Tag Archives: space opera

Star Wars Rogue One is a way better movie than I expected.

So I’ve been living under a rock. All I knew about Rogue One since its theatrical release was that it was a Star Wars spinoff movie. Imagine how it felt when I sat on the couch with Netflix expecting this:

and I got this:

Rogue One is the darkest movie in the Star Wars franchise, and it’s a better movie for it. Set during the height of the Empire’s power, it follows the adventures of Jyn Erso, whose mother is dead and whose father is a hostage. In the first scene we see of her adult life, she’s on the way to an Empire labor camp. Alliance fighters break her out and offer her a job.

I don’t want too reveal too much, but if you’ve ever wondered what idiot would build a Death Star that explodes on a single well-aimed photon torpedo, this movie answers that question.

It reminds me of what space opera is for. It isn’t science fiction. Space opera is politics, on the funnest canvas. If you live in a fascist society, what do you do? The human characters in this movie might have a comfortable life if they just gave up. The Empire echoes modern China a little. One of the battle scenes resembles Normandy – and war’s enormous price in lives.

The Empire’s military is made entirely of humans and its brass is entirely white humans. What kind of choice do the aliens have? What do you do when you run out of options? Give up everything?

We see a Rebel Alliance splintered into factions and military commanders disobeying orders all over the place. Is Alliance chaos better than Empire enforced unity? Do you keep fighting? Yes. The movie gives a resounding yes. To give up would be to be complicit in the evil thing Grand Moff Tarkin does on Scarif.

One of the functions of art is to show us what heroism looks like. Heroism when nobody is a Jedi and injuries hurt.

My problems with the movie are quibbles. The other characters treat Jyn like she’s the next Henry V but she’s not that good with words. Did the blind character have to have milky eyes? The CG Tarkin doesn’t look that bad … he just looks like he wandered in from the wrong movie.

The most moving part of Rogue One is the (spoileriffic) last half hour.

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They killed a main character. I thought pfft, the robot character, that’s going to be a Disney death if I’ve ever seen one. Then they killed another … and another … nobody was going to get out. In the last five minutes of the film, the Alliance is reduced to extras, and they are scrambling, and desperate, and mortal. I salute the nameless soldier who couldn’t get himself through a broken door but could get a data card through.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe main character is a spaceship. And she is hell bent on revenge.

It is not the plot that makes Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie shine – the above is all there is to know about it. Nor is it the setting, which is standard space opera fare. It’s the technical mastery it takes to write a first-person novel from the point of view of an AI hive mind. In some of the early chapters Leckie writes from the first person omniscient. I didn’t even know you could do that. Look:

“Is she coming or not? If she isn’t coming she should say so.”

At that moment Lieutenant Awn was in the bath, and I was attending her. I could have told the lieutenants that Lieutenant Awn would be there soon, but I said nothing, only noted the levels and temperature of the tea in the black glass bowls various lieutenants held, and continued to lay out breakfast plates.

Near my own weapons storage, I cleaned my twenty guns, so I could stow them, along with their ammunition. In each of my lieutenants’ quarters I stripped the linen from their beds. The officers of Amaat, Toren, Etrepa, and Bo were all well into breakfast, chattering, lively. The captain ate with the decade commanders, a quieter, more sober conversation. One of my shuttles approached me, four Bo lieutenants returning from leave, strapped into their seats, unconscious. They would be unhappy when they woke.

Justice of Toren/One Esk Nineteen/Breq has a bizarre sense of identity. In the first half of the book, every other chapter describes the backstory, in which the Justice of Toren is a battleship crewed by dozens of officers and running her software in the brains of hundreds of meat-puppet human bodies. In the present day, the Justice of Toren has all been destroyed save for one puppet body. She still thinks of herself as a spaceship. And she thinks of herself as having already been murdered.

What the hell is Justice of Toren/One Esk Nineteen/Breq? She’s AI software running on a human brain. To make things even weirder, another character points out that it’s probably possible to bring back her body’s original owner (some nameless political prisoner). And her remaining body earns command of a ship, so now she’s a spaceship inside a human inside a spaceship.

A lot of the philosophical parts of the book explore what happens when a mind becomes divided against itself. This doesn’t just apply to the spaceship characters.
On the other hand, there’s so much philosophy in the book that not much happens. Add to that a nonlinear plot, an unreliable narrator, and characters who like to talk around the point in a way that would make Jane Austen proud, and you have yourself a tough read. I recommend looking up all the spoilers online first so you can know what’s going on. Then you can sit back and enjoy the thought experiment.

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

9780385267472_p0_v1_s260x420I picked up this book because I’d read Hyperion and I wanted to find out what happened to all of the characters. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The first book in the series had a Canterbury Tales conceit. Seven people from all walks of life set off on a pilgrimage to see a mysterious creature, the Shrike. In The Fall of Hyperion, the Canterbury Tales is abandoned and there’s nothing left but straight space opera. The unique voices of the main characters, as they told their own tales, are gone. The entire galactic empire is at stake in this book, but somehow I don’t care.

And it drags. The Fall of Hyperion takes about 500 pages to describe a week’s worth of events. There is an entire chapter devoted to Meina Gladstone wandering through the network of worlds and worrying about things. Entirely too much time is spent rehashing events from the previous book.

Did not finish.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion_595Ah, good old space opera.

I’d thought that I’d gotten thoroughly sick of space opera because so much of it is made out of recycled material. The issue of FTL travel irks me, too. But it turns out with Hyperion by Dan Simmons, that if you do space opera well enough, it’s still quite enjoyable.

Hyperion does use recycled material. But instead of trying to file the serial numbers off of the materials Simmons got his ideas from, he decided to go whole hog the other way and see just how many references to other stuff he can cram into one book.

This book’s Galactic Empire has a backwater planet called Hyperion, home to a mysterious killing machine called the Shrike. Legend has it that if a prime number of people make a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, it will grant one of them a wish and slaughter the rest. The book follows seven people on what may be the last pilgrimage ever as they board a spaceship headed for Hyperion. On the way, they decide to take turns sharing their reasons for going. Sound familiar? It’s The Canterbury Tales in space.

What I like about the book is that Simmons turned all the material drawn from other works into an artistic statement. Ever since Earth accidentally got swallowed up by a black hole (the Fall of Rome in space), human culture has failed to progress. They can’t do anything but recycle our own popular culture. Their society’s stuck in a Space Middle Ages.

It’s fun to pick out the references. The Ousters are Space Huns. Our pilgrimage party includes a Space Templar and a Space Jesuit. The Consul’s tale is Romeo and Juliet in space. Brawne Lamia’s tale manages to be simultaneously private detective noir in space and a story about Mary Magdalene with Robot Christ.

Not to be outdone with the religious references, Simmons also includes Fehdman Kassad, a Space Muslim. Maybe in 1989 when this book was published, Islam wasn’t as sensitive a topic as it is now, but Kassad still starts life as a street fighter, rises through the ranks of military academy, and then earns the title “The Butcher of Bressia.” Awkward.

On the other hand, I think Simmons did a great job with Sol Weintraub. He could very easily have come across like this. Instead, he’s a fully rounded character who’s being forced to relive the story of Abraham. Sol’s one of my favorite characters, second only to Brawne.

And about that pesky FTL travel: Simmons acknowledges that these characters travel at relativistic speeds and they actually have to face the consequences of the time dilation. Good work, sir.

If you’ve got a background in the classics and you like spec fic, you’d find this book fun.