Star Wars Radio Drama

Star Wars Radio Drama

I have to admit that, in spite of the hoopla, I have yet to see the new Star Wars movie. I would like to, and feel bad for my son who has already had much of it spoiled, but actually sitting down in a theater for two hours is one step too far right now. It was not always so.

I have cooled on the Star Wars franchise in the last several years, but it remains the fictional world with the strongest hold on me. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been through the movies. Yes, it’s only a rehash of every epic journey trope out there. Yes, it’s only fake deep. Yes, the flaws in the movies (and much of the Expanded Universe) are glaring. Yes, it is, in the final analysis, much less than it could have been. I didn’t see this in my formative years however, so Star Wars was always the ultimate narrative to me, narrowly edging out Middle Earth. (My son is walking an identical path now, one I won’t discourage him from.) Knowing this, my dad gifted me the complete Star Wars Radio Drama for Christmas one year, probably when I was in late high school. All thirteen episodes, roughly 6.5 hours, of expanded Star Wars goodness in audio form.

Now honestly, how many fans out there even knew this existed?

Unfortunately for this Christmas present, who really has time to sit down and listen to radio dramas? I packed the CD set along with me to college, then to Japan and back, but never cracked it open. There just wasn’t an opportunity, or at least I didn’t make one. Once we moved to the States though, I suddenly had a 13+ hour drive to get from my house to see my parents. It was time for the radio program to shine. I took the whole thing down in a single drive across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; Star Wars was the perfect accompaniment for a solo trip. Now, with my son getting older and the new movie out to drum up enthusiasm, I had the bright idea to pull the CDs out for another pair of car trips. My kids frequently listen to audiobooks as we toodle about, so it was no great stretch to start up a narrative radio recording.

Within moments of the famous fanfare and introduction, my wife asked, “Would someone who hadn’t seen the movie understand what’s going on?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I think so, but I am hardly one to judge, knowing as I do the first movie forwards and backwards. Still, the producers succeeded against all expectations at creating an aural universe out of an intensely visual film. The mixing crew had access to all of the original sound effects and musical score, plus Luke and C-3PO reprising their roles, facts which undoubtedly helped. All other characters were performed by new voice actors, but after awhile, one ceases to notice.

So, how is the show? I enjoyed it both times. The extra running time required (allowed?) the screenwriters to build out more of the story. We see more of Luke on Tatooine, get the background on how and why Leah is fleeing with the stolen plans, and hear more of Obi-Wan and Luke’s relationship. All of these are glossed over in the movie, so the added information is worth hearing. I think Leah gets the best of the new scenes; she is even more impressive than before. Luke, on the other hand, leaves me lukewarm. (Ha!) Getting to know Biggs before he blows up is fun, but pre-Force Luke is a weenie. The new scenes don’t make him any less of a dweeb. It’s also important to remember that all of this predates the Expanded Universe, and even the pen and paper RPG that served as a sourcebook for all things Star Wars for so long. The radio drama and movie novelizations were the only hidden knowledge available at the time and give a bit more insight into Lucas’ original ideas. That said, the next time I listen, I will skip the first disc entirely. The good stuff starts up with the third episode.

Anyway, yes, give this a listen. It’s perfect for long car drives, more dramatic than audiobooks, appropriate for young fans, and good fun. There’s a bit of cheese, but there always was in Star Wars. I have the Empire Strikes Back radio show on hold at the library, because nothing shuts my son up on long rides like Jedi and storm troopers.

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Seth Dickinson

Holy cats. That was quite the experience, and one of the banner novels of 2015. I suspect that it is too polarizing for major award consideration, but I’m not sure any release generated more conversation among a certain kind of genre fan. And by “certain kind,” I mean the type of reader who gets excited about stories of accountants managing fictional empires. Yes, that would be me. In my defense, authors like Dan Abraham and K.J. Parker have been doing just fine with long division fantasy for several years now, so clearly it is a viable thing. We even have tradition on our side – no less a warhorse than Ivanhoe includes a crucial scene wherein a character teaches another about double entry bookkeeping. This is all important and fascinating stuff. Really.

