A civil chat about the uncivil politics of Bloodline

john-boehner[1]

 

Here at ETE, we’ve been waiting for Bloodline with scarcely contained anticipation. Politics is a favorite subject matter of ours, and you can bet that a pre-The Force Awakens politics book with Leia as its main character basically checks off all of our boxes. So as the second of what’s looking to be five pieces on Claudia Gray’s latest contribution to the Star Wars universe, we have a little chat about different aspects and observations we’ve made about the book.

Sarah, Rocky, and I each couldn’t wait to start talking about the book. We’ve already heard some of Sarah’s thoughts on disparate points of view and how that affects the political dialogue in the New Republic. We’ll definitely have to chat some more about that. But first let’s start with some general observations on Bloodline.

Jay: It’s a book we’ve waited so long for (excitement built for it even before TFA, before any of us had any idea what the book would be about, simply because of the “New Republic” tag it originally had). Being on the other side of that is still odd to me, but it’s a good feeling because we got the novel we wanted. We got the Leia political novel that not only teased the developing politics of TFA, that not only featured an excellent portrayal of Leia, but surprised a lot of us with the nuanced characterization of Ransolm Casterfo. We expected the intrigue and the politics, but I don’t know that we expected so many feelings from this book. I’m glad to get to know what Hosnian was like before it got blown up, glad to meet my apparent doppelgänger Casterfo, and will be on the #VoteLeia train for all eternity.

Rocky, what are your opening thoughts about the book?

Rocky: So, I loved Bloodline. I hugely love politics, and a very political book in the new Star Wars publishing universe was just what I needed, I think. I’ve liked some of the other books that have come out, but this one really felt right up my alley.

Things I loved also: Leia being allowed to shine and her relationship with Han being better defined. I loved finding out how much they are both married to their careers and still able to make some time to talk to each other, and how much they love each other and respect each other’s life choices. Leia getting to do politics and seeing where the New Republic is, was also good. I didn’t expect it to be that utterly incompetent and such a danger to itself, but all of the politics, the feel of it- reminded me partially of The New Rebellion in terms of a divided New Republic, and seemed very timely what with how polarized American politics is right now.

The ensemble cast was awesome. They fit in well together, were a diverse group, and represented such a good bunch of character types. I so want to see a short story of them getting together for drinks afterwards and going “how did we all end up in this mess, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen you guys, but I guess we’re all in this together now.”

Jay: The idea of division is interesting — Sarah just wrote a piece on extremes, and it’s sort of telling that not only is the New Republic splitting into two partisan camps but the points of view of the characters are also similarly polarized. That led to mistrust and dysfunction and it basically grinds everything to a halt. That’s true even before the book started (Leia observes things have basically stopped functioning in government) but it’s also true during the novel as well, because divisions between Leia and Casterfo cause miscommunication during their initial mission and also frustrate their political ideas when Casterfo reveals Leia’s family heritage.

But Rocky, you raise a good point about the ensemble cast. Leia’s staff is very different, and the protagonists — Casterfo included — are able to accomplish a lot because of their diverse skills and interests. So not only are they simply fun to watch interact, but their skills are complimentary as well. We’ve just spent a lot of time reading about how differences and polarization cause problems but I’m getting to thinking — there’s also a message that you can learn a lot from differences too. I mean even just politically, Leia disagrees with the Centrists on almost everything but she agrees Casterfo has some points. And Casterfo eventually acknowledges that his compatriots want to go too far.

So I guess it’s not differences that are the problem, but differences taken to the extreme? That’s basically what you were saying Sarah, right?

Sarah: Yes, that’s the point I was trying to make. It’s not that differences are bad; what’s bad is when you let those differences become so polarizing that you’d rather surround yourself with an echo chamber rather than admit your opposition might have a point. And when you surround yourself only with people who agree with you then it’s easy to start demonizing those who disagree, and that’s what starts this race towards “who is the most ideologically pure?” and compromise becomes more and more difficult.

