2 reviews: The Star Wars and Dinotopia

The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


The dialogue is bad, the plot feels more like an arbitrary series of events, the characters are alternately cruel or cold regardless of whether on the side of good or villainy, and motivations and personalities shift without any clear character arcs to explain them. Jedi and Sith are just buzzwords without any clear philosophy. There’s a rebel kingdom, but it seems that the issue is less with the Empire and more that it conducts itself differently than the Empire that preceded it. And yet, this is a fascinating artifact, a fully illustrated chance to see what The Star Wars was at first, before George Lucas refined it and improved it with a collaborative team of fellow creatives. (Turns out it feels a lot more derivative, wearing the influences of Flash Gordon and Foundation and Dune on its sleeves without really synthesizing them into something truly new and fresh just yet.) How much of this miniseries is representative of that original draft, though, versus what writer Jonathan Rinzler did to adapt the story for a comic book narrative? Either way, while I found the resultant comic art to often be rather cold and sterile, I am still impressed with how illustrator Mike Mayhew managed to make the story feel familiar yet distinct, a combination of new forms and old concept art and familiar images from the films.

This isn’t a vital Star Wars story, but it’s interesting–charming, even, if you look at it in just the right way.


Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I adored this book as a child. Returning to the fascinating world of Dinotopia as an adult, I’m just as delighted and eager to escape to this hidden realm. Gurney’s beautiful fantasy art is the star, but his story of a father and son surviving a shipwreck and finding themselves now part of this land where the descendants of castaway humans have come to live with prehistoric creatures in harmony is quite delightful in its own right. The narrative device that this is the explorers’ lost journal recounting their adventures, with abundant sketches and calligraphic notes, serves the story and art well. And there are so many fascinating details about everyday life in this fantasy setting that Gurney manages to incorporate throughout.

The smallest of nagging thoughts crossed my mind at times while rereading this as an adult: how do the characters know, in the 1860s, the scientific names of dinosaurs that had not yet even been discovered at the time? Turns out, Gurney had the same thought when creating the book, and his explanation is contained in the insightful behind-the-scenes afterword he’s provided for the 20th anniversary edition: “After giving these concerns serious consideration, I had to sweep them away, because adhering to them would muddy the waters.” Given that we’re already dealing with a story on a nonexistent colossal island where dinosaurs, extinct mammals, humans, and more all dwell together and can communicate intelligently with each other, this is a pretty valid way to address it. We’re in another world anyway; surely in this alternate reality, they just happen to be a bit further along in paleontology than we were in our own reality. It’s delightful fantasy, is what I’m saying, and worth suspending your belief for–which is easy enough to do when looking at the beautifully conceived double-page spreads. And it helps to know that Gurney already thought through all the concerns one might want to raise (yes, he thought through quite a lot, and his process as remembered in the afterword makes this edition worthwhile). But it’s really beside the point.

The point is that Dinotopia is fantastical, delightful, inspiring, memorable, and worth your time.



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Review: The Empire Strikes Back From A Certain Point of View

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by Elizabeth Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is another great Star Wars short story collection, now offering 40 new perspectives on the events in The Empire Strikes Back. I hope they continue this project, because I love this format and the opportunity to have so many writers, both new and familiar to the franchise, contribute something unique to the saga. Basically all of my praise for the original volume applies for this sequel, so I won’t recap that. And once more, I found that I appreciated something from every story. No bad stories yet again.

To return to the format of my original review for the first book, I’ll highlight one story that I loved and then outline my top ten (once more a very difficult decision). So, number one story I’d recommend? Tougher this time, because there’s not a single story that soars in my mind like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” did, but there are nonetheless at least a handful that I’m quite fond of and would rather like to read again. To settle on one, I’d pick “Due on Batuu” by Rob Hart. Of course there was going to be a story about Willrow Hood, the “Ice Cream Guy.” And it’s not very surprising that a reference to Batuu would appear prominently at some point, given the heavy multimedia efforts built around Galaxy’s Edge. But blessedly, one need not know who Hood is or where Batuu is located to enjoy this little adventure. Willrow, it turns out, is an overworked, underpaid systems monitor for the gas mines who dreams of something bigger. He decides a dishonest living at smuggling is the way to beat the odds and finally become rich, so he pesters perhaps the only smuggler he knows into finally giving him an easy assignment. Things quickly fall apart: a couple betrayals and the Imperial occupation of the city throw everything into chaos. There’s a lot of fun reversals between Willrow and his erstwhile pilot partner Bexley. Their frenemy status keeps things interesting. Ultimately, it reads like a low-stakes heist bungled by a bunch of losers–no wonder I’m so fond of it.

The total top ten are still difficult to pick, but here we go (once more in order of appearance):

1. “Hunger,” by Mark Oshiro, which impressively manages to make the wampa into a sympathetic figure wronged by the Rebellion.

