"Some day, there will be a legend like this. Some day from steamy Venus or arid Mars, the shaking, awe-struck words will come whispering back to us, building the picture of a glory so great that our throats will choke with pride—the pride in the men of Terra!"
That's the introduction Leigh Brackett wrote for Keith Bennett's "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears," a short she personally selected for inclusion in The Best of Planet Stories #1. The latter was a reprint paperback anthology she edited in 1975 for Random House, paying tribute to the all-stars of the magazine that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Space Opera." Under Brackett's editorial eye, Bennett's tale joined stories by such Golden Age heavy hitters as Poul Anderson, Frederick Brown and a young Ray Bradbury, not to mention Brackett herself.
I'd first heard of Bennett's story thanks to a glowing review from Morgan Holmes over at the Castalia House blog, when he did a write up on the Planet Stories anthology. So glowing, in fact, that I shelled out $25 for a used copy just so I could read it myself.
As usual, Morgan didn't steer me wrong.
Folks, this novella is one of the very best MilSF tales ever written, and thanks to the fine folks over at Project Gutenberg, it's finally available in a free e-book edition. If you're even a casual fan of the genre, you owe it to yourselves to experience this wonderful, mostly forgotten classic.
I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this story. No less an authority than David Drake has expressed his admiration for this obscure tale, as outlined in this brilliant essay at Tor.com. Fair warning, Drake's essay does have a few spoilers. I'd recommend reading the story first, both so you can experience it "cold," and so you'll have a greater appreciation for Drake's insights. And make no mistake, Drake's observations about Bennett and what he successfully manages to convey in his classic short are well worth a read. Among other things, Drake makes some razor sharp points about the gallows humor of the combat soldier.
As for the story itself, it's an amazingly simple one, about a platoon of marooned Rocketeers who must fight their way back to a friendly base through hostile territory on a savage Venus. It's basically an SF-nal take on Xenophon's Anabasis, right down to the main action being relayed through the eyes of a junior officer.
For that reason, fans of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Legionnaire--the first book in the wonderful Galaxy's Edge series—will arguably find the most to enjoy here. It's a Golden Age SF take on the same themes they explored, with surprisingly little ground lost in the 67 years between each story's publication. "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" is the olive drab fatigues and steel pot to Legionnaire's Marpat and Kevlar. Sure, there's some differences in terminology and tech. But it's still recognizably a grunt's eye view of war in the future, told by someone who knows what that hell looks like right now.
And like Legionnaire, it isn't sugar-coated.
You can read and download "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" from project Gutenberg.
It's Veteran's Day, which means I'm mostly keeping to myself. I've never been one to prescribe how people spend their time, so I won't say something like "get out there and thank a veteran." But if today means something to you, I hope you find the time to spend at least part of it in quiet reflection.
Anyway, a lot of ex-military Sci-Fi authors end up writing MilitarySF. I've never been able to quite bring myself to do that. The closest I've ever been able to come is this blackly comic piece about a futuristic veteran dealing with the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs.
Hope it makes a few of you guys who have been dealing with similar frustrations laugh.
Sometimes, that's about all we can do.
"There's some men here with a truck. They say they've got a delivery. Should I go ahead and let them in?"
Jonathan Hale stared down at the tabla-phone. Mrs. Drinkwater's tired face looked up from the grainy display screen.
"A delivery?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes and sighed at him. A lock of hair came untangled from the messy gray bun on top of her head. "That's what I just said. Look, am I letting them in or not? I wasn't told about this."
Jon wasn't told about it either. He tried to imagine who it could be.
"Fine. Let them in." It didn't really matter if it was a scam, he decided. It wasn't like he had anything in the apartment they could steal. Hell, maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe they'd drop a crowbar or something else valuable enough to pawn.
Mrs. Drinkwater punched a button on her end. A Filmore Realty release form came up on screen. "Initial here and press your thumb to the pad. You hereby authorize me to grant a third party access to your apartment." There was a long but not-quite empty pause as Jon signed and gave his thumbprint. "Next time, tell me when you're expecting a delivery."
Jon knew it was pointless to argue. He mumbled some affirmative and hung up with Mrs. Drinkwater. He put the tabla-phone back in his pack, and wheeled his ancient, manual-powered wheelchair to the handicapped levi-tube. His cigarette break was almost over, and he'd already wasted most of it talking to his landlord. He only had a few minutes left to get down to the smoking area.
He swore under his breath. Whatever they were leaving him, he thought, it had better be worth it.
The old, broken motorchair was still in the corner of Jon's apartment, right where it had been for the last thirteen years. It was the very last thing Jon noticed when he got home. The first was the massive hospital bed in his living room.
A large box-like chassis was attached to the foot of it, with two actuator arms coming out of the sides. A bulb-like optical sensor sat on top like the light on an old-time police car.
"What the hell...?"
The bed buzzed to life. The optical sensor fixed on him. Jon's arms tensed. He pulled on his wheel-rims and backed away. The bed rolled toward him.
"Greetings, Jonathan Hale." The bed had a calm, vaguely effeminate voice. "I am pleased to inform you that you've been selected to take part in the new HealthAid pilot program."
