Featured Image; Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. It looks like a video game map.
Basically the only science fiction I’ve even engaged with in the last month has been Disney’s latest Star Wars series, Andor. This time of year always gets busy for me, and I’ve really been enjoying being able to turn my brain off for a bit and watch some dang Star Wars. It feels nostalgic, like when I was a kid and every Friday I tuned into Star Wars: The Clone Wars (not to be confused with Genndy Tartokovsky’s excellent Star Wars: Clone Wars). It’s nice! With how intensely divided the Star Wars fandom has become, I’ve drifted away from it all, and now it just feels nice to unplug and watch something Star Wars that isn’t a TV series of video game cutscenes (looking at The Mandalorian here). I had low expectations starting Andor, having been burned by so much recent Star Wars TV that I expected it to be the same kind of low quality streaming shlock as the rest, but it really is good! It has exactly what I want out of Star Wars: Cool background stuff. And that’s what I’m here to talk about.
What I’ve loved about Star Wars since I was a kid was the background. I’m not even kidding. Jedi are cool and all, but I was always enthralled by the hints of things like Jawas, or Mos Eisley, or Bespin. It’s been that stuff that always enthralled me, because it let my imagination run wild. While Disney Star Wars has always had bits of this, it’s always a few things – like the meat mines in Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example. In Andor, there are so many clever background details that I start to lose track. For example, his planet, Feerix seems to have an obsession with ringing bells. That’s new and weird! I can let my imagination run wild over that!
This has been a welcome breath of fresh air from most of post-buyout Star Wars, which has been focused almost exclusively on The Lore than anything evocative. And I’m really not a fan. Lore, these days, means a bunch of hints like a murder mystery towards some hidden truth intended by the author. People pore over item descriptions in Dark Souls like it’s the Talmud, looking for some hidden truth about the Furtive Pygmy. I hate it, man. There’s no room for mystery or imagination, just teasing out hidden meanings (preferably as fodder for long youtube videos). For the most part, this lore phenomenon is based on the big things – for Dark Souls, the fates of Kingdoms, Gods, et cetera. For Star Wars, Battles, Wars, high level political maneuvers. We get no sense of people’s lives, and as a result it all feels very boring.
And that’s what I like about Andor! We get a huge sense of people’s lives. Most of it is the usual drudgery, sure, but there’s so much inspired stuff in Andor. There’s a Miami planet! Goat herders! All alcohol is called “nog”! This is what I want out of Star Wars.
After finishing Andor, I threw on Rogue One, which introduced the character of Cassian Andor, and I immediately got the perfect example of this new Lore. Within the first 15 minutes of Rogue One, we see a gazillion planets, as the action travels from each one to set up the plot. We get no real sense of place or ability to get used to anything, just going from spot to spot with little titles to introduce the lore. So Jedha is a holy moon. Holy for what? How do people live? Does this holiness change how people live their lives? You get no connection, and throughout the movie the only thing that is really expanded on is that there is some kind of religious insurgency on the planet, and that some of our main characters believe in The Force. I’m all for those hints of the greater stuff, the wars and religions, but without it being rooted in regular lives it just feels empty. It’s like I’m being told to go read the expanded universe novels (I refuse. You can’t make me. I read a bunch of Legends once and I’m not doing that again).
In contrast, even the quickest planet introductions, such as Niamos (Planet Miami) or Narkina 5 (The Prison Planet) have some actual stories told. We are shown that Niamos, while it’s planet Miami, also seems to be a bit of a overpoliced hellhole if you end up screwing up somehow. And while most of what we see on Narkina 5 is the prison, we’re told about it’s effects on the locals – pollution and massacres. It’s just great storytelling, and I think it says a lot that I have a lot of attachment to Niamos, while nothing for any of the planets introduced within Rogue One.
With The Lore becoming essentially the default way of telling Science Fiction and Fantasy stories, I’ve appreciated when stories step back and show us mundane things even more. Severance was all over that, and it rocked. I’m getting tired of Lore that exists only for Youtube video explainers. Show me how people in your fantastic setting live. Give me a vibe.
For the older Sci-Fi this month, I’ve been back to reading books by Stanisław Lem. Lem is one of the legends of Sci-Fi, one of the few authors from the other side of the Iron Curtain to really make waves in America with works like the absolutely genius Solaris. What makes his work incredible is this intense pessimistic tone about Science-Fiction, that we might find failure in our push for the stars. A lot of Sci-Fi is very aggressively triumphalist, and very rarely confronts that things can fail. Even a dystopia is generally the result of a success, not failure. This idea of failure is what His Master’s Voice, the book I’m currently reading, focuses on, among other things, and I’m loving it. Maybe it’s because currently we’re living through the failure of a lot of last decade’s Sci-Fi mania, from the cryptocurrency collapse to the decline of social media to the breakdown of global capital in a supply chain crisis, but it feels poignant. Sometimes things mess up and fail. And we have to confront that as a society.
And now, to focus on a science fiction success: The music selection this month, Jam Blues from Charlie Parker with Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges on alto, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and finally J.C. Heard on the drums. The 50’s were a special time for music. Technological advancements – the LP record, tape recording, and improvements in both loudspeakers and microphones led to a lot of really interesting stuff coming out as musicians found that many of the limitations that they had been playing under were nonexistent, and it was cheaper for new musicians to record music. I’m not sure what technology this record was recorded under – it could be on tape, (it certainly sounds clean enough to be tape), but it could have been recorded directly to disk (this was how they did it before tape really caught on in the 50’s – you recorded directly onto an acetate disc, one LP side at a time, no breaks. If you make a mistake you start again). But I love this bit. It’s just a great jam from the later period in Charlie Parker’s life, and one of those rare sessions that they did in the 50s where they brought together a bunch of legendary soloists.