Wednesday, September 17, 2014

STAR WARS: A New Dawn book review

“Aren’t you afraid?” Zaluna asked.
“Anyone would be. But the Jedi had a saying about fear. It leads, ultimately, to suffering.” Hera paused. “Someone has to break the chain.”
“People can’t talk about the Jedi anymore.”
“Maybe they should.”

OK, let's talk about the Jedi.

STAR WARS: A New Dawn is the first book published by the Lucasfilm Story Group, the new group formed to oversee the future of Star Wars storytelling across all media. Why is this important to a Star Wars fan? Because for the first time EVER, all Star Wars stories are on equal footing, existing as part of a cohesive plan to tell one grand, unified story in a galaxy far, far away.

Some background on my Star Wars literary history. I gobbled up the Expanded Universe books during my teen years. As soon as I found out there were Star Wars novels that continued the story, I read each and every one. The Courtship of Princess Leia. Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command. The clone Emperor’s Dark Empire, the Jedi Academy trilogy, the training of Han and Leia’s children. I even got to meet Mark Hamill once upon a time and he signed my copy of The Crystal Star. But I grew older, and after the stories told in the prequel films failed to live up to the stories unfolding in my imagination, I grew disinterested. I stopped reading Star Wars. The galaxy that once lit up my mind started to dim, and eventually, I turned out the lights.

Then something amazing happened — an event as unlikely as the Rebel Alliance taking out the first Death Star. Lucasfilm sold to Disney. A sequel trilogy in production. John Williams returning. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO. JJ Abrams directing an incredibly intriguing cast of new actors. A return to practical effects and a script penned by Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The decision made to nullify the stories of the Expanded Universe in order to give JJ and Kasdan free reign to tell the best story.

I fired up my John Williams’ soundtracks. The stars began to brighten. I could see Hoth, Endor. Tatooine, Kessel. The Millennium Falcon. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

When I heard that A New Dawn would be the first book in the new Star Wars canon, I resolved to read it. And page by page, I became more and more excited — not just by the unspooling of an entertaining story that felt like classic Star Wars, but by the dawning realization that Lucasfilm and Disney have a HUGE vision for where Star Wars is going to go. They’re planning to bring the fun back to Star Wars, and they are almost definitely attempting to revive the meaning of Star Wars in a way audiences haven’t experienced since the original movies. They feel confident, like the Force is with them. After finishing this book, I agree. The Force is on its way back. A New Dawn represents the first step into a new and exciting future filled with possibility.

So what’s the story? Here’s the prologue:

For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights brought peace and order to the Galactic Republic, aided by their connection to the mystical energy field known as the Force. But they were betrayed — and the whole galaxy has paid the price. It is the Age of the Empire.

Now Emperor Palpatine, once chancellor of the Republic and secretly a Sith follower of the dark side of the Force, has brought his own peace and order to the galaxy. Peace, through brutal repression — and order, through increasing control of his subjects’ lives.

But even as the Emperor tightens his iron grip, others have begun to question his means and motives. And still others, whose lives were destroyed by Palpatine’s machinations, lay scattered about the galaxy like unexploded bombs, waiting to go off...

A New Dawn is a direct prequel to Star Wars: Rebels, the new animated TV show (premieres October 3!) that explores the founding of the Rebellion against the Empire. It takes place between Episode III and IV, during THE DARK TIMES. And it truly is cool to return to that time period, just before A NEW HOPE, where the Ralph McQuarrie inspired aesthetic of TIE fighters, Star Destroyers and stormtroopers dominates the setting. Where Jedi and lightsabers aren’t everywhere you look — they’re being hunted, on the run, in hiding. Where the ignition of a lightsaber blade isn’t a first move, it’s a last resort. Because nobody’s allowed to talk about the Jedi…

The two main characters are going to be our leads in Star Wars: Rebels, and they are legitimately complex and entertaining. Kanan Jarrus is a ‘cowboy Jedi’ — think Luke Skywalker and Han Solo rolled into one. He’s a womanizer, a drunk, a vagabond. But he’s got intriguing depth. He’s a former Padawan who survived Order 66 but turned his back on the Force and the Jedi. He’s so wounded by the extermination of his people that he almost blames the Force for the Jedi’s destruction. Hera is the other lead, and she’s an ace Twi’lek pilot with a mysterious past. She travels to the mining planet of Gorse (where the action happens in the book) to meet an informant and learn more about Count Vidian, a member of the Emperor’s inner circle who’s arrived to increase the system’s yield of an essential ore needed to power Star Destroyers in the Empire’s rapidly growing fleet. Hera’s determined to gather intelligence and contacts so that one day, when the people are ready to stand up to the Empire, the Rebellion might have a chance.

