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Geek Culture Doesn’t Have a Woman Problem, It Has a Geek Problem

brianwood-sdcc

As pieces like this so often must, let me start with some caveats.

I watch a great deal of cable news. MSNBC is, functionally, my white noise machine—it’s what I put on my television when I’m not watching something. I get information from it, sure, but that’s incidental; that’s not why I have it on, and really, that’s not what cable news is there for anyway.

What cable news has instilled in me, above all, is an overriding, omnipresent awareness of just how little of what people tell you can really be believed. How easy it is to mischaracterize, or prevaricate, or outright lie, with a straight face and a clear conscience, and sleep soundly that night.

Once upon a time, I respected John Edwards. Once upon a time, I respected Anthony Weiner. Even with the cargo plane full of skepticism I bring to bear when imbibing a political story, I was still susceptible to people saying things I wanted to hear, in the manner I wanted to hear them.

So when a story appears that basically boils down to that least reliable of all premises—he said, she said—my gut reaction is to temper myself, even when the allegations are deadly serious.  Especially when the allegations are deadly serious.
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Get ‘Em While They’re Canon—Why It’s Time For More Anthologies

TFTMEC_CoverThe year was 1995.

Bantam had been publishing licensed Star Wars novels for four years, and West End Games was still hard at work expanding the Star Wars universe for its roleplaying game–including the premiere of the Star Wars Adventure Journal a year before. While WEG had done a pretty good job sketching out the in-universe context of the Original Trilogy, and Bantam was beginning to get the hang of the post-OT period, no one had really dug deep into the four years between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi in prose form—even Shadows of the Empire was still about nine months off. So when Bantam finally decided to offer the Expanded Universe’s definitive, well, expansion, of the OT, they did so in a surprising form—short stories.

In what was probably one of the boldest and most interesting decisions in what’s generally regarded as a bland, safe period of SW storytelling, Bantam assembled a roster of authors from its existing SW stable and elsewhere, then picked a defining scene from each of the three films and set the authors to the task of telling the stories of the characters that populated the background—and in so doing, added an unheard-of level of depth to the onscreen story. From A New Hope they chose not the Rebel base, or the Death Star conference room, but the Mos Eisley cantina; from The Empire Strikes Back they chose the bounty hunters, and from Jedi, Jabba’s Palace. While the Adventure Journal had been doing lower-profile, more disparate short stories for a little while already, these three books were the first true short-fiction anthologies set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. And not for nothing, but the decision to feature kooky-looking peripheral characters like Dice Ibegon and Ree-Yees at the expense of the Rebellion and the Empire meant that they were also likely the most diverse books ever released—even to this day.

Once the third book, Tales of the Bounty Hunters, came out at the end of 1996 (why the Empire-related book came out after the Jedi one I couldn’t say for sure, but I might speculate that even back then they knew characters like Bossk and IG-88 were going to be bigger draws than, say, the Max Rebo Band), the series continued with two somewhat different anthologies from somewhat different editors: Tales from the Empire in ’97 and Tales from the New Republic in ’99.

Rather than commission entirely new content around another predetermined theme, Tales from the Empire was a collection of miscellaneous stories previously published in the aforementioned Adventure Journal, WEG’s periodical RPG supplement. While they were indeed far more focused on the Galactic Civil War than the previous three anthologies had been, they weren’t really more Imperial-focused than usual—and the same went for Tales From the New Republic, which had the distinction of including Interlude at Darkknell, a four-part novella by Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn that was totally new material. By this time, the Adventure Journal had ceased publication and a few of the stories had been originally scheduled for issues that were never to be;Tftnr thus, New Republic ended up being their first and only printing after all. Darkknell, of course, was a follow-up to Stackpole and Zahn’s Side Trip, which was published in both the Adventure Journal and Tales from the Empire, so it remains possible that it too was simply a leftover rather than a piece specifically meant for the collection; again, I couldn’t say.

In any event, Tales from the New Republic was the end of Star Wars’ relationship with short story anthologies for over a decade. One of the questions most frequently asked of publishing VIPs in the 21st century has been why no more have come out; in truth, there are probably a few answers.

The driving reason, though, was that the novel license moved from Bantam to Del Rey shortly after New Republic (the RPG license likewise moved to Wizards of the Coast, but semi-regular short stories kept coming, now often prequel-related, in the magazines Gamer and Insider). When asked, Del Rey would always explain that the economics didn’t work—even with already-written material, there wasn’t enough of a market for short stories, in their judgment, to justify the publishing costs. Whether this reflected higher publishing costs for Del Rey compared to Bantam or just higher sales expectations was never made clear. Truthfully, Del Rey did have a lot on their plate in those days, between the ongoing Prequel Trilogy and their four-year, nineteen-book New Jedi Order series.

