Thursday, April 24, 2008

No glory for Mandos

I just finished reading "Star Wars: Republic Commando -- True Colors" by Karen Traviss. I'm generally a fan of Traviss' writing. I admire her keen observations about the nature of clone troopers and the moral corruption of fielding a "slave army" of clones. The book is engaging and has virtues consistent with her other novels, but I found "True Colors" ultimately dissatisfying. If you intend to read the book, please note there are a few spoilers below, so you might want to skip this post until you've read the book yourself.

I forgave Traviss her tendency to skimp on battle scenes with her first foray into the Mandalorian mind in "Hard Contact," the novel that was spun off the video game "Republic Commando." Her observations were fresh, and I like how she developed Mandalorian culture. In the second Republic Commando book, "Triple Zero," I grew impatient with her for misplacing these soldiers, making them do detective work, dwelling on low-key investigations. What a waste of talent and skill! Wouldn't there be actual detectives to do detective work? Commandos should do commando work.

As much as I like Karen Traviss' writing, with "True Colors" I have to say, "Enough already." Have the Star Wars novel publishers forgotten that the Star Wars sage thrives on action? By the end of "True Colors," she has her favorite character, Kal Skirata, actually baby-sitting. All these elite commandos do is walk around and talk, walk around and talk. She has reduced the toughest, smartest, deadliest clone commandos of the Republic to introspective soap opera characters.

Besides the fact that the book is a soap opera rather than an action novel about commandos, I have problems with the soap opera plot itself: I find it completely unbelievable that Jedi Etain would give up her baby. Moreover, despite the author's consistent drumming on the theme that clone troopers should be respected as men, her own characters don't even respect Darman enough to tell him that he's a father.

It's a sad fact that fathers and mothers go off to war in Iraq and leave their children behind every day. So why do Kal, Etain and the rest patronize and disrespect Darman so horrendously to keep such an important truth from him? It's inexplicable, and the story loses authenticity on this point. It appears that they're setting up another Force user to be raised without his parents, and we've all seen how successful that is.

(Just don't even get me started on the Jedi's craven aversion to attachments, namely families -- families which could nurture balanced, mature adult Jedi who would use the Force as most of use it to the best of our ability: to protect our families. For most of us, that means our immediate families, but for some brave souls it also means the larger families of the nation and of humanity itself. But that's a whole different discussion from the one at hand ...)

I won't dwell on these difficulties in the book's plot, because they are not the real problem with "True Colors." What's missing is combat. It's a series about the two most elite commando squads in the Republic, Delta and Omega, yet we never see the teams working together in combat, which was the very essence of the video game that spawned the Republic Commando stories. We never see them doing what they were quite literally born to do, which is to fight. They are commandos, not a vice squad on a stakeout or a bunch of baby-sitters. Traviss need not have left the action out of the story in order to explore the emotional growth of the commandos, and their discovery of their place in Mandalorian culture.

After some reflection on the book, I've realized what I'm missing in reading "True Colors," besides the simple excitement of the action. It's what Traviss and her editors have forgotten, and it could have -- should have -- emerged from combat narrative.

"True Colors" has no glory moment. A glory moment is something we've all felt when watching good movies about soldiers, or reading a good book about them. It's a visceral thrill when we recognize the best and bravest in action in their defining moments. It's when we get goose bumps, shed a tear, clench our teeth or punch the air. It's when we recognize and admire the heroic self-sacrifice of protecting the weak or defending a comrade, the ferocious clash of combat itself and the deadly grace of the warrior.

"True Colors" needs an infusion of testosterone, the merest drop of Chuck Norris' sweat. Navy SEALs inspired the Republic Commando game, yet we never see the Republic commandos, nor the dangerous Null ARCs, do the kind of things that SEALs are famous for doing. Give me character development, certainly, but also give me some pages like a "Demo-Dick" Marcinko book.

Ordo, Mereel, Boss, Sev and the rest are out of their element. It's pathetic at times, like it was to watch CC DeVille on on VH1's "The Surreal Life." Walking around in that house, CC was sadly awkward, a fish out of water. But when you see him shredding his guitar onstage with Poison, the guy is swimming in his own sea and he rocks!

A song styled to be a Mandalorian hymn, "Vode An" (Brothers All) plays in the game menus in Republic Commando. That song captures the characters. The Mandalorians are like Spartans, and they would be moved by battlefield heroism, and maybe they would even admire a "good death" like the men in "300."

I started brainstorming scenes like I'm talking about -- the kind that is missing from "True Colors" -- and I started ticking off a list. These scenes are in movies and we're talking about a book, I know, but you still get this kind of moment in books. I figured most of you would remember these scenes, so they would illustrate my point. So, to suggest the kind of scene that the Republic Commando series needs, the kind of visceral response it should evoke at least once per book, I offer this list of glory moments:

- The entire film "Gladiator," especially two scenes: The prelude and battle with the barbarians, when we see Maximus charging from the forest behind the dogs of war; and then in the Arena when Maximus barks orders and points directions with his gladius from the back of a raring white horse. Those scenes, with the soundtrack, are magnificent.

- The scene in "Glory" when Private Trip (Denzel Washington) says, "... we men, ain't we?" Poignant and stirring.

- "Band of Brothers," the entire series, and especially the scenes with the Currahee suite music as they train, and the scene of the C-47s droning toward Normandy for D-Day, and then the battle for the gun emplacement when Buck Compton throws the grenade like a baseball. And also in the Battle of the Bulge when Capt. Speirs runs through the German lines and saves the day. I get goose bumps just thinking about that scene.

- The sniper, Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) reciting Bible verses as he fires his Springfield in "Saving Private Ryan."

- Conan, his body streaked with black ash for camouflage, flourishing his sword as he squares off with Thulsa Doom's henchman.

- In "The Last of the Mohicans" when Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) runs through a battlefield to try to reach his woman to save her, hooking his tomahawk under the ankle of a Huron and charging through the chaos.

- "300," King Leonidas in battle, carving up Immortals with his sword and then raring back to hurl a javelin like an image from a classical Greek urn. And come to think of it, notice how the Spartan's helmet visor is shaped. Looks like a certain Mandalorian helmet, doesn't it? It also matches the Republic Commando armor.

- The charge of the Light Brigade.

- "Serenity," when River says, "My turn," and proceeds to cut the reavers to ribbons to defend her fallen brother and comrades. She's like a goddess of war incarnate.

- The armored samurai emerging from the misty forest in "The Last Samurai."

- The premiere of "Battlestar Galactica," when Starbuck bellows with impatient rage and charges alone into the teeth of the attacking Cylons to defend her tribe, with a drumbeat accenting the primordial emotion.

- "Platoon," Sgt. Elias running through forest like a deer, slaying enemies right and left as he fires his M-16 from the hip.

- Boromir's last stand defending the hobbits in "The Fellowship of the Ring." This scene of Boromir's redemption, his utter ferocity in defending his childlike companions, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

- Eomer's cavalry plunging down the mountain in a flashing cascade of steel to smash the orcs besieging Helm's Deep in "The Two Towers."

- The host of Rohan lined abreast to charge into the Pelennor Fields at the siege of Minas Tirith, and King Theoden's ride along the line, tapping the swords and lances of his men with his own sword. "The Return of the King."

- "The Outlaw Josey Wales" gunfighting, and when he parlays with the Indian chief who says, "There is iron in your words."

I'm still a fan of Karen Traviss. I'll buy her next book and read it, because I'm really curious how her characters will respond to Order 66. But for now, I'm going to read some Robert E. Howard and eat some beef jerky.

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