Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Legacy of the Force” and the Weakness of the Structure

April 21, 2021

So, as everyone should know, I’ve been re-reading the Star Wars Mega Series (New Jedi Order, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi) and am now about half-way through “Legacy of the Force”.  I’ve also been commenting on some specific aspects of them in more detail because I’ve already given my overall impressions of the three series.  For “New Jedi Order”, I’ve talked a lot about how its structure worked really, really well, as it allowed various authors to play with their favourite characters without actually forcing other authors to use those characters or readers to actually read about them (since only the mainline works were necessary to get the plot, and even some of those weren’t really necessary either).  This structure was, of course, changed in the next two series, and in my opinion to their detriment.  The first reason for that, I think, is that they lost out on the ability to truly capture the entire breadth of the Legends characters and scope and so by the nature of the structure gave short-shrift to some characters that some parts of the fan base really liked.  The second reason is that the authors in this series had their own favourites that might not have been the favourites of many fans that got what could be seen as altogether too much focus for the story that was being told.

So before getting into specific cases, let me expand on that a little bit.  What we have are some characters that have deeper story arcs than what we might expect from side characters, but those story arcs are also for the most part only tangentially related to the overall plot.  In “New Jedi Order”, these stories could be segmented into their own books or duologies, but in “Legacy of the Force” if they were going to be expanded out they had to be expanded out in the mainline works (because, obviously, there’s nothing else).  This is problematic in two ways.  First, it clutters up the mainline works and detracts from the main plot.  Second, it doesn’t allow for the room to really develop those stories, and so they aren’t developed as well as they could have been.  So both the main plot and the side plots suffer when the authors try to stuff them all into the mainline books.

The most famous — or rather infamous — example in the series is Karen Traviss’ favourite aspect, the clones/Mandalorians.  Her subplot follows Boba Fett through his attempting to find a cure for the degeneration he is experiencing, while connecting/reconnecting with his abandoned family and trying to rebuild Mandalore as the new Mandalore.  His actual connection to the plot itself is that Jacen kills his daughter during interrogation which both indicates his growing darkness and sets up a new fear for him, that Mandalore starts rebuilding which adds to the chaos, and at the end that he trains Jaina Solo in specific fighting techniques and provides some Mandalorean technology to help her kill Jacen.  That’s pretty much it.

Now, I happen to like Boba Fett — I like his depiction in “The Bounty Hunter Wars” better but this one works better for a longer story arc — and kinda enjoy the Mandalorean parts, so I didn’t really mind the diversion, but even I had to admit while reading it that for the most part all of that is tangential to the plot.  All we really need to know from the perspective of the main plot is that Jacen killed Fett’s daughter, and even that isn’t really necessary, except to have Fett be mentioned in the context of the plot so that we remember that he still exists.  Knowing that Fett is out there and that Jacen has techniques that Jaina can’t counter directly or understand, having her go there to learn to fight differently isn’t unreasonable, and the revenge plot gives good reason for him to accept her for training and provide her with some new weaponry.  But we clearly didn’t need to follow him as he gets involved in assassination plots or builds a new type of fighter or connects with his granddaughter or finds his wife or learns to accept his role as Mandalore from the perspective of the main plot.  If you find it interesting, it’s clearly tangential, and if you don’t like it, it’s taking time away from the main plot that you hopefully were enjoying.

And it not getting its own set of works also hurts it.  A lot of the time, the arc seems to stop to give a Mandalorean lore dump, to get in the basic ideas that Traviss wants to get out.  If it had its own separate works, then there would be the time to let that all come out more organically and even to allow us to go deeper into the separate issues.  As it stands, things, even important things like his getting the cure, seem to get resolved far too quickly and with far too little detail for the sort of plot they actually are.  This is because she has to get it all out in her works because the other authors are obviously not as interested in it as she is, but she also has to do it while advancing the main plot.  If the works had been separated, then there would have been more room to develop all of that and make it a more interesting story without having to essentially stick it into the gaps when the main story doesn’t need to be advanced.

The other case is Denning’s.  Now, I’m nowhere near as interested in his characters — Alema Rar being the big one that I’ve noticed in this series — as I am in Fett, but there was an interesting subplot that got squeezed out in the works that would have benefited from its own duology, which is the discussion of the Sith through Lumiya, the Ship, and Alema Rar.  This one is again disconnected from the main plot because in the main plot Lumiya is trying to manipulate Jacen and so isn’t going to tell him the whole truth about the Sith and what her intentions are.  So what we get are tantalizing snippets of information when Lumiya and Alema discuss the various aspects and what Lumiya’s actual plan is.  A duology focused more on them and their interactions, especially when the Ship comes into the picture, would have worked really well and allowed them to develop that more, again without having to infringe on the main plot too much.  And it also would have allowed readers who liked Alema Rar to get more of her, and readers who didn’t like her to ignore her.

And all of this is actually really, really important, because aside from those plots needing more development, it turns out that Jacen Solo’s story could have used the extra time and focus to get more development as well.  I’ll talk about that next time.

“New Jedi Order” and a Sign of Trouble

April 14, 2021

So, I’ve talked quite a bit about the things that “New Jedi Order” did well with its unique structure, where it allowed the authors to break out into separate duologies and trilogies outside of the mainline works.  At the end, of course, they all had to align to the mainline works that had to finish off the series, and that really started to happen with the trilogy “Force Heretic” by Sean Williams and Shane Dix.  And this trilogy hinted at the issues that the Megaseries were going to see when they dropped that non-standard structure for Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi.

To start, the issue it has was that it was following a number of different threads all at the same time.  There was Luke’s mission to find Zonama Sekot, Han and Leia’s mission to check out what was happening in the Outer Regions (which really doesn’t add much beyond touching base with some other Legends societies and so representing their works), the main war itself, and following the heresy among the Vong where some started worshiping the Force and the Jedi.  As part of that, it also was dealing with Tahiri’s adapting to her Vong nature and a number of other personal threads, which packed it even more.  While it did have a trilogy to work with, that’s a lot of threads to balance in one work, especially since for the most part none of them were really related to each other.  If you didn’t care for any of them — such as, for example, not caring about the Legends works that Han and Leia were referencing in their threads — then it would seem like a pointless deviation from the real plot that you had to suffer through to get back to the important and interesting parts of the work.

