Specter of the Past: A reflection on the Star Wars Expanded Universe

specter of the past (2)The Iredell County Public Library will always hold a special place in my heart: it was there that I discovered the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It was a discovery that, in a certain respect, changed my life forever.

You might scoff at this, but let me explain. I was about eleven or twelve years old, and had reached “peak Star Wars,” so to speak. I was entirely obsessed with George Lucas’s epic saga. I had action figures, I had Star Wars Risk. I played Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Lego on XBOX for ungodly hours with my brother, cousin, and neighbors. I had (and still have) a Darth Vader folder in which I kept my intricate sketches (ahem, well…tracings) of clone trooper armor. My parents had bought me the 2004 Special Edition DVD set of the Original Trilogy along with the soundtracks to Episodes I, III, and VI, music and visuals that framed my imaginative adventures for years. My brother and I had light-up lightsabers with sound effects, Darth Vader’s red and Mace Windu’s purple blades respectively, with which we pummeled each other so thoroughly we had to duct-tape the shattered points at the top. It was a glorious time to be a kid.

Glorious, yes, but even at a young age it was bittersweet. Revenge of the Sith had been released in 2005, an event which I treated with an almost religious anticipation and reverence. The week spent waiting for my parents to decide whether my brother and I were old enough for a PG-13 movie only heightened the sense of honor that we would be blessed with the opportunity to see the last ever Star Wars movie in theaters. And so our dad took us to the Statesville Marquee Cinema, where we met another father and son we knew from church and buckled in for what remains the single greatest cinematic experience of my lifetime. I was overwhelmed from the opening shot of the battle of Coruscant to the final image of the binary sunset on Tatooine, during which I cried, struck with the sudden realization that this story that I loved so much was over.

The fervent and impassioned discussions with friends at lunch in my homeschool co-op, the thrill at having new Complete Locations and Incredible Cross-Sections books to dissect along with an ARC-170 Lego set to labor over (don’t get me started on those technic s-foils) softened the finality of it all, but eventually a subdued sense of mourning started to set in. It might be hard to explain outside of the context of childhood, but try to understand: a significant part of my life up to that point was spent in anxious anticipation for Revenge of the Sith, and no matter how satisfying that movie had been my imagination craved more. I had my own adventures to act out with friends, of course, the stuff of hundreds of outdoor lightsaber fights, but they always devolved into arguments over each other’s Force powers (“What do you mean you blocked my Force push!?”). I didn’t like that. I wanted stories. I wanted narrative.

Enter the Iredell County Public Library. It was towards the end of the school year, and my mom had stopped at the library before we went to get our yearly standardized testing done. Instead of hopping onto one of the computers downstairs as I usually did, I decided to wander around upstairs, where the “real” books were kept.

Now, it should be noted that I was and always have been a voracious reader, but at this point I mostly stuck to classics and history books of the children’s variety, the Wishbone series being a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t regularly dig into “grown-up” books, but everything was about to change.

As my eyes scanned the shelves I caught a glimpse of the Star Wars logo, those fat, rounded letters that blasted onscreen with the London Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of every episode. I almost did a double-take. “On a novel!?” It was a big, hefty, library bound copy with a blue spine that read: Heir to the Empire. I quickly yanked it off the third shelf to look at the cover.

 

heir to empire

There were Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, all arranged in stunningly true-to-screen likeness (my artistic sensibilities at that time were easily impressed), Stormtroopers illuminated by an explosion in the midst of combat, X-wings cutting through the sky just as they did at the end of Return of the Jedi, and a mysterious Imperial officer, dressed in white with skin that looked vaguely blue, scowling in the bottom left-hand corner. What struck me most, however, was the robed, bearded man with piercing eyes, a medallion dangling from his neck, whose hands sent splinters of light shooting across the sky in some act of primally-focused power. And there, right over the logo, were the words that sent shivers down my spine: “THE SAGA CONTINUES!”

It was too good to be true. I rushed the book off to the circulation desk and checked it out on the spot. When my family left I was the first to our Dodge caravan, curling up in the front seat and eagerly flipping to the first page: “‘Captain Pellaeon?’ a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation. ‘Message from the sentry line: the scoutships have come out of lightspeed.’”

