Tuesday, December 08, 2015

11

This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.
             The Fault in Our Stars

“Don’t get me started” said the man in Forbidden Planet “On the Star Wars books. I read hundreds of them, and now bloody Walt Disney says they are not canon any more.”

So I didn’t get him started. 

I meditated instead on Uncle Walt issuing ex cathedra commands from that block of carbonite beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I wondered how the Great One’s judgement affected my friend’s book collection.

When he heard that J.J. Abrams had been commissioned to make Star Wars VII, did he honestly believe he was simply going to take the first “extended universe” novel — Heir to the Empire — and adapt it into a movie? Or did he imagine that Abrams would create a new story, but somehow feel bound to make it consistent with that novel? With all the novels? With the literally hundreds of novels?

I can see how you might be disappointed that much-loved characters like Jacen Solo and Ben Skywalker are never going to appear on the big screen. Twenty-four years is a long time to be reading pulp novels. Picking up a shiny new Kevin J Anderson book in Borders may be a magical memory for him, just as surely as handling the first ever issue of Star Wars Weekly is a magical memory for me. 

I know people who read the 61 Virgin Doctor Who novels and the 73 BBC Doctor Who novels in the years when Doctor Who was off the air. What is for me a slightly interesting collection of spinoffery is for them the Real Thing, the thing they first fell in love with. (Don’t laugh. There are now plenty of Avengers fans who have never read a comic, and even some Lord of the Rings fans who have never read the book, or indeed any book.)

I hardly know who Mara Jade is. For some people she is almost as real as Princess Leia. Although I can’t help thinking that she must have sunk into a sort of quantum half-life the moment we saw the posters for Attack of the Clones.

But there is a sadder possibility. Perhaps our friend never really enjoyed the books very much to begin with. Perhaps he was reading them as a kind of crib sheet because they were providing him with information about what happened in the Star Wars galaxy. And now Uncle Walt has declared they aren’t even that. So he totally wasted his time reading them. 

I once heard one of those atheists saying that the reason people resist de-conversion is that they can’t face the fact that all the hours they spent reading the Bible was a waste of time. Because obviously those are the possibilities. Either a literal account of how Noah herded brontosauri onto his ark, or a waste of time. If a story isn’t true, it doesn’t have value. 

Everyone agrees on that.


I heard vintage folk hippy Donovan playing the acoustic tent at Glastonbury. He sang about Atlantis and hurdy-gurdy men. People were coming to Glastonbury to listen to music and celebrate the spring long before the modern festival, he said; since the days of King Arthur, at least. I wrote this song about Queen Guinevere, he said. 

Well, I say I wrote it, he said. I mean it came through me. Then he threw flowers into the audience.

I am not angry that Walt Disney has declared that Han Solo never went to Aduba-3 and teamed up with a giant green rabbit named Jaxxon. I never really believed he had. But I do feel sad, genuinely sad, almost bereaved that George Lucas pitched treatments of Episodes VI, VIII and IX to Walt Disney and Walt Disney turned them down. 

Some fans will not understand that. Some fans hate George Lucas, hate the prequels, hate Return of the Jedi and Clone Wars and Ewoks and Midichlorians and Han shooting first and Princess Amidala and the idea that there are only ever two Sith and the fact that the Emperor was playing both side of the Clone Wars. Those fans made a big thing, a big play, of cheering when the Sequels were announced. “Hooray!” the said “Hooray! George Lucas won’t have anything to do with it, so it might actually not suck!”

I heard an old man who used to be Bob Dylan in the Cardiff Arena. Even his most die-hard fans who long ago accepted that Blowin’ In the Wind was a waltz and you aren’t supposed to be able to hear the words of Hard Rain found it hard not to, well, shuffle a bit when he started the seventh Frank Sinatra cover of the evening.

But still. This was Bob Dylan. People have been shouting "Judas!" at him for a very long time. If he did what we expected him to do, he wouldn’t be Bob. And his rendering of The Night We Called It a Day was genuinely beautiful. 

God knows, Lucas has made some questionable decisions. But weren’t they his questionable decisions to make? Star Wars came through him.


A very long time ago, I believed in Father Christmas. 