Moreover, I think they made a mistake in the Vong Heresy thread by making the leader of the Heresy Nom Anor, a character that was — and remained — an unabashed villain throughout the series.  Well, it wasn’t really a problem to make him the leader of it, but rather to make him the focus character of that thread.  Since the Heresy was the only way we could expect some sort of peaceful resolution to the war, we had to want to be on its side and want to see it grow.  But Nom Anor had spent the entire series plotting to and trying to kill most of the main characters, and was presented as someone who was completely and totally self-serving and would do anything to preserve his own life first and then advance his own position second.  He continues this attitude throughout this thread, and so we don’t even get him having an actual conversion from the evil villain he was to a better person.  His organizational and political skills do play an important role in establishing it and protecting it for a time, but he’s not responsible for any of the actual principles nor does he ever become a believer.  Now, this is necessary for his role later where he turns his coat and threatens Zonama Sekot, but it makes his sections annoying as they focus on a character that we don’t like fooling a bunch of people that we were going to need to like and wanted to see do well.  Not only do we not really want to follow along with him, the focus on him takes away time to develop characters among the heretics and casts a shadow over the heretics and the movement itself.

And the funny thing is that they had a more sympathetic character in Harrar who was a high-placed Vong who converted to or at least towards the more reasonable views of the Jedi.  A thread following his progression as he gradually turned away from their beliefs and discovered the falsehoods and deceptions inherent in them would have been more interesting and allowed them to develop that thread anymore, and they could have joined it with the shaper Nen Yim’s fascination with the idea of the living planet.  Both of these deserved more development and were more interesting and involved more sympathetic characters than that of Nom Anor, and we didn’t really need to see how the heretics developed and could have only had that be referenced by the villains or by others.

And in at least one sense this impacts the rest of the series, especially “The Final Prophecy” by Greg Keyes.  “Force Heretic” has the character thread where Tahiri accepts her new Vong side and the two of them merge into a new person, but it doesn’t have the room and so doesn’t actually resolve that meld.  So Keyes needs to do it in “The Final Prophecy”, along with doing everything else that needs to be done to set-up for the final book.  He brings out Corran Horn again to do that — which could be a callback to his use of Horn in the Anakin/Tahiri subplot in his previous duology — but to do so he needs to stuff Horn into an exceedingly distrustful mold to make the issues come out, and while Horn was distrustful in general he tended to not show that except as a test, which he didn’t do there.  Also, it makes that book disconnected from the rest of it as it spends most of its time with Horn, Tahiri, Nom Anor, Nem Yim and Harrar on the living planet.  So because of all the threads it doesn’t really resolve enough to make the last two books flow nicely from what it did.

They also introduce a style that has cropped up again at least so far in “Legacy of the Force”.  Most books at most dedicate a chapter to a thread, and then move on in the next chapter to the next thread, and so on.  This itself can be annoying if they cut out right at an interesting or dramatic part and switch to a thread that the reader is less interested in.  Flipping between multiple dramatic moments can also be hard on the reader as they need to recenter themselves to the new thread and then back again when it returns.  But this series flips between threads multiple times in the same chapter.  In fact, it seems to have very few actual chapters at all, and just instead flips between threads every few pages with no real breaks until we get an entirely new section.  Now, some works do that if they are in a scene that has multiple perspectives, but there we have the common thread of the scene to guide us along.  There is nothing in common in those threads to do that, and so we flip from one dramatic situation to another with no link between them.  I found that incredibly annoying, and I was actually interested in most of them.  I can’t imagine how someone would feel if they didn’t like most of those threads.

Karen Traviss did that at times in “Bloodlines”, her first book in “Legacy of the Force”, and I found it just as annoying when she did it.  She seems to have avoided doing that in the second book “Sacrifice”.  I don’t recall Allston or Denning doing that, as they seem to do what I recall “Fate of the Jedi” doing and dividing up the threads by chapter, at least, which works better.  But I’ll see about that more when I finish reading through those two series.

So “Force Heretic” provides a hint at some of the issues that later series would run into when they moved away from the structure of “New Jedi Order”.  Of course, that was also a more traditional structure and so could indeed work if handled properly.  It’s just risky, especially when you get authors who have their own characters and threads that they favour, as we’ll see in the later series.

“New Jedi Order” and the Legends Characters

April 7, 2021

So one thing that I’ve always talked about when I’ve talked about “New Jedi Order” is that it had a rather unique structure from most big joined series, and from the other two Star Wars Legends Mega Series.  In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or to major comic events like Civil War, in that what we have is one overarching story, but the overall story is told piece-by-piece in loosely related works with perhaps a few works that are designated to carry most of the plot load but are meant to be supported and enhanced by the other works.  In taking the two examples above, the MCU works are meant to be more separate with the Avengers movies being the ones to drive the story, while in Civil War again the mainline Civil War works are driving the story but the ones that tie into the main work are perhaps more important to it than, say, something like “Ant-Man”.

Now, if you are trying to make a consistent set story out of this, then you of course take the risk that these individual works won’t be consistent with the main works.  At the very least, there’s a risk that they won’t have the right tone, but they could also mess up characterizations as well as the plot.  One of the main issues with the first Civil War event, for example, was that some of the writers were anti-registration and so wrote their issues from that perspective, making it seem harsher than it was intended to be and overall clashing with the main writers who always knew that registration would win and so wanted it to seem far more reasonable.  This then had an impact on the characterizations as well as the plot points related to registration, and had an impact on the overall tone of the series.  What was worse was that your view of registration, then, might greatly depend on which books you read, since you didn’t need to read all of them and comic readers do have a tendency to follow certain groups/heroes and not read everything (and speaking as someone who knows, it was prohibitively expensive and took forever to collect all of the books in the event, especially since some of them weren’t really relevant to the overall series at all).  That being said, splitting it out like that is a good way to include as many heroes and characters as possible in the event without having to follow all of them in detail in the main work.

And this was what “New Jedi Order” was trying and needed to do.  The Star Wars EU at the time had a number of characters and series, including comics, books and video games.  “New Jedi Order” was an attempt — at least at some level — to bring all of these together into one solidified universe.  But as you might guess, trying to do this was fraught with peril.  After all, with such a diverse set of characters and origins it was entirely likely that some of the people that they were trying to entice into reading the series didn’t know some of the characters that they were going to be using.  Even worse, some of those people might know about those characters and dislike them.  So you didn’t want to make those characters be too prominent in the story in case it would turn off some of those people.  But by the same token, you don’t want to make them too minor either because for some people those were their favourite characters and they wouldn’t be happy if it seemed like they were being given short-shrift in the overall story.

Hence, the comic-style structure where the series has a couple of bigger mainline works that drive the plot with duologies and trilogies that focus on specific characters and the situations for them.  What’s interesting, at least to me, about the series is that until about the end you didn’t really need to read any of the books — even the mainline ones — to know what’s going on.  For the longest time, I didn’t have “Vector Prime”, the first book in the series and the one where Chewbacca dies, and yet I knew what was going on, roughly who the Vong were, who Danni was, and how Chewbacca died.  The crucial thing here was indeed to build it so that if you skipped one of those other works you’d still know what was going on, through explicit summaries and through the words and actions of the other characters.  To tie this back to the point above, it was important because if you didn’t like a certain character or certain situation, then you could ignore that part of the series and instead focus on what you did like.  Since the list of mainline works is pretty short (depending on how you could it’s at most about 5 out of around 18 or so) reading only them wouldn’t be all that great a work, but arguably you could and would understand the details of the series.

