Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

How Large Is Your World?

Perceived distance

A story may tell you it covers vast distances—but the reader’s or viewer’s experience doesn’t always bear that out.

Star Wars, for example, opens with the announcement that we’re in “a galaxy far, far away,” leading us to expect events on an immense galactic scale.  And of course the story does involve travel among numerous star systems.

Yet to me, at least, the Star Wars galaxy feels so small as to be almost cozy.  It never seems to take more than a day or two to get from one planet to another.  (Often the trips are made in X-wing fighters or other ships that don’t even seem to be large enough for a bathroom.)  In The Force Awakens, we even have weapons on one planet targeting other planets, as if they were right next door.  We may be instructed that the beam is traversing vast distances via hyperspace—but there’s no visceral sense of great expanses.

This situation isn’t limited to visual media.  I recently read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which has been billed as a space opera—a category that suggests vast scope.  Yet almost all the story’s action takes place within a couple of spacecraft or space stations, lending an almost claustrophobic feel to the tale.  On the other hand, the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey devotes a good deal of time to communicating a sense of the vastness of space.

In contrast to these surprisingly pocket-size space adventures, consider a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings.  To my mind, Tolkien’s epic does suggest great distances and broad landscapes.  But the actual distances involved are infinitesimal on a Star Wars scale.  Middle-Earth is about the same size as western Europe.  The Millennium Falcon could traverse the whole expanse from the Shire to Mordor in seconds (even without hyperdrive).  But Tolkien’s world feels bigger.  By the time we get to the end of it, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey.

Map of Middle-Earth

The same is true of most high fantasies, which at most work on a continental scale, given their technologies.  Paradoxically, the low-tech locales seem to be better at giving us a sense of epic scope.  Why?

Getting there is half the challenge

The most important factor, I think, is travel time.  We experience distances not in terms of their metric size, but in terms of how long it takes for us to cross them.  This is the sense in which technology has “made the world smaller.”

Tolkien’s world seems large because we cross it, with the characters, on foot.  All that walking!  (It’s not for nothing that the Fellowship is sometimes referred to as the “Nine Walkers.”)  This means that it takes weeks to get anywhere.  Frodo and Sam leave the Shire on September 23 and arrive at Mount Doom on March 24, a six-month journey—albeit with some stops along the way.

Strictly speaking, this factor may be time-relative-to-lifespan, rather than days or years directly.  A six-month trip would be brief for the star-traveling characters in Blish’s Cities in Flight stories; they live for centuries.  It bulks much larger in our own lives.

A related factor is difficulty.  A journey may take a long time, not just because our transportation is slow, but also because we have to grapple with trouble on the way.  Even an uneventful sea voyage from, say, England to America in the 1700s might take seven weeks on average.  But the dangers of storms, limited food and water, and being becalmed made the trip more daunting.  One didn’t do it casually.

Oregon Trail game, coverSimilarly, the wagon trains of the American West took the settlers through unknown countries full of dangers and delays.  (Recall that Star Trek was originally sold to studios as a “wagon train to the stars.”)  Even aside from the sheer travel time, these perils made the journey a more formidable challenge.  Anyone remember playing “The Oregon Trail”?  It wasn’t easy to survive the strenuous 2,170-mile trip.

The spice of travel

The wagon-train trek illustrates a third factor.  Variety in the places we pass through also makes a trip more consequential.  An Atlantic crossing might be relatively boring, aside from the weather, if you’re not on the Titanic.  But the different kinds of places we experience on the way—terrains, climates, habitations, cultures—also helps give us a sense of distance, of having come a long way.

To some extent this depends on the unfamiliarity of far places.  If another locale has the same chain stores, the same advertisements, the same customs and fashions, we’ll hardly feel as if we’ve gone anywhere.  Passing through a series of identical places will not give us the sense of transition that we gain from different environments.  But as Tolkien’s heroes traverse the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, Bree, the Wilderlands, Rivendell, Moria, the Anduin . . .  we feel they’ve really traveled.

