Review: Life Debt

Life Debt: Aftermath (Star Wars)Life Debt: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life Debt is a considerable improvement over the first book in the Aftermath trilogy. Wendig’s sharp wit, (mostly) vivid descriptions, colorful language, and diverting “Interlude” vignettes return. And now we also have pacing turned up to eleven, a more clearly defined plot with greater forward momentum, a sharper focus on the main characters, and much better characterization of those characters. Dialogue really sparkles here, and each character had a distinctive voice and attitude. Reading Life Debt felt a little bit like meeting up with old friends–remarkable given that I had just finished the first book a short while ago, I barely knew these characters, and I felt that they all blended together, at least in voice, in the first book.

For fans hoping to see more of the original film trilogy’s stars post-Endor, you’re in luck. Life Debt largely follows the Imperial-hunting crew from the first novel as they attempt to track down Han Solo at the direction of Leia. The book ultimately builds to Han’s attempt to liberate Kashyyyk from the brutal yoke of the Empire, while Leia attempts to motivate the New Republic senate to send aid to help out. While we still get the most time with the new crew of characters (and that’s a good thing–they’re fun!), we also get considerable swashbuckling action with Han and impassioned politicking with Leia. I’ve mentioned before that Wendig does a great job with Han, and that’s definitely the case here; Han’s a standout character. Supporting characters from the films, especially Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar, have plenty to do. And there’s a tense spy games thriller as a running subplot, with Grand Admiral Sloane becoming increasingly suspicious of her mysterious mentor Rax and attempting to uncover more about him.

The book ends in an intense Manchurian Candidate-style climax, mirroring that familiar Star Wars trope of a dark middle chapter in a trilogy. In the wake of the disaster, which is only slightly lessened by the quick actions of our heroes, the team is assigned to capture or kill Grand Admiral Sloane, allowing the book to end in a way that feels complete and yet provides a clear hook for the next installment.

I would strongly recommend this book. I would in fact recommend reading Life Debt even without reading Aftermath; the first book can be enjoyed as a prequel after the fact, if you’re so inclined, but it’s not vital to understanding the characters or events of this installment. Life Debt is a fun time and a cool development of the setting.

That said, I do have one strong reservation regarding my endorsement. One of the characters, Sinjir, is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer who used a variety of interrogation techniques to extract information, including torture. Over the course of the book, Sinjir is troubled because he still uses torture techniques to help out the New Republic. He’s worried he might even enjoy it. It could be an interesting insertion of moral nuance in the Star Wars setting; can doing the wrong things for the right reason ever be justified? Historically, that answer has been no, but Wendig seems to say, maybe? However, torture is not effective in extracting information. It’s cruel, and it will break people into saying whatever they think their torturers want to hear, but there’s no convincing evidence that torture actually works (debate on that subject can be found at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/tor… while a more direct rebuttal of the use of torture is at https://www.scientificamerican.com/ar…). And torture, physically and mentally tormenting someone, ranks up there as one of the most heinous acts that humans can commit! Star Wars films have actually consistently supported this view: the torture of Leia yields no information and the threat of destruction of her home planet results in her giving out a name of a target, though it’s not a useful name; the Cloud City torture of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca is merely meant to elicit a disturbance in the Force to prompt Luke to show up, even though no questions are asked and no information is gained; the torture room in Jabba’s palace is portrayed as a demented place of sadistic torment and severe punishment, not a place for actual information-gathering; and Poe resists traditional torture, only divulging information under Kylo Ren’s Force-backed techniques, while Rey doesn’t break at all. To the best of my recollection, heroes never torture while villains frequently do in the Star Wars films. Yet in Life Debt, the question is only whether torture can be used in a way that supports a greater moral good; torture, or the threat of torture, is something Sinjir jumps to quickly, and we are to believe that he has an exceptional ability to read people to determine if the information provided is useful. This is propaganda in support of tactics that are immoral, inhumane, and ineffective. It fits into a long line of action movie and TV propaganda in support of torture. The book has many strengths, but this element demands objection.

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Sith Eyes

Guys, I promise, I’ll get over this wave of Star Wars posts eventually. It’s just on my mind a lot right now.

