Tag Archives: star wars

The magic refuses to die

It’s 26th May in Australia, but still the 25th in the USA. It’s a momentous anniversary, the first actual release of that juggernaut, Star Wars. That was the film’s name back then. No ‘episode 4’. No ‘A New Hope’. That would all come later, when George Lucas realised he had a really, truly block-buster on his hands. People queued around the block to see it at the thirty-two movie theaters prepared to take a risk with this science fiction movie produced and directed by a little-known newcomer. There you go. You never can tell.

It’s interesting how closely the date matches the release of the new Star Wars spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Harrison Ford, who played Han Solo, made his mark in that first movie all those years ago. Forty-one, to be exact. It never ceases to amaze me at the series’ longevity. I can understand the movie catching the imagination of 1977. It was fun, had a smart-mouthed heroine prepared to take charge (still too much of a rarity) and it had lots of TECH. It was understandable tech.  Space-capable fighters  flying in space as they would in atmosphere. Moving from planet to planet in the same time as it would take to drive across town. Blasters that looked a lot like your average pistol. All the planets seemed to have pretty much the same gravity and all of them had atmosphere humans – and most aliens – could breath. Lots and lots of aliens, most of them humanoid. And wow, gosh space ships! And star destoyers like great big aircraft carriers in space! And fighters and the Millenium Falcon, with dirt on them and scratches and things.  As if somebody had actually used them! And fights and explosions and this AMAZING baddy!!!

The science was lousy, but who cared? I certainly didn’t.

I suppose movies, like most things, are a product of their times. The Vietnam War had ended (with the US having to admit defeat) but the Cold War was still on. The Berlin War stood proud. Kids did atomic bomb drills (in US schools, anyway). Star Wars was an escape, another world to enjoy when this one didn’t offer much. It’s ancient history that the first movie led to a second, and a third, then a flood of Star Wars books of variable quality. The magic refused to die. So George made his prequels, with Darth Vader as a cute eight-year-old and his future wife as the Queen of Naboo. I never could see what Padme saw in the petulant, teenage Anakin. A lot of other people couldn’t either. The prequels were universally panned.

And still the magic refused to die.

A new generation of kids grew up to hate Darth Vader (or love him if you were a bit weird, like me) and love Han, Leia, and Luke. Disney bought the franchise, causing deep concern amongst fandom. But it was a smart move from the studio, which has been repaid in spades for its apparently large investment. Star Wars toys and merchandise had never vanished from the shelves. Now they returned with a vengeance, along with the long-awaited movies, the animated Star Wars: Rebels in the vanguard. It’s no secret that I thought The Force Awakens was derivative crap. But at least Star Wars was back. Rogue One was very good. The Last Jedi I think drew a thick line in marker pen under the old guard. Let’s hope Star Wars 9 really will be A New Hope. (Haha). We have some new characters to watch – Finn and Po and Rey. We’ll see.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56323217

I have hopes for Solo. It’s a return to the roots. The new young actor Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the role of Han Solo, has big shoes to fill. Think Han and you see Harrison Ford, who owned the role in the earlier films. However, from what I’ve seen it’ll be a fun romp taking place before the events in A New Hope (the original one). There’ll be no Force, no Leia – but there’ll be Lando Calrissian (played by Billy-Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back). Sure, it’ll be predictable, it won’t offer anything deep and meaningful that’ll leave you cogitating for days.

You know what? In these dark and dangerous times, that’s fine by me.