My earliest memory, one of those memories that may only be a memory of a memory, is of a stuffed toy (a gollywog, since you asked) poking its head out of a Christmas stocking. It was hung on the end of a baby's cot, so I must have been less then two years old. In my conscious memories, the excitement of getting new toys and presents at Christmas was secondary to the slightly scary prospect that, on one day of the year, subject to special rules and conditions, while I was asleep, Father Christmas would visit my house. Letters and grottos I didn’t care about nearly as much. A Father Christmas you could talk to or draw pictures of wasn't really Father Christmas because the point of Father Christmas was that no-one ever saw him. The magic of Christmas is bound up with the fear and excitement of preparing the house for the arrival of this supernatural being.

And baby Jesus, of course. 

I don’t think I ever believed that Father Christmas existed in the same way that my baby sister, John Noakes, or Mrs Bolter from the Co-op existed. And, with all due respect to the sky fairy fraternity, believing in Father Christmas felt entirely different from believing in God. 

It's more like a game than an act of faith. Everyone in the family agrees to behave as if a magical elf is going to visit you in the night. No-one is deceiving anyone else: Mum and Dad and the big kids enjoy role-playing a world where elves from the North Pole cross North London on magic sledges just as much as the little ones do.

But the moment anyone says out loud that Mum and Dad put the presents under the tree and always have done then the game is over and Santa disappears like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's imaginary son. It's the saying, not the knowing, which ends the story. 

In fact — and I am going to propose this to the University of Life as the basis for a Doctorate in Made-Up-Ology — isn’t the whole reason for playing the game that you know that at some point the game is going to come to an end, in the same way that the whole point of having guinea pigs is that guinea pigs don't survive very long? The parent who tries to replace the ex-guinea pig with a new guinea pig with similar markings has missed the point of guinea pigs, and anyone who tries to convince a child that Santa Claus really exists has missed the point of Santa Claus. Pets are there to ever-so-gently introduce children to the idea of death (and the other thing, the thing which can result in cages full of baby guinea pigs). Father Christmas is a rite-of-passage: a mechanism which allows children, at their own speed, to say "I don't want you treat me as your baby any more." 

Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street and that god-awful letter miss the point entirely.


I don’t read nearly enough novels, particularly considering I am a librarian. But the ones which I do read consume me. The last one was John Williams’ Stoner, which is just as good as everyone says. 

Reading a novel is a matter of trust. When I read a book I am very consciously putting myself in the hands of the writer. I accept that the writer is going to try to fool me: try to make me care about situations while simultaneously admitting that he made them us. I am interested in how this particular writer is going to play that particular trick on me; what techniques he is going to employ. Of course, writers, even very good writers, make mistakes. I don’t really swallow an academic department splitting over such an obviously hopeless student as Walker. But I don't cast the book aside, crying "you have exploded the illusion, and moreover, raped my childhood" nor do I necessarily try to construct a different book in which the mistake makes sense. I just accept that this is a story, not real life, and that even good writers sometimes make bad calls. 

The last good book I read before Stoner definitely wasn’t The Fault in Our Stars and I definitely didn’t cry all the way through it.


For nearly forty years I have had a vivid image in my head of the elderly Luke Skywalker, years after his adventures are over, sitting on a throne as King or Emperor or President of a new, more benevolent Empire or revived Republic.

In my dream, his throne is on some sort of pedestal or plinth, picked out by a single spotlight, his old friends clustered around him, but somehow at a Shakespearian distance. The Droids have moved on; it seemed important that they had had owners before Luke and will have other owners after him. I don’t know whether in this original version Luke married the Princess and had children. I think he probably did. Marriage is the proper way for a fairy tale to end, and it is hard to see how you could swing across a chasm with a lady and not end up marrying her. Unless you nobly renounced her like Tarzan, and there wasn’t a sequel. I don't recall there being a little prince, a Luke Skywalker Jnr. But I am pretty sure that King Luke welcomed members of the East Barnet School Jedi Knights Club (chairman, A Rilstone) to his re-purposed Life-Star and gave them light-sabers and sent them off on Arthurian romances....

And now I read that someone called Abrams, the Abrams who entirely failed to understand Star Trek, has gone away and in a matter of weeks and without asking George, decided what really happened. 

Why is his version more valid than my version?

Because Walt Disney, the same Walt Disney who ruined Forbidden Planet Guy’s collection of Star Wars novels, says so. 

And why does Walt Disney have the power of binding and losing?

Because Walt Disney bought Star Wars for three billion dollars, enough money to bomb Syria for almost a fortnight. 

And where did Walt Disney get all that money from?

