Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death Star


Our book today is “Death Star” by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, and as anybody can guess from its title, its subject is the building, operation, and eventual fate of the gigantic doomsday weapon from “Star Wars.”


We all remember the exact moment we heard the line. We here at Stevereads experienced it in a shabby mulit-plex in West Seneca, just outside of Buffalo, and we confess it, we were quietly thrilled.

Of course we’re referring to ‘Star Wars’ (we here at Stevereads care not one jot about the franchise’s insanely megalomaniacal creator or his control-freak grip on the terminology attending his creation – ‘Star Wars’ is ‘Star Wars’ … the first, Part One, period)(when Lucas was an intern here, dreaming of making film adaptations of the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he would not have dreamt of being such a control-freak dictator … his future movies might benefit if he recalled something of that humility) the moment when our intrepid heroes, crammed inside the Millennium Falcon, drop out of hyperspace and into a great field of debris, beyond which hangs a dull grey malevolent moon. “That’s no moon,” old Ben Kenobi intones, “it’s a space station.”

His fellow adventurers don’t believe him at first, of course: why should they? A space station as big as a moon? It’s a classic science fiction moment, one for which the aforementioned lunatic, George Lucas, deserves full measure of credit. Even on old VCR tapes fuzzy with age, the moment still has the power to amaze.

So it’s not all that surprising that the ‘Star Wars’ fictional franchise would get around to giving it its due. That franchise is a deeply disturbing thing when examined in any kind of detail; the fandom it supplies like a crack dealer supplies his gibbering detail-obsessed addicts makes, it need hardly be said, no literary judgements. Members of that fandom have spent HUNDREDS of HOURS of their personal lives detailing the Mirialandan cultural epochs, with no even small hope of their work ever being acknowledged by their Dark Lord, much less used – even ‘Star Trek’ fandom has nothing by way of psychotic obsession to offer as compromise, which is saying something.

So we must walk on eggshells, but it’s still possible to do so. Can anyone, for instance, forget Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,’ the very first and still one of the best pieces of ‘Star Wars’ fiction? And, much later, Timothy Zahn gave us a genuinely talented ‘Star Wars’ novel just bristling with technical details and some pretty good character analysis.

Now, much later, comes the latest ‘Star Wars’ novel, ‘Death Star’ by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry. It’s a hardcover, and its dust jacket cover art is reminiscent of the great Vincent DiFate, and its whole enterprise is replete with a quality conspicuously absent from most ‘Star Wars’ fiction: intense readability.

‘Death Star’ tells a story we all know already, only from the inside out. We know that a revolutionary moon-sized space station, armed with a planet-killing laser, will move on the planet Alderaan and utterly obliterate it. We know this space station is commanded by a spare, ascetic man named Grand Moff Tarkin, and we know he has to deal with a towering, enigmatic black-robed figure named Darth Vader.

Reaves and Perry know perfectly well that they’re playing off this already-established tension, and they do so expertly. Vader appears tellingly seldom in the book, the evil emperor hardly at all, and of course the various medics, technicians, and enlisted grunts who move the narrative forward never know anything about a heroic Corellian freight captain and his enormous hairy first mate/pet, nothing about a weirdly-matched pair of gay robots, and nothing about the budding romance between a weirdly-coiffed Senator’s daughter and a farmboy from a desert planet. These workaday people know nothing of any of this, and they certainly don’t expect that their enormous space station (the inner day-to-day workings of which our authors convey with wonderful and eye-opening detail) will be stage to the final encounter between the old Republic’s two greatest warriors and former best friends, the armor-encased Annakin Skywalker and the prematurely-aged Obi-wan Kenobi.

It doesn’t matter that THEY don’t know – the whole point of this quick-footed novel is that WE know. And one of the best things Reaves and Perry do is to humanize the thousands of ordinary people whose workaday lives are caught up in the station’s construction and workings – somehow, the fact that none of those ordinary people are evil manages to underscore how evil their leaders are.

Of course, the novel wouldn’t be any fun without those evil leaders, and Star Wars fans will prick up their ears every time one of them makes an appearance. And naturally, given the book’s subject, the lion’s share of these appearances will go to Grand Moff Tarkin, who was played with such delicious icy reserve by Peter Cushing in the movie. At one point early in the novel the writers take us inside Tarkin’s thoughts as he’s musing about setbacks in the construction of his beloved space station, and we learn with some delight that there’s no love lost between him and our other main bad guy:

“In addition to these annoyances, Darth Vader, the emperor’s pet, was wont to show up unannounced now and again to lay his heavy hand on the whole process. Vader, unfortunately, was beyond Tarkin’s command, even though, as the first of the new Grand Moffs, he was a man whose whim was law in the entire Outer Rim Territories.”