A really good example of this is actually Michael Stackpole’s contribution, starring Corran Horn and taking off from his X-Wing novels and “I, Jedi”.  Now, I really did like Corran Horn and Stackpole’s works, so I was going to be one of those who was interested in his series.  But what’s important here is that he makes Horn and another character he invented — Elegos A’Kla — key to events in the overall series and at that time and so giving them important things to do while nevertheless making it so that they can be completely sidelined later.  So he gives them their prominent roles in his works while not making it so that future writers had to include them.  Elegos becomes the first envoy to the Vong and through him we learn a bit about them, more than we had up until that point.  And then he’s killed by them, at least in part due to political issues, to demonstrate even more about them.  This carries over to Horn, as he gets involved in discovering a potential biological weapon to use against them and then defending the planet that produces it.  He challenges the military leader to a duel to demonstrate his and their idea of honour … and then when he wins the second-in-command follows other orders and poisons the planet anyway, showing their dishonour.  The dramatic repercussions of this is the lose of another planet — and since it’s Ithor, one that was fairly well known in the EU — and setting the grounds for the biological weapon that plays a major roll in later parts, so Horn’s part was important and prominent.

But after that series, which was one of the earliest ones, Stackpole was clever in ensuring that his characters could be used or not as later writers saw fit.  If a later writer wanted someone taking on Elegos’ traditional role, his daughter stepped into it and so could fill in as appropriate.  Or she could be ignored like so many of the strictly political characters from the EU.  As for Horn himself, Stackpole wrote that many people were blaming him for the loss of Ithor, which made him a political liability.  While that might seem a bit unrealistic for someone who did what he did, the entire plot of the series was tied into a notion that there was growing distrust between the ordinary people and the Jedi, spurred on at various levels by the politicians, some of whom were distrustful and opposed to the Jedi themselves, and some of whom were simply following whatever opinion seemed most popular at the time.  This also involved groups of people called the “Peace Brigade” who for various reasons were willing to work with the Vong to get them what they wanted, including people for sacrifices and the Jedi itself.  The Vong encouraged this and often used political methods to drive the wedge between those groups.  So given that context, that the people might be willing to blame Horn for the loss isn’t all that unreasonable.

So what Stackpole did at the end of his series was basically this:  had Horn note that his presence was not exactly going to make people more co-operative with the Jedi and so it wasn’t really to their benefit to have him play a prominent role in their actions, but then to also note that if he was needed he’d be there.  This meant that any author who wanted to ignore him had a perfectly good way to do so — and, in fact, I think it was in “Star By Star” that Troy Denning only mentions them in passing as running away from a Jedi-hunting creature and not having been heard from since — while any author that wanted to use him was free to do so, as Greg Keyes did using him to advance the Anakin/Tahiri arcs by having them hide out on the “Errant Venture” which is exactly where Corran was.  So Corran could come out of hiding and run missions as needed but also stay hidden as needed as well, providing the maximum freedom for later authors.

“Agents of Chaos” by James Luceno is an example of the “more detail” kind of idea, as it follows Han Solo after the loss of Chewbacca.  Obviously, Han needed to process that death which was going to be deeper felt for him than for pretty much every character, but some of the audience might not be interested in following that journey.  So this isn’t a matter of keeping a character out of the mainline stories — Han was going to be prominent in them no matter what happened — but instead of giving the character space to work through their issues without cluttering any of the other works.  So Han can go off on his own and be bitter and resolve his issues and then return to prominence in the mainline series with it mostly resolved with only a few references needed to get us up to speed on what happened.  And it also introduces a character in Droma and a race in the Ryn that would play a role later in the series, but that would get neatly out of the way in all of the other series when required.

How the series treated Wedge Antilles is pretty much precisely this sort of thing.  Wedge was a supporting character in the movies and was also prominent in Aaron Allston’s EU works, so he couldn’t be ignored.  But he was made a General commanding a fleet, which allows the writers to get him out of the way since he has to be locked in place with a fleet, and doing military things instead of running off on missions.  So when Allston wanted to use him, all he needed to do was place him at the centre of a specific and important military battle and develop a very interesting duology around that, while for the others if they didn’t want to focus on him they could put him in the same category as Garm Bel Iblis as one military leader among many and mostly ignore him.

Yes, there were some inconsistencies — mostly around how much of a religious fanatic some of the Vong leaders were — but for the most part this worked out pretty well.  And while I just started re-reading “Legacy of the Force”, it avoided some of the problems with that series, as a number of the writers in that one placed constraints on the other authors by introducing and playing with their own favoured characters.  Most people are aware of the issues that seemed to arise from Karen Traviss wanting to use Boba Fett and the Mandalorians and so make them an important part of the story even when they may not fit that well, but for me the most annoying one is Denning seemingly wanting to use Alema Rar who I found to be an annoying character (I’d say the same about Lumina, but she was at least a more important part of the overall story, which I am likely to address when I dive into that series in more detail later).  This format allows a sandbox for each author to play with without forcing them to make everyone else play in that sandbox as well, which makes for a very interesting structure.  It’s probably for this reason that “New Jedi Order” is my favourite of the three Megaseries, despite its issues (and length, which is one of its issues).

Subverting Expectations in “The Last Jedi” and “Star By Star”

March 31, 2021

I’ve been re-reading all of my Legends Star Wars books, and have been working through “New Jedi Order” for a while now, and when writing the last post comparing it to the sequel trilogy I had intended to write about other things about my reactions to the “New Jedi Order”.  First up is yet another comparison to the sequel trilogy, this time specifically to “The Last Jedi” and its attempt to subvert expectations.  This has been a common comment made about the movie, including in an analysis by Shamus Young that I addressed in a discussion of “Knives Out”, which was claimed to be the same sort of subversion.  Here, what I want to do is note that the novel “Star By Star” in “New Jedi Order” was more of a subversion of Star Wars tropes and expectations than “The Last Jedi” was, and it wasn’t even trying to be one as much as “The Last Jedi” supposedly was.

