The Negative Star Wars Review

(This review contains just about every SPOILER imaginable for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)

It’s been thirty years since we’ve visited the Star Wars Universe, and you could convince me that just about anything had happened in that galaxy far, far away in that amount of time — but not that nothing had happened.

The new Star Wars movie did a lot of things right, and there’s very little that was actually put on the screen that I found fault with. But as the movie went on, it was what was not shown, what was alluded to, that I found very unsatisfying.

This is what we find has occurred — or, not occurred. The Rebellion is now the Resistance — what it is that they resist, exactly, we don’t know. Progress, perhaps, because at the end of The Return of the Jedi not only have the Hitler and the Goebbles of the Imperial regime been killed, and the Death Star and Super Star Destroyer destroyed, but in the Special Edition, we see Stormtroopers being body-surfed off of high-rises, leading us to believe that the Imperial Government has completely collapsed, leaving it wide open for the new Alliance leadership to step into its place. But in thirty years, what do we find has been achieved?

Precious little, it turns out. There is no new government. The Han/Luke/Leia triumvirate hasn’t brought the peace to the galaxy which was inferred in ROTJ after all. Nor has the very strong cast of secondary characters: Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, and Lando Calrissian — all of whom also have strong leadership experience. These all have completely dropped off the radar.

Conflict avoider

The greatest Jedi Master in the galaxy, or conflict avoider?

And the original Big Three? How have they spent three decades? Well, Leia has been touring around with forty or fifty other guys in a kind of cut budget Rebel Alliance, using refurbished X-Wing fighters. She doesn’t have any express aims besides finding her brother, Luke, who apparently tried to set up a Jedi Academy. That didn’t work out so well it seems, one of his pupils went to the Dark Side so he got bummed and went to live on an island. He left his lightsaber in a box in the back of a bar somewhere (when I was a kid I thought that his lightsaber was the coolest thing in the world, but Luke felt differently apparently). He rather coyly left a map for anyone trying to find him, which makes less sense the more you think about it.

Deadbeat dad

Hero of the New Republic, or deadbeat dad?

Leia and Han hooked up together long enough to have a son, but then they split up for some reason. Seeing them on screen together, you get the impression that they were both too cynical and facetious to make anything work. No wonder their son grew up to be so angry and alienated, he’s the only one with any sort of emotional depth in the entire galaxy. Han shares screen-time with both Leia and his son separately, but there are no words of love expressed, just low-level regret undercut by a lot of smirking, so he should have seen what was coming. He abandoned his wife and son to wheel and deal with Chewbacca and he thinks he’s going to make everything better with a grin and a handshake?

Essentially, every character we care about has regressed back to who they were before the original trilogy began. And this is what was disappointing to all of us Star Wars mega-fans, those of us who not only loved the movies, but also the books, comics, and video-games which expanded the stories past the events in The Battle of Endor.

Underachiever

Intergalactic politician, or underachiever?

In those stories, called the Expanded Universe, which started in 1991 with the almost simultaneous publications of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire comic series, the cast of Star Wars led fruitful and fulfilling lives. In the thirty years of continuity covered by the novels and comics, Han and Liea had conflicts, but stayed married. Leia is not only Chief of State in the New Republic, she also found time to train as a Jedi knight under her brother. Han and Leia had three children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin. Luke also marries and has a son, Ben. He sets up a new academy for Jedi, but instead of just one pupil, he starts with half a dozen, and from those he trains up masters, so after thirty years he is well on his way to filling the universe with Jedi again.

I’m not saying that any of that should have been kept, but there’s no reason to throw it out if there isn’t anything at least as interesting to take its place. Everything in the Expanded Universe is all non-canonical now — instead we are presented with a more boring, less inspiring Universe. The heroes that once inspired us thirty years ago have done nothing else inspiring or worthy of anything more than a footnote. No wonder The Force has been asleep all this time.

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PAW 26 – Barchester Towers (1180) by Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

Seeing as my first Penguin A Week post was Trollope’s The Warden, I thought it would be fitting to review its sequel, Barchester Towers, for my last review.

As delightful as The Warden was, I found Barchester Towers to be even more so, if only for the reason that it is a longer book, and therefore there is more to delight in. By the standards of most Victorian novels (at least the ones that are still popularly read), The Warden is a novella. Barchester Towers has more of the length and plot development that we would expect when looking at it in context of its contemporaries, such as works by Dickens or Thackery — or even Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc.

Perversely, I suspect that one of the reasons that Trollope often comes in last when spoken of alongside the authors I just mentioned, is because his work is so much more accessible to the general public, and therefore less appealing to academicians. He is much more relaxed and less abstracted than Dickens and Thackeray. He has a point of view, but he does not seem to care whether the reader shares that or not. He draws attention to himself in the narrative without ostentation, just as someone who is relating a story, informally, after a meal, and who breaks away to explain a point that might hinder understanding or enjoyment later on. Whatever the aims of Victorian Literature may have been, Trollope’s express interest is simply in having you, the reader, enjoy the story, and if it is not enjoyed, then Trollope is obviously happy for you to find amusement elsewhere, and will carry on with his tales with those who are still present for it. (One of my favourite asides occurs in Chapter 6, where Trollope himself, without even using a mouthpiece character, launches into an invective against the modern church sermon.