This unfamiliarity is itself a function of travel time and difficulty.  If it’s hard to get somewhere, not many people in my area will have been there, or know much about it.  Technology also plays a subtler role here.  If we don’t have the technology for recordings—photos, audio, video—then we are dependent on travelers’ tales, less vivid and less exact.  On the other hand, if we’ve immersed ourselves in the imagery and culture of, say, Japan before we visit, the culture shock will be less.  This is another way advanced technology makes the world smaller.

Star Wars universe mapIn a similar way, the different environments we meet on Star Wars planets do provide some sense of genuine travel—though the fact that each planet seems to have a single climate and terrain makes this variety less effective than it might be.

Taken together, the difficulty and variety factors suggest that the number of incidents on an expedition contribute a lot to our sense of size.  A very long trip may seem trivial if nothing happens.  But a quite brief excursion can seem extensive if it’s packed with important occurrences.

Generation ships, inside and out

The generation ship, of which we’ve spoken before, provides an interesting example of both types of journey.  Externally, such a vessel covers vast distances—and taking generations to make a voyage is certainly one way to make the reader feel the distance involved.  But the voyage typically proceeds with very little external change:  the ship bores on through space, for years on end.  If events within the ship are not described, the reader or viewer may not gain much sense of distance.  If the people on board are in suspended animation, there won’t be much sense of time or distance at all.  In the 2016 movie Passengers, for example, it’s only once something goes wrong that the story begins.  (Once it does, the passage of time for the characters who are awake is a major plot element.)

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustration

Interior of starship from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (staticflickr.com)

On the other hand, internally, the world-ship itself may seem a vast environment to the inhabitants.  This is especially true if events have deprived the inhabitants of any high-tech means of travel from place to place within the ship.  A long journey or quest inside the traveling world may thus be a major plot element, as we saw in The Star Seekers or Non-Stop.  Here, again, it’s essential that the characters encounter different cultures or locales within the ship if the reader is to have a sense of scale.

Epic scope

To create a story with epic scope, as in space opera or high fantasy, it’s useful to keep this size issue in mind.  If you want to write an epic, make sure you give it room to breathe.  If that sense of scale is lacking, our grand, sweeping conflict may come across looking like a mere tempest in a teapot.

Science and Swordplay

Bringing a Sword to a Blaster Fight

Since advanced weapons are available in much science fiction—the famous “ray gun” is iconic—it’s surprising how often a fight comes down to the humble, and archaic, sword.

You’d think this would be a classic case of “brings a knife to a gunfight.”  Why doesn’t the blade-wielding attacker get wiped out immediately by an opponent with, say, advanced automatic weapons?  How does a science fiction setting justify the continued usefulness of swords—and why?

Let’s look at some examples.

Swordsmen of Mars

A Princess of Mars coverEdgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories are full of noble heroes engaging in swashbuckling swordfights with the foul villains.  (Those who haven’t read the books may have seen the flawed, but underrated, movie adaptation “John Carter [of Mars]” a few years ago.)  This is despite the fact that most of these warriors are also equipped with guns firing explosive radium bullets.  Why don’t they use their guns?

As the Wikipedia article points out, on Barsoom (Mars) “it is considered unchivalrous to defend with any weapon but the one used in an attack (or a lesser one).”  This allows the good guys to stick to their swords, and also let the bad guys show their unchivalrous villainy by trying to use more advanced weapons.  Since Burroughs’ characters do tend to behave in ways that reflect what we think of as an archaic code of honor, there’s some plausibility to this explanation.  (The first book was published in 1912; there’s been a lot of cultural water under the bridge since then.)

Glory Road

Glory Road coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s tongue-in-cheek Glory Road (1963), a recently-discharged veteran, whose expertise happens to include fencing, is recruited by “the most beautiful woman in any world” for a mission in one of the “Twenty Universes.”  In that particular universe, the laws of nature are different:  firearms and explosives don’t work.  But blades do.  This gives us a traditional sword-swinging hero (whom Heinlein can then merrily deconstruct throughout the story).