As noted in my own review of “The Last Jedi”, the big issue there was that the movie was too ambiguous to really pull off a real subversion.  While he was indeed probably trying to subvert the typical hero moves with Poe getting chided for his “loose cannon” ways and the heroic mission of Finn and Rose being actually hugely detrimental to the Rebels, as well as Finn being stopped from committing a heroic sacrifice with the movie making that seem like it would have been a waste and so was undesirable.  However, how it was structured certainly made us question whether those who were questioning these tropes and expectations were, in fact, just plain wrong.  While they were chased through hyperspace anyway, having two of those super ships would probably have indeed simply ended up with them destroyed, and the tradeoff between what they lost killing the ship and what they gained by killing it was a tradeoff that most people would at least consider being debatable, and Leia getting that upset with Poe after serving in the Alliance with the irreverent Han Solo seems pretty unreasonable.  Holdo might seem like a commander who more believes in order, but her presentation is of the sort of commander that is too much of a stickler for procedure that has to be worked around, and her plan isn’t all that great a one.  And let’s not even start talking about all the character and plot problems that are introduced by Rose’s actions.  So while Johnson may have been trying to subvert expectations, the ambiguity in “The Last Jedi” pretty much kills our sense of that, which is really bad because most people I think reasonably believe that he really, really did want us to take that from the movie.

Now, “New Jedi Order” had set out to do things a bit differently from the start.  The enemy was not only not an evil Force User or Force Tradition, but instead was an enemy that was cut off from the Force completely.  They weren’t the Empire or anything that came from it.  They also used radically different technologies — biological — and had a strong distaste for most of the things that the Star Wars galaxy most loved, droids in particular.  Additionally, in the very first book “Vector Sigma Prime”, they decided that they wanted to shake things up and kill off a major character who had been a part of the franchise and of Legends to give the sense that anything can happen and anyone can die.  They chose Chewbacca.  And while I didn’t do a lot of research into it from my reading around they deliberately intended to do that again, this time killing off one of the Solo children, and they changed which one it was along the way.  So they were starting from a premise, again, that was trying to surprise the audience and leave them open to the idea that anything could happen (a risky move considering that a number of people were not all that happy with the trope in general and with it’s use in “Vector Prime”).

So the basic idea was this:  the enemy has created a new and terrible beast that can hunt down and kill the Jedi.  They discover, however, that it is being cloned somewhere deep inside enemy territory, and so if they can kill the queen then it will stop the enemy, presumably, from cloning more of them and so the beasts will die off.  Anakin Solo proposes a risky mission that will take them deep inside enemy territory but will have to exclude the more powerful and well-known Jedi like Luke Skywalker and Corran Horn.  So, essentially, it will involve all of the younger Jedi, the children of the main characters and all of the new up-and-coming ones, and thus will essentially be the first official mission of the “New Jedi Order”.  While Han is initially opposed to it, he is eventually persuaded to support it and ends up being the deciding vote to have the mission go ahead.  This is crucial because Chewbacca’s death introduced a couple of character themes related to Han and Anakin.  The first is that Han has had his feeling that he and his family cannot die and so has become overly protective of his family, and here he is voting to send all of his children into danger.  The second is that he at least initially blamed Anakin for Chewbacca’s death and this has created a rift between them.  On top of that, Anakin also through some unique adventures on Yavin gained the ability through his lightsaber to sense the enemy, which no one else can do, giving him a unique insight and perspective on them.  He also has a burgeoning romance with Tahiri who the enemy attempted to shape into becoming one of them and so also has a unique insight into the enemy.  So there are a lot of plotlines here around the character of Anakin, and as Kyp Durron notes once it looks like Anakin will be the future of the Jedi, and so the figurehead for the “New Jedi Order”.  He seems, then, to be an incredibly important character to the series and the future of the Legends works.

So what we’d expect, given the previous Star Wars and Legends works, is that they’d would go out and deal with the threat heroically.  There’d be obstacles, but they’d overcome them.  Perhaps some of the lesser known young Jedi would die.  After their success, Han and Anakin would settle their differences and the attempt would move reveal things that they could use to turn the battle against the enemy and start to build towards the ending.

That’s not what happens.

The mission is brutal.  They are behind the eight-ball from the start and end up realizing just how difficult such a mission would be and ultimately how stupid an idea it probably was.  For the most part, they are just desperately trying to stay alive.  Many of them are killed, and they are not relying on their Force abilities but instead on regular weaponry.  They run into some Dark Side users who help them for a time, but are never converted and instead run out on them with the ship they hoped to escape in.  They actually don’t manage to kill the queen, and it’s only a direct intervention by another character with her own agenda that results in the mission being a success, so while it wasn’t entirely for nothing, it wasn’t a resounding success.  At the end, most of them are dead, all of them are badly injured, Jacen Solo is captured and, most critically, Anakin Solo is dead.

This really does break from expectations.  Anakin Solo was the leader and looked to be stepping out as the leader of the “New Jedi Order”.  He also had an unresolved character arc with Han Solo.  Tahiri also almost kisses him but says that she’ll save it until he comes back, which is a hint that he will come back in Star Wars on par with “I know”.  He also was the only one who had any insight into the enemy, both from his lightsaber and from his experiences with the enemy that led to that.  As it turns out, he was also the focal point for a new religion among the enemy that was the best chance to overthrow the leader and the order and so lead to peace between them.  There were a lot of character and plot points that would suggest that Anakin would live.  Instead, he died, throwing all of that away and all of that into disorder.

I’m not going to claim that “Star By Star” is a true subversion, let alone that it was properly intended as one.  But unlike “The Last Jedi” the expectations are clear and the book does clearly subvert them, generating surprise, at least.  I think that “The Last Jedi” wants to try to subvert the philosophy more than the work itself, but it falters by falling into ambiguity.  It wants to be more a critique of the expectations than a subversion of them, whereas “Star By Star” has a purpose that’s more a desire to surprise the audience and get them wondering what might happen than to critique what the other things have done.  And in doing that, I think it does work better at going against the expectations of the audience and making it clear that things were not going to and didn’t work the way they expected it to.

Doctor Seuss and More Disingenuity on Canceling

March 12, 2021

So, a while ago I took on a post from John Scalzi on the firing of Gina Carano, noting how disingenuous his response to criticism of that was.  Well, now the people who own the Doctor Seuss books have decided to stop publishing some of his books because of concerns about racial stereotypes and the like, and now P.Z. Myers has decided to make a disingenuous response to criticism of that move, accusing the right — although some of the criticism has come from the left as well — of not really supporting capitalism and free speech as they claim to.  The problem is that Myers doesn’t really understand how capitalism and free speech would actually apply in this case.  (Read the cartoon there to get a sense of the purported argument).

Yes. That’s how it works. The people who own his works are exercising their right to not publish them. It’s not censorship, and it’s not driven by some imaginary leftist cancel culture.