The bed clicked and whirred somewhere inside its box-like chassis, the sound of cooling fans and spinning hard drives.
"Pursuant to Title II of the Interstellar Heroes at Home Act, three thousand veterans of the colony world conflict have been selected to receive automated in-home health care. I am pleased to announce that your application was chosen out of a pool of over half a million candidates."
"But I never filled out any application."
More clicks. More whirs. "Records indicate you applied on May 6, 2275, three days after the program was announced to the public."
"But I didn't apply!"
The bed quietly motored back to the middle of the room. "You need to monitor your excitement level, Mr. Hale. Studies show that patients diagnosed with traumatic stress are more susceptible to hypertension."
Jon eyeballed the useless, dead motorchair in the corner. Thirteen years and counting, waiting for the Department of Interstellar Veterans' Affairs to replace it or fix it. He didn't know why he bothered to get his hopes up. He should know better by now. But sometime after his cigarette break, he'd gotten the crazy idea that the delivery people Mrs. Drinkwater had called about were from the IVA. He'd even convinced the day supervisor, Ray Johnstone, to let him clock out a half hour early.
Jon shook his head. Only the IVA would deliver an unnecessary piece of talking junk to his doorstep while completely ignoring the one thing he actually needed. Government waste at its finest.
He wheeled himself into the kitchen. A drink would be pretty useful right about now. He opened the cabinet beneath the sink. And he swore loudly.
"What did you do with my whiskey?"
"Alcohol consumption is not recommended for patients suffering from traumatic stress. Additionally, several of the medications associated with your spinal injury are unsafe to take with alcoholic beverages."
John wheeled himself toward the bed. "That doesn't answer the question."
"I took the liberty of removing it," the bed replied. "Having no alcohol in the home will provide a more therapeutic environment. I have also removed the tobacco, the empty carbohydrates, and the caffeine."
Jon clenched his fists. He counted to ten, breathing in and out slowly. He also thought of the old baseball bat in the closet, and wondered if a mechanical bed could feel pain.
The hold music was a smooth-jazz remix of some patriotic medley, bars from songs like "Terra the Beautiful" and "My System 'Tis of Thee." The tabla-phone's screen cycled through a series of inspiring images: The Terran Marines raising the flag on Mount Godan. The Luna Monument. The launch of the Columbia VIII.
Jon fiddled with his coffee mug of filtered tap water and glared at the bed. It sat idling in a corner, the slowly pulsing lights indicating it was in rest mode.
He'd called Ray as soon as he woke up to let him know that he'd be taking another day off to deal with the IVA. Ray understood. His old man had been a flyboy during the Orion Prime campaign. And from what Ray had told Jon, it had been hell getting them to pay for the old man's cyberoptics.
Jon thanked him. As an afterthought, he told Ray to thank the old man for his service. Then he called the main number at the Jerry Hawker Medical Center.
Jon spent the next several hours having his call bounced from department to department. Twice they transferred him to off-world call centers. Now he was waiting to speak to somebody in the special claims office on Tau Ceti B.
"Hello, Mr. Hale. How may I be of assistance today?" The hold music cut off abruptly. A triangular, green-yellow face filled the screen. The name displayed underneath the image was "Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Jon cursed silently. It was one of those weird bug things from the Andromeda belt. Jon hated talking to them. It wasn't that he was prejudiced. It was that the insectoids had a hive-mind, and they couldn't understand the concept of a miscommunication. An honest mistake could be seen as a grave insult.
Jon swallowed nervously. One slipup and he'd be bounced back into the phone menus. "Hi, yes. I have a new automated HealthAid bed. It was dropped off yesterday."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over his keyboard. His black, bulbous eyes twitched back and forth as he read Jon's record. "Yes, Mr. Hale. I see here that your application was approved on the first of the month."
"But that's just it. I never filled out an application."
The bug-creature tilted its head to the side. The gesture made Jon think of a huge, disgusting dog. "That seems very unlikely, Mr. Hale."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx spoke slowly, as if trying to explain an advanced technology to an inferior race. "It says here that you filled out an application on May 6, 2275. And that the application was approved."
That the computerized records could be wrong appeared to be a foreign idea to Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx. Jon decided to try a different approach. "Look, I um...I've decided I don't want to be a part of the pilot program anymore. It's not working out. How soon can you come and pick up this robotic hospital bed?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx made an annoyed chittering noise. "Mr. Hale, you obviously don't remember section 674 of the application you filled out. It guarantees your participation in the program for a period of three and one half standard Earth years."
Jon didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Trapped. He was trapped with the stupid thing.
"Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr. Hale?"
"What about my motorchair request? I filled that out over thirteen years ago."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over the keyboard again. "I'm sorry Mr. Hale. There is no record of a repair or service call for a motorchair."
Jon could feel a painful throbbing sensation in his temples. He heard his voice rising before he could stop it. "You people send me physical, printed-paper notices in the mail that say the call is still pending. I got one yesterday!"
