“The Force Awakens” Readers

The Force Awakens (Star Wars: Novelizations #7)The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A long time ago, in a childhood far away, I swear I remember movie novelizations being a deeper, richer experience than this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by accomplished novelist Alan Dean Foster feels almost as lean and hurried as the movie (which I quite liked). It’s not a bad read. It made me want to watch the film again. Most importantly, it heightened my anticipation for the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (I intentionally held off reading this book until the month before the next installment comes out.)

Of those I read as a kid, novelizations were at their best providing silent reflections of characters, which film can only accomplish with heavy handed voiceover. I also enjoyed their inclusion of material left out of the film. On this score, Foster’s novelization includes a full scene with X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron. The dialogue pops as no-nonsense Poe negotiates with a suspicious alien. Very entertaining. If only the book had more of this material.

Still, most of what should be the novel’s meat amounts to explanatory paragraphs whose unmistakable purpose is to justify plot points in the movie. It’s almost as if we’re reading a script with the movie producers’ notes pasted in between the dialogue. Interesting in a special features sort of way, but not an especially deep or rich journey through the story.

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Dan Brown’s “Origin” Takes a Seat

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Somewhere deep in Dan Brown’s latest made-to-order bestseller, Origin, I suddenly felt like I was rereading Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s novel is a long-winded and extremely haughty work. I primarily read it so I could say I had. In contrast, Brown’s novels are sleek, fast-paced thrillers. I consume them for the main course of spectacle with a side order of thought-provocation. Yet, more than once, usually in the lecture-driven chapters, I felt like Brown was serving up something pretentious in the style of Rand.

The premise of Origin involves a super-rich futurist who declares he has discovered the answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions:

Where do we come from? And, where are we going?

From Brown’s pen, these questions result in scandal, murder, and intrigue at the highest levels of Spanish society. Why Spain? Why not? Spain has religious landmarks galore, along with royalty, upper-echelon clergy, and elite security forces. Origin also features a museum director who becomes the novel’s gorgeous sidekick. On the upside, she proves essential to the plot and comes off as daring and compelling as any other character. Let us also acknowledge the novel’s thoroughly likable protagonist: Harvard professor Robert Langdon.

Regarding the two great questions above, readers are consigned to spend most of the novel wildly speculating. The answers may involve anything from disproving God to proving extraterrestrial involvement. The only thing the novel makes clear early on is the religious leaders who get a sneak peek at the answer are left utterly spooked. And here is what makes Origin so irresistible a yarn. The novel’s prophetic thought-leader opens the story by declaring he has the answers to life’s greatest mysteries. By implication, does that mean author Dan Brown has them?

Take a breath. It’s a novel. But, as I hoped, maybe Brown will at least offer some dramatic rendering of these questions that leaves us spellbound. Great novels can do that.

For all its revelatory promise, Origin primarily sermonizes. Readers, you will be preached to. You will be TED Talked at. Your brain will be YouTubed hard and fast. Origin is the transcript of a multimedia presentation wrapped inside a dust jacket. Moreover, Origin necessarily spends oodles of time showcasing internet communication. This becomes a narrative challenge for Brown, who must alternate between action-packed chases and characters plopping down in chairs to stream video.

What I say next will probably sound snobbish. I spend a good share of time following both science and religion. As such, Origin failed to reward me with any dramatically new ideas or theories about the origin or fate of life on Earth. If you read Origin, and it arrives in your mind as astounding new revelation, please don’t mistake the novel for being groundbreaking. It just means you’re not particularly well-read, at least in scientific thought.

With Robert Langdon as the lead, Brown has really penned only one novel: Angels and Demons (still his best in my opinion). The four subsequent Langdon novels simply retrofit new characters, settings and conspiracies to the same basic formula. Why does a disenchanted reader like me keep buying Brown’s books? No secret there. I’m addicted to them.

Odd that I am essentially rejecting Origin, even though I feel Dan Brown and I are likeminded on its underlying issues and themes. We’re both incredulous in the face of creationism. We’re both enthusiastic about science. And we both feel humankind, notwithstanding its rich history and wonderous potential, must wrestle with the prospect of a dark future—a future in which our species must fundamentally change or die.

So, if you’re in the market for a sci-fi homily, then plop down on the couch with Robert Langdon et al. and enjoy Origin. But if like me you came to the book for the mystery and the spectacle, perhaps it’s time to reread Angels and Demons.

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First Impressions of The Last Jedi Trailer

This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of waiting for the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer, and will soon see (hopefully) the end of Supreme Leader Snoke inadvertently using internal rhyme:

“I saw raw [pause for eerie underscore] untamed power!”