Which brings us to today—ten years out from the end of the NJO, two years prior to the release of Episode VII, and currently…two books on the horizon. While it’s understood that there’s much more in development that hasn’t been made public yet, if you’re only going by what is public, all we’ve got to look forward to are Darth Maul: Lockdown in January and Empire and Rebellion: Honor Among Thieves (the Han Solo-centric novel with the spectacular abbreviation SWEARHAT) in March.

Recently, of course, they did break their anthology rule with Lost Tribe of the Sith, a series of short stories (culminating in a 100-plus-word novella) written entirely by John Jackson Miller telling the backstory of the antagonists of Del Rey’s serious-business Fate of the Jedi series. The first eight stories were released online for free over three years, before being collected in “trade paperback” format, which is larger than mass-market paperback yet somehow apparently cheaper. It was an experiment on their part, to be sure, and if the fan response (and/or Amazon reviews) were any indication, it was a successful one. Meanwhile, if there was one question I heard people ask Del Rey in those early days more often than “when are you doing more anthologies?”, it was “when are you doing more X-Wing books?” And sure enough, last year we got Aaron Allston’s Mercy Kill.

This era of Star Wars publishing from Del Rey has been all over the place, to be sure, but part of that quality is due to an admirable willingness to experiment. And at the same time that they’ve become more and more willing to tap unknown vectors for potential profit, we’ve quietly entered the dawn of the eBook era; a time when publishing costs are quite literally immaterial, and where you can buy the entire classic X-Wing series in one fell swoop if you’ve got fifty bucks lying around. Even Bantam’s anthologies can now be purchased digitally, in wanton disregard of god-knows-how-many hard copies still floating around out there. So with thirty-seven “new” short stories already extant from old issues of Insider, thirteen from Gamer, several from Starwars.com’s old Hyperspace feature, and even a few lingering gems from the Adventure Journal—I’m looking at you, Mist Encounter—what on Earth is stopping them from at least trying some new eBook anthologies? Do three or four different batches, and if one seems especially popular, maybe a trade paperback printing a la Lost Tribe? And if that sells well, maybe even go crazy and milk some new material out of Del Rey’s own favorite eras, before the sequels render them irrelevant, if not utterly apocryphal? Surely someone out there would want Tales from the New Jedi Order, or Tales from the Old Republic? I may not be a publishing expert, but I can’t begin to imagine how something like Lost Tribe could’ve been more cost-effective than those would be.

For a dog’s age, those two fan questions—short stories and X-Wing books—were like holy grails for EU fans—always hoped for; always expected, even, in spite of all the common wisdom, but never guaranteed. Not unlike the Sequel Trilogy, actually. Two out of three ain’t bad, but why stop there?

The Expanded Universe Explains, Vol. IV – Rebels Edition

I’m going to do this round a tiny bit differently—while question 9 was indeed directly submitted to me for this series (by my co-worker Peter Zappas), question 8 is more about addressing what I see as a common misconception. Both relate, either directly or indirectly, to topics that will be (or at least appear to be) raised by the forthcoming Star Wars Rebels TV series, so I thought it would be handy to pair them up in one shot.

8. Why would the Inquisitor in Rebels be an alien if the Empire is xenophobic?

This is something that comes up every so often when someone like Thrawn, or Mas Amedda, or the Pau’an Inquisitor previewed a few weeks back, is shown to be flourishing, or even vital, within Palpatine’s Empire.

While I’ll admit it’s not quite as black and white as I’d like it to be, the fact is there’s no direct evidence whatsoever that Palpatine himself had any anti-alien bias, and a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he didn’t.

Ultimately, Palpatine was a Sith Lord first, a politician second. When one seriously examines his plans and worldviews as related in the books and reference material, you get the distinct impression that Palpatine viewed essentially all living beings as slaves waiting to happen. Per the last volume of The EU Explains, Palpatine’s endgame was to personally rule the galaxy for eternity, and his efforts to stamp out free will and individual autonomy and initiative were a big part of the reason that things fell apart so completely after he died. To suggest that he had special animus for nonhumans, then, is to believe that humans would’ve been in any way better off in his ideal society—when in reality all beings would have been equal in their total subservience and submission to his will.