By the end of the first chapter, in which it had been revealed that Captain Pellaeon commanded the Star Destroyer Chimaera (what a beautiful, mysterious name it was!) and served under the brilliant alien Grand Admiral Thrawn, I was enthralled. In the coming weeks I stayed up late into the night (probably till 9 o’clock or so) awe-struck by the fact that the New Republic, led by our heroes, was still fighting the remnants of the Empire five years after defeating the Emperor. And these remnants were led by a blue-skinned red-eyed man who could defeat his enemies by understanding their art. Their art!

I had stumbled upon the section of the library that held science fiction author Timothy Zahn’s books, and I left clutching what readers know as the first novel in the Star Wars Expanded Universe tightly to my chest. It was such a blurred, euphoric moment of discovery that I can’t honestly remember whether my selection was purely the will of the Force or instead the result of me noticing the “VOLUME 1 OF A THREE-BOOK CYCLE” pronouncement right above the title, but either way I was taking my first steps into a larger world, a world that stretched beyond what is now known as the Thrawn Trilogy to Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn Duology, to Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight, to Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando novels and James Luceno’s Dark Lord Trilogy.

Vision of the FutureThis world would take me to incredible places imaginatively, narratively, and morally that I had never realized existed. It was like watching Lucas’s movies for the first time all over again. There was Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand, a young woman whose arc from pawn of the Emperor to friend and eventual wife of Luke Skywalker spoke to the possibility for redemption and freedom even for “bad guys,” and whom I definitely never crushed on. There was Joruus C’Baoth, a crazed Jedi-clone who warned me about the seductive, maddening desire for power. There was Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial of brilliant cunning but with an unexpected sense of honor. There were space battles, temptations of the dark side, clones, smugglers, and enslaved assassin peoples who broke the bonds of their oppressors through the reception of knowledge from their enemy. There were Interdictor cruisers that yanked enemy ships out of hyper-space with their gravity-well generators, intricate villainous political plots that preyed upon racial tensions, smugglers that learned to act with nobility, space pirates who foolishly chased money and ambition to their own destruction, and clones who rejected their created-purpose to serve as destructive agents of the Empire to live peaceful, quiet lives of farming. These were the stories that filled my childhood imagination, that challenged me to think about right and wrong, heroism and cowardice in ways that I had never thought before.

So why bother writing this? On April 25, 2014, Disney declared all these works to be “non-canon” for the purposes of creative freedom in building a new Star Wars trilogy. With a stroke of the pen, a corporation had deemed these books and stories to be irrelevant, null and void. They had been deemed “Legends,” a golden banner crying out a warning to newcomers that these stories are a fiction within fiction.

I understood the decision, but it remained a little strange to have books you loved as a child declared “untrue.” As I speculated on the upcoming Star Wars films with friends I thought, with a twinge of sadness, that Zahn’s novels no longer mattered. But after the disappointment of The Force Awakens and the sudden return of free-time post-thesis writing, I’ve revisited a few of these old friends (The Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn Duology) to find that they’re just as alive and well as when I first found them in the Iredell County Library those many years ago.

All fiction is untruth, in a sense. In the end, stories are still just stories. Does it make any sense then for an executive to impose factual and historical restrictions on a universe that allows characters to heal themselves via Force-trance and fight mob-boss space-slugs? The universe of these particular stories is so beyond the factual it defies canonization.

I’m not here to claim that the Star Wars Expanded Universe produced great literature (it didn’t). I’m not here to tell you that the old canon is better than the new canon, or to engage in one of a thousand silly arguments of continuity and textual faithfulness that fandoms fixate on. That’d be wasting your time.

I’m just here to say that those books rang true to me, resonating with such strength that the love of story they helped build provided the kindling for a fire that burns even brighter today.

May the Force be with you, Timothy Zahn. Thanks.

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“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” Book Review

TheMoonIsAHarshMistress_2505For the past two years I have been, slowly but surely, attempting to read through the great science fiction classics. My journey has taken me through some of the most fascinating and compelling stories I have ever read, but one book that had disappointed me was Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though it was certainly thought-provoking, I thought the story itself floundered around the halfway point. I thus approached The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress with a bit of trepidation and caution, lured in mainly by the fascinating title and the heaps of praise lavished upon the Hugo Award-winning novel by authors and critics alike, some crediting it for inspiring revolutionary attitudes birthed in the 1960’s. After I finished reading this monumental work, I realized I should not have worried: Heinlein’s last Hugo-winning novel is certainly a masterpiece of science fiction, a compelling libertarian tale of revolution and its consequences.

