"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The 'Aftermath' of my Childhood's Star Wars

Aftermath (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seeking a Particular Charm

There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.

The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)

Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.


A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward

Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!

The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.

In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.

These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.


Wendig the Tinkerer

If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.

Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.

As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”

Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.


The Fate of Canons

At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”

Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.

As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most.

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