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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A Star Wars Sonnet Before Rogue One

star-wars-heroine-art

Methought I cast upon the heroine

Methought I cast upon the heroine
   Myself as light, like Jedi from the grave,
   Whom Force to orphaned princess power gave,
   And made her mortal heir of lustered jinn.
Hers, as one unseduced by Sith Lord kin,
   Pined peacefully in Alderaan’s enclave;
   Then verged her brow as blasted heart ash, save
   A smuggler Yavin-bound her gaze did win.
I, limelight, incandesced before the want
   Of martyred swains, as photons sought her face.
   Dame’s valiant mien, no Tarkin star could daunt,
Became the storied visage artists trace.
   Yet when her irises I dared to haunt,
   She blinked, I glanced, and faded from her grace.

Poet’s Notes for the Curious:

The above poem is an homage and adaptation of John Milton’s classic sonnet, Methought I saw my late espoused saint. I set out to do a poem exploring the nature of heroines in Star Wars, but when I decided to adapt Milton’s verse, I sank contentedly into portraying boyish unrequited love. Hopefully other fan poets caught up in the spirit of Rogue One will pen rich celebrations for the growing ranks of leading Star Wars heroines.

Please check out last year’s poem and image:

Elegy for a Country Space Opera

By way of credit, the above Photoshop creation draws on three pictures I licensed from istockphoto.com: a gent portrait from Pali Rao; a lady portrait from photoaliona; and a starfield image by Natalia_80. I also used a NASA image of Saturn’s moon Mimas, rightly dubbed the “Death Star” moon.

Sci-fi: The Charm of the Realm

In the spirit of such neato literary endeavors as William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily a New Hope by Ian Doescher, last year I wrote a poem entitled “Elegy Written for a Country Space Opera.” The poem is adapted from a classic elegy by Thomas Gray: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Wanting to do something special, I also commissioned original artwork by comic book artist Jay P. Fosgitt and posted it on my other blog.

star-wars-fosgitt-cartoon

Encouraged by the latest riveting trailer for Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I am re-posting the poem here. Mingling Star Wars references with Gray’s elegiac form, it expresses my mixed emotions at seeing the beloved franchise of my childhood taken over by Disney. Such a transfer of ownership brings great uncertainty, but also great promise.

But before I subject you to the poem, here is a delightful short video on a similar theme. This is a great bit with Patton Oswalt and Conan O’Brien. Oswalt explains his dubious–yet wonderfully heartening–attempt to introduce his daughter to Star Wars.  In doing so, he speaks adeptly about the nature of falling under a fanciful realm’s charm.

 

And now, for your consideration and hopefully enjoyment, is my poem.

Elegy Written for a Country Space Opera

Twin sunsets fade like knells of parting day,
As whistling droids whir–steadfast–o’er a dune,
The fanboy starward dreams his leery way,
But leaves that world to Disney all too soon.

Now silence cloaks a landscape raised for mirth,
He treads its gravel waves, rock mem’ry spice,
Like one who shirked the moisture farmer’s worth,
Then nearly perished, sown within Hoth’s ice.

For such, the glimm’ring landscape of the night
Fades out, marked by the telling Mynock shrieks,
Save where a vast white screen now waits for light,
To cast again the Falcon fandom seeks.

Can any reprise hope to freshen lore,
Which strikes back with new lessons harder learned?
Son’s eyes reflected matching suns before,
Tear-glazed, their father’s pyre light returned.

Let not awakened icons wear out joy,
First witnessed as wide grins in Yavin’s nave;
Though medaled hero stood then as a boy,
The paths of sequels lead but to the grave.

So too, the fanboy grays into a man,
No more to pilot drive-in playground swings.
His mind a hermitage, this would-be Han
Now smuggles fondness for his old musings.

Full many a boy of Jedi’s worth now lives,
The dark nonfiction caves of this world bear;
Full many a Leia to drubbed Luke now gives
A savior’s kiss in grounded city air.

Far from the cineplex, this rustic youth,
Who read dire word crawls from a pickup bed,
Was led by Ben Kenobi’s tailored truth;
Delusions grand–Yodaic in his head–

Forbade by life’s rude lot prequels to pen,
This almost-George, no Empire’s rod did sway;
He left the greatest tale of Anakin
Unwritten long ago and far away.

EPITAPH
“Oh, be wan,” gibes Salacious ‘neath the sand.
“Would all could rest their heads on Disney’s hearth,
Who’ve lived within, like each new rebel band,
The bosom of their Father and their Darth.”

Master Poet: “at ease in the never-ending”

“My father spent whole seasons / Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find. / His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise / As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending / Night of space.”

–Tracy K. Smith, excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

hubble-repair-mission-nasa
The Hubble Space Telescope, the oracle-eye of Tracy K. Smith’s poem, pictured here by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009. Image Credit: NASA

The Mormon theology on which I was raised proffered a binary existence: a temporal realm and a spiritual realm, separated by a literal veil. It takes a prophetic eye to see from the temporal into the spiritual. Yet it takes a master writer’s ability to make the resulting vision, with its vast scales and darkly shrouded mysteries, meaningful to readers.

Poet Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” originally published in the collection Life on Mars, revels in a similar sort of binary cosmology. Her poem moves back and forth, to and from the realms of science fiction and science reality. In some of the most vivid stanzas, we see the universe through the artful eyes of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Yet the oracle-eye referenced in the above quote is the non-fictional Hubble Space Telescope. Smith’s father spent a great portion of his engineering career bringing Hubble into operation.