First published in 1966, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress could perhaps be best summed up as A Tale of Two Cities in space, with a far heavier emphasis on the political and revolutionary side of things. The story is narrated by the one-armed computer technician Manuel who lives on the former penal colony that exists on the Moon, now known as Luna. Manuel is developing a close friendship with the now sentient supercomputer that manages all the technology on Luna, whose name is Mike. The relationship between these two is often the most compelling aspect of the novel, just as fascinating as the ambitious plans for an uprising against Luna’s economically manipulative rulers Earth-side they concoct with the “rational anarchist” Professor de la Paz and the female political agitator Wyoming. Heinlein tells the story strictly from Manuel’s perspective, as if he is recording his memories and reflections on the revolution, with the bad grammar and crude colloquial phrases that one born and raised on a former prison planet would most likely use. The book follows the revolution from the ground up, as the inner circle declares their honorable and legitimate reasons for desiring autonomy that echo the motivations for both the American and French Revolutions.

Over the course of the novel, Heinlein wisely portrays how the lines between right and wrong, truth and falsehood are blurred in order to ensure the revolution’s success. Though the motley assortment of insurgents certainly has a noble end in mind, the means by which the end must be achieved cast doubt on the morality of the enterprise as a whole. Mike, as the supercomputer who joins the scheme simply because he finds the challenge of rebellion fascinating and humorous, grants the inner circle an immense amount of power and ability to manipulate events to suit their needs. Heinlein does a marvelous job of examining the costs and benefits of revolution on both a national and personal scale, posing the question that must be asked: “is this all worth it”? Heinlein, through the eyes of Manuel, provides no easy answer to the quandary, and when our protagonists manipulate the masses through lies and half-truths that echo the best-known words of our own American Revolution that we hold in such high esteem, it is enough to make the reader pause and contemplate what compromises are worth making for the cause of freedom. Heinlein never abandons the idealism of the goal, but rather muddies the waters when it comes to the cost of achieving that ideal.

The only complaint that could perhaps be leveled against the novel is that occasionally Heinlein’s fascinating cast of characters play second fiddle to the grander political maneuverings and schemes, leading to certain chapters reading more like a history text. But to those to whom The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress will appeal most, those fascinated by politics, systems of government, history and the philosophical and ethical implications of revolution, such minor lapses will mean little. Heinlein’s work is notable for its provocative juxtaposition of libertarian idealism and Machiavellian machinations in a compelling literary form. Though it may be a bit beyond those unfamiliar with science fiction (a passing acquaintance with the genre will help immensely with grasping some of the stranger and imaginative aspects of the futuristic but still believable world Heinlein creates) The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has much to offer those willing to wrestle with the deeper complexities of the fact that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.

“Ender’s Game” Review

Ender's_Game_posterComing to a firm and conclusive opinion on the Hollywood adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel is an elusive and challenging prospect. Helmed by Gavin Hood, Ender’s Game presents a dilemma often found in judging film versions of literature. As a film alone, Ender’s Game is a worthy and satisfactory entry into modern day science fiction. But when judged on how well the film conveys the written story it falls short, afraid to step out and take the artistic risks required to surmount the challenges that the source material presents.

Before addressing the movie for those who wonder how faithfully it adapts the beloved book, I will first examine the film for the vast majority of you, those who simply wonder “is the movie any good?” The answer is easily yes. Ender’s Game is a thrilling, exciting and engrossing science fiction film that is certainly more impactful than your average blockbuster. One of the greatest strengths of the film is its phenomenal cast. Asa Butterfield is appropriately chilling as Ender Wiggin, but also sympathetic, his performance straddling the fine divide between the child and adult worlds. Hailee Steinfield is perfectly cast as Ender’s friend Petra, her tenderness and kindness balanced wonderfully with confidence and ability. Harrison Ford, though, steals the show as the hardened Colonel Graff: hard, complex and morally challenging. This does not even touch on the other great performances by a cast including the likes of Ben Kingsley and Abigail Breslin.

Effects-wise and conceptually, Ender’s Game is a resounding success. The battle school is rendered magnificently, instilling the sense of wonder and excitement, tinged with fear and discomfort, that the children at the heart of the story feel. The cinematography is another strong point, drawing the audience in, continually dwarfing Ender, bringing attention to how small yet vital he is in the larger tale.  Story-wise, the film contains a strong and thought-provoking commentary on the ethics and morality of war. Even if the original story loses some of its power in the transition to the screen, as we shall see below, it still remains a timely and thoughtful story to tell. As a motion picture, particularly one friendly to a younger audience, Ender’s Game will excite fans of the science fiction genre and general movie goers.