Our titular hero, Baru Cormorant, is a math whiz who becomes a top accountant for The Empire of Masks. Naturally, the novel is thus absorbed with the question of cost: the literal costs of empire and rebellion, and the figurative costs of power, ambition, and assimilation. Baru’s tropical home is absorbed by The Masquerade when she is very young, but Baru is noticed early on for her developing intellect and is swept into The Masquerade’s vast schooling network to train as a future bureaucrat. The Empire is a meritocracy, of course, with Imperial positions open to all qualified candidates, regardless of racial and ethnic background. Schooling is a part of the benevolent face put on by the Empire (masks have many meanings here), one that includes technology (sanitation and hygiene in particular), economic rationalization, and stability. This undeniably positive face cloaks policies of rigid order, eugenics, strict moral behavior, and other Big Brother-y horrors.

The other main question the book poses is that of change, and how to drive it. I found this particularly relevant as, at the time of writing, we are still in the middle of candidate nomination battles for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Dickinson asks, through Baru and her frenemy Tain Hu, whether change is best provoked from a position of power inside an institution, or through bottom up rebellion from the outside. In the fight on the Democratic side, one voice (Hillary Clinton) is advocating gradual change from within, while another (Bernie Sanders) preaches grassroots revolution. Both of them, and in turn the majority of the Democratic Party, want similar outcomes, but have stark disagreements about the mechanisms required for change. (Don’t listen to arguments over policy outcomes – this is essentially a debate over methods.) Baru has sworn an oath of vengeance against The Masquerade for conquering her homeland and, in the process, killing family and friends. Tain Hu is a noblewoman in the territory Baru oversees, with a constant stream of plots and conspiracies designed to evict The Masquerade. The two argue throughout the book over method – who is more likely to see victory over the common enemy. Dickinson provides few easy answers as conflict develops, then rages.

We see the world almost entirely through Baru’s eyes. She is, spoiler alert, a traitor. Traitor to what, though? We know from the first that she is plotting to betray the empire that has developed and promoted her. She must bury her loyalties deep however, because any hint of her real motivation will cost her the power she craves (also likely resulting in her unpleasant death). Baru’s secrets force her onto pathways that make her complicit with all of the imperialism that she claims to hate. Further, the power she gains can be used for self-aggrandizement or to assist her ultimate goal, but these are the same things, right? And all of the horrible things she either does directly, or cause through economic policy, these are in the service of a greater good. Of course they are. Personal power and advancement are necessary to eventually free her people, and the ugly side of colonialism is an unfortunate but necessary side effect. The ends obviously justify the means, so Baru is in no way a traitor to herself, or those around her. Of course not. When she gazes into the abyss of her own soul, Baru can naturally feel at peace with what she is doing. She is indeed a serene creation throughout.

There is no getting around the brutality of Dickinson’s book. Not just in descriptive violence, though there is that, but in the damage done to relationships, to cultures, and to souls. Colonialism and empire are popular topics right now in the genre, and Dickinson wades in with a sword in both hands. At what cost civilization? At what cost rebellion? The Masquerade is unquestionably evil, sewers and vaccinations notwithstanding, but how much is Baru willing to pay to fight them? And how far are we willing to let her go before we turn on her? The book’s coda is a gut punch, one that I should have seen coming but chose not to, though really it’s the only way this story can resolve itself. History is clear that when empires are on the march, there are few happy endings. I have to keep reading this series to see what happens, to see if Baru’s sacrifices ultimately have meaning. There is plenty more to talk about, notably the homophobic strain in the empire and its effects. I’m a little less qualified to talk about that though, and will stick with politics for now.

This ended up being more of a dry, academic look at Baru Cormorant that doesn’t do justice to the visceral magnetism of the book. The is one that really grabs life by the lips and yanks; a story that stays in one’s mind like a recalcitrant splinter that won’t be dislodged. Plenty of crunchy stuff in there to engage the brain, but also an icy, slowly closing fist that won’t let the reader disengage. It’s not pretty, but it’s impossible to turn away from. Dickinson writes deeply frightening, probing stuff; necessary reading right now if we are to really confront the realities of our world order. I would recommend chasing Baru Cormorant with something light and fluffy though – it’s not healthy to be heavy all the time.