Tag Archives: sci-fi

Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse- Hugo Award Reads

Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse, Review - Hugo Awards 2019Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first of a new series called The Sixth World (Amazon) and listed as a Best Novel nominee on the Hugo Award ballot in 2019.

I was so excited to read this book; I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s short fiction thanks to nominations in previous Hugo years, and I am drinking in stories from such a delicious variety of authors, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

However, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped.

The positives

Roanhorse sets this not-urban fantasy in a near future Southwest US Navajo reservation, a sliver of the 1/3 of North America that survived a catastrophic climate event which flooded much of the US and created vast upheaval.  She doesn’t take time to detail the disaster much; I appreciated not having to wade through a political or science treatise to get to the story. (I say that as someone who’s deeply concerned about the rate of climate change and the US’s stubborn refusal to confront it.)

I liked the setting and the general premise, that Maggie (main character) is a Navajo and also a monster hunter. In the fiction, the disaster has somehow awakened the old gods and some Navajo experience “clan powers” — their maternal and paternal heritage links them to powerful spirits? magic? demons? and thus they experience greatly enhanced abilities in crisis moments.  Kind of superpowers.

Maggie’s “powers” are speed and a bloodlust that lets her kill non-human monsters (and monstrous humans, if necessary) with relative ease. As a fan of the Witcher novels and games, I was ALL IN on this premise.

The atmosphere is …solid….but not so well developed that I can rave about it.  Roanhorse uses Navajo words and cultural elements to enhance the setting, and honestly I think the setting may be the strongest element of this novel.

I should highlight a great scene about 3/4 through; I won’t spoil it, but you get to see — really see — some of the magical/fantasy elements present among the Dine’e (Navajo) people, and I loved her descriptions in that chapter. I felt like Roanhorse’s writing hit its peak at that point; very little in the book otherwise comes close.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Coyote the Trickster in the story. Anyone who’s read indigenous folktales will recognize Coyote. Roanhorse uses the stock character from the tales as the basis for a genuinely interesting character who delighted me whenever he appeared.

The weaknesses

The story follows a basic mystery structure, introducing us to a few key characters and a former mentor/lover. (No spoilers; you learn that in the first chapter.)  I can’t really say this book has much “meat.”  There are some good fights, and they’re written clearly — you can follow what happens. That’s a decent baseline.  I wanted more.

Likewise, the characters are laid in with general strokes – a “strong bad-ass heroine with a dark past”; “a handsome yet mysterious partner who joins her”;  “the mentor who was also a lover but it’s complicated”; “the caring father-figure.”  And so on.  Flip through any TTRPG character creation guide, choose the urban fantasy setting, spin the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest flaw to me is that Roanhorse leans on two tired tropes. First, we have an emotionally stunted “loner” heroine thanks to past trauma. I don’t mean to downplay the traumatic impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, but violence against women is too easy of a crutch for an inexperienced writer to lean on, in place of creating a fully rounded character who makes deep and meaningful choices. I feel that Maggie is lacking here, and I hope Roanhorse gives her a better future in the next book(s). Also, her trauma isn’t linked to imperialism; it’s a tragic backstory and violent act of crime that reminds me of the boilerplate way comic books tend to substitute “gee that’s horrible!” for a genuine backstory.  I’m not asking for Roanhorse to write a book that confronts American imperialism, but … I mean…. can her story do its best work by ignoring this almost completely?

Second, the entire book is written in the present progressive. I try really hard not to be a prescriptivist grammarian, but I had to grit my teeth at this. True, the present progressive lends a sense of immediacy to the action, but this is — to me —  nearly always a gimmick to create energy in weak prose, unless it’s wielded by a genuine master craftsman. (Even then, I’m still not sure I can get on board with long fiction written in present progressive.) I desperately wanted Roanhorse to work with a better editor.

I do need to critique my assumptions regarding the grammar; for example, the folktales in Native American culture as I’ve encountered them use a simplistic story structure and vocabulary. That doesn’t make them simplistic stories or less valuable than wordy modernist novels. I guess the problem here is that I can’t tell if this book is weakly written or if it’s following stylistic choices rooted in an unfamiliar culture.  Given no clear evidence of a cultural underpinning, I see it as inexperienced writing.