And something I’ve been thinking about is the physical manifestation of the Dark Side. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin turns to the Dark Side, his eyes go bloodshot and yellow. His eyes are still stained like this when we see him partially exposed during his fight with Ahsoka in Rebels. When Luke redeems him and removes his helmet, Anakin’s eyes are soft and friendly again.

 

 

Other Dark Siders may have yellow eyes. Darth Maul and Savage Opress both have those tainted yellow eyes. Pong Krell’s eyes are…yellow-ish. And Palpatine’s eyes are the bright yellow of a predatory animal, when he’s not wearing the kindly face of the Chancellor.

 

 

But I don’t think we ever see Count Dooku with anything but those dark eyes of his. Snoke’s eyes are not yellow. Asajj Ventress is known for her ice-blue eyes. And Kylo Ren’s eyes have so far remained a dark color.

 

 

We could say that perhaps the yellow-red eyes are just visual metaphor, signifying corruption, and not meant to be literally present. However, Dark Disciple confirms that the yellow eyes are visibly present, at least to some. When Ventress finds Vos after his corruption under Dooku, she sees that “Vos’s eyes were no longer a warm, rich brown. They were a blood-rimmed shade of yellow” (185). When Ventress briefly gets Vos to calm, the “yellow hue faded from his eyes,” but that “awful yellow hue returned to his eyes” when her entreaties fail and he returns to his impassioned attack (189).

Interestingly, Ventress later finds Vos without the yellowed eyes but knows he is still corrupted because she still feels “the fury inside him now” (209). Vos eventually admits that he had remained loyal to the Dark Side, that Ventress was correct.

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I don’t know if there’s a canon answer as to what causes a Dark Sider’s eyes to yellow. Speculation on Reddit suggests that it is an intense connection to the Dark Side. If so, how would Palpatine not always have those eyes, with his intense Dark Side presence and constant evil hatred and malevolence? I suppose he could mask his face the same way he masked his presence from the Jedi (and this certainly would not be the first time that someone has suggested that Palpatine only revealed his true face after his encounter with Mace Windu, that he was not actually “disfigured” at all then).

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My personal feeling is that the yellow eyes represent a loss of control. A Dark Sider strives to control the Force, but some let the Dark Side ultimately control them. For Palpatine, the Dark Side is a tool. For Anakin, the Dark Side is desperation and anger and confusion and fear all being unloaded at once.

What does that mean for Kylo Ren, though? I see Kylo as perhaps the most unstable Dark Sider yet, prone to violent rages and tantrums. But he has constant conflict in him; maybe he has never fully given himself to the Dark Side.

Or maybe this is just an inconsistent element that changes with the story being told and the creative team telling that story.

I bet that there’s at least a partial canon answer floating around in the minds (and files) of the Lucasfilm Story Group. But we don’t have a full answer yet.

Haunted: Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren, as we all presumably now know, wants the past to die; he’ll kill it, if he has to (I’m going to abuse the hell out of this line over the next few months and years, especially in casual conversation, if I haven’t already). Yet his past won’t let go of him. As Luke warns, for Kylo to strike his old master down in anger is to keep Luke with him forever–and since Luke gives himself up to the Force, this lingering imprint could very well be a literal presence, in addition to the figurative presence of haunting guilt that weighed on Kylo through most of The Last Jedi after killing his own father in the previous film.

I’m definitely a fan of a substantial lapse in time between VIII and IX. I wonder where that puts Kylo at the start of the film. Will he be haunted by Luke? Will we gain any knowledge into what sort of communication he has had with Anakin/Vader (if not purely rhetorical)? This reminds me of Cade Skywalker from the Legacy comics of the old EU, haunted by the spirits of his ancestors.

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Not that Cade and Kylo are anywhere near directly comparable characters. Cade at least was more or less always an antihero, while Kylo is so far pretty much a villain. Still, it’s something that will keep floating in the back of my mind, and maybe Luke will nag Kylo to confront what he has become in a way he did with Cade.

Still holding out for some literal representation of a spirit taking the form of Anakin having motivated Kylo to turn to the Dark Side, perhaps even warning him that Luke would one day act against him while he was still just a Jedi apprentice. Star Wars at times feels Shakespearean (ahem), and such a direction would echo the ghost urging Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, a path that would spell disaster for the prince and virtually everyone around him.