This is very refreshing for anyone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Victorian fiction. And as with The Warden, the cast of characters is rich and well-developed. Trollope comes close to creating villains in this work in the form of the pious Proudies and the oleaginous Mr Slope. There are also the Stanhopes adding a great deal of conflict into the quiet Barsetshire community with their total indifference towards the problems that they create. Trollope very wittily describes them thus:

The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it was not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

The Grantlys and the Hardings in this book, as in the last, stand at the centre, fighting the good fight against modernism, progressivism, and reform. And so it makes the reading of it rather bittersweet, for the England they fought for is now long gone. But the feeling and intelligence of that age is luckily preserved for us in this and the rest of the Barset novels.


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PAW 25 – The Flying Inn (1338) by G. K. Chesterton

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn is one of Chesterton’s non-detective fictions. Running in similar a vein to Manalive, the action is less plot-based than character. There is a distinct situation that is created at the start of the story, which is that in the near future, the UK votes for prohibition and so the entire country becomes dry. The two main characters of the book, Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, decide to take to the road with a wheel of cheese and a cask of wine, becoming outlaws, intending to set up their ‘flying inn’ by the roadsides.

The plot, like much speculative fiction, was more outlandish at the time than it might seem now. Chesterton preceded the adoption of prohibition in the US by three years. And although the book has a serious point to make about life and humanity — chiefly that you cannot legislate morality, and that austerity is very far away from piety — the book is also very much a comedic romp. Unlike any of Chesterton’s other novels, it incorporates poetry into the narrative, many of which have become very popular like The Rolling English Road, which begins

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

The poems in this The Flying Inn were so popular they were collected into an entirely different book called Wine, Water, and Song. My personal favourite is The Song of Right and Wrong.

This book also contains one of my favourite chapters ever written, which I have already discussed at length in this blog.


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PAW 24 – The Confidential Agent (1895) by Graham Greene

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent is an early Graham Greene book, written in 1939 when he was still on the rise. Like The Comforters by Muriel Spark, it was written under the influence of mild psychoactives, in this case Benzedrine. Greene wrote it at the same time that he wrote The Power and The Glory, which he was finding very hard work. After taking a tablet of Benzedrine in the morning, he would write 2,000 words of The Confidential Agent, and then return back to P&G in the afternoon. The book was finished in six weeks.

As such, Greene never really felt it was a book that he actually wrote, and in fact it was one of his own books that he actually reread later on in life. When it was written, he petitioned to have it published under a pseudonym, not so much because he was ashamed, but because he felt it belonged to someone else (although it’s possible he didn’t want to confuse his readership. Throughout his career he was very particular about designating certain books ‘entertainments’, as distinct from his more serious fiction).

All of that said, The Confidential Agent is Greene through and through, and could never have been written by anyone else except Greene. The story has to do with a secret, or ‘confidential’, agent who has come to England from the European mainland (although this is never mentioned, it is fairly obviously Spain) in order to buy coal for his country’s revolutionary war effort. As is usual with Greene (who can easily be seen as a precursor to writers like LeCarre), he completely undercuts the genre from any of the drama and set action scenarios that other spy story practitioners would — even in one of his own entertainments, he couldn’t bring himself to create anything less than a three-dimensional, internally flawed and morally ambiguous character.

A wonderfully delightful book, it certainly does not measure short when taking its place among the rest of Greene’s cannon.


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PAW 23 – Selected Cautionary Verses (1349) by Hilaire Belloc

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses is a collection of verses pulled from Belloc’s books of humorous poetry, Cautionary Tales for Children, New Cautionary Tales, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, More Beasts for Worse Children (my vote for best sequel title of the 20th Century), More Peers, and Ladies and Gentlemen. The book is illustrated by Nicolas Bentley and ‘B. T. B.’, or Basil Temple Blackwood. Bentley was the son of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a friend of Belloc’s, and G. K. Chesterton. And of particular interest to Penguin Paperback collectors, this is a rare (unique?) work that was first published as a Puffin Story Book (PS67) in 1950 before being reissued as a Penguin in 1958.

The first poem, titled ‘Jim (Who Ran Away From His Nurse, And Was Eaten By A Lion)’  is still fairly well known, and is always a joy to read. The rest of the poems, sadly, do not age well. I think that a lot of the original humour is predicated on the over-moralising of Victorian Children’s poetry, which we simply aren’t familiar with anymore, thank God.

As it stands, it is a satire on something that we don’t recognise and so it cuts a strange shape. The verses themselves are not so accomplished – the line metres are occasionally fudged, to poor effect. Some of them (including the pictures) would now be considered racist. There aren’t a lot of poems in the collection, and sometimes the layout interferes with the flow.

That said, these are intended as light verses, so maybe we shouldn’t give them so much weight.


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