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Posts Tagged ‘star wars’


A Bonus Post of Star Wars Geekery for you all this afternoon.

More spoilers ensue.


Like, if you haven’t seen the movie, go do that now and then read the rest of this post.  Unless you don’t care about spoilers, which, more power to you!


The Force Awakens RPG Madness

Good morning 2015!  I’ve been so busy vacating that I forgot to write my Star Wars Geekery post!  So here we go.

To start off: Uncanny Magazine published an essay of mine about how Star Wars shaped science fiction.  You can read it here; it covers a lot of ground, but it starts like this:

I was in high school when Star Wars: Episode I hit theaters.

And I was psyched.

At this point only one magic word would convince me to lay down my dish pit money, and that word was “lightsabers.” I owned every Star Wars comic Dark Horse ever published. I can still give you a beat–for–beat account of the Tragedy of Ulic Qel–Droma. I thought Nomi Sunrider was a fantastic character name. (I still kind of do.) There’s a dude in those comics who is a tree, and a Jedi who is a rhinoceros, and they’re fantastic. I owned all the EU books. I played the tabletop RPG. I watched fanvids obsessively; I still would basically melt if I ever met Kevin Rubio face to face.

And continues!

I saw The Force Awakens on opening night, and the movie was enormous fun—even more fun the second viewing than the first.  My Thursday evening pre-release felt incredibly stressful: having been burned before, I held each scene up to the light and turned it ’round, thinking, am I really enjoying this, or just telling myself I am?  I backed away and re-approached each scene from different angles.  I poked fingers through plot holes, I wondered why Starkiller Base left me cold, I critiqued cause-and-effect storytelling, and I walked away satisfied with the whole and excited by its parts (All the new characters!  Han and Chewie!  Carrie Fisher!).  The second time through, knowing the story’s bones set right, knowing there was no Jar-Jar—using Jar-Jar here metonymically for the myriad oddnesses of the prequel trilogy—I let myself go, and felt all the rush I didn’t let myself feel the first time.  Drama and emotions built!  Storylines progressed!  I cared.  I cared enough for my storytelling hindbrain to start fixing issues I’d thought were irreconcilable on first viewing.  And for the first time in a long while, I’m excited about telling stories in the Star Wars universe again.

I think part of my excitement stems from how open the universe feels.  A lot of the setting power of the Original Trilogy rises from its focus on the Imperial Periphery.  We see the edges of power, where the Empire projects force and interesting stuff happens, where the destinies of nations hinge on a single battle or moral choice, rather than the metropole, which corners more slowly if at all.  The prequel trilogy’s political ambitions tangled its story with the engines of power that drive the Galaxy Far, Far Away—and limited its characters to maneuvering within those engines, rather than “taking the first step into a wider world.”

Of course, I’m the last person on the planet to decry storytelling about metropolitan politics—that’s the Craft Sequence in a nutshell—but itinerant adventure-having Jedi aren’t a great lens for that sort of story.  The cinematic Jedi tool is the lightsaber; think about how often people in Lincoln, say, or The West Wing, draw swords.  The Prequel trilogy shows Jedi crushed by a political machine whose workings they barely appreciate.  (It’s been funny to read the small flight of essays that hit the web in the leadup to TFA about how “ZOMG upon revisiting the prequel trilogy Palpatine’s plot TOTALLY MAKES SENSE;” the problem with those movies was never the mechanics or inscrutability of Palpatine’s plot—I mean, weren’t its rough outlines pretty obvious starting in the Phantom Menace?  The films’ problems lay in direction, storytelling, screenwriting, characterization, occasional failures of actor chemistry, a Hobbit trilogy level disconnect between the cinematic approach and the story being told…  But that’s another essay.)

Anyway, my point is that stories about the workings of political machinery tend to be dense and contextual, offering little room for sideline storytelling.  (Though it does exist.)  By contrast, OT Star Wars and TFA Star Wars are set in Casablanca—a contorted mess of Lego blocks replete with foundations onto which we can build our own stories, an embarrassment of dramatic stakes for us to mold into new characters.

Which, of course, started me thinking about gaming.  The core TFA cast stat up really easily in the old West End Games Star Wars d6 system.  In fact, every dramatic beat in the story (save, arguably, one) is totally rules justifiable!  I know some people have been kvetching about imbalance, specifically w/r/t Rey, so let’s walk through some of the pivotal table interactions in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and see how unfounded that claim is.

(I’m about to start in on the really detailed spoilers here, by the way.  Like, beat by beat spoilers.)

(Last warning.  Turn back now.)

(NB also: I played so much SWd6 that rules-as-written and generations of master-student house rules are all kind of mushed together in my head.  I’m doing my best to ensure the interactions below are consistent with the system, but I’ve probably mucked something up somewhere along the line.)

Okay so, this is about to get really nerdy, even for me.

SWd6, if you’ve never played it before, is my favorite system for Star Wars roleplaying.  (I haven’t played the ‘new,’ as in several years old, Fantasy Flight engine yet; I’ll pick it up soon, but I have to run a Tenra Bansho Zero game and a Night’s Black Agents game first, and maybe Primetime Adventures.)  SWd6’s great strength is its flexibility: rather than choosing character classes (e.g. ‘I’m a level 7 Jedi,’ which sounds pretty goofy no matter how you slice it), you build your character with a mix of stat and skill dice.  Starting human player characters split 18 dice between the following stats:

Dexterity (Everything that involves coordination and speed)

Strength (Everything that involves grit & brute force)

Technical (Fixin’ stuff)

Mechanical (Usin’ stuff)

Knowledge (Knowin’ stuff)

Perception (Seein’ or feelin’ stuff)

Whenever your character wants to do something that seems like it qualifies under a particular stat, you roll the number of six sided dice you’ve assigned to that stat.  So, say, Jane wants to build her Stormtrooper, Finn.  Stormtroopers are good at shooting things (they are, honest, most of the time we see Stormtroopers in the OT miss it’s because they’ve been explicitly ordered not to hit things).  Human stats range between 2D and 4D; Jane starts with 4D in Dexterity, for zapping things and dodging, 3D in Mechanical, which covers using large gun emplacements, and maybe 4D in Perception, which is rolled to determine who goes first in combat.  So, we’re at 11D; Finn only has seven dice left!  But it makes sense that a brainwashed Stormtrooper wouldn’t know much about the galaxy, and he probably wouldn’t have much technical knowledge—that’s why the First order has an engineering corps, after all.  So, 2D each in Tech and Know, and 3D in Strength, which seems about right for a stormtrooper.

Then the player splits seven skill dice among those stats, which give her character advantages in specific areas of expertise.  For example, Jane thinks, Finn’s had extensive and focused military training, let’s give him and extra +2D in Blaster (Dex), +1D in Dodge (Dex), +1D in Brawl (Str), +1D in Starship Gunnery (Mech), +1D in Survival (Know), +1D in Running (Dex).  So, when Jane wants Finn to shoot at someone, she’s rolling 6D (4D dex + 2D blaster).

