Friday, July 14, 2017

Galaxy's Edge: Galactic Outlaws

I don't post a lot of book reviews here anymore, but here's one, because I can't help it.  I just finished reading Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Galaxy's Edge: Galactic Outlaws, the second book in the Galaxy's Edge series. Legionnaire was the first, and Kill Team promises to be the third.  It was just released yesterday and I had it on pre-order.  It was delivered to my Kindle first thing in the morning when I logged on.  Needless to say, I read it pretty quickly.

First off; I'm intrigued by their business model.  Follow the link above to see how it works; it's kind of a Kickstarter-like proposal although they manage the business end themselves rather than through something like Kickstarter. You pay a monthly fee and get content each month of various kinds—but although I'm intrigued, I'm also cheap and wary of new ideas, so I just bought the books the "old fashioned" ebook way—on Amazon.  But because this series is so good so far, I might overcome my inherent cheapness and just buy a membership in their club.  There's a lot of stuff that you get with some of those memberships besides advanced copies of chapters of the next book as it develops: concept art, podcasts, webinars, signed hard-copies, personalized contacts from the authors, etc.

Which isn't necessarily unwarranted.  The Partner level subscription will run you $120 a year, which even for a few great books, is a fair bit of money, but to all appearances, they make sure to provide plenty of value to justify that.

In the meantime, for $2.99 (twice) you can get the two books that are out as Kindle files from Amazon.  The first book is a kind of "prologue"—it's a great space war story, that feels a bit like the Michael Caine movie Zulu set in space.  In retrospect, it appears to have been merely setting the stage for what is to come in the series proper, which starts with this book.  It's still early on, and it ends with things just getting started, in some ways, but at the same time, it's a very satisfying story, and lives up to the promise that the authors' provided when this whole project first came to my attention: it's #StarWarsNotStarWars.  To quote from the blurb for the book itself: It's sleek starfighters, exotic aliens, loyal bots, blasters, scoundrels, heroes and powerful enemies in a thrilling adventure that will take you back to that magic place a from a long time ago…

It's Star Wars as the franchise was.  As it should have been.  It makes no bones about being pastiche, just as George Lucas really made no bones about Star Wars being pastiche (read some of the posts I've made on the subject, particularly here, here, here, here, and here—in that order) of a number of things, most especially Flash Gordon plus Dune plus the Lensmen series.

Anyhoo—while the first book reads like space Zulu, this story, which is really two plots involving two groups of characters who combine near the end, is very reminiscent of space True Grit.  Considering the degree to which Westerns contributed themes and character beats to the oldest Star Wars movies, this shouldn't be a surprising twist.  The setting feels an awful lot like Star Wars (except some internal character monologues give it a slightly darker feel sometimes), and there are a few interesting call-backs to the first book, which is less like a sequel and more like a spin-off, if the whole series were a spin-off of the prologue.

Minor spoilers in this next paragraph, although they're telegraphed pretty early and transparently, so not really—one character that we're introduced to early on is quite obviously effectively immortal or at least very long-lived—space Wolverine from the X-Men, if you will.  One character that is hinted at for the entire book turns out to be the first (and maybe only, although where's the fun in that?) ersatz Sith Lord, and while there is no tradition of ersatz Jedi that we are shown, there is a character (and maybe even more than one) who may yet end up playing the role of Obi-wan Kenobi. At least they're set up so that they could, and they hint at it.

It's amusing and entertaining to see the chemistry established as the group of what reads like the space opera version of "the D&D party" starts to come together—the hot-shot gunslinger who's kind of the lead protagonist and reads like Boba Fett's capabilities with Han Solo's personality, and a bit of a Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy going on.  The young "Mattie" from True Grit who is his de facto ward and student, kinda, and her side-kick, the C-3PO analog who's build on an old war bot chassis and can still access its old programming and armament, making him a much more interesting C-3PO than C-3PO himself ever was.  The talented ship's mechanic, who—although I'm not really very familiar with this franchise, I know enough to recognize this one—is very similar in many respects to Kaylee from Firefly.  The nerdy, young hacker who can create mechanical and electronic deus ex machina effects to keep the plot moving as needed. A human R2-D2 if you will. The ChewbaccaNotChewbacca co-pilot who's very Kzin-like in many ways, but who is still obviously Chewbacca anyway.

It's also amusing and entertaining to count (and I noted quite a few already) clear correspondences with the Star Wars setting—where Star Wars has the Clone Wars, mentioned briefly for a bit of color in the first movie, here we have the Savage Wars, which play a similar function.  While in Star Wars, we had only brief exposure in the very early 80s to the concept of the Mandalorean "supercommandos", the early legionnaires play a similar role; watered down current legionnaires feel more like stormtroopers.  Brief mention is made of what sound an awful lot like the ruins of Death Stars from the past, although the super-weapon referred to briefly here is equally grim.

If you see the Republic as an analog to the US today, which wouldn't necessarily be unfair (although not necessarily deliberate) then its fall from what it once was to what it is now is less iconic than the overthrow of the Republic and establishment of the Empire we're shown in Star Wars. And yet, it's also more tragic and more true to life; the degeneracy of a once powerful state consumed by a political class of parasites that hollows it out and guts it from the inside is all too familiar.

