: We are back with Chapter 17, another chapter with just two points of view—both from the Skywalker twins, as it happens.
: And we’re trying something new. The first half of this chapter was pure Z-nip, so we decided to split the chapter down the middle and each do half the job. She’ll recap Luke’s Adventures with Technology, with my peanut gallery moments, and I’ll do Leia’s Culture Clash. (Which definitely has me feeling out of my league…but here we go anyway.)
: For future reference, I walked right into that “Z-nip” business, so I can’t really complain.
: This is another chapter that transitions directly from what happened at the end of the last one—we heard Thrawn say “[Luke’s] X-Wing’s hyperspace drive will break down less than within a light-year of realspace from here,” and then zoom in on: Luke, about half a light year away from the scene of the confrontation with the Interdictor Cruiser and the Star Destroyer, stranded.
Will has been pointing out repeatedly in the previous weeks that Zahn has a sense of scale with respect to Space, It Is Big, Folks. So maybe it’s a bit unfair that I get to quote the very opening of the chapter:
In front of Luke, the scopes and displays glowed softly as the diagnostic messages, most of them bordered in red, scrolled past. Beyond the displays, through the canopy, he could see the X-wing’s nose, lit faintly by the sheen of distant starlight. Beyond that were the stars themselves, blazing all around him with cold brilliance.
And that was all. No sun, no planets, no asteroids, no cometary bodies. No warships, transports, satellites, or probes. Nothing. He and Artoo were stranded, very literally, in the middle of nowhere.
This… doesn’t really leave much room for interpretation. See the index entry for Nowhere, the Middle of. No other sources available.
: “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re in the emptiness that it’s farthest from.” Gives you a new appreciation for Tatooine, your previous standard for “middle of nowhere,” huh Luke?
: I will point out that while the Milky Way is going to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in… oh, I think it was another four billion years or so… the interstellar distance is so great that this will not mean stars will collide with stars, or even star systems will be deformed. It will completely deform both galaxies at the interstellar scale still. Gravity, she is funny.
(The question of whether the Sol system will remain intact may be moot for other reasons another billion years or so after that anyway—Folks? We have a bit longer than five billion years to get out of here, and it’s kind of a hard deadline set by the relative hydrogen-to-helium ratio left in the Sun, so if we could all put on a quickness, thanks muchly.)
: The Babylon 5 reasoning for space travel. (See the last scene, and only good part, of the season-1 episode “Infection.”)
: To make matters more interesting, the surge that killed the hyperdrive engines (there are two) also killed the subspace radio. This may sound a bit too convenient, but what follows from it is cool enough that I’ll allow it. Even with the long lives some assume Jedi to live, I don’t think Luke would be dismayed by the loss of this “subspace radio” if it meant that at the very least it would take half a light year for his signal to reach the nearest rescue—whom, for all he knows, happens to be the Imperials—so we can deduce “subspace” for radio waves is the equivalent of “hyperspace” for matter and we drop the question there of course, right?
: TV Tropes actually has a page for “subspace and hyperspace,” which I won’t link to for the sake of sanity, but sums it up as, hyperspace allows matter to travel, but is speed limited, and subspace is data only, but instant. Hence, you get the equivalent of terrestrial travel and communication. Very Star Wars, in that. Wave hands and move on.
(As to using lightspeed radio–Luke doesn’t have the supplies to survive more than a few weeks even with a hibernation trance, is my read. He’d be dead by the time anybody heard him calling for help without subspace.)
: Luke, who we’ve already established is exceptionally adaptable and is an excellent pilot, transforms into a field mechanic and reasons: I have two hyperdrive engines, so if different components fried in them I can put together one sort-of-working one and limp back to, er, willing to accept any astronomical body that isn’t at 6000 K by this point. Then he goes EVA to poke in the X-Wing’s engine compartments on either side.
(Tangential, but speaking of EVA, if you have two hours to kill this is the link to an amazing talk by John Grunsfeld, who went up to service the Hubble… three times.)
: And Zahn shouts out to West End Games, which created an entire X-Wing schematic for him to play around in (as it were).
