Vince Shuta: Engineer, Writer and Raconteur
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jezza
If you're one of the 350 million people worldwide who regularly watches the British version of the BBC's "Top Gear" television show, seeing a headline that Jeremy Clarkson has done something boorish is about as surprising as the sun coming up. It's what he does. He's hilarious to watch but you wouldn't want him as a neighbor.
Well, you wouldn't want his TV persona as a neighbor. I mean really that's all the experience we have of the man, and I think most of us assume that 99% of the bizarre behavior we see is shtick. In the most recent episode, after Richard Hammond had spent three days at -10F in a tent, lost on a mountain in Canada, totally dependent on rescue by Clarkson and fellow presenter James May, Clarkson suggests a race. Whoever finds him first doesn't have to rescue him, and listen to him bitch and complain on the ride home. (Or carry his corpse.)
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This is hilarious, because most people wouldn't leave their worst enemies to die in the cold, and drive past them. (On the fourth day of Hammond's ordeal, Jeremy did just that, as Hammond screamed at him.) He is presenting himself as having utterly zero empathy, which isn't something that's really believable. You have to assume that Hammond is in on the joke, and the whole thing was planned—even though it's not presented that way.
Another time he placed crosses on the "Road of Death" in Bolivia, assuming that his mates have gone off the steep, unprotected cliffs, and heads off to dinner.
In competitions, he is quite happy to cheat to get his way (though perhaps not more than James May) and will seemingly deliver whatever thoughts come to his mind without any sort of filter.
In season after season, this is one of the running gags. Clarkson is a real-world Zaphod Beeblebrox, running around as if the world was created for him and he is the most important thing in it. And like Zaphod, this character works for us because it creates that contrast with reality that is required for humor to work. We simply can't believe he's that much of a jerk. And because we can't believe this, we give him the credit of being a comedic genius.
Racist comments? Oh that's just an act designed to make him look calculatingly unsophisticated--a man of the people. And so un-PC! Besides, no one takes racist comments seriously anymore, right? They just make the person who uses them look like some sort of boor or idiot. And that was Clarkson's goal, wasn't it? It's his style of being the clown. Genius!
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And if there's real trouble, an honest apology re-enforces the view that such errors are just the dangers of playing on the edge with this sort of character.
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But what happens when he's accused of smacking an executive producer because the shooting schedule ran late and now the chef has gone home from the hotel? Most people, no matter how tired, would simply ask where they could go for food. How late could they have been? Perhaps I'm spoiled, but here in Northeast Pennsylvania I'm never more than a few minutes from a very good diner open 24/7—and I have my choice of several.
Let's say everything was closed. The hotel still offered them some cold fair. Most people would have a sandwich and call it a day. Clarkson is not most people, and apparently snapped on his executive producer, in some degree striking him. How hard and how often is not made clear, but it's also not relevant. This is bizarre behavior.
The logical conclusion is that we have a Charlie Sheen situation. Charlie got in trouble for the just the sort of behavior he was famous for on "2 1/2 Men." Using large amounts of controlled substances and carousing with hookers was exactly how his character would like to spend his weekends. Sheen was paid millions for presenting this character onscreen. Did that level of reward rewire his brain to be like the character? Or did they need someone to play a hedonist and they simply found a hedonist?
In this case, has Clarkson simply become the character he created? Was he still "In Character" at the end of the day? Is he always "In Character" now? Or is this a case of a boor finding his true calling?
We'll probably never know. Very little can be trusted here. That the BBC is talking about shelving the last three episodes of their most popular show and cancelling it makes the whole matter suspect. They could sell the last three "lost episodes" of Top Gear for many, many quid. If they broadcast time, they are almost guaranteed higher ratings because of the free publicity.
Is this all a stunt to get ratings, or is Clarkson a true bully?
I'd like to think it's a stunt, planned in advance as well as every other bit of cruelty from the shows. If not, it taints my view of everything I've seen.
And let's not pretend the producers are innocent here. The producers have sent them through war zones in convertibles, given them economy cars and told them to run out of gas before they got to Chernobyl, and gave them Viagra so they wouldn't get an embolism going over the Guallatiri volcano.
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British comedy is really until you realize they're not kidding. Once you cross that line it becomes heavy and sad. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is fun if it's taken as a bizarre universe that doesn't exist, as opposed to sci-fi extension of a view of our world as meaningless and bureaucratic. It's a much more serious set of books if read a certain way.
