So, first of all, have you guys seen the season 3 premier of Star Wars: Rebels?
Because holy shit, go watch that if you haven’t. Then come back.
All set? Okay, good, because I’m going to geek right the hell out about that episode.
First off, THE BENDU.
When it comes to Star Wars, I am that turbo-nerd that read about the earliest drafts before George Lucas went back and took an editorial hacksaw to the entire thing. Back when Luke Skywalker was going to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, a retired general that the princess comes to for help. Back when there was an Annikin Starkiller around as a main character. When it wasn’t going to be “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it was going to be tied directly to our here and now through a book known as the Journal of the Whills.
Back when it wasn’t the Jedi Knights. It was the Jedi-Bendu order, headed by Mace Windu of Ophuchi.
So, you know, I’ve been geeking right the hell out since the first teaser trailers let slip “I’m the Bendu. The one in the middle.” My expectations were exceeded and the show gave a training sequence that I think rivals the old Luke/Yoda dynamic, and something that I hope they continue to build on throughout the season.
Because I love the grey jedi as a concept. I’m that guy, the one who sees as perfectly good mythical good/evil dichotomy and wants to pick it apart and look at the in between. Why are certain Force powers arbitrarily designated as light or dark? What if you use force lightning – something described in the canon as a soul-sucking technique that disfigures its wielder by drawing out their life energy in an agonizing assault – to rescue someone you love, and instead of using rage as the fuel you use desperation? What if you tap into the healing power of the force, something explicitly limited to light siders, in order to prolong the life of a torture victim? Where and why is the line drawn how it is? One of the few good things to come out of the prequel trilogy was the explicit narrative that the jedi knights were inept and full of themselves, having given into a kind of smug satisfaction that their orthodox lifestyle was the only way. They had to be destroyed to bring balance to the force, or brought to the brink of destruction and forced to change.
But I digress, as I often do when I ramble about Star Wars. The Bendu presented in Rebels is a perfect incorporation of an old concept into a new format, and living proof why you should never, ever get rid of your old drafts no matter how much they embarrass you or make you cringe. You can always go back and mine them for cool stuff. Even if the rest of your story is complete garbage, there may be one character, one religion, one tool that would work perfectly in another story once you make a few tweaks.
Did I mention that they got Tom Baker to voice the Bendu? You know, my first and favorite exposure to Doctor Who long before a relaunch was ever on the table and they decided to sexy the character up? As though Tom Baker wasn’t already sexy enough for anyone in their right mind? And his voice is perfect for the Bendu because he really is channeling the Doctor in a weird, reverb-heavy kind of way. It’s perfect that this being between the dark and light sides of the force would be benevolent and wise but also incredibly mischievous and getting a thrill out of withholding a tiny bit of information out of everything he does freely dispense.
And that’s before I start getting into Thrawn. Again, perfect, drawn from a book series set after the trilogy and it turns out he actually works better in one set before the trilogy because it unmoors him from certain plot expectations and gives him more freedom to move around. We only got a few glimpses of him this time around but I expect him to take center stage and when he does I’m sure I’ll be gushing about that too.
Trench warfare, for a change of pace.
The book I am currently writing when not freaking out over Star Wars deals pretty heavily with a world recently torn asunder by its first global conflict, something with a technological level hovering around World War 1. I have a (probably) slightly above average knowledge of WW1 and its surrounding historical tidbits, but my focuses in history have always been much more about WW2 and the medieval eras, with a few dashes of ancient history spread around. It’s not that I had a dislike of the Great War or don’t find it interesting, it just fell lower on my list of priorities because there wasn’t as much readily available information on it, the history documentaries were not nearly as in love with it as World War 2 and lord knows you can’t take a stroll through the history aisles without tripping over ten books on the history of England or France in the ~dark ages~ for every one on trench warfare.
Hence my picking up that book I mentioned the other day, Eugene Rogan’s excellent Fall of the Ottomans and plowing through the rest of it. Given that my book deals with a more middle eastern setting than many fantasy stories out there, I figured that not just approaching the logistics of WW1 combat but doing so from the perspective of the Turco-Arab alliance would be hitting two birds with one stone. It’s quite fascinating stuff, and honestly you could file some serial numbers off the Ottoman portion of WW1 and have political maneuverings that would outmatch Game of Thrones by several miles. You’ve got the English screwing over the Ottomans in business deals, the Germans sneaking in and snapping up their allegiance and thinking that they could probably leverage that loyalty to incite conflict within England’s Islamic holdings, at which point the English and French in particular flipped out and started further destabilizing Egypt and India by backing multiple opponents to the Ottoman throne. You’ve got dueling theocratic, secular and puppet rulers of every stripe playing tug of war with a poor colonized demographic who really don’t care one way or the other.
