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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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.