Here’s the thing:  they actually had reasons to stop publishing the books for capitalistic reasons.  These books aren’t all that well-known and so don’t make a lot of money, so they could easily have decided that it wasn’t worth publishing them anymore.  They didn’t do that.  They could even have decided that in general people wouldn’t want to buy books with those stereotypes in them, and so that it wasn’t worth publishing them anymore.  They didn’t.  Or, at least, that’s not what they would have us believe.  They want us to think that this was not a simple business decision, but instead was, as Myers put it, an ethical one to oppose racism.  So they weren’t deciding this on the basis of monetary concerns, but were instead at least trying to say that they did it for ethical reasons, which makes the decision’s connection to capitalism a bit dubious.

Now, I’ve argued before that capitalism needs us to value things above and beyond monetary value.  So they don’t have to make all their decisions on the basis of monetary value.  However, I’ve also talked about how using money as a punishment doesn’t work either.  So which is this?  Well, people have been complaining about Seuss for a bit now, and so the timing is suspicious.  As far as I can tell, it wasn’t the case that a bunch of new people came in and wanted to make things more “progressive” or something like that, but that they decided to “review” the books, likely in response to complaints.  So at best it looks like they gave in to pressure to stop publishing these works for fear of cancellation, and at worst it looks like they set out to evaluate what they had in order to appeal to these new sentiments.  Heck, they might even mean it, although in general I tend to be suspicious of such claimed motives.  But what’s clear is this:  it’s neither monetary value or their own values that they seem to be using to justify stopping publishing these books.  So that means that you can’t use capitalism to justify it.

Now, we could make a blanket claim that they have the right to free speech, and no longer “speaking” certain things falls into that.  But this doesn’t work either, because the free speech here applies to the artist, not the current owners.  Under the free speech argument, they would be canceling the speech of Doctor Seuss for their own reasons, or because his speech didn’t align with their own values at absolute best.  Surely Myers would not support someone buying a set of works from someone for the express purpose of stifling that speech and ensuring that no one could ever read that speech again under the banner of protecting free speech!  The same would apply in this case:  just because they own the property doesn’t mean that they can refuse to publish something as an expression of their right to free speech.  If the owner and the artist are the same person, then that works, but if they aren’t, then if the owner wants to stop publishing the speech they need another reason than that they don’t like what the artist said.

And this does matter more than Myers admits:

I’ve been reading Seuss for most of my life, we read his books to our kids, and there are some that are popular with my granddaughter right now. They’re great books! No one is taking the Cat in the Hat out behind the chemical sheds.

The thing is, we know where this leads.  While people might not yet be saying to cancel Doctor Seuss entirely — although from my reading around some are — we know that it’s a very short trip from “These works are problematic” to “The writer is problematic”.  Usually justified with lines just like this:

We shouldn’t forget that Geisel approved of the internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry, or that he used crude steretoypes of African people, but it’s for the best that that stuff isn’t used in humorous primers intended to help children learn to read.

My grandfather fought in the Pacific during WWII, and came back filled with a lot of hatred and bigotry (which he did not outgrow, unlike Theodore Geisel). While I would like my grandkids to know something about their great grandparents at some point, I’m not going to start by sitting down and teaching them all the slurs Grandpa used for Asian people. That would be taking the wrong message from the experience.

Geisel — Doctor Seuss’s real name — according to Myers was indeed himself racist.  And we’ve seen that people who are thought of as racist get canceled.  They get their statues torn down.  They get their names taken off of schools.  And, yes, they get their books removed.  So while they may not be canceling “The Cat in the Hat” yet, those who are following the current mindset might find it more puzzling that they haven’t done it yet than that one day they might.

So, yes, it’s not at all unreasonable to consider this to be cancel culture run amok.  Even if the stereotypes are that prevalent and egregious — and they don’t seem to be — parents can decide to not let their children read those books, especially since at that level they will be reading them along with them and so will know what’s there and should be able to figure out how to deal with it given their own children.  So this move smacks of an attempt at appeasement or virtue signalling, which makes it all the more odd that many “progressives” find it to be a good thing.  There’s really no reason to do this, nor is this going to achieve any of the goals that those progressives seem to want.  But it’s very visible, which might well be the only explanation we really need.

Some Thoughts on the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy Inspired by New Jedi Order

March 10, 2021

So as noted earlier, I’m a bit obsessed with Star Wars at the moment, and so am in the middle of re-reading the first big Legends megaseries “New Jedi Order”, which I’ve talked about before.  In reading it, I noticed that what “New Jedi Order” does really well is take the very diverse Legends characters and history and meld into a new series that respects the previous works while building on that in a completely new situation.  In a sense, this is what the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy was going to have to do, only with less time to do it but also with less things that it had to respect, especially when it commented that it wasn’t really going to respect anything that came from Legends (although they have added some things back in, supposedly, which is something that I think they should have aimed for from the start).  But it still did have to respect the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy, and that’s kinda where the Sequel Trilogy drops the ball.

The first decision that they made that had a huge impact on how the ST had to go was to include the original actors.  I can’t blame them for doing that (since many fans had been waiting for a sequel with those characters), but we can see that this adds a lot of constraints to the work.  Most importantly, it meant that they couldn’t do what might have been expected from the ST, where they show the rebuilding of the Republic after the defeat of the Empire.  They’re 20+ years out from the events in Return of the Jedi, and so we would expect that that would already have been done.  So they end up in the same position as “New Jedi Order”, in a situation where they are far enough in the future that the Republic is established — or at least should be established — and so they need to produce some sort of threat to an established New Republic that can drive the drama.  What the Sequel Trilogy would be missing was the fullish history of how that came about that “New Jedi Order” could appeal to.  With “New Jedi Order”, we already know how the New Republic was re-established and so have a full history to appeal to.  The Sequel Trilogy by necessity didn’t have that.

The next decision that had a huge impact was the decision that they wanted to return to pretty much the same sort of situation and themes of the OT, with the idea that we had plucky Rebels fighting against some sort of evil Empire.  This I can blame them for, because this wasn’t at all necessary and was in fact a really, really difficult thing to pull off given that they didn’t have the history to rely on.  With a new trilogy, there was going to have to be a history behind what state we ended up in and how that happened.  “New Jedi Order” went with a new and mysterious external threat, which then only needed to be explained as things went along, where we discover the details of the new threat along with the characters, and it is that threat that is destabilizing the New Republic.  At any rate, going with a set and established New Republic and then making the ST about a new internal or external threat would have been the easiest way to go.  Reducing the heroes to Rebels again simply raises the obvious question of “What happened to the New Republic that they were building?  What happened to the Jedi Order that Luke was planning to build?”.  The lack of history works against that idea because there would be obvious questions that we couldn’t appeal to the history to answer.