But the big focus on the book is on the battles, and considering one of my protagonists is a veteran of the trenches, I wanted to get into the psychology and weirdness of trench warfare. And weirdness does not begin to cover it. You’ve heard the occasional feel-good story about German and British troops exchanging gifts across the no-man’s-land in Europe proper, but that has nothing on the surrealism of the Anzac and Sepoy related stuff in Gallipoli and Kut. The scenes of carnage, flooding, men drowning in gory mud, succumbing to horrible infections and puking out their own lungs due to chemical gases are punctuated by scenes of bizarre black comedy. A couple of them of note, paraphrased from few sources here but drawing from actual soldiers’ diaries:
At the Siege of Kut, Sepoy and Turco-Bedouin troops not firing on each other while digging trenches as kind of an informal agreement, and regularly doing stuff like dashing over to save one another from drowning in flash floods before returning to their trenches and resuming shooting at one another. During one particularly hot afternoon the Turks finished their trench first and were lounging around, teasing the British and Indian troops by waving spades around. One trooper eventually got so pissed off that he drew his sidearm and shot the nearest spade clean through the head. After a few tense moments where everyone thought that a counterattack had just been provoked, the spade was raised up again, slowly and haltingly, with a bandage wrapped around it.
Multiple instances of soldiers collecting abandoned stationary when pushing into abandoned trench lines, and taking it to return to survivors later on when one force eventually surrendered to the other. Particularly true after Gallipoli where Ottoman forces who didn’t speak any English sought out Australian and New Zealand accents to try and return letters they have picked up in old camps, catching up and sharing drinks with their erstwhile enemies.
One instance of an Australian medic protecting a fallen Bedouin tribesman with his own body and bandaging him up, only to some weeks later be saved by the same man when the tribe ambushed the squadron, being informed by one of the rare bilingual shaykhs that he was only alive because he “had given the man a smoke, and even inferior heathen cigarettes are preferable to none on the battlefield.”
It’s such an odd dynamic that shows up again and again, and mainly in trench warfare where you find yourself at odds with your immediate environment so much as the enemy force, who you often have to sleep within hearing distance of. It fosters a kind of mindset where you can shoot them in the face or exchange gifts and hugs with them on the turn of a time, and that’s not something you saw anywhere else throughout most of human history. The closest you might have gotten would be something like the ancient world of spear-wielding shield walls and combat fought with certain rules in place that only a percentage of the enemy could be killed or maimed because you didn’t want your enemy village to lose enough laborers to starve to death or you wouldn’t have anyone to pillage or conquer later down the line. And even then that was more about men developing a psychological block toward stabbing one another and adhering to certain ritual rulesets than the extreme back and forth of the trenches.
It’s ripe for character background, too. You can just imagine how experiences like that might change a person who came into the war without any kind of violence in their background and could well have to shoot several men from up close who he had swapped meals with just a day before all while laughing and yelling jokes to one another across the thin strip of land between the trenches. Remember what I said the other day about characters developing a mask, a self and a denied self? You’re pretty much guaranteed to get all three and then some going through trauma like that even once, much less on a regular basis over the course of a campaign.
For another change of pace, I’d like to recommend a book where I never know if it’s underrated or everyone knows about it, because the people who have read it before are always like “yeah I thought everyone already read that.” I am talking about Blindsight by Peter Watts, a book I find so disturbing that I can’t read it more than once every few years because it fills me with true existential dread. Really, what more do you want in a space horror book? Ignore the blurbs about vampires or first contact or anything else people like to tag it with, it is about what happens when we encounter life that considers self-awareness a horrible and universe threatening plague, and then the book proceeds to back up that view with a lot of scientific research that self-awareness actually does seem like an evolutionary flaw and it’s a marvel we’ve gotten this far without blowing ourselves up. It takes the idea that as soon as you start thinking about your typing or your playing an instrument you will begin to screw it up and stumble over your own fingers, as opposed to letting your brain run on muscle memory and instinct. Now take that and expand it to an alien race who see our entire civilization as an outgrowth of that and think that we might inflict it on the rest of the cosmos, and that we are the cosmic horror in an otherwise orderly and evolutionary sound universe. Now take those aliens and send against them a group of high-functioning social misfits including sociopaths, psychopaths, MPD in a near-future where individual personalities are accorded human rights and the therapies of our current era are seen as serial killing those individual personalities by burying them alive in the unconscious, oh and something kind of like a vampire but only insofar as it has been brought back from extinction by genetic tampering and was the organism nature designed to keep our population in check across entire continents, the reason that humankind has an innate fear of the dark. There’s so much more and I could go on and on, but it’s such a good speculative fiction book, such a good horror story, such a good exploration of truly bizarre characters. Watts is a genius and, to give you an idea of his mindset when it comes to writing uncomfortable and horrifying things, once contracted necrotizing fasciitis in his leg and liveblogged the entire treatment as parts of his leg putrefied and were in danger of rotting off the bone. It’s the kind of dedication to making people sick that I can only hope to one day achieve in my own horror stories.