ahmbren herself.

Ultimately, this is one of the things I enjoy most about fantasy writing and world building. It allows me an avenue to continually grow and examine my own beliefs and views, challenging them from multiple angles.

Until next time!

Kyle