Saturday, November 28, 2015


Shattered Empire gives us very few clues: not that we necessarily expected or wanted it to.

Star Wars — the new totally canon Marvel comic — felt (at least to start with) like a movie. I have described reading it as being like looking outside the frame; seeing what was going on just before or just after or just out of shot in a famous scene. 

Shattered Empire feels more like an annotation; like someone scribbling in the margins of a holy text. [*] Quite pretty scribbling, actually. But it keeps telling me things I wish I didn’t know. 

As Luke Skywalker flies the shuttle -- the shuttle bearing his father’s body -- from the Death Star to Endor, he is intercepted by an A-Wing pilot. 

The following conversation ensues: 

“…Vessel is under friendly control” 

“Commander? Not your usual ride. Always heard you were an X-Wing jockey” 

“I was kinda in a hurry” 

I was kinda in a hurry? This is the Luke Skywalker who has just acted out the world-saving drama that is at the heart of the whole ennealogy. The Luke Skeywalker who has taken off the black mask and seen his father’s face for the first time. The Luke Skywalker who has, incidentally, been zapped practically to death by the Emperor. His last words in the Trilogy are “I’m going to save you”. They should be left to stand; until after the funeral pyre, until after the Force ghosts. 

“I’m going to save you..” 

“You already have” 

“I was kinda in hurry…” 

If we must slip in behind the frame, then the question we would like an answer to is "What came of Anakin-Vader’s last command?" Did Luke tell his sister he was right him? And if so, how did she react? Can she forgive the person who blew up her planet as easily as Luke could forgive the person who killed Owen and Beru and Ben and Biggs? And how does this knowledge affect her? Leia appears in the comic, but there is no sense that anything traumatic has happened. Han seems to have forgotten all about the “he’s my brother” revelation within literally minutes. That’s a scene we’d like to have seen as well. 

Of course, we know what’s going on. Jason Aaron is in some respect strait jacketed in the Star Wars comic because he is writing about character’s in the past tense. He can’t decide that Chewie was killed in between episode IV and V; any major new character introduced has pretty much got to be vaporized before they get to Hoth. But he’s also got a certain amount of leeway: he knows where his cast have got to end up, but he is pretty free to choose the route. And he knows lots of stuff that they don't. Greg Rucka has all the limitations but none of the freedom. He can’t do anything that might contradict the Force Awakens; but he doesn’t know, any more than we do, what the Force Awakens is actually going to be about. 

If anything, the absences are the big clues. The lack of a Big Scene between Luke and Leia and another Big Scene between Luke and Han suggests that those Big Scene are going to feature in the forthcoming movie. [**]

There is a plot. The plot is that The Empire wasn’t completely defeated after Return of the Jedi. Before the last firework burns out and the last gub-gub fades away, the Rebels are defending themselves against Imperial Remnants who are bent on carrying out the Emperor’s last command — which involves flattening particular planets like Sterdic IV, the Wretch of Tayron and Naboo. Repeating the Rebel Propaganda that the Emperor is dead is treason, obviously. 

I suppose that if there is going to be a story, there have to be baddies, and I am pleased that the new film will involve the real space ships from the real movies not the made up hardware from the prequels. But does this have to be done in such a way as to wipe out Return of the Jedi? The film ends on a Great Victory. There are fireworks. George retrospectively decided that there were fireworks on Naboo and Coruscrant and Tatooine. But here is Han on the morning after telling us that "it’s not over yet” and wondering why no-one told the Empire that it lost. One of the “crawls” actually goes so far as to say that "for many rebels, the dream of laying down their arms and living in peace seems further away than the elation of victory promise". 

If the Empire is a military machine then killing off the Leader might in itself make very little difference. The loss of a huge piece of military hardware that they’ve sunk vast resources into would probably be more serious. To lose one Death Star might be regarded as misfortune; to lose two seems like carelessness. But if the Empire is the metaphorical representation of all that is Evil then killing the Dark Lord ought to be pretty final. Tolkien knew what he was doing when he said that the Dark Tower literally fell as soon as the Ring went into the furnace. 