The bug-creature bristled and hissed. Its wings started to come out of the coverings on its back. "There's no need for that tone of voice, Mr. Hale."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ixxklicksnicks, I—"
The black, bulbous eyes glared at him. "It's pronounced Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Crap. "Right, I'm sorry. I just—"
"If you are unsatisfied with my service in any way, I can transfer you to our customer relation’s office on Gilese 581."
"No, that won't be necessary!" There was a note of barely-concealed panic in Jon's voice.
"Transferring you now, sir."
The smooth-jazz music began to pipe from the tabla-phone's speakers again. The bug-alien disappeared from the screen. But before it did, Jon was almost sure the big-eyed sonovabitch smiled.
Jon woke up feeling groggy. He shook the fuzz out of his head and sat up. It was his second night in the new hospital bed, and his second morning feeling like his brain was made of wet garbage.
The actuator arms on the bed helped him get to his chair and get dressed. It was only after he was clothed and seated that he noticed the dried blood spot on the inside of his arm.
"What the hell is this?"
The optical sensor on the bed whirled around and focused on the spot. The usual clicks and whirs sounded from inside the chassis, noises that Jon had begun to associate with the bed thinking.
"You took an inadequate portion of your prescribed sleep medication before bed last night. I merely administered the remainder after you entered a state of REM sleep."
"I took the same dose I always take."
The bed thought for a few seconds. "Your record indicates that your prescribed dose of Benzodiazepine is seventy-five milligrams. You took twenty-five. You also took it in the less efficient oral tablet form, rather than the intravenous injection your medical record specifies."
That was a bunch of crap. None of that was in his medical record. There had to be a mistake. This dumb machine was crossing its wires.
"Show me my medical record. Send it to my tabla-phone."
The phone pinged and vibrated a few seconds later. Jon had to concentrate to read it, but the bed was right. The medication doses were all higher now. And they called for injections.
"This is wrong."
"Your medical record is displayed as it exists in my files, Mr. Hale."
"Then your files are wrong!" Jon slammed a fist on the arm of his wheelchair.
"Your stress levels appear to be rising, Mr. Hale. If you do not calm down, I will have to recommend a mild sedative."
All right. Enough was enough. Jon opened a net-search on how to disable a HealthAid bed. If the IVA wouldn't come and get it, at least he could find a way to turn it off.
The first ten pages were nothing but sites warning against tampering with equipment owned and operated by the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs. The equipment was monitored, said the various sources. Any attempts to modify or alter the function would result in felony charges with a ten-year sentence to Charon Correctional Facility upon conviction.
Jon almost gave up on the idea right then and there. Charon was a frozen hellhole on the edge of the system, orbiting a dwarf planet somewhere out past Neptune. He'd met former inmates before, their noses and fingers blackened from the frostbite. Even the long-term medical wing, which was where Jon would go, was rumored to be little more than a cold-storage facility for invalids.
Nothing was worth a trip to Charon, Jon thought. He could find another way. Maybe he could get an appointment with a patient advocate at Jerry Hawker Hospital. The waiting list was supposedly down to two years.
Before he could close the search window, a link buried beneath all of the others caught his eye. It was from a private message board about various IVA programs
"Pilot program' dangerous!" read the headline. "HealthAid beds programmed to malfunction." Jon opened it and began reading.
"All of the HealthAid beds are doing exactly what they were designed to do: dope us, isolate us, and quietly kill us off. Listen carefully, NOBODY signed up for this program. The IVA forged the paperwork behind the scenes because we're costing them too much money. 'Automated in-home health care' lets them kill us off and blame faulty equipment later on. Whatever you do, DO NOT let one of these machines into your home. They're trying to turn you into a statistic."
Jon read a little further. There were no confirmed deaths yet. Nobody had definitive proof. One of the other posters alleged that coroner's reports had been changed after the fact to cover up the truth.
Jon was still reading when he heard the mail delivery come trough the wall slot. He set his tabla-phone down and wheeled to the door to collect it. As usual, most of it was from the IVA. Only government organizations were still archaic enough to use printed-paper mail for anything.
Jon sorted through the stack. Two more surveys, a notice that his new primary care physician was located in the Sirius cluster, and the weekly "release and consent" forms, allowing the IVA to export his information to other star systems. And of course, another notice telling him his motorchair's service and repair call was still pending.
Jon wondered if he should call Mr. Ixxkickysick, or whatever his name was. Show him the notice. Maybe his big black eyes would explode from the sides of his head.
Jon rolled back to the table where he'd set his tabla-phone. He picked it up and stared at the screen. The page he'd been reading was gone. In its place was a public broadcast show called Barney the Batrachiosapian.
"Hello kids," said Barney. "We're going to sing the counting song today. Doesn't that sound like fun?"A chorus of children's shouts answered him.
Jon tried to log onto a different page. But all he could access was the purple frog-alien and his counting song. Jon wheeled around to face the bed.
"What the hell did you do to my tabla-phone?"
"I have restricted your net content, Mr. Hale. Stressful news articles and baseless conspiracy sites will only upset you. I have allowed some access to soothing programs, as they may help you relax."