So why the clear anti-alien bias in the Empire? Well, humans were by a wide margin the dominant race in the galaxy, and exploiting their baser prejudices was a convenient means to an end. Palpatine’s slew of nonhuman attendants in the prequels demonstrates that even if he did find other species distasteful on some level, he was perfectly happy to use them when handy—and in the case of Mas Amedda, even bring them into the fold regarding his true plans for the galaxy.

Palpatine’s real genius, after all, was in using whatever materials were available to his maximum advantage. On one side he had entrenched and influential human families in the Core like the Tarkins and the Tagges, and on the other he had overgrown corporate powers like the Trade Federation and the Techno Union, all owned and populated by aliens. The former were only too happy to help him bring the latter under heel on the assumption that that was all he really wanted—which, of course, was far from the truth.

And then there’s the Inquisitor. The Inquisitorius was conceived as something like Palpatine’s NSA; their existence was known, but their operational details—hunting down the remaining Jedi—were in the dark to almost everybody. If a Pau’an Inquisitor was forced to interact with some bigoted Admiral or Moff during the course of a mission, there’s half a chance he’d have done so without even revealing his status as an Imperial agent. And even if knowledge of a Pau’an Inquisitor somehow got into the hands of an Imperial highly-placed enough to cause Palpatine some degree of embarrassment (though that’s a vanishingly small list, especially by the time period of Rebels), like with the NSA, he’d still have plausible deniability—“Pau’an? What Pau’an? I would never!”

Further Reading: Darth Plagueis, The Dark Lord Trilogy, The Dark Empire Sourcebook

9. Are the stormtroopers in the Original Trilogy still Jango clones, or a mix of clones and recruits?

Well, for one, when the Original Trilogy was coming out, it didn’t really occur to anyone that stormtroopers might have been clones. While evidence can be found if one wants to find it (“a little short for a stormtrooper”, after all, implies a certain biological uniformity), and, hilariously, a low-rent magazine called the Star Wars Poster Monthly published an article about that very subject around the time of A New Hope‘s release, no one officially knew about it. The Marvel comics of the time even had a handful of one-off stormtrooper characters with distinct names and personalities, on the assumption that they were normal recruits similar to those seen in the Rebellion.

This assumption carried on into the “modern” EU of the nineties, with the notable exception of the Thrawn Trilogy—which addressed the subject of clone armies head-on, while not quite lining up with the picture painted by the prequels. Clone soldiers in those books were distinctly not run-of-the-mill stormtroopers; they had different Force presences from regular people, and were largely blank mental slates, if not outright unstable.

Once Attack of the Clones introduced the Grand Army of the Republic, the EU began making slow, deliberate steps toward reconciling the recruit idea (to say nothing of that “Academy” Luke was so keen on joining) with the strong implication that these were the people who eventually became stormtroopers.

For starters, you have to keep in mind the Jango clones’ accelerated aging—by Revenge of the Sith, the original batch was biologically twenty-six; by ANH, they’d have been sixty-four. Hardly fighting trim, right? AotC mentions the Kaminoans keeping Jango around, because they needed fresh samples in order to keep producing high-quality clones; once Jango died at Geonosis, that ship had sailed. So even assuming they started a fresh batch right before the Clone Wars broke out, those clones still would’ve been forty-four by ANH, and probably not fit for the front lines. That’s not to say these guys didn’t stick around (official word is that about a third of the stormtrooper corps were Fetts as of ANH), but it’s likely that they took on more and more leadership roles at time went on—or at least training positions, in the likely event of anti-clone prejudice.

Where Rebels may play into this topic is the possibility of including A) regular recruits, and B) other clone templates. Offhand statements from George Lucas suggest that in his view, once the war was over and the clones were needed less for active combat and more for general peacekeeping, the process of selecting clone templates became politicized, with individuals being selected less for their aptitude and more for knowing the right people. The EU has gotten into this a little bit, but only in the immediate aftermath of RotS, so what exactly things were like fourteen years later (when the show starts) is hard to say. What we can say is that this circumstance, combined with the decreasing effectiveness of the Jango clones and the introduction of the first genuine recuits to the stormtrooper ranks, serves to make the overall lousiness of the Original Trilogy stormies a lot more understandable.

Further reading: Order 66In His Image, When the Desert Wind Turns: The Stormtrooper’s Tale, the Thrawn Trilogy

That First Abandonment – When Star Wars Gets Next-Level

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Let’s face it: Star Wars is a simple story. The first movie, I mean—though where the franchise as a whole is concerned, “simple” is probably charitable compared to the words some people would use. The Empire Strikes Back and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Return of the Jedi worked as well as they did by upping the stakes not just practically, but also philosophically; they took an age-old story with the thematic complexity of Super Mario Bros and made it About Things. Not huge things, granted, but the simple act of making Luke Darth Vader’s son took the OT from a black and white story of pure hearts and wicked ones and introduced a universe of ambiguity, calling into question fans’ assumptions about how bad Vader was, and how good Obi-Wan was, and just what exactly they all wanted to happen at the end of the story.

