Monday, September 29, 2008

Patriot Battles

Our book today is Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought by Michael Stephenson, a nuts-and-bolts manual of the mechanics of how the American Revolution was fought. Stephenson is a long-time writer of military history, and this lively, sometimes caustic, always witty book is his best to date.

Of course all war is a messy business, but those of you schooled on the Revolution by watching Mel Gibson movies (with their clear-sky battlefields and perpetually-loaded rifles) may be shocked by just how messy the battles were that won this country its independence from Great Britain. The men on the American side were untrained, the equipment on both sides often didn't work, and the sheer proximity from which deadly fire was exchanged was often horrifyingly intimate.

Stephenson covers all of this, but he does it in such a smart and sharp way that he saves it from becoming relentlessly gloomy. Any author who casually refers to Blenheim Palace as "that lumpy and unlovely McMansion" assures us by doing so that we're in good hands. Nevertheless, our author has some gruesome details to relate:

The Cinderella relationship of the War of Independence to the Civil War is a reflection, to some extent, of our taste for the red meat of military history. Big body counts may sell books, movies, and TV documentaries, but they should not obscure the often brutal realities of eighteenth century warfare. For individual units the casualty levels could be fearful. At the battle of Brooklyn on 27 August, 1776, the 400-strong Maryland brigade left 256 dead on the field after their heroic forlorn-hope counterattack against overwhelming odds.

And although Stephenson's main subject is enormous and involves a huge amount of details, he finds time regularly throughout his fantastic book to illuminate and bring to life side-subjects, as in the sidebar on Loyalists, which begins like this:

They are the forgotten ones; sharing the gloomy penumbra of history with impoverished White Russian aristos working as waiters in Paris in the 1920s after the Bolshevik revolution, or once-wealthy, cultivated South Vietnamese government officials opening delis in Los Angeles and New York after their country fell. They have about them a sepia sadness, the corners curled and the colors faded. Who cares? They were the losers.

As with all first-rate historical writing, so here: the reader is virtually compelled to keep going. Likewise with his adroit character sketches, always done with quick, efficient strokes for maximum effect:

Washington held [General Charles] Lee in awe, as did many of the patriot officer corps, and his reward was to be the butt of Lee's sneering. When Washington was struggling for survival during his retreat across the Jerseys in 1776, Lee almost contemptuously disregarded his pleas for reinforcement. When Lee was exchanged from captivity in March 1778, Washington put on a lavish show of welcome that Lee treated ungraciously. Washington would have had to be a saint not to have harbored some resentment of the Englishman's hubris. Whereas Charles Lee was a difficult man to like, unkempt, foulmouthed, and generally bizarre, Lafayette was charming and amiable, and showed an almost filial affection toward his commander in chief. Whatever the psychological shoals and riptides, Washington's vacillations and maladroit attempts to "manage" the two men would be disastrous.

Stephenson's account of the raw physical toll of the War of Independence ends promptly and obediently at Yorktown, with the surrender of Cornwallis, but the 400 pages of this book (now an attractively solid Harper paperback) canvas the whole of the conflict in all of its tactical and logistical complexity, and always with a brio and a background sense of amusement that's so often missing from the writing of history. This book earns with its skill and heft a place on the shelf alongside the very best books on the American Revolution. It's eagerly recommended.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Story of Art

Our book today is the venerated and much-beloved classic, The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich, here in a gorgeous, handy paperback by Phaidon. Gombrich's book has been clutched in more museum-going hands than any comparable tract in the history of art-writing, and looking at it again in the very pleasurable task of examining this Phaidon edition has afforded ample reasons as to why that might be so.

As long as there've been painted pictures, I suspect, there've been docents of varying abilities to explain them to the rest of the people looking at them (one wonders if art wouldn't be more honest if those docents weren't just not there but not necessary ... neolithic cave paintings, reached by arduous spelunking, were free to evoke a private and entirely sincere sense of awe; sharks in formaldehyde require explication right out of the box), and the key to the experience lies in that 'varying abilities' part. There are few things more annoying that to have a piece of art carefully explained to you wrong (like the Uffizi guide years and years ago who droned about the "fierceness" of a painting's dog when the animal was clearly playing and clearly painted as playing by a painter who clearly knew he was playing), just as there are few things as thrilling as having it all done well, or really well (in other words, all of your should put Robert Hughes' documentary American Visions on your Netflix lists ... maybe even bump it up ahead of the porn)(no names, mind you)(coughcoughbriancoughcough).

