[Nerd alert. And book-report alert. Both. At the same time. You have been warned.]
There are just some books that you go back to, over and over again. Either they’re good enough to re-read … or there’s something else about them that brings you back … or both.
I have one of those – and you’re going to giggle.
“Star Wars: Order 66: A Republic Commando Novel”.
I know; half of you just summarily bailed out.
I mean good grief, Rob, the title’s not only got one colon … it’s got two.
Well, look, it’s from the big wide sweeping (and now, thanks to J.J. Abrams and Disney, defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe, so obviously it gets the “Star Wars: …” treatment. And it’s the fourth book in a series with an overarching title, so it gets that, too … a title which admittedly sounds like a first-person shooter video game. … Sure enough, a decade ago, “Republic Commando” debuted as a prequel-trilogy-era video game, and not long afterward, author Karen Traviss began her series of tie-in novels.
Oh, Rob. You got caught up in one of those examples of product placement literature? How could you?
I’ll be honest: several summers ago I was loitering at my local public library, and what the heck, for no money down I could take a chance on a silly Star Wars novel – especially one with a title that referenced the moment it all went south for the heroic Jedi. And, methodical person that I am, I noted that it was book four, so I started with book one … and a startlingly short time later, arrived at “Order 66”. A guilty pleasure, to be sure, but a book! With paper pages to turn!
Let me yield a portion of my time to the exciting! book jacket! prose!:
As a battle-scarred era nears its end, a shattering power play is about to stun the entire galaxy … and set in motion events that will alter destinies and resound throughout history.
Even as the Clone Wars are about to reach an explosive climax, no one knows if victory will favor the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) or the Separatists. But no matter who wins, the stakes are highest for elite Special Ops clones like the Republic Commandos in Omega and Delta squads – and the notorious renegade Advance Recon Commando troopers known as Null ARCs. With Republic forces stretched to the max and casualties mounting, the last thing these beleaguered warriors need to hear is that Chancellor Palpatine is keeping vast armies of secret clone troops in reserve. … Caught in the treacherous dealings of their leaders, and locked in the battles of their lives, the disillusioned Null ARCs and Commandos nonetheless fight with everything they’ve got, determined to wrest victory from the Seps and save the galaxy. But even the deadliest weapons may not be powerful enough to defeat the real menace. And nothing will stop the apocalyptic horror unleashed when Palpatine utters the chilling words, “The time has come. Execute Order 66.” Translation: the Jedi have tried to stage a coup, and all must be shot on sight.
With their faith in the Republic and their loyalty to their Jedi allies put to the ultimate test, how will the men of Omega and Delta squads react to the most infamous command in galactic history?
Spoiler alert: Order 66 means the end for a lot of Jedi.
But during the first seven-eighths of the book, the inexorable approach of Order 66, which readers know is coming but none of the characters do, isn’t the only compelling subplot going on.
In the space of four novels, author Karen Traviss deals with little tiny insignificant issues like: are clone troopers, created and bred for combat, human? Do they know anything other than how to fight? Are they slaves? Do they have free will? Are they capable of disobeying orders if they believe the orders to be unjust? Do they suffer from PTSD and other difficulties that “regular” human soldiers do? (Spoiler alert: yes to all of that; and about that that last, yes, if not nearly as soon as “regular” humans.)
And she makes some very pointed points, while spinning tales of the Grand Army of the Republic and its galaxy-spanning campaign against the armed-insurgent Separatists. (Who, it is rumored, have many many many many many droids and other weapons of war ready to unleash electric death upon the good citizens of the Republic, and thank heaven for the Grand Army and an on-alert citizenry!, … and that rumor is mongered firmly by Republic politicians and PR people.) Traviss uses the GAR, its activities, and those of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (pre-Emperor) and the Republic as allegory for various recent military and public-relations campaigns that exist in our real world, starting not so long ago and not in a galaxy far, far away. The Star Wars universe has defense contractors, and fudged budget numbers, and military strategies that seem to emphasize maintenance of the status quo over making real headway in the conduct of a war, for reasons which the average citizen has no access to, let alone any idea about …
(Usually I try to remember one of the things that “space opera” doesn’t traditionally do, but which “science fiction” assuredly does: it allows an author to make veiled commentary upon pressing issues of the current moment. Hmmmm. Wars carried out via off-the-books funding … where have I heard that before?…)
As well, Traviss has taken some serious heat from some corners of Star Wars fandom, arguably because she dared to write books that don’t always show the good guys as good guys, and occasionally feature protagonists who do dastardly things in the service of the right cause and the right reasons. Hers is a very grey universe, compared with George Lucas’ original, much more 1930s Errol-Flynn movie-serial, black-and-white universe.
