Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Enigma in Chrome: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

"You'll do well in the First Order, Phasma."

"Is that a whole book about that one character?" a guy in line behind me at the bookstore asked as I handed Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson to the cashier.

One could argue whether his surprise was warranted or not. Despite the fact that Phasma was a visual standout in Star Wars: the Force Awakens - decked out in a chrome version of the iconic stormtrooper armor, played by 6'3" Gwendoline Christie - the character was a bit player. On the other hand, the choice to have an entire novel written about such a character feels like a throwback to the stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called Legends), where no character's appearance was too fleeting to merit a detailed backstory.

Still, Phasma has become a somewhat controversial character. Many fans compared her popularity with that of Boba Fett's - another character with a badass design, but with few badass feats actually accomplished on screen. Furthermore, Phasma came off as a bit of a coward - when Finn and Han order her at gunpoint to lower Starkiller Base's shields, she acquiesces rather than risk her life, leading to Starkiller's destruction. Especially considering the lack of a villainess in the Star Wars films, the character seemed like a missed opportunity.

But having read Dawson's novel, Phasma acting differently on Starkiller now seems inconceivable. Instead of ignoring that future action (Phasma is a prequel), Dawson plunges into the heart of it. While lots of stories deal with the aftermath of a moment of cowardice (the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, the 2011 German film The Loneliest Planet, Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series of novels, etc), Dawson looks at what lead to it. By the time the novel is finished, Phasma lowering Starkiller's shields with a blaster pointed to her head is no longer evidence of weakness, but evidence of terrifying ruthlessness.

Her life, or the glory of the First Order? No question for Phasma.

Phasma opens with peppy, adorkable-ish (if you like that sort of thing) Resistance spy Vi Moradi's capture by the First Order. Once on the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer Absolution, she's taken to an off-the-record interrogation by Cardinal: a captain with solid red stormtrooper armor. Cardinal has one goal: to learn enough about Phasma to take her down. Vi has just left Phasma's home planet, Parnassos, on a mission to learn the same thing. Vi's narration of this information to Cardinal makes up most of the novel.

Before becoming Captain Phasma of the First Order, Phasma was part of a tribe called the Scyre in a blighted, toxic area of Parnassos, a planet that has suffered an apocalyptic event. The Scyre don't know the specifics of the disaster that happened generations earlier, but they doggedly eke out a living in their harsh coastal territory. Phasma and her brother Keldo rule the clan jointly, but there are cracks in their partnership: Phasma wants to expand their territory, while Keldo is satisfied with what they have.

Phasma's brother Keldo

That simmering conflict reaches a boiling point when First Order General Brendol Hux (father of future General Armitage Hux) and a few stormtroopers crash land on Parnassos. Imperious but diplomatic Brendol wows the clan with his stories of the First Order and how its medicine and technology can benefit them...if they help him back to his crashed ship. When Keldo refuses, Phasma rounds up some of her most trusted warriors and undertakes the task herself, abandoning the Scyre.

I've seen several readers compare Phasma to Mad Max: Fury Road, and Phasma, Brendol, and co.'s mad dash across the Parnassos wasteland warrants that. That isn't to say Dawson copies - her barren dystopia is its own place with a well thought-out history. As the group contends with the unforgiving environment and unpredictable encounters, Brendol and Phasma become closer and more conspiratorial. Soon, Phasma's followers wonder if they ever knew her at all.


Back on the Absolution, Cardinal must decide what to do with the information Vi has given him. He is loyal to the First Order, and he has good reasons: he was an orphan starving on Jakku (yes, Jakku!) before being taken in by the late Brendol Hux. He trains the children the First Order, um, "finds," and truly loves his young charges. With Cardinal, Dawson has given us an empathetic, moving look at "the other side" that might not be so "other" (I thought of David Schwarz's recent great essay, Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism a lot while reading Cardinal's parts).