Nobody does it much better than Gombrich, which is probably why his book has sold a gazillion copies. He starts his approachable, even-handed tone right from the first lines:

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the walls of a cave; today, some buy their paints and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not 'Art.' And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

His insights dart everywhere, seeming to shed light on every period and style he touches, and even if you don't agree with him, he gets you thinking:

This building is characteristic of the taste for which Venetian art in the Cinquecento became famous. The atmosphere of the lagoons, which seems to blur the sharp outlines of objects and to blend their colours in a radiant light, may have taught the painters of this city to use colour in a more deliberate and observant way than other painters in Italy had done so far. ... But so much seems to be clear: the painters of the Middle Ages were no more concerned about the 'real' colours of things than they were about their real shapes.

Always he's the public's unappointed substitute, the kindly professor who's been thinking about art and writing about art and clarifying about art for so long that he's effortlessly successful:

What upset the public about Expressionist art was, perhaps, not so much the fact that nature had been distorted as that the result led away from beauty. That the caricaturist may show up the ugliness of man was granted - it was his job. But that men who claimed to be serious artists should forget that if they must change the appearance of things they should idealize them rather than make them ugly was strongly resented.

And of course one of the treats of a book like The Story of Art is hunting out what Gombrich hs to say about your personal favorites - does he like them? Hate them? Have anything interesting to say about them? This is certainly true also of the painting that's everybody's favorite:

If we now return to the 'Mona Lisa,' we may understand something of its mysterious effect. We see that Leonardo has used the means of his 'sfmuato' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is looking at us.

This Phaidon paperback edition is by far the most aesthetically satisfying one Gombrich has ever received (it's especially welcome after the gigantic, gawd-awful trade paperback edition of a few years ago), a positive joy to handle and carry and tuck onto the nightstand. It's slightly smaller than an average airport mass market paperback, and half its length consists of color plates of the works of art being discussed - and it's the back half, so the reader is able - indeed, encouraged - to read the flow of Gombrich's delightful prose without constant interruption, and then to contemplate the paintings, sculptures, posters, buildings, and gardens in a separate, more informed process. The edition comes with two pretty cloth bookmarks, one centered in the front to help with the text, the other centered in the rear to help with the paintings. It's the best physical setup possible, and kudos to Phaidon for producing it.

Of course there can be no one volume on art that will appeal to everybody. But Gombrich's broad tastes and sympathetic outlook bring this one pretty damn close to being that universal volume, and this is the edition of it to have.

In the Penny Press - Part Two!

Also of interest in this latest batch from the Penny Press was the cover article in the October National Geographic, a gripping (albeit maddening) piece by Stephen S. Hall titled "The Last of the Neanderthals."

The article centers on the 1994 find in northern Spain of a cave full of fossilized hominid bones from about 43,000 years ago. The bones belonged to Neanderthals, a widespread species of human at the time, and many of the bones show signs of knifework, suggesting that the meat was hacked from the bones - in all likelihood for the purposes of eating it (simple murder wouldn't explain the butchering).

Hall's prose is clear and straightforward, but his article has all the innocence of a Catholic school class on the birds and the bees. Everywhere throughout the piece, the stark, staringly obvious truth about "the last of the Neanderthals" is shuttered, obscured, and outright avoided. Take this, for example:

Within another 15,000 years or so, Neanderthals were gone forever, leaving behind a few bones and a lot of questions. Were they a clever and perserverant breed of survivors, much like us, or a cognitively challenged dead end? What happened during that period, roughly 45,000 to 35, 000 years ago, when the Neanderthals shared some parts of the Eurasian landscape with those modern human migrants from Africa? Why did one kind of human being survive, and the other disappear?

