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Kenobi Review: The Smaller The Pond, The Bigger The Ripples

—–WARNING, MILD SPOILERS AHEAD—–

“Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” – Luke Skywalker

Kenobi opens onto a galaxy that has been ravaged by three years of open civil war. Countless planets lie in ruin, and countless rim populations are warily, often forcefully, being brought back under the “protection” of the Old Republic, which is suddenly calling itself an Empire.

But as it happens, Kenobi opens on Tatooine. And Tatooine doesn’t give a shit.

Tatooine’s human population, the book is careful to point out, are settlers, nothing more—even those who’ve been there for generations. Kenobi‘s main human characters are Orrin Gault and Annileen Calwell (whose nickname, brilliantly, is “Annie”), two people who, while they’ve done pretty well considering the circumstances, would describe themselves as barely keeping their heads above water…so to speak. Life on Tatooine is a constant battle—against the elements, against destitution, and against the natives.

Which brings me to the third main character—the Tusken clan leader A’Yark. While Orrin and Annileen practically leap off the page from the get-go and easily overcome my reflexive aversion to excessive human characters, A’Yark is hands-down the most interesting thing about this novel, and every moment in the character’s head is a window to a new world. John Jackson Miller does a great job of incorporating all the existing bits of Tusken lore while creating a unique clan that’s not quite like any we’ve seen before—and in particular, one that’s unique to this point in time. Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken camp in Attack of the Clones still weighs heavily on the Tuskens’ consciousness, but isn’t dwelled on excessively, or made into a giant plot point (nor, incidentally, are the Larses), because while A’Yark’s clan is shaped in a huge way by that event, this story isn’t about that.

This story also, by the way, isn’t about Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan is a giant stone thrown into the shallow pond that is the Pika Oasis, the community around which the book takes place, but Kenobi is very much the pond’s story. A rippling pond is still just a pond, however, and that brings me to the most important thing I have to say about Kenobi—this may be the smallest-scale Star Wars novel ever.

I knew right away that that would be the main point of this review, but in the month or so since I finished the book, what’s struck me is that it’s more true the more I think about it. There is no bad guy in Kenobi, no evil plot to foil. A’Yark is the most antagonistic, Annileen is the most sympathetic, and Orrin is, well, Orrin—but the story of Kenobi is the story of three people in a mess, and the stakes here are nonexistent beyond the lives of these three people and those they love.

What makes it work, simply, is that Miller creates excellent characters that you can identify with, and whose fates come to matter to you, despite the fact that a Star Destroyer could crash into the Pika Oasis and nothing in any other part of continuity would ever notice. Kenobi is the rare Star Wars novel that, in addition to telling its story, is about something—responsibility. Kenobi‘s three-people-in-a-mess, not coincidentally, are all parents, and when you dig down a little you realize that the book isn’t even about their needs and desires, it’s about how each of them chooses to handle that responsibility. Each has children with different needs and desires of their own, and each is a case study in a different style of parenting.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like the others, he now finds himself responsible for a child who needs him, even if that child doesn’t, or can’t, realize it. The struggles of the other characters so perfectly reflect Obi’s internal struggle at this moment that the entire book stops just shy of being a great big shadow play inside his mind—do I take a heavy hand, or keep my distance? Would I be a good influence or a bad influence? And what about what I want? What about my own legacy? All this is no doubt playing below the surface of his mind at the same time that it’s happening in three dimensions all around him.

Meanwhile, back on the surface, all Obi-Wan really wants right now is to be alone—to work on communing with Qui-Gon Jinn, and to keep from attracting Owen Lars’ ire. But even this far away from the bright center of the universe (or, in fact, because he’s this far from it), everybody is connected to something. Miller has gone on record about Kenobi, like Knight Errant before it, being an outlet for his own ruminations on what it means to be a Jedi when one is alone, with no support structure, and only the scarcest of mandates. Here Obi-Wan is far more alone than Kerra Holt ever was, and Miller’s answer seems to be that no one is ever truly alone. Everybody makes ripples, even in the smallest pond.

*   *   *

I’m going to be talking more in the near future about how books like Kenobi could factor into the Disney-era Expanded Universe (and join me again this Friday for a Kenobi group discussion with Lisa Schap and Jay Shah), but for now, suffice it to say that more stories like this, told by authors of Miller’s skill, are a win-win situation. Kenobi comes out today with my highest possible recommendation.

One last thing I want to address—I haven’t spoiled much of the story here, not for philosophical reasons, but because the mechanics of the plot are beside the point. I have taken care to avoid one or two big surprises because they make the novel more fun and mean nothing out of context, but there is one thing I think it would be helpful to address. A’Sharad Hett, ex-Tusken Jedi Knight, does not appear in Kenobi. His story, however, is very important to the book; like with Anakin’s Tusken slaughter, Miller’s genius is to factor existing material into the story in a natural way, without making it feel like he’s checking a continuity box. And having said that, there’s another cameo that is both awesome for EU fans and makes complete sense in context—but I’m not gonna be the one to spoil it.

(Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing Eleven-ThirtyEight with advance digital copies of this book)

Escape Pod: The Bothan Species

Welcome to Escape Pod, a new series here on Eleven-ThirtyEight, wherein a staff member picks one character or element from the Expanded Universe—independent of existing stories featuring said element—that they feel is vital to the Galaxy Far, Far Away and should survive a hypothetical continuity reboot. Rather than focus on the Sequel Trilogy specifically, the goal of Escape Pod is to detail the subject’s inherent value to the Star Wars setting itself.

Bothans occupy an interesting position in Star Wars continuity. Despite dating back to the Original Trilogy, they’re one of the last things the OT added to the galaxy before its completion—and as far as George Lucas is concerned, they never came up again.

As it happens, it’s not even clear from the dialogue in Return of the Jedi that they are in fact an alien species. Speaking for myself, I remain unconvinced to this day that in Lucas’ mind, “Bothan” isn’t just some special GFFA spy title—he certainly had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate otherwise, but between six hours of prequel films and over 100 episodes of The Clone Wars, he never felt the need.

Luckily, the EU has taken the most meager of balls and run very, very far with it.
By sheer coincidence, just this morning I happened to read the first instance of the word “Bothan” outside of RotJ in issue #80 of the Marvel Star Wars comics; alas, once that brief tie-in to RotJ was out of the way it looks like Marvel didn’t have anything to add on the subject either.
Enter Timothy Zahn. In 1991 Heir to the Empire unveiled Borsk Fey’lya, one of the earliest members of the Rebel Alliance, pillar of the New Republic government, and perhaps most interestingly, gigantic douche. Fey’lya added new depth to the “ambiguous bad guy” role invented by Boba Fett by undermining the heroes at every turn—including getting Admiral Ackbar arrested—while simultaneously being a figure of great significance to the Rebel cause and, frankly, not a totally-unreasonable dude.

I think the true genius of Zahn’s interpretation of the Bothan species is that he circumvented one of Star Wars’ hoariest tropes—OT character x has this job, therefore their entire species has that job—while still rationally extrapolating from what little info the films had given us. The Bothans were famous for their Spynet, sure, but that was basically an outgrowth of their true love: politics.

The Bothans rejected the Empire because when your business is politics, tyranny is bad for business. For his part, Borsk Fey’lya wasn’t really a dishonorable being; his actions came from a cultural understanding of chicanery that seems dickish to humans, but at his core he only wanted what was best for Bothan Space, and therefore, the New Republic.

That kind of moral complexity can be hard to find in Star Wars; it’s all over the place if you know where to look, but more often than not it’s well below a surface littered with guys in white hats and black helmets. By their very existence, and complicated status as protagonists, the Bothans are the perfect species to represent the Rebel Alliance in the popular imagination—as an organization that pulls together all sorts of divergent beings and ideologies, and is too often portrayed as only marginally less homogeneous as the Empire. And did I mention they’re crazy-looking horse-dogs?

Which brings me to my next point: the aesthetic value of Bothans. Another all-too-common trope in Star Wars is alien species that look like rejected Ninja Turtles characters—cat people, spider people, killer whale people (okay, that one is kind of awesome), and so on. Bothans are that rare breed (heh) of alien species that feel familiar, or at least plausible, without being a real animal hastily stapled onto an anthropomorphic frame. It’s actually become a bit of a running joke in EU fandom that two different prose descriptions of a Bothan can give rise to two totally different interpretations.

The plus side of this relative inconsistency is that if some seven-figure screenwriter felt like putting Bothans in a movie down the line, they’d have a fair bit of leeway to tweak the design to their tastes; after all, even a slavishly EU-faithful movie Bothan wouldn’t match all the existing imagery.

And speaking of which, my final point is one that even I don’t fully understand: in a galaxy dominated by humans, the Bothans, for whatever reason, have been consistently portrayed as one of the alien species most likely, and most willing (on both sides) to couple with humans. Well, part of that I do understand—one of those aforementioned lazy alien designs that comes up every so often is basically Puck, the half-goat faun character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Despite Bothans not having horns, well, ever, the EU has retconned a whole half-human, half-Bothan species into existence purely to explain the presence of things like this:

Furthermore, even in the far-less-flighty “modern” era of the films, regular Bothans have been depicted on more than one occasion to be romantically involved with humans. First in Requiem for a Rogue, as a brief fling for Rogue Squadron pilots Hobbie and Janson (movie characters, no less!) that notably comes and goes without anyone in the story so much as raising an eyebrow, then later in the Rogue Squadron novels as the really-quite-poignant relationship between Biggs Darklighter’s cousin Gavin and Bothan agent Asyr Sei’lar. Even better, the star-crossed lovers—literally!—end their relationship due to Bothan prejudice against humans, not the other way around, once again nicely subverting the expected treatment of a human-on-alien love story.

Only Rogue author Michael Stackpole, I suppose, could say exactly why Bothans have filled this particular role so often (second only, if I don’t miss my guess, to female Twi’leks), but given their distinctively nonhuman appearance, it speaks to a species that’s been integrated with humans longer than anyone can remember; one with a progressive mentality—political considerations notwithstanding—that both makes sense for the GFFA and would be absolutely vital for any 21st-century reimagining of such. For these reasons and more, it is utterly criminal that “higher” canon has avoided the Bothan species for so long, and were they to appear in a rebooted continuity, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything about them that bears improvement.

My Own Counsel Will I Keep – Why it’s Time for Young Yoda

One of the first bits of news to accompany D-Day was that Lucasfilm would be looking into “spinoff” films in addition to Episodes VII, VIII and IX. And one of the first rumors to follow that news was that one of the spinoffs would feature Yoda—a rumor that was eventually, seemingly, quashed.

Maybe that’s the case, maybe not. But if the films aren’t doing it, I am here to make the case that the books should.

For starters, I should distinguish between the desire for a young Yoda story and the desire for a Yoda origin story. Leaving aside the possibilty that Lucasfilm was considering a “modern” Yoda movie as opposed to either of those—for my taste, I don’t think the one has to necessitate the other. To tell of Yoda’s origin, as it were, would require that to be an interesting story in and of itself, and I like to think that longevity notwithstanding, he started out as any other Jedi of his time would have—plucked from his home planet and raised in the Jedi Temple. There’s story potential there, sure, but it’s not exactly screaming out at us, I don’t think.

Now, Yoda’s knighthood, on the other hand—there could be some interesting tales, and if the creators were able to free themselves from the expectations attached to an origin story (something that’s been known to help the odd superhero movie a great deal), I think depicting the character in his “prime” (which of course, for Jedi, would mean that much to learn he’d still have) amidst an Old Republic also in its prime could lead us down many interesting avenues.