This novel is a must-read for those wanting to learn more about the mysterious First Order. The parts with Brendol and Armitage Hux build upon what we learned of them in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End (we even get insight into their different interior decorating aesthetics!). I feel particularly vindicated in my long-held assumption that the First Order is a lot like the school car in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, and Dawson throws in some Brave New World as well. There's still so much more to learn, however, that I hope will be revealed in The Last Jedi.

And thanks to Dawson, Phasma is now another reason I'm excited for The Last Jedi. I can't wait to see if Phasma's co-commanders, Armitage Hux and Kylo Ren, will learn the truth of what happened on Starkiller. If so, what will this cold-blooded killer do to continue her sole mission: keeping herself alive?

They've had better days. Sort of. A lot of their days have sucked.

Image info:

Header image and Finn & Phasma:
Keldo and Cardinal: promotional posters by James Zapata
Beleaguered First Order leadership: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Metropolitan Opera Revises its Season to Capitalize on Star Wars

Time for a night at the opera!

Vincenzo Bellini, Norma Padme

An important leader in a time of political strife has a forbidden lover, bears him two children, is betrayed by him, and dies.

Casta Diva

Richard Wagner, Siegfried Skywalker

A young man of secretly noble parentage takes up his father’s sword and sets out on a quest in order to become a hero.

Is that a call to adventure, or are you just happy to see me?

Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme La Rogue

A rag-tag group of attractive people, united by their rebellious nature, share companionship before tragedy strikes.

Who do you think sings Musetta's Waltz? My money's on Chirrut.

Giacomo Puccini, Madame Butterfly M. Anakin

After naively swearing loyalty in his youth to a cruel man, Anakin refuses to doubt his master for years. When he finally realizes the truth, says goodbye to his son and chooses to die with honor.

"I'll promote you above grand moff when the robins make their nests."

Georges Bizet, The Pearl Fishers The Space Pirates

Han and Lando are good friends who go way back. They talk a lot about how they would never betray each other. They even have a duet about it. It’s an amazing duet. Then comes the sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Trust me.

Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto Jar Jar

The screw-ups of what would generally be a harmless comic relief character result in devastation.

I refuse to put a pic of Jar Jar on my blog, so here's Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto.

Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville The Pilot of the Resistance

Poe Dameron, the titular pilot of the resistance, isn’t even the main character. He’s just a charismatic guy who is good at solving problems for the protagonists.

Dameron! Dameron! Daaaaaamerooon!

Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor Kylo di Chandrila

Family pressures and a generations-long conflict between rival groups culminate in a dramatic domestic stabbing. Be prepared for lots of red!

Didn't wear white to dramatically show off blood splatter?
Then get to some snow to bleed out on, ASAP.

John Adams, Nixon in China Tarkin in Alderaan

Instead of destroying Alderaan, Tarkin visits in hopes of gaining influence. Everything goes okay until a polemical dance number horrifies Darth Vader and drives Princess Leia mad with power. 

Seriously though. Imagine Leia singing "I am the child of Organa" and then having a stare down with Mon Mothma.

Image info:
Norma: Wikimedia
Siegfried: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
The Pearl Fishers: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
Rigoletto: Cory Weaver for San Francisco Opera
Lucia di Lammermoor: Theater Byte/Metropolitan Opera

P.S. Snoke is the Queen of the Night. Pablo Hidalgo has confirmed this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Leaving San Francisco, Keeping the Poems

China Beach

I knew it was going to happen eventually: getting priced out of San Francisco. For the past few years, the SF housing crisis and its astronomical rents have been international news, and I don't live in a rent-controlled unit. Friends and co-workers, especially those starting families, have left the city in droves to find slightly more affordable housing. Others have been subject to suspect "owner move-in" evictions. In 2015, quintessential San Franciscan cartoonist Paul Madonna was evicted from his Mission apartment and studio. When my roommate and I got notice that our rent (which has gone up annually for years) would be increasing by $600 a month, it was time to leave.