The same is true for Top Gear. Is it still funny if they really are being mean to each other? If they're not all in on the joke, is it still funny?
Mel Brooks famously said "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall through an open sewer and die." Just as sci-fi requires you to suspend your disbelief, comedy may require you to suspend your empathy—which is a hell of a lot easier if you know it isn't real.
If anything dooms Top Gear, it's not going to be Jeremy getting canned over hitting a producer. It's going to be that tearing away of the veil. Or rather, the discovery that there wasn't a veil at all.
On the bright side, if Clarkson still wants to stay with the show, and if Oisin Tymon wants to continue producing the show with Clarkson on board, and if Danny Cohen can somehow focus on the money instead of how much he loathes Clarkson and/or the controversies he spawns like twisters from a hurricane, there is an easy path back.
All Clarkson has to do is make a statement that it was just a typical blokesy kind of thing that the English do, and that he's patched things up with Tymon. Perhaps he could buy him an expensive wooden golf club or something. Hammond could tweet that it should have been a putter since Jezza's such a putz, and life goes on as it did before. We, the viewers, will have our illusions restored.
That doesn't mean it's all smiles, happiness, and good lager in Top Gear land, but then it never was, was it?
Update: March 13, 2015
More details coming out, with alleged Irish slurs, references to female anatomy, and a split lip only offset by the fact that it was Clarkson who reported the incident to the BBC. Alcohol may have played a role. He may have to promise to get some sort of therapy to keep the Top Gear train chugging (my opinion only...hasn't been mentioned yet.) But right now it looks like the end of the road for Top Gear. That seems like a sad thing, especially for the 350 million people world wide who watch it. But if these abuses are the norm, it's probably for the best.
Update: March 27, 2015
Well, that’s that. Clarkson is fired, and possible on the path to being arrested. Here are James May’s initial thoughts:Dim lights Embed Embed this video on your site
I wasn't there, but if screaming at someone for the better part of a half-hour and then punching them in the mouth is a small thing, one wonders what terrors lurked behind the scenes.
The whole thing is so disappointing.
I’m disappointed that a great show now lives only in reruns. Even if they reboot it, and the reboot is great, it’s still not the same.
I’m disappointed that punch was ever thrown. Blame the schedule or the alcohol or Jezza himself, one bad lapse of judgment has ruined something great. (There’s a lesson there kids.)
And I’m really disappointed that we’ll never find out if Jeremy is pinky-swear bound to legally change his name to Jennifer. To my knowledge the Stig never got to run the Porsche 918 against the McLaren P1. If the Porsche won, Jezza would be Jenny thanks to a bet with Hammond.:
I guess it doesn't matter. I imagine all bets are off now.
Excerpt # 5
Chapter 100: The Chain
Chris strode down the hallway toward the May’s enlisted bunks. His information was as fresh as his shirt, and he hoped it would bring Rachael out of the funk she was in. She was offered a room in the main living quarters that Uncle Pat built next to the bridge, but she asked if she could come down here. Chris theorized she was extracting some security from the Spartan, bunker-like atmosphere. Or, perhaps she just wanted to hide. It wasn’t an uncommon emotion among those who watched two goons walk away from a hanger while they were still burning. He was a bit rattled himself.
She had the lights turned down in the hallways on this level. This said volumes for her current frame of mind. “Lights up” he said periodically, bringing a sense of daytime to the floor once again.
He stopped before opening her door, knocked twice, and activated the release. “Rachael, it’s me,” he called out, hoping to reduce his chances of being shot. “Are you decent?”
“No, but I’m dressed.”
He walked in the bunk room, and said “Lights up.” The lights came on and he saw Rachael shading her eyes, standing up from a bottom bunk. She had on a white t-shirt and some navy jogging pants. She didn’t look exactly ready for action, but he figured that might be a plus since they were still in a holding pattern.
“Dice and Easy have reported in from New Ecuador,” Chris explained. “Apparently for the last several months, Mayhem has been renting freighters, loading them with stimulants, narcotics, and tobacco, and flying them into the Junkyard. The ships return form the Junkyard empty on autopilot.”
“You’ve lost me. That’s a one way trip. How is she doing this over and over again?” Rachael asked. “She’s been renting other freighters on New Siberia, loading them with guns and ammo from the weapons factories, and running them to New Ecuador. She reappears on New Ecuador the next day.”
“You can’t pull off those runs that fast—not the way you’re saying it.”