 

The one Rule of Writing you should never break (IMO)

Those who know me would realise that I raise an eyebrow at the mere mention of the Rules of Writing. You know the ones; thou shalt not use passive voice, thou shalt avoid ‘that’, ‘as’, ‘just’ and ‘there was’, thou shalt not use adjectives and yay, verily, thou shalt not use adverbs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. They are sensible guidelines to consider, NOT “rules” Somebody was supposed to have said, “There are three rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

BUT… the title says it all, doesn’t it? There is one rule you break at your peril, and that is

 

Do Your Research

I was involved in an interesting discussion with writers of science fiction, based on a blog post about whether the ‘science’ was important in science fiction. Specifically, the author discussed a scenario in a novel where a spaceship in deep space begins to slow down when the engines fail. There was some to-ing and fro-ing over how important it was that this would not happen. Without any drag in the almost complete vacuum of space, inertia would keep the ship travelling at a constant speed unless something else intervened. It transpired that the writer of the novel had based her ‘research’ on a few science fiction movies. This is not a great move when you consider films like Star Wars, where basic physics is either misunderstood (this ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs) or ignored. Think fighters zooming around in space as they would in atmosphere, and making a quick trip to Bespin without a hyperdrive, just to mention a couple.

People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds.

A similar thing can be said of historical fiction, which I have also written. Before I wrote about a lad beheaded with a sword – just for fun – I found out how this could be done and what would happen. If you’re interested, here’s the answer – murder by decapitation. When I needed to write a scene where muskets were used, I researched muskets. Here’s the post about that. Writers of crime novels face the same situation. You’re going to kill somebody. Is the mode of death feasible? How long does it take? What evidence is left behind etc etc.

I suppose not everybody will agree with me. After all, the story is the thing, is it not? And since I’m a Star Wars fan, I can hardly disagree. But I still think Lucas et al could have done their homework and come up with something more accurate and still just as exciting. Even a few nose thrusters in the fighters would have helped. And maybe the hyperdrive could have been damaged, in need of repair, but still barely operational. Sure, there’s a little more room in speculative fiction for invention. After all, it is ‘fiction’. But I think there’s a limit. Even when I wrote Black Tiger, which is about a were-tiger, I took care to find out about real tigers, the legend of were-tigers in India, and the role of tigers in Hindu theology.

So what do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Do you expect to find real science in science fiction? Real history in historical novels? Or doesn’t it matter to you?

Star Wars ISD – a good design, or not so hot?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Destroyer

Oh, man. The majestic Imperial Star Destroyer.  I’ve said before it was one of the reasons I fell in love with Star Wars. Here it is in all its glory. Bristling with weapons, a space-going aircraft carrier cum assault ship. According to Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels, the 1.6km long ship carried 9,700 soldiers, 72 TIE fighters, 20 AT-ATs, 30 AT-STs and an assortment of barges, gunboats, transports, shuttles and Skipray blastboats. Look at it, all angles and details, with its huge bridge (complete with picture window) and shield generation domes. Be still my beating heart. I built the plastic model, of course, and added lots of spiky details. It was/is a thing of beauty, and a joy forever.

And yet, that’s not what the battle cruisers in my novels look like. Why is this so?

Not, as you might imagine, the copyright issue. Nor is it anything to do with streamlining. In space, streamlining is not an issue. (In fact, the space battles in the Star Wars movies were giggled at by most of us who know a little about space. Those fighters maneuvered as they would in atmosphere, diving and curving like World War I Sopwith Camels.) Getting back to the capital ships, provided they stayed out of a planet’s atmosphere, they could be any shape the mind can conceive. Let’s face, it that pointy bow is unnecessary, even if it looks cool. Same with the angled deck surfaces.

My reservations about the design are more about that bridge structure. Would you really put all your commanders in such an obvious place? I know it’s based on a sea-going ships’ superstructure but I think even in the world’s navies, the actual command centre is well-protected, within the ship. That great T-bone up there is an obvious target. Remember when, in The Empire Strikes Back, an asteroid collides with the bridge of one ISD and takes out the ship? Oops. And then the bridge of the great SSD Executor is hit by a rebel fighter in Return of the Jedi. Double Oops. What’s more, those shield generators must have a pretty mighty job to effectively blanket the whole ship from that position. Clearly, from the previous, with a certain lack of success.