A New Dawn is about how Hera and Kanan meet, and how she begins to make him feel something again. It’s about why the Rebellion starts, what the Rebels stand for, and why that’s important to not just the Star Wars saga, but to everybody who experiences the story of Star Wars moving forward. The Empire consumes. The Empire expands. It flexes its military power and stomps on individual lives. For the first time, Star Wars feels like its commenting on our world today, from the nature of what an Empire is, to how its nobility profits from never-ending war, to the difficult choices supporting characters must make in order to make a difference. Zaluna, quoted in the opening to this post, is a fascinating character, a Sullustan surveillance agent who has an Edward Snowden-esque change of heart once she realizes what the Empire can do with the data she’s spent her whole adult life collecting. Her justifications for spying on ordinary citizens mirror real world politics in a way I never thought I’d see in a Star Wars book. Equally as intriguing is Skelly, a disturbed veteran of the Clone Wars who’s full of paranoid theories about the Empire and just wants somebody to listen to him.

I think A New Dawn really is the perfect gateway novel for new readers interested in where Star Wars is going, and old readers who left Star Wars behind. The writing isn’t what I’d call beautiful, but the storytelling is well paced and the characters are strong. It drops you back into a narrative that lets you re-experience the core elements of a good Star Wars story. And it gives you a ton of confidence in the Lucasfilm Story Group’s abilities.

Lastly, regarding EPISODE VII clues -- they’re almost certainly there. The author does a great job laying out the behind the scenes machinations of the Empire, what the Emperor’s plans for it might have been (interesting that his ultimate goals never became clear, even in the OT), and the politics occurring offscreen. I can’t help but think these sections are building foundation for why the Rebellion is so important to the overall conflict of the saga, and why the Empire did not necessarily fall after RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Look, I was clearly an easy sell here. Star Wars was like a religion to me, my younger brother, and my Dad. It provided my family with endless hours of enjoyment, meaningful memories and exciting experiences. There’s 5 or so more novels coming between now and EPISODE VII, and a season or two of Rebels. I am fully on board. For me, Star Wars is back, it’s in better shape than it’s been since the 80s, and I believe it could truly end up being better than it’s ever been before.

I think for awhile there I became like Kanan, turning my back on the Force as I grew older. I forgot about the Jedi. I forgot why they meant something. Now, I’m starting to remember. I’m starting to feel the Force again. 

I think I’m not the only one.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

post-NaNo victory lap

Total word count: 50,014

I think I only missed writing one day this month, which I’m hugely proud of and is maybe the most important takeaway for me. I’ve written long stories before (though only screenplays, and they’re a different sort of beast), so crossing the finish line didn’t bring the kind of elation you get winning a poker tournament in Monaco or anything. For me, ‘winning’ NaNoWriMo brought more of an overall sense of satisfaction, like finishing a lengthy run and taking in a giant breath of fresh air.

A bunch of people have asked me how they can read ‘Nightmare 1.0.’ Firstly, y’all are awesome for offering! Just delightful. But the gift of having interested readers is not something I take lightly (because, like, who reads these days?!). Writing 50k words in one month does not produce a great, or even good book. Great stories of any length take a lot of time and effort, rewriting, editing, and whiskey. Anyway, this particular story requires a lot more time in the oven, a lot more blacksmithing or what have you, for it to be worthy of readership, or visual adaptation, or toy lines and t-shirts and video games and midnight book store parties. Because without midnight book store parties, WHAT IS THE POINT.

I’ve printed the draft out and put it in a box along with the last screenplay I wrote (also a first draft). I like writing these long form works and putting them away until my brain wakes up one day and is all like IT’S CLOBBERIN TIME! In the meantime I’m working on a few different projects in the short term: some short stories, The Micros, and a stoner poker comedy. Some might argue The Micros is a stoner poker comedy, but hey, that genre’s got plenty of room.

Thanks for cheering me on! It totally helped.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Day 12

15432 words. Observations:

1. Writing a novel is fing hard
2. Writing a science fantasy novel is really fing hard.
3. It is hard to write super fast and write good sentences. Counterstrategy: each day write down a random sentence from a book, spend all day trying to measure up.
4. I’m really happy I took this Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction class last year. 
5. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood’s first episode is brilliant. Band of Brothers is amazing.
6. An iPad mini makes a sick reading/writing/music instrument of destruction.
7. Coffee?
8. The process of writing a novel seems like it could have lots in common with playing a ton of hands of online poker. Long, tilting, some days you win.
9. I’m behind pace, but 50k words and a complete story is happening. Lockdown? Lockdown. LOCKDOWN!
10. This draft will be a POS, but progress is progress. Writing a good story is like getting out of Shawshank.
11. The structure of a novel is a completely different problem than the structure of a screenplay.
12. Do better.
13. Fuck

I wish I were able to shelve every other responsibility for November, but we’ve had some exciting BET RAISE FOLD developments. I’m not making 3 hours+/day consistently, but I’m almost always getting at least 2 hours. Weekends are tough but I’m growing the beard to remind myself that I’m supposed to be a hermit.

goals for this week:
More writing
More reading
Keep better time tracking/word count on sessions

Thursday, October 31, 2013

November: in which I write a lot of fun stuff really fast

I'm about to start NaNoWrimo - national novel writing month. The goal is to write a 50k word novel in one month. I read lots of books, and I’ve tried this before, but I have too much respect for people who actually write novels to say that I’m writing one. I’m writing a 50k word "exploratory draft" of a science fiction story! The last time I tried to do something insane like this I wrote a screenplay that reads like a Wes Anderson movie crossed with Kung Fu Hustle (coming to Google Glass in 2018?).