That is the secret mystery of fiction. To determine what happened to Luke Skywalker; to impose your image of Old Luke over George Lucas's image, and more importantly, over mine, you first have to co-create a cartoon mouse.




There is a very easy answer to the question "Why does John Williams get to decide if Bill Stoner's marriage was a success?" or "Why does John Green get to decide if Hazel's cancer goes into remission"? Because they're the ones writing the book, that's why. The characters wouldn't exist if not for them. They not merely the writer. They are the Author. The Author. It sounds even better if you say it in French.

The great ones, Luke Skywalker and Doctor Who and Captain America do not have Auteurs. Oh, someone dreamed up Captain America to begin with, but he's dead and hasn't written an episode in 40 years. Since about when Star Wars came out, come to think of it. And, of course, each episode is created by a writer. And fans do sometimes talk as if each writer, the tenth or fiftieth to write about Captain America, is unveiling or disclosing sections of a story that were conceived nearly a century ago. "In this episode" they say "It is revealed that Captain America's parents were Irish immigrants" where what they actually mean is that some writer made it up. 

I think that faith in the canon -- faith that your collection of Star Wars novels describe events which really occurred, faith that Luke Skywalker is person to whom things can happen -- is what we acolytes of the great ones have instead of an Author. We can't say "It's true because the Author says it's true". We have to say "It's true because it's true." 

If we don't have faith in the Author, we have to have faith in the text.

But that faith is the kind of faith we had in Father Christmas. It's a "let's pretend" faith, not something we really believe. Let's pretend that what we are going to see on December 18th is what really happened to Luke and Leia and Chewie and Threepio and Artoo and Landau. Let's all agree to keep the pretense going. Because the moment someone says "it's just something which Abrams wrote on a napkin", Father Christmas will stop calling on us.


That's why I have always found the prequels so easy to forgive. When Carrie Fisher said “General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars...” George Lucas was (I assume) standing just out of shot, imagining General Grievous and the the Clone Army and Ahosoka being expelled from the Order. At any rate, he knew that the Clone Wars were kinds of Wars in which those kinds of stories might happen. When Peter Cushing said "the Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us", George Lucas was (I am pretty sure) standing back stage imagining a dome the size of a city with little floaty platforms for planetary representatives to stand on. When Mark Hamill smiled at Sebastian Shaw and Alec Guinness, George Lucas was (we can be certain) smiling back, secretly knowing what was going to happen next, and knowing that it wasn't yet time to reveal it.

From the moment I first went into Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi’s hovel with Luke Skywalker, I wanted to hear the story of how he fought in the Clone Wars alongside Luke's father, and how his apprentice betrayed them. I do think that it should probably have been a story, not a film in its own right: Alec Guinness, speaking to Luke and Threepio, out beyond the Western Dune Sea. Some people think that Ben and Luke’s Father were contemporaries, fighting alongside each other; but that doesn't fit with Luke's Father following Ben on a damn fool idealistic crusade. And Ben is a lot older than Uncle Owen. So I think that Ben had two pupils Luke's Father and Darth Vader, one good, and one evil.. But maybe that's a comic-bookish idea; something that wandered into my personal Star Wars from Doctor Strange? 

That's okay. Until Ben starts talking, both stories exist.

Instead we got a different story, a very good story, called The Empire Strikes Back; and probably nothing in Ben's story would have been as gut wrenching as that moment on the bridge when Luke tells Darth Vader that he knows he killed his father... 

Mourning a story is probably quite silly. Mourning a story that was replaced by a story as good as The Empire Strikes Back is very silly indeed. Silliest of all is mourning stories that do exist, that you are free to re-read whenever you want, but that the Wicked Frozen Uncle has declared non-canonical. 

But still, I swear. That panel in the comic when Blue Leader (who was Red Leader in the film) turns to Luke and says "The galaxy'll be a lot better off when the sons of the original Jedi Knights are back on the scene!" If I look hard enough and long enough, maybe I can find the ghost of that other story there?

Star Wars; Journal of the Whills; The Adventures of Luke Skywalker — the twelve part generational saga that Lucas planned to tell. That was obliterated when the cameras rolled on what turned out to be called Episode V. Before that: when George Lucas met Joseph Campbell and Luke’s Father ceased to exist. But to know that Walt Disney has seen the back of Lucas’s original envelope and was offered the chance to tell that story, Lucas's story, the true story, the one about Luke’s grandchildren — and turned it down in favour of allowing J.J Abrams to makes something up.

The last remnants of the old order have been swept away...