I'm not a lifelong SF resident. I moved to the city in January 2009 with my copy of Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco (I can't imagine what the most current edition recommends). However, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wonder if eventually I won't be able to afford to live within a three-hour radius of San Jose, the city where I was born.

I spent a lot of time on the 38 Geary

In the meantime, however, I've signed the lease for a tiny but lovely Oakland studio (where I'll be able to have a cat!), and look forward to exploring a new city. And I'm not completely leaving San Francisco - like scores of other East Bay residents, I'll be crossing the bay every weekday morning to the Financial District, where I work as an administrative assistant. But I will miss the Richmond District, the "uncool" but formerly affordable neighborhood I've inhabited in three different apartments since first arriving in the city.

This weekend I hauled two large bags of books to sell to Green Apple Books, the Inner Richmond landmark and my favorite bookstore in the world. Afterwards, I stopped by 6th Ave. Aquarium, the crowded, sketchy store where a shark for sale inspired my poem "Wobbygong Shark $299.99." While saying a mental goodbye to the area, I thought of how San Francisco, and especially the Richmond District, has shaped my writing. Perhaps because of "write what you know" and the city's own varieties of beauty and ugliness, San Francisco is the setting for two of my (unpublished) novels and various poems.

Sharks and stingrays for sale at 6th Ave. Aquarium

When I first moved to the city, the places I explored on the weekends were mostly tourist hotspots. One favorite place to go was North Beach. There, I would eat cannoli at Stella's and browse at City Lights Books. A disturbing incident there became my poem "City Lights, Dirty Window." Looking back, I think of how differently I would have handled the situation as an early-thirty-something instead of an early-twenty-something (of course, the creep probably knew better than to target someone who would break his nose). I can now see the statues mentioned from my office building, where they stand as a reminder that art and darkness exist side-by-side in this city.

Corona Heights Park

Long before I moved to the city, the Richmond District was important to me. It was a family tradition to meet my late maternal grandparents for lunch at Louis', the little clifftop diner overlooking Seal Rocks and the ruins of Sutro Baths. My mom shares memories of outings to the long-gone Playland-at-the-Beach, where now stands the Safeway I go to for seaside grocery shopping.

One thing I love about the Richmond District is this proximity to the ocean. I live close to China and Baker Beaches, but sometimes I also visit Ocean Beach, which is the western border of the Richmond and Sunset Districts (and San Francisco itself).  In February, I joined thousands at Ocean Beach for a protest of the Trump administration. I tried to capture the feeling of this popular - but still wild and dangerous - beach in my poem "Ocean Beach, Late November."

Ocean Beach (in July)

The Richmond District is also known for its fog. While a bane to some, the fog, known as Karl to many, is generally beloved. I love and will miss the way light halos through it. The often repeated experience of going to a movie at the 100+ years old 4 Star Theatre and then walking home through the fog led me to write "The 4 Star Theatre." When the poem was published, I was touched to get an email from someone who had used to live in the neighborhood and had recognized the little theater.

With the fog comes the foghorn. The plaintive, demanding sound can be difficult for new residents to sleep with, but you soon get used to it. My most distinct memory of the foghorn comes from September 2009. A few weeks earlier I had undergone a thyroidectomy at UCSF due to papillary thyroid carcinoma (a type of thyroid cancer). I was back at my then-apartment at Clement and 16th Avenue, and was looking in the mirror, getting ready to peel off the final bandage from my neck. The foghorn made for a spooky soundtrack as I slowly revealed my scar.

The 4 Star Theatre

I'll miss my neighborhood. I'll miss the fog, the foghorn, the cold beaches, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower. I'll miss walking to the Legion of Honor, one of my favorite museums. I'll miss my apartment's bay windows. I'll wonder about the future of the city, which at the moment only seems interested in welcoming those making six figures. But I'll always have my San Francisco writings, and for that, I am thankful.

Sutro Tower

All photos mine.