Heinlein also makes the point that a blade can be useful, no matter how advanced your technology, in close-quarters combat; which is (I assume) why today’s soldiers still occasionally use bayonets.

A similar gunpowder-won’t-work-in-this-universe situation is set up by Roger Zelazny in his Chronicles of Amber, where Zelazny’s immortal hero, Corwin, is among other things a master swordsman.  However, in The Guns of Avalon, Corwin solves the problem by finding a universe where there’s a gunpowder analogue that does work where regular firearms do not.  Both Glory Road and Amber make it hard to decide whether we’re reading science fiction or fantasy—which is par for the course where SF swordplay is involved.

Dune

Dune coverThe climax of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune (1965)—after atomic explosions, an attack by immense sandworms, and a clash of unbeatable armies—comes down to, you guessed it, a one-on-one fight with blades.  Herbert gives us a combination of reasons to work with.  His characters learn fencing because their personal force shields stop fast-moving projectiles, such as bullets, but are less effective against relatively slower attacks, such as a sword thrust.  This is a clever science-fictional reason to preserve the swordfighting trope.  Cultural factors also enter in.  The final duel specifically occurs because, as in Burroughs, there are formal rules of vendetta or kanly that allow for such single combat.

You can see the Dune swordfights in video adaptations:  the 1984 movie by David Lynch, or a 2000 mini-series on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel.

Star Wars

Luke and Vader, lightsabers crossedOf course the case with which most of us are familiar is the famous Jedi Knight “lightsaber” in the Star Wars stories.  Knights, of course, have to carry swords, and Lucas has made the lightsaber an iconic emblem of his universe.  What makes a sword-like weapon useful here is that the Jedi Knights can actually use them to deflect, or even redirect, gunfire (“blaster” bolts).  Personally, I’ve always felt that the only way this could possibly work is that precognition allows the Jedi a moment’s unconscious awareness of where and when the next bolt will come.  No one’s reflexes or muscles could possibly be fast enough to intercept something that fast without foreknowledge.

The Attractions of Swordplay

We’ve seen several ways to justify the use of swords in a high-tech science fiction environment.  It’s a separate question why authors and readers enjoy such scenes.

I think one reason is that sword-to-sword combat allows for a personal engagement more effectively than a gun duel.  Much has been said about the depersonalization inherent in the use of long-distance weapons.  In a genuine battle, we may pragmatically seek the most effective means to prevail, whether personal or impersonal.  But in a story, individual characters, and the drama of their interactions, are at the fore.  A person-to-person duel between hero and villain is more viscerally satisfying than wiping out the opponent at a distance.

The sword also has a long history of symbolic and evocative significance.  We noted above, for example, that the use of sword can call up in a reader’s or viewer’s mind a whole chivalric or feudal milieu.  This is merely one of the deliberately archaic tropes Lucas brought back in the original “Star Wars.”

Using a sword also requires more physical skill, strength, and endurance than using a gun. It’s been pointed out that one of the ways the development of firearms changed the nature of war was by enabling lightly-trained recruits to fight competently, without the lifetime’s training needed to make a good swordsman.  If a story wants to show off the physical excellence and expertise of the combatants, a swordfight will do this better than a gunfight.

Of course, pure bare-handed martial-arts combat, or fighting with other melee weapons like staves or maces, can accomplish the same things—which is why we frequently see these, too, making their appearance incongruously in SF contexts.

Flag in Exile swordfight sceneFinally, a swordfight may be more prolonged than a gunfight, because blades can do more gradual damage than bullets and thus allow for longer duels, intensifying the drama.  This isn’t always the case.  In the page on Single-Stroke Battle, TV Tropes observes that “[r]eal sword fights often take only a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, with one solid hit generally being enough to take a man out of the fight (contrast this with Flynning).”  One thinks of the powerful scene toward the end of David Weber’s Flag in Exile where Honor Harrington does in fact cut short a lengthy duel with one blow.  But this is precisely where an author can set up the desired situation to best advantage.