Or this priceless bit:

"Most Neanderthals and modern humans probably lived most of their lives without seeing each other," he [specialist Jean-Jacques Hublin] said, carefully choosing his words. "The way I imagine it is that occasionally in these border areas, some of these guys would see each other at a distance ... but I think the most likely thing is that they excluded each other from the landscape. Not just avoided, but excluded. We know from recent research on hunter-gatherers that they are much less peaceful than generally believed."

And then there's this stunning little line:

All this from a group of ill-fated Neanderthals buried in a cave collapse, soon after they were consumed by their own kind.

Something should be pointed out here that is pointed out nowhere in this article: there's not one particle of evidence that the Neanderthals in question were eaten by other Neanderthals. Other such sites also show the same bone-chipping as this one, but all that demonstrates is homicide, not cannibalism. To lock in cannibalism, you'd first have to conclude that Neanderthals were the only mammals around who could have fashioned the sharp-edged tools necessary to cause the bone-chipping. If there's another candidate who could do that, you can't lock in cannibalism.

Now quick everybody: look up from this computer screen and see if your eyes can't find a man-made sharp edge within ten feet of where you're sitting.

So-called 'modern' man (why 'modern' instead of 'extant' is a mystery) arrives on the scene (be it Eurasia or the Americas), and within a geological eye-blink, virtually all that scene's megafauna disappear (giant bears, giant sloths, giant lions, giant beavers, several species of elephants, dire wolves, giant tigers, etc., etc.) - often leaving behind fossil evidence of massive killing-fields. Likewise all other talking, tool-using hominid species disappear, often leaving behind fossil evidence that the flesh was carved from their bones (and almost always leaving behind evidence of cranial fracture - Hell, the photo of a Neanderthal skull in this issue has a beauty of a hole in its forehead, right between the eyes). But the best Hall or any of his experts can manage is to tamely note that hunter-gatherers aren't always as peaceful as previously believed?

Neanderthals were squatter than extant humans (although not dumber - their brains were on average larger than those of the sole surviving species of human), heavier, very much stronger, and no less socially organized, but they lacked the one essential defining characteristic of modern mankind: they weren't genocidal maniacs. Somewhere in the genetic evolution that provided homo sapiens sapiens with its magnificent brain, there also occurred a slight chromosomal twist, just a little nudge here or there, that resulted in a species bloodlust unparalleled anywhere else in the history of the animal kingdom. Every single person reading this post, young or old, male or female (or Beepy), has at some point in their life killed some living thing without any need or cause. Not statistically: every single one of you has. Even if other species were able to think of such things, they'd find it unthinkable - they might kill out of anger or competition, but it would never occur to them to kill out of idleness, and certainly not to kill all of a given form of life.

The question posed in this issue's table of contents, "Why did our Ice Age rivals vanish?" couldn't have a clearer answer. They were excluded, every last man, woman, and child of them. So everybody raise a glass to the dearly departed Neanderthals, and when you're done, make sure to bring it down with a nice satisfying thwack onto the spider whose only crime is that it's skittering across your table right at that moment.

Friday, September 26, 2008

In the Penny Press - Part One!

The latest issue of GQ had quite the little shocker, a brief paragraph by Bob Finch entitled "Hey, Boston, Shut the F#%* Up!" Here it is in all its rhetorical splendor:

Boston, I used to like you. I used to visit every couple of years, go for a long run along the Charles, eat some chowder down on the Fish Pier. But this year, something began to curdle inside me. The slobbery tears at midcourt (this was for Red!), the icy Papelbon glare (ooh, we're scared!), the creepy cult of (the genius) Bill Belichick and (the golden) Theo Epstein and (the dashing) Tom Brady and (the extremely fucking annoying) Yoooooooook ... Enough. We get it. You rule the universe. Yes, it's quite an impressive run you're on here. (For a small city.) But remember, fifteen years ago, your teams sucked large donkey balls (Pats: 5-11; Celtics: 32-50; Red Sox: 80-82). And because sports go in cycles, they will soon suck again. Try some humility. It becomes you.