I noticed that many Goodreads reviewers assumed this book is YA rather than new fiction/ new adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against YA, but most of what’s on the shelves won’t win awards for writing or deep themes and plot. Despite the descriptions of violence, this book probably fares better when compared to YA rather than the typical Hugo nominee.

*****

I did enjoy the book overall. It’s not a bad book. I’m glad to see new voices and perspectives flagged for attention in the sci-fi universe.

That said, Trail of Lightning is a very weak Hugo nominee. Not as weak as what the “Rabid Puppies” got onto the Hugo ballot in 2013-15 (hoo boy, there was some shitty writing there), but still – weak. I want to see Roanhorse succeed, and I hope this series improves as it goes, because this world deserves to be explored.

And I kind of wish a different indigenous author had been the first to land a Hugo nomination, because the first person past the post may be the only author from an underrepresented group that the average reader will ever encounter.  Roanhorse’s work does provide a perspective rarely seen in sci-fi/fantasy, and for that I am grateful.

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

Review: 2.5/5

Recommended for those who like urban fantasy or are craving a Native American viewpoint for their dystopian future. Content warning for sexual violence and violent crime.

Hugo ballot position: bottom

Review: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal – Hugo Award reads

Calculating Stars, Kowal-Reviews / Hugo Awards The Calculating Stars (Amazon)

I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category.  That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier.  You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.

SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE:  To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.

OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.

So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.

The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard.  The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much).  Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s.  Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.

This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).

That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure.  The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me.  But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?

Elma  discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around.  Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.

I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.

I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.

Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).

Rating: 3.5/5  – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.

Buy a copy: Kindle | Print

Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.

Hugo Ballot: Middle

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

Review-Record Spaceborn Few-Chambers-Hugo Awards 2019Record of a Spaceborn Few (Amazon), by Becky Chambers, is the first book I picked up this spring when the 2019 Hugo Award nominations were announced. Having read and enjoyed her first two – not without flaws, but a very promising start for a new writer — I was excited to dig into book 3 of the Wayfarer series.

Clearly, this book sparks strong reactions. Goodreads reviews fork between 4’s and 2’s. Chambers is quickly growing as an author with the sensitivity to personal and social issues relevant to space opera stories. She’s not LeGuin, but there’s a lot of Ursula in her.

RoSF is a quiet book. It moves smoothly from scene to scene, not quite as smooth and snappy as a Scalzi (he’s almost too snappy, honestly, in recent works, bordering on becoming his own cliche), but flowing from point to point like a backwood stream.

Chambers’s Wayfarers series tells unconnected stories (so far) of various people in the same universe, where Earthers had to leave our planet in generational ships due to the destructive effects of climate change. They were limping along in deep space when an alien race found them and share crucial technologies  (power production, materials, food, etc) and laid the foundation for the Terrans to join the galactic community.

This third entry in the series takes time to explore what earlier books had not — the life of the humans who have elected to live in the orbital community of still-functioning generational ships, rather than leaving to work on transport ships or moving to a planet.

In many ways, the Earth fleet is a backwater small town, and its citizens face many of the same questions as someone from Nowhere, USA:  do I stay? leave? Are there jobs here that I want to do? What will I lose by leaving my community? What would I lose if I stay?

And likewise, there are always at least a few folks moving back, either because they seek their roots, or there’s something about the life on the fleet that appeals to them. The promise of the Earther fleet: we will feed you, house you, clothe you. No one will go hungry, or be left without aid. But in exchange, you will work, you will conserve materials and resources, you will learn to be part of the community.

*****
The novel tells its story by weaving together the journeys of five disparate residents of one Earth fleet ship:  a teen boy trying to decide what he’ll do with his life, a woman whose husband is gone on long-haul mining runs while she raises their two kids alongside their extended family, a 20-something drifter who left his lackluster planet life to find his roots in the generational ships, an ship archivist who cherishes her role preserving culture and making interspecies contact, and a young woman who serves as one of the Collectors of bodies once a person dies – nothing is wasted on a spaceship; human remains are composed and become part of the life cycle of the ship.

I enjoyed Chambers’ quiet revelations of these characters’ lives and decisions. Sometimes books need to be all explosions and action — and there are moments of fast-paced drama in this novel, though not many.

But big setpiece spectacles can leave out the quiet questions that would follow any sentient being into space, until eternity — why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this life?  How do I balance the tensions of family and community obligations against my own ambitions?

