Star Wars

 

In February 1977 I was 15 years old, a little more than half way through grade ten, and a fan of Science Fiction.  I read Science and Science Fiction books voraciously.  I had a subscription to Analog Science Fiction|Science Fact magazine.  A year earlier I had been excited to read Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, the third volume in the now never ending Dune series, serialized in Analog.  I must have first read Dune when I was 11 or 12.

In those days Science Fiction, with the rare exceptions like Star Trek, on television, and Kubrick’s 2001 in cinema, was almost purely a literary phenomenon.  And Science Fiction fans were readers above all else.  We — well, they — I never got to a convention — they went to Science Fiction conventions to meet their favourite authors and editors, to get books autographed by superstars with horn-rimmed glasses or massive side-burns or, in the case of Asimov, both.

Those superstar writers and editors had started their careers as fans, and generations of Science Fiction writers have followed that path to a career as an author.  I remember a number of authors from my Analog subscription and wonder what ever became of those lucky souls whose first publications I read in those pages.  I wonder if youngsters like Orson Scott Card or George R. R. Martin ever went on to do anything else.  And the cover art!  I wonder what ever happened to artists like Rick Sternbach and Mike Hinge, whose covers consistently blew me away for vastly different reasons.

In February 1977 I read the book reviews in Analog.  The reviews were Lester del Rey’s usual feature, “The Reference Library”, at the end of the issue, just before “Brass Tacks”, the letters to the editor.  The first book reviewed was Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, the beginning of what would be a series of novels by Pohl.  The second book is something called Walkers on the Sky by David J. Lake.  And the third book . . .

Well, the third book is a little thing the hero of which is, as del Rey writes in reference to the previously reviewed book, “oddly, named Luke Skywalker.”

Here is the first encounter I and a great many Science Fiction Fans had with this thing called Star Wars:

del Rey Star Wars 1 001  This book called Star Wars was credited to a new author named George Lucas.  It was, as most know today, ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, now well known as a Science Fiction writer.  Foster’s career had received an early boost with the commission to “novelize” the animated Star Trek as the Star Trek: Log series of paperbacks.

But, back to Star Wars and del Rey’s review and as a Science Fiction fan my experience of the years since 1977.

In May 1977 I saw Time magazine’s “Film of the Year” article about Star Wars and thought “this could be interesting”.  Soon after it opened in Edmonton — at the Odeon on Jasper Avenue, I think — I went to see the film with my mother.

I liked it.  It was fun.  The dialogue and science were equally crappy. It was not a thought provoking stumper like 2001 nor a discussion novel made SF TV like Star Trek. The best thing about it was something pointed out in the Time article: the world of Star Wars was battered, grubby, and lived in. Otherwise, it was a crappy space opera and I enjoyed it.

And I was fifteen.

I felt it was the precursor of something.  Star Wars seemed parallel to the cheesy, often badly written pulp fiction Asimov celebrated in his anthology Before the Golden Age.  I figured that we’d have some cheesy pulpy Science Fiction films for a bit, but surely a Golden Age of intelligent Science Fiction cinema was on the horizon.

In the fall of 1977 I moved to del Rey Star Wars 2 001Grade 11, still fifteen until December.  My new English class was taught by Mr. Mallet, one of the finest teachers I ever had.  Part way through the year he completed his Masters thesis (Symbolism of some sort in Hawthorne).  At some point that year he was advisor on a “special project” I did for credit.  I wrote my first novel — Science Fiction, of course, and, of course, unpublished.

I don’t know how he arranged it, but Mr. Mallet designed the entire Grade 11 English program around Star Wars.  Except Macbeth. Macbeth was done separately.  But Mr. Mallett made a point of reading the Porter scene, which had been excised from our texts, aloud to the class.  Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead with the alcoholic impotence!

So, the class had a field trip to the Odeon to see the film and then the readings were assigned: Dune, for the desert planet, The Wizard of Oz, for the Tin Man, The Hobbit for the quest and the wizard . . .

Two students raised their hands.  “Read ’em already” Jenny and I said.  Jenny’s an Egyptologist in New Zealand now.  We were friends then.

Mr. Mallet replied: “Lord of the Rings.”

“Read it.”

“Twice”

“Right.”  Mr. Mallet paused a moment.  “You two will spend class time in the Library researching and writing essays on subjects I assign.”

As the rest of the class belly-ached about unweaving Lucas’ rainbow and “only two weeks to write 250 words?! Impossible!” Jenny and I skipped off to the library with Mr. Mallet’s wonderful gift of time to read and write with unheardof freedom combined with sympathetic direction.