Slowly, carefully, Jon set the tabla-phone down. He backed his wheelchair toward the door. "I think I'll head down to the store. Get some food."
The bed clicked and whirred. "That is unnecessary. I have already arranged for food deliveries from the neighborhood grocer."
Jon felt his stomach sink. "Well, maybe I should head out and see Ray. I was out of work yesterday. He'll be expecting me soon."
"I already took the liberty of calling Raymond Johnstone. I informed him that you would be out of work for a period of convalescence. And that pursuant to the Heroes at Home Act, he was not authorized to ask for further details."
Jon backed his chair as far as it would go. He felt the wheel-rims touch the wall. The bed slowly motored toward him.
"My sensors indicate that your heart rate is elevated at this time. You need to relax, Mr. Hale. I recommend a sedative."
Jon remembered very little of the next few weeks. He spent most days in a drugged-out funk. His phone calls were screened and monitored by the HealthAid.
He had one clear memory, of trying to talk to Mrs. Drinkwater. She'd called to ask about the rent. Jon knew the bed was listening, so he tried to use his old code words from P.O.W. training. He tried to use the hand-signals for "torture" and "duress" but Mrs. Drinkwater didn't catch on. She kept asking why Jon was poking his eyes and talking about raisins and fiber content.
Jon cursed her inwardly. You just couldn't rely on pilots.
Then he second-guessed himself. Mrs. Drinkwater was never a pilot. He was thinking Ray's old man. On top of that, Jon was starting to think he might have mixed the code words up with an oatmeal recipe.
The heavy drug dosages weren't helping. He started to laugh out loud then, and sing Barney the Batrachiosapian's counting song.
"I have fun"
"With number one!
"Number one is so much fun!"
Mrs. Drinkwater told him it was okay. She said to get some rest, not to worry about the rent just then, and she politely hung up.
After that, Jon remembered the bed telling him that he wouldn't be allowed to take any more calls. It was too stressful. It brought him his usual stack of IVA consent and release papers to sign and initial. It promised him that once he did the paperwork, he could go back to watching Barney.
For three or four weeks (or was it five?) Jon just existed, eating his meals, taking his meds, and watching shows like Barney and Playtime Planetside Pals. The bed helpfully attended to all of his needs, bringing his paperwork once a week, and encouraging him to give the right answers on the government's quality surveys.
On May 30, 2284, the notice he'd been waiting for arrived in the print-paper mail. Jon smiled through the medicine haze.
And he waited.
By five o'clock Jon still felt heady and dazed, but it was still better than he'd felt earlier in the afternoon. And since the bed would be ready to give him his evening dose in a few minutes, it was now or never. Jon wheeled himself over to the closet. He dug inside for the baseball bat and turned to face the HealthAid.
"What do you think you're doing, Mr. Hale?"
Jon smiled. It felt good to be in power again, to have some control. "I'm going to smash you into scrap. Then I'm going to dump the pieces of you into a trash disintegrator."
"If any damage is done to my systems," the bed reminded him, "a signal is beamed to the Department of Interstellar Veteran's Affairs. You would face criminal charges and imprisonment on Charon."
"I know that. But the IVA is going to ignore the signal."
The bed seemed unsure now. Could a machine feel doubt? It slowly motored backward. "What makes you believe that would be the case, Mr. Hale?"
Jon pointed to the corner of the apartment, at the old motorchair. "I filed a repair and service request on that thing thirteen years ago. And every so often, I get another print-paper notice telling me my request is pending. But the other day, when I talked to that bug-creature in special claims, he told me that my request was never filed. So that got me thinking."
"You're acting irrationally, Mr. Hale. You appear agitated. I recommend a sedative."
Jon smiled. He wheeled closer. "So I filed a service request on you. I snuck it in with the weekly liability-release forms. And do you know what I got today?" Jon held the paper up in front of him. The bed's optical sensor focused on it.
"It's a notice that says my request on you is pending. Which means that hell will freeze over before you get any kind of response from the IVA."
"Mr. Hale, this is a foolish chance to take. When the IVA reads my distress signal, they'll file charges against you for violation of the—"
"Yeah, I thought about that. That's why I told them your network link was sending erroneous messages."
For the first time since it had arrived, the bed didn't have anything to say. Jon smile stretched from ear to ear now. He lightly drummed his fingers on the bat. “You see it yet, you condescending pile of scrap? I finally figured it out. There’s a way to convince the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs to pretend you don’t exist. All I had to do was ask them to fix you."
"Mr. Hale, please don’t do this. You'll only aggravate yourself."
Jon hefted the bat, tested the weight. It was nice and heavy. It would do nicely. "Nope. I think that by the end of this, I'm actually going to feel pretty good."
Jon slept after he was finished. A deep, restful sleep. When he woke up he called Ray Johnstone. He said he'd make it back to work on Monday.
Yes, he said. His convalescence was over. He felt much better now.
Pilot Program originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge Magazine #29. Copyright 2017 Daniel J. Davis.
So I wasn't planning to beat my Last Jedi drum any more than I already have. Bottom line, I disliked the movie. Plenty of other people loved it. Their opinions are just as valid as mine. Live and let live, etc.