Meanwhile, Rey’s player builds her.  Rey needs Tech for scavenging, which would be a Capital Starship Repair roll, so 4D there, maybe 3D in Mech, 4D in Dex because that’s where you have running and melee combat, 2D in Knowledge because she’s lived on the back-end of space forever, 2D in Strength, to which we’ll add skill dice for climbing and jumping around old spaceships, and that leaves 3D for Perception.  Rey wants to be good at thumping things with a stick, at languages, at climbing, to have a strong will, and to be able to pilot cheap spaceships, so: +1D Melee (Dex), +2D Languages (Know), +2D climbing (Str), +2D willpower (Perc), and +1D Space Transports (Mech).  This is a lot of Willpower, but Rey’s player likes arguing that Willpower should let her do things like evade wound penalties.  So.  Hooray!

In the first session, Finn breaks Poe out, and they run for Jakku.  Finn’s manning the guns, rolling 4D to hit (Starship Gunnery of 4D)—which is a decent amount, enough to hit a capital-ship scale target.  Good times!

Later, when Finn and Rey are trying to escape a First Order assault, they end up in a shockingly maneuverable (given how crap it looks) YT-1300 freighter, pursued by TIE fighters.  Finn’s having a much harder time hitting the TIEs than he had against the gun emplacements—Imperial NPC job-relevant skills tend to hover around 5D for convenience.  Hit vs. dodge is a simple opposed die roll—so on average, the TIE pilots have no problem dodging Finn.  They can even fire back at the same time, since Star Wars d6 has a permissive multiple-actions-per-round system: you just subtract 1D from each action you want to perform, for each action you want to perform beyond the first.  So, a TIE fighter that wants to dodge and fire in the same round is rolling 4D for each, assuming 5D starfighter gunnery and 5D starfighter piloting. This is a good deal for Rey, since she’s only flying the space freighter at 4D!

But there are too many fighters, so Rey decides to fly toward the wreck of a crashed Star Destroyer she knows well.  That way, the TIEs will have to roll piloting to evade rubble, dodge to evade Finn’s guns, and gunnery, if they want to fire.  Of course, Rey will have to split her action between piloting through the rubble and dodging blasters—but Rey argues that, since she’s familiar with the Star Destroyer wreckage, she should have an easier time navigating it than the TIE pilots.  The GM, feeling that this is a good argument, says Rey’s piloting roll is Moderate difficulty, while the TIE’s is Difficult; if Rey rolls an 11 or above on her three dice, she succeeds, while the TIEs need 15-20 on their three dice, which is very hard.

Hitting an eleven on three dice is a little better than average, but Rey decides to chance it, especially since one of those three dice is the Wild Die—a feature of the game.  If you roll a 6 on the Wild Die, you get to roll again, and add that result to your total.  So!  Rey rolls well, and between the TIEs rolling 3d6 against Finn’s 4d6 Starship Gunnery, and 3d6 against the Difficult terrain, they’re left with a single TIE pursuer.  Awesome!  Unfortunately, one of the TIEs had an exploding wild die on their Starship Gunnery roll, and hit Finn’s gun turret; the guns are frozen in a forward position!  Now the TIE is only rolling two actions: Starfighter Piloting against the terrain, and Gunnery against Rey’s piloting, 4D against 4D, with Rey’s freighter already damaged!

Rey decides this needs to be dealt with fast.  First, Rey dives into the Star destroyer wreckage, which she argues increases the DC by the same amount for each pilot—so Rey’s rolling 4D and looking for a 15-20.  Not easy!  But the TIE, which follows, decides he’d rather roll 5D against a DC 20-25 than risk rolling 4D piloting to get a 4D shot at Our Heroes.

At which point:

Rey: “Finn’s guns are jammed forward, right?”

Jane: “I can’t move them at all.”

Rey: “Can I pilot the ship to set up his shot?”

GM: “Um.  That’d be a Hard roll at least.”

Rey: “Well, that’s why I have these character points.”

Character points are a sort of player currency: they can be used to increase skills between adventures with GM permission, or spent during an adventure to add one die to any roll, and each character point die rerolls on a 6.  Characters start with 3 CP; Rey spends all three, rolling 7D, for an average of ~21.  One of the character point dice comes up 6, then 4, and the TIE fighter is in Finn’s sights.

Character points, by the way, are only one of the two forms of player currency in SWd6.  The other, the Force Point, is much more powerful—but also riskier.  Characters that are not Force sensitive start with only one; characters that are, start with two.  A Force point, spent, doubles the number of dice a player rolls for her next action.  But Force force points are gained and recovered in an unpredictable fashion: a Force Point spent for evil ends is lost, and the character gains a Dark Side point.  A Force Point spent for selfish ends is lost forever.  A Force Point spent for heroic ends is earned back at the end of the adventure.  A Force Point spent in above-the-call-of-duty heroics at the dramatically appropriate moment, is earned back with interest: the player gets two Force Points back at the end of the adventure.  The GM has sole authority over the Force Point economy.  Players using a Force Point should feel scared, and brave, but feel what they’re doing is worth the risk.

Anyway.  Here we are: Finn fires.


We’ll skim forward.  (Lots of role-playing ensues; Rey rolls a 1 on her Wild Die while attempting to close the blast doors to save Han, which releases the Big Squiggly Monsters, which Finn spends several turns trying to brawl with to save himself.)  The battle on Moz’s planet is pretty simple: Rey gets the drop on a Stormtrooper and hits him with her 4D Dex stat.  Finn gets to use a lightsaber!  Lightsabers in SWd6 are dangerous, but not impossible, for non-Jedi to use: you roll either Lightsaber combat, which is Dex, or Melee Weapons, also Dex, depending on which edition of the rules you’re playing with.  A house rule my group played with was, if you roll a 1 on your Wild Die while using a lightsaber, you deal Lightsaber damage to yourself—which is Bad News Bears, since Lightsabers roll a minimum of 5D damage against your Puny Human strength of 2D or 3D, and if you fail your roll by 9-12, you’re Incapacitated.  Fail by 16, and you’re killed outright.

Jedi have an edge, however: the Lightsaber Combat skill, which, well, is a bit broken.  Here’s how Force Powers work: there are three Force Skills, Control (used to control your own body), Sense (used to sense the world around you), and Alter (used to control the world around you).  Lightsaber combat is a Jedi power that involves rolling both Control and Sense; if the Jedi succeeds at both rolls, she adds her Sense die to her skill with Lightsaber or Melee Weapons, and her Control die to damage.  So, a Jedi with Control 3D, Sense 2D, and Lightsaber 5D rolls 7D to hit and 8D damage.  Which is a lot.  This will be relevant later!

Anyway, Finn does fine rolling his 4D Dex with the saber, until he runs into a Stormtrooper who actually has spent points on Melee Weapons, at which point, Yipe!  Things turn bad.  But, like I said, skimming forward.

So, Rey’s captured by Kylo Ren.  Ren’s an interesting character: he’s a powerful Dark Side Force user, but most of the cool stuff we see him do, like grabbing folks and snatching blaster bolts in midair, involves a lot of Alter.  His telepathic interrogation’s clearly him being pretty good at Sense, but it’s also difficult—trembling hand, intense focus, etc, compared to the offhand way he tosses people around with Alter.  The Receptive Telepathy power is actively resisted by Perception, or possibly Willpower depending on house rules; if the Jedi doesn’t double the target’s roll, she can only read surface thoughts, which explains Ren’s chatty, “Don’t think of pink elephants” approach to interrogation.  Let’s give Ren a very uneven, Dark-Side-y build: say 5D Alter, 3D sense, 1D control.

