The Force Awakens, turns over and thinks about getting up

As with Star Trek, JJ Abrams took on an inheritance that had lost all its creative spark and re-energised it. He has done this more successfully than with Trek – as long as you concentrate on the characters and not on what’s going on around them. He doesn’t add much that is new but he takes the existing shapes in the toybox and rearranges them into fun new patterns. The Force Awakens was fun to watch, those two hours passed very quickly, and I can still remember the plot, which is a lot more than I could do less than 24 hours after any of the the last three.

We have a fantastic female hero with her own agenda that does not include saving the galaxy; we have a pretty good flawed male hero who is a deserter and just wants to get away. Personal agendas just happen to collide into galaxy-saving goodness. The end of Return of the Jedi was not a happy-ever-after for everyone; we can understand how Han and Leia have drifted apart. Sadly, that is how many couples very easily react to heartbreak. In short, our good guys manage to be good and flawed and interesting, which prevents them from being overshadowed by the bad guys (a flaw of episodes 4-6) and makes us care about them (one of the many flaws of episodes 1-3).

The bad guys are less successful, but they are bad enough to swing it. Kylo Ren is a nice try at a new Vader but … not quite. He just walks up to people. He doesn’t stride, loom, or possess a scene just by being there. He is not the biggest guy in the room. This may be deliberate: he is young; he still has his grandfather’s tendency to tantrum (though unlike his grandfather, he does something about his grievances instead of just whining about them); his reach exceeds his grasp. The most memorable baddie to me was the carpet-chewing, implausibly young General Hux. On the one hand, I like to see a senior bad guy officer who obviously considers himself the equal of the Vader-figure and doesn’t live his life in fear of Force-choking. On the other hand, that fact alone diminishes the impact of the Vader-figure.

These are quibbles. Take home message: characters good.

But when you look at what is going on in the background …

Okay. Abrams simply does not get planets. This became apparent in his first Trek movie where the entire destruction of Vulcan thing made no sense whatsoever. It becomes even more apparent here. The death planet draws its power from its sun; we see some kind of solar filament extending out through space to do just this. (It is fully charged when the sun goes out. Does the sun recharge? Does it find a new sun? We see it fire once, then start to recharge prior to a second firing, so something must have happened.) The filament does not wrap itself around the planet; therefore, the planet does not rotate on its axis. (It would wobble badly if it tried.) Despite this, it is always facing the right direction for wherever it wants to shoot at. (Which could be anywhere in the galaxy. Maybe it’s at the end of the galaxy? Is this why its death rays are visible wherever in space you happen to be? Is it on Terminus? Is the First Order in fact the Foundation? Discuss.)

Next, the Republic was the political successor to the Empire, so it ought to be the one that inherited all the Empire’s resources: the star destroyers, the TIE fighters, the stormtroopers. So why is the Republic (well, okay, the Resistance but they seem contiguous) the one that is just as ragtag as the Rebel Alliance of old and the First Order is the one able to carve out entire planets into death weapons?

I suspect Abrams is drawing on the audience’s experience of the real world in which the Soviet Union fell (hooray!) and was replaced by something almost as big and unpleasant (boo!). So, in The Force Awakens, the Republic ought to be the one with the death planet while Leia’s Resistance continues as before.

These to me were the two biggest things that just did not make sense, and if I chose to dwell on them they would spoil the memory. So I won’t. I’ll just remember Rey and Finn and Poe and BB8 and look forward to seeing where their paths take them in the next movie.

Some final thoughts presented as bullet points:

  • Leia’s hair continues to defy. Never mind what – it just defies.
  • Stormtrooper armour keeps out smoke but not gas, so it is therefore slightly less good than the standard NBC battle kit available to modern NATO forces.
  • The lightsabre that belonged to Luke and his father before him was lost in The Empire Strikes Back when his father cut off the hand that was holding it, over a very long drop. Luke then made himself a new one.
  • Jakku is Tatooine by any other name – they could have varied it slightly.
  • The supreme evil behind the First Order, the next Palpatine, is called … Snape? Scrope? Scrote? Hang on, I’ll just look him up: Snoke. For crying out loud. “All hail the power of Snoke!” Really?
  • X-Wings and TIE fighters are capable of hyperspace travel, but fly not much faster than WW1 biplanes when engaged in atmosphere combat.
  • Max Von Sydow is still alive?! Good grief, how old is he?