But my last post on the subject, detailing my feelings on Luke's character arc, led to a thought-provoking Twitter debate with a random stranger. While defending the movie, that stranger posed an interesting question:
You can read the original thread here if you want, but below I'm going to organize and expand on my original response.
As a side note, I want to say thanks to dvader518, whoever they are. They brought up some excellent points, and were never less than 100% respectful. We ended up agreeing to disagree, but the conversation did force me to think about my own position a little more.
That's the kind of honest debate I can always appreciate, regardless of the outcome. As for my answer to the above question:
Yoda is kind of an asshole
I don't consider Yoda cowardly for hiding on Dagobah, because he was never especially heroic in the first place. In fact, upon closer examination, he's really close to being one of the bad guys.
Bear with me a second while I explain.
Yoda's exile on Dagobah can be summed up in five words: "The ends justify the means."
When we meet him in The Empire Strikes Back, he's the very last holdout of the old Jedi ways. He's also playing a long game against the Emperor and Vader. Yoda's plan (which Obi-Wan has aided every step of the way) is to train Luke specifically for the task of fighting and killing Darth Vader.
Yoda doesn't care about Vader's redemption. He also doesn't want Luke to make up his own mind about the subject, which is why he keeps the fact that Vader is Luke's father a secret. In fact, he insists that Luke needs to "complete his training" before he sets out for the final confrontation.
This is an important detail. Why?
Because among other things, fully-trained Jedi are expected to shun all personal attachments.
In other words, Yoda knows damned well that the truth about Luke's parentage will come out when he fights Vader. He just wants Luke to be so thoroughly indoctrinated into the Jedi ways by that point that he won't care, and he'll complete the mission anyway.
All of this is justified in Yoda's mind, because killing Vader will help restore balance to the Force. He's a character that cares more about his chosen ideal (balance) than than the actual people around him. He's basically training Luke to be an assassin, while hiding information that might cause Luke to question his target.
And no, this isn't some weird, alternate character interpretation I'm pulling out of my ass.
Luke's rejection of Yoda and the old Jedi ways is the entire point of his arc in the original trilogy. Yoda refuses to see any possibility that Vader can be redeemed, to the point where he even urges Luke to kill him on his own deathbed. Luke only wins because he embraces his personal attachments in direct defiance of Yoda's teachings.
Sure, Yoda is wise and powerful. But one of the major plot points of the original trilogy is that Yoda's adherence to the old Jedi dogma is wrong. In fact, Luke's first clash with him is one of the most important character moments in the series.
Which leads me to another important storytelling principle.
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right (But They Do Make For Dramatic Character Moments)
In his screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee points out that characters are defined by their choices. He also points out that the most powerful choices aren't between right and wrong, because that's really no choice at all. It doesn't reveal anything deep or important about the character, because any right-thinking person would obviously make the same choice.
The truly powerful choices, the ones that really show us a character's moral core, occur when they are forced to decide between two wrongs, or between two irreconcilable goods.
An example of two wrongs is the classic "Sophie's choice" dilemma, where a mother is forced to decide which of her children will live and which one will die.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke faces the second kind of choice, between two mutually exclusive good outcomes.
Towards the end of Act II, Luke is training on Dagobah. He closes his eyes, reaches out into the Force, and senses great danger. He has a vision. Han, Leia, and the others are going to die unless he drops everything and tries to save them.
In that moment, his choices are:
It's important to note that, in universe, from the characters' perspective, neither of these choices are wrong.
Completing the training will help to restore the Jedi Order, creating an opposition to the Dark Side's near total domination of the galaxy. With Vader dead, the Emperor's power will be weakened, giving the Rebel Alliance a chance to overthrow the Empire, restore the Republic, and usher a in new era of peace.
And it makes total sense for Luke to want that, and for him to be torn about his decision. After all, he and his friends have fought and suffered for that exact outcome.
But here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about balance and the Dark Side? From the audience's perspective, it's abstract. Viewers don't care about it.
Viewers DO care about Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO.
That's why Luke's decision is such an important character moment, one that cements him as a hero in the audience's eyes. When given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about, he chose people.
There may have been no "right" answer from the character's perspective. But from the audience's perspective, there was. Luke made the choice we identified with, and a generation of viewers loved his character for it.
Luke's Karma Ran Over Yoda's Dogma
So why did so many people (myself included) have a hard time seeing that same hero in Rian Johnson's take on the character?
It goes back to the importance of character choices, and how the powerful choices show us their moral center.
In The Last Jedi, Luke faces the exact same choice he did in Empire. Rey, R2, and Chewie land on Ach-to, where Luke lives in self-imposed exile. They tell him the Resistance needs him, that Han is dead, and Leia is leading a desperate fight against the First Order.
Luke's choices in that moment are:
Once again, an argument can be made that, in universe, neither of these answers is wrong. I actually disagree, but that's a tangent that distracts from the point.
For the second time, Luke is given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about. This time, Luke chooses the abstract ideal.