But Ender’s Game is not simply a film, it is an adaptation of one of the most revered science fiction literary works of all time, and thus it can be held to a different literary standard as well as evaluated from a purely cinematic standpoint. Unfortunately the film, for the sake of appealing to a broad younger audience base, cuts out much of the darker and bleaker elements of the story, thus deadening the overall impact of the story and muting some of the deeper meaning. Without going into too much detail (to protect those who may not have read the book yet), the pacing is the most glaring flaw. One of the book’s best characteristics was how much time was spent unfolding and exploring Ender as a character. The film, afraid to lose audience’s attention-spans by venturing over the two hour threshold, hurries through key scenes and plot points. One glaring omission is made all the more frustrating by the film’s embracing of a line/principle that is derived from a battle school scene that is absent: “the enemy’s gate is down”. The brilliance of Card’s novel is how it, through delving into the intricacies of Ender’s life for extended periods of time, immerses the reader into the emotional and psychological state of Ender himself. When the film shortens and cuts that out, much of that effect is lost.

Ender’s Game also suffers from its own attempt to perhaps soften the story for a young adult audience. The issue is that the story itself was never intended specifically for a child audience. Rather, it was a story about children, not necessarily for children. When the filmmakers decided to push the younger target audience, it seems they also decided to lessen the severity of the darkest parts of the story, providing Ender with clearer triumphs and sympathy along the way to temper the oppressive bleakness of his journey. Though understandable, this move undercuts one of the central themes of the book: Ender’s utter loneliness and isolation. When this loneliness is tempered by hope inserted where it did not originally belong, the poignancy of Ender’s psychological suffering as a child is lessened, and the audience is cheated of the full power of Ender’s statement that “when I truly understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, in that moment I think I also love him.”

Ender’s Game, then, will either satisfy or disappoint you depending on what you are looking for. If you desire a well-acted, conceptually sound and thought-provoking science fiction film, Ender’s Game is certainly worth your time and money. If, however, you are among those longing for a truly faithful rendition of Card’s story as written, you may be better served by simply re-reading the book. It is a shame the filmmakers were not willing to take a true risk in today’s cinematic world and give the film the extra half hour to forty-five minutes it needed to fully flesh out this moving story. Either way, I would wager this adaptation will inspire many filmgoers young and old alike to pick up and read this classic work for themselves, and in that sense, the film can truly be judged a success.

The Return of Robbie Burns

This post may require some context. This link should lead you to all the context you need! https://pullingonthepushdoor.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/the-treachery-of-robbie-burns/

There is a deep-rooted excitement that wraps itself around my heart when I stare at an uncharted bookshelf. Every volume stares back at me, bellowing, entreating, and challenging me to recklessly launch myself into their pages. But a book is far more than an adventure to be had, remembered fondly, and forgotten. A book is a companion. I do not stand before these shelves as a judge, to decree which books have merit and which do not. I stand as a king, choosing which knights he wishes to serve him. These volumes do not abandon me after I finish hearing what they have to say. They join me, protect me, they comfort me, and fight alongside me as I ride forward into the world. Some books join me as a companion, sticking with me through troubled times, and suffering with me through hardship. They unflinchingly assert truths and defend my Camelot. Others exist as dissenters, who challenge my long held customs, uprooting the false ideas and treacherous dealings that often plague the courts of men. Still more help me assault the enemy, striking powerful blows into the ranks of my cruel assailants. Some exist as ambassadors, who state what I know to be false, but serve to help me better understand and deal with those who threaten me. To choose a book is to choose a knight, a soldier, a friend. To choose a book is to have a book swear fealty to me.

This duty, to seek out good books for my company of knights, was the very duty I sought to fulfill, as I stood in a little Charleston used bookstore. My eyes began to practice discernment, as they scanned the binding of hundreds of eager swords. I struck away those who seemed unfitting of serving in my court with little pity. My unwavering search landed on a curious sight. One book stood out from the rest. This book was not arrayed in the splendid armament of a knight; rather he sat in an unassuming brown cover, beaten with use and time. He did not bear the standard of any house or king, but stared challengingly at me with no trappings. Often the greatest knights rise from humble beginnings. Hopeless farm-boys, without a drop of royal blood flowing through their bodies, can become the greatest of heroes.