Ren’s 3D sense isn’t getting much of anywhere against Rey’s 6D Willpower; it has trouble even against her 4D Perception.  And, by the way—the GM decides this is a dramatically appropriate moment for Rey’s player to acquire some Force Skills, if she wants ’em.  This is, after all, her first exposure to the Force!

Rey’s player has been saving up character points for just such an emergency.  There’s a bit of confusion in the rules as to how, exactly, you “buy into” the Force after character creation, but let’s say the GM lets her buy 1d in each Force skill for 3 character points each.  Nine CP, and Rey has 1D Control, 1D Sense, 1D Alter.  And the first thing she decides to do, is use the Receptive Telepathy power to try to read Ren’s mind back.  Ren doesn’t even know she’s Force sensitive, so he doesn’t actively resist.  Rey spends a couple more character points to boost her Sense roll to 3D and rolls into Ren’s mind.  This is awesome, so the GM gives her a character point back.  We’ll say Rey is left with 5 CP; we’re three sessions into the adventure (Jakku, Han’s ship, Moz’s Place), and 5CP/session is a reasonable average.

Getting herself out of restraints is harder.  Rey’s player knows the Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded, and knows that the Stormtroopers are weak minded, but Rey doesn’t know much about the Force yet; she doesn’t have a clear power list.  The GM asks her to roll Control, Sense, and Alter; he makes a few notes, but says she fails: the Trooper’s mind is too strong.  She tries again; she describes bending her will against him, forcing him to obey her, and spends a character point on each roll.  The GM tells her she succeeds.  The GM keeps his ominous smile to himself, and gives Rey a character point.

Fast forward.

Kylo Ren has been hit by a Bowcaster bolt.  Bowcasters do *serious* damage (we put it at 5D, but that might have been a house rule), and it looks like Ren’s Puny Human Strength hovers at 2D.  He *should* be wounded or incapacitated, but he’s using a Force Power called “Control Pain” to, well, do exactly what it says on the tin; keeping that power running costs him 1D on every action, but at least he can act.  Finn and Rey are running away; Ren follows them.  Bringing up Lightsaber Combat requires a Control roll (he’s at 0D) and a Sense roll(2D), and keeping Lightsaber Combat up costs another 1D per round, but Ren figures it’s worth the extra net +1D to his Lightsaber skill rolls.  He smashes Rey into a tree (even with his penalties, 5D is still a lot of Alter), and faces Finn.  Let’s figure he’s rolling 8D for Lightsaber, counting the Lightsaber Combat bonus.  Finn’s still rolling 4D Melee.  He spends character points attacking Ren, but Ren out-averages him heavily; onscreen, Ren’s clearly dominating the fight, taking time out for blade flourishes.  (Finn’s player considers using a blaster, but remembers how easily Ren deals with those.)

Ren uses his Lightsaber rolls to back Finn against a tree, and starts toying with him, wounding him in the shoulder.  At the last extremity, Finn’s player recognizes that Fighting the Dark Side is totally heroic, and spends a Force Point, doubling Finn’s Melee to 8D.  Finn hits!  Ren Controls Pain *again*, spending his last character points to boost his Control skill from zero to 3D so he can make the check.  Now he’s keeping up three powers: Lightsaber combat, and 2x. Control Pain.  And he’s done toying around.  He hits the already-Wounded Finn for full damage; Finn’s Wound gives him -1D to his Strength roll to soak the lightsaber.  He 1s the Wild Die and goes down, Mortally Wounded.  The lightsaber falls in the snow.

Kylo Ren reaches for the lightsaber with the Force, because why not?  He’s at 2D to Alter, counting cumulative penalties, and he rolls low.  But, who else is around to stop him?


She wakes up, spends two character points, and her 3D beats Ren’s weaksauce 2D roll no problem.  The saber zips through the air to her waiting hand.  This is fucking awesome.  The table (Poe, Finn, BB-8) cheers!

Rey’s rolling 5D melee against Ren’s 7D saber.  Tense times.  They trade blows; Ren’s beating her, on average.  She tries to run, using her Climbing to get better position, but Ren follows.  As the terrain shifts, Ren backs her against a cliff.  “I’ll teach you to use the Force.”

Use the Force.  Rey’s scared.  She’s angry.  She closes her eyes, like Moz told her.  She spends a Force point.  And the Force, by which I mean the GM, offers her more power: the power to fight back, the power to stop Ren.

Rey calls upon the Dark Side.

Calling upon the Dark Side is an easy Perception roll, the first time you try it—and the difficulty increases by three each time.  Calling upon the Dark Side gives you a free Force point for immediate use, in addition to any Force Points you may have spent already.  The most conservative reading of the doubling rules suggest that Rey is now rolling three times her usual die codes.  And she gains a Dark Side Point, which will stain her soul until she makes amends.  She’s started down the Dark path, and forever will it dominate her destiny.

“But,” you say, “Rey doesn’t fall to the Dark Side.”

She doesn’t fall, no, she doesn’t turn evil.  But watch that scene again.  She closes her eyes.  She reaches for the Force.  And when she opens her eyes again, she snarls.  She beats Ren back with brute strength and vicious, choppy saber-blows, like Luke used in Return of the Jedi when the Dark Side tempted him.  When Ren’s forced to his knees, she circles him with the Dark Side stalk.  Daisey Ridley delivers a perfect physical quote of Ray Park’s Darth Maul.

In game terms, she’s rolling 15D.  She makes four attacks that round at 12D each, smashing through Ren’s defense.  He falls.  She almost finishes the job, but the ground erupts beneath her and she runs.

Rey carries the fight.  Saves Finn.  (Who gets his Force Point back, and maybe gets another one, too—fighting a Dark Jedi on your own, without Force powers?  There’s a solid argument for suicidal self-sacrifice here.)  Rey gets her Force point back, though she doesn’t get another one.  Rey finds the map; she ventures out to Skellig Michael, climbs several thousand stone steps, and meets Luke.

Who, after years of isolation after his Academy failed and his students fell to the Dark Side, turns around to see a young Force Sensitive woman, holding out a lightsaber, desperate for training, scared and awed and eager.  And in her heart: the touch of the Dark Side of the Force.

Violins swell.  Credits roll.

Rey’s rule mechanics are more interesting than those of, say, Finn, or Poe, or BB-8, but they’re still clear.  Everything she does fits easily within a straightforward build and a decent grasp of the rules.

Han firing the Bowcaster, though, now that makes no sense.  IIRC humans aren’t strong enough to use them, the kickback alone….  But that’s another post for another day.

Iphigenia at Honoghr

I grew up in the Expanded Universe.

I’m talking Star Wars here, and this essay may be a bit confusing for those of you who didn’t know that from the first line.  If that fits you, though, welcome!  Let me bring you up to speed, because I’m writing about myth and canon as much as lightsabers today, and if you’re not up on the ‘sabers what I have to say might still interest you.  Those of you who’ve joined me in ur-nerdery, pour yourselves an $adult_beverage and rest your feet as I make sure the whole class is on the same page.  Skip ahead a few paragraphs, or read along if you feel a burning desire to ask me, in the comments section, “Bro, Do You Even Star Wars?”