In Lucas’s original conception, the Emperor was basically weak and corrupt: out of touch with his people, manipulated by his generals, somewhere between President Nixon and the emperor of Japan. But in the canonical version, the transition from republic to Empire and the Clone Wars are part of a Sith Masterplan. With the Sith Master dead and the Sith Apprentice both dead and returned to the Light Side, surely the Empire ought to revert to a more or less benevolent Republic more or less immediately? Indeed, if the Emperor knew he was about to lose, wouldn’t preserving the Sith bloodline be his primary concern? 

Leia goes to Naboo to warn them about that the Empire is coming. Palpatine demilitarized the planet, but Queen Soruna knows that there are ships and weapons from the Olden Days hidden deep in the the bowels of the planet. (Naboo fashion hasn't become any less ridiculous in the 30 years since we were last there, incidentally.) Down in the hangar, Leia announces that it is cold; and we see Darth Maul’s face superimposed over hers. Is this a clue that Maul is alive and well and appearing in Episode VII? He was killed in Phantom Menace, of course, but recovered from his death during the Clone Wars TV series and not definitively killed off. He'd have to be well into his 80s, but we don’t know what the expect lifespan of a red and black faced Sith would be. (It was cannon that Wookies live 200 years before The Force Awakens was a twinkle in Walt Disney’s eye.) I think it’s more likely that Leia just experiences a Force shiver because she’s in the place where Darth Vader’s predecessor met one of his deaths. 

I sometimes wondered if writer Rucka and artist Checchetto have grasped the iconic significance of the material they're dealing with. Leia and the gang fly the pointy yellow Naboo ships from Phantom Menace against a post-Imperial Star Destroyer and it launches its entire cohort of TIE fighters at them. Lando and the little mousy guy from Return of the Jedi arrive ("why show up early when you can arrive in the nick of time") with some X and Y-Wings to save the day. It ought to feel at least a little bit special to see Prequel Ships and Trilogy ships fighting against and alongside each other. At any rate the artwork ought to rise to the occasion. But it doesn't. Something in the way it's drawn makes me feel that no-one quite spotted what an important moment this should have been. Where is full page spread of a Naboo Figheter and an X-Wing alongside each other? 

Luke Skywalker suddenly becomes very worried about retrieving something which the Empire stole from the Jedi Temple on Coruscrant. He hasn't had a chance to change his clothes since the movie, so his black robe and black jumpsuit still scream "potential dark lord" at us. He's not become Yoda yet, but he is inclined to be cryptic in a way that I imagine makes people want to punch him. ("I send Artoo to find a pilot, and here you are. Interesting.") It turns out that what he is after is a tree — a tree which grew in the Jedi Temple. The Force is with it, apparently. And it is sufficiently important that the Empire have kept it heavily guarded. This is such an off the wall idea that the one thing I think we can be totally sure about is that the Jedi Tree will be an important part of The Force Awakens. 

Everything is told from the point of view of one Shara Bey and Kes Dameron, a pilot and a seargent in the Rebellion. Shara acts as Leia’s wingperson during the trip to Naboo and helps Luke retrieve the Jedi tree. The story ends with them “mustering out” of the rebellion and retiring to a foresty planet with ziggurats in the background. Although we never see him, they have a child named Poe. Luke gives them the tree to take care of. 

Of course, there may be dozens of hidden foreshadowings running through the comic which will only become apparent in December. But it looks very much as if we have a four part series to set up the fact that X-Wing Pilot Poe Dameron grew up on the planet Yavin with his aging parents, who were veterans of the Battle of Endor and custodians of the White Tree of Numenor. 

Which is nice. 

I have tried to watch Star Wars I - VI in one go, as a single movie, and give them the benefit of the doubt. It just doesn’t work. Even if you go with the retrofitted Episodes IV - VI there is a horrible gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Of course there is. Nothing introduced in I - III — gungans and Qui-Gon and Jedi Temples and midichlorians and what-not — can possibly be referenced in IV - VI because (obviously) the films were made in the wrong order. (The Naboo vignette at the end of the Return of the Jedi special edition simply made the wound more gaping.) 

For me, that’s one of the nicest things about these comics: they gently fold the hated Prequels back into the sacred Trilogy. Seeing Leia go to Naboo and hearing Luke speak of the Jedi Temple is almost like the thawing out a family feud. But people who regard Jar Jar Binks as a personal affront, and will reject these books on the grounds of Queen Soruna alone. And I am guessing that "should Abrams admit that the prequels ever happened" will be the biggest dividing line over the Force Awakens.

[*]You can tell how pious a Christian is by how many Bibles he has worn out with cross- references and marker pens. A Muslim would find the merest pencil underlying of a helpful passage blasphemous.  

[**] Walt Simonson said the only clues he had about the original trilogy he had when working on the old Marvel comics were when a plot was specifically vetoed. He had an idea to do a comic in which the Empire created a second Death Star ("and this time put some chicken wire over the exhaust port"), but George Lucas said he couldn't. "Aha..." he said.

George and Joe and Jack and Bob

Complete Star Wars Essays 


 If everyone reading this essay pledged $2, I could do this full time. 

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your e-mail.

I very recently joined the Labour Party because I believed that you would be driven by your conscience and convictions, rather than merely seek sympathetic headlines in far-right newspapers.

I think that war is always a very great evil. I think that civilized countries should only resort to war when there is literally no alternative. There are obviously alternatives to bombing Syria.

No-one has made it clear what such a war would be likely to achieve. And if the country is as bankrupt as we keep being told, we can't afford it anyway.

Ten years ago, those of us who opposed the war in Iraq were called cowards and traitors by the same right-wingers who want to have another war next week. Today absolutely everyone (even Mr Blair, I think) agrees that the Iraq war was a terrible mistake. Ten years from now any bombing of Syria will be regarded as a similarly catastrophic error. Whatever happens next week, you can be sure that people will be saying "Jeremy was right" for years to come.

I don't want to live in a one party state, where only one voice (the voice of the Daily Mail) is permitted, and where anyone who speaks out against a war or an economic policy is branded a traitor or a communist by both parties. The job of the opposition is to oppose -- that is, to constructively critique the government. So it is important that the Labour Party oppose this crazy war even -- especially -- if the crazy war goes ahead. If both sides of the House of Commons support the crazy war, then the millions of us who oppose it are simply denied a voice, a say, a stake in the decision.

I think that Cameron's war, like Blair's war, will turn out to be a reckless waste of money and lives that will only make matters much worse. I think that you and the other moderates who think that war is only ever a last resort should stick to your consciences. Do not let the extremists in your own party and the far-right press who think that bombs are the solution to everything derail you.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write to me; stay in touch.


Read: "Je Suis Andrew"

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Thought for the Day

For suspicion often creates what it expects. “Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.”

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

Sunday, November 01, 2015

This is your monthly reminder that J.C Wright is a whey faced coxcomb

If something is to hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV.
Homer J Simpson

I don’t look at J.C Wright's page very often. It makes me cross, and not even interestingly cross, in the way Dave Sim used to. Sim writing was clever, perverse, witty and nasty in equal proportions. It made you want to engage with it. Wright just makes you say  “How can an intelligent person type that shit?” 

I suppose I justify glancing at his pages in the way that I justify glancing at Richard Dawkins’ tweets. (I mean, apart from morbid fascination, like looking at the execution tableaux on Brighton pier when when I was a kid.) I once said that that the Argument From Prof Richard Dawkins can stand alongside the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument as proofs of the existence of God. I think that an occasional glance at J C Wright and Melanie Phillips and Norman Tebbit are necessary if we are going to keep on marching down the good old socialist road. If that’s what being a conservative does to you then I definitely don’t want to be one.

