Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

…In a Galaxy Far, Far Too Grey

[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: [1] 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 [2] … 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 …


November 20, 2015 Posted by | books, entertainment, movies, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment