Wordplay: Lunar stories, Star Wars' cinematic universe stumbles, and sci-fi history

Okay, let's try this out — I honestly wasn't sure what the response would be like when I said that I'd be doing a newsletter, and I'm gratified at the kind words people have sent my way, and for all of you who jumped on the bandwagon. Thank you! Hopefully it'll be worth it. I'm still figuring out timing on this — Monthly? Weekly? Who knows!

I've got thoughts on a book I've been reading, Red Moon, Star Wars' cinematic universe ambitious and stumbles, science fiction history, and what's on my immediate to read list. Here we go.


Over the last week, I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Red Moon. I was hoping to have a review for it out this week, but I've been a bit behind. What's interesting to me is that there's been a number of lunar novels in the last couple of years. There's Ian McDonald's fantastic Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon, about dynastic politics between a group of corporate families (a third installment will come out next year); John Kessel's fantastic Moon and the Other, about experimental, socially political communities on the lunar surface; David Pideria's Gunpowder Moon, which was lacking in character work but which presented a compelling vision for US-Chinese relations in the nearish future; and Artemis, Andy Weir's pretty dismal followup to The Martian.

What strikes me about all of these books is how malleable the Moon is as a setting. It's distinct when compared to other bodies in the solar system like Mars or Venus, and all of these recent books play with some really interesting visions for how the Moon will eventually be settled. But for all the similarities — there's a general agreement that there'll be a heavy mining presence, some tourism, and that living up there will suck — there are fascinating differences when it comes to politics. Stories in the past have used the moon as an outlet for a political thought experiment — just look at Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — but it feels like a number of these newer books are looking at how the moon will change life on Earth, either as a direct geopolitical presence, or as a breakaway entity that's trying something new. KSR is certainly doing some interesting things with his story, and I'll have some more thoughts that I'll put down when I finish it.

Cinematic Universes & Star Wars

In other parts of the entertainment world, I wrote about how Lucasfilm killing off its rumored Boba Fett film wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Look, I really like the concept of a standalone Star Wars film: Rogue One is probably one of my favorite entries in the franchise, and it opens up some unique opportunities to tell some interesting stories within the larger framework of a Galaxy Far, Far, Away — which Lucasfilm really hasn't capitalized on, and which audiences seem to be less than enthused by, if Solo's box office numbers are anything to go by.

I think that's a bit of a shame, but good for the long-term health of the franchise. Star Wars has always been a plucky property that's thrown all sorts of stuff on the wall to see what sticks. The original film was a huge experiment that paid off handsomely, while The Clone Wars took the story beyond what most audiences were expecting. Then of course, there's things like Star Wars Detours, which have thankfully been left on the shelf (for now). But more importantly, it did things like cross-medium storytelling that wasn't really being done anywhere on a huge scale in the mid-90s.

A couple of years ago, I wrote up a history of the Star Wars EU, and two of my biggest takeaways were a) that it really anticipated a lot of what we're seeing in the entertainment industry now — massive consolidation and a story told across mediums and b) a lot of it was fumbling around in the dark, trying to see what would work. Would audiences like a story about X-Wing pilots taking back the galaxy? Who knows! But they put together a comic and novel series that loosely crossed over. Standalone Star Wars films? Why not?

But LFL hasn't seemed to have taken to heart a major part of the flaws in the SWEU: you can have multiple installments of a long-form, ongoing story, but you need to have some sort of payoff. There's little wonder why Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole / Aaron Allston's X-Wing series, and the New Jedi Order are so memorable: they build to a payoff. Along the way, there's a number of standalone Star Wars novels that were good, but largely inconsequential (or were retrofitted down the road) that just didn't do anything. I'm thinking of novels like Vonda N. McIntyre's The Crystal Star, Kristine Katheryn Rusch's The New Rebellion, or Michael A. Stackpole's I, Jedi, books that dropped into the story but didn't really leave a meaningful trace. I see Solo and Rogue One in about that same light. To be fair, they're good installments — more like I, Jedi than Crystal Star, but aside from some throwaway references in The Last Jedi, they're not really moving the larger story and world forward in a meaningful way. I don't think that the standalone stories are a failure: but I think that Lucasfilm should have thought through their approach a bit more: either allow the films to support the franchise's future installments in some meaningful way, or make them truly standalone.

Marvel, on the other hand, has the right idea: build up its characters as their own franchises, and cross them over with a big payoff. To be fair, it was a risky move, and it very well might not have paid off, but at least they were thinking about it from the get-go. Solo feels like it was an attempt to do something similar, but they went in the wrong direction: we already know where that story ended up, whereas with something like The Clone Wars, we knew the end point, but it did a lot of lifting to forge its own story. While I really love the idea of standalone stories, I think Disney has the right idea by putting its focus on the bigger projects being run by Rian Johnson, and writing partners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss: focus on moving the world forward in other places. Obviously, that's an overly simplified take — there's some guesswork there on my part, and a lot that they need to do right and a lo that can go wrong, but at least it's potentially a start in a new direction.

SF History

Lastly, I reviewed two books earlier this week that I'd recommend if you're interested in science fiction's history: Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson and Astounding: John W. Campbell Jr., Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. I've got an entire bookshelf (and growing) of SF-nonfiction, and these two will immediately top the list if I were asked to rank them. They're exhaustively researched, critical, and enlightening studies on a pair of pivotal titles from the depths of science fiction history.

What struck me the most about these were just how awful people like Kubrick, and Asimov were. I knew that Campbell was terrible person — sexist, homophobic, and racist, and Hubbard's got plenty of stories on his own. But as much as I like Asimov, this book is a good way to reexamine the people that the genre has lionized. But Nevala-Lee and Benson work to balance their flaws against their legacies. It's a complicated relationship, to be sure, and learning a bit more about 2001 and Astounding does help deepen my appreciation for both, for better and for worst.

My reading list

I've got a never-ending book list — the perils of being a reviewer. On my docket right now: Mecha Samurai Empire by Peter Tieryas, Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett, Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. I'm also aiming to get to Richard K. Morgan's Thin Air and John Scalzi's The Consuming Fire soonish. Fortunately, November and December are pretty light for new releases. It'll give me a bit of a chance to catch up before 2019 starts — of which there's a shitload of things to keep an eye out for.

That's it — this is long enough. Lemme know what you think, and if you liked it, tell a friend. Thanks for reading!