Alan Dean Foster’s The Force Awakens – Part Two – The REAL Review this time

The Force Awakens Novelization CoverI explained last week why I’m so excited that Alan Dean Foster is back to novelize a new Star Wars film. The Force Awakens comes at a time when film novelizations aren’t as much of a thing as they used to be. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we weren’t a culture that went to see a movie multiple times, and there was no such thing as Blu-Ray, or its older brethren DVD, VHS or Beta. From the time a film went out of the theater, until it was bought for lots of money (and shown heavily edited) by a TV network, there was no way to enjoy the story and characters from your favorite film, other than by buying the novelization. Back in the day, even comedy films got novelizations. Now, it’s pretty much confined to SF films, and that’s pretty much because fans of those films tend to be both collectors and readers.

I still like novelizations because, if I really get into a film’s story, it’s a way to go back and enjoy that story in detail and at a slower pace. And a really good author can enrich a film as he adapts the screenplay. (Or she adapts it–Vonda N. McIntyre, D.C. Fontana and Joan D. Vinge have all written enjoyable film adaptations.)

Foster steps into the world of Star Wars as if it hadn’t been almost 40 years since his first novel in this universe was published. He fleshes out the new characters and makes them feel completely real. Under his hand, these are not merely retreads of Luke, Leia and Han; but meeting Rey, Fin and Poe does rekindle the feelings I had the first time I met Luke Skywalker in the pages of The Washington Star. (See last week’s entry for an explanation of that.)

One of my favorite moments in the introduction of Fin shows how Foster brings depth to him. Fin’s traipsing through the desert after he and Poe crash in a TIE Fighter. He thinks his new friend is dead, and he’s all alone on a barren world, probably being hunted by his former fellow Stormtroopers. He encounters a band of locals and asks for help. He’s met with jeers and curses. His response?

“Thank you!” To the vocal sarcasm he added a mock bow. “Oh, yes, kind fellow travelers, thank you so very much. Thanks a lot!” He continued muttering under his breath, utilizing words and phrases from a half dozen worlds that would have seen him busted in rank had he employed them in the presence of an officer.

It’s a small bit, but it adds such texture. By referencing Fin’s knowledge of six other languages, Foster shows us Fin is well-traveled, or at least has been exposed to people from other worlds. That makes him a little more than the sort of tabula rasa we might otherwise believe him to be, based on the film. The mention of being busted in rank humanizes the First Order troops a little. They’re not all ciphers. They make mistakes and suffer the same punishments ordinary grunts do on 21st Century earth. Most of all, this slightly pretentious rant shows Fin’s sense of humor in the face of adversity.

Now, yes, in the film, Fin is a funny character; but his humor is largely situational. He doesn’t mean to be funny, he just can’t help it because he’s socially awkward and too eager. Here, he’s shown employing humor to bolster his own morale, which is a striking thing in a young man who was raised as a slave-warrior, and allegedly trained only to kill his enemies. It makes Fin even more likable and sympathetic.

There’s a point of style in this novel that bears discussion, and that’s Foster’s use, at times, of omniscient third-person narration. That’s a technique that’s not often employed any longer, but, of course, he used it in the original Star Wars novelization. It’s appropriate that he uses it here.

In case you don’t know what I mean by “omniscient third-person narration,” I’ll explain. A lot of writers will tell you that narrative point of view (POV) is hard to understand. It’s not. POV is simply the answer to the question, “Who is telling this story?” First person narrative is easily recognized–the narrator says “I” and “me” and is telling his or her own story. There aren’t really many flavors to first person narrative. Second person, where the protagonist is called “you” by the narrator is rarely used outside of Choose Your Own Adventure novels.

Third person narrative can take different forms. It can keep its point of reference inside the head of one character, telling everything as if the narrator is someone not participating in the scene, but knows it only from the perspective of one character. This style is probably descended from the works of novelists like James Hilton, who would have a first-person narrator who would then tell the reader a story he’d heard from someone else. It was a bit complex, but it was meant to lend an air of authenticity.