We yield the floor to guest editorialist and Southie native Jim "Jimmie" Maranis:

Know what pal? We never liked you. You were always popping your collars and leaving before the check came. Yeah, you took your douchebag runs along the Charles, but we'd love to know how you ate your chowder "down on the Fish Pier" ... you carry the hot, steaming bowl from the nearest restaurant or what, dipshit? And suddenly the popped collars are making a whole lot more sense, seeing all the barely-disguised man-love in your cute little parentheses (Theo and Tom are both taken, dipshit). And isn't it funny that while you're making jokes about sports going in cycles you conveniently forgot that Boston is a four-sport town? Bruins 1990-91: Bourque, Neely, Moog, 44-24-15, dipshit. So while Boston sports might soon suck again, you, my friend, will suck always. Dipshit.

We couldn't have put it better ourselves!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Moab is my Washpot

Our book today is Stephen Fry's 1997 memoir Moab is my Washpot, and it can serve as a kind of breather from that last triptych of sci-fi pulps. In order for something to be a really good breather, it must itself be a restoring breath of fresh air, and in this regard Moab is My Washpot succeeds wonderfully. The 20th century was positively rife with memoirs, but even so, this is one of the best.

One of the best, despite the fact that it stops after only the first twenty years of Fry's life, that is, before all the acting and comedy work that made him famous and brought him to the public's attention in the first place. This is a memoir about the awkwardness of growing up in provincial working-class Britain, the awkwardness of being gay in such a setting, and above all, gloriously above all, the awkwardness of being Stephen Fry.

Reading this breathtakingly honest book, grappling with the author's unabashed sentimentality and unapologetic romanticism, the reader in astonishment begins to wonder if Fry's impeccable acting abilities and perfect comic timing (so marvelously on display in Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster) might just be his backups, coming in second to a literary ability that at times reads like the best possible combination of Samuel Pepys and the Bronte sisters:

Looking at it coolly one can say that anyone might be drawn to such a fine head [as seen on the head of a fellow male classmate] of fair hair, seen from behind. One might say that anyone could see that this was a classy, peachy, and supreme set of buttocks confronting us.

One might add too, in cynical tones, "You say, 'you knew,' but just suppose he had turned his head and revealed the face of a pig with a harelip, a twisted nose and a squint, would you now be writing this?"

Did I really, really know?

Yes, reader, I did. I swear I did.

Of course, this grossly emotional openness can lead the impressionable memoirist astray, and occasionally this happens to Fry, most notably in his recollection of a pivotal TV scene that moved him quite a bit:

I remember an episode of Star Trek that ends with Jim turning to McCoy and saying, "Out there, Bones, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in the galaxy." I fully expected the nauseous obviousness of "I love you." But Kirk turned to the screen, gazed at the stars and whispered:

"Please, help me."

Star Trek fans will need no assistance - and, alas, no prompting - to point out all that's wrong with that heartfelt memory of Fry's, even if the thought's in the right place.

And that's the way with all of Moab is My Washpot: it's so immediate and frank that it wins over its readers almost immediately and has them rooting for the author on every page, through every broken heart and thought (and more) of suicide, through all the turmoil and upheavals that are inextricably linked with being a teenager. And sometimes, at odd intervals, the hard-won wisdom to which those upheavals lead is glimpsed in the narrative. They're almost always its best moments:

Only one thing counted for me then, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, and I suspected, quite rightly, that one day love would count for less. I did not suspect, however, that one further, finer day far, far forward, love would come round to counting for everything again. A lot of salt water was to flow down the bridge, the bent bridge of my nose, before that day would come.

Star Trek Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru

Our book today is a Star Trek Enterprise novel called Kobayashi Maru. It's written by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, and as any Star Trek fan will immediately recognize, it's about a very memorable doomed little ship.