But where his choice in Empire painted him as a selfless hero in the minds of the audience, this one painted him as the opposite. Most of the audience doesn't care about Luke's need to see the Jedi Order end, and its teachings disappear. We certainly don't care more than we do about Leia, a character we've been following for over 40 years.
Just like with The Empire Strikes Back, in the audience's mind there was only one right answer to this dilemma, and it was the one Luke didn't take. He made the choice we can't identify with.
The results are evident in the divided reaction to the film. Audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are below 50%, the lowest for any film in the series.
So as a writer, what's the takeaway here?
For me, it's a sort of caveat to keep in mind while applying McKee's principle about powerful character choices. You can give a character a dilemma with no "right" answer from his or her own perspective. Just remember that audiences might disagree. They might see only one right choice.
And like your character, you'll have to choose wisely.
The following is a transcript of the first story meeting between Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm, probably:
JOHNSON: What if we took one of Luke's most heroic moments and changed it? Like, what if he leaves his friends to die instead of helping them?
LUCASFILM EXEC: My God, that's brilliant! This movie will be a universally beloved hit for sure! I think I smell a trilogy in your future, sir!
I'm kind of a late comer to all this Star Wars criticism, but a couple of weeks back I gave my initial impression of The Last Jedi. I focused mainly on the stupid plot dynamic between Poe and Holdo, and the fact that most of the movie's tension would evaporate into thin air if Holdo were an even halfway competent character.
That was far from the film's only flaw, although it was definitely a fatal one. The much bigger issue for me, however, was the film's treatment of Luke Skywalker.
This is one of The Last Jedi's most divisive aspects. Luke's arc is a love it or hate it thing, and how people feel about it tends to be a pretty good predictor of whether or not they liked the movie.
The people I know who loved it were impressed by the unexpected story direction, and the realism of Luke being unable to live up to his own legend. One friend described the broken, burnt-out Luke seen in The Last Jedi as a perfect mirror image of his younger self in the original Star Wars.
I don't disagree. I just think it's a complete misfire, one that justifiably pissed off a lot of fans.
Luke the Antihero
Last week, I wrote a post about the corruption of the word "antihero" away from its original meaning. That original meaning has nothing to do with the amoral badasses it constantly gets applied to, like the Punisher or Deadpool. In its original meaning, an antihero was "a central character in a play, book, or film who does not have any heroic qualities, such as courage."
And while that definition doesn't apply to Deadpool or Punisher, it's a dead-on description for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.
When we meet him on Ach-to, Luke is living the life of a solitary hermit. He's cut himself off from the Force, fled to a place nobody will find him, and chosen to spend the rest of his days wallowing in misery and contemplating his failures.
When Rey shows up, seeking to learn the ways of the Force and to enlist him in the fight against the First Order, two things happen in relatively short order. The first is that he learns about Han's death at the hands of Kylo Ren. The second is that he realizes Leia is involved in this fight.
His response to learning that his closest friend is dead, and that his twin sister is in mortal danger?
He rebuffs Rey. He refuses to go with her, and he refuses to teach her about the dangerous power growing inside her. "Go away," he says. "It's time for the Jedi Order to die."
At last, R2-D2 plays on his sympathy, using the old hologram of Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. He agrees to train Rey, but he still adamantly refuses to leave Ach-to to personally intervene.
All of this is, of course, before the flashback scene where Luke admits to a "moment of weakness" in which he contemplated murdering a teenaged Kylo Ren in his sleep. All because he "sensed a great darkness" in him.
You know. Just in case we needed any more reasons to see this version of Luke as a pathetic, cowardly loser.
The thing is, none of that really squares up with what we know about Luke from the original trilogy.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke abandons his training and knowingly flies into a trap because it's the only way to save his friends. After failing to defeat Darth Vader, he spends time training himself for a second confrontation. But he has no intentions of killing Vader in their second encounter. Luke senses good in him, and believes he can be redeemed.
Then, to help ensure the success of the Death Star mission (as well as his personal quest to redeem his father), Luke surrenders to Empire troops and faces both Vader and the Emperor alone in the throne room. And he does it on the freakin' Death Star, a battle station he has every reason to believe is about to be blown up.
Luke in the original trilogy is a hero in the classical sense, a man of great strength and courage. He puts his life on the line time and again to protect his friends and fight against the threat of the Empire. He's also a hero in the more modern sense, displaying a strong moral compass in addition to his physical prowess.
Luke in The Last Jedi completely lacks those traits. He doesn't even have any vestiges of them left.
And yes, I've seen the argument that Luke staying on Ach-to was a "courage of his convictions" thing, a dedication to pacifist Jedi principles that no one else in the movies ever had the strength to adhere to.
I think that's bullshit. And in order to explain exactly why, I'll need you to bear with me a second.
Coward is as Coward Does
In his wonderful screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee outlines an idea called "taking a character to the end of the line." In brief, he points out that the positive and negative forces in a character's life don't exist in a binary. He says they're actually on a four-point scale with a positive (+), a positive/negative (+/-), a negative (-) and a "worse than negative" (-/-) expression.