Alternatively, POV can bounce from one character to the next, but only as the scene changes. Then, inside each scene, the reader is only told what one character would know. If two characters are on opposite sides of the door, the reader only knows what one of them is seeing or thinking. This “head to head” style is the most common form of narrative in modern fiction.

And then there’s true third person omniscient (all-seeing), where the narrator is not a character at all. The narrator sees, hears and knows all, and can tell you what anyone is thinking at any time. So, for instance, in Fin and Poe’s first meeting on the cruiser, we are told the thoughts of both the Storm Trooper and the Rebel Pilot. It works, because it establishes that these men are of equal importance and that we’re not taking sides between them, even though they are on different sides (for now) and don’t trust each other.

Later, using the more common (today) practice of getting heavily into one character’s head, Foster relates a lot of the action on the First Order base from the perspective of General Hux. This also works well, and it’s chilling. Hux’s reflections on duty and the discipline of the service are so believable, so similar to the mindset that we know from our contemporary military, that we can see how easy it is to fall into a trap of belief. We realize that, to a soldier in a fascist order, everyday life still feels like everyday life, part of the job. This is an SF author doing what we’re supposed to do with our writing–caution readers and make them think.

Adding a feel of scientific authenticity, Foster expands on the destruction of the Hosnian system. The First Order’s weapon is not a threat to the ice planet which houses it because of a powerful magnetic field; but it creates a burst of energy which is capable of ripping through space’s very fabric, into hyperspace. Left alone, it would travel out of the galaxy. Hitting a planet, it creates a “Pocket nova,” the raw power of which wipes out every world nearby. The explanation, coupled with the side-note that there are no white dwarfs in the area which might otherwise lead observers to believe that a star had simply gone nova, lends a nice SF feel to the narrative. Star Wars will never be hard science fiction, but it’s nice to have some nods to science.

Lost scenes from the film add a more human face to the loss of Hosnia in the book. Leia’s envoy, Korr Sela, provides a focal point for the readers in this scene. She’s someone we’ve already met, and we know she’s a trusted friend. She dies with Hosnia. Korr Sela was cut from the film, except for a brief appearance as the planets of the Republic died.

A particularly nice piece of dialogue, missing from the film and I assume added by Foster, deepens our understanding of Kylo Ren as a master manipulator. It happens during the raid on Maz Kanata’s establishment, when Rey and Kylo Ren meet for the first time:

When he finally spoke, he sounded at once impressed and surprised. “You would kill me, knowing nothing about me?”

Finding her mouth and lips worked, she replied defiantly, “Why wouldn’t I kill you? I know about the First Order!”

“I would say otherwise, but that is a small thing. Simple ignorances are easily remedied.” As he spoke, he walked slowly around her paralyzed body. […] “So afraid,” he murmured. “Yet I should be the one who should be scared. You shot first. You speak of the Order as if it were barbaric. And yet, it is I who was forced to defend myself against you.”

This passage was one of my favorites in the book, as it shows Kylo Ren so brilliantly second-guessing Rey’s motives. Sure, we know he’s the bad guy and a killer. But does Ren? She knows she saw him in a vision. But how does she know who he actually is? His attempt to portray the First Order as a group of maligned victims is downright Orwellian, and adds texture and depth to our understanding of just how evil they are. I talk a lot more about Kylo Ren’s character here.

Extra scenes abound in this novel. We have more time with Poe on Jakku after his crash. There’s an intro for Leia which comes before Han sees her for the first time in years. There’s an elaborate confrontation between Rey and Simon Pegg’s junk dealer character, where he’s followed her to the Cantina. And there’s a “moment” between Rey and Poe back at the Rebel Base, where they embrace upon realizing they’ve found a path to victory.

There’s also an interesting little bit of history that’s not in the film–it’s confirmed that Han never saw Ben as an adult until the moment of their final confrontation. As with all things that differ between novel and film, we’ll have to wait and see if future films bear this out.

The novelization is worth your time, especially if you want to pause and think over the story, and if some of the more philosophical motivations behind these characters interest you.

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