Books hit you differently at different times in your life. Perhaps I would have tired of Chambers’s third novel had I read it as a teen, but as a 40-something woman staring hard at the second half of her life, I appreciated Chambers dedication to asking the human questions that persist, regardless of whether we take to the stars or stay here.

The Collectors’ rituals especially interested me. Death is part of life, so how could we make loss more meaningful and purposeful? I loved the image of a “caste” of caretakers who help families navigate grief partly through training and partly by helping return the bodies to the “ground” whence they came, to be composed into the soil for the ship’s gardens.  Rituals reveal what a culture values, and Chambers’s future humans offer us an inspiring template (though not without its flaws).

Some criticize Chambers’s world for being too optimistic, lacking the ugly edges of a real human society.  I prefer to see her as standing in the best of the optimistic sci-fi tradition o Star Trek (for example), holding firm in the belief that we all stand to gain much by seeing examples of humans who have solved some of the worst problems of humanity.

Buy: Kindle / print

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for fans of her earlier books, and those who appreciate the quiet social science of LeGuin (but don’t expect that level of craftsmanship in the writing).

Hugo ranking – I haven’t set my 2019 voting ballot yet, but I will put RoaSF somewhere in the upper half.

A tiny rant re: pronouns

I’m slogging through a book — review will follow soon — that’s using two different systems of gender-neutral pronouns: xe/xir and e/eir depending on the culture of the person in question.

So here’s my tiny rant, to all you sci-fi authors out there:

I applaud your actions that incite progress in accepting a wide variety of humans in our present reality via the way you imagine future or fictional worlds.

However, your readers live in this one, and we currently have no established, familiar, comfortable gender-neutral pronoun set, though they/them works ok in real life.  Generally, if I’m talking about someone I know to someone else who knows them, the pronouns aren’t a big deal. We both know Mickey, and we can talk about Mickey in a text message without breaking syntactic sense: “I’ve asked Mickey to bring their cooler too, in case we need it. They said they’ll be here around 3pm.”  

In a story, it’s different.  In a story, where everyone is made up and nothing can be assumed, the author has to create reality for the reading one word at a time. In that environment, the gender-neutral pronouns are disruptive. Actually, I think they make some books and stories unreadable.

Just to be clear, I’m NOT saying it’s ever ok to misgender individual people in real life.  If  I had a friend who wanted me to use xe/xer as xer pronouns, I would do so without complaint….because it’s a small thing for me to do but large in acknowledging who xe is.  However, the reality of xer’s full existence as a person looms large beyond the pronoun selection. Zer’s face comes to mind when I use zer’s name.

[See how annoying that paragraph is, because you don’t have this person firmly planted in your own mind?  Yeah. Try reading 300 pages of it.] 

Pronouns are the backbone of a language, along with other critical “function words” like prepositions. Central grammatical structures change slowly over time, if they change at all. English has been using I/you/she/they pronouns for what, a thousand years now? We can count on one hand the significant shifts to core grammar: the loss of thou/thee and ye from 2nd person pronouns; the Great Vowel Shift; the elimination of verb endings for individual person/number in the indicative. (We went from “I know, thou knowest, he knows” to “I know, you know, he knows.”)

By the 21st century we’ve lost a lot of clausal complexity, and YA writers are addicted to tagging every single line of dialogue with a “he/she said” marker. (Lazy writing!)  Latin endings are nearly dead…. I cringe when I hear “indexes” and especially “curriculums.” *shudder*  And the subjunctive mood is on its deathbed. Am I the only person who shouts correct grammar at the radio when the singer intones, “I wish she was you?” But those shifts are minor compared to the loss of verb endings or changes to pronoun structure in the early Modern era. Most of the time, our language keeps up with the times by shedding old words, inventing some new syntax (especially among youth), and adding new vocabulary every day.  Not by breaking its spine on purpose to insert a new one.

I sincerely hope that English speakers come up with an agreed set of neutral pronouns, since it seems like we indeed need them.  I don’t know anyone personally who is genderqueer, but I want them to have pronouns available, and I’m happy for all kinds of people to see themselves represented fairly in stories.

But right now, this thing that sci-fi writers are trying to do?  This is too much. 

