Last Jedi

As with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, two years ago, I don’t see much point in doing a formal review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you’re planning to see it, you probably already have, and if you’re not planning on going, nothing I could say is likely to convince you.

Even so, I’ve got some thoughts. I’ll try to avoid significant spoilers, but no promises.

First up, Porgs. There weren’t nearly as many of them as I expected, and that’s a good thing. I, like many others, assumed they were strictly an opportunity to sell plush figures, but now we’re hearing that there was a practical reason to include them: apparently it was easier to digitally superimpose a cute, cuddly alien bird over the local puffins than it would have been to digitally erase the real birds.

Fair enough. But if there were puffins invading the Millennium Falcon set, that doesn’t speak well for the production staff’s attention to security and animal welfare. (In other words, adding Porgs to the later on-ship sequences was strictly a marketing decision. In a movie that was already more than two and a half hours long, did we really need Porg reaction shots during a space battle? From a storytelling perspective, I’d argue not.)

We finally saw ships’ shields doing some good. Not in the X-Wing fighters, of course. I’ve already made my feelings known about that. But if they work so well on the good guys’ larger ships, why don’t the bad guys invest in a few shields? Well, it would have made the early “bombing run” scenes rather different. (And, by the way, bombs? In space? Where there’s no gravity to drop them? They were clearly falling, not traveling under some kind of on-board engine.)

I could ramble for a while about light speed engines and regular engines apparently using different fuel–which seems possible, but kind of unlikely–but I’ll spare you.

“Hey, there’s a planet right over there where we can hide out.” (Not only do we see it on screen, but it’s apparently close enough that they don’t need to use the light speed engines to get there.) “They’ll never think to look for us there.” Okay…why not? Like I said, it’s right over there.

Final thoughts. There’s a movement afoot to petition Disney to declare Last Jedi non-canon.

No. That’s not how it works.

“Hey, The Two Towers sucks. It’s slow, nothing really happens. I’m going to petition the Tolkien estate to have it removed from the Lord of the Rings canon.

Everyone’s free to dislike a work of art, but the only ones who get to decide whether it’s canon are the creators.

Don’t like Last Jedi because it “destroys your childhood”? Fine. Don’t see it again. Don’t go see the next movie either, because you probably won’t like it either.

Don’t like it because of the way it treats characters from the original trilogy? Tough noogies. Time moves on, people change. And creatively-speaking, you can’t keep telling the same story over and over.

Again, vote with your dollars. If you don’t like what Disney is doing with Star Wars, don’t buy the merchandise, don’t see the movies.

But forget about trying to turn Last Jedi into expensive fan fiction, because that’s not your decision.

And, bottom line, the movie works on its own merits. Despite the nits I’ve picked (and the ones I could have but didn’t), it still holds together as a story. Yes, it left a lot of questions unanswered, but that’s what happens when you create a series: you have to leave something for the sequels.

I’ll let you all in on a writers’ secret: There are no beginnings and ends. Every book, every movie, and every other narrative is the middle of something. As a writer, you get to decide where to start telling the story, but it’s not really the beginning. You also get to decide where to stop, but it’s not really the end.

As middles go, Last Jedi is a pretty decent one.

Loose Ends 2

More loose ends.

Yes, I have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m only willing to dodge the spoilers for so long.

No, I’m not going to review it; the world doesn’t need yet another review. I am going to say a few words about it–if you’re sick of the coverage, feel free to skip down to the “Moving on” a few paragraphs down the screen–but it’s not a review in either the “good movie/bad movie” or the “go see it/avoid it like the plague” sense*. Just a few things that occurred to me during the show.

* There’s a lot of overlap between those two scales, but they’re not entirely equivalent. You can’t tell me you’ve never encountered something so bad it was wonderful or been bored to tears by a classic.

“Spoilers, Sweetie.” (So it’s a misquote. It’s better that way.) You’ve been warned.