: There’s a fascinating bit in there, which in a fast read is a throwaway mild comic relief of Level “Quick Smile.” Artoo is vocally pessimistic about the chances of this plan working, so in order to make him less dejected, Luke deliberately `insults’ him: “You’re beginning to sound like Threepio.” Which takes Artoo right out of “depressed” all the way to “irate,” which was exactly the intended effect. But when I think about this it takes my breath away. Luke perceives Artoo with enough of a personality that a) Artoo’s low mood effects/bothers him to the point of needing to do something about it, and b) the something he comes up with isn’t anything like directing or commanding Artoo to snap out of it, but just exactly what he would have done for, say, a 12-year old child: He goads Artoo. And he knows Artoo well enough and perceives Threepio with enough of a personality as well to bullseye the goading attempt at the first try. (And I don’t think he’s being mean to Threepio in absentia, either, because telling Threepio that he’s pessimistic to his face is the equivalent of telling him that his head is golden: “Yes, and?”)
: Agreed. Luke and Artoo have one of the best relationships in the series, in many ways, and among the longest-running. Threepio always naturally falls into the Leia/Han diplomacy/fringer/people persons dynamic, but while Luke’s Jedi nature is more significant than his bush-pilot nature now, he will always carry that early life with him, and that part is tied into Artoo: boy and his droid.
: …wow, that is a starburst in my head moment. Boy and his droid. Exactly.
I just started and deleted three paragraphs here that would have taken us way, way deep into questions of sentience and personality and AI by way of detours into both Asimov’s works and the Mass Effect universe. Let’s just leave a huge (*) here now; I will be back, but I need to keep on with the attempted hyperdrive repair.
: Suddenly I want to supplement this with a podcast on that sort of thing, but I don’t think we can afford the three hours we could spend on that topic, or the three hours listeners would need to hear it all…
: …I sense an essay coming on. Over the summer, maybe.
: Like we have more time during the summer?
: Luke’s was a good idea, but no luck. The shield casings of both hyperdrive engines have hairline cracks, and intact shielding is critical to the operation of the engines, and one gets the impression that duct tape (or anything less than maybe remelting and annealing at the crystalline level) won’t help. Even if nothing else was hurt in either engine, they won’t work, and there isn’t a spare. Momentary tangent here to talk about Zahn’s technobabble level: It’s nearly undetectable, is what it is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Luke is, for a moment, almost overwhelmed by the HUUUUUUUUGE SPACEitsybitsysnubfighter situation he’s in. He remembers hanging from the underside of Cloud City and calling out to Leia—and Leia hearing him—then wonders if she’ll ever find out what happened to him and, blast it, I’ve got something in my eye. Again. Every time. He does reach out with the Force, but doesn’t get anything back, and wasn’t really expecting to. See also: HUUUUUUUUGE.
: Phenomenal cosmic power, huge empty living space. Well, unliving space. (Also, don’t hand me lines like “itsybitsy” unless you want me to start writing “The Itsy Bitsy X-Wing.”)
: Then he does what a Jedi does: Get emotions, especially fear, under control, and try another angle. So they aren’t going anywhere unless they take a very long, really very long journey. How about jury-rigging another subspace radio and calling for help? He asks Artoo to gather data, they ascertain the exact nature of the damage to the radio (the core is fine, the wire wrapped around is a molten mess) and he comes up with a tentative solution:
…Made of ten kilometers of ultrathin superconducting wire wound tightly around a U-shaped core, a subspace radio antenna wasn’t something that was supposed to be field-repairable…[but] “…if we can find ten kilometers of superconducting wire somewhere else on the ship, we should be able to make ourselves a new one. Right?”
: Note also that Luke again knows how to get Artoo to stop worrying: he appeals to pride. Before, it was “you’re sounding like Threepio,” now it’s “what, you can’t do what a dumb machine does all day?”
: It’s time to get back to what I wanted to say about Zahn’s technobabble, and I’ll reach back to the first Iron Man movie (with Robert Downey Jr.) to do so. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in that movie. We get the montage of Stark him redesigning and remaking the Iron Man suit in his mansion. He does CAD, welds, does tuning with hilarious results… and for maybe five seconds on screen, solders something on to something. And when he’s putting the soldering iron back into its holder, he wipes the tip on either a wet sponge or a wire-sponge first. The motion is completely automatic and natural. I would bet money that RDJ either knows how to solder, or watched someone doing soldering a bunch, or got direction from someone who knows how to solder, or who watched someone etc. This took maybe half a second of screen time and it made me literally sit up in my seat and murmur “he is of my people.” I saw that and I swallowed hook, line and sinker that Tony Stark is an engineer—and the entire builds-suit-in-mountain-cave sequence that preceded it had simply been delegated to my suspension of disbelief, mind you.