My best friend Dan was a huge fan of Star Wars although he had never been a particular fan of Science Fiction.  He liked cars and girls. And cinema.  While still in High School he was working at an Edmonton television station, coming up with some innovative set and prop ideas.  Today he works in the film industry in Vancouver as a property master.

Dan had a Darth Vader action figure and a classic sports car.  I had a storm trooper action figure and a battered Ford Custom when I could get permission from my father to use it.  We hung our action figures from our rear-view mirrors.  My heart was never really in it.  Dan’s heart seemed to be in every thing but perhaps was really in nothing much other than career in those days.

We lost touch.

In 1977 Science Fiction fandom was about reading.  In 2015 it is about cinema, television, and gaming — and Star Wars is the colossus that bestrides every convention, every consciousness.  Yes, there are still readers of Science Fiction, but the money — and the fans — are in the films and their tie-ins — the action figures Dan and I hung in our cars, the novelizations, and occasionally in the novels that script the visual presentations.  Do fans read the novels that seeded the blockbusters?  From what I’ve seen of the recent cinematic versions of Tolkien, the novels are only skimmed by the film makers.  As a friend said to me once of Lynch’s film of Dune, “It’s as though he filmed the first page of each chapter and the last page of the book.”

I can’t help but look at fans today, idolizing the actors and ignoring the imagination behind the actors, indeed, ignoring their own imaginations and their own potential.  I can’t help feeling something has been lost in a Golden Age still-borne.

Are young people still inspired by the Dragons of Pern? Do they need a movie or TV show to take them to Earthsea?  Will they ever puzzle over Bombadil now that fandom is about blockbuster films rather than words on a page?

I look around at the society we have created, the internet, the International Space Station, the Artificial Intelligence in every toaster and coffee maker.  I look at our Brave New World of reproductive technology and multiplicity of gender. I look around and I read myself into Heinlein, Clark and Asimov, Le Guin, Tiptree and Russ.  The world around me is the world I read before Star Wars.  It is also a world like and unlike 2001.  But it is not a world at all like contemporary blockbuster Science Fiction films.

Before Star Wars, Science Fiction fandom was about imagination and its freedom.  After Star Wars fandom has become about imagination structured, about cannon, and, above all, about consumption.

About a decade ago, my old friend Dan’s partner sent me a note before his fortieth birthday, asking for a thought, a wish, a memory.  I don’t remember what I wrote.

We drift from our childhood friends and childhood things.  I’ve not heard from Jenny or Dan or Mr. Mallet in forever.  I no longer have my copy of Foster’s Star Wars. But then, I’m reading Dune again right now.  And I still have my original paperback copy.  I hope there’s a young person somewhere out there reading Dune – in paperback – for the first time.

Del Rey, in the penultimate paragraph of his review of Star Wars, the book, writes:

“Maybe the book is all right for some of the juvenile audience, but it certainly isn’t for sophisticated readers.”

Not long after Star Wars my subscription to Analog lapsed.  Reading is no longer analog for most – it is digital.  I’ve lost touch with much of contemporary Science Fiction.  Gibson and Stephenson are pretty much just names.  I’ve read The Hunger Games but seen none of the films.  I expect the special effects are spectacular.

I think I might try to reconnect with Jenny and Dan.  We are no longer the juvenile audience of the original Star Wars. We now live in the grown up Science Fiction I read as a kid.

 

And these days I should still be able to make the Edmonton/Vancouver/Auckland Run in less than twelve parsecs.

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“Lightfinder” by Aaron Paquette: Comparisons Will Inevitably Be Made

(no spoilers ahead!)

Lightfinder by artist Aaron Paquette is a stunning debut novel, an enthralling first instalment of what promises to be an exciting series of novels for young adults (and all sorts of other readers). Comparisons will inevitably be made (I’ll do it myself in a moment), but unlike authors of some of the popular novel series for young adults of the recent and not-so-recent past, Paquette has firmly rooted the adventure in our real world: no Ministry of Magic, no post-Apocalyptic Panem, and although there are magical journeys, they are not to some aborted Medievalist fantasy called Narnia or anything else imaginary. Lightfinder is an adventure in the landscape and geography – and political economy – of Canada – specifically Alberta – today. And it is an adventure through the difficult life of Paquette’s young Cree heroine, Aisling, from the challenge of rising above the generational abuse suffered by her ancestors to simply finish school, through the tragedy of parental alcoholism and death, to the realization that she, and her runaway brother Eric are the keys to the future of Planet Earth.