Another interesting division that I noted is that of age. One of the first things we learn about Casterfo is that he has a collection of Imperial paraphernalia, and that he’s far from the only one. I may be mistaken in this, but I believe most of the other senators we meet who have similar collections tend to skew younger. For them, the Empire is much more of an abstract threat, a bad thing that happened long ago when they were children (or maybe before they were even born). Obviously, most of the older senators were in the Rebellion, or were at least adults during the Empire, and can’t imagine celebrating any part of an organization they consider to be so evil. Casterfo is a bit unique in that he does have personal experience with the tyranny of the Empire, but he still manages to separate his hatred of Vader from his desire to want to regain the orderliness made possible by the Empire.

All of this is to say that Leia and Casterfo’s relationship is meaningful because they both represent opposite ends of several different spectra coming together to meet in the middle to at least try and understand each other. Which, of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking when the truth of Leia’s parentage drives them apart. And their partnership fails because of a polarized viewpoint; Casterfo hates Vader so deeply that he cannot conceive of any possibility where Leia is any less evil than her birth father (or even stop to think that maybe Leia hates Vader just as much).

Jay: There was that one senator from Kuat who was positively ancient and was an Empire nostalgic, but you’re right in that it’s mostly the younger generation who have this admiration for the Empire without really knowing what it was like. Carise Sindian, too, is noted as being roughly Casterfo’s age. Casterfo himself is able to divorce the Empire’s form and structure from its reality, but that’s the very issue — he’s so young that for him the Empire is at worst an abstraction. Even when it had very real consequences for his family, he was able to throw all the blame onto a single person as opposed to the Imperial system itself. That’s the problem Leia originally has with him.

Casterfo and Leia do eventually find middle ground — Leia by letting go of the fears she has of an Empire rearing its head again, just in time for Casterfo to pull away from her because of fears of Vader returning. And fear is an interesting mechanism for creating political extremism, because fear and mistrust are an essential part of it. The Populists and the Centrists fundamentally distrust each other. So it’s not just that they disagree so sharply and so thoroughly, but they’re unable to credit each other with having legitimate ideas. From the very beginning, we see Leia distrust various Centrist figures and their motivations. We see Casterfo distrust Leia. And then we see various other Populists and Centrists attack figures on one side or the other.

It’s not just that their ideas are so polarized that they can’t visit middle ground, but it’s that they don’t even trust each other’s good will, motivations, and interests in the good of the Republic. As such they have no choice but to pull further apart. It’s fascinating to me in the Star Wars setting, because we know that fear is of the dark side. I think of Lor San Tekka’s line from TFA about the misery and despair in the galaxy. The First Order hasn’t yet arisen, and we don’t know yet what’s going on with Ben and the Jedi — but we know that fear and mistrust rule the day. I almost wonder if — unlike the prequels, where the dark side shrouded everything — that the noxious political atmosphere of the galaxy is tilting things, tilting things towards the dark side. It’s well outside of the scope of the novel I think, but it’s interesting to think on how fear leads to the polarization that paralyzes the New Republic and causes it to fail at doing basic tasks for the galactic populace.

Sarah: Yes, mistrust is what plays such a huge part in the New Republic’s downfall, which goes along with the idea that people’s perceptions of others is what leads to the polarization that put the Senate in such gridlock. We see within both the Centrist and Populist sides that there is a range of moderate to extreme viewpoints. Leia reluctantly accepts her probable nomination for First Senator and begins thinking of how she could use the position to do some good, while her fellow Populist senator Tai-Lin Garr describes how he would deliberately be ineffectual in the position in order to “get back” at the Centrists for proposing a more powerful leadership position. And on the Centrist side, Casterfo yearns merely for the order provided by the Empire, while several of his fellow senators want a return to domination.

Obviously we see that Casterfo and Leia reach across the aisle and admit that the other side has its points. But surely they aren’t the only moderates of their respective parties; why hasn’t there been more partnerships (or at least attempts at partnerships) across party lines? But then again, it was a very bumpy road for Casterfo and Leia to even be more than barely-contained-hostile towards each other. Their mistrust of their respective parties (and therefore each other) ran so deep it was almost fundamental to their political identity. Like Jay said, that mistrust is the first step towards the polarization of viewpoints in the New Republic.