That ship is not, as some wags might have it, the Enterprise herself, specifically the ship under the command of Captain Jonathan Archer as portrayed in the late lamented TV show, the first incarnation of the Star Trek franchise to get cancelled since the original. One might think that cancellation would leave an ordure of failure on the series' four seasons, but they actually make for some fine viewing. The series flailed around a bit at its beginning (as series tend to do), but even from the beginning it boasted a strong acting cast and some fine bigger issues to play with. It lacked the grandeur that characterized the concluding seasons of Deep Space Nine, and of course it lacked the fantastic premise of Star Trek Voyager, but it also gained something from the fledgling fallibility of its heroes - here was an starship Enterprise that wasn't so incredibly powerful that writers needed to confront it with gods (Apollo in the original series, Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Caretaker in Star Trek Voyager): ordinary alien vessels could - and often did - kick the crap out of poor Enterprise. Her captain and crew had to be quicker on their feet - her engineer always trying to improve on the relatively primitive technology with which they first venture into space, her armory officer always trying to put more bite in her meager arsenal, her Vulcan science officer always trying to make sense of this strange species called humans.

The main problem Enterprise faced was timing: the original series already had so many firsts. Captain Kirk was the youngest person ever to command a starship, so the Enterprise producers couldn't cast Milo Ventimiglia as the first captain. Spock was the first Vulcan to serve in Starfleet, so increasingly contorted ways had to be found to have a Vulcan serving on the bridge without having that Vulcan actually be in Star Fleet. And so many of the mysterious beings and situations the original ship and crew encountered were previously unknown ... it seemed to leave little for the Enterprise captain and crew to do.

The writers found lots of inventive ways to get around this, and then they finally settled on the best way: this incarnation of Star Trek should be all about showing us the history of all the others - and it should remind us, on a weekly basis, that history is exciting, and that it's made by ordinary flesh-and-blood people doing sometimes extraordinary things. The show's fourth season did that admirably well, indulging in multi-part episodes and giving fans treat after treat. It's a shame the show was canceled; it had a lot more ground to cover and lots more interesting stories to tell.

The Kobayashi Maru is one of those stories, and it's ingenious to connect it to Enterprise and the era of Jonathan Archer (oh! if only this had been an episode of the show!). As mentioned, all Star Trek fans will recognize the name of Starfleet's legendary no-win scenario: the Kobayashi Maru, a stricken vessel calling for help in the middle of hostile territory, with the Enterprise the only vessel nearby. Doing nothing means consigning the Maru and her crew to death; attempting a rescue means crossing the Neutral Zone and entering Klingon territory.

At the time, we'd all be lulled to sleep by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and maybe we'd forgotten how thrilling the original series could be, even on a spit-and-styrofoam budget. But then Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came to theaters, and fans were very vigorously reminded of all the reasons why they loved the show in the first place and fought for its survival. And the opening of that movie (what many Trek fans still consider the best one) showed us a combat-retrofitted Enterprise bridge, populated by all our old familiar crew but presided over from the captain's chair by a Vulcan-looking woman.

That woman hears the distress call, decides to attempt a rescue, and gets her bridge blown apart for her troubles. One by one, we see our old heroes fall to the deck, apparently killed, as the Vulcan woman becomes more and more rattled. Then the simulation ends, the practice-room is opened up to a flood of light from the outside, and an older, more wizened Admiral Kirk starts to tease Captain Spock over the fact that all of his training cadets 'died' in the simulation. In the course of The Wrath of Khan, we're informed that James Kirk is the only person who ever beat the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario.

That's all a hundred years in the future, however, as far as this novel is concerned. What's happening now in Kobayashi Maru is some truly excruciating prose.

"Duh," you might say: "It's a Star Trek novel, for pete's sake! Of course the prose is excruciating." But this isn't necessarily so. There have been good Star Trek novels. But what Kobayashi Maru represents in our little science fiction troika here, is the pinnacle of corporate interference in an adaptation's actual prose. With The Last Days of Krypton, the interference was minimal - Superman Returns was something of a box office disappointment, after all. With Jedi Twilight, the interference was extensive but relatively benign - once you check in with the weird, crazy spider at the heart of the web, you're free to write more or less what you want. But Star Trek is about to relaunch as a gazillion-dollar franchise with a 'hot' director and more fan anticipation than Jesus. A whole new string of movies, a tribble-like explosion of marketing tie-ins, possibly even a new TV series .... so suddenly, the network and its parent studio are paying attention to everything Star Trek. And that attention can be summed up in one word: careful.