Without warning, a romantic thought seized me. This book was inviting me to dance a dance of mystery. I wanted to pluck this unmarked book from its shelf, redeem it from its keeper, and walk out of the store with a mystery. I wanted to read a book I knew nothing about, a book that was as much of a mystery to me as I was to it. As my mind flooded with resolve, I snatched the masked volume, and began to head out of the room. I grabbed fortune by the hand and followed her, deep into the chasm of uncertainty. But much to my chagrin, curiosity clumsily crashed into my adventure, destroying my hopes of mystery.

My thumb and pointer grasped the front cover, and I recklessly flung aside the beaten brown disguise. Shock, horror, and disgust struck my weary eyes as I thanked my curiosity. Staring back at me was the title “The Collected Works of Robert Burns.” Robbie Burns had again attempted to infiltrate my ranks. His bawdy filth first attempted to scale my walls with promises of Scottish heroism, now he even would stoop to cheap disguises and guile! I could hear the pages cursing their defeat as Mordred slunk back into his shadowed crack. To allow Burns into my confidence would be to expose my mind, my heart, and my soul to his shameful songs. To Robbie Burns, I offer this line from the far nobler Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott.

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to decieve!

“Stone Tables” Book Review

Stone TablesRecently I have found myself fascinated by the biblical account of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, eagerly reading and watching any account of the story I can get my hands on. So when I discovered that Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite science fiction authors, had written his own version of the story of Moses I eagerly ordered myself a copy and dove in, and I am pleased to report that I was not disappointed by the masterful retelling to be found in Stone Tables.

Card originally conceived of Stone Tables as a free verse play, as he details in his introduction, and it is this play that eventually became a musical, and then finally a novel. Card immediately lays out that he does not pretend to present a story of Moses that is authoritative, because of the general nature of the storytelling in the biblical texts and historical debates surrounding the exact time placement of the Exodus on the timeline of world events. Despite this warning, however, Card remains satisfyingly faithful to both the spirit and letter of the Exodus story. His deviations from the biblical text are nothing beyond the acceptable limits of creative license while adapting an ancient tale into a more modern novel. Of thankfully little concern is Card’s professed religious faith of Mormonism, as his adaptation is theologically and philosophically consistent with the biblical text itself.

For anyone familiar with Card’s other writings, Stone Tables features the trademarks of his best works. Card develops his characters magnificently. Particularly striking is his portrayal of Moses, complete with a prominent wrestling with his speech impediment, an aspect of Moses often ignored in adaptations of the story. Moses also wrestles with his split identity between his Egyptian upbringing and his Israelite heritage (Moses is always knowledgeable of his true birth, which is probably more accurate to the source material, and diverges from the two best known film adaptations, The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt) and the way in which Card weaves together this struggle with his speech impediment and his wrestling with God’s will, tying it all together with his conflicted identity and pride, is marvelous to behold. His characterizations of other famous figures from the Exodus, such as Pharaoh, Jethro, Aaron and Miriam among others, are all unique and well-developed. Aaron’s struggles with envy are particularly compelling, and his ultimate reconciliation with God and Moses is poignant, coming on the heels of his greatest failure: the golden calf.

Card develops his characters through bountiful, meaningful dialogue and their thoughts, prayers and musings. The emphasis in Stone Tables is not on the action. One who expects simply spectacle and thrills may be disappointed, particularly by the quick handling the acts of God receive.  The focus of the story is instead placed on the hearts and souls of the characters and how they reconcile themselves both with God and each other. Family dynamics play a critical role in the proceedings, a hallmark of Card’s writing, revolving especially around the divided heritage of Moses.

What Card does best though is reveal why Moses and the other characters act in the way that they do. We intimately know these people, and understand their motivations and worldviews, often finding ourselves agreeing with and adopting the thoughts and opinions of the character whose perspective we have at the moment. Card delves deep into their psyches, and readers may be surprised at just how many thoughtful and meaningful philosophical and theological discussions he fits into these several hundred pages. Most interesting and rewarding though is Card’s continued exploration of what makes a person’s actions good or evil. Moses (early in the story) and the rulers of Egypt attempt to justify their greedy and selfish enslavement of the Hebrew people by pointing to the results: civil order and abundant prosperity. Jethro and others, however, argue that God does not count such results as good and righteous, as their driving motivations were essentially evil. Moses and Aaron both wrestle with what is truly driving them to serve God: is it foolish pride, or a genuine denial of the self for God’s greater purposes? Card weaves this theme throughout the work, hitting nearly every character with the question of whether their intentions are truly righteous or not. This proves incredibly rewarding as it not only helps the reader to gain a grip on the struggles the biblical characters must have faced, but it also convicts the reader to examine their own life and the nature of their intentions.