Now, you can say that the lack of history would have caused similar issues with the external threat idea as well, but I don’t think that’s quite true.  And we can see why by looking at the PT.  The time gap between the PT and the OT is roughly the same as between the OT and the ST, and we didn’t have a full history of the time between the PT and OT well, ever.  Yes, the PT was a prequel and prequels have a different purpose, but I submit that someone who had never seen any of the movies could start with the PT and then watch the OT and not feel at all confused about what happened in the gap between the PT and OT.  And the reason for this, I submit, is that the situation in the OT follows naturally from the events of the PT.  At the end of the PT, the Jedi have been wiped out and the last two have to go into hiding with the children of Vader and Padme, and the Republic has been turned into the Empire.  As we proceed to “A New Hope”, what we see is what we would have expected:  the Empire has consolidated its power, there is some Resistance, Yoda and Obi-Wan are still in hiding and Luke and Leia are now old enough to potentially challenge the Sith.  The Empire is ascendant, but we are now creating the literal new hope of bringing it down and returning light to the galaxy.  So the situation we see in “A New Hope” is what we’d expect to follow naturally from where we left things in “Revenge of the Sith”.  Sure, it’s possible that there might have been more resistance than expect and the Empire could have been stymied, but starting from “Revenge of the Sith” we would want an explanation if the Empire wasn’t dominating at the time of “A New Hope”.

But the events that we see in “The Force Awakens” do not follow naturally from “Return of the Jedi”.  At the end of “Return of the Jedi”, what we’d expect to happen is that the Republic would be re-established, although there might be struggles along the way.  As we actually see in Legends, there might be an Imperial Remnant that can cause issues.  But we wouldn’t really expect the New Republic to have failed.  So if we start by implying that there is no Jedi Order and that our heroes are all members of a Resistance in the same way as we saw in “A New Hope”, audiences who watched “Return of the Jedi” first are going to wonder how that happened (and those who haven’t will, in my view, just be totally confused because of all the references to the OT).  Now, as I suggested in my discussion of how I would have done “The Force Awakens”, that could have been done relatively easily with a slight change in focus and some minor exposition, which the movie wasn’t at all willing to do.  But even then this was a very risky move that needed to be handled properly, and without an established history to appeal to the movie was going to have to provide far more history than it wanted to just to make sense, all because it went against the expected progression from “Return of the Jedi”.  If they had went with a clearly established New Republic that was, perhaps, fighting against a Resistance, less explanation would have been required.

But I also think that the move was problematic not just because of the history and expected progression, but also because of the expected emotional progression.  The PT ends on a downer ending where the heroes are defeated and the Empire is triumphant.  So “A New Hope” starts from that dark place and emotionally as per the name builds hope in the audience that then leads to the triumphant ending of “Return of the Jedi”.  But this allows the OT to build that emotion in slowly.  As a standalone work, it establishes the darkness and slowly builds hope across the OT.  As part of the entire series, the emotions follow even more naturally from where we were left in the PT.  Originally, we were told about things being bad and so understood how hope was necessary, but with the PT we’ve seen things going that badly and so understand why hope is necessary.  So watched all together, we start from a flawed Republic and watch its fall into the Empire, and then see how the Empire is defeated with the hope of a restored and hopefully less flawed New Republic.  Emotionally, they all connect together to provide a clear emotional arc that we can follow along with in much the same way as we can follow the plot and character arcs of the two trilogies.

We don’t have that when moving from the OT to the ST.  “Return of the Jedi” ends with a strong message of celebration and hope for the future.  It is overwhelmingly positive, and provides a feeling of great potential for the future.  When we pick up with the ST twenty years later, all of that potential has, as far as we know, come to nought.  There is no Jedi Order and no new Jedi at all.  As far as we know from the movie itself, there’s no New Republic at all (there is one, but the movie doesn’t establish it).  Nothing has changed, and in fact things have, if anything, gotten worse.  Han Solo’s character development is undone.  Luke Skywalker is nowhere to be found.  There’s an Evil Empire that is powerful enough to build an even more devastating superweapon that only our plucky band of Rebels have any chance of destroying (another reason to suspect that the New Republic doesn’t exist, if they couldn’t stop the First Order from building that thing before it was used).  While we end “Return of the Jedi” with hope for the future, in “The Force Awakens” nothing has changed and things are arguably far worse than they were at the end of “Return of the Jedi”.  Emotionally, we move from a triumphant high to a devastating low.  That’s far too quick a move to be anything other than depressing and unsatisfying, especially given that we don’t know how in the world that happened.  So the movie was going to have to both explain what happened and rebuild our emotions after crashing them in the move from “Return of the Jedi” to “The Force Awakens”.  And Abrams’ shallow movie simply couldn’t do that.

And it gets worse with “The Last Jedi”, no matter how you feel about what Johnson did there.  If we map it to “The Empire Strikes Back”, we can see that “The Empire Strikes Back” takes the hope started in “A New Hope” and adds setbacks to make us understand that this is not going to be easy.  We see that the Empire has devastated the Rebellion, but we see that they still have a significant fleet, there is still a mostly trained Jedi in Luke, and they have a plan to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt.  So we have sorrow and loss, but we still have the hope that will be built on to get to the triumph in “Return of the Jedi”.  But at the end of “The Last Jedi”, where’s the hope?  Rey is supposedly trained and has some books that may or may not be useful, but the Resistance has been abandoned by their allies and left with no forces beyond what will fit in the Falcon.  The hope from the kid on the casino planet is a long-term hope, something that you might put at the end of the PT trilogy, not at the end of a second movie in a trilogy where you are hoping to end it in triumph again.  Which is why after that I suggested turning the ST into something like a PT rather than trying to finish it like the OT (which is not what they did, from what I hear).  The ST, at that point, was too low and too hopeless to be able to build properly to a hopeful, “Return of the Jedi”-style ending.  Even if the plot could have been massaged to make that work, the emotions simply wouldn’t work when they were all watched back-to-back.

So that, to me, seems to be the issue and might be the entire problem with the ST:  in trying to ape the OT it inadvertently broke the historical and emotional expectations that the OT set for the trilogy, and didn’t have an accessible history and didn’t explain why those expectations were not fulfilled.  Watching them all together, then, is always going to seem off and the movies will not rebuild that into something meaningful and great.  Yes, the clashes in visions between Abrams and Johnson also certainly hurt, but they were starting behind the eight ball in choosing to try to start from darkness and build hope throughout the trilogy.  They just weren’t in a position where that would be easy to pull off.