No matter how much futuristic SF may pervade our storytelling, then, we’re not likely to see the humble sword retired any time soon.

The Last Jedi . . . Maybe

Boldly Going Where the Story Hasn’t Gone Yet

Debating what may happen in future Star Wars movies has been a favorite spectator sport since 1980, when we all saw The Empire Strikes Back and spent the next three years madly surmising  what would happen in the third episode.  Was Vader really Luke’s father?  (It’s hard to believe in this era, when “I am your father” is a classic meme, but in 1980 it was a viable theory that he was lying.)  Who was the “other” of Yoda’s enigmatic remark, “There is another”?

That last question illustrates the danger of too much speculation.  By the time Return of the Jedi came out, we’d debated every possibility, from a complete unknown to Han Solo—including the winning choice, Princess Leia (requiescat in pace).  The revelation in Episode VI couldn’t help but be an anticlimax.  So I’ve been trying not to spend too much time spinning my wheels over the unanswered questions in The Force Awakens.  We’ll find out soon enough.

The title of Episode VIII, though, does bring up an interesting point.

Last Now, or Last Forever?

Star Wars - The Last Jedi title screenDisney announced the title The Last Jedi for Episode VIII on January 23, 2017.  The fan community immediately went to work to ferret out the implications. It was pointed out, for example, that “Jedi” can be either singular or plural.  There might be one last Jedi, or two last Jedi, or an entire academy-full of last Jedi.  Still, some sort of finality seems to be indicated.

Comments around the Web as of February 12, 2017, suggest there are at least two major possibilities:

Luke and Rey(1)  The film is about the last Jedi who happens to be left alive at the moment.  That’s obviously Luke Skywalker, and Rey could reasonably say, on meeting him, that she’s found the last Jedi.  It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any more to follow.  The Last Jedi might show Luke taking on Rey as an apprentice and making her a new Jedi.  If so, the story could well be captioned, from Rey’s point of view, How I Met the Last Jedi and Became the First Recruit in a New Jedi Order.  This would simply put us back in the realm of “That boy is our only hope / No, there is another.”

(2)  The more interesting, more drastic possibility is that Luke is the last Jedi there will ever be; that Episodes VIII-IX will involve some sort of epoch-making shakeup that will end the Jedi order permanently.  That might seem an anticlimax, after taking all that trouble to restore the order in Return of the Jedi.  But if it did, what would the future look like?

This possibility raises a question that has long intrigued me:  Is the Jedi order as we see it in the prequel series really a good thing?

How Not to Train Your Jedi

We had to wait for the prequels (Episodes I-III) to see how the Jedi order actually worked in its heyday.  What emerged was rather surprising.  The training program is of particular interest, because how you form the next generation of Jedi shapes what kinds of people they become and how they carry out their somewhat hazy galactic peace-keeping responsibilities.

(I should note that I’m referring only to the movies here and not the vast expanded universe of novels and spinoffs, much of which is no longer canon anyway.)

Jedi younglings at practiceWhen we meet young Anakin Skywalker at nine years of age in Episode I, he is already considered too old for the normal Jedi training program.  This is borne out by the scenes we see of five- or six-year-old “younglings” practicing their Jedi arts.  Evidently in the Republic, Force-gifted children were taken away from their families as young as five or six and brought to Coruscant for full-time training.  (No wonder Yoda also complained about Luke’s age in Episode V.)

If Anakin’s own experience is any guide, the younglings don’t return to their families, even, say, for summer vacations.  They are expected to grow up without normal family interactions, living a sort of monastic existence.  This approach might produce an intense concentration on one’s studies, and a sense of fierce fellowship among the Jedi members.  But it’s not clear that the resulting Jedi Knights would be especially well-adjusted for dealings with other, normal citizens.

