The Truce at Bakura, Retrospective

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to our retrospective on The Truce at Bakura, wherein… well.

In personal news, I broke a toe Monday night. Which isn’t a metaphor for anything; I actually did. Which makes this draft a bit late, but hopefully we’ll get it in on time.

will: We’ll manage. I’ll keep you guys posted as usual what time I’m doing the formatting though.

(11:30 on Thursday night. Not even close to a record.)

This weekend, I’m off to Contata in north Jersey (making this not so much a trip as a staycation weekend). I highly doubt I’ll see you at this one.

z: Kathy Tyers didn’t have an easy job. After Tim Zahn proved that there was, in his own words, “steam under the crust,” she was the first one tasked to dig and release some more.

It wasn’t easy figuring out what went wrong and putting it into words, although if you skim through the archives and see how many of our posts featured book-launchings (on my part) and angry-tea-brewings (on Will’s), it’s definite that something did. I had a few false starts to this entry, but now I guess I can take a stab.

will: A stab under the crust. Get a pastry server.

z: The requirements of an EU writer were, back then, a) expand the universe (because duh) while keeping the basic elements of the setting (because duh); b) have the Standard Characters having New Adventures (at least until the Powers That Be realized that there was such a thing as dark horses)–

will: And thereafter, dark storylines, but we’ll get there.

z: –and be consistent with their characterization; c) keep continuity. Oh, and d), I guess, write good fiction.

will: It can be debated for a long time on what order those priorities lay. It is, I think, not an exaggeration to say that a lot of both writers and Bantam/Lucasfilm editorial people really did put d) last and it showed.

I may be speaking only for myself, but I’d be a lot more willing to forgive issues with a) through c) for the sake of a good story.

z: The problem with the Truce at Bakura definitely wasn’t the New Adventures part of b), it was too early for any real problems with c), and in any other setting it would have had at least a decent run at being a success with d).

will: I might quibble that c) was also a problem, but it looks like Z is putting the things to which I objected in there as part of…

z: In my assessment, the first big problem was with a), in particular the second half. Tyers had a decent run at expanding the universe: Eppie is a good original character with potential for greatness; Thanas and Nereus could have been a pair of good-tragic-antihero and love-to-hate-him-villain if they didn’t basically come wearing tunics made of pages of the Handbook of Bad Guy Cliches. Bakura is a pretty place. There’s definite potential in the addictiveness of namana nectar; in Gaeri’s innocence, lack of experience, and partial indoctrination, even in the idea of a religion that creates religious objections to Force use.

But. For one thing, all of those potentialities remain potentialities; they are half-baked from the first or taken from a direction which lead them down a fruitless path and my heavens how’s that one for a mixed metaphor.

will: Half baked and fruitless, like a sad pie. So also, perhaps, blind baked?

(My wife threw another big dessert party this past weekend, and I ended up bringing several pies to work while others ended up being shown off on Twitter when we passed them on to friends in the area.)

z: (This is the toughest part of working remotely with Will. Note the words “another big dessert party?”)

We can come back to this issue a while later if we feel like it, though, because right now what I really want to talk about is what went deeply wrong, in my opinion.

Worldbuilding is a funny thing. Unless the creator (“sub-creator,” as Tolkien was careful to call the role) thinks deeply, and I mean deeply, about things, there ends up being a lot of risk of “…that doesn’t make sense.” And unless the sandbox-player, creating New Adventure for Old Characters as per spec, first identifies then thinks about these things, there appears a lot of “It doesn’t work like that!” and “That’s not right!”

will: As you can see in our reviews, we ran into a lot of that. Especially in the “I’m creating a whole new menace” part of the setup, we were left with a lot of “…really?” How are the Ssi-ruuk a threat the whole galaxy? How old is Bakura as a colony?

z: And I’m not talking about things like the Millennium Falcon having proton torpedoes or stuff like that. During our reviews of the Thrawn Trilogy, we ended up writing many, many times that Zahn had thought deeply about the philosophy of the Force, the implications of the Force, and the place of Jedi in the galaxy. In that story, it’s Luke’s uncertainty about all of these which leads him to make a potentially very bad mistake: He feels he wants a teacher, so he goes to C’baoth and even attempts to cleave to an obvious madman for some days.