2. “She Will Keep Them Warm,” by Delilah S. Dawson, which provides a heartbreaking swan song for the tauntaun who carries Han in search of Luke.

3. “The Final Order,” by Seth Dickinson, which provides a name, backstory, and personality for the Imperial Star Destroyer captain lost in the asteroid belt but also examines the ugly nature of fascism and the unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic held by at least some fans.

4. “This Is No Cave,” by Catherynne M. Valente, which gives the space slug a truly alien perspective on the events of the galaxy.

5. “Tooth and Claw,” by Michael Kogge, which manages to portray Bossk as a lethal and cruel hunter even as it also throws a wrench into his sociopathic lifestyle and forces him to reconsider strongly held beliefs.

6. “STET!”, by Daniel José Older, is quirky and funny and plays with style. It’s a draft of an in-universe magazine article with notes and corrections made by the editor, where both author and editor become uncomfortably inserted into the events of the story being told.

7. “But What Does He Eat?”, by S.A. Chakraborty, imagines Lando’s top chef, who must consider carefully how to handle a dinner hosted for Darth Vader–and the risks she’d be willing to take to eliminate the Emperor’s brutal enforcer.

8. “Faith in an Old Friend,” by Brittany N. Williams, brings L3-37 back, showing that she hasn’t just preserved her own identity within the Falcon‘s computer but actually drawn out the identities of the some of the other personalities loaded into it over time.

9. “Due on Batuu,” by Rob Hart, on the list for reasons explained earlier.

10. “Right-Hand Man,” by Lydia Kang, makes medical droid 2-1B interesting in his own right while allowing a quiet moment for Luke to work through some of his trauma after his fight with Vader, even while displaying the empathetic, curious traits that make him a hero.

Finally, I want to acknowledge some of the other stories for what they’ve brought into the new canon. “Ion Control,” by Emily Skrutskie, brings back Rebel sisters Toryn and Samoc Farr. “The Truest Duty,” by Christie Golden, provides a clear canon personality for General Veers and establishes for the record what happened to him on Hoth. “Rendezvous Point,” by Jason Fry, offers some old-school Legends Rogue Squadron storytelling centered on Wedge and Janson. And “No Time for Poetry,” by Austin Walker, manages a pair-up between IG-88 and Dengar that I never knew I wanted, perfectly capturing Dengar’s new-canon persona and opening up some new questions, like is that still IG-88’s ruined body on Cloud City in the new canon?, given how screwed up Dengar and IG-88’s efforts to track Solo have become, do they still track him to Bespin?, and does that mean that charming old Dengar is ultimately the one who kills the assassin droid now? I wouldn’t mind further adventures following any of these stories.

I certainly wouldn’t mind further stories From A Certain Point of View.



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A comfortable gaming routine

While I’m still struggling to pick up a regular reading habit again, I have found a very comfortable gaming routine. I try to spend some time in Ring Fit Adventure every day. I aim for 8 PM every night, but in reality this ends up being one of the last things I do before I get ready for bed most evenings. Then, my weekends get split between two games. A good chunk of at least one day is spent playing a single-player RPG; currently, that’s involved the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but I have a lot of other unplayed options lined up. Then I’ll spend a couple hours with some friends playing Star Wars: Squadrons on the other day of the weekend. It’s a satisfying cycle.

I’ve barely touched the single-player mode in Squadrons. If I ever get around to finishing the campaign, I’ll probably write a short review. But I’m there for the multiplayer, which is so very unlike me. We’re usually flying with a near-full squadron of friends at this point. The dream will be all five slots filled with friends. It’ll be a while before we’re doing more than battles against AI opponents, though. I made two important changes to how I play: I’ve switched from mouse/keyboard to a 360 controller, and I’ve finally figured out how to effectively use targeting and call-outs. Really basic. I would never claim to be a natural at these sorts of games! But now it feels like Star Wars, with really fun dogfighting, working together with a buddy to take on the enemy squadron, coordinating our strikes and retreats for resupply, swooping in to try to pull enemies off our companions or to draw attention away in anticipation of a bombing run. I’m sure I’d be absolutely shredded against a human opponent, of course! But it’s great fun and something to look forward to every week.

So I’m finding fitness, socialization, and immersive storytelling all in gaming. Now to find ways to implement more reading into my days!

Holiday Special

Happy holidays, everyone! If you’re looking for something different to watch instead of or in addition to the old holiday classics, might I suggest The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special? It’s heartwarming, cheeky, and fun. Its time-traveling shenanigans don’t make a whole lot of sense, but Star Wars, especially its Lego alternate version, doesn’t always make sense. No deeper analysis here; this was a cute little movie appropriate for the whole Star Wars-loving family, and it’s far more watchable than the non-Lego version.

