Monday, September 14, 2015

On Lost Stars

Lost Stars author Claudia Gray fancast Gugu Mbatha-Raw and 
Sam Reid as main characters Ciena and Thane.

Lost Stars was up-all-night-reading good, but Ciena's final arc seemed like a lose-lose in terms of agency. I've been mulling over the meaning of the ending for about a week now, and it was in zooming out that I made a sort of peace with the exciting, dramatic finale. What does it mean for Ciena - and what does that say about the Empire?

A lot of spoilers to follow.

Ciena is nothing if not a strong character. A top recruit, a TIE pilot, commander of a Star Destroyer ... she clearly takes her life into her own hands throughout the entire novel. Ciena's final decision is the most pressing she has ever made in her life, and it comes down to whether or not to kill herself. Both her family's culture and the military discipline of the Empire tell her she should go down with her ship after her fleet loses a decisive battle with the New Republic.
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At one point her vision blurred. When she lifted her hand to her face, her fingers came away wet. Ciena blinked quickly to clear her eyes. When her end came, she would not flinch. She wouldn't turn away. It was the last experience she would ever have, and she intended to be fully present for every single moment, even the pain. 
To die with honor - no one could ask for more - 
In the end, her ex-lover and best friend Thane knocks her out and carries them both to safety, him to the rebel army where he belongs and her to a jail cell.

It's an exciting, well-written ending, but the part of me that's always looking out for the agency of characters - especially women, and especially women in romantic relationships - wondered what kind of ending the book might have had if Ciena had walked out of the Star Destroyer under her own power. She certainly makes decisions - to kill herself out of sadness or kill herself out of heroism - but couldn't one of her decisions have lead her to do something other than go down with the ship?

The story at the end effectively backs Ciena into a corner. Even at the helm of a Star Destroyer, the only thing she can do is make her own death a statement. She thinks she's saving Thane by demanding that he leave the ship, but he won't go without her. The two of them literally fight one another in order to save one another, and it's a great scene. And in the end, Thane rescues her. As much as she doesn't want to be rescued, as much as she is an enemy officer defending her ship, she is still a woman being rescued.

I tried to justify that, surprised that more fans hadn't raised concerns. And I realized that her story shows the consequences of joining the Empire.

Ciena is constrained, forced by her loyalty into becoming a drone. She thinks that she's acting based on her personal honor system, but that honor has been corrupted.

Where have we seen this before? Anakin Skywalker. His desire to save the people and values he loved lead him to the dark side. He, too, was forced into choosing only death at the end of the Empire.

Vader took action and killed the Emperor, and I still would have liked to see Ciena take a stronger stance at the end of the book. But regardless of gender, it had to be the Imperial character who was put in a place of powerlessness. The good guys have to win.

And Ciena survived. Unlike Anakin, she still has a chance to make more decisions.

Her story is the catalyst for a reinforcement of one of the most important lessons in Star Wars - that although the dark side (or the Empire) appears easy and good, it ultimately leads to suffering and to a loss of self. It's a pity that loss looks so much like a lack of agency.

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