In this story, Luke mind-controls (or at least attempts to mind-control) people right and left, including, and no really this did happen, Han Solo, yes, that Han Solo. When Gaeri reveals trepidation about his reading her mind, he says “oh, I can’t unless the thoughts are very obvious and I’m trying, I can just sense emotions” by way of reassurance, instead of something like “I can’t anyway, but also I respect people’s mental autonomy and privacy and wouldn’t if I could.” Overall, “The Force” has been relegated to the role of “cool thing,” and left there. Even Lucas had gone beyond that, and you all know how much we complain about him.

will: Especially about this. But yes, what she said: while Lucas didn’t fully grasp the idea of the Force and everything that it means, as is obvious, he at least started from the idea that this was something mystical and important, not just filler.

z: Zahn watched (or listened to) the scenes between the two droids, and the ones between Luke and Artoo, maybe more than a hundred times, and ended up writing a scene where Karrde off-handedly mentions the hypothetical possibility of handing Artoo off to the Empire and Luke comes as close to mental panic as we’ve ever seen him, not even able to understand that it’s a hypothetical, finding the thoughts unthinkable. The literal first scene Luke’s in, we are told in as many words that he respects Threepio’s inherent dignity and tries to respond to the droid in kind.

will: And while we’ve said before that droid rights are a mess in the universe, at a bare minimum, the movies and Zahn at a bare minimum had a “nice to the waiter” thing going, where even if droids are only semi-sentient or sentient servitors, you can tell bad guys from good guys specifically by how they treat their servitors.

z: All of which would make a wonderful backdrop and conflict-generator with the mentioned-then-nearly-forgotten issue of Bakurans, even more than the Imperials, being droid-averse, but… Threepio is completely comic-relief and hurt-the-bird, and while Artoo does show initiative a couple of times, his actions are As Plot Demands (more about that later, too) and we get moments like Luke actively recognizing Artoo (as in thinking to himself “oh, that’s Artoo.” Humans do not work like that when it comes to close friends and associates).

will: Also the issue of Ssi-ruuk; the idea of pitting a race that turned humans into batteries against a culture that feared droids might have been a good setup, but honestly, Tyers never really did anything with it. The whole dynamic wound down into nothing.

z: The second big problem was with the second half of b): Keep consistent characterization. Given that the Force is Cool Thing, maybe it follows naturally that we should have given up on that bit applying to Luke right away. But the Leia and Han dynamic and the idiot balls shackled to their ankles as a result drove me to near-rages many, many times.

will: It’s not necessarily a bad idea to give Han and Leia a subplot of coming to terms of what their relationship is now that they’re admittedly in love and able to process it (seriously, the sequence was “slap slap slap slap almost kiss slap slap kiss I love you I know freeze thaw kiss commando raid I love you I know kaboom deep breath”), but the solution was not to have Han be a jealous whiner who decides to do everything short of put on Barry Manilow and Leia suddenly act like there’s a class divide between them.

z: Okay, I’m going to be randomly laughing at that sequence for days, but it’s exact.

Also, it was a tremendously difficult task to handle the turning points that the timing–the days immediately after the Battle of Endor–implied: Leia and Luke coming to terms with being siblings, Leia coming to terms with her parentage, Luke coming to terms with losing the father that he did in fact find again within minutes of doing so.

First off, forget about that last entirely.

will: Yeah, I was about to say.

z: Luke has some extra calcification in his bones because the Emperor struck him with Force lightning. That’s… about it, in terms of how the entire ending of Return of the Jedi affected him.

Excuse me for a moment.

