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In any event, there is one conclusive answer to “it’s only a movie.”

That answer is: You’ve already bought a book whose whole purpose is to discuss meaning and consequence in the Star Wars Universe! Everybody who contributed, from accuser to defender, believes there is something worth arguing about. We’ll do it because the topic matters, or because it’s fun to argue, or because we’re being paid to argue. Most likely, all three.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People Vs George Lucas (interview for Filmink magazine here). The film itself is well worth checking out, as it perfectly captures the – to outsiders – seemingly inexplicable fanrage of Star Wars devotees. However, even if the rantings and ravings on camera are not something viewers can relate to, a person would be very hard-pressed to claim they had no idea what Star Wars was, or who George Lucas is, or even – what is the Force? So from that point of view, it is difficult to write off the science fiction franchise as being ‘just for kids’, although on the opposite extreme it is equally hard to insist that it is actually a twentieth century monomyth with a straight face.

Confusingly Lucas himself has made both claims. That is just a hint of how contradictory the man’s relationship with Star Wars is.

Star Wars on Trial amusingly sticks to a court-room cross examination of the franchise itself, its strengths and failings, and the effect it has had upon the various industries swallowed up by Lucas’ empire. David Brin, following on from his evisceration of The Phantom Menace in 1999 for Salon, argues for the prosecution. Matthew Woodring Stover, also a science fiction writer, is our plucky court-appointed defence lawyer.

Perhaps that is where the problem lies with this book. Brin is presenting a critique of a series of films and their subsequent spin-off materials on the understanding that this is an intellectual exercise. Stover appears to think he is in Law and Order. The banter between the two ‘opposing counsels’ starts off being amusing, but as the argument progresses, the Lucas loyalist seems worryingly earnest, becoming insulting even at times. To wit, his attempt to frame Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent piece ‘How the Rebel Princess and the Virgin Queen Became Marginalized and Powerless in George Lucas’s Fairy Tale’, as an appeal for overt onscreen cruelty towards female characters (this is in response to the complaint that the heroine Padmé dying of a broken heart is dubious at best in this technologically sophisticated universe).

The witnesses are themselves writers or cultural theorists, who present their evidence and are then questioned by Brin or Stover. Amusingly a ‘Droid Judge’ presides over these interactions. The topics argued include the political subtext of the series, its status as science fiction – Brin argues that it is fantasy literature in drag, the would-be mythic significance of Lucas’ work, alleged plot-holes, mischaracterisation of women within the franchise and finally its legacy for the film industry.

This book has one undeniable highlight for me, a moment of pure ‘gotcha’ brilliance. For years I have heard that the Force draws upon Buddhism, Taoism, y’know that whole ‘Eastern’ lark, to pad out its pseudo-religious significance. Witness for the prosecution John C. Wright disabuses Stover of that notion quite brilliantly during the cross-examination. Robert A. Metzger mounts an especially, uh, interesting defence, arguing that Lucas has actually created a work of Gnostic significance. I found that quite fun, but hardly convincing.

One point that is made, and relates particularly to Stover who has written novelizations of the films, is that this ‘Lucas empire’ has provided a lot of writers and creators starting out with excellent opportunities. However, the counter-argument is that this in turn has led to a monopolization of both film and publishing, with science fiction itself sandbagged by the imagery and concepts of Star Wars, excluding ideas and concepts too alien for a galaxy far far away.

Overall I found this to be an intriguing and entertaining dialogue on Star Wars, but also an occasionally frustrating one. Thankfully it is more thoughtful and well-reasoned than your average chatroom debate though.

Star Wars on Trial

Watching the Dyalo snipe and bicker had disabused Martiya of the naive notion that tribal peoples would live in peaceful harmony with one another, just as watching the villagers hack down virgin forest and set it on fire for their fields had disabused Martiya of the notion that the Dyalo would live in placid harmony with nature. But as an anthropologist, she couldn’t indulge in such diverting pleasures as blood quarrels. She needed to be a neutral Switzerland, an unencumbered Sweden.

There is an amusing moment in this novel when the father of a family of Christian missionaries, attempting the save the souls of a little-known (and entirely fictional) tribe called the Dyalo from ‘enslavement’, by their pagan deities and spirits, discovers that America is in thrall to a film called Star Wars. This seeming embrace of neo-paganism, in particular the significant phrase ‘May the Force be with you’, strikes him as a revolt against two thousand years of Christian tradition. He comes to this conclusion after reading an evangelical magazine titled ‘Christian Family Alert!’.

I suspect Mr Belinski and I were reading the same magazines sometime back in the eighties, for my grandmother had a subscription to a very similar publication which in turn memorably featured a hysterical broadside against the mystic mumbo-jumbo George Lucas served up in his space-opera/swashbuckler. I became alarmed at the thought that my enthusiasm for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends was in fact a betrayal of my faith. In tears I confessed everything to my grandmother. She snorted in contempt and told me that I read too much.

On reflection, she was quite right, but sadly I never grew out of reading.

Berlinski’s astonishing debut began as an earnest anthropological study based upon his own experiences in Thailand as a journalist. Then slowly mutated into a fictional account of a different Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, in Thailand, who stumbles upon the remarkable life of a woman jailed for murder, who wrote an in-depth anthropological study while she was behind bars.

