Saturday, May 8, 2010

On Republic Commandos: the books not the game

I'm going to comment on Star Wars again, this time on a series of books I recently read; Republic Commando and Imperial Commando by Karen Traviss. This series is supposed to be an official tie-in to the game Republic Commando, which I really liked (although I thought it could be longer; only three stages?!). I was hesitant to read this because I was scared that I would be disappointed by the novels (which I tend to more and more these days) so I had put off reading until Order 66 had just come out. Now being a fan of stormtroopers and clone troopers, I had to read Order 66; that was a requirement for me. But because it was the newest book in a series, I had to first read the other three books, Hard Contact, Triple Zero and True Colours. So I decided to buy these books and started reading.

Hard Contact I found was kind of interesting, not bad at all. Although I found it a bit boring and not at all like the game I was so used to - you know, working as a unit and blasting through enemy defences (and destroying hundreds of droids along the way, woohoo!). In all fairness, it did kind of have the "four republic commandos against impossible odds" scenario, but for the majority of the book there isn't much coordinated squad activity. But it was all right and satisfactory enough for me to keep reading on.

Now, the next book, Triple Zero, I thought was a bit odd. It's supposed to be another Republic Commando novel, and we meet the same characters introduced in Hard Contact, but now, it's set on Coruscant, the capital planet of the Galactic Republic, rather than behind enemy lines. OK, so a bit more of a digression from the game concept than in Hard Contact. Apparently, this is because there is a terrorist threat at the capital and special forces are necessary to track them and neutralise them. ...Right... Somehow, I find that hard to follow. I'm sure Coruscant has its own version of CIA or MI6, or any of those domestic security agencies like FBI or NSA, and sure enough there is something called Coruscant Security Force (CSF) but they are portrayed as kind of useless. According to the plot line of the book, a small band of special forces clone troopers led by an old Mandalorian mercenary named Kal Skirata is the perfect if not the only group of people that can expose a terrorist network on Coruscant. But you'd think clone troopers on Coruscant would be a bit conspicuous for intel work. Don't worry, Kal Skirata arranged for a whole legion of clone troopers, the Forty-first elites, to be on leave on Coruscant. I guess the best place to hide a leaf is not in a forest, but you just dump a whole load of leaves on top of it...

Aside from a few of these strange plot devices, I kept having a strange uneasiness about the whole book that I couldn't really place where it came from. One obvious detachment I felt was the rather awkward need to place a "terrorist plot" into the Star Wars franchise; quite clearly a bad juxtaposition of current topical events. I felt that a story of a terrorist plot on Coruscant does not need to be told as a Republic Commando story. It feels like an unnecessary attempt at a topical commentary or whatever the author's intentions were - or maybe it was supposed to be the 24 of Star Wars, who knows.

Another awkwardness I felt from Triple Zero (and this was further confirmed beyond doubt when I read True Colours) is the "buddy-buddy", "warmy-touchy" kind of attitudes that all the characters seems to feel towards Kal Skirata, and this includes not only most of the clone troopers mentioned by name but also the CSF officers and the two Jedi, Etain Tur-Mukan and Bardan Jusik, the latter even going as far as wearing Mandalorian armour and acting like a Mandalorian instead of a Jedi. So considering how weird the plot was, I just couldn't help but think that this whole book was just an excuse to introduce Kal Skirata, his Null-Arc troopers, and the whole Mandalorian family business. If I remember correctly, the book even had a glossary of Mando'a or the supposed language of the Mandalorians. This last bit got me a bit unnerved (and perhaps may be a future post) - why would you want to learn an incomplete fictional language when there are hundreds of real living languages out there that are much much more interesting, even only for the simple fact that there is a real live culture associated with it (in other words it's not totally made up)?

I can't even remember now what the plot of the third book True Colours was aside from a lot of Mandalorian culture (lots of dinner table scenes) and lots of Jedi bashing. That's all I got from this third book. Mandalorians = kind and loving, while Jedi = evil hypocrites. Now before I read these books, I also thought Jedi are hypocritical characters to a certain extent so I didn't have much of a problem initially (though I did feel a bit uneasy reading all the Jedi bashing). Up to that point, I've never bothered to read any of the prequel tie-in books so I didn't know much about Jedi philosophy aside from what was depicted in the six films. After I read Traviss's books, I went ahead and read the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith that I had bought a long time ago and never bothered to read (I got the hard back edition even before the paper back came out so imagine how long it's been sitting on my bookshelf). To my surprise I found a completely opposite depiction of Jedi through the narrative of both Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (even Anakin!). Obi-wan is a very compassionate character and very humble as well. There is a scene in Revenge of the Sith where a Jedi council member says something along the lines of "we must send our best" clearly meaning Obi-wan who is present in the room but Obi-wan is thinking "oh, who must that be?". He has no idea how his peers (and even seniors) view him. I liked reading the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith because I got a better sense of the character's thoughts and emotions than I got from watching the film (...sadly...).

