Sunday, December 04, 2011

Nu kyr'adyc, shi taab'echaaj'la

I'm beginning to understand my own parents' confusion a little.

I don't recall being a particularly mercurial child. But I know I went through...phases?...when I was in my grade school years of "liking" certain things and then abandoning them. So every year my folks had to use their parental intel skills to suss out whatever it was that I was liking and wanting as gifts for Christmas.And as a kid, that was critical. Without ready cash or access to a way of making cash - since I was too small to work and too cowardly to steal - anything I wanted to possess had to come from someone else.

And it's amazing, now that I think of it, how that made that "stuff" seem incredibly important.

Now that I do have the ability to work and steal (or both, my employer might opine) that notion of accumulating "stuff" seems kind of louche. There are physical objects that I enjoy holding for the pleasure or utility I derive from them. Books, particularly; my bride lacks the same greed for the printed page. Books to me are like friends; if I like them I enjoy returning to visit with them. A genuinely good work of fiction yields new pleasures to me when I re-read it; the work may have not changed but I have, and the words reach me in different ways as the person I am changes.

But the objects are valuable to me for the use of them.

My son, however, is still in the place I was when I was his age. Objects - toys, mostly, since childhood is still about play and play for most children in our material world means playthings - are of value to him for themselves, for the look or the size or shape; the "coolness" of them.

For example, for all that he enjoys playing certain electronic games he has never asked for any of them as gifts. I think this is because they are not tactile enough for him to picture them as desirable swag. He doesn't "see" them enough to desire them, they don't give him the rich feeling of possession that more gross toys seem to.

This year his lusts are all about LEGO kits.Now I will be forthright; I hate these damn LEGO toys.

They're expensive as sin, first of all. And they are wretched as "toys"; heavy, delicate, and breakable even with great care, and an eight-year-old is nothing if not careless. We have a massive plastic bin full of LEGO bits from various spendy LEGO contraptions that lasted less than a week or so from contruction to destruction. If the Romans had built with fucking LEGOs Rome might have been built in a day but would have lasted less than a month.

But this isn't about me, but my son, and what he wants and cannot get for himself.

Mind you, he is required to earn through household chores the money for most of the smaller LEGO kits he wants. I had hoped that would inspire him to treat the things with less brio, but no. The small LEGO sets he buys with his hard-earned (because the Boy is a huge martyr about working for his pleasures, and you'd think that raking leaves was invented for the torment of prisoner's on Devil's Island or the punishment for deadly Sin rather than a way to make a buck or three and keep the goddamn grass from dying) last no longer than the big ones he gets as presents.

Regardless of the particular kit, though, this year is all about the LEGOs and, to a lesser extent, military toys, because the Boy has moved on almost completely from his Star Wars Period.

I say almost because he still enjoys watching the Clone Wars series on television when he remembers to watch it - which is in itself an indication of how far the mighty franchise has fallen, since a year ago he knew to the minute when his beloved show would begin.

So we still have a tenuous connection to the world George Lucas created, although that connection is dwindling as I watch. I fear that my son will not be a lifelong sci-fi geek. Which is a little chastening because I am, a bit, and I see that I have not passed on this particular part of me.

And what's been fun is that his understanding of the stories we watch has grown noticibly deeper and more sophisticated over the short space of a year. When we last talked about this he was just beginning to appreciate that the "clone wars" stories weren't as simple as they were being told to him, and that there were deep difficulties with the simplistic "Jedi good/Sith evil/clones tools" way that Lucas has been telling his story.

The most interesting so far was the "Umbara" series of stories that aired in October.To cut to the nitty, the deal was that you're introduced to this fictional battlefield on this creepily-dim planet, "Umbara". The context is minimal other than that Lucas' "Republic" soldiers have to take this place and the locals (and the local wildlife) resist. The usual military hi-jinks ensue, delighting the Boy who is still all about things that shoot, go fast, and blow shit up.

For me it was another chance to watch the Lucas organization biff another one.

Because there was a potentially terrific story there.

The macguffin was that the clone soldiers you've been introduced to, Captain Rex, "Fives", the blue-and-white Boys of the 501st Legion - the future "Vader's Fist" - are placed under the command of a Jedi they don't know. And who seems to be either utterly whack or tactically insane, because he continually orders them into fatal attacks or pointless and dangerous movements and then threatens them with military justice when they protest. This mook, a four-armed gitch called "Pong Krell", is presented as a fiercely strict commander who gives orders and then refuses to hear any questions about them.The Peep was puzzled by this.

"Why is he doing this?" he kept asking, "Why is he so mean?"

I wondered that myself. Because Peep's question lies at the heart of a great, terrible story, a story as old as fighting men; which is the danger - obeying a commander who might be a fool, or a savage, or a madman...or disobeying a commander who may be seeing tactical or strategic levels not visible to the squad-level grunts? Where is the line that can't be crossed? Where does obedience to military order become suicide or, worse, homicide?