One of my favorite things about Star Wars is how well it supports these abrupt shifts—changeovers, as Fight Club might call them—where suddenly there’s more going on in the story than you’d realized, thanks in part to that superficial simplicity. At its best, Star Wars is simply a broad, brightly-colored palette with which a writer can paint some surprisingly complicated stories; and while I’d be lying if I said it was common, you never know when someone’s going to really tap into some next-level shit. Allow me to highlight some examples.

Knights of the Old Republic

I don’t mean to suggest that “next-level” moments are by definition plot twists; quite the opposite, in fact. But KOTOR has the distinction not only of providing the only twist in the entire Expanded Universe on the level of “I am your father”, but of also, in my opinion, taking the thematic underpinnings of that moment and elevating them even further. Darth Revan, you are told at the game’s outset, is the Big Bad of this story—you barely escaped your last confrontation with him, alongside your Jedi companion Bastila Shan, and lost many of your memories in the process.

Anyone who’s played role-playing games (most video games, really) is very familiar with that kind of conceit—there’s always a learning curve at the start of a game, so the story will account for that by making the player character either a rookie learning the ropes, or an old veteran who’s taken some time off and needs a refresher course. Lost memories are just par for the course.
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The Expanded Universe Explains, Vol. III

emperorlightning

I received one last question from my friend Pearl (she of EU Explains Vol’s I and II). This was easily the meatiest bone she’d thrown my way thus far, so I thought I’d tackle it all on its lonesome. Remember that you can still submit questions of your own to me via e-mail or as a comment below.

7. With the Death Star about to blow up, would it have mattered if Luke destroyed Vader and joined the Emperor or if Vader let the Emperor destroy Luke?

One thing that happens a lot in the Expanded Universe is that persons and events that aren’t necessarily all that remarkable are given abnormal weight in the larger continuity because of their appearance, or even simply a mention, in the films. The more people are aware of a certain element of the canon—Greedo, for example—the more demand there is for that element to be reflected and expanded upon in other sources—and so Greedo’s species, the Rodians, are now known primarily for being hunters. Kessel is nothing but spice mines, Han ran into two or three bounty hunters on Ord Mantell, and the shuttle Tydirium was stolen two or three times.

And those are pretty minor details. So what happens to major ones?

Welcome to the climax of the entire saga—the second Death Star.

First, a little extra context. At this point, Emperor Palpatine is as powerful as he has ever been, and he is the cog at the center of the entire Imperial machine; without him, the Empire largely falls apart. This is true not only bureaucratically but militarily, as Palpatine has in his bag of tricks a Force ability called battle meditation.

Battle meditation is something that roleplayers might call a force amplifier—when engaged, Palpatine’s presence enhances his troops’ focus, instincts, response times, and so on. While it is known that the Imperial forces at the Battle of Endor were quickly routed and sent running following the Death Star’s destruction, it’s open to interpretation to what extent Palpatine himself was influencing the course of the battle. An argument could be made, though, that things went so badly for him largely because his attention was occupied by Luke and Vader. Without those distractions, even a tiny increase in the resilience and effectiveness of the Imperial fleet, and of the ground troops on the forest moon, could have changed the outcome of the battle. So for Luke, being in that room at all was already a victory.

darkempirelukeNow then—we actually have a decent roadmap for the first scenario (Luke goes dark and kills Vader) in the comic series Dark Empire, wherein the Emperor comes back in a cloned body and Luke does indeed become his apprentice for a short time. Luke is still genuinely a different kinda dude from his father, though—rather than “falling” for the selfish reason of trying to save a loved one, Luke turns with the intention of studying the Dark Side so that he can better understand why Vader did the things he did, and so he can ultimately defeat the Emperor more completely. It’s still pretty shaky as justifications go, but it at least suggests that he wouldn’t have been quite as docile an apprentice as Vader was—and without Vader’s injuries, he would quickly have become powerful enough to indeed destroy Palpatine…just in time to take his place and be all evil and omnipotent and stuff.