We saw how badly this worked out for Anakin himself.  When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi redeem Anakin from slavery in Episode I, they can’t afford to buy out his mother Shmi as well.  But, appallingly, they never go back with more funds to do so; apparently they’re content to leave her enslaved while they concentrate on her Force-enabled son.  (This omission itself says something about the mind-set of the Republic and the Jedi in particular.)  When Anakin returns in Episode II just in time for his mother to die in his arms, this experience plays a key role in his eventual turn to the Dark Side, with the avowed aim of bringing “order to the galaxy” to prevent such tragedies.

No Valentines for Jedi

The exclusion of Jedi Knights from normal family and community life extends forward in their lives as well.  We find out in Episode II that Jedi are not permitted to marry.  (No one seems to have considered that this restriction is a fine way to breed Force-sensitivity right out of the participating species.)

Anakin and Padme silhouetted against cityWhile this barrier may have been set up simply to create a story conflict, it also intensifies the separation of the Jedi from ordinary social interactions.  The trope of a celibate monastic order certainly has some narrative power.  But it may not be an ideal way to establish the primary enforcement and conflict-resolution arm of a galactic society.  In a curious way, the Jedi order resembles the army of familyless clones that the Jedi themselves initially create, and later combat.

A Failing Republic

With this issue in mind, the whole plot of Episodes I-III looks less like a simple tale of scheming intrigue by Senator Palpatine and more like a civilizational tragedy.  A polity falls most easily to a destabilizing force when it is already rotting from within.  Palpatine could not have succeeded so easily, one might argue, if the Republic and the Jedi had not already become decadent or dysfunctional.

In fact, the Jedi leaders in the prequels speak uneasily about some sort of failure or lessening of their communion with the Force, which is never really explained.  Is it possible that the Jedi ways of cultivating young pupils had become hidebound and ossified in a way that decreased their powers and made them vulnerable to a sneak attack or “phantom menace” from the Dark Side?

This is all speculation, of course.  I don’t know whether any such thing was in Lucas’s mind when Episodes I-VI were made, much less in the current screenwriters’ minds now.  But these considerations do suggest that it’s not enough just to restore or return the Republic’s Jedi order.  A renascence or renovation of the Light Side organization may be needed as well.

A Post-Jedi Order?

We now know that you don’t have to be a Sith Lord like Vader or Palpatine to serve the Dark Side.  We’ve also got Kylo’s Knights of Ren, and Snoke, whatever he is.  Maybe it’s also possible to serve the Light Side without being a Jedi Knight.

Based on the above thoughts about Jedi training, I’ve always rather hoped that Luke would rethink the historical Jedi practices (which he hardly knows, anyway) and develop a more humane, more balanced cadre.  We now know that he tried to train a new group between Episode VI and VII, but from the movies, at least, we don’t know how he went about it.  (I haven’t yet read any of the new-continuity novels.)

We do know that Luke’s new Jedi academy was a failure:  it produced Kylo Ren and collapsed after his turn to the Dark Side.  Perhaps now, after years of meditating on his mistakes, Luke may be ready to try something different.  It could be that the new knights of the light won’t be Jedi at all, but a new kind of Force for good.  To my mind, that would be a really interesting development.

 

These idiosyncratic guesses have a pretty low probability of panning out, to be sure.  The subtleties of training programs might not appeal to the Star Wars audience as a key plot device.  But they’re fun to think about.

The real entertainment value of SWAGs like these is to see how far off they were when the movie actually comes out.  We’ll see in December what “The Last Jedi” really means—and probably have a good laugh about this post.

 

Follow-up Notes

4/14/2017:  Here’s the latest trailer.
4/18/2017:  Zak Wojnar at ScreenRant has a good commentary today making some of the same points.