Never thought of Chewbacca as a fuzzy-dice-on-the-rear-view-mirror kinda driver. So why is he suddenly tolerating fuzzy dice that yell? In any case, let the debate begin over repeating Ewok marketing history.

What’s with the enjambment-like interruption of otherwise complete sentences of dialogue by underscore and sound effects? See Snoke’s quote above for the first example. For a second example, here is Kylo Ren speaking:

“Kill it… [pause for orchestral vamp beneath TIE Fighter engine scream] …if you have to.”

Seriously folks, play the trailer with your eyes closed and just listen. It’s like the non-verbal elements of the soundtrack are mansplaining how we should feel about the dialogue, which spurts out in staggered fragments.

As with all previous Star Wars trailers, I will operate under the assumption that the clips in this one which seem the most spoiler-ish are the clips that will prove the most misleading when we see the finished movie.

Not a very fun trailer. Impressive. Most impressive. But certainly not delightful or enchanting like some of The Force Awakens teaser material. This trailer gives the impression of the characters having a very stressful Thursday.

Is Finn’s new sidekick, Rose Tico, anywhere in this trailer? I feel like all I know right now is she’s cute as a button. I’d like to know more than that.

What if the power which determines the fate of all Star Wars characters is not the Force, but the writers/directors opting for whichever plot twist the audience is least likely to anticipate?

No, Star Wars fan theorists. Nuh-no. This trailer does not reveal to whom Rey is related. But go ahead and claim that it does, and that you alone figured it out, thus scoring your blog lots of page views and maybe getting picked up by the Huffington Post. Besides, Rey is totally related to Snoke. Seriously, compare their eyes. [pause for slasher film violin screech] I’m kidding. I have no clue who Rey’s parents are.

If they ever make The Last Jedi into a Broadway musical, the Act 1 Finale will be a stirring ballad called “Something Truly Special” sung by Supreme Leader Snoke.

Re-rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some people go to bars on Friday nights. Married couples often go on dates to keep their courtship alive. These days, I spend most Friday nights in my living room watching Star Trek reruns with perhaps the only group of Twitter users I can still tolerate. Then, on typical Saturday mornings like this one, I sit in a coffeeshop nursing my junk-food hangover with iced coffee. Today I reflect on a beautiful experience which I relished last week. Not the 2017 Solar Eclipse. The other beautiful experience I had last week.

“All his professional career he had looked upon the universe as an arena for the titanic impersonal forces of gravitation, magnetism, radiation; he had never believed that life played an important role in the scheme of things…”

The copyright page indicates I bought the above Del Rey paperback edition of Rendezvous with Rama in or after 1988. Four years earlier, I’d been converted to Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction by Peter Hymans’ movie 2010, itself a sequel to Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. Yet like so many books and flicks I consumed in those pre-internet days, Rama remained a solitary experience, largely unshared with family and friends.

“The real New York, like all of man’s habitations, had never been finished; still less had it been designed. This place, however, had an over-all symmetry and pattern, though one so complex that it eluded the mind. It had been conceived and planned by some controlling intelligence…”

I read Rendezvous with Rama again in 2008, admiring Clarke’s efficient storytelling. The novel’s plot effects an elegant marriage between grandly impersonal architectural themes and a thoroughly romantic awareness of humanity’s puny footprint in the cosmos. In this universe, could it be that intelligences exist so advanced as to be indistinguishable from gods? Might they be utterly disinterested in humans, so disinterested as to leave their ship’s door unlocked?

Might superior intelligence only threaten us inadvertently, as an ant is threatened by the shoe of an otherwise peaceful human failing to notice the insect in its path, and so crushing the smaller being unawares? Might there be something fundamentally healthy about considering the possibility humans are only a supporting character in creation? Yes, life may only be a precious accident.

“He believed that the universe operated according to strict laws, which not even God could disobey…”

Last week, for the third time in my life, I read Rendezvous with Rama. I found its door still unlocked. I crept inside while it slept. I witnessed as its gigantic interior awakened, punctuating its general quiescence with storms of electricity, wind, and metallic tsunamis. Then, as it prepared to sleep again, I fled back outside and watched it eclipse our sun.

Ours?

My third encounter with Rama felt intensely familiar, as did the second and first. Rama—a vast cylindrical alien ship on an intergalactic journey—seemed familiar as a childhood backyard, deep and vivid in the memory. Rama, you remain a place where I feel less alone. And I know that I love you, because even though you make me feel smaller and more fleeting, I feel blessed to have been altered by your appearance in my life.

Recommended: Science Fact Clichés

 

Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché

 

Star Wars and the Devoutly Lukewarm Empire’s End

Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.

Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.

Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?

The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.

Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.

One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.

Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.

This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?

I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel.

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Planet as Protagonist in ‘Mars Crossing’

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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