The heat that Traviss has faced can be traced, in part, to her reluctance to paint the Jedi Knights as the unfailingly, unflinchingly moral people that we have been used to seeing them as – from the first soliloquy of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in a small Tatooine hut, until the moment when the Jedi finally figure out that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Lord they were hunting for all along, and so clouded was their vision that they never saw it coming … and even after that, they’re sure that they’re still good people who just missed a signpost or two along the way.
Broadly, Traviss suggests that it’s not the Dark Side of the Force that clouded the Jedi’s vision … it was the Jedi’s moral degeneration, it was that they allowed their principles to slip – it was their willingness to be manipulated, to be changed from “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” and into the Republic’s corps of military generals, leading troops in military campaigns that by their very nature ran counter to the How To Be A Proper Jedi instruction manual.
Traviss shows this gradual shift through the eyes of Jedi General Etain Tur-Mukan. For three novels, Etain leads a group of clone troops but refuses to treat them as faceless, expendable automata, as many other Jedi do. (In a curious aside, one of the clone troopers calls Jedi General Obi-Wan Kenobi arrogant and egocentric, but concedes that he’s one of the few Jedi who address troopers by the names which many of them have chosen for themselves.) Instead she treats them as humans, not just as soldiers with operating numbers but as individuals with names and personalities and unique qualities, which in fact they do have. All of the above, in spades.
And because of that, two important things happen:  her troopers view her, and only a select few other Jedi, as worthy enough of their respect that when Order 66 is put in place, they look the other way.
And  … she and Darman, one of the troopers in her squad, become friendly, then friends, then more than friends, then lovers, then parents-to-be (but Darman doesn’t know), then parents. (A necessary but clunky soap opera subplot then occurs: how will he react when she finally tells him he has a son? The answer happens to be: first he freaks out; then he realizes that he’s a father, a role which his clonemaster creators on the drippy planet Kamino probably never planned for or even imagined. Even the clunky subplots get complicated and interesting.)
The mighty Wikipedia takes over the narrative for a moment (um, yes, super spoiler alert, and this time I’m not being facetious … if you want to read the book, pause here, please):
Chancellor Palpatine enacts Order 66, which means that all clones must kill off their Jedi commanders. Etain managed to have renounced her Jedi ways prior to Order 66’s enactment and married Darman … over a comm message. But Etain is trapped on a bridge on [the Republic capital planet] Coruscant with many other citizens of the Republic by clone troopers who are scanning for any Jedi to be killed in the crowd. Darman and several other clones arrive to extract Etain, but Jedi are found among the crowd. And during the ensuing battle, Etain protects a clone from being killed by a Jedi wielding a lightsaber, [is wounded and dies].
Again, spoiler alert: Order 66 means the end for a lot of Jedi – Etain included.
That scene, in which (I told you to look away, didn’t I?) Etain dies, is just awful. Not badly-written awful – Karen Traviss, in my book, is one of the Expanded Universe’s very best wordsmiths. Instead, it’s a horrific moment, exquisite in its depiction of simultaneous utter chaos and utter heartbreak, that a reader both can see coming and can hope won’t come to pass. Our hero might make it to safety; she might not … she’s about to make it to safety; and suddenly an event beyond her control places her squarely in the path of not-safety … and the absolute worst possible thing happens, both for her and for her clone trooper of a husband, who is standing mere yards away when it all goes down, and when it all goes horribly, permanently wrong.
