Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: The Last Command, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam Books, 1993, pp. 407.

As the third and final volume of Zahn's Thrawn trilogy opens, Thrawn's using the Katana Fleet to throw the New Republic on the defensive--while his power struggle with Joruus C'boath continues to escalate.

It is a promising beginning.

Still, the book does not quite succeed in bringing its various threads together. Granted, the course of events is logical enough, even providing a payoff to the Noghri subplot that comprised so much of the prior two books. However, the Imperial raid shutting down traffic in and out of Coruscant, and Talon Karrde's intrigues, do not add very much to the interest of the whole, and feel as if they could have been cut out of the story with only minimal modification.

More problematically, the climax--which has Han and company tramping through the forest on the way to a potentially war-deciding special forces action against a key Imperial facility, and Luke in a light saber duel before an Imperial throne against an enemy in whom he has seen himself--suffers by comparison with the Battle of Endor it so strongly evokes. Part of the problem is the diffuseness of this section of the story, Admiral Ackbar again leading a fleet into action, but doing so very far away from the Battle for Mount Tantiss, in what is frankly a separate action. This separation extends to Thrawn's denouement which, while appropriate in certain of its essentials, lacks dramatic flair and ends up feeling nearly incidental.

In the end the events of the trilogy appear to have been just a mopping-up operation that had some hairy moments after all--and Thrawn a footnote to Galactic history. The result is that the book does not pack quite the punch that might have been hoped for, and even seems a letdown in light of the series' earlier promise, but still manages to entertain, while setting the stage for later adventures.

While We're On the Subject . . . (More on Jodorowsky's Dune)

Also well worth checking out: Terence Blake's post at Xenoswarm on the same documentary from last year. In his post Blake discusses the extraordinary ambition and passion that Alejandro Jodorwosky displayed for his visionary attempt to film Dune, which is what makes the documentary as compelling as it is.

It is standard for artists to talk about their devotion to their work--and often they merely seem blandly pious in doing so, and we take it as just that, bland piety of the type that is simply grist to the PR mill. When Jodorowsky speaks about the same issue in the documentary--when he declares that he was ready to die for his vision, when he recounts his approach to Pink Floyd (who were to make much of the music for the film) and his insistence to them of the world-historic importance of his project--one takes him much more seriously than that. One believes that he believes, and doubtless it is a reason why so many uncritically accept the claims for the project as not just a missed opportunity, but a missed turning point in the history of cinema--and even as one unconvinced of these claims, I find myself regretting that the kind of ambition and passion he displayed is such a rarity.

Jodorowsky's Unrealized Dune: A Critical View

After recently seeing the 2013 documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans for a film version of Dune back in the 1970s, I decided to check out the commentary online.

As it happened, the consensus view (corresponding to those interviewed within the documentary) seemed to be a wish that it had been made and they could have seen it--and that it would have been a triumph which would have put science fiction filmmaking on a different course.

Granted, particular ideas were dazzling. (The opening long take Jodorowsky described would have been epic.) However, given the degree to which it deviated from the letter and spirit of the original novel (indeed, Jodorowsky's predictable disinterest and even inversion of its themes), it would not have been a definitive version of Herbert's books--or even a really satisfactory one.

More importantly, the chances of its having been a successful film, even on an artistic level, strike me as having been vanishingly small. I will admit that my attitude toward the Modernist/postmodernist aesthetic, and still more, its underlying assumptions grow increasingly dim.1 (Increasingly I feel as if a very large part of our artistic and cultural life has been in a cul-de-sac for a hundred years.) But all the same, I will say that even dazzling bits do not make a successful whole. And taken altogether the movie could easily have been unwatchable. Consider how David Lynch's 1984 version has been received, despite its dose of weirdness being far, far milder than Jodorowsky's not just much longer, but astronomically more surreal, gruesome, garish conception. (The idea of a freakishly made-up Orson Welles overseeing and completing the graphic dismembering and beheading of David Carradine just about says it all in this regard.)

Perhaps the best and worst that could have been hoped for it would have been its becoming a cult film, a curiosity--which is a very different thing from its replacing Star Wars as the defining science fiction film success of the period. Indeed, it may have wound up more influential in not getting made--in that bits and pieces were taken from it and utilized in other, more plausible work (most famously, the H.R. Giger drawings that became the foundation for the Alien franchise).

1. Shameless plug time: because much of the history of science fiction makes little sense unless one gets all this (and frankly, even the professional critics tend not to), I discuss these matters at some length in Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry. Why not go and check it out?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ready to Go Boldly, Part II

Recently I suggested that the most valuable thing a new Trek series could offer would be a rational, humanistic, progressive vision of the future. Of course, we all know the knee-jerk response to such calls. That this is "dated." Of course, people just say that, never really explaining it, but what they seem to mean is that the only respectable view of the world holds it to be "more mysterious than intelligible . . . more evil than good" as John Crowe Ransom put it, and that the only proper thing to do is wallow in the dark-and-gritty dark-and-grittiness of it.

This hardly seems an unquestionable position to me. Indeed, spelled out in this way it seems to me an extremely dubious one, passing off a snob's irony, a thug's callousness, a bigot's prejudices as wisdom ("Welcome to the real world!") by wrapping them up in the obscurantism that the gullible take for profundity.

And it all seems to me the very opposite of what anything bearing the Trek label ought to stand for. Consider those things that did make James Whitbrook's wish list for things a new Trek would offer, among them an interest in ideas. An exploration of ideas cannot amount to very much without reason, or the expectation that knowledge means something, such as this view denies.

Indeed, the sterility of the simultaneously pompous and dark "conventional wisdom" is all too clearly demonstrated by that show which in so many minds seemed to supplant Trek as the template for small screen space opera. In the middle of a fit of not particularly imaginative Trek-bashing, another author at the same site where Whitbrook wrote remarked that, in contrast with figures like Data or Seven of Nine offering an outsider's view of humanity, they preferred BattleStar Galactica's "Cylons, who school us about humanity by screwing and killing us."

The truth is that Galactica actually offered nothing in the way of "schooling us," just dumb soap opera and dumber head games. Indeed, in the show's consistent subscription to that view of an unintelligible, evil universe, it slammed the door hard on the possibility of insight into humanity, or anything else.

But just as people don't stop and think of what they mean when they say the Trek vision is "dated," they didn't ask just where Galactica was going with everything, and then after getting burned when it became perfectly clear that it was going absolutely nowhere, failed to learn the lesson.

Fortunately, that's not the final word on the matter.

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