Why the hell do both sides waste space in those little one-person fighters? Specifically, consider the shields. We’ve seen multiple cases of ground fighters with hand weapons attack–and damage, even destroy–X-Wing fighters. If the shields are so flippin’ wimpy, rip out the damn faster-than-light engines and use the space and power saving to beef them up! Moving the fighters from system to system is what carriers are for.

Speaking of shields, by now, shouldn’t somebody have figured out that the Millennium Falcon’s shields ought to come on automatically when the engines are started (or at least once it gets off the ground)? When was the last time you had to manually turn on the air bags when you started your car? Safety features should always default to “on”.

Mind you, the other side is just as bad at hardware design. Shouldn’t they have learned by now that single points of failure should be avoided? Don’t channel the entire output of a sun through a single thermal oscillator. Build three of the damn things, any two of which could handle the load.

An electromagnetic superluminal weapon (i.e. one that makes light travel faster than light)? That loses so much power as it travels that it can be seen by the people it’s passing at distances of millions of miles? That can turn corners? And be targeted so precisely it can hit a planet at those distances? That would be as if I shined a flashlight out of my office window here in California, aiming it so precisely that I hit the Eiffel Tower–and melted it! Look, I didn’t just suspend my disbelief, I locked it in my desk drawer before I got in the car, but even so, I heard it screaming in pain.

Light speed seems to be a continuing issue for fighter designers. Who thought it was a good idea to let the pilots control when to drop below light speed? Humans have trouble getting their timing right on a 95 mph fastball. Light travels 2,000 times faster. Why give your fighters one chance in 5,000 of arriving safely at their destination when every single one of them has an onboard computer (hello, R2-D2 and BB-8!) easily capable of doing the job right every time?

Shouldn’t this have been called Star Wars IV 2.0? There are a couple of good reasons for revisiting the original trilogy. Commercially, all those original cast members coming back make a compelling draw for the nostalgic and tie the reboot back to the original (see also Spock in the 2009 Star Trek relaunch). And artistically, the visual references and plot callbacks drive home the point that the rebellion has largely been marking time since the end of The Phantom Menace; it’s necessary to complete the cycle before moving on to something new. That’s all well and good. But couldn’t we have gotten that out of the way in the first, say, hour and a half, and then spent the remaining three-quarters of an hour moving into unfamiliar territory?

Don’t get me wrong. Despite all of the above gripes pulling me out of the movie at various points, I enjoyed the heck out of it. If you’re a fan, you will too–but if you’re not a fan, it’s not going to convert you.

Rant over.

Moving on.

With apologies to Arlo Guthrie, remember writing? This is a blog about writing. OK, sometimes. Occasionally.

One thing I’ve relearned over the last few years is that there really isn’t as much of a difference between writing fiction and non-fiction as we often think. Either way, there’s a process of selection, an answer to the question “What are the most important pieces of the story?” Whether it’s a novel, a news report, a scientific article, or a technical report, you don’t include everything. You summarize, you omit side issue (or save them for the sequel). And you make stuff up. Always. Think about the last status report you sent your boss. How much of that was “just the facts”?

And there’s no such thing as neutral writing. Even the much-reviled and ever-popular passive voice sends a message, either about your abilities as a writer or about what you think of the content of your writing.

Nowhere is that concept more obvious than in anything “based on a true story”. (I could tie this back to Star Wars with a reference to American politics and the prequels, but that way lies The Horror That Walks on Floppy Feet. Best to let it lie.) Which brings us to the final loose end I’m going to tie up this year.

All of our cats are indoor-only. Most of them are rescue kitties; they’ve spent time on the streets and seem to have little interest in going back to that life. We keep a watchful eye whenever a door is open, but for the most part, they’re happy to stay inside where it’s warm and dry, and where treats abound. But shit happens.

In March of 2003, Watanuki escaped. He got out through the kitchen window, which was a little too far open. We’re fairly sure it was an accident, that he was protesting the presence of one of the Backyard Bunch and just fell out. But regardless of how it happened, he was on the loose for several weeks.