Our authors are quick to show us that the feeling is mutual:

“This trip, he [Vader] felt, should not be necessary. Governor Wilhuff Tarkin – ‘Grand Moff Tarkin,’ as he had been recently designated; a ridiculous rank, in Vader’s opinion – knew his duty. He had been charged by the emperor to create this behemoth that was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of the Rebels, and certainly he knew what would happen to him if he failed in his duty.”

Every Star Wars fan knows story unfolding offstage while these two jockey for advantage and their minions go about their daily lives. Reaves and Perry very wisely show us nothing of that story until its course locks it into the novel. The key, as the faithful know, is a stolen set of plans for the Death Star. Those stolen plans set the stage for one final confrontation between Vader and Tarkin:

“The shimmering image of Darth Vader appeared before Tarkin, life sized, as if he were standing in the same room.
‘Grand Moff Tarkin. Why have you called?’
‘I understand there is a remote possibility that a set of plans for this battle station may have been stolen by Alliance agents.’
‘Yes.’
Tarkin clamped his teeth tight enough to make his jaw muscles ache. ‘You knew this?’
‘I have my own agents.’
The black helmet had no way to change expression, of course, but Tarkin could hear the amusement in the Dark Lord’s voice. ‘I see,’ he said, his tone carefully neutral. Now was not the time to be at odds with the Emperor’s lackey.
‘I will find out if it is true, and if so, I will deal with it.’ The black helmet inclined questioningly. ‘That is why you called me, isn’t it?’
Tarkin nodded. Vader might be many things, but fainthearted he was not. Once he began a task, he seldom served from finishing it. Odds were that the story was no more than a baseless rumor, but if not, no one was better equipped to determine the facts and eliminate the problem than Darth Vader. A useful, if dangerous tool – no matter how Tarkin might feel about him personally.”

The search for the stolen plans leads to the capture of heroic Princess Leia, and one thing after another lead to the climactic lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi. Reaves and Perry even here resist the temptation to start telling that other story – we see no further into Ben Kenobi’s thoughts during that fight than his exact words from the movie allow. Instead, they stick to the story of the Death Star until its last minute, when all but a handful of the characters whose lives we’ve been following get blown to smithereens. There are a couple of heroic survivors, but Grand Moff Tarkin goes down with the ship, believing in its invincibility to the last second.

In all, an entirely satisfying Star Wars novel – which is an extremely rare occurrence in a crap-crowded subgenre. If the book contains anything depressing, it’s the odd digression one of the characters makes while inspecting the Death Star’s library, of all things. It turns out that even long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, some things never change:

“It was a pity that most people didn’t actually go to libraries anymore, not when they could sit in the comfort of their own quarters and access files electronically. Want to read the hot new interstellar caper novel, or the latest issue of BEINGS holozine? Input the name, touch a control, and ZIP – it’s in your datapad. Need to study the history of winged intelligent species? No more difficult than inputting search parameters, then scanning the bibliographic references and choosing a place to begin.”

But fear not! Apparently, even in such a far-flung setting, there are a few holdouts:

“There were, of course, old-fashioned beings who would trundle down to where the files were. On some worlds the most ancient libraries kept books – actual bound volumes of printed matter – lined up neatly on shelves, and readers would walk the aisles, take a volume down, sniff the musty-dusty odor of it, and then carry it to a table to leisurely peruse.”

We here at Stevereads are happy to number several of those ‘old-fashioned beings’ among our legion of readers – we’re happy to know that even in the Star Wars universe they’re out there doing what they’ve always done: losing themselves in reading while the rest of the universe is zapping lasers at each other.

3 comments:

Gianni said...

I've not read many Star Wars books, the only series I picked up (and absolutely loved) were the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron books by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston. They're like Matthew Reilly books set in the Star Wars universe, really action-packed. But I've never read anything else Star Wars, I should pick this book up.

steve said...

I'll have a terrified intern run it round immediately

Kevin Caron said...

Great review! An excellent concept for a Star Wars novel - I gotta check it out sometime.