So my ships aren’t pretty. They’re a bunch of rectangles stuck on top of each. The largest and lowest contains the hangars, the hydroponics, the artificial gravity generators, and down the far end, the engine rooms. The level above contains the troop accommodation and training areas, kitchens, workshops and the like, and the highest contains the bridge (although well down the decks) and Fleet accommodation. It’s a big ship, more like 5km long, plenty big enough to support a task force. And of course, it would usually have escorts to protect it. Although it carries quite a bit of its own protection in the hangars and the weapons (missiles and energy weapons) deployed around the decks. The shield generators are on the lowest level and carry charge to a network of emission sites over the hull.The ships have two drive systems, one for shift space when they travel enormous distances through different dimensions, and another for travel in normal space. Like Star Wars ships, they can make a jump within a system, arriving fairly close to a planet. The drives themselves use controlled nuclear fusion. Don’t ask me how. Just look at a star. We know it works.

So… would any of you care to share your observations or feelings about Lucasfilm’s creations? Or wax lyrical about your own?

Finally. Star Wars is back

Well, well. Disney has acquired the Star Wars franchise. Funny, I was in a bookshop yesterday and remarked how incredible it was that a movie made in 1977 was still, 35 years later, making money. There were all sorts of spin-off items; books of ships, aliens, lego, figurines, model kits, games – let alone the endless stream of expanded universe novels.

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan so my first reaction to the prospect of new Star Wars movies is YAY… provided. I wasn’t a huge fan of the three prequel movies, although the SFX were fun and I thought the later Clone Wars cartoon movie was terrible. I’m desperately hoping for something better.

Please, Mister Disney, don’t rehash the old stuff. Pick up the expanded universe material and run with it, but carefully. There are some good novels among the pile of books churned out over the years. I haven’t read a great many of the novelsbecause many of them are, in my opinion, ordinary, but I have a few favourites. The first, needless to say, is absolutely anything with Grand Admiral Thrawn in it. Bring it on – the Heir to the Empire trilogy (see my thoughts on those) and then Zahn’s follow-up books – Spectre of the Past, Vision of the Future and Survivor’s Quest. Also the prequel, Outbound Flight.  Tatooine Ghost was well-written and I enjoyed Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, set in the interval between A New Hope and the Empire Strikes Back. Then there’s the X-Wing squadron books, which are numerous and very popular.

So… what do you think of this? Thumbs up, thumbs down? And which books would you like to see as movies?

Humans are such fragile entities

The more I read about the strangeness of our universe, the more I wonder if we, humanity, will ever colonise other planets. There’s not much chance we’ll settle on a diamond planet and I have to wonder how we’d go on many of the ‘earthlike’ planets already pinpointed. We are such fragile entities, we humans.

I’m in the throes of writing a sequel to my space opera Morgan’s Choice, which accepts the existence of political groupings of star systems into coalitions, federations and the like. Hey, I’m not special in that respect. Lots of SF writers have done the same thing, with great success – Elizabeth Moon, Jack McDevitt, Isaac Asimov etc etc and of course, Star Trek, Star Wars and the like. But how likely is it really?

Like all other animals we are closely attuned to our environment, more so than many of us actually realise anymore. In these days of electricity we can heat or cool our homes, spend half the night watching TV, or reading books, source food from all over the world so nothing is ever out of season, cross distances that took years in days. Yet we cannot escape the factors which shaped us.

I think there are five vital factors we will not easily overcome.

The first is our perception of time.

I use the word ‘perception’ advisedly, because time is something we measure for ourselves to put ourselves into context, if you will. But whether we think the sun is rising where we are, or setting, our bodies are built to expect a ‘day’ of twenty-four hours or so, because that’s how long it takes for the planet to revolve on its axis. What’s more, if we are suddenly wrenched from one time of day to another, as happens with long distance air travel, it takes time for our bodies to adjust. (It’s called jet lag)

Next is gravity, what we call weight.

We have evolved to suit the amount of force the planet exerts upon is. The advent of space travel and weightlessness has proved how important gravity is to our ability to function. Without gravity our bones lose density and muscles atrophy.

Then we move on to air.

Most of our atmosphere, what we breathe, is nitrogen, with twenty-three percent oxygen and a bunch of other gases in smaller quantities, including carbon dioxide. It also has a level of density. There’s more of it at lower altitude (see gravity). See what happens to mountain climbers if they climb before becoming acclimatised. Their bodies can’t cope. And if that mixture of gases changes past a certain level of tolerance, then what?

