Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Star Wars: X-Wing: Mercy Kill

Mercy Kill is full of joyful silliness. It also contains death, double-crosses, and the gross-out factor of Yuuzhan Vong technology, but the image of a half-dressed Gamorrean sensuously dancing is the one that I had trouble burning out of my brain.

That's the beginning of my Knights Archive review, which can be found below. It's also the start of some thoughts I left out of the review, because the book was good and did not take itself too seriously.

I, however, did.

It’s hard to take a Gamorrean doing the “Walk Like An Egyptian” dance seriously, except that he’s so obviously pastiching the role of the Twi’lek dancers that show up as background in most Star Wars media. It’s humor of substitution, but also played straight: Gamorrean ladies cheer when Voort takes his clothes off. The dance is also made a big part of Voort’s characterization in that it helps him on missions and he enjoys it.

If this was any other sort of character - Twi’lek female, human female, human male - I would think that readers would look at these scenes a little differently, with more of an eye for whatever statement it might make about the taboo or empowerment of sensuality. It might generate uncomfortable feelings instead of a laugh. 

Author Aaron Allston is careful to provide diversity elsewhere too, with enemy soldiers described in all genders, species, shapes, and sizes. Although some descriptions tried too hard to reference real-world culture, the mooks were far from faceless. Everyone has an equal right to being beaten up. And everyone has an equal right to what might be called objectification, which in this book is portrayed as a very positive thing if it helps the person who is choosing their role as object.

I don't think that Allston intended for Mercy Kill to make any grand statements. I don't think that the film Magic Mike intended to make any grand statements. But I invite you to think about what kind of buzz Mercy Kill might have generated if the main character was human.

My original review appeared on Knghts Archive:
Mercy Kill is full of joyful silliness. It also contains death, double-crosses, and the gross-out factor of Yuuzhan Vong technology, but the image of a half-dressed Gamorrean sensuously dancing is the one that I had trouble burning out of my brain. I wouldn’t say that it goes on to define the tone of the whole novel, but it makes a big impact.

So, what is the tone of the whole novel? It’s a mix between A New Hope and Inception, with a team of fighters, thinkers, and actors ranging across the galaxy. Instead of changing reality, they change faces and break stereotypes to get their mission done.

The main character is Voort “Piggy” saBinring, a Gamorrean pilot-turned-professor. His relationship with the other squad members marks the deepest characterization in the book. His conversations with other pilots deviate from the war plot to instead discuss motivations and fears that could apply to the real world as well as the galaxy far, far away. I found Voort’s dialogue some of the funniest in the book, including some references to math that made me laugh out loud not only because they were funny, but because they showed the unique way in which the very intelligent Voort views the world.
Voort is also far from the model-pretty human protagonists who are perhaps the natural inhabitants of a world based on a blockbuster film. Voort’s appearance and alien status makes him a refreshing character. It also brings us back to the dancing. Multiple times Voort takes what is basically the role of the obsequious Twi’lek dancers and distracts an audience with some shimmying.

The second character who gets a lot of face time is Bhindi Drayson, the Wraiths’ leader, who appeared as an incidental character in a few New Jedi Order books. The team has almost as many women as men on the roster, and like the others she’s skilled in stealth and combat. She’s also criticized for having too much of a motherly instinct toward her troops, and her character arc helps Voort’s carry on.

A Yuuzhan Vong character represents the species that dominated the New Jedi Order but was sidelined in most of the latter books. Viull “Scut” Gorsat was adopted by a human family, making him familiar with human culture as well as with the technology of the Yuuzhan Vong. His purpose in Mercy Kill is less as an ambassador of his species and more as an individual – Voort makes the mistake of laying on him all of the Gamorrean’s vitriol toward the extragalactic species. Their conversations was great, and the dynamic they end up with at the end is very different from at the beginning. Voort also supplies a lot of the disguises for the team – living, slimy disguises based on the ooglith masquers that caused so much trouble for the New Republic. Seeing them in action on the side of the good guys was exciting, and it’s nice to see the slow but sure technological development of the GFFA.

Another source of conflict is the generational gab between members of the team, and the wars they have or have not faced. One character refers to “Civil War Two”, another half-reference to the real world that felt a bit coy to me. The titular mercy kill stretches across both generations and ties into other parts of the book, including Voort’s characterization arc and the main plot line.

Everything ties together nicely at the end, and I had fun re-reading parts of the flashback sequences to see where characters recurred and relationships started. The central question of the novel is whether Voort can free himself of the guilt, fear, and anger he’s built up over the years of war – a question consistent with the Star Wars movies’ teachings about the the light side even if they’re taught to a character who isn’t Force sensitive. Other questions include who will survive, which lasers and missile shots will hit their targets, and whether Voort could have ever gotten through this mission without his ability to dance.

The fine print: DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book from the publisher at no charge in order to provide an early review. However, this did not affect the overall review content. All opinions are my own.

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