She’s dead. No, she can’t be. … She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone– It wouldn’t stop. … She can’t be dead. She can’t be. She was right there, right in front of me.
What would go through your mind if you saw your mate murdered in cold blood? At any time, but particularly in a moment of wrong-place, wrong-time bad luck … and on top of that, while instinctively trying to do the right thing, to save someone else’s life, instead of laying low, keeping quiet, saving his or her own skin?
“She’s dead. She’s dead.” Darman said it, heard it, and hated himself. He’d said it; he’d made it real.
Traviss endeavors to show her readers what went through Etain’s husband’s mind, and it ain’t pretty … and I can only imagine that it’s just about spot-on. Fortunately, clone trooper helmets can offer a degree of privacy …
Darman could still see Etain and the lightsaber like a freeze-frame in his HUD when the holoimage emitter had gone haywire. He let it stay, switched off all comms, and screamed Etain’s name over and over in his silenced purgatory until he couldn’t scream anymore.
That scene comes 87 percent of the way through the book (or so my Kindle tells me), and it’s spectacularly painful to read … but is also so compelling that I’ve come back to it. Over and over again, over the course of the years since I first read it. I always start this book from the beginning and read those first 87 percent. Reading only the death scene seems voyeuristic, too thrill-seeking.
… the Darman who’d come to think he had a right to a life beyond the army, who’d loved a girl and married her, seen her die, and held a son for far too short a time before it was all snatched away from him – that Darman was too fragile to survive an indefinite period in this alien environment. That man would have to wait in suspension until the time was right for him to come alive again, if that time ever came at all.
Not bad for a video game tie-in novel.
So much for Star Wars as mere escapist entertainment.
Tragedy; politics; issues of warfare and of the people conscripted to fight it, and for whom … weren’t we supposed to be enjoying a facsimile of the old 1930s adventure movies? Zap guns and rocket ships and fun? This is Star Wars, right?
Now … let’s see if the upcoming The Force Awakens – Star Wars for the 21st century – decides to try and straddle that line …
“On teaching: … the job seems to require the sort of skills one would need to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no brakes, down a rocky road through the Andes while simultaneously providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.”
— author Franklin Habit
So, he puts up this (relatively) (for him) massive website to broadcast the idea that he’s planning to ramp up his musical arranging efforts. Those efforts previously were just kind of an extra, something on-the-side that he did for fun and a couple of bucks here and there.
But why? My writing in recent years has been mostly for friends. I haven’t gone in for all that Advertising and Marketing Stuff. I haven’t done research on estimated tax payments. Why shift gears now?
Among the several perfectly good reasons, it occurred to me – and I’m talking mainly to the music teachers out there, the school ensemble directors, and possibly the church musicians as well – that there’s one reason which has gotten especially notable in the last year or so:
You probably don’t have a spare minute to do it yourself.
I’m lucky to know a pack of music teachers – friends and colleagues with whom I have shared tales before – who probably are capable of putting a note or two down on paper (virtual or otherwise) for their bands, jazz bands, orchestras, choruses, small groups, whatever. I can think of one such friend and colleague who just put an item together for her middle-school jazzers, and seemed quite thrilled with it.
But given all the Stuff (with a capital “S”) that teachers have to do as part of their daily jobs – and the extra Stuff that various education departments, federal, state and local, have piled on top of them – well, I can imagine many music teachers thinking, “I’d love to write out this or that tune for my gang; but with what time, exactly?”
New evaluation regimens. New requirements for record-keeping, with respect to those evaluation standards, and to special-education plans, and … well, the list goes on and on. Even if teachers were “merely” teaching, and didn’t have to contend with all the other Stuff that goes with teaching (in many cases, being the parents that their students maybe don’t have, or certainly could sorely use), preparation of materials and strategies for those classes still would put time at a premium. Not to mention, they might be trying to maintain lives outside the workplace. What a thought.