I don’t know how much blogging I’ll do during this, but it’s much easier to crush this kind of thing when you make your goal public. Because it’s so incredibly shameful if you fail. So this blog post is my failsafe. 

Also, I have a side bet with Kristy Arnett - if either of us finishes, the other has to make a video dancing on 5 strangers in public for 10 seconds each, and buy them a $100 book/writing gift. There is no way I will lose, Kristy!!! At least one of us is going dancing. (edit: unless both of us make it, then the embarrassment bet is a wash but we still get each other presents!)

Goals for NaNo:

1. Finish it, 50k words or more
2. Write for 3 hours+ for 30 straight days.
3. Be dramatic, comedic, and entertaining.

made a Pinterest board with some tools 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pacific Rim is the best summer blockbuster in years

As a child I spent many a weekend gorging myself on summer action adventure blockbuster movies (and sour candy). Those escapes into the cool theater were a favored way to pass the time with my younger brother and father. Star Wars was our absolute favorite, the king of the hill, but we saw all the others in the hopes that something could match it and let our imaginations run wild. Nothing really satisfied (the first Indiana Jones movies, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Independence Day and the first Matrix the exceptions). As I grew older my viewpoint on these kinds of movies grew more cynical. Nearly everything Hollywood spat out seemed like an excessive waste of money, a retread of the same old story, and a gross failure to deliver on what makes these movies resonate (the escapist thrills, a sense of fun, adventure and wonder, larger than life heroes and villains and meaningful conflict portrayed on an epic scale). This was our pop culture cinema, Hollywood was the only entity with the machine in place to create this particular kind of dream, and they were (and still are) failing miserably. 90% of blockbuster movies basically steal your money, feed you cancerous snacks, and leave you psychically violated with a primal urge to rant on Twitter.

So my childlike curiosity sent me looking elsewhere, in books and on television. Some of my favorite stories came out of the East, in the form of the giant robot/mecha genre of sci-fi. Maybe it was because Voltron was just so super cool!, maybe it was because Robotech offered a layered tapestry of characters set against a philosophically sophisticated war saga, or maybe it was the nightmarish traumas splashed across the colorful, trance inducing images of Neon Genesis Evangelion. This stuff coming from Japan was much more imaginative than the stories the West was producing, and I lost myself inside these worlds. I often tried to imagine what it would be like to see them realized using live action and visual effects. I assumed it couldn't be done, or that if Hollywood went for it, they’d fall flat on their faces (case in point: the Transformers movies).

I’ve seen Pacific Rim twice now, and Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham fucking did it! The first time I saw it in IMAX 3D. The 3D was impressive, but we sat too close (rookie mistake), and my high expectations for the storytelling were disappointed when I realized the script played more like a campy Saturday morning cartoon than an epic philosophical meditation on the nature of war against monsters and the kinds of people who have to fight them. But they got SO MUCH right! In doing so they cracked my mask of adult cynicism and returned me to the silly state of a boy smiling in pure wonder. It’s an amazing achievement.

This movie delivers astounding visual images of heroes (real heroes who leap into action, not the emo, brooding kind found in most superhero movies) being heroic. The Battle for Hong Kong is one of the greatest action sequences I’ve ever seen in my life. It's so fun! This kind of pop culture cinema is important for our future. These are the dreams burned into the imaginations of the next generation, and Pacific Rim offers a humanistic, cooperative, positive dream.  It doesn’t match the resonance of Star Wars, but it’s so visually intelligent, bursting with detailed love for this kind of operatic cinema. There were literally people whooping and cheering, bursting out of their seats in both screenings I went to! It gives me some hope that we can go to a movie theater in the future and have a great time again. 

If you like blockbuster movies with amazing spectacle, and think GIANT ROBOTS vs GIANT MONSTERS sounds pretty cool, you have to see Pacific Rim on the biggest screen possible. Watch it as if you were 12 years old again (or bring a 12 year old with you if you know any), Discard your cynicism, have fun with the story. Be an optimist again.

Also, Idris Elba (aka Stacker Pentecost - how awesome is that name?!) is a goddamn BOSS in this.

*The new Star Trek, INTO DARKNESS, is pretty good too. It's really entertaining and features some crazy images and fun sequences. JJ Abrams is going to hit a home run with Star Wars 7, imo.