Chris leaned on one of the bunks. “That’s what has Scotch confused, but he guarantees she’s back in two days tops. She’s coming from the right direction for that run, and the guns check out as coming from New Siberia.” He watched Rachael trying to figure out the puzzle, and though he had more pieces, he wanted to give her a chance to put what she had together.
Still she shook her head. “What was she flying?” she asked. “Here’s where it gets interesting,” Chris answered. “She’s been flying big ships; large cargo haulers with heavy armor and heavier guns. The last ship she rented was a ship called the One-Eyed Jack which is back at New Ecuador with battle damage. An identical ship, with the same name, was discovered in the scanner registries of the Asguard ships in dock here. The histories showed it appearing on their screens from directly behind the Devil’s skull, empty and unmanned.”
Rachael turned her back on him, and walked away for a minute, seemingly lost in thought.
He continued. “Dice, Easy and Scotch are going to arrange for a tour of the ship, and see what they can find out. If they can get to the main computers…”
“Wait a minute,” she said turning around. “You’re telling me that my sister has been magically moving between two star systems, and her ships are materializing from solid rock and flying themselves home.”
“I expect we’ll find out some pretty complicated things are going on. And I think our chances of finding your sister are very good at this point,” he replied.
She shook her head again, and turned her back on him. “We won’t walk out of here alive let alone see her…what has she gotten into?”
Chris heard something new in her voice—despair. “Rachael, we’re really moving forward. We’ve got leads now. There’s no reason to…”
Rachael whirled around and took a knife out of her pocket. The black handle was folded closed around the blade. “Do you know what this is?” She asked.
“Philippine bailsong style knife, approximately 6 inches in length; also know as a ‘butterfly knife.’ It’s illegal to carry in many places, but manipulating it is considered a performance art in others. From the style of the handle, I can tell that one is shield boosted.”
She snapped it open, and sure enough, an orange glow suffused the blade. “Now watch closely,” she said, and snapped her wrist forward an inch. The orange light momentarily extended for a few inches past the end of the blade, while needles of light of varying length shot out at right angles to the blade. It was obvious that the knife was designed for fatal strikes.
“I get it. You finally have an adversary you can’t drop in a blink. I’d think you’d be excited for the challenge.”
“Don’t mock me, Bellweather,” she snarled. “I do a lot of stuff that would be dangerous for anyone else, but there’s never a question of failure in my mind. Now I can’t see a way to win.”
“How do you know victory will involve killing?” Chris replied. “How do you know what we’ll need to do?”
She cocked her head to one side and looked at him. “We’ve been hiding in a gunship inside a locked hanger since they attacked. How long will it be after we set foot outside before...” Again she turned her back on him. This time she hung her head. “I shouldn’t have brought anyone in on this. Now you’re all going to get wiped out.”
“Hey, Asguard contacted us directly. If you hadn’t come to us we would have walked into the trap blind. We owe you to some extent,” Chris said, trying to calm her. “You don’t have to go anywhere. You can stay here while we figure everything out. Honestly, my gut instinct is we haven’t been guided to this point to be destroyed. We’re involved for a purpose.”
“Purpose!” She screamed. She whirled around, knife in hand. “Don’t start with me about purpose, Preacher. I gave up on purpose the day my parents sealed me in a tomb while they roasted alive. What was the purpose of that, huh Preacher? The only guidance from above that I ever experienced was guided missiles.” She hurled the knife across the room--away from him thankfully. She stood there shaking with rage, staring at him.
Chris squelched his own anger, trying to find the right response. Has she forgotten that my own parents were killed by nuclear fire? Perhaps I should remind her of…
That was it.
“Follow me for a minute,” he said leaving the barracks, and into an office next door. He opened a desk, and took out what looked like a small, curved piece of aluminum, as thick as his pinky. As she walked into the room, he stuck the computer interface to his forehead. A city appeared on the wall. It looked like Inner Harbor, but bigger. The domes were all huge hangers under construction, with some sort of huge building to one side. Cranes and heavy equipment were working everywhere.
“This was the construction site for a new resort being built by Stellar Luxury Cruise Lines.” Chris explained. “They’d been running tours to Janus-5 for decades, but none of the docks could handle their new super-liners. These giant hangers would handle the ships, and these structures over here would act as luxury hotels and casinos. They were going to have a contest among the denizens of Inner Harbor to name the city, and everyone was very excited.”
“Uncle Pat was offered a job managing the maintenance on the big ships, but he turned it down. He’d just been promoted to his current position, and he said it just didn’t feel right.”