Of course I wrote about it while it was happening, but that was in the very early days of the blog. Very early: ‘Nuki was already on the loose when the blog launched. At the time, I wasn’t confident enough in my writing to post anything I came up with.

But I couldn’t let the subject drop. I’ve written several different versions of the story of Watanuki’s adventure, but none of them has quite clicked for me.

Fast-forward two years and nine months. Finally, I’ve got a story–photo-illustrated, even–that I like. I can finally close that kitchen window and start 2016 with a different view of my writing.

Coming tomorrow: The Tale of Knuckles Malloy.

Time Machine: 1977

Blame this post, aka “wallow in nostalgia,” on John Scalzi. As a time/space filler today, he asked his readers to document their favorite piece of media at age 12.

I had an instant answer to that: “Star Wars”. As I mentioned in the first post on this blog, I was part of the horde of obsessed Star Wars fanboys. And when I say “obsessed”, I mean seriously – to the point where I demanded visits to Burger King in order to get the series of Star Wars posters they had as giveaways. (Mine has never been a fast food oriented family, so going to Burger King was a significant deviation.) I’m pretty sure I’ve still got at least some of them, tucked away in one of the boxes of wall decorations that I don’t have wall space for.

But having answered the question, I started to think that there was probably more going on that year. Obsession or no, I couldn’t imagine I spent all of my free time on Star Wars. I started taking a walk around the Web looking at what else was going on in 1977, and there was a heck of a lot. Join me in a ramble through my memories please.

One of my ongoing media obsessions was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. For several years, I listened to it most nights, and recorded a number of shows on a cheap cassette recorder sitting next to my radio. CBSRMT ran from 1974 until 1982 – just shy of 1400 episodes. Shows varied wildly in subject and quality, but had such wide appeal that there is still a core of fans devoted to locating and digitizing the episodes. I didn’t follow the full run, having come to it late, but since my favorite episode, “The Forgetful Ghost” aired in January of 1978, it’s virtually certain that I was listening to the show in 1977.

The first part of the year was marked by a couple of space-related items. The prototype Space Shuttle (named “Enterprise” in homage to Star Trek) was unveiled in late 1976 and I followed the progress of testing eagerly. In March, the rings of Uranus were discovered. Finding out that Saturn’s rings were unique only in their size and complexity was a huge shock to the world (or at least that part of it that paid any attention to astronomy). Lots of beautiful pictures.

1977 was the Seattle Mariners’ first season. I probably didn’t go to as many games as my memory suggests, but I know I went to several. I suspect that some of those Burger King visits were on the way to or from ball games. I do know the Mariners took a lot of my attention through April and May (Star Wars was released at the end of May).

August brought the so-called “Wow! Signal”. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project monitors radio signals from space looking for intelligent transmissions. The Wow! signal met many of the criteria SETI was watching for, and the initial reports, at least in the popular press, was that it was a signal from aliens. The fact that it was of short duration and has never been seen again casts significant doubt on that belief, but at the time it was a big deal to the space-obsessed, especially coming as it did against the background of the ongoing Enterprise Shuttle tests and just before the launch of Voyager 1 on its way to study the outer reaches of the Solar System. The Voyager probes, by the way, carry a message to any aliens who might stumble across them in the form of special gold-plated copper phonograph records with nature sounds, speeches, and music.

A rather more popular record was the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever”, which was released in November. Popular culture “Religious Wars” didn’t begin with Mac vs PC, Emacs vs vi, or even Star Wars vs Star Trek; the rock vs disco struggle was probably the most vicious during my teenage years. Disco fans were thrilled with the SNF. Rock fans were horrified. I was largely neutral, as I listened to more Swing-era music than anything else at the time; massive overexposure of SNF and the Bee Gees however, inclined me towards the rock side of the battle lines.

If memory serves, the first LPs I owned were Christmas gifts in 1978: Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds” and – wait for it – the “Star Wars” soundtrack.

1977 clearly shaped a large part of my life with major baseball, space, and science fiction influences. Thanks for the reminder, John!