You can’t shove whole new systems of pronouns at people in a 300 page novel and assume it’s just going to work. I read a story for the Hugo ballot this year that focused on a set of twins. One was clearly female and the other was genderqueer until [he] chose not to be. When they were children, the author referred to individual twins using “they/them”
….except they are TWINS.
For crying out loud.  How the hell am I ever supposed to know whether the author was referring to one twin or the other or both of them?  

If I hadn’t been reading for Hugo voting, I would have stopped immediately.  Linguistic confusion makes poor writing, no matter how noble your cause.

Also, the current slate of popular sci-fi novels are stocked with like 50% non-hetero people and 25% genderqueer people, but …. human reproduction doesn’t work like that! This isn’t how biological evolution tends to progress. Current demographic data is fuzzy, but recent data suggests the entire population of LGBTQ+ individuals is less than 5%.

Look, I get it. Oppression leads to revolt which leads to change — and that is GOOD. I want to see acceptance be the norm in society, so the 5% of non-hetero folks are happy being who they are without fear. And making sure people have stories that reflect who they are.  All of those things are good, and we’re getting a lot more of it in mainline media now, not just fringe.

But this pronoun thing has got to get sorted out, and it’s not going to happen by every frackin’ book published in 2018 using xim, ze, or eir to refer to characters constantly.

I think this current trend (especially in sci-fi/fantasy) reduces these characters to merely their gender identity, often giving us little else to round out the picture.  As a reader, I’m left with an odd mental picture of a person who’s nothing but zir genitalia and sexual preferences and fashion habits. I think that’s reductionist and demeaning to the real humans who exist as genderqueer.

I fully support the inclusion of all kinds of characters into all kinds of stories. It’s just that few fictional universes make sense with majorly disruptive notions of gender identity crammed into the cultural development and world-building because “that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. ”

Ursula LeGuin wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, Left Hand of Darkness (Amazon), about a planet whose people exist within a single gender identity except when they differentiate for mating. I wasn’t annoyed by her prose even once.  Authors can tell incredible, powerful stories without annoying the hell out of their readers by futzing with one of the backbone features of English syntax.

I’m firmly on the side of the SJW’s making life better for all people, but I’m longing for the pronoun fest to calm down so I can get back to reading stories for the reason I pick up books: to be challenged by big ideas and to learn something about humanity.  Not to wander each page in confusion wondering who said what, or stopping every fifth word to process a sentence like “E sent xim a note through eir datapad asking if xe could bring eir’s favorite wine for supper tonight.”

Ugh. *puts book down, walks away*

/rant

 

Hugo Award Reads: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Review)

It’s Hugo Award Season! I love when June rolls around and I get to read books for 2 months with the excuse “I’m reading for the Hugo ballot voting!”  Not that I need an excuse to read books; our house is practically composed of stacks of books. But still…. it’s nice.

I’ve already read three of the nominees for Best Novel earlier in the year, so I’m picking up the other two.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Amazon link)

Robinson is a big name in sci fi but this is the first of his books to land on my reading pile. My husband, who is a voracious reader of sci with increasingly discriminating tastes, doesn’t love Robinson, so he’s not been as much on my radar.  Based on this novel, I will likely give his Mars series a shot.

New York 2140 is a big wandering novel told from multiple points of view (one per chapter, kind of in Game of Thrones Style). The novel introduces multiple themes of interest:  the realistic effects of global warming and climate change, the real effects of putting a coastal city under water, the lopsided wealth distribution, a sense of near-future tech applied to near-future climate problems, an exploration of the battle between political fortitude and the lure of lobbyist money.

It’s also a book about characters, more so than tends to be typical for an “ideas book.”  And this is what sold it for me.

I have head that Robinson is accused of creating “paint by number” characters, as have so many of the “idea guys” in science fiction. What they’re good at is building worlds and asking questions; the people in those stories exist only to carry on the plot and showcase the ideas.  I think Cixin Liu’s series (Three Body Problem, etc) are a good example of an idea guy who can’t really create believable human characters. (Though I have to give Liu a bit of a pass, since I could be missing the Chinese cultural nuances that a native speaker reading his novels in Chinese would see, and we might be losing more in translation than we realize. But the poor characterization ruined Death’s End for me.)