But first they’d both have had to survive the Battle of Endor. While the editing of Return of the Jedi intercuts the throne room, the space battle, and the ground battle pretty evenly, there’s a lot of wiggle room in there for what is actually happening when. Even according to said editing, Luke’s most likely turning point (hacking away at Vader and taking off his hand) comes before the shield generator is destroyed, which leaves about eight minutes of screen time before Lando and Wedge hit the reactor—for two powerful guys like Luke and Palpatine, even that is probably enough time for an escape. But when you really think about the chain of events that unfolds (Luke refuses to turn, Palps fries him for a while, Vader tosses him down the pit, Luke drags him all the way to a hangar bay, they have a leisurely conversation, Luke drags the armor into the shuttle, powers it up, flies away just as the explosion reaches him), you’re probably talking about at least twice that much time—20-30 minutes, I’d guess. Certainly enough time to escape, but more importantly, probably well before the shield even went down; meaning that there’d still be a renewal of battle meditation to consider, to say nothing of Luke just jumping into a TIE and shooting the Falcon down.

Of course, even if the two most powerful beings in the galaxy were unable to save the Death Star, don’t forget that unlike the first one, number two was still a secret. Without any of the political fallout coming from such an enormous military loss, Palpatine still had the bulk of the Imperial fleet, and all of its infrastructure, to support his continuing war against the Rebellion—and a shiny new apprentice, to boot.

All that, of course, is just scenario one. As for scenario two—Palpatine fries Luke to death? Well, for my part, I have a hard time thinking he’d have kept Vader around after getting taken down by his punk kid. As a Darth Maul-style attack dog, maybe, but any shot Vader ever had of defeating and replacing Palpatine rested in Luke.

vader-lightning

So what happens then? Well, Palpatine’s bag of tricks isn’t empty yet—remember that cloned body I mentioned in Dark Empire? Let me tell you about a little thing called essence transfer.

Thousands of years earlier, the ancient Sith discovered a creepy dark-side version of the quasi-immortality Obi-Wan and Yoda demonstrate in the films, wherein they could transplant their consciousness into a new body, and thus effectively live forever. Thankfully, this technique was lost for a long time (though Darth Bane, who began the Rule of Two one thousand years ago, came pretty close to figuring it out), but sometime after his apprentice got turned into hamburger in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine once again figured it out—hence a big, handy facility full of backup bodies on his hidden throne world Byss. Having given up on Vader as a worthwhile successor, Palpatine figured he’d finally outgrown the Rule of Two, and planned to rule personally for eternity by transferring his essence into clone after clone until the end of time. So really, with those pesky Skywalkers no longer a concern, I imagine that he’d have just cut his losses and stopped bothering with apprentices at that point.

The thing about those cloned bodies, by the way, is that the kind of ludicrous dark side power Palpatine was exhibiting can burn through their cells at a faster-than-normal rate—so it’s possible that he’d have had to move onto other hosts eventually to keep himself going. This degradation was actually the EU’s original explanation for Palpatine’s appearance in RotJ; it was implied at the time that he’d already started swapping bodies by the OT—the Prequels changed that thanks to Ian McDiarmid playing his real age, but the essence transfer concept remained.

So that’s it, right? All the X-factors of the Battle of Endor have been accounted for?

Not. So. Fast.ig88

Let’s talk about IG-88. If you’re drawing a blank, he’s the spindly droid bounty hunter seen briefly in The Empire Strikes Back. In the short-story compilation Tales of the Bounty Hunters, we find out that IG-88 was actually one sociopathic droid consciousness spread across four different functionally-identical bodies. His goal? Nothing less than total droid domination of the galaxy.

Anyway, while on board the Executor in ESB, IG-88 hacked into top-secret Imperial files and discovered the existence of the second Death Star. Boy, he thought, that thing would sure be helpful for my droid revolution!

So naturally, IG-88 hijacked the shipment bearing the Death Star’s central computer, and downloaded his consciousness (the last instance of it, as the other three bodies had been destroyed by then) into the computer. It was eventually installed in the station, and IG-88 assumed total control of the Death Star, with the Empire none the wiser. He went so far as to tweak the accuracy of the station’s gunners when firing the superlaser at the Rebel fleet, and was preparing to signal his droid minions to unleash hell on the galaxy with a sentient Death Star as their leader when the station was destroyed…and thank god for that.

Naturally, not everyone is eager to take this story at face value, and it’s never really been mentioned since. Personally, I like to think that the Empire knew exactly what was going on, and had the ability to block IG-88 from assuming total control of the station, but someone figured that as long as he was improving their firing accuracy, they might as well run with it.

Further reading: Tales of the Jedi, Vol. 1Darth Bane: Dynasty of EvilTales of the Bounty Hunters