I’m kinda obsessed with Star Wars right now …

February 17, 2021

No, not the new stuff.  I still strongly dislike it (although when watching the OT over the weekend I became tempted to compare the three trilogies to talk about why I think the OT really works, the PT is disappointing and the ST really, really sucks, but then I’d have to rewatch the first two movies and get and watch The Rise of Skywalker, and I’m not sure how much I’m willing to sacrifice for this blog).  No, I’m talking about the things that existed before Disney took over.  I’ve set aside some time on the weekend to play The Old Republic (but haven’t been able to do that as much as I’d like because of things like snow and work and the like).  I just finished re-reading the X-Wing books (including “I, Jedi”) after having read the Timothy Zahn works (including “Survivor’s Quest”).  I’ve just started re-reading the megaseries, starting with “New Jedi Order”.  I’m tempted to include “Fate of the Jedi”, but if I don’t I still have a few more books that I can get through.  And as noted above, I just watched the OT again.

And yet, I still want to do more.  I’m looking for some video games to play and with Huniepop 2 being disappointing (more on that next week) I’m tempted to drop my current run of Dragon Age Origins and play some of my Star Wars games.  Take another run at Rebellion like I did a month or two ago, except try to win as the Rebels this time.  Poke around with Galactic Battlegrounds.  Play Empire at War.  And there’s a real temptation to go through the KotOR games again (I replayed the first one a while ago and started but never finished the second one).  So adding more to my Star Wars obsession, and those re the games and things that I am most interested in playing.

And then there are the things that fit less into my normal schedule but that I’m getting reminded of and tempted to play anyway.  Like the graphic novel I have collecting some of the Marvel comics.  Like the board game of Rebellion.  Like the card game that I haven’t really played and probably should.  Like the comics I collected of the new run.  And all the games that I own from GOG but have never really played, like Battlefront II, and Jedi Knight, and Dark Forces, and Republic Commando, and Shadows of the Empire (I also have the book that I can read), and Starfighter, and Rebel Assault.  And then I remembered Rogue Squadron and was going to joke in this post that if it was on GOG then I’d be really, really tempted to play it … and then looked and saw that, yes, it is there and so picked it up, along with the X-Wing series (including Tie Fighter) because I remember that the reason I didn’t buy them was because they were on disk but since my new laptop doesn’t play well with CDs and I have multiple systems to play things on figured that getting the digital copies was the right way to go.  So they’re in the mix as well (and X-Wing Alliance is cool because the simulator gives me the ability to play for a short period of time with scenarios I invent in my head).

Is it sad that I’d probably watch the Holiday Special if I had it, and still don’t want to watch the new movies?  Well, I had a little temptation watching the OT to watch Rogue One, but I will probably be able to resist that temptation because finding it will probably take long enough for it to pass.

So, yeah, just a little bit obsessed with Star Wars right now.  The only reason I can give is that reading the books has really engaged my interest with the universe again, an interest that was smothered a bit by the new movies.  Not sure what that says about the new movies, especially since the newer novels aren’t really on my list right now.

Thoughts on “Survivor’s Quest” in the Light of “Outbound Flight”

February 10, 2021

I came to finally read “Survivor’s Quest” through an interesting route.  Now, the important thing to note here is that “Survivor’s Quest” and “Outbound Flight” are two interconnected books by Timothy Zahn.  “Outbound Flight” details what actually happened to a major project Outbound Flight that occurred during the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, while “Survivor’s Quest” details discovering the ships that made it up and the aftermath of that in the time after the Rebellion.

So what happened with me is that I came across “Outbound Flight” first, liked the premise, and read it.  I very much enjoyed it.  And at some point I ended up buying “Survivor’s Quest”.  I think I bought it while I was filling in the missing books from the “New Jedi Order” Megaseries, and when I discovered that it wasn’t part of the series I didn’t bother to read it.  But towards the end of last year I decided to go through a number of my Star Wars books and not remembering it decided to put it on the list to read.

So the order I read the books in was, obviously, “Outbound Flight” and then “Survivor’s Quest”.  It turns out that Zahn intended this to work in the same way as the prequel movies worked with the OT and so you’re supposed to read “Survivor’s Quest” first and then read “Outbound Flight”.  However, on reading it I really think that the better order to read them in is “Outbound Flight” and then “Survivor’s Quest” … although, ultimately, I think I recommend skipping “Survivor’s Quest” entirely and just reading “Outbound Flight”.

The reason to read “Outbound Flight” first is that “Survivor’s Quest” is not structured in a way that is conducive to a prequel.  For a prequel to work, what you need is for it to leave things unanswered that the audience is interested in finding out, but that you don’t need to understand in order to enjoy the actual work.  However, “Survivor’s Quest” doesn’t really answer anything.  We don’t find out why the survivors in the Dreadnoughts hate the Jedi so much, including Lorana Jinzler, the sister of Dean Jinzler who came to find her.  We don’t find out how they crashed there.  We don’t find out how Thrawn and the Chiss were actually involved.  We don’t find out how Card’as was involved.  We really don’t find out anything.  So if you wanted the mystery of Outbound Flight solved … you won’t find out anything until you read the prequel.  And “Survivor’s Quest” makes a big deal out of those mysteries, so it’s not something that you can ignore or be idly interested in.  It’s the entire point and what happened there is key to understanding the plot of the book.

Moreover, the character of Dean Jinzler works if you read “Outbound Flight” first and not if you read “Survivor’s Quest” first.  In “Survivor’s Quest”, he cons his way into the expedition to find out what happened to his sister because at the time Outbound Flight left he was angry and bitter towards her but now he regrets that and wants to at least find out what happened to her and seems to hold out some hope that he could find her and make up for that.  Thus, he’s a major character in “Survivor’s Quest”.  And yet in “Outbound Flight” he appears in a short conversation with her where he expresses that bitterness.  If you read “Outbound Flight” first and then “Survivor’s Quest”, you get an interesting arc for him where you see him being bitter and treating her badly, and then repenting of it and redeeming himself later, even though she’d dead and so he can’t reconcile with her.  If you go the other way around, you get his entire redemption arc … and then he effectively makes a cameo in the prequel.  If you liked his character, that’s going to be disappointing and seem somewhat pointless, while if you go the other way around you get a small scene that drops a hint that’s paid off in the sequel.

It’s also better to read it in that order because if you do it that way you get to come to like Lorana Jinzler and see why she was a good person and one that is worthy of Dean’s attempts to reconcile with her.  We get little to no information about her in “Survivor’s Quest”, and what we do get comes from someone who ultimately didn’t know her or from people who mistakenly blame her for not helping them (when in reality she got herself killed saving them).  If you read “Outbound Flight” first, then you can see how tragic that is and how misguided they are about her, which means that we can see how they are also misguided about the Jedi as a whole … but we can also see how they became that way and can see that, from their perspective, their views are extreme but not entirely baseless.  The survivors views make little sense and seem like cartoonish villainy otherwise.