In the last year or two, here in Massachusetts, a new requirement was dropped onto teachers of all stripes (music included): they need to take a specialized course in how to deal with English-as-a-second-language learners, and there’s a deadline before which they have to take it. It’s the equivalent of a semester-long graduate class, with weekly writing assignments; and everyone must complete it, and get a good grade, … and pay for it themselves. No help from the state, or from any individual school districts. Oh joy. Another unfunded mandate.
Don’t get me started. Oops. Too late.
I have it on good authority that the humor in those classes is strictly gallows.
<*shakes himself from his red-tinged haze of “you gotta be kiddin’ me”*>
Having been a high school band (and chorus and jazz band) director, I know all too well the virtual mountain of to-do list items that face music teachers regularly. Sometimes it’s a physical mountain of Stuff.
My new favorite quote about that specific version of teaching comes from a t-shirt meme, of all things:
Being a band director is easy.
It’s like riding a bike.
Except the bike is on fire.
You’re on fire.
Everything is on fire.
With all that, who has the time to write out the perfect arrangement, not to mention the time it takes to track down copyright permissions information and all the rest of the details that go into all this?
You could say I want to help.
So do feel free to pass the word … if you (or a friend or a colleague) have a project in mind that you will never in a million years get to, but would make your kids very happy (with you!) … drop me a note here, or visit the shiny new website, HammertonMusic.com …
… and let me know what I can do to make your life easier.
[Ed. Note: this blog post was originally posted over on my “News ‘n’ Notes” blog at HammertonMusic.com. Synergy! Or something.]
It’s a classic story.
A “Boy meets Girl” …
… “Boy and Girl become best friends and science-nerd co-workers” … “Boy dreams of the day when they might be an Item” …
… “Boy suffers major head trauma while saving Girl’s life” … “Boy therefore hallucinates a very helpful and supportive and totally Boy-invented version of Girl, even while Girl in real life has gone away to infiltrate a rival spy organization” …
… “Boy welcomes Girl back from her infiltration experience, and very nearly works up the grit to ask Girl to dinner, before Girl is sucked through a Weird Supernatural Portal and ends up marooned on Another Planet” …
… “Girl survives six months on Another Planet, keeping her sanity in part by recording Very Sweet Messages to Boy on her cellphone which she’s certain he’ll never see because she’ll never get back from Another Planet” … “Boy goes to ridiculous pseudo-scientific lengths to figure out how to trigger the Weird Supernatural Portal, does figure it out, and inexplicably visits that Another Planet and rescues Girl” …
… “Boy finally does take Girl to dinner and it goes rather poorly, not because Girl is still a trainwreck from the other-planet experience (although that’s true), but because there was another boy marooned on that planet with whom Girl conspired to design an escape and um sorta kinda apparently had a bit of a Fling with and there was so much more baggage than Boy has any idea about, and Boy thinks Girl is weeping based on the lingering effects of the trainwreck but Girl knows she’s weeping because at no time in her life did she expect to be the subject of a Soap Opera like this” …
… “Boy discovers photos of the other boy on Girl’s cellphone and is ready to flay Girl or the other boy or the both of ‘em … but Boy also discovers Girl’s Very Sweet Messages on the cellphone and goes from insane jealousy to dogged determination in the space of half a page of screenplay” …
Ya know. That old chestnut.
One of the things that drives a great deal of theatrical storytelling, and seems dominant in most American television drama these days … and assuredly drives the stories of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” … is two or more characters who are not exactly being straight with each other.
I love the “Agents”, but sometimes their drama drives me crazy.
Let’s see. Agent Coulson couldn’t tell anyone about his supernatural obsession with drawing weird alien flowcharts on walls. Agent May (for about ten minutes) couldn’t tell anyone that her ex-husband has acquired the ability to turn into a raging alien beast and kill people. Agent Ward couldn’t tell anyone that he spent years being trained — by a HYDRA double agent within S.H.I.E.L.D.! — to look and sound like a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent while actually working as something on the order of a quadruple-agent in the service of HYDRA. Agents Morse and Hunter can’t tell anyone that in spite of their divorced-spies status, they really do have the hots for each other and in fact are liaison-ing more frequently than Agent Ward growls, lately. (In fact, the nice lady who plays Agent Morse said in an interview that “she and Hunter have been keeping secrets from one another, evidently for years.”) Agent Skye only became a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to avoid going to prison for cyber-espionage against S.H.I.E.L.D., and as she began to like the idea of being S.H.I.E.L.D., she couldn’t tell her cyber-hacker friends about it …
And Agents Fitz and Simmons – who are so joined-at-the-hip inside their science lab that their fans *and their fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. characters often refer to them as FitzSimmons …
Well, they’re that weird, clumsy, supernatural, and excruciating boy-meets-girl story. And the only thing they can’t seem to tell each other is the thing fans wish they would just *say*, already.
