Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Star Wars: X-wing: Rogue Squadron review

I had some reservations before starting the first book is Michael A. Stackpole's X-wing series. There is no way he could write space combat scenes reminiscent of World War II dogfights comparable to what Lucas gave us in the movies. . . Can he? No, of course not and, having read the book, I can confirm this.  This series has been around since the early days of the Expanded Universe novels and you can usually find it on “best of” Star Wars novels lists. There's got to be something good going on between those covers. Another reason I was convinced to give this book a look, it puts the focus of new characters and characters from the movies that had small talking parts. The book isn’t about Wedge Antilles and General Ackbar, they’re secondary characters but they help the reader feel at ease while reading a book that mostly focuses on new characters. It’s those new characters that actually make the book a satisfying read.

I need to point mention that the real reason I decided to give this book a chance was the art of Paul Youll. I mean seriously, have you seen that cover? How do you look at that and not immediately head for the checkout line? That cover makes me feel like an x-wing pilot. According to Wookieepedia, George Lucas owns the original painting of all nine X-wing covers Youll did. It’s not surprise. If I had as much money as Lucas has, I’d have a room in my mansion just for those sweet, sweet paintings.  

The story is pretty straight forward. The former rebel Alliance is now in the midst of becoming the New Republic a few months after the battle of Endor. Unfortunately, the Empire did not crumble when the second Death Star blew up and there are still many military conflicts taking place between the remains of the Empire and the New Republic. This reinforces what many of the early EU novels were doing. They were concerned with letting Star Wars fans that the Galaxy did not become all ponies and rainbow with the death of the Emperor, Vader and their biggest war toys being blown up. The rebels now have to legitimize their New Republic and make it viable as a governing force for the Galaxy. Similarly, the rebel military force needs to continue to pursue the remnants of the Empire’s forces and put an end to them if necessary. This first novel in the series sets a course for the series and for rogue squadron. The mission is to work their way towards the Imperial centre of Coruscant and put an end, once and for all, to the Empire. The approach of earlier EU novels and their goal to insert thought and depth to the Star Wars universe while maintaining the feel good swashbuckling action and the space dogfights was a good mix for the series and one that I quite like.

I was disappointed with the first hundred pages of X-wing: Rogue Squadron because I wasn’t reading the book I was expecting to read. I was expecting what the cover depicts. I wanted crazy space opera dogfights with whirling vomit inducing acrobatics and lots and lots of explosions. For the most part, that's not what I got. But that's ok because what Stackpole wrote is, ultimately, a better book. He gave me a sense of what it is to be a member of rogue squadron. The risks, the constant training, the relatively short but intense missions, the near constant frustration with bureaucracy getting in the way of you doing your job and the obsession with your performance as a pilot. Stackpole humanized the rogue squadron pilots. They're not just stand-in figures sitting in an x-wing like they are in the movie. Even for those who've seen the space battles in the original trilogy dozens of times, we only really know Luke, maybe Wedge, and everybody else is rather unimportant. Even pilots who aren't alive anymore by the time X-wing: Rogue Squadron begins are fleshed out to be actual characters (I'm thinking of you Biggs).

Stackpole does a good job with the time when they're not in flight. He takes the time to show the reader that being an X-wing pilot consists of far more than just strapping into a cockpit and doing fanciful aerial manoeuvres while blasting down silly TIE fighters. As it turns out the rebel Alliance is rather well organized and very militaristic in its approach. There is a clear chain of command and there is a structure to the whole thing. In an early chapter we witness Wedge Antilles, rogue squadron hero, discussing the roster for the new rogue squadron with his superiors and its great scene. There is a lot of thought put into who makes it onto this particular squadron of elite x-wing pilots. The Alliance bureaucracy is a constant source of frustration for Wedge and his squadron and it’s also one of the reasons the survival rate in rogue squadron is so low. 