He watched her face change from anger to shock as the picture behind him shifted. “This is the site a week after four 30 megaton fusion bombs were detonated simultaneously at the corners of the work site. Over thirty thousand workers died.”
Anger returned to her face. “Why would anyone do that?” she choked. She blanched as the scene behind him changed again. “As retaliation for this attack,” he replied. Behind him was the smoldering wreckage of Rocktown. “Which was of course retaliation for attacks on Stellar shipping,” he continued. The scene changed again, showing the twisted wreckage of a cruise liner; shot to pieces for refusing to surrender to pirates.
“Do you see the pattern?” He asked, in a controlled tone. “Bad things happen because people do bad things. And then other people do bad things. And the chain of hate and violence goes unbroken. Innocents are killed in the name of the innocents who were killed. Some would say my Uncle didn’t take the job there because he was guided not to. Even if he wasn’t at the site, he’d be unemployed. Stellar abandoned Janus-5 after this.”
She was staring at him, searching for an argument. “Let’s take another example.” The scene shifted behind him again, to a planet surrounded by dense, almost black clouds. She held her breath—unable to speak. He continued. “The entire population of Juno-4 was wiped out by the Stuttgart Mining Corporation, when the workers of the planet formed a union and Stuttgart's forces there mutinied. However, a small cache of children managed to survive the bombing. Some called it a miracle—until they became one of the deadliest groups of assassins known to mankind.”
She walked up and slapped him across the face. He could have blocked it, but he expected it and let her vent. His expression didn’t change, and he didn’t slow down. “You were there, Rachael. Did it not take some tremendous ‘luck’ to survive? What guided you through that hell and out the other side? Haven’t you ever had bursts of intuition that saved your skin? Had others that you ignored and paid for?”
She went to punch him this time, and this time he blocked it, grabbing her fist and holding it fast. “You want to believe in nothing; that’s your business. But don’t tell me it’s because you see evil. You’re part of the chain of violence. In ways big and small everyone is. We’re all free to be part of that chain. We’re also free to break it.” He let go of her hand, pulled the interface from his head and tossed it on the desk. “I’m not perfect, Rachael, but I’m trying to break what links I can.”
She turned and started to walk away from him. “Chris,” she said, just as she reached the door. Her voice was calm, but she wasn’t looking at him.
“Yes,” he prompted.
“Who blew up the resort?” Had she turned to face him, she would have known the answer. The heartbreak in his eyes would have told the story.
“No one was ever charged—there wasn’t any evidence.”
“That’s not what I asked you, but I think I know the answer.”
With that, she walked away, leaving Chris to wonder if he had won or lost.
Oh that's not good
I was about to post this story on the Choking Hazard Podcast in the comment section, but it is so dear to my heart that I figured I would post it on my own web page first, just as proof of originality and ownership. This was posted May 1, 2020, but happened some 25 years earlier.
Pittston, PA. Summer of 1995.
I was working as a contract design engineer at Techneglas. The plant made TV screens—twenty two million screens a year. Almost every TV in the store had a screen made in Pittston.
The plant was massive. Over a third of a mile long, it included three massive furnaces several stories high to melt raw and recycled materials into glass. These only lasted seven years because the bricks were part of the glass formula. Eventually the molten glass would wear through the walls, and before that happened, the furnace needed to be torn down and rebuild. And while you're doing that, you might as well rebuild everything.
In the summer of '95 I was working night shift on the “B” shop rebuild. We were in the tear down mode, and I was point out some equipment to a coworker that had to be removed by morning. In mid sentence I stopped what I was saying, and said “Oh that's not good.”
About thirty or so feet in front of us was a control room. As near as I could tell, the Death Star had just exploded in it.
Blue sparks poured from every crevice around the door. All the lighting in “B” and “A” shops went out and were replaced by emergency lights. Smoke followed the sparks.
We ran as fast as we could, and I got to the door first. I remember thinking I was too young to see what I was about to see. I expected carnage...death. But I took deep breath and ripped open the door.
What greeted me was a scene out of a Roadrunner cartoon.
Two electricians were standing in front of a smoking electrical disconnect. Their shirts were smoking. They were both standing with their jaws dropped. Not moving at all.
I grabbed the closest one by the arm and pulled him out of the smoke. My coworker grabbed the other one. I immediately asked, “What the F*** did you do?”