I still don’t know about Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren is not, and probably never will be, my favorite Star Wars character. But damn, Adam Driver delivered an absolutely amazing performance in The Last Jedi, and his acting combined with Rian Johnson’s writing and directing may have been the best I’ve seen in a Star Wars film–certainly the most raw and visceral and nuanced characterization present.

[Spoilers follow]

Johnson wrote the character down quite a fascinating path. By the end of the movie, he’s risen up to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke, and with the passing of Carrie Fisher, it is likely that Episode IX will find Kylo Ren successful in having completely vanquished his past. The only lingering connection he has to the Light is Rey, and she seems to have finally given up on him too by the end of The Last Jedi.

I still have so many questions. Sure, we now see how Luke’s training temple fell, how Luke abandoned the role of teacher and active participant in galactic affairs, how Ben Solo finally embraced the Dark Side, and what happened to Luke’s other students (at least in broad strokes–no pun intended). But it is now definitely confirmed that Snoke had been acting on Ben this whole time, corrupting him. Did Snoke reach out to Ben, opening a psychic link as he did between Kylo and Rey? Did Ben seek Snoke out? Is Ben a religious extemist, someone who felt apathetic and empty and out of place among his family and among the Jedi, someone who was converted by holonet forums and propaganda videos? We know the moment that Luke lost Ben, but we don’t truly know how Ben was corrupted early on, nor how he truly became Kylo Ren. And dramatically, we haven’t needed those answers yet, but I suspect they will play into how the final film of this sequel trilogy proceeds.

Kylo did a good job of eliminating his past over the course of these two films–killing Lor San Tekka and Han Solo and Snoke, attempting to kill Luke, and leaving Leia to fate. He also smashed apart his mask, his connection to Vader, and we see no effort on his part to communicate with Vader.

This gives me even more questions about That Scene in The Force Awakens, when he seeks aid from his grandfather. Is it rhetorical? Or is the strength in fact power infused in the artifact of the helmet? Is it some trick of Snoke’s, who is–or was–so gifted at reading minds and influencing people? Or is Kylo Ren mentally ill? Especially in light of The Last Jedi, where he was prone to temper tantrums but actually acted rationally and more clearly explained his motivations, I think it’s rather unlikely that any form of mental illness will have played a role in shaping who Kylo Ren is, but it’s something still floating around in the back of my mind.

I’ll never ship Kylo/Rey because (a) there’s way too much baggage associated with abusive relationships there and (b) I’m Finn/Rey all the way, but The Last Jedi did a phenomenal job of presenting Kylo and Rey as fundamentally lonely people who found some sense of togetherness and connection in each other, as much as they might not have liked to. I say this because it’s amazing to me how much The Last Jedi has shifted my perception of characters and relationships, especially regarding Kylo Ren. Now more than ever, it seems almost impossible for him to be redeemed; now more than ever, I want him to be redeemed. It will be truly fascinating to see where the final film takes this character, and I’m sure that I won’t be able to predict where that goes.

Is Kylo Ren Okay?

Re-watching the films yet again in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi, I found myself uniquely struck by the scene in The Force Awakens when Kylo Ren is seeking guidance to withstand the temptation of the Light Side.

“Show me again the power of the darkness,” he asks of Anakin, kneeling before the deformed helmet of Darth Vader. We know he is definitely referring to Anakin, since he not only speaks to the helmet but addresses his “grandfather.”

This was always a powerful, emotional, creepy moment and showed just how deranged and obsessed Kylo Ren was. Keeping The Last Jedi in mind, I feel that this moment has to be elaborated on further in one of the sequels, by Episode IX if not VIII.

I remember a lot of rumors swirling about the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker prior to the release of The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, I can’t point to a particularly credible source; there are many of the usual clickbait culprits with similar headlines, all cawing over the same old shreds of “news.” In example, see this Screen Crush article that purports to show concept art of Anakin’s spirit from Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I have not ever looked through this book and cannot independently verify its contents. The bottom line: the rumors suggested that Anakin’s Force ghost was developed and could have potentially transitioned between Anakin and Vader. It’s an interesting idea, and a compromised Anakin who is still partially claimed by the Dark Side could explain why Kylo Ren’s conversation with Anakin’s spirit would not have revealed Anakin’s apparent repentance and redemption.