Great fiction has been made around this very question; films like "Paths of Glory", novels like "Catch-22", tales like the "Illiad", focus completely or in part on the complex relationship between fighters and commanders.

And in this case there's this huge rock in the story-stream up ahead; the moment that Lucas' just-self-elevated Emperor orders his army to kill all their Jedi officers; "Order 66".

You might think that this could have been a story fraught with brilliant opportunities to examine the relationship between these men - slave soldiers bred to die for a Republic that gave and owed them nothing - and the leaders placed over them. To look inside a man like "Captain Rex"; a veteran professional, a created-man bred and trained to obey, but already a survivor of dozens of Lucas-battles where he and his friends and fellow-troopers are taught to stand without cover and shoot or move until killed, and scores of them are, and get to understand how he thinks and feels about beings like his new general.And, in particular, you'd suspect that he'd have figured out by this time that his Jedi "officers" have none of the tactical training he's received. They have certain psychic skills but even those are not by nature useful in battle. So there's no real reason for a man like that to trust another being whose primary qualification for combat leadership is some sort of participation in a woo-woo Force religion and the ability to twirl a laser-sword.

You might also think that this would be a terrific opportunity to look at the relationship from the other side; from a member of a semimonastic Order instructed to avoid "relationships" suddenly placed in the most intimate of relationships - of deciding who lives and who dies. Of being a being gifted with mental powers who is thrust into war and told to command soldiers whose skills are merely physical to overcome physical fear and death in order to win sordid, gross political objectives.You'd be thinking that the story had a chance to examine the same things that Karen Traviss did such a hell of a good job developing in her "Republic Commando" books with special effects no more sophisticated than damn good writing and an adult sensibility; what is obedience, and what is responsibility? What is courage and what is cowardice, what is the way of a man with other man, and what are the ways of men and women?For if fiction, regardless of genre, has any value other than as brain-candy it gives us a chance to step out of ourselves into other people, other places, even other worlds and enjoy thinking about the galactic range of choices we all face, about the consequences of those choices that we make or those that are forced upon us. It can entertain while it makes us more thoughtful, more humane people.

But you'd be thinking without reckoning with Lucas & Co.

The man must be an eight-year-old in the body of a grown-up. I swear.

I'm not going to give you a review of the whole magilla; it's not really germane to my post and, besides, Peter over at "Lightsaber Rattling" does a better job than I ever could at discussing the whole story. But basically, after a ton of time spent on relatively aimless (but visually cool) thud and blunder, the clone soldiers in the television story finally turned on their Jedi master - the near-impossibility they found the task of subduing him made a subtle point about the mechanics of "Order 66", though I'm not sure that was Lucas' intent - but it turned out that he was neither a sadistic fool nor a misunderstood genius but that weakest of cinematic conventions, the Hidden Enemy. He was a "Sith", not a "Jedi" at all, not a bad officer, not a clueless but insecure fucktard, not an incompetent promoted above his abilities and furious at the innocent soldiers that forced him to demonstrate just how incapable he was...but a simple Black Hat, a cartoon baddie, a cardboard villain who has been murdering his troops because he can and because he likes it.

And the soldiers didn't have to confront the questions they raised about their commander, about what they would have done if he HAD been an incompetent commander, a brute, a fool, or a power-mad rogue. He was just Evil. So they killed him.The Boy was fine with that; they're surprisingly callous at eight. But I wasn't, and I found myself regretting again that the creator of this facile universe was not a better father to his creation that I was to my own. I just wish that ol' George had a little more Karen Traviss in him.

I'm still a retired clone trooper at heart, and I will always have a soft spot for the boys in the white armor. But my son, hard-hearted little realist that he is, knows that clone troopers are born to be used up and forgotten.

So while this Christmas there's still some lingering affection for the clones and their world I get the sense that soon we will not visit Rex and his comrades, still fighting their eternal war in the pages of books and on the screen, forever new to some boy somewhere else but soon to be lost to us, my big son and I; nu kyr'adyc, shi taab'echaaj'la.Not gone, just marching far away.


Pluto said...

Well said, Chief, and saying the same thing I've said for years.

I run a Star Wars roleplaying campaign for teens and have been using the Clone Wars universe and the same questions you've been raising as plots for the game because I got really bored with thud and blunder after a couple of sessions.

The kids find the moral aspects incredibly harder than the combat (they ARE the heroes, after all) but when I offered to let them go back to mindlessly blowing things up after a particularly bad session they all told me they found the moral aspects more interesting, even the 12 year old Darth Maul wannabe.

I'm slowly weaning them off of Star Wars and peaking their interest in history with a Steampunk variant of the Old West. You wouldn't believe how rich the mine of stories is from Deadwood's legendary era.

Lisa said...

Like you, I am utilitarian in my desiderata (mostly). There is something always generous about a beloved book or story -- "It can entertain while it makes us more thoughtful, more humane people"

I do hope so.