The Mandalorian Season 2 Finale

[Warning: plenty of spoilers for The Mandalorian.]

I really rather enjoyed the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian. It was action-packed, it had some great tense sequences in which I was really dreading what would happen and entirely unsure of how it could be resolved, and then the ending was so bittersweet and hopeful, delivering some quiet character development. I thought it was a good cap to the season and, for that matter, to the overall story arc of the first couple of seasons, even while being a clear signal that future content is on the horizon.

Of course future content is on the horizon. Ten Star Wars series and a couple movies planned for the near future? That’s too much Star Wars! I’m not even keeping up on the books, and I gave up a couple years back on even trying to track the ever-increasing glut of comics being released for the new canon. Mixed feelings as usual here about this development: (1) more Star Wars gives more opportunities for new creators to dabble in the universe, for new stories to hook new fans, and for plenty of different characters and settings and subgenres so that everyone can probably find something they’ll like; (2) more Star Wars means that it will soon be unmanageable for most people to get a good footing in the universe, especially as it’s leaned more into MCU-esque winks for hardcore fans, like including Maul in Solo or Ahsoka in The Mandalorian, which at some point will surely begin to alienate people not already obsessed; (3) more Star Wars means I’ll have plenty to read and watch in my preferred sci-fi/fantasy setting, which is great, but it’s not so great to have me so insularly focused on one massive franchise when so much great independent sci-fi and fantasy has been and continues to be published; (4) more Star Wars means more talented writers writing for an existing property instead of exploring their own ideas, while also meaning that Star Wars becomes less of a thing defined by George Lucas’s vision and more of a bland product produced by committee; and (5) more Star Wars means that a monolithic corporation within the ever-narrowing band of oligarchic entertainment companies is going to tighten its grip even further by giving plenty of people reason to only watch/read/play/listen to (and thus pay for) its particular intellectual property, IP that in this case it just went out and bought after the fact rather than having any role in creating (as though IP law wasn’t already so corrupted toward longstanding corporate interests).

But enough of that. I actually just wanted to yell about Luke and Boba Fett.

Boba’s interactions with the “real” Mandalorians in the finale were fascinating. It’s easy to see why he remained such an isolationist outsider throughout his life, as he faced bigotry as a clone and a refusal by purists to accept him as a member of Mandalorian culture. Bo-Katan’s hostility toward his use of Mandalorian armor, despite his rightful claim to it, is somewhat ironic given her own wariness toward the extremist sect that Din belongs to. It’s interesting to see a lot of different Mandalorians in this diaspora all finding ways to identify themselves as “real” Mandalorians in the wake of the loss of their homeland, often creating identities in opposition to other ideas about what a Mandalorian can be. All that aside, that post-credits scene was some sweet Boba- and Fennec-badassery, and I am intrigued to see what The Book of Boba Fett does to further develop these characters. There are certainly plenty of subjects to explore. Why did Fett want his armor back now, and why did he not reclaim it earlier? Why was it important to him to claim Jabba’s palace? Does he plan to start his own criminal empire, or a new bounty hunter’s guild? Does he plot to build a coalition to retake Mandalore and rise as its ruler? Or perhaps does he want to assemble a warrior society of his own, an outsider group that rejects the formalistic traditions of Mandalorian culture? And now that he’s more of a team player and working with others, does he make any attempt to reconcile with the “friends” and mentors he’s had in the past, like Bossk or Dengar? I’ve never been great at speculation, so who knows if the story even follows any of those leads, but I’ll be interested to see what they do. Boba’s still not my favorite character, but I like this take on an honor-bound, brutal warrior who seems to be doing a tightrope walk of reflecting on and honoring his father’s heritage while facing and accepting rejection from the culture his father was raised in.

Then there’s Luke. It’s incredible that they really brought Luke into the show as the Jedi to respond to Grogu’s call. It was also incredible fan service to finally show Luke at the height of his powers, easy dismantling a platoon of super-soldier droids after we’d seen a single one of these Dark Troopers nearly pummel Din to death. I haven’t particularly been interested in the Disney Gallery series for The Mandalorian, but I’d love to see some behind-the-scenes discussion of how they got Mark Hamill’s younger voice and likeness spot-on for his appearance. Obviously most of the time, he was silent and hooded, and it’s not hard to figure out that you’d have a stunt double in any sort of sequence like that, but we have some extended periods where Luke is interacting with the Mandalorian posse.

Will we see more of this younger Luke? Will we finally see him starting his own Jedi Academy? I’d love to get more of that story. It’ll be interesting to see where Grogu goes; I suspect that, like Ahsoka, the little guy will find a way to escape the upcoming Jedi Purge (just as he did the original, come to think of it). And, though this is somewhat surprising to me, I’m really eager to see not just what comes of the potential conflict between Din and Bo-Katan, but also what exactly Boba Fett is up to.