In his journal this month, the Finest Writer Working Today dusts off a 70 year old letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a schoolboy. Apparently, the schoolboy’s English teacher had told him that Burroughs was “trash can literature”.

There are a number of possible answers to that, one of which would have been to ask the teacher to pick up Tarzan and the Ant Men and have a look it. It’s a proper story, written in proper sentences, with proper grammar (except foh de bleck folks, who speaks like dis), proper dialogue and proper description. I could imagine Tarzan or the early John Carters being set for a lower school English lesson. (We read Shane, I recall, which is about on the same level.) I think that’s why Burroughs star has diminished and his disciple Bob Howard’s reputation has increased. A Princess of Mars reads like a Victorian travelogue; a pastiche of Rudyard Kipling. The Conan stories are the distilled essence of pulp.

Burroughs responds that his books may be trash, but that millions of people read them and they have made him a lot of money. Presumably, even someone who has read no philosopher more recent that Plato can see the flaw in that? “This is popular” is not a response to “This is bad”: something can be bad and popular; something can be good but unpopular.

The main part of the Burroughs letter is worth quoting in full:

“My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, of its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.”

Now, it was kind of Burroughs to take the trouble to reply to a fan’s letter; and he didn’t imagine that something he’d dashed off in five minutes was going to be reread decades after he had died. And younger readers will find it hard to believe that the primitive word-processor he was using didn't allow you to correct or edit. You could only change a piece of text by deleting the whole document and starting again. But even taking that into account, I think we can agree that this is a very confused piece of writing. Burroughs seems to argue modestly that his writing is “good of its kind” while arrogantly assuming that his kind of writing is really the only kind. He thinks that fiction in general is just for entertainment; but then argues that encouraging children to read is a good-thing-in-itself.

You can’t have it both ways. You can say “Pantomimes are just silly knockabout, of course; but many a child has fallen in love with theater when they were taken to see Cinderella and as a result discovered the riches of Shaw and Ibsen and O’Neil when they were older — so the ‘panto’ does much good.” Or you can say “Silly entertainment is what theater is all about: Hamlet is merely panto with all the fun taken out; if it doesn’t have a custard pie routine in it, it’s not worth bothering with”. Or you can take the teacher’s point of view and say “How can you, a clever boy, possibly be wasting your time watching a man dressed as a lady throwing a custard pie and at a lady dressed as a man when Long Days Journey Into Night is playing in the same town?” But I don’t think you can say all three. 

I think that a Proper Actor would probably say “You may be surprised to know that the stage craft involved in putting on a pantomime and the stage craft involved in putting on a work by Shakespeare are very similar, and a person who truly loves theater loves both equally.” That was what Kenneth Williams said when he was asked why an actor of his caliber was wasting time on the Carry On movies.

The really astonishing thing, sitting there in ancient smudgy courier type is “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment.” Really? No fiction contains strong manly role models for us to aspire to? No fiction teaches a moral message? No-one ever reads stories to learn about how people live in distant lands or what life was like many years ago? No-one ever studies fiction from a scholarly point of view?  I also like the bit about the only kind of literature which can harm you being pornography. That’s a moral point, not a literary one, of course. But aren't there racist books; books that glorify crime; books steeped in commie or fascist propaganda; books that promote belief in the wrong kind of god; atheist books? Is there really no sin but the sin of masturbation? 

No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment? I wonder what Prof Lewis and Prof Tolkien, teachers of English Literature both, who J.C Wright reveres and who, incidentally, both quite enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs, would have to say about that?

But this, indeed, seems to be the point of the letter, and what has excited Wright about it. Burroughs children were both studying English Literature at college, apparently — not elementary school, college — and the great man is shocked that their set texts are dry and difficult.