  • Size matters not: do you suppose that Yoda’s crazy-old-troll shtick in ESB was the first time he’d taken advantage of his unusual appearance and stature to test someone’s measure? I think not. Imagine opening the story in a great arena, pitting “great warriors” from across the galaxy against each other. And into the great expanse of Wookiees, Gamorreans, Trandoshans, and hell, maybe even a rancor, strolls little ol’ Yoda, prodded inside by a couple hapless guards. The rest kind of writes itself, doesn’t it?
  • Age matters quite a bit: did you ever consider that with extended longevity, there might also come extended adolescence? What would it be like to be a Temple youngling who doesn’t reach maturity for fifty or sixty years, while all your friends seem to outgrow you and move on to big, illustrious careers? Or worse, you’re chosen for Padawan status by a great Master who then dies of old age before your training is complete?
  • Lastly, I have a simple thought exercise for you: pretend I’m totally wrong about that last point. Based on Lumpawaroo and Lowbacca, we know that the long-lived Wookiee species reaches maturity at roughly the same speed as humans, then goes on to extended periods of relative adulthood, so say the same thing happens for Yoda. What’s the one other thing we know about his early life? He claims to have trained Jedi for eight hundred years. Eight-ninths of a lifespan seems pretty damn good by human standards, but when you stop and look at it, even allowing for some rhetorical wiggle room, that seems to suggest that Yoda was nearly a century old before he first took a Padawan. I’d bet that there’s a hell of a story to be told about that, wouldn’t you?

And all this, just for the record, is not to say that I need to know Yoda’s species. Really think about it for a minute—unless they did shoot the moon and make him a Whill, how could they possibly answer that question in a satisfying way after all these years? Remember a while back, when George Lucas told Jon Stewart Obi-Wan’s home planet was “Stewjon”, and as the fandom collectively rolled its eyes, into the Holocron it went?

obi_wan_kenobi_wtfI ask you this: what could he have said that would’ve been any better? Fans—and I include myself here—often have an anal retentive need to check every little box on their favorite fictional characters. Height? 1.82 meters. Weight? 77 kilograms. Midi-chlorian count? 4,872 and a half.1

So once we know everything about Obi-Wan but his shoe size, it can be frustrating, year in and year out, to have a big empty spot on Wookieepedia next to “Homeworld”—but it’s equally frustrating to have it filled in haphazardly, as Lucas is wont to do, because deep down we want that information to have been worth the wait—we want to hear, say, “Commenor”, and react with a knowing sigh, as if that fills in some crucial piece of the character puzzle that’s been hidden under the carpet for thirty years. But really, it’s ephemera; nothing more, nothing less.

Bottom line: we shouldn’t want Yoda’s origin, or anyone’s, just to fill in a blank—we should want it because it could be a great story.

  1. I, of course, pulled this one out of my ass. []

D-Day, an’ Everything After – The Story of Eleven-ThirtyEight

One of my earliest memories of Star Wars fandom is the day Attack of the Clones was announced.

Not the film itself, which was obviously a given, but the title. It was August 7, 2001—I had been posting on the Literature section of TheForce.net’s Jedi Council Forums for a couple years at that point, in addition to running my own low-rent fansite dedicated to the New Jedi Order novel series, but before that day I had never ventured into the more, let’s say, mainstream waters of the movies-only section. I knew enough to know that most people, even many of those you might call superfans, were at best only dimly aware of the novels and comics of the Expanded Universe, and many were downright hostile to them.

At best, they saw the EU as silly, or crass; at worst, they saw it as illicit, as glorified fan fiction. Even those who were reasonable enough to believe that the Empire wouldn’t simply have given up after the Battle of Endor felt that the real story ended at Return of the Jedi—anything else was beside the point. And besides which, Star Wars was George Lucas’ story. Even if he grudgingly accepted the existence of tie-in material continuing his story, it still wasn’t his story, so it didn’t really count, when you thought about it.

aotc-posterAnyway, back on that day in the summer of 2001, I tiptoed into the movie forums to see what people were saying about Attack of the Clones. Some of you are probably too young to remember a time when Episode II was just “Episode II”. Suffice it to say, Attack of the Clones was not what people were expecting. Ewan McGregor was caught reacting to the title on camera, while doing press for Moulin Rouge, and he and Nicole Kidman were visibly flabbergasted. The reaction at the Jedi Council Forums, meanwhile, was somewhat less good-humored. I happened to have the day off from school, and I pretty much spent the entire day staving off a riot from bitter, betrayed fans—and these were people who’d already weathered The Phantom Menace.