I suppose you can argue that these books are written from the point of view of Mandalorians and clone troopers trained by Mandalorians so maybe it's an alternative view of Jedi, a public opinion if you will. I suppose that would be fine and I'm sure lots of Star Wars citizens would have animosity towards Jedi in one way or another. However, I find it strange that all of Karen Traviss's Jedi characters are sympathetic towards Mandalorians (even the bureaucratic Master Arligan Zey). Jusik and Etain even leave the Jedi Order to become Mandalorians. There are no other Jedi in the series that have a narrative (that we read through their point of view) and behave like a normal Jedi. In fact, I don't think there are any normal Jedi depicted at all. So there is clearly a Mandalorian bias.

The other two books I read, Order 66 and Imperial Commando 501st were equally unmemorable in terms of plot except that lots of Jedi get killed - some young padawans were even slaughtered by the protagonists because one of them unintentionally kills Etain. However, there are a lot of Mandalorian culture, especially lots of dinner table and kitchen scenes. I really don't know why. I guess there is much to know about a culture from their food (I must admit that one of my favourite parts about travelling is the local food) but I kind of think that excessive depiction of family dinners (with lots of uncles and aunts) is really at odds with a Republic Commando setting (at least in the sense of the original game). I got so sick of it I started skipping these scenes all together.

Any part of the story that was vaguely memorable was driven mostly by Kal Skirata or his Null-ARC clones, so again, there really was no "Republic Commando" in the sense of the game. The excitement I got from the game play just wasn't recreated in these books. Instead I got a lot of Kal Skirata and his Nulls following trails in a kind of spy or detective mystery story, not really a coordinated special forces feel you get from the game.

Having said that, I was a bit overwhelmed by the military slang that was prevalent in the whole series. I know Karen Traviss was specifically brought in as a military Sci-Fi author, and Star Wars has always had some military feel to it, but having a strong military overtone just doesn't sit with me too much. The reason for it is that even if Star Wars has a certain military look, the dialogues don't show any hint of modern military culture. For instance, any commanding officer (even Moff Jerjerrod!) of any unit no matter the size (e.g. a legion, a squad, or a Death Star!) is referred to as "Commander" repeatedly throughout the films. Very rarely do we really get to hear actual military rank, like Private or Lieutenant. This suggests to me that we're not supposed to take the military organisation or structure too seriously. The whole usage of "Legion" in Star Wars to refer to a military unit, to me indicates that we are supposed to think of the Republic or Imperial armies much in the same way as the ancient Roman legions, not modern military. The "Grand Army of the Republic" says it all. Everything is grandiose and operatic in Star Wars, so modern military slang just doesn't fit in comfortably. But of course, this is just how I felt; I'm no expert on ancient or modern military topics so I may be wrong in this interpretation.

Last but not least, I felt really uneasy in one of the books where Kal Skirata enlists the help of a university professor to try and find a cure for the accelerated aging engineered into the clones. What I found disturbing was the depiction of university academics as useless snobs completely detached from reality. Now, I know many people feel this way towards academics and maybe because Skirata is a mercenary we are supposed to see the world through his "practical" eyes. But I've had enough of this "ivory tower" prejudice in real life that it's not necessary in a Star Wars novel. I mean come on, I've gone through unemployment recently, and I still have to go through extreme competition to get a job in the future. How detached from reality am I? Further, throughout the books I got the message, "if you don't put your life in the line of fire then you are a coward and not worth any respect". Perhaps this is a Mandalorian view of life but judging that Mandalorians are glorified throughout all the books I get the feeling that this really is the message of the books.

2 comments:

Glendon Mellow said...

I was pretty excited about the book tie-in to what I still think is a decent game.

You're right though Manubu: the books are good, but with some jarring flaws.

My take:

-I wanted to see more of the team in the game, and maybe the team from Hard Contact. Instead, they play back-up to the ultra-cool Null Arcs.

-The attempt to make the Mandalorian language so rich felt a bit like an attempt to mimic Klingon. And what's up with all the apost'roph'es in everything? It kept yanking me out of the story.

-Why does their singing have to be dirge-like chanting? Why not the Star Wars equivalent to angry rock or rap? How many soldiers listen to Gregorian chants?

-Traviss has a tendency to tell, not show. It's what I didn't like about Anne McCaffrey after a while. Beloved Master Robinton/ Sergeant Kal is beloved, because he is beloved. She repeats it enough that Kal is a badass and lovable grumpy father without showing it. Everyone falls under his charm the first time they meet him.

-I loved Order 66 though. Finally, seeing why the clones felt so betrayed by the Jedi. The most interesting character in the book becomes Maze.

I haven't read Imperial Commando yet; I wish there was another game!

Raptor's Nest said...

Hi Glendon,

Thanks for that. I think what you said about Traviss "telling us and not showing us" may be why I felt kind of "in your face" when reading her books.

Like you, I wanted to see Delta Squad and Omega Squad carry out proper missions like a proper republic commando squad. Although the Nulls were kind of interesting characters, they were just super-clones aren't they? Totally invincible and uber smart. Even more powerful than lots of Jangos and Bobas. Doesn't make for an interesting read if everything was just super easy for your characters...

And the Mandalorian language thing discomforts me on several levels.