In many ways, this feels an awful lot as if they'd done their research by not just watching the very earliest Star Wars movie, and a bit of Empire, and then "fixing" where Star Wars started going wrong by creating a pastiche that doesn't, but rather, it's as if they were steeped in the early drafts of the first two movies and borrowed as much from them as from the screenplays as they actually turned out.  I doubt that they actually did, but if they had, the result would be eerily similar.  This is the grand vision of what Star Wars tried to be, and ultimately ended up not being able to sustain.  I've said many times before (read my links above) that the Star Wars of the late 70s and even early 80s is very different than the franchise as it evolved.  Although in many respects, Empire was an even better movie than Star Wars was, in some ways, it set the stage for things to go wrong, and Return of the Jedi coasted by on momentum, with many things already starting to go wrong.  (And obviously, the franchise went really off the rails after that, in spite of flashes of brilliance here and there in some of the video games, some of the episodes of shows like The Clone Wars and the possibility that we'll actually still get a really good new movie out of the franchise yet.  Maybe.)  And it's hard to see what Star Wars once used to be without squinting really hard and deliberately ignoring stuff that we've been steeped in for decades now.  But if you could somehow do that, Galaxy's Edge is in many ways, exactly what I'd expect it to look like.  What I said back in March about my own modest efforts, who's end result is still mostly TBD, is absolutely and completely true for Galaxy's Edge, so I'll repeat it:
It's new, yet should feel very familiar to anyone who's familiar with space opera tales of swashbuckling derring-do featuring laconic alpha male space cowboys who shoot first, space Templar-like warrior-monks who get into crazy martial arts sword-fights on space-ships, vast legions of faceless soldiers, and sassy space princess damsels in distress.  It may not feel exactly like such stories that you're already familiar with—and that's on purpose—but it should feel like those stories deconstructed... and then reconstructed all over again.  This time, all of the confusion over good and evil, black and white, what heroism is, who the good guys are, what a good guy is, what the dickens SJW dogma and political correctness has to do with space opera at all, etc. has all been washed away and what had become tired and disappointing is now a blank slate, ready to be made new, fresh and exciting again.
Ladies and gentlemen; that's Galaxy's Edge.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reading...

I've spent some considerable time lately out of town, and am about to do so again, so this may be the only blog post I'm able to sneak in for another ten days or so.

One advantage of traveling is that I get to read a bit more than normal.  This time, I mostly did so on my phone.  I've finished several books—and I can't remember for sure which ones I finished right before I left, and which ones I finished more recently.  Looking back at my latest Kindle post, I see that I didn't actually read the ones that are highlighted in green.  I'll probably update that one and keep it as a kind of constantly updating archive, or something.  Let's do a quick round-up, shall we?
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.  I'm pretty sure that I finished this before leaving, actually, but I hadn't mentioned it here.  It's a true classic.  In at least some ways, the Robert Taylor, Joan Fontaine, and Elizabeth Taylor movie from 1952 loosely based on this novel is more exciting, but in others, of course, it can't compare.  If you haven't read it, you should.  It may try your patience, and will certainly increase your vocabulary.  It's amusing sometimes to read older novels and remark on the pacing and the prose style, which is verbose and sometimes so baroque that it feels rococo.  
  • Galaxy of Heroes by Gus Flory.  This imagines a space opera setting in which humans are kind of at the bottom of the totem pole and always getting chased from one place to another, in danger of imminent extinction.  Kind of how the Jews imagine their history to be, maybe.  It took a while to grow on me, but I ended up being satisfied with the book in the end.  It felt like the whole novel was set-up for a series of sequels, though—in some ways, it doesn't stand on its own as well as it should.
  • Albion Lost: The Exiled Fleet by Richard Fox.  This took a while to grow on me too, partly because it bounced around between too many characters, who only near the end of the book finally started to warm up to the audience.  And then, the whole thing was clearly a prologue to a series—which doesn't exist yet (although I think at least the immediate sequel just came out recently.)  It was intriguing, but clearly can't be seen as anything other than part of a whole which has yet to materialize.  As with Galaxy of Heroes, I found I was further into the novel before it really grabbed me than I'd have liked.  If I wasn't traveling, I might have ditched it and read something else at about the 25-30% mark, but I persisted, and as with Galaxy of Heroes, in the end, I'm glad that I did, and I'm intrigued enough by this prologue to think that actually seeing what the series proper looks like now that it's primed to get moving, wouldn't be such a bad idea.
  • Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach.  Fabulous novel.  Absolutely wonderful.  Can't wait for the follow-up, which is due out tomorrow (I've already got it pre-ordered.)  Although this is the first of the #StarWarsNotStarWars series, i.e. an ersatz Star Wars not unlike my own AD ASTRA at least in gross conception, I should point out that this initial offering is fairly different than classic Star Wars.  It's military fiction with truly elite troops, and the "Empire" (the Republic, as it's called here) is not so much evil in the mustache-twirling, Nazi-uniform wearing Star Wars style as they are incompetent, bureaucratic, and careless with the lives of its citizens and others alike in a all-too realistically cold manner.  In other words, they're much more realistic and frightening—yet ironically a bit less iconic.  That said, it misses almost all of the Star Wars beats—it's pretty much a straight up war story with a plot borrowed from Michael Caine's Zulu at a high level.  And the epilogue seems to suggest that it too was prologue-like in nature (three for three with space opera books I've read recently) and somewhat atypical (for Star Wars) approach was setting the stage for one of the characters to emerge as a more cynical bounty hunter type character in the future—as if there were a Boba Fett with a Heart of Gold variant or something.  We'll see how it develops, but faulting the story for not being as Star Wars-like as I anticipated when it's still uniformly excellent seems a bit unfair somehow.
  • Enemy of Man by Scott Moon.  I really wanted to like this, as Scott Moon seems like a nice guy, but I admit that I've been kinda struggling with it.  I'm not really liking the protagonist character very much, because he seems like one of those "buffeted about by stronger personalities" types of characters rather than someone who takes charge.  I'm not giving this up, but I am not finishing it until after I read the next Galaxy's Edge book, so it's on the back burner for now.