In retrospect, this was not a particularly sensitive first question. “Are you all right?” would have been better. But their arms were all in the right place, and I was young.
The second electrician explained. The first electrician—the one I had pulled out—had just had an argument with the shop steward, as he was the union rep and they had come to some disagreement.
He was so annoyed at whatever was going on, he opened a three phase, 480 volt electrical disconnect, and proceeded to disconnect one of the legs.
He said the words, “You know I never checked to see if that was...” and before he could say “live” the wire touched the case.
You could see where it touched the case, because the steel was melted.
If that wasn't enough of a hint, there were three black triangles burned into the wall, that looked just like the blaster marks from the first battle in the original star wars.
The lugs in the disconnect had all snapped off from the violence of the electromagnetic cataclysm that had happened in that box.
When we found and woke up the plant night shift electrician (who was totally unmoved by the whole thing, except for the fact that we had disturbed his nap) we ended up walking around the plant for I forget how long finding blown breakers. Eventually we had to go to the main transformers, where the 1000 amp lightning arresters were tripped.
The power outage (or power cut , if that is the British way of putting it) shut down three production lines as well as all the power in the area where the rebuild was happening.
But before that, after about 10 minutes after the explosion, the electrician who had forgotten to take the electrical power tester out of his top pocket before unleashing a potentially deadly blast of electricity, finally said something.
“OK...I can see now.”
Excerpt # 4
Hikari “The Whisper” Daisuke showered, put on her nightclothes, and lay down on the bed. Simple flannel pajamas kept her warm, and attempted to coax her to sleep.
Her tired muscles longed for sleep. For days it seemed they had been tensed, ready to move if called upon. Her dark eyes longed for sleep—for a stretch without constant focus.
Her silken hair framed a face that also longed for sleep. Joe told her over and over she could quit this job and become a model if she could unfurrow her brow for the length of the catwalk. Kari often missed the complement embedded in the tease, and often succeeded in denying her undeniable beauty.
She would argue back that her brow was often quite relaxed thank you very much, just not when there was danger.
Now even her face was tired from the danger.
Only her mind wanted to keep going—wanted her on her feet in case…in case what? Her mind had no answer for that, and that troubled her the most.
With a thought she turned on the lights, and looked around. The apartment was as she left it before going to earth. It was nearly identical to Joe’s apartment, but for the pictures and nick-knacks. The apartment hadn’t seen use in years, and plastic covered every piece of furniture but the bed. She could see nothing to concern her, and shut the lights off again. She forced her eyes closed, and tried to will herself to sleep.
By midnight it was obvious that sleep was not in the cards. Her mind would simply not shut down. Beyond the events of the last few days, which demanded their own attention, the return to Bellona-4 was having an unexpected effect on her. It had been five years since she last set foot on this dust ball, but something about the place was taking her back in time. She closed her eyes and tried to blot it out; back in time was not somewhere she wished to go.
She figured she would be able to relax now that Joe had landed. The apartment computer had told her that much. It was late, and he probably expected her to be sleeping. No, she corrected herself: he hoped she was sleeping, but expected her to be up. So why didn’t he see her right away? Was he disappointed in her somehow?
Nonsense, she thought. She did everything Joe would have wanted. In the end result she had to leave him to fend for himself. She felt a sense of failure in that. Just like...
Exercise; perhaps if she worked out for a bit, she could exhaust herself enough then she could get some sleep. It shouldn’t take much. She hopped out of bed, and put on a heavy robe. She closed her eyes as nanotech raced through the fabric of the robe, and her practice armor was assembled. It was pale white, and weighted a good bit more than her regular armor. Her own armor felt feather light by comparison—which was the point of course. This was optimized to help you develop, while the light armor was optimized for combat.
She opened her eyes; The Whisper was ready for a workout.
She took the lift down to the gym on the fifth floor. On one side of the hall were exercise machines and an Olympic sized pool. On the other, was a huge room used for sports. She entered "the Arena" as Easy called it, and surveyed the scene. The practice mat was out and the bleachers were recessed into the wall. She was surrounded by hardwood on all sides. It was probably one of the most expensive rooms to construct in the building, but the architect had insisted that you couldn't have a gym made of metal and not have serious injuries.
She cupped a small ball from a nearby table. With a thought it stretched and shifted into a sword. It wasn't as strong, as light, or as balanced as her good sword, but God help anyone who crossed her while she wielded it.
She started a routine without thinking, starting from a defensive stance, and performed a full spin into a low strike. As she leaped and spun, her practice blade whistling through the air, she stopped fighting her own thoughts and let them drift where they would.