{gets up, goes to the bookcase, picks up the book, and throws it at the opposite wall; comes back to the computer}

will: Heh.

z: Forget about the first, too; Tyers took Leia at her word (“I know… somehow I’ve always known”) very, very extensively, it seems. Leia does get to angst about Vader being her father, which, yeah, of course she would. She doesn’t even pause for a moment to marvel at “oh hey twin brother and it’s Luke and wow this Force and destiny thing is a thing”, though, and for crying out loud, that’s not the kind of thing you omit from internal monologues as if it was “hmm, I guess this exotic Bakuran dish needs more salt.”

Which leaves us with the one with the heaviest drama potential; Leia working through the implications of her parentage. And that one is handled as if it was left at the outline stage. I think I would have preferred overdone; instead it feels… “mechanical” isn’t the right word in this universe, given Artoo and the range of emotions and thoughts he’s capable of…

will: Formulaic.

z: …yes, that works. Also, paint-by-numbers. Also, “oh I guess this has to happen.”

will: Right. She knew she was going to resolve this but didn’t actually give us insight into how Leia came to terms.

z: Which brings me to the last big class of complaints I have, to wit, the missing “d) write good fiction.”

Many story elements feel like they have been left in the outline stage. Chekov’s guns keep disappearing. (Say, the extra spice that would have been added to the conflict because of the Ssi-ruuk-use-battle-droids thing Will mentioned above. It was obvious that this was intended to raise the tension. Only, just saying it and then expecting the reader to keep the tension high as if it was a dial… isn’t how that works.) People do things because the plot demands them. (Threepio speaks up in the Senate chamber. Thanas has the heel-face-turn at the prescribed moment. Prime Minister Captison and Senator Belden are very very very bad at subterfuge.) People get fixated on things that have no background reason and stay there until it’s time for them to change their minds. (The whole “Cosmic Balance” thing; Luke deciding that Dev is his apprentice nao.) And over, under, and through this all, so. many. things. are told, not shown.

It’s almost textbook, if the textbook is “how not to do it.”

will: You never want to be the negative example. This is why.

z: And that aspect of it is not Star Wars specific, not a bit.

When I first read this book, it was in my mid-teens; I hadn’t read many books in English; I hadn’t read many speculative fiction books; and as was everyone else, I was hungry for more Star Wars. I didn’t have a critical eye when it came to fiction, although I have to guess I was building it.

will: I was more like 13-14, if memory serves. And yeah, I just wanted more of the characters I knew, I didn’t know from good writing. It was my very own Golden Age of Science Fiction, as always thus.

But man, I am less than interested in rereading this any time soon. Or ever.

z: From this side of my thirties, I am going to agree. So many books, so little time–that conundrum does get a bit easier when you realize that some things are not worth your time and no one is going to come shake a finger at you if you close a book unfinished.

Given that, dear reader, hey, look, we persevered. And even attempted to draw lessons.

But now I’m done. Will?

will: I feel like if we spend much more time on this book you might end up needing to replace some drywall and I might go into semi-oxidized shock (well, no, I’m not drinking that much oolong). We tried to read it, we survived, let’s eat. Er.

Next up, we’re going to eschew our habit of trying to roughly follow the original release dates, because the next books that came out were the Jedi Academy Trilogy and, surprisingly, the Corellian Trilogy (I could have sworn those came out later)–and no thank you, certainly not now.

(Aside: I’m occasionally amazed by the timing on some of the publications. Like, half the X-Wing books came out after the Hand of Thrawn, and Bantam put out one final Tales collection several months after Del Rey took over the main novels! Not to mention, it was only about four years in our reality between the Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn.)

We’re going to dive into some of the backgrounding and side stories, if only to remind people that the idea of examining the background characters of A New Hope isn’t a revolutionary idea. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m eagerly awaiting From a Certain Point of View, but…really.)

So, we’re going to start in on Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and the first story…is by Kathy Tyers.

z: Heh. Okay. Game on.

will: This is gonna be…something.

Not to mention, this is our first exposure (even if only in an editorial role, until we get to his story) to the infamous Kevin J. Anderson.

We’ll see you right here next week for that. Until then, may the Force be with you.

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