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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (4/2/13) 12:30am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>
Books:  Dark Force Rising [audiobook]

Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn [audiobook]
This is the second novel in Timothy Zahn's so-called "Thrawn trilogy", a set of Star Wars expanded universe novels that take place five years after the events in Return of the Jedi.

As usual, it's hard to think of much to say that I didn't already say about the first book.  The audiobook production is still second-to-none, and Zahn's writing style, while a bit spare and screenplay-y for a novel, works beautifully in the audiobook format, giving Marc Thompson plenty of room to build interesting characters, and the production team plenty of room to build the world around him.

One fascinating aspect of this novel is that it gives a major storyline to Leia Organa Solo.  In Heir to the Empire, her job was mostly to be a damsel in distress -- sure, this was a damsel that shot back, but plot-wise, she often started feeling like a thing, a MacGuffin that needed to be kept out of enemy hands under increasingly-adverse circumstances.

So it's nice to see Dark Force Rising bring her into the limelight a bit and give her a chance to *do* something.  You may at this point wonder, what exactly does a princess *do*?  And the answer, in this case, is that she's a diplomat.  And Dark Force Rising does something very difficult: it makes one of its main plotlines a very complicated, very high-stakes, very tense diplomatic mission.  Leia has to be at the top of her game as a diplomatic envoy, and her game is very, very good.  But the mission is damn near impossible: turning a race of brutal assassins from the Empire to the Republic.  So basically, at every point in the story, if she screws up, she's dead.  But her success would be such a coup for the Republic that she can't back down, either.

Meanwhile, the Luke storyline fares a bit less well.  The general idea is that Luke gets lured to the planet Jomark by Joruus C’baoth, a mad Jedi master who hopes to sway Luke to his particularly dark-sided take on the Force.  The problem here is that Joruus is so obviously evil that Luke comes across as a real idiot for trusting him at all.  Granted, a rare production mis-step gets in the way here, with Thompson providing Joruus with an over-the-top and villainous voice that makes you wonder why anybody would abide spending five minutes in the same room with him.  But even without that, Luke has a sort of doe-eyed innocence here that feels more like it belongs in A New Hope.

Mara Jade continues to be a fun character.  I love her ambivalent attitude towards the Force -- it's useful to her, but it's also strange and somehow untrustworthy.  And it makes perfect sense that Zahn would bring in morally ambivalent characters like Jade and Karrde for his trilogy -- Star Wars operates on a sort of treadmill, wherein its rogues and ne'er-do-wells slowly become respectable, and suddenly force the storyline to introduce more rogues and ne'er-do-wells, lest the whole thing turn into "good people trying to do good things for good".[1]  Han Solo turns good at the end of A New Hope?  Bring in Lando Calrissian in Empire.  Lando's a well-regarded general now?  Bring in Jade and Karrde, to keep everyone on their toes.

And I do love that everybody has to be on their toes in this story.  Nobody gets to relax, because they're constantly trying to out-think each other.  Even the firefights are full of little tactical asides from Zahn -- it's not about the excitement of laying down a bunch of blaster fire, it's about exactly why he's laying down cover fire so his friend can serpentine to a closer position to the gun turret they're trying to take down.  In the dogfights, every little exchange of fire has a reason behind it, and the one who wins is not the one who gets lucky, but the one who out-strategized the other.

This brings me to one of my favorite things about this trilogy: Zahn is still very good at drawing characters who are smart.  And paradoxically, one of his bests techniques for doing this is by letting his characters be wrong.  One of the most dazzling sequences of intellectual show-off-ery has Thrawn puzzling out where a group of invaders are on his ship.  And it's dazzling not because Thrawn works out the right answer -- which he does -- but because he makes every wrong guess on the way there.  He seriously considers that yes, it would make sense for them to go the most direct route to the main hangar bay, but... no, Talon Karrde is with them, and he tends to employ more surprising tactics.  And so it goes, with Thrawn's mind wandering down every blind alley before working out what's really happening.

This is very refreshing, because writers mostly rely on a more Sherlock-Holmes demonstration of intelligence: they miraculously just *know* the right answer right off, and maybe if you're lucky they explain what evidence there is towards that right conclusion.  You never see the mind at work -- instead, it's a black box -- and you never see the mind consider a wrong answer, because after all, wouldn't that make the 'genius' seem dumb?  And yet, when it's done right, this technique can actually *show* me that characters are smart, rather than *telling* me how smart they are.

This especially pays off when Thrawn comes to some disastrously-wrong conclusions about two-thirds of the way into the book.  By then, I have so much faith in Thrawn's intellect that I can buy that he's a smart guy coming to incorrect conclusions.  I can buy that it isn't just a plot contrivance forcing Thrawn to misjudge the situation with the Noghree -- instead Leia's attempt to turn the entire Noghree people is a crazy, black-swan event that no reasonable calculations could account for.

I'm keen to see how Zahn finishes this off.

But for the time being, I'm putting off the conclusion of the Thrawn trilogy and listening to Will in the World, another of those ambitious biographies that takes on the unenviable task of trying to reconstruct Shakespeare's life from the few scraps of information we have remaining.  On TV, I'm watching Stephen Fry in America, which follows the amiable comedian/writer/quiz-show host on a fifty-state trek from sea to shining sea.

[1] ... which is basically Star Trek, come to think of it, and is the fundamental reason why writers found working for that show so challenging.

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