There are smaller touches in X-wing: Rogue Squadron that I really enjoyed. Stackpole has a good eye for these little touches. Small things like knowing the x-wing pilots keep a visual tally of their kills on their fighters are great (Wedge has two Death Stars on his x-wing).  It’s not very original, pilots have been doing this since the creation of fighter planes, but it’s cool to see transposed in the Star Wars universe. Sometimes the little bits are the development of aliens and their cultures. For example, the insect species known as the Verpine. Verpine are well regarded mechanics and technicians since they're often fascinated with technology and have microscopic vision which allows them to see in great detail. However, they're also notorious tinkerers and because they think differently than other species, the modifications they make can be improvements for them by not for others. They think in base six which also affects their thinking and the modifications they make. Details such explaining the reader why Verpine simultaneous make great and not so great mechanics are rather insignificant when you consider their impact on the larger story being told. But it’s those details that enrich the fictional universe and contribute to our appreciation of the Star Wars franchise.

Unfortunately, for every great little detail there are more important to the story stick out as awkward, out of sync with the rest of the book or even Star Wars as a whole. Silly things like how Stackpole wrote rogue squadron’s M-3PO droid’s nickname. He calls it “Emtrey” which seems wrong to me. Shouldn’t it be called “Emthree”? Many writers have called C-3PO “Threepio” in the books, so shouldn’t M-3PO be “Emthree”? Am I completely wrong on this because “Emtrey”, which I pronounced “Em-Tray” seems really, really wrong.  
Stare at the marvel that is the cover of X-wing: Rogue Squadron. Thanks
Paul Youll. If I knew you personally I would ask for mini Star Wars
paintings as my Christmas cards each year. 
Other more important things were also disappointments. I’m thinking specifically of the X-wing battles which were boring to me. Stackpole used an excessive amount of explanation and descriptions to inform the reader of, ultimately, very little. The fight scenes also can’t take place as the same pace as they did a visual medium like the movies. They simply can’t and Stackpole unfortunately didn’t find a way to make them equally exhilarating to the reader by using a technique unique to the books. This is the key element I was most preoccupied with before reading the book and I’m not surprised it didn’t live up to the potential displayed in its cinematic predecessor.

In the end, Stackpole didn't give me what I was expecting and what I thought wanted. He gave me something very different and for a time I didn't really enjoy X-wing. It's only once it clicked, once I understand what Stackpole was doing that I was able to sit back, get a bit comfier in my chair, and star to enjoy the X-wing: Rogue Squadron. The main character, Corran, was really annoying to me in the first half of the book, he still is actually, but I understand him better now and I care for him. Similarly, I’ve developed and emotional attachment to quite a few characters (Ooryl Qrygg is kind of the best and I got a bit upset when his name was misspelt twice in one book. I bet proofreading novels that have several alien names in them is a pain in the butt). After reading the first book of this ten book series, I’m convinced that ­X-wing: Rogue Squadron is the book you want to start with. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that your light speed may vary.

Side Note: I had questions regarding how X-wings work in atmosphere and in space. I'm sure Stackpole did some studying on planes and aerial combat but some of the things he describes in X-wing just don't make sense to me. For example, the use of rudders on X-wings while flying in space. There isn't any drag in space so wouldn't that make rudders ineffective and therefore useless in space combat? I think it's good that X-wings have rudders since they also fly in atmosphere. But switching from space to atmosphere in the same battle or in a short time period would mean the pilot is forced to adjust his piloting since the laws of physics work different on or off planet. When such an event occurs the sense of belief in the story is completely shattered. All of this gets me thinking about how X-wings and other spacecrafts, especially smaller ones, fly. Particularly how they fly so quickly and with such agility. Do they have a number of thrusters that help them maneuverer left, right, up and down? I can see how these thrusters would be useful at low speed, but what would it take for them to be effective at high speeds? Unlike flying in atmosphere, where the use if a rudder is an effective way to direct the flight of a craft since it acts on the forces affecting the aircraft which in turn affect the direction and movement of the craft. I don’t think you can do that in that space and I don't see how thrusters would be of much use unless they were rather large. Or maybe not. Perhaps because of the weightlessness in space combine with the absence of drag and friction allows for the X-wing to move around rather easily. Still, the concept of rudders in space seems ridiculous. I'm no expert on plane nor am I am expert on space flight, but it's difficult to imagine that flying an x-wing is anything like how Stackpole describes it in this book. 

A side note on my side note: I was speaking to one of my friend who is a pretty big Star Wars fan and has read many more Star Wars novels than I have and he dismissively answered my above questions. The rudder pedals control thrusters that give the same effect of physical rudders in atmosphere. The physics of space allow for thrusters to act on X-wings in rather effective ways. Ok. Thanks for  schooling me, Keith.

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