New York 2140 isn’t going to win a Pulitzer for characterization, but the New Yorkers here struck me as legit: with all the can-do and fuck-off attitude that NYC has delivered anytime I’ve been within its borders.  Of all cities on earth to find itself spit in half by a rising ocean, dealing with housing millions of people in a broad intertidal zone that bisects its critical districts, New York would survive.  New York would find a way to thrive. And New York would find a way to make money off that fight for survival.

I don’t want to tell you much about the plot – you can find summaries everywhere, but who wants to ruin a story like that?  Some have complained that the novel took too long to get started. *shrugs* If you enjoy sitting on a bench in Union Square and watching people for two hours, you won’t be bored by the novel’s opening. This book always drew me back for more, and honestly, it was usually to discover whether these people were going to be ok. That’s a good sign for a science fiction novel.

If you’re interested in how New York in particular would stare down a 50-foot rise in the oceans, this is the novel for you.

If you’ve never really thought about how rising sea levels will bring an apocalypse, but then a New Normal, this novel may interest you.

If you sense that our government  isn’t really much of a democracy any more, but we’re run by a rich-old-boys oligarchy, this novel might get you thinking about the natural consequences of that.

If you’d ever wanted to go treasure hunting in New York harbor, this book might intrigue you.

But really, if you enjoy visiting The City and soaking in everything New York has to offer, from brilliant minds to piss-soaked streets, read New York 2140. Just as New Yorkers got about their business after 9/11, they will find a way to get about the business of living once the oceans reclaim the coastline.

Pick up a copy of the book on Amazon.com (affiliate)

*****

Hugo Ballot thoughts:

I’m working to finish Ann Leckie’s Provenance and then I still need to read Six Wakes. What I’ve read of Provenance thus far doesn’t suggest it’s going to be a top contender, so at the moment I’ve got Jemisin’s Stone Sky and Lee’s Raven Stratagem on my short list for Hugo Best Novel.  Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire was a fun read and I’ll pick up the others in that series, but it doesn’t rise above the others IMHO in my balloting.

I don’t think Robinson’s novel rises above either of my top picks at this point. His ideas are solid and it’s a good novel.   But for the Hugo, I look for striking originality or truly novel ideas.  I think Robinson will do a lot to help the general public understand the real effects of climate change, though I hold little hope that anyone is willing to pay the price to reign in our overconsumption and reliance on fossil fuels in order to make life better for people who won’t be born for another 100 years. Robinson’s voice is added to the pile of those saying, “Hey! This is bad, y’all!”

For me, the question is, should Robinson’s novel stay above the “No Award” line?  I believe the answer is a firm Yes.  This is a good read and hopefully an influential one.

Three thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Billions of words will be marshaled in support or condemnation of Star Wars Episode VIII. So of course, I want to add a few of my own. 😉

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

(This was me trying to avoid spoilers last week)

The Last Jedi is a divisive entry – to me, exactly the gut-punch this cultural juggernaut needed to stay relevant, but not all fans agree. At least, not on their first viewing.

My current favorite analysis is this article which details the many ways in which Rian Johnson upended fans’ expectations and franchise icons to deliver a better story. In it, the author details many important turns in Johnson’s script and their importance to breaking viewers’ expectations.  Spoiler warning, of course!  The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars (Slashfilm)

The following three points have stuck with me since seeing the film, along with a general awe for the gorgeous visuals and lovely John Williams score. (Do you think he hears another million $$ hit the bank every time a Star Wars film releases? haha)

Women leading like women would lead

Carrie Fisher is gone, but the film in its final form doesn’t trim her significance to this story. However, it’s not just Princess/General Leia who occupies an important role in SW:TLJ. I uttered an audible gasp at Vice Admiral Holdo’s critical moment in the film. (The on-sreen visuals alone elicited a “whoa.”) Holdo’s leadership style was not at all what Po Dameron wanted from his commander, and in that onscreen relationship, I saw the archetype of so many long-suffering women in positions of power with boys chafing underneath them because they don’t engage in the same brash, risky behavior that drives male leadership.  A good read by Vanity Fair on how The Last Jedi stomps all over “mansplaining”

All over this film we see women collaborating, arguing, debating, nurturing, leading. I relished seeing Rose confront cowardice and greed and betrayal with both her heart and her head. Of course, Rey is a central figure in the entire trilogy, a young women who represents formidable integrity and hope in the face of dark times.