Which got me to thinking … not about anything specific going on at the moment in Editorial License land … so you can stow your imaginations in the overhead compartments again …
But rather, as the two of them wrapped up this past week’s episode standing on a balcony, watching a sunrise, and as Simmons asked Fitz, “so, what’re we going to do about it?”, and as Fitz replied, “wha’ we’re doin’ now … just lookin’ at th’ sunrrrise,” [he’s very Scottish] … it seemed that Fitz had looked right into the face of the question that mattered most to him in the world, and couldn’t meet its gaze.
It also occurred to me that FitzSimmons were still not “doing anything about it”, and still not saying anything, and clearly we will spend either the next three-quarters of a TV season or possibly *the rest of the gosh-darn series* watching this Dance of the Seven Approach-Avoidance Coping Strategies.
(An aside: children of the 1980s will recall that the comedy private-eye TV show “Moonlighting” took a distinct turn for the worse when its two protagonists finally gave in and became an Item, so perhaps there’s a cautionary tale for the “Agents” writers. Same TV network and everything…)
So … can you drown in subtext?
One of the pieces of wisdom imparted to my friends and I, during our time listening to the wit and wisdom of our college band director, was this simple thought: “Tell people how you feel about them before it’s too late.” Things happen, life careens onward, and suddenly there comes the moment when death or something almost equally serious (and/or supernatural) slams the door shut, rings the curtain down, and you’re left only with the chance to have your opinions about someone rattle around inside your own head for the rest of whatever … accompanied by that irritating little voice that says, nice going, wimp, you’ll never get the chance to say it now.
Invoking the specter of death, out of nowhere (or being sucked through a Weird Supernatural Portal), is perhaps a bit melodramatic. Tap the brakes there, guy. And for you, dear reader, to deduce from all this that your humble Blogger is involved in a circumstance like Agent(s) FitzSimmons would be to understandably but sadly read waaaay too much into this. Tap the brakes, indeed.
Meanwhile, at times, for many perfectly legitimate reasons and in far less dire circumstances, it isn’t easy to be entirely up-front with people. Doing so can run the risk of being wiseacre without being wise. Honesty is the best policy … unless it isn’t. International diplomacy … interpersonal diplomacy … keeping other kinds of peace … keeping a rehearsal going in the right direction … not Poking a Bear that you don’t absolutely have to poke at this moment …
But at how many moments in our lives have we not bit the bullet, not said something that would change our situation irrevocably … or not just told someone how highly we regarded them, or that we really admired something they said or did or were … because we were unsure what was on the other side of that Weird (if not necessarily Supernatural) Portal? Even if that change were welcome, or even necessary … or if it represented something we’d always wished for?
So, to all my treasured family and friends and colleagues, all those Boys and Girls out there … I hope you know where we stand, and I hope you know we’re good. And I ought to take a moment very soon to say so, on purpose.
[Ed. Note: I wanted to put a disclaimer at the top of this post, saying, “Warning: many sentences in this post are of a very dangerous length.” But I liked the rhythm of the opening too much. Sorry if you sprained your eyeballs while reading.]
[Unexpected postscript: friends, I wrote this before the terror in Paris earlier today. I honestly (!) didn’t edit the thing at all; but events did conspire to turn it into a very different essay nonetheless – while simultaneously reinforcing the point of the thing. I did opt not to go with my original title, which was “Pull the Trigger Already”, and I suspect that was wiser. Anyway, you just never know when things will take a turn. Oi.]