Ultimately, Stone Tables is must-read for a plethora of reasons. Fans of Orson Scott Card in general will love to see the best aspects of his science fiction on display in a very different setting. Those in search of a good retelling of a spiritual tale will find themselves richly rewarded with a faithful adaptation, and anyone simply looking for a thought-provoking and compelling book will find much to ponder during and after their reading of Stone Tables. The prose is not lofty or hard to comprehend, and the story is told rather straightforwardly, so any who are willing to invest the time in reading should be rewarded. Stone Tables exceeded even my high expectations for a religious tale from one of my favorite authors, and I do not doubt it will exceed yours as well.

Dead Truth Shall Slay the Living Doubt

Lashed in the saddle, the Cid thundered out
To his last onset. With a strange disdain
The dead man looked on in victory. In vain
Emir and Dervish strive against the rout.
In vain Morocco and Biserta shout,
For still before the dead man fall the slain.
Death rides for Captain of the Men of Spain,
And their dead truth shall slay the living doubt.

The sould of the great epic, like the chief,
Conquers in aftertime on fields unknown.
Men hear today the horn of Roland blown
To match the thunder of the guns of France,
And nations with a heritage of grief
Follow their dead victorious in Romance.

With this sonnet, R. Seldon Rose and Leonard Bacon open their translation of the “Lay of the Cid.” I just finished reading this medieval ballad, and found myself blown away. While I was familiar and already a pretty big fan of El Cid through the Heston 60’s epic, this poem crowned my respect for this knightly vassal, El Cid Campeador Rodrigo Diaz.

G.K. Chesterton once declared that
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Rodrigo Diaz demonstrates the value of a mind closed on something solid. His actions are entirely based around what he believes to be true, rather than his circumstances. His belief in the authority of the king is not shaken by an unjust fool ascending to the throne. When king Alfonso rashly exiles the Cid, rather than decide to strike out against Alfonso, or grander yet, establish a new kingdom after himself, the Campeador doggedly seeks out the favor of the king, even offering the king his spoils of war. Though amidst rejection and hardship, he considers himself a vassal of the king. His principles are not changed by circumstance. What is real, what is true, what is just, is what matters, not the circumstances around us. If we know something to be true, it will be true even when every calamity falls down upon us and we are left with nothing.

This profound respect for truth is illustrated throughout the entire life of the Cid, but culminates in his dramatic death. While not depicted in the Lay of the Cid, Rodrigo Diaz’s death is demonstrative of how he lived. His glorious exploits and skill as a leader made the Cid into a powerful symbol for his men. When the Campeador was leading his troops, they could not be beaten. Once the Cid was given a mortal blow, this symbol was threatened. But even death could not stop the truth of the Campeador. His closest friends strapped his lifeless body to the saddle, and he yet again lead the charge, victoriously posthumously winning the battle. The villainy of the attackers was no match for the righteousness of the Cid, even after death.
No matter how battered, no matter how antiquated, no matter how tarnished, truth is truth, and righteousness is righteousness. What is, is. The story of the Cid is a story of Ethos. It is our duty to strap on our armor, gather our knightly accoutrements, set ourselves in the saddle, and charge out of the great city of Valencia, following the Cid. We must follow our principles with no hesitation, and truth, no matter how seemingly dead or sick, will victoriously slay the living doubt. Let us set our minds down on the things that are solid, and ride with the Campeador.

Recommended reading/watching

The Lay of the Cid
While it is a bit of a laborious read, it is vastly worth the time spent. This poem is both powerful and inspiring
El Cid (1961)
This 60’s epic starring Charlton Heston is phenomenal. It portrays the gallant Campeador with vigor and passion. Before venturing into this 3 hour film though, be prepared to deal with some of the most passionate and prolonged staring in cinema history. It would probably be a 2 hour film without these impassioned glances. But hey, it is totally worth it.