The Resistance army needs brave hot shots like Poe Dameron to score the big hits, but it needs good leaders who make careful decisions more than it needs bravado. But this isn’t an anti-male story — I genuinely believe Po is being set up for a strong finish in the next film, based on the cues we get from his character presentation in the final moments of The Last Jedi.

Good leaders come from both genders. It’s just that most of my female Gen-X peers never got to see women exercise that leadership without having to “play a man” to get it or keep it.  And I’m relishing every strong, capable women I’ve seen on screen in 2017.

last-jedi-tout-2

POV and narrator complexity

Rian Johnson offers us a complex web of stories which unite into a unified second entry for this trilogy.  One singular element of the story is the conflicting versions of why Kylo Ren/Ben Solo destroyed Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training school. Like with so much of our messy human existence, “it’s complicated.”  We’re hard-wired to assume Luke is in the right here, because he’s the hero we know and love. But Johnson’s story forces us to question why the son of Han and Leia would grow up to manifest the worst traits of his grandfather Darth Vader.  We never get the whole picture, but we do begin to see more of Kylo Ren’s internal struggle, portrayed so well by Adam Driver. And this presentation of “what happened” reminds us that history is written by the teller. The facts are malleable, depending how you interpret them, how they’ve been warped by both Luke and Ben’s memories, and by the strong emotional overtones both men bring to their versions of the story.

There’s a parallel technique happening with Finn’s experience of his part in this story. We are all invested in Finn and his growth from being “a bad guy with a conscience and a choice” in The Force Awakens toward someone we assume will be important in the new world of Star Wars. Finn discovers throughout The Last Jedi that he snaps to judgments prematurely and needs to slow down and consider that he might not be seeing everything in play. This instructs us viewers as well not to make hasty assumptions about the folks who inhabit this universe. Will this new trilogy simply give us heroes descended from now-famous families? Or will we again see the rise of “nobodys” to positions of greatness?

It’s smart script writing and I’m pretty sure I’ll notice even more masterful moments when I see the film a second time.

Failure, not success, grows us into better people

Much of the fan hate arises from critique of Luke Skywalker’s part in this tale. Those of us raised on Star Wars would love to take a time machine back to the early 80s when Harrison Ford wasn’t so wrinkly and so damn grouchy, and when Luke/Leia were the hottest characters across the pop culture spectrum (whether toys or graphic novels or Halloween costumes).

Do I want to be reminded that my celluloid heroes are now old or dead? Well, no.  Momento mori isn’t what I expect from a space fantasy. Yet here we are.

And The Last Jedi is so much better because Johnson wrote like a man who has lived in our world, not just in a fantasy land where people can wield light sabers and little fighters and score impossible victories in the face of an overwhelming superior yet evil Empire.

I’ve spent my life in education. Seeing Luke recoil from his own failure as a teacher resonates so much with me. Teaching is the most fulfilling, terrifying job I can conceive of. It’s not the work of it that makes teaching hard. It’s holding in your feeble hands the minds and hearts of people who might grow up to change the world if you can avoid screwing them up or cheating them out of the challenges that will force them to grow.

Fans didn’t ask for a Luke Skywalker who is aware of his insufficiency and his failures and fearful of the consequences of action now that he understands – as an old man – what those outcomes may be. And I, a 40-something woman who yearly gains a better grasp of my own shortcomings as my life flows through middle age toward old-ness, I grab hold of Luke’s story with all of my heart. It catches me even now. I want to drop everything to run out and watch the movie again so I can see Luke the Teacher, Luke the Failure, come to grips with his actions and their interplay with the free choices of Ben Solo that turned him into Kylo Ren.

The greatest teacher, failure is. ~Yoda

Luke is confronted in that significant scene on the island to remember that teachers labor to be surpassed by their pupils. That is the calling we were given, not to exercise control over our students’ choices and lives.

I’m a sentimental sot, but if you’re going to throw teacher wisdom at me in the middle of a blockbuster franchise film, I’m probably going to bawl. So I did.

*  *  *  *  *

I know fans will rage and argue, but I think The Last Jedi is some of the best and most meaningful Star Wars writing we’ve seen in years. I applaud Rian Johnson’s outstanding work on the script, and I am thrilled he’ll be at the helm of a new trilogy in the future, in some other corner of a galaxy far, far away.