I find it interesting to compare it to the downfall of the Senate in the prequels. There it was less about polarized viewpoints (at least, not at first) and more about the slow sink into corruption and apathy (and of course, helped along by the Sith). As long as the senators and the Core could have their opulent balls and operas, the rest didn’t really matter. Very panem et circenses. Then the war with the Separatists came, born out of the discontent stirring up in the less well-off areas of the galaxy. Granted a lot of that was instigated by the Sith, but perhaps if the Senate of the Old Republic had been less corrupt and less concerned with scheming for power and influential positions the Sith wouldn’t have been able to get away with it as long as they did.

Meanwhile, the New Republic is honestly trying its best to govern and do the best for its people and member world. But they’re so caught up in squabbling and doubling down on party rhetoric that nothing ever gets done. And that’s how the threat of the First Order grows up right under their noses.

Jay: …now wait just a minute, opulent balls and operas are crucial to galactic governance and I’ll have you–sorry, sorry, reflex. Over to you for a follow-up, Rocky!

Rocky: All of the squabbling and party rhetoric are what made me think this is such a timely book, what with the state of American politics today. It was such a telling condemnation of extremism on either side; we all know how difficult it is to have a conversation with someone from the other political party, even if you are legitimately trying to find some common ground. Seeing Leia and Ransolm go from bitter enemies to frenemies to respected acquaintances and then back to enemies was fascinating, and it was truly tragic to see the New Republic repeating so many of the mistakes of the Old Republic.

I was a bit surprised to see how few people really remembered the war with the Empire- there was a distinct sense that it was last generation’s problem, and so many of the young were really too young to remember much of it. I wonder a lot also about how much is really known about the Old Republic, and whether anyone realizes that they’re repeating some of the same mistakes. How is the Empire that old of a memory, that senators like Ransolm can collect Imperial artifacts and romanticize parts of the Empire, and not be so roundly condemned for it? It seems hard to believe that the war was either so devastating or so small that other than Leia and those who fought in the war, few realize how bad it really was and how evil the Empire could be.

Overall, a political adventure that explained what led up to TFA was much needed. I love politics, and crashing into the world of TFA made me want to know so much more about the political situation. What had gotten them there, how was there a New Republic but Leia was working with a Resistance, and what had really happened to form the First Order? I’m glad that most of my questions were answered, but I’m also glad that not all of my questions were answered. I’ve always loved the unexplainable in Star Wars, and how there is always a good deal of room for another story to be told. I’m looking forward to whatever other pre-TFA New Republic tales we get- there’s plenty more room.

Jay: I agree wholeheartedly. I hope we’ll learn more in future stories and I am glad they’re not revealing everything about TFA’s setup all at once. There’s plenty of time to explore all of these stories and all the questions that didn’t get touched on — Luke, Ben, and the Jedi; Han’s life; and the continuing tensions between the New Republic and First Order. I also hope that this book proves that Leia can definitely headline a Star Wars novel (not that we had any doubts after Razor’s Edge) and I am still hoping to get more Leia novels in the future, including a novel about her time in the Imperial Senate.

I also hope that this is just the start of our forays into the New Republic. I’d love to see the New Republic’s early days explored, before its dysfunction — there are different sorts of stories that can be told in peacetime than we’re used to in Star Wars. And speaking of the New Republic, tune in Wednesday for my take on how Claudia Gray portrayed the New Republic and how I think its current dysfunction is a sign of its success rather than its failure…

One comment

  1. Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

    An excellent read. One point I’d pick up on is that of Rocky’s:
    “I was a bit surprised to see how few people really remembered the war ”

    If you want a real life example, the Cold War is 35 years dead as it was. (It can be argued Putin is angling for a new one but that’s an entire separate discussion.) People find it hard to believe that the US and USSR were pointing thousands of nukes at each other for decades, never mind that the crazy concept of MAD somehow kept the world in one piece. The Cold War lies behind the current world structure but, despite that, people have still forgotten it very quickly. Perhaps because it was simply too, too scary.

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