Well, yes: of course they are. That is what you are at college for. And I think we know what their lecturer would have replied. “You don’t need the my help to understand Riders of the Purple Range or Brideshead Revisited or even David Copperfield. They are written in your language by people who share the same cultural assumptions as you. So read them on your own time. But you do need my help to get to the bottom of Beowulf or the Faery Queene.”

But Burroughs suspects a conspiracy. Still smarting from having been called garbage-can literature he lashes out against all teachers at all times ever, slipping into language so pompous that you can see why it appealed to J.C Wright:

“The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment rather than a pleasure. It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.”

I may possibly have made the last bit up. 

Imagine if you said that about any other subject. “The Karate teacher had some funny idea that I should learn some funny style of open handed fighting, when I can give a very good account of myself in the playground with clenched fists. I suppose his sole purpose is to put young men off the whole idea of fighting”.  “I am a big fan of rock n’ roll and the music teacher wanted me to listen to something called Mozart, which I didn’t like after two minutes. What is the point of a music teacher teaching me music I don’t like? She should teach me the music I already like. It’s a con-trick to put me off music.”

Now, it’s not that interesting to discover that a bloody good pulp writer had a bit of a blind spot when it came to other kinds of writing. There are many people who think that people only become classical violinists because they are second rate musicians who can’t master jazz. Or vice versa. 

What interests me rather more is Wright’s comment. Astonishingly, it turns out that Wright also has kids — at school rather than college. And, astonishingly, it turns out that their English teachers are part of the same conspiracy that Burroughs uncovered. They keep giving them difficult ("corrosive, dreary, hellish”) books because they want to put them off literature.

NUANCE WARNING! School English lessons are, of course, a different thing from University English courses; and there are honest differences of opinion about what school English is for.  Maybe you are introducing children to wide variety of books of different kinds with the intention of forming the habit of reading for pleasure. Maybe you are making them read well-formed books so that their grammar, vocabulary and punctuation will improve and they will eventually be able to write good letters of application and get skilled clerical and middle-management jobs. Or maybe you think that everyone in England should be familiar with the canon of English literature — that if we are in any sense a Nation then all our citizens need a smattering of Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and Hardy and other dead white guys. But at any rate, it is probably a greater sin to ask a twelve year old to read a book he finds positively boring than to ask a twenty year old to do so. 

So which books is Wright objecting to? 

“THE BEAN TREE by Barbara Kingsolver
FENCES by August Wilson
OF MICE AND MEN by Steinbeck (better written than the others, from a craftsmanship standpoint, but as the father of an autistic child, I found the sappy heavy-handed emotionalism to be terribly offensive. And the lefty portrayal of Okies was historically false, socialistic blither.)

(The lefty bits were socialist, were they? And were the socialist bits lefty? And maybe the conservative bits were on the right, and the right wing bits conservative?)  

To Burroughs rule “all books are good, except pornography” we have added three more:

All books are good, except the sentimental
All books are good, except those that offend the parents of autistic children
All books are good, except the historically inaccurate
All books are good, except those written from a socialist point of view

But couldn’t an entertaining pulp writer like Burroughs be sentimental, historically inaccurate and left wing? And couldn’t a book be historically accurate, devoid of emotion, full of sound right-wing economic theory but still dull as ditch-water?

You started with the claim “Teachers set children dull books, in order to put them off literature”. Someone asked "Give me an example of one of these dull books.” You replied “Here is an example of a sentimental, historically inaccurate, left-wing book."

J.C Wright never answers the question. J.C Wright never answer the question. 

And anyway...

How can you object to “Of Mice and Men” because you disagree with its politics? That's a moral judgement, from outside the book, that you are using to judge it. If Burroughs was right to say that all matters about a books is that it is entertaining and that it doesn't have any stark naked slave owners copping off with stark naked princesses, that's a non sequitur. But if he wasn't...  Wasn't "bringing political opinions to bear on literature" and "only liking books whose politics you agree with" the besetting sin of the Hugo awards that you so abominate?