Mando 2.2-2.3

I don’t think I’m going to do episode-by-episode reactions for this season of The Mandalorian, but I’m loving the new season so far. The newly introduced characters are fun (especially Frog Lady), and I was stoked to see the returning characters from other Mandalorian-themed Star Wars projects. I’m super-eager to see the character now sure to enter the series by the end of this season after a name drop in Chapter 11, and I like the tight focus on a clear quest that this season has, with a concrete end goal for Din Djarin.

I’m finding that my reactions so far are reinforced by larger fan chatter, so I just don’t feel especially compelled to post a reaction each time that’s in line with what everyone else is more or less saying. The big topic right now still seems to be the egg-eating from Chapter 10. For what it’s worth, I thought it was darkly humorous but also quite troubling, as even unfertilized, they were still the spawn of a sentient species. (While I think diverse writers’ rooms are important, I’m a little confused that this is being used as an example of the problems of an all-male writers’ room because I don’t think sensitivity about fertility/reproduction or violence against fellow sentient beings is something unique to non-cis/hetero men–after all, while I know this sounds like “not all men,” I still have to point out that these are issues I tend to be sensitive about!) Chapter 11 gives the Child the opportunity to gain a little bit of a new perspective, not only literally getting consumed like an egg in a terrifying moment of danger but also spending some pleasant quality time with the Frog Family and their new tadpole. I thought that latter element was sweet, redemptive, and a good opportunity for the kiddo to gain some needed empathy to contrast with all the violence Din regularly exposes them to.

I imagine this is another topic already heavily covered, but I am also glad to see the show finally acknowledge and explain the rift in Mandalorian cultures that has produced such an extremist sect with its fundamentalist values. The comparison to the development of real-world religious extremism among oppressed and marginalized minority groups is obvious. It’s kind of funny to me that Din was so deeply taken in by this cult and isolated from alternative worldviews that he didn’t even realize he was in an extremist cult, or that there were other sorts of Mandalorians! We’ve already seen moments in which he clearly wrestled with the hardline code of the Watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remove his helmet by the end of this season. Conveniently, Din’s involvement in what amounts to a hardcore cult in backwater systems of the Outer Rim also explains why he’s relatively ignorant about the Jedi, a religious order that is all-too-familiar to the more mainstream Mandalorians.

That’s all I have to say for now. But if I find something else I’d like to discuss in future episodes, you can bet I’ll share it!

The Mandalorian Returns: 2.1

Okay, yes, no “post” this “weekend” but I’d been so caught up with work and the conference that I’d forgotten The Mandalorian Season 2 started today and now I’ve watched the first episode and I’m all excited.

Good start. Good score. Good cinematography. Lots of good tension-building and quite a good bit of levity. Good Baby Yoda. Good balance of new and returning characters (I love the return of Amy Sedaris’s character).

Most of the rest of the stuff I loved consists of spoilers. So I guess watch the episode first? I just want to holler about it, real quick.

I am impressed and a little surprised that they actually kept the Cobb Vanth story from the Aftermath books. Maybe that’d been confirmed before the new season’s airing, but I haven’t been paying attention. And it’s not exactly the same Cobb Vanth that we see from Aftermath. The story’s a little different. Two tellings, two different versions. Is the version presented in Aftermath the “truer” version, or is Cobb’s story to Din Djarin as told in flashbacks in this episode the right one? It doesn’t really matter. (Wookieepedia, true to form, attempts to force together a single narrative, but I don’t think it quite makes sense and is unnecessary.) Timothy Olyphant is a great casting choice. I love Timothy Olyphant in what I see him in, but I’ve not seen the things he’s probably best known for–that’d be Justified and Deadwood, right? I should change that.

I loved this version of Cobb. I loved his developing relationship with the Mandalorian. I loved that they parted ways with Din having yet another ally to call on if needed. I loved the moment when Mando whacks Cobb’s jetpack and he flails off in a briefly comical echo of Boba Fett’s demise.

I loved seeing further personification and complexity applied to the Tusken Raiders. I loved the Western vibes. I’m a little over Tatooine, but if they can maybe stop coming back here all the time, I’ll have loved what they did with it, how they made it familiar yet fresh, shown from a different angle.

I loved the mysterious appearance of Temuera Morrison at the end. Is he Boba Fett, surviving as a lone wanderer in the Tatooine wastes? Is he some other Fett clone who just so happens to have taken up residence in Boba’s presumed final resting place? How will he connect to the larger events in the show?

I learned over last season to just let the show build at its own pace. It’ll get to where it wants to go in time, and it’ll surely surprise me with how it uses the foundations it’s set up along the way–things and people and places I didn’t even realize were supposed to be foundational.

Bottom line: I love that Mando’s back!

Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.

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Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.