As a side note, a great deal is made of the beard of the Cid. In fact, in the poem, almost every other page has some reference to the Cid’s great beard. It is even said to have brought some to repentance who ventured to touch it. As the Cid grows more and more manly and strong, so does his beard grow longer. While this has little to do with the article above, the beard of the Cid deserves a mention regardless of context.

The majesty of his beard was well represented in the 1961 epic

“Empress of Eternity” Book Review

empress-of-eternityEvery once in a while it’s fun to take a risk while out book shopping, particularly while at used bookstores where the stakes are low and the possible reward is great. Recently I decided to take such a risk, when the cover for Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. caught my eye and the plot intrigued me. Unfortunately this was to be one of the times the gamble did not pay off, as the story proved a bit too confusingly written and drawn out to really make a true impact with its intriguing premise.

The plot of Empress revolves around a giant canal that travels along the center of Earth, a massive and mysterious structure whose true purpose is unknown to humanity. Three different cultures separated by hundreds of thousands of years each strive to discover the forces behind this structure, and this plot element is both the author’s greatest strength and weakness. Modesitt creates three vastly unique and fascinating societies (one a hyper-politicized culture, one a super-technological hive-like society, and finally a curious mixture of Nordic heritage and hyper-feminism) and jumps between the respective viewpoints with each chapter. The cultures are so exotic and the characters so abundant, however, that it proves rather hard for the reader to adjust to the sudden shifts, and subsequently can be confusing. Personally, I did not gain a true grip on the main characters and the overall plot until roughly 150 pages in. Most of this setup, sadly, proves somewhat inconsequential when the book reaches its climax and the true nature of the canal is revealed, so that the reader feels a bit cheated at the laborious time spent slogging through the first half.

There are some neat musings on the nature of time and human meaning, survivability versus morality, and the inalterable cycles of the natural order to be had along the way (according to Modesitt’s world, climate change is inexorable, regardless of what humanity strives to do one way or the other) but the overall experience is lacking. Toward the end of the book, one of the main characters postulates that “the evolution toward meaning will continue” in our universe, for true meaning in life has not yet been attained and has many opponents. This chief philosophical pillar of the story ironically sums up my own opinions on the tale Modesitt has spun: a fascinating story is here somewhere, but somehow it got derailed along the way.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is a convicting novel. If you have not yet read it, I would heartily recommend you do. Here is one particularly compelling passage asserting the importance and use of conviction.

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; involate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”

The Treachery of Robbie Burns

A book is far more than scraps of paper and drops of ink, sandwiched between a practical cover. It is far more accurate to describe a book as a castle. The high walls protect and keep the tender inhabitants. These walls protect not only a people, but a way of life. To open a book is to venture within the walls of the cover, and to examine, explore, and revel in what life the villages live inside these walls. To read a book is to open your being to the author. You share secrets, exchanging notes on the journey of life. To read a book is to test the mind, soul, and heart of the author. To read a book is also to pay these ideas your time, concentration, and will. When we crack open a book, we sign a contract with the author, trading our currency of will for the right to explore their mind, soul, and heart.

I made such a contract, in the wild expanse of a used book store. I offered my money, concentration, and will to “The Merry Muses of Caledonia.” I now must mourn in silence what could have been, as I try in vain to remove the knife, plunged into my back by the part author and compiler, the late Scottish poet Robbie Burns. Misery is measured not by exact location, but rather distance traveled. The descent from bad to worse is far easier than the plunge from blissful to torturous.

Reader, I did not in any way judge this book by its cover. The cover was a dull, simple cream, unbroken by any text, picture, or even symbol. The only island on this sea of hardback uncertainty was a tattered sticker, desperately clinging on to the binding with what little glue he had left. This simple scrap bore the title which was to cause me so much horror and misery “The Merry Muses of Caledonia.” This book boasted of poetry, what is more, Traditional Scottish poetry! I have a weakness for the colloquial, and I have a weakness for ballad form poetry, these two flaws were to be my heel, by which the Parisian arrows of disappointment and horror could enter and spread the deadly poison of Burns.

I hesitated little. I snatched the volume from its poetry laden shelf, and carried this horse of the Trojans to the cash register. If only the book had been grossly and mistakenly under-priced and was in fact far above my price range! If only the owner of the store had deemed it mistakenly marked for sale, and removed it from my foolish hands! If only my wallet had turned up inadequate!
It does no good to long for what may have been. We can only examine our mistakes and prepare ourselves to overcome the monsters of the future.

