Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Review: Shatterpoint

I occasionally mention my love for audio books. Sometimes I get on a Star Wars kick. For my most recent one, I listened to NPR's audio plays of the trilogy, and then followed them up with the novelizations of the prequels.

Phantom Menace was meh. I never finished that one. I had it on my MP3 player, then I felt like music for the afternoon, couldn't remember what track I was on when I wanted to return to the book, decided it wasn't worth the effort to figure it out, so I just went to the next one.

Attack of the Clones was awful. The movie was pretty crappy, but I was hoping they could clean up some of the silliness from the film.  Specifically, this.  It took ten years for the Kaminoans to grow an army of one million clones. A million might sound like a lot, but it fails to take into account the size of a galactic civilization For some perspective, China, one nation on one planet in the real world, has over seven million people in its army.

Okay, movie rant over. Book rant commencing.  RA Salvatore did the adaptation-

No, let's call things by their proper names. Adaptation implies that the RA looked at the source material then reworked it for its new format. The word I'm going to use is transcription, because he looked at what was happening on the screen and described it in the most quotidian prose imaginable. Ugh. And you'd think he'd manage to avoid making it any worse, since he's not really adding anything. But you'd be wrong. He has some kind of mutant power to find a word that is ostensibly a synonym, but conveys the exact wrong impression. For example, I'd imagine that Yoda has quarters on the Jedi Temple in Corusant. He's a big shot on the Council, he spends a lot of time there, so he almost certainly has a place to stay. I would never in a million years describe it as an apartment, because that makes me think that Yoda comes back to it at the end of a long day of instructing younglings, kicks off his shoes, loosens his belt, pops open a brewski and turns on an episode of Friends. Then he looks at the calendar on the wall and sighs, because it's almost the first of the month and he has to get the rent check to the landlord.

Like Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Salvatore also uses "Rocketman" to describe Jango Fett. I mean, Jesus Christ. Can anyone read that and not think of Elton John? Also, he uses diminutive three times in the same paragraph to describe Yoda. And yeah, sure he's small. But surely you own a thesaurus, RA. Why don't you put it to use? And one final gripe. His portrayal of Princess Armadillo. One thing that was actually unintentionally amusing was that he gave her a couple lines like "Those lovable sprites", and since the audio book is read in Jonathan Davies's deep voice, it winds up sounding like that Geico commercial with Peter Graves. The other thing is that he piles on the superlatives every time she's mentioned. She is the smartest, most beautiful human being that ever lived. But when he actually shows her doing something, she comes across as a slightly dim, temperamental teenager.

After all this, I went into the third book with low expectations. However, Revenge of the Sith, as adapted by Mathew Stover is pretty awesome. The first part was largely from the point of view of Count Dooku, which allowed the author to simultaneously gloss over and express disgust at the stupid slapstick antics of the opening sequence. But he also took pains to show the brotherly camaraderie between Obi Wan and Annakin, something you never really saw on the film version. In fact, that lack of camaraderie is what really drives the final nail into the coffin of the series. There is no pathos when Obi Wan has to kill Annakin, because they were never shown to be very close. Instead of two men closer than brothers, they're just these two dudes who work together.

 It is head and shoulders above any Star Wars book I’ve ever read. Previously, I had thought the Timothy Zahn stuff to be the gold standard for the franchise, (to the extent that the stuff introduced in those books (the planet Coruscant, for instance) was later incorporated into canon), but this is even better. It's not just a good Star Wars book or a good sci-fi book. It's a good book, full stop.

The element that I liked the most was that they set up Anakin (and, holy cow, my spell checker recognizes “Anakin”) as “The Hero with No Fear”. The reason that the Jedi Council had given for not accepting Anakin for training was that they sensed too much fear in him. And he was what, a ten-year-old kid, separated from his mom and everything he had ever known? Is that really an unreasonable thing for him to feel? It just made the Jedi Council seem like a bunch of douchebags.

Throughout the book, the author had several sections highlighting individual characters using different techniques, ranging from the first person sympathetic to something I’d never seen out of a Choose Your Own Adventure books, a second person point of view (e.g. “You are Anakin Skywalker. This is how it feels to be the Hero with No Fear…”).

They use that phrase repeatedly throughout the book, to highlight the fact that even though he is a great hero, deep down, he never stopped being afraid. To the universe, he is the fabled hero with no fear, but in the small hours of the day, he's a little boy with a dragon in his heart that whispers to him that everything dies. Eventually, he is eaten alive by that fear and with full knowledge of what he is doing, he embraces the Dark Side because he’s too scared to face it. He accepts his new identity, saying “I am Darth Vader,” and crushes the whispering dragon in his heart. He turns his back on every emotion that made him human, and the chapter concludes with “He had become, finally, what they all called him. The Hero with no Fear.”


It certainly works better than the portrayal in the movie, “I’m going to call you Darth…Vader. Go forth and kill me some younglings.” His fall there was so abrupt that I was imagining the repairman from the one Halloween episode of the Simpsons “Yup, here's your problem. Someone set this thing to ``Evil''

The epilogue is even better. Anakin realizes that there was never any Vader. Vader was just a lie he told himself to make it easier. It was always him. Only Anakin.

It was on the strength of that adaptation that I picked up Shatterpoint, because Stover wrote that too. My biggest complaint was that the audio book was too short. (Only six hours!) I don't like abridged works anyway. Part of Stover's appeal for me is the way he slowly constructs entire worlds. His Wikipedia page claims that one of his influences was Roger Zelazny, and  I certainly see a lot of what I loved about Zelazny in Stover's work.

(I wonder if he could be persuaded to write a piece for Shadows & Reflections. That I'd like to read!)

Shatterpoint was Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a Star Wars novel. I thought I was being pretty clever in picking up on this, but it really couldn't have been more obvious if he had named the ships in the story "Nostromo" and "Sulaco". Aliens shout out!

Moving on, it's a pretty excellent piece, but it was abridged. Audible assured me that "You might be interested to know that publishers do not abridge a book without a great deal of care. In most cases, the abridgement cannot be released without the author's approval of the abridged manuscript. Audible offers unabridged titles whenever we have the opportunity" and like a dummy, I fell for it. But an abridged book just isn't the same. If this is the only format in which it's available, then yeah, I guess I'll take it, but I just don't enjoy it as much.

The story is pretty straightforward. Mace Windu's former padawan Depa Billaba was assigned to a planet where war has waged for generations. The book begins when Mace is presented with evidence of her atrocities and the orders to extract her.

It's a pretty great book. Yeah, it's  Heart of Darkness in spaaaaaacccceeee! but it's more than that, as Stover carefully adapted and updated the themes of the original for what would work in the Star Wars milieu. It wouldn't work without Stover's writing either. He's less poetic than Zelazny in his descriptions, but more precise in a way that I really can't define to my satisfaction. But since both poetry and precision were present in Zelazny's work, I do find his writing enjoyable in the same way, as these differences a matter of degree more than of kind and that is high praise indeed for Stover.

Nor are his concepts lacking. Stover is, I think the best kind of author for a Star Wars books. He comes up with daring ideas that somehow always fit seamlessly in to the Star Wars universe as a whole. They're new, but they belong. He pushes the boundaries of the world and expands them, and leaves the setting richer than he found it.

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