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 

No comments:

Post a Comment