: That’s a good point. I don’t recall seeing Tony do this, and I was never a hardware guy, but making something like that feel that natural and clean is an important aspect.
: That’s exactly how I feel about Zahn describing non-existing technology. Even when he is effectively writing “the unobtainium with the handwavium alloy around the indefinium core,” the things he comes up with give me a tip-of-the-tongue-like sensation: Just a little bit more and they would be real. I swallow them whole and my suspension-of-disbelief gets no exercise. Let alone nitpicking them, the only reason why I don’t just start nodding at the later sentence “Artoo came to the conclusion that the eight kilometers of wire [they found elsewhere on the ship] should be adequate to create a low-efficiency antenna” is that I don’t remember quite enough of antenna theory to understand that sentence any deeper than intuitively (please don’t tell my senior year professor).
This is the same me who’s been running at relativistic speeds from anything that smacks of analyzing the physics of the Galaxy Far Far Away, so I hear the dear reader say, what gives?
What gives is that this isn’t rule-of-cool physics, this is rule-of-cool engineering, and Zahn knows how not to overdo the rule-of-cool. He ostentatiously ignores the physics questions when he can—as here, when he ignored the simultaneity question several times—and throws in real physics when he can—as here, with the Space Is Big Mmmm’kay. For the engineering stuff, he chooses the vocabulary salad carefully and almost delicately, and… OK, look, I really don’t remember antenna theory, but wire around U-shaped core is at least one component of a transformer and I squint and they both depend on AC signal propagation and it makes some sort of intuitive sense that shorter wire will only allow for lower efficiency, and it’s key that Zahn put the “low efficiency” touch there. This is still Star Wars. It’s still fantasy with spaceships, not science fiction. But Zahn builds technology that would be real if you squinted really hard and looked at it out of the corner of your eye in a differently-colored light. This is harder to do than one would think. I have no problem with throwing things at my suspension of disbelief—hi, SF fan here, have we met—but with these things, I almost, almost feel I don’t have to. And since Zahn manages to give me that feeling so strongly, I know that he is Of My People. I didn’t need to know about his background in applied physics.
: It’s extremely hard to do. Get it wrong and you end up trying to take the magic out of Star Wars, and we’ve seen how that ends. (Not going to use the M word, not going to use the M word.) This is different, and very tricky. Technical enough to feel real without ever breaking into the black boxes that this sort of future-fantasy SF runs on.
: I have babbled enough. They strip some wire from some things, Luke jury-rigs a framework for Artoo to do the wrapping without snags, tells Artoo wake him up at the first sign of trouble, then prepares to go into hibernation because otherwise the life support would give up before the wrapping was complete. (Eight kilometers of wire: Actually long.) As he’s going under, he reaches out to Leia again, without hoping… but this time, just before he goes completely out, he gets the sense that someone has heard him.
And with that, we shift to Leia, and to Will recapping.
: Leia wakes up to a faint call from what she could have sworn is Luke, but she can’t really do anything with that, and he’s so far away that it must have been a dream. (Ah, irony. Luke shouts, and Leia does hear, but too far away…and others hear the shouting.)
At any rate, Leia’s about to go back to sleep when she hears the sounds of atmospheric entry and realizes they’ve arrived. She’s still worried–Wookiees have a lot of reasons to resent humans, and Leia’s limited grasp of Shyriiwook (not that Zahn calls it that; I think it takes until Crispin to get such terms, probably because of the issues Zahn talks about with names) doesn’t help.
That said, she does manage to score points with Chewie by knowing about nursery rings:
“Some of us humans know a little about Wookiee culture. We aren’t all ignorant savages, you know.”
Wow, that line reads very different after the last two decades of debate and discussion of concepts like cultural appropriation. Ah, the Nineties.
: Yes, it really does. Although even in the nineties I had liked how Zahn had inverted things.
: (The side note of a younger Leia, the haughty Senator at the start of the original trilogy, taking the poor Senate librarian to task for faulty data on the not-actually-incorrect references to the size of wroshyr trees is also an amusing image.)