In the old EU, there were many sorts of Force spirits, including those of powerful ancient Sith, so this idea does not seem so out of the realm of possibility. But the prequel films began to limit the scope of who could be a Force ghost: in The Phantom Menace we see that Qui-Gon does not become transfigured into a spiritual form; in Attack of the Clones we hear Qui-Gon’s voice during Anakin’s attack on the Tuskens, and Yoda is concerned; and then in Revenge of the Sith, we learn that Yoda has been learning about greater mysteries of the Force from Qui-Gon, who has uniquely learned how to survive death and will train Obi-Wan as well. The Clone Wars show also gives Yoda an arc to learn a little about the greater mysteries of the Force. This re-frames the dissipation of the bodies of Obi-Wan and Yoda in the original films as unique, and it also adds a considerable degree of mystery to Anakin’s own transition. In the new canon, the conclusion to be drawn so far is that Dark Siders are unable to undergo the transition that enables them to retain a personality in the afterlife. Regardless of why that is so, it does nothing to make clear how exactly Anakin would have the ability to transition–a selfish act, rescuing his own son, though self-sacrificing, should not be enough to make up for killing children and other innocents for decades, torturing many more, and being indirectly responsible for the deaths of billions. And Anakin would not have had any obvious opportunity to commune with anyone to teach him this power.

So we could see yet another reinvention of what a Force spirit represents in The Last Jedi. Though this does not mean that we will see Anakin’s Force spirit. What if Kylo Ren has been communing with a deceitful, even evil, Force spirit? Or an invention of Snoke’s? What if Kylo Ren’s communications with the dead are in fact entirely fantasy?

What if Kylo Ren is mentally ill?

What if Kylo Ren has not been talking to any Force spirit at all, but rather his own delusions? What if he experiences hallucinations, hears voices, receives commands? We know that his problems emerged when he was young, that Han and Leia sent him off to be trained by Luke because they weren’t sure of how to handle him. He sounds to be deeply troubled. And his manifestation of the Dark Side is almost always raw and unbridled. He lashes out with tempter tantrums. He is emotionally vulnerable, his voice quavers, he has difficulty committing to a single path. Perhaps he experiences psychotic episodes. Perhaps he suffers from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or some other uniquely Star Wars mental illness entirely.

I don’t know if this is a wise direction to take things. On the one hand, a redemption arc seems a lot more plausible even for a patricidal enforcer if he is acting under the impairment of his mental illness. On the other hand, it would be troubling to suggest that one can embrace the Dark Side simply by having a preexisting mental health condition.

Nonetheless, it certainly could offer a rather complicated and tragic narrative if handled very, very carefully. And it would explain how Kylo Ren could have received such a wrong message from his grandfather–it wasn’t his grandfather at all. Surely the evil Kylo Ren would be viewed as long-suffering Ben Solo then.

Regardless, we should have a partial answer to some of the above soon enough!

Kylo Ren’s Disturbing Power

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren’s Force ability to mentally probe others and read their deepest thoughts is portrayed as violating and painful. I think it is safe to say that the way Kylo uses the Force to invade the minds of others is a form of torture, and yet it is disturbingly intimate.

I had not realized how much the power echoed sexual assault, however, until I read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization. Not only does it embellish the scene, but it has affected my viewing of the scene in the film.

As with the film, the book’s first presentation of the mind probe power is minimal, with a quick cut away to the aftermath. “A hand extended toward the shackled prisoner. Silent agony followed soon after.” And Kylo demands that Poe tell him what he wants to know. That’s it.

The two scenes in which Kylo Ren interrogates Rey also match the film by being far more involved. Alan Dean Foster substantially cranks up the invasive, disturbing language for these sections.

From the capture and first interrogation:

Shutting down and belting his lightsaber, Ren contemplated his immobile captive. Reaching up slowly, he touched her face. The pressure he applied was not physical. Refusing to meet his gaze, she looked away, straining with the agony of resistance, hardly daring to breathe. If only she could get a hand free, a leg–but no part of her body responded to her commands.