The answer’s yes.

Gross oversimplification warnings apply here, but here’s the essential piece: if you were an elementary school kid in 1990, the Star Wars universe looked pretty limited.  You (I) had the movies, but beyond that, if you (I) wanted to know more about the Galaxy Far, Far Away you were looking for roleplaying game materials (perhaps not yet knowing what a roleplaying game was), an out-of-print Marvel Comics series, or equally out-of-print novels.  Then, in 1991, Bantam Spectra published Heir to the Empire, the first of a trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn set in the Star Wars universe.

This changed everything.  In the novel’s opening pages we meet a new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is basically Evil Sherlock Holmes, a master tactician leading the struggling remnants of the once-mighty Galactic Empire against the thriving New Republic.  The New Republic gains a bureaucracy, a Trantorian capital city called Coruscant, and a thriving underclass of scum and villainy.  Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, 3PO, and R2-D2 are all heroes of the Rebellion; Leia’s a Senator.  Luke’s a Jedi.  Han’s an expectant father.  They’ve grown since Endor.

Zahn’s trilogy brought the dark corners of the former Empire into a sort of geeky mainstream, introducing scads of new characters to confront and new worlds to explore.  One of my favorite additions: the Noghri, a species of incredibly talented martial artists and assassins, working for Thrawn in exchange for the cleanup of their ecologically devastated planet, Honoghr.  The Thrawn Trilogy’s success paved the way for a plethora novels, short stories, and comics set in an ever-growing “Expanded Universe,” many of which at most tangentially intruded on the adventures of Our Heroes.  Zahn’s GFFA functioned as an at least somewhat coherent science fictional galaxy, space operatic in the extreme, but subject to political, social, economic, and moral pressures, and full of exquisite villains who don’t have to cackle maniacally and throw lightning around to be bad (though there’s nothing wrong with a bolt of lightning every now and then).   Every question you’ve never wanted to ask about Star Wars, the Expanded Universe answers definitively.  “What are the economics of bacta distribution?” Expanded Universe.  “Who built the pyramids on Yavin?” Expanded Universe.  “Where did they make the Death Star?” Expanded Universe.  “Why does Han measure the Kessel Run in distance, rather than time?” Expanded Universe.  “What is up with Hutts anyway?” Expanded Universe.

To call the Expanded Universe massive and labyrinthine is an insult to the Expanded Universe.  A staggering amount of my childhood took place in that labyrinth.

And now it’s gone.  More or less.

See, starting with The Force Awakens, the new Star Wars movies take place after Return of the Jedi.  Fantastic!  Unfortunately, there’s very little room, chronologically speaking, after Return of the Jedi.  Oceans of tie-in novels and comics and video games occupy that time.  If you don’t want to adapt the Star Wars EU by making a cinema version of, say, the Thrawn Trilogy—a tricky proposition, since one of the wonders of the Thrawn Trilogy is that those books are very much novels, complete with tangled plots and politics, double- and triple-blinds, and other tricks of the trade—you have to clear room to build.

So, rather than enter the business of selectively invalidating EU canon, the Disney Star Wars Marvel MegaTeam have gently moved the entire Expanded Universe to one side.  It exists—it’s just called Legends now, and the new films will owe no homage to the EU.  I’ll be shocked if Honoghr features in The Force Awakens.

The first time I heard this, it felt like a punch to the gut.  These stories were mine.  I grew up with them!  They mattered!  But then…

Well.  I started thinking about Iphigenia.

You all know the story of Iphigenia, right?  Begun, the Trojan War has.  Agamemnon fixes to lead Greeks to Troy, raises banner, huzzah!  But the wind doesn’t cooperate.  Agamemnon asks the gods why there’s no wind, and the gods demand he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.  So he does—earning his wife Clytemnestra’s mortal ire, and setting the stage for the Orestes drama after Agamemnon returns home from the war.

Or is that the story after all?  To hear Euripides tell it, the gods rescued Iphigenia and carried her off to the island of Tauris, where she serves as a priestess to Artemis.  Psych!  But then, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women claims that Artemis transformed Iphigenia (called Iphimede in this version of the story) into the goddess Hecate, which is a nice trick.  On the other hand, Antoninus Liberalis claims the gods spirited Iphigenia away to yet another island, Leuke, where she wed the immortalized Achilles.  (Antoninus Liberalis seems to have had a Bowdler-esque fix-fic streak, or vice versa.)

And lest you think this is an Iphigenia problem—what happens to Odysseus after he makes it home home?  If your answer is “And then Odysseus and Penelope were happy until the end of their days,” you’ve never heard of the Telegony—which is fine, because the Telegony sounds pretty silly.  Turns out people like the notion of Odysseus building his altar to Poseidon and settling down with his long-suffering wife in their olive tree bed a great deal more than they like Odysseus being slain by his and Circe’s son, who then marries Penelope (?) while Telemachus marries Circe (!!!), only Circe makes everyone involved immortal so no foul I guess, except for Odysseus who stays dead.

My favorite alt-myth, though, is probably the version of the abduction of Helen in which Paris kidnaps Helen and, escaping Sparta, is blown off-course to Egypt—where Pharaoh realizes something hinky’s up, and offers Helen asylum. She accepts, and Pharaoh’s magicians create a Helen simulacrum so Paris can sail away none the wiser.  Greeks and Trojans fight ten years over the Egyptian robo-Helen; Menelaus meets the real Helen after the war, when he too is storm-tossed down Egypt way.

Stories that last, last because they resonate with people.  (Power dynamics play into the equation too, of course.)  But people aren’t consistent, and they don’t need consistency to enjoy a good story. Iphigenia at Tauris is a great play.  That said, I prefer the version of the story in which Agamemnon’s daughter dies at Aulis, since it makes the Iliad, not to mention Clytemnestra’s later murders, matter more.  The genius of myth, though, is that I don’t have to choose.  I can subdivide continuity, I can support alternative worlds in parallel.

We (and I guess by that I mean modern humans?) have a tendency to believe only one story can be right.  If my tale’s true, yours must be false if they contradict one another!  And vice versa.  Even if this isn’t the fault of copyright law, copyright regimes don’t help, since they limit who gets to tell stories using a particular intellectual property universe.

Before modern copyright, if you wanted to create a new spin on an old tale, you did, and your ability determined whether your tale took.  Consider the Matter of Britain: the earliest Arthurian tales hold up Gawain (he what’s of the Green Knight) as the finest knight in all the land.  Lancelot only shows up later, in Chrétien de Troyes’ addition.  But readers like Lancelot, and the Guinevere love triangle, so Chrétien’s additions stay.  

And, since the Matter’s out of copyright, modern writers can join the fun.  Personally, I hew to Steinbeck’s version of the Triple Quest (especially Marhalt’s story), along with his rendering of Lancelot’s imprisonment (the best description of magic ever) and of Sir Kay’s speech about his life as a Seneschal.  I think White’s vision of the stable triad of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur—each loving each—will last as long as the legend.