: (And a very human image, because Leia was a teenager then, and of course she knew everything better than everyone…)
: At any rate, they drop into the cloud cover of Kashyyyk, and arrive at a city. Not a treehouse city like the Ewoks had, but a capital C city. This, Zahn footnotes, is what he was told Kashyyyk looked like–and then they did something else entirely for Revenge of the Sith. Womp, as the saying goes, womp.
Leia spends a lot of time being impressed at size and scale until the Lady Luck lands, and the Wookies of the city of Rwookrrorro send two delegates to meet the ship. Leia braces for a hard time understanding them…
Nope, she gets it perfectly. Chewie’s laughing at her, very quietly, and Ralrracheen (for that is the speaker’s name) explains that he has a speech impediment–for values of “speech impediment” that make him easier to understand. Convenient, and Zahn admits its convenience, but I do appreciate that it points out that the definition of concepts like “impediment” can depend on your perspective.
Meantime, Chewie is locked in a death grip with the other Wookiee–no, wait, it’s just a hug of greeting between Chewie and his old friend Salporin. (Note: as Zahn puts it, it’s just a simple hug, only it looks harsher between Wookiees. This isn’t a “saying hello involves beating the crap out of each other” situation. I think.)
Ralrra next puts Leia completely at ease: he explains that the Rebellion freed so many Wookiees that they consider themselves in life debt to the Republic and, by proxy, Leia herself. Leia knows what a life debt means, after so many years of being with Han and Chewie (and for that matter, during carbonite freeze, Chewie’s life debt effectively passed to Leia). So, yeah, that’s that.
Now we get some sensawunda, a la Nomad City: the city is held up by the branches of the wroshyr, and the trees are actually one giant World Tree–intermixed root system means that branches can merge. Leia notes that there probably hasn’t been too much deep botany, between the Wookiees treating the trees like their mother Gaia (which they are, really) and the strata of branches and darkness making descent difficult.
: Not to mention the “increasingly more lethal ecosystem” as you go deeper.
: Star Wars likes its stratified cities. Coruscant, Nar Shaddaa, Kashyyyk…probably has to do with the old-fashioned good-and-evil thing, and the linkage of light and dark to good and evil.
Next up, Leia realizes that the cable car she’s in is held up by a vine, and starts to panic, until she is told they have they have backup repulsors. She feels like a newbie at the diplomacy thing, having lost sight of the difference between animalistic and quaint-looking, and backwards. (Probably still remembering the Ewoks, too.)
The delegates all arrive together, Ralrra and Leia by vine car, Chewie and Salporin by climb, and head for Salporin’s home.
But Leia notices a familiar face in the window of one of the buildings they pass by: a gray-skinned, protruding-jawed face. Well, there goes their whole secret.
: Remember that Thrawn had immediately deduced “Leia’s with the Wookiee, so of course he’s taking her to Kashyyyk.”
: The Wookiees send up a hunting call, but they can’t find him, and Leia reasons he went off the edge of the city. Ralrra’s all set to go investigate, but Chewie, ever conscientious, reminds him that Job One is protecting Leia.
If that’s even possible, Leia thinks.
Zahn spends a goodly amount of time building the world here, literally for Kashyyyk. In both halves of this chapter he gives us just enough information about the universe he’s operating in and the situation before him to give it verisimilitude, character, and a sense of realness that doesn’t end up infodumping or overexplaining. He pegs it all to characters’ reactions and feelings: Artoo’s fear (and indignation), Luke’s loneliness, Leia’s fish-out-of-waterism, Chewie’s amusement at same.
I’ve accused Zahn of doing the Planet of Hats thing in this and his original fiction, but what excuses it–if an excuse is needed–is that it’s always a character thinking it (good thing he uses first person), and the sense is that this character is as susceptible to stereotyping and generalizations as we all are. So what makes it all work is that there’s always a thinking, feeling, breathing (or robotic, I suppose) character at the center of it all.
That’s all from us this week, gang. We’ll see you for the next chapter, which probably won’t be as prone to long fascinating digressions. In the meantime, may the Force be with you.
The Itsy Bitsy X-Wing flew down the Death Star trench
Zap went the lasers, the gunners’ teeth were clenched…