Surprised by what he was finding, Ren lowered his hand. Relieved of the mental intrusion, she sucked in great, long draughts of air.

. . . .

He touched her anew. This time the pain of trying to stave him off brought tears streaming down her face. He was within her mind and her thoughts, and there was nothing–nothing!–she could do to keep him out. To resist. But she kept trying, trying…

. . . .

She could hardly swallow as she strained to pull away from him, anything to pull away, to get him out.

She wanted to scream, but he would not allow it.

And from the second interrogation:

“I would have preferred to avoid this. Despite what you may believe, it gives me no pleasure. I will go as easily as possible–but I will take what I need.”

She knew that trying to resist him physically would not only be useless but would likely result in unpleasantness of a kind she preferred not to imagine. So she remained motionless and silent, her arms at her sides, as his hand rose toward her face. He touched her again, as he had in the forest on Takodana.

And hesitated. What was that? Something there. Something unexpected.

As she strained to resist the probe, he pushed into her, brushing aside her awkward attempts to keep him out. While he investigated her mind, he spoke softly.

. . . .

Tears were streaming down her face from the effort she was making to withstand him. Increasingly desperate, she did try to strike out. But just as on Takodana, her body refused to respond.

. . . .

All the rage and terror bottled up inside her came out as she turned to meet his stare.

“Get–out–of–my–head.”

It only made him lean in closer, enhancing her feeling of complete helplessness.

. . . .

Where the strength to defy him came from she did not know, but if anything, her voice grew a little stronger. “I’m not giving you anything.”

His response reflected his unconcern. “We’ll see.”

Immediately following this, Rey overcomes Ren’s mind probe, unlocking her own latent Force ability–clearly to the surprise of both her and Kylo Ren.

It’s still impressive that she turned the tables on Kylo, but the scene as written nonetheless felt…bothersome to me, due to the excessively heavy-handed language of invasion.

I won’t claim any extensive research into discussion surrounding this topic, but I was somewhat surprised to see that the disturbing implications of this scene largely seem to be limited to a forum on TheForce.Net, where a surprising number of people argue against (what seem to me and apparently several others) the obvious implications of the scene. Of course, here I’m specifically talking about the book and they are discussing the movie; as I noted in my review of the novelization, there are enough distinctions and contradictions between the two that while the movie informs the book, the book does not really inform the movie, and any particular insights into characters or events provided by the book are probably limited to the book itself.

Still, watch the scene again if you have any doubts. It’s disturbing. The book heightens the sexual assault imagery, I think, but it’s all there in some form in the film–Rey is restrained, Ren says he can take whatever he wants, and Ren appears to enjoy asserting dominance over Rey and being able to subjugate her and penetrate her mind.

What’s amazing to me–and evidenced by the aforementioned forum–is that there is still a vocal contingent of people shipping Rey/Ren, or Reylo, or whatever else they want to call it. Even if we downplay the sexual assault imagery (and I do think it’s a little less on-the-nose in the film, but that’s just my two cents), Ren tortured Rey. No healthy relationship is likely to grow out of that–especially a romantic one. It would make sense in the context of the prior films that Ren might ultimately be redeemed (Anakin, after all, murdered a master of the Order, a room full of children, and his mentor/best friend; directly contributed to the death of his wife; assisted in the destruction of an entire planet; tortured rebels just to torment them; and attempted to kill his own son). But “redemption” doesn’t need to mean that all past sins are simply forgiven, or that there is a big reset on a deeply toxic and troubling relationship (again looking at Anakin, he bought his redemption with his own life). Reylo adherents seem to be picking at straws, and while no romantic relationship is necessitated by The Force Awakens, it is rather bizarre to me that they would favor Reylo over the obvious chemistry and mutual attraction between Rey and Finn.


P.S. There also seem to be people who see little to no distinction between the “mind probe” Force power and the “mind trick” Force power. I think the distinction is important; the former seeks to dominate/penetrate a mind, while the latter only seeks to convince/persuade/influence. Wookieepedia does a good job as usual in breaking down the differences between the mind probe and the mind trick.