Copyright does skew the process, but writers have invented ways around the rules—for example, the magic of the subgenre lets us write stories about Phillip Marlowe’s many avatars in all but name.  (No accident, I think, that Harry Dresden and Phillip Marlowe share a pattern of syllabic stress.)  We can’t write stories about hobbits, but halflings and kender are fine.  John Scalzi’s Redshirts slides into our sense of Star Trek alongside Galaxy Quest.  Star Trek novels never were regarded as canon in the way Star Wars novels were—but the Vulcan in my head is mostly Diane Duane’s, and the Klingon Homeworld mostly John M. Ford’s.  And Kevin Rubio’s fan film TROOPS is more central to my Star Wars than the prequel movies.

And readers have their own solutions that predate, and will outlast, the copyright regime.  No rightsholder can choose what I care about.  My mental legendarium’s a diverse mishmash of texts and fanfiction and jokes, personal theories and received wisdom, slash pairings and speculation and fan art.  If I find Bradley’s Lancelot less compelling than White’s, Bradley’s Morgan more vital than Steinbeck’s—the Lancelot in my mind will tend more toward White than Bradley, and Morgan to Bradley than Steinbeck.  I assemble my own Morgan, who contains pieces of every Morgan I’ve read and heard and met.  And each new Morgan has a chance to transform my understanding of the character, without wiping away my pre-existing vision.

These characters are large.  They contain multitudes.

Iphigenia and Odysseus, Lancelot and Penelope, Loki and Sieglinde, are bigger than any one canon—my legends are enriched by different views and endings.  Nonsense drifts away on the wind, but real heart-matter remains.  So—why worry?  Are Luke and Leia and Lando and Han and Chewie and 3PO and R2 and Obi-Wan any less robust or mythical than the great old stories?  Is Thrawn?  Is Mara Jade?  If not, we have nothing to worry about; if so, we should trust ourselves to the future—into the reinvention that will lend our heroes the mythic weight they deserve.  

The Expanded Universe doesn’t go away just because that story’s done.  The tale, well told, remains.  And now there’s room for others to tell new tales, and refresh the old with new life and glory. Chuck Wendig and Charles Soule and Delilah Dawson are bringing their own Star Wars; I’m excited to see what sort of a Galaxy takes shape in the coming months.

The parts of the old legends that mean something will be retold, by us if by no one else. Honoghr doesn’t disappear.  It’s still out there, rebuilding.  The story told this Christmas about the GFFA, and the stories told now in readiness for the movie’s launch, will join with and enrich the tales we know already.  The good works don’t fade.

After all, they were so artfully done.

Galactic History, or Galactic Folk Tale?


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FROM: Doctor Flox Beelthrak, Education Department, Corellia University

Djane Lel, Secretary of Historiography, Coruscant Teacher’s College



Your Harvest issue’s cover feature (“Heroes of the Galactic Revolution: A Twenty-Year Retrospective”), however well-intentioned in its commemoration of the anniversary of our galaxy’s liberation from the Palpatine Regime, indulged in and perpetuated many damaging and historically inaccurate popular fantasies.

However widespread the folk narrative of the Skywalker and Solo families has become in the decades since liberation, we expect more from a journal of your self-professed dedication to intellectual rigor.

The Great Sophont Theory of History has been deservedly discredited for decades; our galaxy’s very size—millions of sentient species spread across billions of worlds—should be enough to discredit any notion its history might be shaped by the decisions of a few individuals.  What steersman could seize the wheel of such a vessel?

The sad fact is, no matter how appealing tales of galactic heroism may be—and we’re fans ourselves!—history is made by movements and groups, not individuals.  To demonstrate this we need look no further than Palpatine himself.  The recent, brilliant, monograph IMPERIAL MINDS by Dr. Del Rivane of Dothek Polytechnique rather conclusively demonstrates that the Banking Clan and Corporate Sector’s drive for unified tax policy, new market access, and spacelane security, combined with the ambition of a rising human military officer class in the Late Republican period, were the main drivers of “Palpatine’s” coup and the subsequent (apparent) stability of the so-called “Imperial” government.

Palpatine was a consummate politician, this no one denies, but his political savvy can be most clearly seen in the deftness with which he walked the slack line of Late Republican politics.  The “Evil Emperor” truly has no clothes: documentary evidence reveals a brilliant and cynical man, yes, but a man nonetheless, whose high office emerged naturally from conflicts between the increasingly powerful and inherently ademocratic Republican bureaucracy on the one hand, and an overwhelmingly human military on the other.

But far more dangerous than the Palpatine-as-Evil-Genius vision, to our minds, is the popular tendency to attribute the Rebellion’s success to the, for the most part undocumented, personal heroism of a small elite group.  The Rebellion was an interstellar effort of millions.  No one doubts the importance of the Organa family’s leadership in the early Rebellion, or of Leia Organa’s personal role as an organizer of the Alderaanian diaspora after the Tarkin Incident.  But legends—folk tales, really, with no textual attribution—about Leia Organa’s personal achievements during the Rebellion at best distract from, and at worse erase, the contributions of the Alderaanian diaspora community to the war effort post-Tarkin.

And Organa is the most clearly documented of the folk heroes your Harvest issue seeks to lionize!  General Skywalker’s contributions as a pilot are legendary, of course—the Skywalker Doctrine of Snub Combat remains required reading in the Academy—but Skywalker’s military career was cut short by his increasing religious fanaticism and withdrawal from public life.  The man, a moisture farmer turned hero, is fantastic enough from a historian’s perspective; while folk tales of his association with “lost masters” of the Jedi Order, and of his personal miracles, make for pleasant campfire evenings, they drip with mythic patterning—and his purported genetic link with the Organa dynasty borders on the propagandist.  And the less said about parentage assertions with genocidal maniacs, the better.

Generals Solo and Calrissian were valuable bridge-builders between the nascent Rebellion and a community of small business owners chafing under the Planetary Governor regime, but many oral histories of the Rebellion ignore this role entirely, preferring to focus on poorly documented or entirely mythical personal achievements.  Tales of the Huttese Palace Incursion, which you, shockingly, included in your profile, are standout examples of the form.  Such an adventure would have been strategically incoherent—sending Organa in disguise to rescue Solo, Skywalker allowing himself to be captured–and the prurient asides focusing on Senator Organa’s captivity by “Jabba the Hutt,” the broadest and most speciesist caricature of a Huttese shaa%kzeh of which we are aware, are obviously intended to discredit and shame Organa.  Much of the male human galaxy, alas, remains uncomfortable with the fact that human political leadership of the Rebellion was predominantly female.  (As of course it would have been—human male elites did quite well under the Empire.)  Palace Incursion folk tales privilege the people the story isn’t actually about.

Folk tale and myth are, of course, valid and vital components of sophont cognition.  As the galaxy grows increasingly galactic, myths help limited sophonts perform practical ‘fast clumping and processing’ (Kaaffa the Hutt, Rational Typing in Mythic Decision Making, Nar Shaddaa Press, 1129aad.88q.pear).  But the proper study of history unpacks myths.  In Calrissian and Solo, we see a disenfranchised entrepreneurial element rising to resist a bureaucratic regime.  In Organa, we see survivors of genocide fighting back.  In Skywalker, galactic cultural institutions, the “old country religion” as it were, stands against a secularist order.  In Ackbar, we read the Mon Calamari decision to break with Late Republican / Imperial rule and become, in Ackbar’s noted phrase, “the arsenal of freedom.”  Myths help us act; history helps us understand.