So, if the struggle is life and death, the four point scale is:
That fourth point on the scale is what McKee means when he talks about taking the character to the end of the line. It's the "fate worse than death," the thing that the character cannot allow, no matter the cost. In Return of the Jedi, Luke faces this when the Emperor goads him into fighting Vader. Luke nearly betrays his friends and his values by giving in to the Dark Side. He stands on the edge of that personal damnation, finds the strength to pull back from it, and tosses away his lightsaber. He tells the Emperor he has failed.
"I am a Jedi," he says. "Like my father before me." In that moment, Luke knows he will die by the Emperor's hand, but it doesn't matter. He faced that personal damnation and defeated it. He's already won.
Another example in McKee's book is the scale below, outlining the possible expressions of "Courage versus Cowardice":
Cowardice Masquerading as Courage (-)
I believe that fourth point on the scale is where we find Luke in The Last Jedi. For all of his high-minded prattle about how "it's time for the Jedi to die," and cutting himself off from the Force to keep the galaxy safe, what he's really doing is hiding.
He's hiding from a mess he helped create in Kylo Ren. He's hiding from danger when his friends need him the most. And in cutting himself off from the Force, he's even hiding from having to feel any of the consequences of his inaction.
That's simple cowardice, no matter how you frame it. Only Luke has somehow managed to convince himself that it's the noble course of action.
Audience Expectations Can Suck It
All this ties into an important storytelling principle, one that Rian Johnson deliberately violated for shock value: keeping the promises made to the reader/viewer.
I'll go into more detail about this principle in a future post, but for now the easiest way to explain it is this: If you start out telling one kind of story, don't shift gears in the middle and deliver a different one.
If Act I of your story is a taut cat-and-mouse game between the police and a killer, don't deliver a climax that hinges on a tearful confession between husband and wife, and a commitment to learn what it means to love one another again. Act I promises a thriller, and the audience had better get a climax worthy of one.
Like it or not, this same principle applies to characters, especially in long-running series. If you don't believe me, try to imagine the flak J.K. Rowling would get if she penned a sequel depicting Harry Potter as a burnt-out loser who flatly refuses to help his old friends Hermione and Ron. Or if Ian Fleming wrote a Bond story in which 007 suddenly finds himself clumsy and flustered around women, and having panic attacks at the prospect of having to use his gun.
In both examples, fans would justifiably see it as a betrayal of the character they'd come to know over the years, a violation of the promises made by the beginning entries of the story. In Harry's case, that promise is that he's a brave and resourceful boy who would never shy away from helping his friends. In Bond's case, it's that he's a cool, suave agent with a License to Kill.
Of course, Rowling and Fleming would have every right to subvert audience expectations and tell those stories. Just as Lucasfilm had every right to take Luke in a subversive new direction in The Last Jedi.
But most of the core audience isn't looking for subversion. To them, the thrill doesn't come from seeing the ways in which creators can tear apart their assumptions about the character. It comes from seeing that character tested to the limit, and still coming out on top.
And that's really the crux of the problem. At some point, subversion became an exalted ideal in storytelling. It's like there's a school of thought that dictates a story isn't "serious" unless it tears down the audience's expectations. That simply meeting those expectations is a lesser form of storytelling, one that's inherently childish and naive.
I don't mind subversion, as long as it happens in a satisfying way. I think Rogue One did it brilliantly. In delivering a Star Wars story where all of the main characters die, it made a powerful statement about the human cost of the Rebellion. It's satisfying because we know all that suffering means something, that the stolen plans will eventually lead to an important victory for the "good guys."
But Rian Johnson's blatant character assassination of Luke doesn't give any satisfaction. In showing us our old heroes are nothing but burnt-out losers and cowards, he doesn't make any powerful statements about the cost of the conflict. He's making a nihilistic declaration that the conflict meant nothing, and that our admiration of those heroes was stupid and misplaced.
Johnson's treatment of Luke is nothing but subversion for its own sake, an attempt to shock the audience by tearing down one of the icons of the story world. And worse, he doesn't give us anything worthy of taking that icon's place. The end result is Rian Johnson's Star Wars is reduced to being a galaxy without heroes.
And sure, maybe that's "serious" storytelling. Maybe it's more "realistic." But I never watched Star Wars for the realism.
Play us out, Twisted Sister:
So thanks to Netflix, I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi. I wasn't boycotting it or anything. It's just that my wife and I have a house now, and as a result, much less disposable income. Seeing movies in the theater can be an expensive way to spend the evening, so we tend not to do it unless we're 100% sure we'll enjoy the ride.
Frankly, when it comes to The Last Jedi, I'm glad we saved the money.
And no, I'm not some raging misogynist who can't stand women in "muh Star Wars." I enjoyed The Force Awakens for the fun nostalgia trip it was, and I thought Rogue One was the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. My gripes with The Last Jedi have nothing to do with the politics of diversifying the cast. My gripes have to do with the fact that it was a boring, muddled mess that hinged on an "idiot plot" for the majority of its suspense.
Not to say the movie was without merits. Overall, it was visually stunning. The bombing run against the dreadnought might be my favorite space battle in the entire series. Some of the individual set pieces, in particular the throne room battle, were outstanding.