Kobayashi Maru is a mind-bogglingly careful book. Nothing is ever said about anything ever without eighty qualifiers; every emotion is first stated then quibbled away to nothing; words and words and words flow, but virtually nothing happens. There are more adverbs in this one book than in most dictionaries. And the result is always ridiculous. Take a scene in which the embryonic Federation Council is arguing amongst itself. Here's what one member says in opposition to a proposal from Earth:

"The Andorian government does not require the permission of Earth, or the Coalition for that matter, to take whatever action we deem justifiable and prudent in the face of this grave danger."

And here's how it's characterized:

Remaining in his seat, Samuels made an admirable display of equanimity in the face of such vehement opposition.

Vehement opposition. Whatever action we deem justifiable and prudent. See? I'm giggling just a little even now.

The homeliest turns of phrase abound in this book, and the careful, careful prose drags in so much instant, pointless recapitulation that the reader is bombarded with recaps of every single thing that happens, right while it's happening. It's like stereotypical high school composition prose, only the writers are overdoing it and getting paid fairly well. Just look this - you haven't seen this much mincing since the last Granny Cook-Off:

Facing front and leaning forward toward the helm, she said, "What's our ETA at Alpha Centauri?" She knew she probably sounded like a child asking "Are we there yet?" But given her current lack of sleep, as well as her preoccupation with Jonathan Archer's long-shot attempt to avert a seemingly inevitable war with the Klingons and/or the Romulans, she regarded it as a minor miracle that she sounded even halfway coherent.

Nevermind that we've already been told several times within six paragraphs that the character is lacking sleep; nevermind that the whole scene takes place right in the middle of the plotline about a possible war with the Klingons and the Romulans ... just look at the stultifying words themselves: current lack of sleep, seemingly inevitable, and/or, minor miracle, halfway coherent. It's practically schizophrenically bad.

A split-personality diagnosis would seem to flow naturally from the fact that the book is co-authored, especially since Andy Mangels is usually a talented, funny, snarky writer who wouldn't write lethally boring prose like that to save his life. His fans might naturally finger this Michael Martin character as the guilty party, the one throwing in all those counteractive adverbs and gumming up the prose.

The real culprit, though, is probably CBS Studios and their army of ad-marketing people. Probably some feckless, sunglassed drone was assigned to vet this book and neuter everything that moves. Or maybe our two authors were given extensively stringent "guidelines" for what they could and couldn't write, and how they could go about it. In the end, that's the charitable explanation. It means some studio rule book was ultimately responsible for this bland, lifeless concoction. If it's not true, if the writers themselves are to blame, well - any writer, no matter how talented, can lay the occasional egg (picture Homer's agent: "Homey, Homey! The Iliad? I'm there! The Odyssey? Boffo stuff! But these Hymns? Couldn't sell them to my mother ..."). And if it is true, let's all pray to the Great Bird of the Galaxy that all such studio hacks were banned from the set of the new movie, or we're all going to have to sleep through another The Motion Picture before we get to the good stuff.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Coruscant Nights Volume 1: Jedi Twilight

Our book today is the first novel in a Star Wars trilogy called(for reasons the books themselves fail to make clear) Coruscant Nights. It's called by Michael Reaves, and it's called Jedi Twilight, and its events take place immediately after the conclusion of the last Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith (anybody remember when this whole thing was just one quirky, hyper-enjoyable summer movie? I thought not .... sigh ...).

For those of you needing a refresher course, The Revenge of the Sith differs from the common run of big-budget sci-fi movies by ending with the total and resounding defeat of the good guys. The clone army, under the direction of the evil Emperor, has assassinated virtually all the Jedi Knights and driven the few remaining survivors into hiding or exile. Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi go into exile. Jax Pavan, the dour and capable hero of this trilogy (on the books' covers, he looks a bit like Patriots super-quarterback Tom Brady - who might just be up for the part, since his football days are over) goes into hiding, and he hides in the last place you'd expect a Jedi to hide (if you were prone to expecting such things): in the bowels of Coruscant itself, the capital city of the Empire, the seat of the aforementioned evil Emperor's power.