In our roles as educators, we’ve come to expect that provincially educated frosh will arrive steeped in folk narrative.  It’s our job to teach them better.  They learn slowly, but they do learn.


We did not expect to have to undergo the same process with your newspaper.


Dr. F. Beelthrak

Dr. Djane Lel


Yes, I did write a fixfic based on the “Wait—all the stories are true?” line from the new Star Wars trailer.

I’m not sorry.

ALSO.  I have a new Bookburners episode out today!  “Now and Then” is about Grace, Shanghai, and layers of historical monstrosity.  I think it’s really good.  Enjoy!

At Least Space is Cold

It’s hot.

It’s really hot.  Especially in my house.  If you look at today’s Somerville weather report (and it’s Tuesday, by the way, for those of you playing along at home—I don’t write these posts day of if I can help it!), you will find a number.  That number is irrelevant.  Humidity and lack of air conditioning and post-fencing heat exhaustion mean I don’t have to care what the weather service says.  This is the actual forecast.

Fortunately I spent some of the day in SPACE.

My friend Kendric’s in town.  (And, may I take a moment to say—this season, no well-appointed young gentleman would dare be seen around town without a Kendric Tonn original oil painting.  So there.)  In his perpetual quest to separate your humble correspondent from his already nonexistent free time and discretionary budget, Kendric brought a tackle box full of X-Wing Miniatures.  So far, we’re two dogfights into the week, and my internal polls show a distinct amplification of enthusiasm.

I’m not going to say anything here that the folks on Shut Up & Sit Down didn’t say in their review of the game, but there’s an odd chance that some of you may not be reading Shut Up & Sit Down, so I’ll have to shoulder the burden.  The X-Wing miniatures game is a lightweight yet robust game of dogfighting around an asteroid field.   You assemble a squadron of pre-painted plastic miniatures, gather your friends, and zoom around your dining room table executing barrel rolls and Immelmans, activating (or switching off, if you’re insane) your targeting computer, and generally having a hell of a time.

Now: I’ve played this game on a computer.  I played it back when it was Rebel Assault, and Rebel Assault II.  I played it when it was TIE Fighter.  I played it on my Performa 6100/60, I played it on my friend Ian’s Sega CD, I played it on the tank-sized ThinkPad my high school rented me for a year.  I played this game on the GameCube once or twice.  And yet…

This afternoon, when the temperature was Oh God and the humidity was Why Would You Build Your City in a Swamp, my two TIE fighters and my Interceptor (piloted by Baron Soontir Hand-Me-My-Wallet-It’s-The-One-That-Says-Bad-Mothafucka-On-It Fel, natch) barreled through an asteroid field pursuing Kendric’s sole remaining Y-wing; his desperate pilot played asteroid slalom to deny me firing arcs while snagging corner shots with his ion turret.  We weren’t even playing the theme music, and we were both there.

We’re wired to project ourselves into objects: give a woman a hammer and her brain’s model of her body expands to include the hammer.  And when given a small, beautiful, high-quality TIE fighter of molded plastic, with a little heft to it, and simple rules that let me translate  desires through that model into strategic action, adventure, tension, story—I slide into the cockpit, and I’m in space.

Which is a pretty cool place to be.

And “cool” is exactly what I need right about now.


Jedi Econ, Sith History

While drinking the other night, a few friends and I argued the merits of economic history.  Star Wars entered the picture.  It was super effective.  You have been warned.  Read further at your own risk.

On the one hand, economics is a great lens through which to view history.  If we define our metrics properly we can trace the rise and fall of nations, peering at patterns behind and beneath the “Great Men”—plagues and surplusses and farming innovations become as significant as which Caesar won what battle.  And if we’re careful, we can use economics as a foundation for discussions about how human life and society have changed (or stayed the same) down millennia.

Thing is, as Mal Reynolds might say if he was my thesis advisor, there’s an awful lot of ‘if’ coming off that plan.

(Now I’m envisioning a Firefly version of the Academic Coach Taylor tumblr.  Someone go make that, please?  Anyway.)

It seems to me (and I am neither a professional economist nor an academic historian here, so take this whole column with the world’s biggest grain of salt) that this approach has a pretty big potential pitfall.  Our choice of metrics is shaped by our historical and cultural position, which other ages and places by definition didn’t share.  Imagine you’re playing checkers in one room, and your friends are playing chess in another.  During a lull in your checkers game (maybe your opponent takes a long time to move), you get up and ask your chess-playing friends how their game’s going.  Assume for a second that you know so little about chess that you can’t even hum the chorus of “One Night in Bangkok.” How-does-little-horsey-move territory, here.  You’d probably ask questions based on your own experience of checkers, which seems similar on the surface; How many pieces have they taken?  Has anyone promoted a piece yet?  What’s the greatest number of pieces they’ve taken in one move?  Some of these questions will be answerable; some won’t; many will have answers that don’t correlate to ‘success’ in the game in the way you’ll assume if you only know the rules of checkers.  And, critically: you’ll never ask a question about check, or mate.  You’ll not see forks, or board influence; you’ll be utterly confused the first time someone castles.

The modern metropolitan depends on her salary.  So we might be tempted, when comparing her position in society to her forbears of a century prior, to compare salaries or bank balances.  But salary-dependence is a more or less modern phenomenon—up through the late 19th century, the US was primarily rural, like everywhere else, and wage income wasn’t as vital a yardstick of economic security.  In fact, the relative ease of homesteading and farming functioned as a kind of national basic income or unemployment insurance: employers had to compete for labor with the everpresent risk their employees might decide, “screw this job, I’ll go farm instead.”  (See Economix for more on this theme.)

Or, consider Star Wars.  Let’s assume the movies are a historical narrative.  It’s pretty clear that we’re seeing Jedi Holocron history, since the most important bit of data about Galactic politics at any given time is “what are the Force users up to?”  From the perspective of the Jedi Holocron, the Empire’s moment-by-moment policies don’t matter.  What matters is that Palpatine and Vader are in charge, and they use the Dark Side of the Force—that Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker, that the Emperor hunted the Jedi to extinction.  Non-Jedi related issues are mentioned as an afterthought.  We hear the Imperial Senate was dissolved, but never learn what that means exactly; we know nothing about the galactic economy save that smuggling’s a thing people do, and people care about spice.  But we do know exactly what’s up with the Force users.

Which is the reason the audience feels such whiplash when The Phantom Menace’s opening crawl features a dispute over “the taxation of trade routes.”  All of a sudden we’ve been dropped into an entirely different historiography, using different metrics: a money-and-trade story, rather than a Jedi story.

That whiplash is the problem, not the subject matter.  There’s a commonplace among critics of The Phantom Menace that taxation of trade routes is inherently boring, which is just wrong—Dune is a gripping space opera that turns on equally abstruse points of politics, economics, and ecology, while huge chunks of Dorothy Dunnett’s plots turn on issues as apparently dry.  (Both the first two Niccolo books can be read as slow-burn setups for elegant economic assassinations.)  Hell, the West Wing’s best moments are about precisely this sort of economic and bureaucratic issue.  But the Holocron telling the story seems neither to understand nor to care about the taxation issues in question, or  the Trade Federation’s goals, save to the extent they’re playing catspaw for the Sith.