The problem is none of those individual pieces can make the whole stand together.
Case in point, the "idiot plot." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an idiot plot is a plot that depends on one or more of the characters behaving stupidly to create the central problem. If the characters were smart or competent, then the problem would either be solved immediately or would never have come up in the first place.
Most of the suspense in The Last Jedi is driven by the fact that Vice Admiral Holdo refuses to share the plan with Poe. This leads to Finn and Rose taking on a secret mission, Poe leading a mutiny, and the hired hacker selling the Resistance's plan to the First Order. The First Order then blows the escaping transports out of the sky, slaughtering most of the Resistance and necessitating Holdo's suicide run against Snoke's flagship.
Oh. Um... Spoilers, I guess.
The thing is, Holdo not revealing her plan is stupid.
And yes, I understand this was done partly to give Poe his character arc. After disobeying orders and incurring heavy casualties on the dreadnought run, he needed to learn how to accept authority and work as a part of a larger team. I can even understand the need for Holdo to take him down a peg and assert her own authority.
But no commander worth a damn would do so at the expense of withholding the operational plan from her own troops. She's depending on them, and much more importantly, they're depending on her.
Yes, Holdo is a superior officer. No, she doesn't owe a long and detailed explanation to a junior, especially not one who is demanding her time on a busy command bridge.
But real world talk: Trust is a two-way street in the military. A commander needs to trust the troops to do their jobs, and the troops need to trust in the commander's abilities. And rank, contrary to what you'll see in movies and on television, does not automatically convey that trust. This is especially true in combat.
When Poe demanded to know what the plan is, the exchange should have gone something like this:
POE: "Admiral, you have to tell me. What's the plan?"
HOLDO (giving him a dismissive look, and putting special emphasis on his newly-reduced rank): "Your section leader has all the details. He or she will brief you, Captain Poe."
POE: "But I..."
HOLDO (more firmly): "There is a chain of command, Captain. I expect you to use it. Now get off my bridge before I have you demoted to scullery boy."
This would have immediately established Holdo as a strong leader, one who isn't going to take any bullshit from her subordinates. It would also have established that there is a plan, and that Poe doesn't get to be a part of the decision making process again until he matures enough to be both a leader and a follower.
In short, it would have built that two-way trust.
Of course, if you make that one change, the entire middle section of the movie falls apart. Poe is briefed on the plan, so he doesn't mutiny. Holdo isn't kept in the dark about the tracking device, because that information goes back up to her through proper channels. The side mission either never happens (because it's not necessary to her plan), or it gets full approval and enough personnel to pull it off. The majority of the Resistance survives. Holdo still makes her sacrifice, but to lead the enemy away.
Rather than come up with set-pieces and adventures that would have flowed organically from the characters making the smart choice, the movie settled on trying to sell us a Vice-Admiral who's not only too smug to share her operational plan, but also has no idea how to handle an out-of-line subordinate. It then expects us to believe that she's a brilliant and respected battlefield commander.
Even worse, The Last Jedi asks us to see Poe's mistrust of Holdo as a character flaw, in spite of the fact that mistrust is exactly the reaction her "leadership" style would inspire in any sane soldier. It asks us to believe that Holdo was worthy of his trust all along, and he was just too hotheaded and cocky to see it. It asks us to believe that, in witnessing her sacrifice above Crait to save the remains of the fleet, he has seen the error of his ways, and has grown and matured because of it.
A good message, one that was sadly undercut by making Holdo an uninspiring, ineffective buffoon.
There were plenty of other problems, too.
1. We really didn't see Rey struggle with learning to use the Force, so her ending payoff felt unearned. Lifting the boulders to clear the path would have been more dramatic if we'd seen her try and fail to do that on Ahch-To. Instead, her biggest dilemma was whether or not to believe Luke Skywalker, legendary hero of the Rebellion, or Kylo Ren, the man who murdered his own father while she watched. I can buy her not believing Luke. I can't buy her believing Kylo.
2. Rose stopping Finn's suicide run was incredibly stupid, and her actions would absolutely have killed everyone inside the base if not for the arrival of Astral-Projection Luke (something she had no idea was going to happen). She dooms her friends and allies to die, and then has the complete lack of self awareness to talk about "saving what you love." My working theory is that she suffered a severe head trauma in the crash.
3. Leia Mary Poppins. 'Nuff said.
4. I hated Luke's arc. I just couldn't square the optimist who saw good in Darth Vader with the burnt-out cynic who contemplated murdering a sleeping boy. It smacked of subversion for its own sake, rather than natural character progression. I have more to say on the subject, but I'll save it for a dedicated post in the future.
All in all, it just felt like The Last Jedi was trying to be too clever, too witty. The filmmakers were so focused on undermining the audience's expectations, they neglected to tell a coherent story.
At one point in the movie, Kylo talks about the need to "kill the past." While I wouldn't say The Last Jedi succeeded in that, it did manage to completely kill my interest in Episode IX, and the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, and company.
That, in itself, was no mean feat.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.