Offshoots

In the last ten days I’ve seen two new movies spun off from existing fictional universes, but not part of the main story line.  Their success bodes well for the willingness of audiences to welcome independent stories in a common setting—offshoots from the main trunk, you might say.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts posterI found “Fantastic Beasts” unexpectedly enjoyable and rather touching—possibly because I came to it with low expectations.  It is, of course, set in the same world as Harry Potter, but focuses on different characters in a different time period (the 1920s).

The Potterverse, to my mind, is not all that compelling in itself.  The HP novels and movies are enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of the events and characters.  There are too many oddities in the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter stories to make that milieu a preferred destination, to my mind.  (Why does the entire wizard culture revolve around a prep school, and do wizards have no purpose other than to protect their own secrecy?).  So “Fantastic Beasts” didn’t exercise a strong appeal just because it was set in the Potterverse.

But I really liked the characters in this one.  For one thing, they were grown-ups, with adult concerns.  There’s nothing wrong with young adult stories, but after a while one yearns for adult companionship.

In particular, the likable Muggle Jacob Kowalski steals the show.  (The HP books are sadly lacking in sympathetic Muggle characters.)  And I was pleased that Queenie, who first appears to be a traditional dizzy blonde, turns out to be loving and sympathetic and competent.  Both the romances in the story were as pleasing as they were unexpected.

Rogue One

Rogue One posterThe newest Star Wars film is not only set in that same galaxy far, far away, but also tied in very closely with the plot of the original Episode IV, “A New Hope.”  Nonetheless, it’s characterized as a “standalone” Star Wars movie.  The characters are almost entirely new (though some familiar faces appear in cameos), and the plot is distinct from that of “A New Hope” right up to the point at which they tie together.

The movie is good, though I’m not quite sure of its long-term pulling power.  I found the character chemistry a bit more uneven than in the iconic original.  One doesn’t become quite as invested in these new characters, for a variety of reasons.  They have dramatic backstories, but for some reason those backstories didn’t seem to emerge on the screen quite as compellingly.  The plot zigs and zags extensively before it straightens out into the crucial track where it needs to connect with Episode IV – at which point it does become pretty gripping.  (Since the movie has only been out for a few days, I’m striving valiantly to avoid spoilers, which is why my observations are intentionally vague.)

The Reception

Both films seem to be doing well at the box office, and with viewers.  “Fantastic Beasts” has had a successful few weeks, and “Rogue One” had a boffo opening this weekend, as reported in the New York Times and Variety.  The Star Wars picture is getting highly favorable audience reviews—currently 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

TV Tropes refers to this kind of independent offshoot with the term “Metaplot”—multiple independent works coexisting in the created universe other than sequels or prequels, while there is still an overall story arc that affects the plots of those separate stories.  The phenomenon is common in written works, including those science fiction “future histories” with works separated by long distances in time or space.  It’s becoming more common in the movies too.  For example, Erich Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15) mentions the parallels in the Marvel Cineverse.

Conclusions

Dragonflight cover artIf we like the “look and feel” of a given universe, we may be glad to revisit that locale, even in the absence of familiar characters and storylines.  For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern has flourished through innumerable sequels, prequels, side stories, and odd departures of all sorts (Dolphins of Pern, Renegades of Pern, The Masterharper of Pern . . .).  People like to spend time on Pern.

Still, this attachment to a location or milieu only takes us so far.  When the original Pern plotline was concluded, and the new batches of characters were not quite as engaging as the first four, I confess that I gradually lost interest.  A well-loved setting can draw a viewer or reader in—but it still takes compelling characters and plots to please the audience in the long run.

That’s the primary lesson I’d take from the success of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Rogue One” so far.  Viewers and readers today seem to be more willing than in the past to invest in expanding universes as well as long story arcs—contrary to what one might call the “ADHD hypothesis” that no one today has an attention span longer than 140 characters.  This is good news for writers who are into worldbuilding.  But building a world people want to visit isn’t enough by itself.  We still need to tell a good story—no matter where it may be set.