I’ll go a step further: the Trade Federation’s antics are no more comprehensible to the Holocron than the Jedi’s actions would be to a non-Jedi economic or military historian.  We see occasional glimpses of this disconnect when ordinary citizens offer their perspective on the Jedi, the Sith, and their place in Galactic history: Han Solo’s evocation of “hokey religions and ancient weapons,” Admiral Motti’s “You don’t frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader,” or even Tarkin’s “You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.”  For most folks, the Jedi are weird, unknowable, and not the point of the story—we the viewers just assume they are, because we happen to be watching a tale told from their perspective, focusing on issues they think are important.

So, imagine the narrative an economic historian of 200 ABY would compose about the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire: a tale of peripheral revolt from a crumbling metropole, rapacious provincial governorship, and eventual rebellion leading to a military coup, which was defeated in turn by an alliance of conservative Senators with peripheral military strongholds—a story in which the Jedi figure as prominently as the soothsayer who warns Caesar to beware the Ides of March, and in which the Sith are as relevant as the Thule Society (that is to say, a creepy footnote, but a footnote nonetheless).  Such a historian might well regard as frippery any claim that the Rebellion was “about” Jedi or Sith.  Obviously the contrast between droid and clone means of production and force projection was the far greater issue at the time—not to mention vital and hotly contested questions of provincial taxation and trade.

Which is not to say the non-Force historian is wrong!  Just that, if he spins his theories in front of a Sith Lord, he runs the risk of getting force-choked.  And may that be a lesson to us all as we cast our gaze on history: be careful about our angles of analysis, lest the past strangle us, or shoot us full of Dark Side lightning.


What a Twist—Real Life, Directed by M Night Shyamalan.

We live in a twist ending world.

I feel like the mid-90s through early oughts were the Golden Age of the Twist, but even though they’ve receded a bit from their M Night Shyamanence in the last decade or so they’re still a huge part of the modern writer’s toolbox.  Some of the great all-time cinema moments are twists (and if you don’t see the spoilers coming hot and heavy in the next few minutes I suggest you leave now and go somewhere pleasant, preferably with a beach, good surf, and no wi-fi).  Think about it:


These moments are needles stuck into our heads.  I love their power.  I’m a bit of a twist junkie when it comes to storytelling.  And yet…

Twists do rob us of drama.  The end of Usual Suspects feels brilliant the first time you watch it, and on the mandatory rewatch where you snag the clues that were “there all along”—but on repeat viewings you (or I) come to feel that on some level Keaton’s relationship problems, McManus’s general psychosis, and Benicio Del Toro’s tragic quest to make himself understood in an uncaring universe don’t matter.  The gang starts off manipulated but unaware.  At the half-mark they learn something about the extent to which Soze’s playing them, but they can’t do anything about it.  When they finally discover the truth, they die and the movie ends.  In a way the whole thing is a single dramatic beat: Soze tries to trick the audience as well as Keaton’s crew and the FBI, and succeeds.  One magic trick.  It’s a brilliant trick!  I love The Usual Suspects, and whenever I learn a friend hasn’t seen it, I’ll scurry off to schedule a viewing party—because while the trick itself loses its spark when you know how it’s done, there’s a pleasure in watching someone else fall for it the first time.

But it’s a very different experience from watching a film that uses pure dramatic storytelling, like Thank You for Smoking or The Fellowship of the Ring.  (Confession: the only other thing these movies have in common far as I can tell is that I’ve seen both of them an embarrassing double-digits number of times and thus can talk about them from memory.  Maybe I’ll add Newsies into the mix later for good measure.)  Characters in these stories have desires,  try to achieve those desires, and succeed or fail because of opposition or internal weaknesses, and it all matters.  These stories may surprise us, but the surprises don’t tend to eclipse the rest of the story.  Journalist Heather Holloway (played by Katie Holmes, and after TYFS and Mad Men can we maybe retire Holloway as an ironically significant surname at least for a few years?) turns out to be sleeping with Nick Naylor (okay, maybe I should just let these names go) in order to write her hard-hitting expose on the man and his industry; this is a surprise but it doesn’t abrogate their relationship so much as cast it in a different (exploitative, vicious, sexy) light.  Ditto with Boromir’s betrayal at the end of Fellowship.

I’ve read hard-hitting indictments of the drama-sapping twist (and of all storytellers so lazy as to employ it).  But…  Okay, so twists can rob stories of the potential for drama.  If so, why do we use them?  In a marketplace with a billion stories competing for our attention constantly, why would a storyteller ever use a device that forces them to make their stories less dramatic?

Maybe the answer’s purely market-driven: viewers are more likely to inflict stories with twists on their friends, so they can talk about the twist.  I don’t like that answer, though; I don’t know anyone who thinks about storytelling in this mercenary a fashion, but hell, maybe those people do exist!  Maybe there’s some creepy evo-psych hardwiring that makes sharp twists hit us harder.  But that way lies tautology & madness (“we like it because we do”) so let me recoil.

The answer like is the one at the very start of this article (What a twist!): “We live in a twist-ending world.”  The world, our friends, our families, our societies, our histories, our preferences, and even our own minds really aren’t what we think.  They’re bigger, weirder, and deeper.  We’ve become so used to the revelation that Strange Things are Afoot at the Circle K that we’ve come to expect it from our stories, too.  Our history is wrong—the cowboys aren’t the good guys, the Indians aren’t savage, the High Middle Ages were cool but really didn’t contribute much to burgeoning Afro-Eurasian civilization (outside of some awesome polyphonic chant), Jefferson was… not a saint.  The Aztecs sacrificed human beings, sure, but some scholars feel that contemporary European states (I mean contempary with the Aztec empire here) executed more of their own people overall.  We think Coke tastes better than Pepsi unless we don’t know which one we’re drinking.  We think we’re angry when we’re sad.  We think we’re hungry when we’re thirsty.  We think we’re oppressed when we’re the oppressors.  Our friend who seemed happy when we last spoke threw himself off a bridge.  We drink because we want to, only we don’t.  So when someone shows us, on screen or in a book, a window into a world where characters take dramatic action on false premises only to discover their errors too late, we say “oh, yeah, I know exactly how that feels.”

If that’s the reason, though, then it informs the kind of twist we as writers should be preparing.  A good twist doesn’t just yank the audience’s chain.  A good twist should reveal the world in which our characters live to be bigger, deeper, and more complicated than we initially supposed, confronting characters and viewers at once with the limits of their perception.  The twist isn’t so much that Vader is Luke’s father as that, holy shit, this oppressive Imperial evil is intimately connected with Luke, the Jedi, and by extension everything we thought was good.  The enormous dragon of Charles Foster Kane was, at some point, an innocent happy boy on a sled—which breaks open both the myth of invulnerable irredeemable Charles Foster Kane, and the myth of the sacred innocence of happy little boys on sleds at once.  Jack contains and conceals Tyler (or vice versa) in exactly the same way that the fluorescent middle-management cube farm contains and conceals the will-to-power of late millennial manhood.  (And womanhood, and personhood in general, but Fight Club is more concerned with manhood and IIRC white manhood in specific.)