Then there’s temperature.

Humans exist in an apparently wide range of climates, providing they can find protection from the elements. But the range is actually not that wide in the scheme of things. This article in New Scientist speculates that global warming of only about 11° would render many places on our own planet ‘unliveable’.

The last factor is light.

Earth orbits a G class star which emits light towards the red end of the spectrum. We’re used to seeing colours in that light. If we lived on a world orbiting a cooler star with redder light, or a brighter star with more bluish light, we’d see colours differently.

Humans are adaptable. That’s why the species has been so successful. But even so, we’ve only ever had to adapt to the extremes of one planet. If humans are to venture to other planets I believe we will have two choices; terraform the planet into another Earth or modify the settlers to cope with the conditions. That would mean physically very different races of humanity occupying different planets. And here again, SF can offer plenty of examples. One that springs to mind is Moon and McCaffrey’s joint effort, Sassinak, where members of the Star Fleet have different body characteristics, depending on which planet they come from.

I admit I don’t take that route in my own writing. I simply assume all planets are earthlike, with only small variations in light, heat, time and gravity. I reckon I’m in pretty good company. Come on SF fans and writers, what do you do, what do you prefer?

Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy gives substance to Star Wars

I don’t mind admitting I’m a ‘Star Wars‘ fan – have been since the first movie back in the ’70’s. When the final credits rolled on my umpteenth viewing of ‘Return of the Jedi’ I was one of many who cast around sadly, looking for something more. Timothy Zahn stepped into the breach with his ‘Thrawn’ trilogy. Darth Vader and the Emperor were both dead but the Empire was still a formidable force – how very believable, suitable and fitting that a warlord would arise to fill the void?

There, in a nutshell, I have provided a clue to why I love these books. They ooze authenticity.

The basic background delineated in the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is still there, of course, with all the weird and wonderful worlds with identical gravity and breathable atmosphere. There, as always, the reader has to go along for the ride. But then, if you weren’t prepared to do that, you wouldn’t be reading this review. You’ll find Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, C3PO and R2D2 and other mainstays of the movies, along with new characters to love – and hate.

What Zahn has added is depth. The wounded Empire and the fledgling New Republic came across as very real, with the political in-fighting, brinkmanship and double-crossing one might have found as the Roman Empire fell into decline. Grand Admiral Thrawn is the warlord, one of the Emperor’s most trusted leaders. He is unusual because he is not human – but he’s as close as an alien could get. The Chiss are so humanoid that – apart from their red eyes and blue skin – they’re human in appearance. Thrawn poses a striking figure in his white grand admiral’s uniform. As a military leader he is unsurpassed – cunning, innovative, and resourceful. Thrawn is an art connoisseur, able to assess an alien adversary’s mental weaknesses through their art. This is a nice idea which certainly sets him apart. Once again, one must avoid asking too many questions, and go along for the ride. However he does it, Thrawn wins again and again, devising brilliant tactics to achieve his aims. I LOVED that part of the books.

The three books – Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – follow on from one to the next, as Thrawn’s Imperial forces advance on Republic planets. One pivotal character is a Jedi Master – or the clone of a Jedi Master, C’baoth. Thrawn has found a way to prevent the Jedi from using mind control on him, and seeks to use C’baoth’s Jedi powers to assist his own campaign. The unstable Jedi is masterfully depicted as flawed and arrogant. Not all the Jedi are perfect.

Of course, Zahn introduces new characters. One of the most important is Mara Jade, one of the Emperor’s most trusted agents. She is fixated on finding and killing Luke Skywalker. But so is Thrawn, who has promised to capture Luke, Leia and her unborn twins for C’baoth’s new Jedi order.

Each book starts with a star destroyer orbiting a planet – another gesture of unity with the Star Wars movies.

One thing I really, really liked is that the New Republic never wins a battle against Thrawn. They win in the end – you’d have to expect that – but the means is unexpected.