Japes joy

My short story collection Jeapes Japes has been reviewed, which is nice; favourably, which is even better; and it’s the first time my entire body of short fiction has come under the critical spotlight, which is absolutely wonderful. Though I say it myself, I appear to be quite good. Or maybe I should say that I appear to have been quite good, as I haven’t written short fiction now for over a decade. By the time my last piece appeared (“Go with the flow”, Interzone, 1999) I was into novel writing mode and life is too short for both, sadly. At least, mine is.

The line I found most interesting was this:

“The stories contained in the collection generally find the characters tending to merely support the novum of the story, rather than being the centrepiece of the tale. The tales therefore better present ideas rather than uniquely interesting characters, and after each the reader dwells more on the notion presented than the personalities.”

Yup, I’ll agree with that. (And while I’m here, may I add that the reviewer is quite fond of the word ‘novum’ – it turns up once or twice later on too.) I strongly suspect it’s the influence of too much Asimov in my youth, and it’s very nice of the reviewer to make a strength out of what I would still regard as a weakness. A beginning writer will usually write about nothing but the idea, and the story either grinds to a halt or turns out not very good because you need – gasp! – characters, who are interesting enough to make you care what happens to them, and another couple of ideas to make it into a proper story. I got the hang of that, but the originating idea always dominated. In novels, this was not such a problem because the originating idea inspired lots of other stuff and eventually it could just merge into the background. In short fiction I never had enough room for that to happen.

This is actually something I am trying hard to shake off, because I would love to be able to write just good ol’ adventures, pure and simple. Someone gets out of bed one morning and pow! Things start happening in their life. Some writers can do that as easily as breathing. I’m working on it.

I’m very glad the reviewer considers “Pages out of order” (F&SF, 1997) to be the stand-out story, because so do I: it’s one of the most personal contributions and also one I would really like to expand into a novel, if I can just do all the necessary working out. It might not be the only time travel story set in an English public school – though no others come to mind at present – but I’d bet good money it’s the only one ever published by F&SF. “Crush” (Interzone, 1993) was also quite a personal one to write, getting a lot of stuff off my chest, but I had no idea I had done it well enough for it to be described as a “rather chilling tale of obsession … Jealousy, obsession and incarnate rage are all wonderfully snippeted in this brief tale”. Cor.

So, what are you waiting for: buy from the publisher Wizard’s Tower or, if you’re one of those people who absolutely insist on patronising evil empires, from Amazon. Let’s give the reviewer the final word so you know what you’re getting:

“The stories leap sporadically from one genre to another, without flow or warning and yet they still somehow all work so well together. A reader gets far more from the ideas and suggestions each story creates, than from the characters themselves which are never really explored to much depth. This augments Jeapes Japes as the classic SF short story writing that gives each tale a striking novum and characters far more incidental to that central idea. Indeed it is not the characters that stay with you when you put the book down, but the rich and exciting ideas that burst from this collective library of short stories.”

Child’s play

Time’s Chariot gets its first decent review – by my standards of decent, anyway, i.e. by a science fiction publication with reviewers who are likely to Get It – in the latest Vector. It emerges favourably at the end, even if the reviewer does play the game reviewers like to play (and I doubtless do it myself) of “pick up on something that hasn’t even occurred to the author and make a deal of it”.

Sometimes this is good; it reveals strengths and weaknesses and stylistic quirks that the author can take into account the next time round. Sometimes it’s just baffling …

“The fact that it is so clearly ‘written down’ for children might prevent their full enjoyment.”

Ahem. ‘Written down’? That’s my actual style, thank you very much.

You don’t believe me, ask a genuine child, like 14 year old Tommy who reviewed it in the Cork Evening Echo, second only to Vector and perhaps Locus as a nexus of the sfnal hive mind. Generously he gives it a 7/10, apparently deducting 3 points because “this book would really only be suitable for anyone over the age of 12 because the author uses difficult words to describe things and there is some bad language”.

Sadly he doesn’t cite the bad language (I’d love to know where he found it) but he does at least explain that bit about the difficult words: “I didn’t like the way the author used futuristic, made-up words which he didn’t explain, for example agrav.”

A future in SF critique does not (yet) lie ahead of young Tommy, but give him time.