(Fight Club’s a weird movie, by the way, and I don’t mean by the discussion above to suggest that I agree with everything it says.  That’s for a longer article which I may never get around to writing.  But I think it uses the twist well by opening new depths for its world.)

That kind of twist, when it works, not only mirrors the weird and unsolved nature of our existence, it confronts protagonists with the kind of challenge we all face with disturbing regularity: some number of things I thought I knew are wrong.  What should I do in this situation?  What’s moral?  What’s practical?  What’s sane?  How can we move forward?

It turns out that the galaxy-spanning empire you’ve been fighting is actually your own galaxy-spanning empire.  Your father built it for you.  What now?

And—this being why I love Star Wars—the story refuses to let the protagonist get off so easy as “frustrate his plans and end it all by jumping off a building.”  Nope.  Luke survives to ask himself what he’s going to do next.

So may we all.

(By the way, if the topic of this post interests you at all, run, do not walk, to your nearest store and buy a copy of Sara Gran’s Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead, a trippy and philosophical mystery novel that is all about this sort of thing.)

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago, in a Hive Far Far Away?

There are no humans in Star Wars.

This should be obvious from the title card.  We’re a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.  Human beings evolved on this planet, Sol 3, over the last sixty million years or so depending on how you count.  If we don’t want to go all “Chariots of the Gods?” we have to throw out the notion that the people represented by human actors in Star Wars movies are in fact human.  They’re something else.

Why represent them as human?  Let’s assume that the Star Wars movies are dramatizations of real history: that Luke, Leia, Han et. al. actually existed in a galaxy long, long ago (etc.), and that George Lucas accessed this history via the Force and wanted to represent it on film.  Star Wars tells the story of a dominant-species empire arising from a pluralistic society, then being overthrown by courageous rebels and warrior monks.  Lucas had to cast this drama with human actors, and the obvious choice was to use unmodified humans to represent the most common species.

While convenient, this approach does present one problem: watching the Original Trilogy, we assume that the ‘humans’ of the GFFA (Galaxy Far Far Away) are biologically and sociologically identical to Sol 3 humans.  When obviously they’re not!  In fact, I think a few important context clues present a very different picture of the dominant race of the Original Trilogy.

Gender is the most important clue.  The Original Trilogy has a shortage of women when considered by the standards of a two-sexed mammalian species.  Leia is the most prominent female, and the only one to feature in all three movies.  Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma also have named speaking roles.  Aside from these three, I can’t think of another definitely-female-definitely-‘human’ in the series.  In RotJ Leia describes her mother, who is obviously a queen.  These females all possess at least local political and social authority.

Family is a second important clue—or, rather, the absence of family.  With one notable exception, people in the series don’t talk much about parentage.  No non-Force sensitive male ever describes his family, if I recall correctly.  Han, Lando, Wedge, Biggs, Tarkin, Dodonna, and so forth, all might as well have sprung from the brows of their ships.  In six+hours of film about war, I would expect to see someone to drop at least a single reference to parents of some sort.  The lack of strong family ties suggests that parenting relationships are much less close for most GFFA ‘humans’ than for Sol 3 humans—which in turn suggests large brood sizes, short gestation periods, young ages of maturity, or all of the above.

So we’re looking for an organism with large brood sizes, young ages of maturity, short gestation periods, and relatively few fertile females who naturally assume positions of social and organizational authority.

Here is my modest theory: the GFFA’s ‘humans’ are in fact sentient hive insects, organized around a single queen, a handful of fertile males, and a horde of infertile female soldiers.  For parsimony’s sake, let’s assume that Force sensitivity in this species is possessed by fertile males and females, and that male actors used to represent non-Force sensitive characters are actually representing infertile females.

This explains a few things:

  • The Emperor’s Reproductive and Political Strategy.  The Emperor, a fertile male, has  replaced the old Queen, substituting the use of clone warriors for ‘normal’ biological reproduction.
  • The Horror of the Clone Wars.  The true horror of the Clone Wars thus becomes clear.  They’re not just wars in which cloning technology is used.  They’re wars in which the fundamental structure of the ‘human’ species is inverted: wars in which queens are killed, hives consolidated, and clones take the place of biological reproduction.  Wars about the use of clones instead of queens.
  • The Deal with Jabba’s Humanoid Slaves.  Doesn’t it seem weird that a presumably hermaphroditic gastropod should be so fascinated by displaying captive females of another phylum in bikinis?  The Hive Insect theory makes this habit a clear and calculated display of dominance, communicating to ‘human’ visitors that Jabba is to ‘human’ queens as queens are to drones and soldiers.  (This also suggests that Jabba’s interested in twi’lek girls because they look like ‘humans,’ but may be easier to come by—giving his character a bit of extra complexity, since he wants to communicate dominance to his followers in this way but isn’t able to do more than pretend until Leia comes along.)
  • Why Kill the Jedi?  I mean, sure, kill the old ones, but wouldn’t it be easier to convert younglings than wipe them out?  Well, drones in the absence of a queen naturally rear fertilized eggs into new queens.  If Palpatine is trying to destroy queen-dom, he cannot permit the existence of any drones who are not perfectly loyal to his New Order.  Conversion is apparently a brutal process.  Vader survived it; Luke might survive it.  Perhaps no one else did.
  • What’s with all the Death Stars?  It isn’t hard to annihilate all life on a planet from orbit.  If you’re in orbit, you’ve already done the hard part—just tractor some rocks into the surface.  Obviously a superweapon is nice to have, but why not build just the weapon and the shielding system?  That would be cheaper, certainly.  It seems that the superweapon is only part of the purpose of the Death Star—the Star is in fact an artificial hive, built as the perfect environment for the Emperor’s new clone-based society.

Admittedly, this doesn’t explain what’s going on between Leia and Han.  It’s possible that Han is in fact a drone and doesn’t know it—he is phenomenally lucky, after all, which suggests Force sensitivity.  On the other hand, it seems reasonable, given the importance of queens, that some sort of queen-soldier pairbonding could occur.  This may even be the sort of relationship that the Emperor is intending to replicate with Vader.

So that’s a theory.  I mean, what’s more likely—a Galaxy Far Far Away full of psychic alien super-bees, or one in which you can cross thirty solar systems and run into three women with speaking parts?

DISCLAIMER: I love Star Wars.  It rocks.  And precisely because of this, it’s fun to tweak.  Obviously, the above argument only refers to the OT; the EU features a much broader range of characters and situations, and I don’t want to be responsible for creating a consistent interpretation of the prequel trilogies.  (Though just off the top of my head, Naboo-‘humans’ do seem to fit with Hive Insect theory.)

All the World’s a Remix

Kirby Ferguson’s series, Everything is a Remix, is worth watching if you write, draw, compose, photograph, choreograph, direct, or otherwise create any form of content.

I wonder what influences my writing – there are some books, movies, and pieces of music that I know I reference, but I’m convinced there are others which have become so deeply integrated into my writing style that I don’t even realize the debts I owe them any more.

There’s a Buddhist aspect to this whole idea: action arises out of and in turn gives rise to karma, which persists through time, and spreads through the world.  Long after our death, the ideas to which our ideas gave rise ripple on, producing new patterns we never expected.

If you like that video, by the way, watch the rest of the series at http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/