These three books date back to the early 1990’s and since then, Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn has become a cult figure. The author has been forced to write several other Thrawn books to cope with the demand.  This is space opera at its finest – fun, fast-paced and action-packed, as you’d expect. But, as I said in my introduction, what Zahn really offered was depth, details that even someone like me (I have a history degree) could believe in. There have been very many Star Wars spin-off since then; some are good SF, a lot are crummy pulp fiction. The Thrawn trilogy has earned a place as one of the finest of its type.

Star Wars Obsession

Reading somebody’s blog recently I was reminded about my own obsession with the Star Wars universe early in the life of the series. SW and The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have the benefit of digital enhancement. The special effects guys made their props in the old fashioned way – with models and blue-screen photography. The scenes with the running Taun-tauns on Hoth were painstakingly filmed, screen by laborious screen, using stop-motion animation. (Think Wallace and Gromit), while all that amazing hardware – Luke’s landspeeder, the sandcrawler, the magnificent fleet of Star Destroyers and the wonderful ‘Executor’ were all just little models hanging in a studio, to be brought to life by these wonderful craftsmen.

One offshoot of all this model making was, of course, the licensing of plastic model kit manufacturers such as Mattel to produce models for us afficionados to build. And build them I did, enhancing the stock models all the way. I built everything. Star destroyer, AT-AT (with tiny Luke running along beside with his grenade), X-wing, Y-wing, A-wing, B-wing, TIE fighter, Slave 1, the Imperial speeder bike…

As I built more and more, lovingly detailed to match what I saw in the movies, I started to want to build dioramas – small scenes from the movie, frozen in the act. Hence the AT-AT with Luke.

The picture up there is my piece de resistance and (apart from a model of DV himself) the only one I still have in my possession.

This is the crashed snowspeeder scene from TESB, the unseen AT-AT approaching from off stage. But this is no out-of-the-box snowspeeder. Well – it is. But I ditched the crummy pilot figures and substituted figures from a kit for a WW2 German troop carrier, suitably modified with helmets, webbing over their orange jumpsuits and even a little light sabre. The speeder’s cockpit was taken from a 33: kit for a Phantom jet fighter, which I could modify so the pilots were back to back. I also detailed the visible parts of the machine’s engine.

I think the snowspeeder kit cost $15. As I built it? Including the cost of the troop carrier and Phantom kits, more like $100.

Do you have any obessions you’d like to share?

Spaceships are sexy!

Just lately I’ve been asked questions along the lines of ‘what first attracted you to science fiction?’ I could always come out with sober answers about science and the future, Asimov, Arthur C Clarke yadayadayada. But the moment I fell in love with science fiction? That moment at the movies when the Imperial Star Destroyer (ISD) is chasing the Rebel blockade runner – Princess Leia’s ship. Remember? In Star Wars: A New Hope? This ship scuds across the screen, the planet below. You’re above it, as it hurtles past from top right. It’s past. You see the  ship’s drives and the blasts as it fires at – something. And then – Holy Shit! What in hell is that? I ducked. And that ISD just kept on coming and coming and coming.

It’s true. Spaceships are sexy.

As far as I can recall this was the first time a spaceship wasn’t depicted as streamlined (as in Buck Rogers etc). OK, that’s not true. The ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t streamlined, or ‘Enterprise’. But these ships were angular, with bits and turrets sticking out, which was fine in vacuum, of course. The ISD was depicted as an assault ship – an aircraft carrier and a troop ship combined, a huge, movable assault platform. With guys in sexy uniforms. Mmm. I loved it.

If that wasn’t enough, think of the scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ when Darth Vader stands at the picture window on the bridge of his ship. The opening part of that sequence shows an ISD moving beneath the shadow of a monstrous ship. Ahhhhh. My fate was sealed.

Executor.

I purloined the picture (top left) from https://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Executor where you can find a few more facts about this seriously sexy ship.

Rest assured, these big capital ships aren’t the only ones that make my heart throb, but they’re a start. Come on, share. What’s your favourite space ship?