It’s not that I thought it was an awesome title or anything; I just didn’t think we should’ve expected anything else from the man behind The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and if there’s one thing that pushes my buttons, it’s unreasonable complaints. Love it or hate it, Lucas has a shtick and he sticks to it—and I’ll never understand why anyone who isn’t at peace with that would want to waste their time with him.

Which brings me to D-Day. The “D”, of course, stands for “Disney”.

Much hay has been made (at least if you’re reading the sites I’m reading) of the Disney sale presaging the obliteration of the Expanded Universe. And certainly, no one in their right mind could ever have believed Disney would voluntarily shackle themselves to adaptations of 20-year-old tie-in material—though some were happy to insinuate that we did. The best we could, and still can, hope for in terms of preserving the existing canon is that the jainafiguresequel trilogy jumps clear past the bulk of the EU into 50 ABY or so, and maybe—maybe—sticks Jaina Solo or Ben Skywalker into the slot of “next generation character” that we all know very well is coming.

Of course, Ben would be hard (though not impossible) to use without explaining his mother Mara Jade, which means explaining Emperor’s Hands, and possibly Thrawn, and well…you can see why that probably isn’t going to happen.

But I don’t see that as the death of the Expanded Universe—I see it as a new beginning. Remember those movie fans I mentioned? The ones who thought Lucas’ story was the only story, and that it ended at Jedi? Well, Episode VII breaks both of those rules. Jaina or no Jaina, from here on out, it’s all the Expanded Universe.

That’s what I’ve come to learn in the twelve years (Christ, I’m old) since I logged into TFN to stand between AotC and a bloodthirsty mob—deep down, we’re all here for the same reasons. The Unofficial New Jedi Order Homepage begat TFN Books begat a blog at Starwars.com back when Starwars.com had blogs, and what I know now is that Star Wars fans are like the three blind men who place their hands on an elephant and describe three different creatures depending on what they’re touching, when the reality is all those things and more. Star Wars wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is if that weren’t the case.

Over the nine months or so since D-Day, what I’ve witnessed to a large extent is that the most vocal fans have divided into two main groups—those who worship the ground Lucasfilm walks on (or would, if it had feet), and those who believe the whole thing is going to hell (or worse, being maliciously driven in that direction).

With the help of some of the smartest internet beings I know, my goal is for Eleven-ThirtyEight to be the bridge between those two camps. Passionate, but not sycophantic. Pragmatic, but not cynical. Intelligent, but not haughty. Well, maybe a smidge haughty.

And above all, genuinely excited to see what comes next.

Everything Disney Needs to Know, it Can Learn from X-Wing Alliance

Everyone’s got pieces of media—probably several, really—that they have to drag out every once in a while and binge on, despite already knowing them backwards and forwards. Firefly, West Wing, Harry Potter, that kind of thing. Despite having read well over a hundred books and playing maybe twenty games in the Star Wars franchise, the one thing I have to relive every so often is X-Wing Alliance.

The culmination (some might say apotheosis) of the X-Wing flight simulation game series of the 90s, XWA is now almost fifteen years old, and barely even functional on a modern computer, but it remains an essential part of my fandom and a periodic touchstone to my seventeen-year-old self, who had only discovered Star Wars a couple years earlier and was still learning the difference between a Skipray Blastboat and a CloakShape fighter. Indeed, the more I look back, the more I’ve come to appreciate why this particular game sits at the core of my decade-and-a-half obsession with Star Wars. In this piece, I’d like to explore some of those reasons in the hopes that they’ll be no less true of the dawning Disney era. Read More