The one thing that works better if you read “Survivor’s Quest” first is the mystery … or, rather, Luke and Mara’s speculations about the mystery.  If you read “Outbound Flight” first, you will immediately see how ridiculously wrong their speculations about what happened are, and are likely to be a bit miffed over how they can posit such speculations as if they were reasonable when they are completely false.  If you read them the other way around, you are likely to be speculating as much as they are and so are less likely to see those speculations as being that ridiculous, even as you recognize them as pure speculation.  But that minor thing doesn’t make up for all of the other things you’d miss if you read “Survivor’s Quest” first.

Especially since, ultimately, “Survivor’s Quest” is a pretty bad book.  It sets out to solve a mystery and then never solves it.  It introduces a conflict that it never explains and never really resolves (between the survivors and the Jedi).  Halfway through, it turns into an action work based on a contrived twist that only surprised me because I think they contradicted things in “Outbound Flight”.  Reading that book first, I should not have been surprised at the revelation of who the aliens really were, and I admit that I didn’t really see the twist coming.  Dean Jinzler’s character arc is interesting, but Mara’s seems shoehorned in and so it really looks like the two of them are there just to have the two of them in the plot, which is one thing that many people criticize Star Wars works for (shoehorning in known characters when they really didn’t need to be there).  While “Outbound Flight” did something similar with Obi-Wan and Anakin, their characters were far more minor to the overall plot and were mostly there to let us get introduced to C’baoth and Lorana for what happens later.  Essentially, to let us get to know Lorana they needed her to interact with someone, and having those two characters be the ones lent some interest to the plot while doing so, and Obi-Wan’s suspicions about C’baoth have more weight than coming from completely new characters.  Because of the switch to action at the end, the book drags at the beginning and drags out the action scenes to make the aliens a real threat, which is also a bit contrived.

Ultimately, I didn’t care for “Survivor’s Quest”, and I still think that the best order to get the most enjoyment out of it is too read “Outbound Flight” first.  And at the end of the day, I don’t recommend “Survivor’s Quest” at all, and still highly recommend “Outbound Flight”.  Obviously, it is doubtful that I will read “Survivor’s Quest” again.

Thoughts on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

December 22, 2020

Because I’m a good boy (and a homebody at the best of times), I’m not shopping in stores very much — I stop in at Walmart sometimes to pick up various household goods and to look for cheap horror movies — but I am picking up a few things from Amazon every month or so.  I dislike browsing on Amazon, so what I’ve been doing is making a list of things to search for — it’s pretty easy when one of the big things I’m buying are graphic novels — and then sorting through those to find things that are interesting.  And one of the things that popped up as a paperback book on “The Avengers” called “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.  The premise is that a number of villains are all enacting world-conquering plans at the same time, and the Avengers need to split up and stop all of them and also stop an overarching plan that is instigating them.

This sounded interesting, but the book itself manages to fumble it.  The problem is that unlike most of the cases in the comics where the Avengers have to split up, the book starts with each of them pursuing their own issues that tie back into the premise.  It also makes it so that they can’t communicate with each other.  So this leaves us with individual adventures for most of the book, with them all coming together at the end, and with each group believing that they were on a separate unique mission and being worried about why they couldn’t contact the rest of the team while we, of course, knew precisely what was happening.  While it can work if we know more than the characters, that needs to be used to increase drama and tension and this reduces it.  After all, a ticking clock would provide enough reason for them to not be able to help each other and so force us to focus on their individual missions without them ever having to comment on why the other Avengers seem to be missing.

So, ultimately, it reduces the book to set of individual missions, which is not what we come to an Avengers book for.  And since it’s one novel, the individual missions aren’t very well done, since the missions have to be short to all fit in the book.  There was much more that could have been explored, but there just isn’t room.  Add to that the fact that they aren’t all that well written, and often rely on contrivances and conveniences.  So we have separated Avengers clashing with their established foes in a rushed and shallow manner.  That’s … not what I buy an Avengers book for.

Ultimately, it was very disappointing.  Some parts of it are decent, but for the most part it just squanders all of its potential.  I won’t be reading this one again.

Thoughts on “My System”

December 16, 2020

So it was … sheesh, over a year and a half ago that I started thinking about getting into chess again (where in the world does the time go?).  I haven’t actually played a game of it.  I have still watched, on occasion, some games on chess.org, but about the only thing I actually did was work through the book I bought from the board game store dedicated to things like chess (and that donates its profits to groups to promote it) called “My System” by Aron Nimzowitsch.  I had learned chess simply by playing it, as we had tournaments in the area where I grew up and the school was small enough that if there was any kind of tournament all of the kids played in it no matter what.  So what I was looking for were things like openings and the like because I had never really learned any of them, and I was given to believe that doing that and being able to recognize all of them was really important.  The guy behind the counter said that it wasn’t all that important, but then recommended “My System” to me as a book to learn about the theory of chess.  So I bought it and over the next several months — I’m not kidding — I worked my way through it.

The reason it took so long was not because it was a bad book, or a dull book, or overly technical.  It wasn’t.  In fact, it was actually really entertaining.  The problem was that it was a technical book rather than fiction, and so it ran into my most common two problems.  First, I’ve been really, really busy for quite a while, and so had to find some time to fit it in.  Second, for anything that I really want to pay attention to I need to read it at a time when nothing else is distracting me or when I want to concentrate on something else, so I couldn’t watch it while watching a TV show, for example, that I wanted to talk about as well.  That left little time for it.  I ended up trying to fit it in, I think, one day a week in an evening (Sunday, I think?) and that kinda worked.

Anyway, what makes the book is that Nimzowitsch has a pretty entertaining writing style.  He has a sort of dry sense of humour that I really liked, and he “personalizes” a lot of the discussion by talking about the pieces as, well, people with goals, ambitions and fears.  This takes it away from a dry discussion of technical moves and into something that is both entertainment and teaching.  So when I did read it, I enjoyed reading it.

The problem is that outside of some of the obvious things — and some seemingly absolute rules that I disagreed were absolute — I didn’t really learn much about chess itself from the book.  Sure, I learned enough that when watching the games on chess.org I could see some of the principles being invoked, but I don’t think I learned much that I could apply to my own game.  The biggest reason for this is that I was hit by one simple fact:  I cannot read chess notation very much at all.  This meant that the example games — which would have worked best for me to learn how to apply the techniques — were useless to me and thus boring, and thus were mostly skipped.  And on reflection, I realized that even if I did learn chess notation, it wouldn’t help me much anyway, since my visualization skills are so bad and chess books focus on using the notation to allow them to avoid showing an image of the board after each move, so I’d have to be able to picture the board in my head.  And I am … unlikely to be able to do that.  So that sort of thing isn’t really going to work.

Still, I did like the book and it’s possible that I’ll read it again at some point just for enjoyment.  That’s a win even if it didn’t turn out to be the teaching tool that I’d hoped it would be.