Aisling, with the help of her Auntie Martha and Kokum Georgia begins on a quest to rescue Eric from the evil influence of the mysterious boy Cor. Quickly it becomes clear that the real quest is nothing less than to save the Earth from destruction by the evil “Raven” (long ago “Raven” wiped life off the faces of both Mars and the Moon). Along the way, Aisling is helped (and hindered) in her quest by a number of humans and individuals from the dream world – “real” world and dream world mingle. There’s the half-Australian Aborigine, Matari; the shy school-friend Jake; the Dreaming figures of Laughing Toad, Standing Coyote, and Walking Man.

And, the comparisons will inevitably come: “The Lightfinder Saga is an Indigenous Harry Potter!” “Lightfinder is a Native Narnia!” “Dune in the Boreal Forest!” “A First Nations Hunger Games!”

I admit, while reading Lightfinder I briefly made all these comparisons as well as the analogy Paquette explicitly makes to Star Wars:

“Do or do not,” her Kokum chimed in with a mischievous smile. “There is no try.” p. 64

I argue, however, that, while such analogies may easily be drawn, and the comparisons may bring fruitful understandings, Lightfinder is not in any significant way derivative of the blockbuster icons which have preceded it.

The Harry Potter series with which J. K. Rowling addicted a generation or more of young people to reading is perhaps the most obvious parallel, obvious not least because the boy wizard and Hogwarts have so penetrated the popular consciousness. But, Rowling’s world is removed from ours, an imaginative but fundamentally unreal pastiche of pretend European magical themes, practices and ideas grafted onto an alternative universe in which all the magic is hidden by the rather unbelievable conspiracy called the Ministry of Magic. Its all good fun, but no matter how well we suspend our disbelief, Privet Drive -never mind Hogwarts – is not a part of our world.

Paquette’s world, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in North American realities, the reality of Indigenous kids forced by history into adulthood before their teen years have begun, the reality of environmental devastation by faceless, unnamed forces, and the reality of vibrant and freshly alive Native spirituality and tradition. Whether or not we believe in the magic of Lightfinder, it is an organic magic of our real world, developed over generations, not the artificial playthings constructed by Rowling for Hogwarts to teach its young charges. Aisling is a girl just like any number you will see each day on Edmonton’s LRT, at school in Maskwacîs, or visiting with her Kokum in Standoff, or Sucker Creek, or Cold Lake or an apartment in Saskatoon. She has no lightening bolt scar. She’s not an only-child orphan of mysterious parents. What is remarkable about her is what is remarkable about any teenage girl: she intends to change her world.

Like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Lightfinder has parallel worlds and talking animals. But, unlike those of Lewis, Paquette’s animals talk because they are part of a real, vast, coherent mythological tradition, not because they are just pulled out of various religious and historic periods or even thin air, as Lewis’ are pulled.

And the world of Lightfinder is harsh and gritty. Wounding and death can and do come to the characters in graphic descriptions never seen by Harry and his friends or the Pevensie kids. Lightfinder owes more to The Orenda than to Narnia. It is this gritty realism that is pretty much Lightfinder‘s only similarity to The Hunger Games.

An analogy could be made between the Messianic trappings of Paul Atriedes in Dune and the two protagonists of Lightfinder. In both books the expected child(ren) arrive too early, upsetting the grand plan somewhat. But Messiahs in world literature are legion, and the environmental concerns of Lightfinder I’m sure owe everything to Paquette’s experience, and nothing to the dry-land ecology of Dune.

Overshadowing all, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, another quest by an unlikely hero to save the world from life-sucking evil. The Lord of the Rings, for anyone who has read the nearly-two-dozen posthumous volumes of Tolkien’s writings (I have) will know, is rooted as deep as the lowest depths of the Mines of Moria in the pre-Christian mythology and languages – philology we might say – of Northern Europe (principally Germanic and Finnish). In the author’s bio at the back of the book, and also at the book’s launch in Edmonton, Paquette remembers his mother’s imitation of Gollum as she read The Lord of the Rings to him as a child. I think, here, in The Lord of the Rings, there may be the only really significant influence from Fantasy literature by European Colonial authors. But, again, Paquette’s tale takes place today in readily identifiable places, not in the distant shadowed past of Middle Earth. “Raven” resembles more the god of Pullman’s His Dark Materials than he does Sauron. There is no “Fellowship” of disparate races in Lightfinder. Rather, there is family and (sometimes false) friends.

No. Lightfinder is not a Metis Lord of the Rings.

In the end, although we inevitably note reminders of books we’ve read before, Lightfinder is a brilliantly fresh, enthralling first novel, a novel that I expect will inspire a new generation of young readers both within and far beyond Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. In fact, I’d venture to say Lightfinder will likely be not only a best seller, but a blockbuster that brings to an international generation an indigenous reality and, just maybe, a change to the world.

It would probably make a good movie, too!

Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette is published by Kegedonce Press.

Two weeks after its release, a second printing was needed.