Jax Pavan goes into hiding as a kind of private investigator, but he's always on edge about the Imperial pursuit that forever dogs his footsteps, and even the slowest readers will quickly anticipate a confrontation down the line between our hero and Vader. Reaves is a talented, quick-footed author, however (Jedi Twilight is very often a very entertaining read), not one to blow his perfect climax early, as it were. Jedi Twilight has plenty of action, derring-do, and explosions to keep the pages turning in the meantime.

And there are plenty of subplots too, the best of which involves a reporter named Den Dhur and his trusty droid I-5 (who's been heavily modified in the personality department, just in case you were dreading another C-3PO), both of whom are also searching for Jax Pavan, although for different reasons. Dhur is just after a great story; I-5's motives center around Jax's father Lorn Pavan and a surprising undercurrent of stubborn loyalty. Even half-inebriated, Dhur is aware enough of this to let it irk him:

But did it make any sense to keep looking? Den thought about it, somewhat laboriously, one neuron blindly groping through the alcoholic fog to link with another. Though he hated to say it, hated even to think it, he couldn't help reaching the same conclusion over and over: No. It didn't. Lorn Pavan's son was either off-planet or akk chow by now. Either way, there wasn't a lot that could be done about it. The remaining Jedi had scattered to the four solar winds - a prudent move, in Den's opinion - and even if Jax Pavan was still somewhere on Coruscant, the odds of bumping into him on a street corner weren't too good in a planetwide city with trillions of inhabitants.

One of the most amusing little themes running through Jedi Twilight actually involves those trillions of inhabitants, or at least the species making up the bulk of them:

Humans. They dominated culture, trade, government, the military - everything, in short. Love them or hate them, you couldn't ignore them. For better or worse, humans were the architects of the galaxy's future. It was only such a benighted, aggressive, and hubristic species, it seemed to him, that could have created a monster like Darth Vader.

Of course, there are problems inherent in reading any Star Wars novel. The backstory is now so hysterically profuse - and the rabid fan base so, shall we say, up to date with all of it, that a writer in Reaves' position must either include explanations of what a Neimoidian is (and risk offending the geeknoscenti) or leave those explanations out and bewilder newcomers. And lurking in the background of all these books is the weird, insane spider at the heart of this vast web, Star Wars creator George Lucas, whose 'outlines' these books fill in and whose approval they all require. It's like if Gene Roddenberry were still alive, read every Star Trek novel, and were crazy as a shithouse mouse.

Still, when those obstacles are overcome, Jedi Nights and its sequels provide some better-than-average escapist action reading. Michael Reaves clearly knows his craft, and in addition to peppering his tale with enough special effects to keep the whole thing humming like a lightsaber, he also manages to slip in more characterization than any reader of a series like this would expect. Jax Pavan might remain a bit of a hero-manque, but lots of secondary characters (most especially I-5, but also certainly including Darth Vader himself) get some pretty loving attention. Franchise fiction has been worse served than this, certainly.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Last Days of Krypton

Our book today is The Last Days of Krypton by prolific science fiction hack Kevin Anderson, and of course it's not referring to the periodic table. No, this is the planet Krypton, the homeworld of little Kal-el, better known to the movie-going public as Superman. In the character's hum-dinger of an origin story (created by Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel, but really given flesh and bone by long-time DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz), the planet Krypton is doomed, and only visionary scientist Jor-el sees the end coming. His valiant wife Lara believes him, but virtually nobody else does, certainly not Krypton's ruling council, who scoff at Jor-el's repeated pleas that they build a fleet of space-arks to ferry the planet's populace to safety. It seems Krypton frowns upon the very idea of space travel, so if Jor-el wants to save his family, he must construct a private space ship on his own time.