Exiting the store, I felt the thrill of the victorious hunter. Indeed, I truly believed I had felled a prize beast. There is a keen pleasure in skimming over, playfully running through, and dancing with a newly purchased book. It was at this moment, as I began to wade into this pool of Scottish poetry, the traitorous Robbie Burns revealed his vile intentions. The Siren’s call of Caledonian muses lead me to nothing but vile, shameless, and bawdy filth. I desired the passion of Scotland, I longed to read of the courage, honor, and emotion of Caledonia. What I received was vulgar, hyper sexualized, misogynistic, disrespectful, ungodly rubbish. The glass ball of my hopes shattered irrevocably on the harsh ground of reality.

I know it is a dangerous thing to have grudges, and it is a fruitless endeavor to have a grudge against the dead, but I am mad, Robert. You violated the compact of the reader. I entered your castle walls and found your muses sorely lacking. You spurned the gift of my concentration. You spurned the gift of my will. All you took, from my noble offering, was the money I paid for your prattle. Thanks to you, my wallet is now 2 dollars short. I will run away, and receive my Scottish poetry from others. I will survive this grievous wound. I will heal, and maybe recover. But I will never forget the pains of betrayal.

Slaughterhouse 5

In my search for a good book to read, I ran across the book Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Upon further research, I read that this book had something to do with firebombing, the second world war, aliens, dimensions, and time travel. All of these are interesting or perplexing so I went ahead and read the book. I was not prepared in the least for what greeted me on the other side of the cover.

Before I begin talking about what I found interesting in this book, I would like to first go over the content.
This book was unfortunately wrought with foul language and specific, blunt sexual content (however the sexual content was by no means glorified, rather it is dealt with the same harsh, brutal satire that almost everything else is dealt with in this book.)
Because of these issues I probably would not recommend this book to most people.

However once I waded through the harsh language and blunt sexual content there were quite a few interesting (though sometimes perplexing) elements in Slaughterhouse 5.

1. Nonlinear storyline

Because this book involves a sort of memory based time travel, the entire book is read in small segments of the protagonist’s (Billy Pilgrim’s) life which are shuffled and placed into the book in a non-linear order. So while you may be reading about Billy’s life as a child on one page, on the next page you will move on to his first day as a widower, then on the next paragraph you will read about his experiences in Dresden during its ruthless firebombing. This sort of non-linear writing is fascinating but at the same time it makes understanding the story rather difficult.

2. Ruthless Mocking and Satire

Vonnegut shows no mercy when dealing with certain characters and ideas presented about certain events. From mocking science fiction, to satirizing the entire idea of war, Vonnegut kept me amused, though he never quite made me laugh. I guess when wrestling with moral problems such as firebombing, execution, and social decay, it seems almost wrong to laugh. I do not believe Vonnegut was WANTING to get a laugh out of his readers, more a depressed sigh at how messed up and fallen we all are.

3. Fatalism

Vonnegut’s aliens can see in the fourth dimension. Thus they can see all that has or will happen as they view time as a still event rather than a continuous motion. The analogy is often made of a mountain range.  The Tralfamadorians (the aliens) view a human life like we would view the Rockies, it ends somewhere, but it is always there. Thus when someone dies, the range ends, but the rest is still there to admire, look at, and live as. Not only is this odd view of time a statement about life, it also is a statement about fate. Because everything is laid out like a mountain range, people cannot change the future. What will be will be and will continue to be forever. The universe is said to be destroyed by a Tralfamadorian test pilot. The Tralfamadorians do not try and stop this fate as it will never be stopped. It is fixed in time. Kurt Vonnegut’s universe is one without free will, and without human decision. The way Billy Pilgrim deals with this knowledge is fascinating. He simply does not seem to be bothered by anything. Whatever happens, will happen as it always has and always will. He cannot change anything and thus he does not care what happens.

This was particularly interesting to me, as a Calvinist, with regards to the dangers of inaction and an improper view of Providence. We are not called to be Billy Pilgrims, we are called to be in the world acting out God’s will, not sitting in the corner repeating “so it goes” until it all goes away.

I found Slaughterhouse 5 to be interesting, perplexing, and thoughtful. Unfortunately the inappropriate content is something that would make me reconsider before recommending or supporting this book. Vonnegut speaks his mind and does not spare anything. This is both his strength and his weakness.

Luke Brake