I encourage you to read Smith’s poem, available in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website:

My God, It’s Full of Stars

Did you read it? If not, pretty please do. If you did read it, please go back and read it again. Smith’s poem is a classic example of verse that must be read more than once for the fullest appreciation. Reading it only once may leave a casual reader with the mistaken impression the poem is a blur of jumbled images and unresolved themes—a bit like early Hubble images. Repeat readings bring into focus the poem’s excellent craftsmanship and profound implications.

Smith’s poem treats readers to bursts of alliteration and internal rhyme. Gruff mood swings, giving off an odd smoky charm, give way to erotic lyricism (tasteful mind you) with its obvious appeal. The push of patriarchy vies with the pull of matriarchy, both flanking the poem’s cinematic core. Yet the sci-fi world of 2001: A Space Odyssey finds a parallel in the workaday reality of Kubrik’s moviemaking.

If something catches your eye once in this poem, scan around and you will likely find its compliment in another stanza. For instance, the quote I started this post with is the second time the word “bowing” appears in the poem. Find the other use of bowing and revel in the age-old tableau of a single human wondering at the mysterious night sky, juxtaposed with the possibility of many more beings on distant worlds doing the same thing.

Questions for Comment

What images or phrases from the poem grabbed your attention? Why?

“Aftermath: Life Debt” in a galaxy close, close to here

Life Debt (Star Wars: Aftermath, #2)Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”

To a Star Wars fan there ought to be no question what or whom governs the galaxy. It must be the Force, or perhaps those who use it. Yet Chuck Wendig, author of “Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt,” lets float some skepticism through his third-person narration. Critical to note though, the narrator’s quote above closely follows the cunning mindset of Sinjir, an ex-officer of the evil Galactic Empire.

Sinjir, who also appeared in the first Aftermath novel, teams with a small ensemble of good guys. Their struggle takes place directly following the events of “Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.” Sinjir and the gang hunt down enemies of the New Republic like so many Nazi war criminals on the run. And as the plot escalates, Sinjir feels as if he is contending with the very galaxy itself.

When I cracked open my copy of “Life Debt,” I gave myself a supplementary reading exercise (cuz I’m an English Major and reading for enjoyment just ain’t enough). My plan was to track references that illuminate what the galaxy means to Star Wars characters. As a space enthusiast and NASA geek, I often ruminate on what our real-life galaxy means to humanity. By comparison, what does the Star Wars galaxy mean to its heroes and villains? Like me, do they find the cosmos romantic?

Not especially. For Star Wars characters, space is largely just a means to an end. For Imperial officers scrambling to retain power, for rebels founding a New Republic, for exotic lifeforms whatever their persuasion, and certainly for droids slaving away, spacefaring holds all the charm of an Earth-bound freeway commute.

Star Wars characters seem disinclined to exhibit Carl Sagan sentimentality of the Pale Blue Dot kind. I’ll quash a possible exception right off. Think back to Luke Skywalker gazing longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” He isn’t marveling at the astronomical glory of the nearby stars. Rather, Luke desires to fly beyond them in a quest for human glory as an Academy cadet.

Getting back to “Life Debt,” Wendig’s characters do see metaphorical value in the galaxy. In addition to all the cosmic star stuff—planets, stars, and nebulae—the term galaxy refers to collective culture with its ships, governments, and warring factions. Star Wars characters are more than just occupants of the galaxy; they are the galaxy.

Sinjir provides a vivid example. Over the course of “Life Debt,” he and his teammates find themselves caught up in Han Solo’s quest to free Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world. Learning of yet another violent outbreak, Sinjir finds himself acutely depressed. But does he blame Imperial forces for his disillusionment? No. Guess who he blames.

“Disappointment that the galaxy confirmed for him its worst self.”

Sinjir’s disappointment overturns a sense of hope Wendig proffered earlier in the novel through a bounty hunter named Jas. She joined the New Republic because of its winning potential: “Even still, she tells herself that she’s here because right now, the New Republic is the winning side. They don’t have the whole galaxy pinned down and buttoned up all nice and neat yet, no, but the stars are drifting in that direction.”

Is the galaxy a utility or an antagonist? It seems to depend on who is speaking and how things are going for them. The galaxy contains, perhaps even determines, individual and collective fate. Characters like Sinjir and Jas fret over what the galaxy holds in store for them. When the galaxy shakes and falls into disarray, Star Wars characters take it oh so personally. How dare you, galaxy! For me, it called to mind the disenchantment with which folks today utter the slang phrase “Mericuh” instead of America.

I’ve been anxious for “Life Debt’s” release, so I set out to race ecstatically through it. However, I kept needing to put it down and take a break. To be clear, the novel’s sometimes tiring effect stemmed from something other than literary weakness. Note my 4-star rating. Rather, the novel hits quite close to home. Wendig’s galaxy, in principle and theme, is not far, far way. Especially in its Interludes—chapters that function as stand-alone short stories—“Life Debt” reflects reality. In the love, fear, anger, and violence of Wendig’s prose, I see types from our non-fictional world.

To the extent that “Life Debt” mirrors real life, it falls short of escapism. Perhaps this is why I found the novel less fun than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I enjoyed witnessing the deepening bond of characters like Sinjir and Jas as they followed in Han Solo’s footsteps. Like “Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Life Debt” showcases tightly woven ensemble action. And like that classic film, “Life Debt” contains plenty of swashbuckling fun and humorous banter. Just don’t expect pure popcorn fare. In a candid and often intense way, Wendig manages to keep this fantastical galaxy substantive.

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