Everybody is familiar with the rest of the story: the planet explodes, and that one-person spaceship takes the tiny baby Kal-el, like Moses in the bullrushes, through the wilds of space to the planet Earth - Kansas specifically, where the baby comes to be adopted by Ma and Pa Kent and raised in the bosom of the wholesome American Midwest until he's ready to put on bright pajamas and fight crime as Superman (nowadays, anyway - before DC simplified the story back in the 1980s, Kal-el first fought crime as Super-baby, then as a dreamy Superboy).

Ma and Pa Kent, Superboy and his super-dog Krypto (who was not a basset hound, otherwise he'd have been called Farto) and youthful crime-busting are all outside of Anderson's scope for this book. Here, he's dealing just with Krypton in its final days, and thanks to the ever-expanding Superman mythos of the 1950s and '60s, he's got a lot of stuff to cover. The alien mastermind Brainiac comes to Krypton and abducts the entire city of Kandor, for instance, shrinking it and all its populace and putting them in a bottle for sadistic display. Jor-el's brother Zor-el (father of Supergirl), taking precautions just in case his brother is right, takes steps to encase his own Argo City in a protective shield. And what would such a story be without a villain? In this case it's the military madman General Zod.

Zod (so immortally captured by Terence Stamp in Superman II) seems to get Anderson's creative juices flowing; he's one of the only characters whose depiction page to page is actually interesting (Lara also has her moments). Jor-el is pretty much a pious scientific cipher throughout, although Anderson does have him watch some pretty scenery:

Even though he viewed the world in terms of mathematics and science, the raw beauty of Kandor took Jor-el's breath away. With its temples to Rao, the shining pyramids, and the great Council ziggurat, Krypton's capital city was the pinnacle of civilization. Some exotic buildings had been grown from active crystals; other edifices were hewn from lustrous white veinrock or speckled granite polished to a sheen that reflected the red sunlight.

The rest of the book is much of a piece with that excerpt: it's competently if never beautifully written, and it entirely lacks the verve that so wonderfully filled Elliott Maggin's Superman, the Last Son of Krypton (to say nothing of all the great Superman-writing that's happened in his various comic books in the last ten years). It's better than most comic-book novels (we'll try not to think of the various X-Men novels that have been perpetrated in the last ten years), but of course that's not saying much.

Comics fans will find all the bases covered here. Anderson has read up on all the various Krypton-stories DC has published ever since the Superman mythos was streamlined. And with the aid of all those previous writers, he manages to tell a fairly interesting story - of General Zod vying to take over the entire planet and various resistance-fighters trying to stop him, all of them (except Jor-el, of course) ignorant of the much greater crisis building all around them. When Zod is defeated, Anderson does a good job of showing the relief the planet's populace feel, thinking the worst is behind them.

And while that relief is spreading, a drama familiar to comics readers and movie-goers is playing out at the home estate of Jor-el, where he and Lara are saying good-bye to their little baby:

"It's time," he said to Lara, who clung protectively to their baby. "We can't wait any longer." Tears ran down her face, and Jor-el realized that he was weeping, too.

Lara wrapped their son tenderly in the blankets of their great house, the finest blue and red fabric emblazoned with the prominent symbol of Jor-el's family. "Kal-el, you have to go, or you'll die with us." She trembled, then straightened. This was their only hope.

Lara gave her infant son a final kiss, brushing her lips against the delicate skin of his forehead. Her voice hitched as she said, "I wish you well on your new planet, Kal-el. I hope you find your way among the people of Earth. I hope you manage to be happy."

The final line of Anderson's story of Jor-el and Lara (though not the final line of his book - he follows the little rocketing baby tantalizingly close to Earth) is simple and almost elegant: "They closed their eyes, and the world ended around them."

Anderson's projected next book is a version of the first meeting between Batman and Superman, and at this point in its genesis, it seems to be set in the 1950s, in what will, as far as DC is concerned, be an "imaginary story" - i.e. not part of their official continuity. If that ends up being true, it's possible Anderson's creative impulses (which are on display throughout The Last Days of Krypton) will have more freedom. DC might well have been monitoring him closely during the crafting of this present book, making sure he didn't deviate more than a fraction from received doctrine. At least, that's the story we'll go with.