The story is in effect a murder mystery, albeit a post-modern one, with Berlinski-narrator seeking to explain the circumstances of Martiya van der Leun’s imprisonment. As his fascination with the mystery grows, his relationship with his own partner and any plans for a return to America to find a real career, raise a family, etcetera, begin to drift away.

A large section of the novel is concerned with the proselytising American family he meets in Chiang Mai and their history. The Walkers (a significant family name in American history) have for three generations preached the word of the gospel in Asia, only arriving in Thailand after being forcibly removed from China following the Communist Revolution. David Luke Walker (Berlinski perhaps setting up the Star Wars joke early on in the novel…) was the latest scion, a young man who was gifted with incredible charisma and charm, born to Dyalo culture. After all he had been born in the jungle. The narrator slowly worms his way into the trust of the clan to discover how Martiya van der Leun first met them – and then killed their favourite son under the influence of demons.

This novel manages to parallel the two Western intrusions into native culture quite ably. On the one hand the missionaries have arrived to rescue the Dyalo tribe from themselves; van der Leun comes to study them in their native habitat, hoping to interfere with their day-to-day lives as little as possible. The Walkers continually refer to America as ‘home’, despite only  David’s mother having spent more than eight months at a time there. They also euphemistically insist on referring to a person’s death as having been called ‘Home’. The apocalypse is on the horizon and it is their duty to save as many souls before the Rapture.

There is a wonderful moment when a teenage David, in a flash of rebellion, sneaks into a cinema to watch a screening of Blacula. Similar to Paul Schrader’s experience of encountering film for the first time as an adult, following a sheltered, religious upbringing, the young man is hooked by the silver screen and abandons his faith for a brief time, before his return to the jungle villages, where his fate waits along with Martiya. The scene is beautifully captured by Berlinski. Much of the novel carries a knowing insight into the minds of these characters.

A former manager recommended this book – I am very grateful. A wonderful debut.

I am very happy to be writing this review – one that has been six years in the offing. Jodorowsky’s Metabarons saga, published by Les Humanoïdes Associés (English language site), is a triumph of mind-bending science fiction. Juan Gimenez’s incredibly detailed galactic vistas and grotesque villains adds just the right amount of grandeur to an epic tale of one family’s history, descended from the sole survivor of the Castaka tribe. The story of how this comic book came to be written is almost as fascinating as the tale itself, one that began long before the character known as The Metabaron first appeared in a previous Jodorowsky book, called L’Incal.

Several years ago DC Comics, in partnership with Les Humanoïdes, began publishing English language editions of the many French titles. This was how I first discovered the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is also an artist and film director (his Tarot-inspired Western El Topo .famously earned him the patronage of John Lennon). Unfortunately the bean counters at DC decided the translated reprints were not profitable enough and discontinued the line. Only now has Humanoids resurfaced as a English language publisher, with the final volume of The Metabarons series – Aghora & The Last Metabaron – released last month. Over the years I became so desperate I made trips to Brussels to pick up original copies of the various Jodoverse titles (including the Incal and Technopriests). Now thanks to the rejuvenated Humanoids imprint I can share the entire run with my English speaking friends. For more information on Jodorowsky’s career, have a gander at Tom Lennon’s excellent overview of his work.

The Metabaron is a title given to the sole survivor of the Castaka tribe, who were wiped out due to a planetary invasion by the Imperial Army. The title is handed down from father to son, following strict rituals designed to prove the worthiness of the child to becoming a Metabaron. Firstly the child is mutilated in some fashion by their parent. Then after years of training, the two duel, with the surviving victor winning the honour of becoming the Metabaron. This is to ensure that the Castaka family will forever be known as the most dangerous and ruthless warriors in the galaxy, called upon by the Galactic Empire itself in times of need (and at great cost to its citizens).

The two dominant themes of the series are body fetishism, particularly with regard to cybernetics and prosthetic limbs and a satirical undercurrent of Freudian theories of sexuality. Almost every Jodorowsky work makes reference to the granddaddy of psychoanalysis’ theory of the Oedipus complex. Seeing as each volume of The Metabarons series contains an inversion of the trope – the son must kill the father – each Metabaron is bound by competing impulses, be the greatest warrior in the galaxy, while also raising and training their nemesis.

This is also the story of two robots, Tonto and Lothar, who serve the nameless last Metabaron. Throughout the series Tonto has served as narrator to the increasingly excitable Lothar. He also insists on abusing and humiliating his faithful audience, until events take a startling turn in the last book. Without giving anything away, Jodorowsky has not merely introduced a novel framing device to poke fun at the ever-present C-3P0 and R2D2 from the Star Wars series. The question of who and what Tonto and Lothar are becomes the central mystery of the entire saga.

There is a fascinating documentary called La constellation Jodorowsky where the mercurial creator discusses his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the silver screen (I love his description of it as a ‘wonderful failure’). There is more information on the unrealized cinema adaptation here. I find myself agreeing with Jodorowsky that his work on the film should not be considered a failure, as it gave us two great things. Firstly as a member of Jodorowsky’s Paris-based crew of creative types, it lead to Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. Furthermore another colleague of O’Bannon’s on Dune was H.R. Giger, the man who would design the Freudian nightmare that was the titular xenomorph. Secondly, Jodorowsky himself left the production with a universe of unrealized ideas, which in collaboration with Moebius led to L’Incal and later the Metabarons series. So hardly a failure all things considered.

I would urge all science fiction fans to hunt this series down. Packed with mad ideas and incredible visuals, it is a classic.

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