Six years ago, on Katana-3...
The Katana Solar System—so named because “cutting edge” technology would allow it to be conquered—had been colonized by a conglomerate of companies from the Far East and the country that was still then known as the United States. The colonists set out in 2089, in cryogenic sleeper ships.
“Cutting edge” technology has its problems though, and after fifty eight years of traveling between earth and the third planet of the Katana system, seventeen thousand of the thirty thousand settlers were dead on arrival. Their bodies were converted to a tasteless, gritty paste that the remaining colonists used to supplement their food stores until greenhouses could be established.
It was a harsh existence. The planet had its own flora and fauna. Disease ravaged the colonists, and by the time the main living structures, power facilities, and greenhouses were fully constructed, their number had dropped to five thousand.
Pain can do one of two things; kill empathy or cause it to blossom. The people of Katana-3 made their choice, and created a society that lacked any sense of empathy. Instead of sharing the pain of others, they cast suffering aside as unimportant. Death meant more room at the table for the survivors.
For the first thirty years of their existence, they could not feed more than 20 thousand people at a time. Disease and other hazards kept the numbers down at first, but eventually they were faced with a population problem.
It was deemed foolish to restrict procreation, as they needed as varied a gene pool as possible. But they couldn't feed everyone. At first, they executed the excess by random lot. But this seemed to be a waste as well.
So they developed the contest.
It began when the children entered school. All children were trained in the martial arts from the age of five. Children who excelled especially well in certain areas were given a pass from the final contest. All others participated from the age of sixteen through the age of eighteen. Every four months they would fight one of their peers from somewhere on the planet to the death. If you survived the first battle after your eighteenth birthday, you were allowed to continue in Katana society. If you were killed, your killer said these words: "I can not live if you do not die."
Eventually, they got enough scientists together that they were able to tame the environment. They knew what they could eat, what they couldn't, and how to grow things outside the bio-domes. Their immune systems developed to handle the environment. When they re-established contact with earth, they developed inoculations for travelers so that they wouldn't die as soon as they set foot on the planet.
They developed cites, removed the population limit, and began to flourish.
But tradition dies hard; much harder than Katana-3’s children.
The rules changed. It was turned into a ladder system with a yearly champion, and the participants were all eighteen. If you were wounded in the lower rounds you could be spared, but in the final confrontation for the championship these words were required to be spoken: "I can not live if you do not die."
By her eighteenth birthday, Hikari was one of the planet’s most talented warriors. Through round after round Hikari broke legs, arms, ribs, jaws--anything to disable her opponent. Her skill was so far beyond everyone else that she didn't need to kill anyone. Where others needed to land a lucky death blow to the neck or temple, she was able to win submission after submission.
It was the final round she dreaded--not because she might die, but because she was required to kill.
It was a while before she realized that she performing the routine; reenacting the final contest in the gym on Bellona-4. The final battle for that year was decreed to be a sword fight. In heavy armor she threw the blocks and attacks, performed the somersaults and rolls, exactly as she had done in silk six years before. Her skills had not faded; they had only increased with training and experience—as did the pain.
In white silken robes she had faced her final opponent. The girl's name was Li Tarawa. She was Hikari's sparing partner, and her best friend--her only friend. In a society where honor meant killing your competitors, there was little room for camaraderie. Li thought it was all insane, and the two became fast friends. They decided to perfect their skill so that they wouldn’t have to kill, and it brought them here.
Li stood in black robes. She was taller than Hikari, but shared Hikari's muscular build. They were both athletes of the highest caliber, and this battle was highly anticipated. The whole of the planet watched them on live video, while members of the ruling class sat in attendance. There were even some outsiders in various forms of dress and armor, who had come to watch the proceedings.
On the dais overlooking the match, was the dictator of Katana-3: Shogun Rikuto Hiroto. He wore an elaborate suit of armor that was designed to mimic the style of the original shoguns. What it lacked in authenticity it more than made up for in effectiveness. This Shogun was a walking tank.
At his side, in a stand, was the sword of leadership—formed from a piece of the sleeper ship hull. It weighed over 30lbs, and the Shogun kept himself fit enough to use it. On either side of him, traditionally, would be the immediate family of the final combatants, but Li was born to very young parents, who died in the contest at eighteen. Only Hikari's parents sat to the left of the Shogun, along with her ten year old brother Akio.
She threw her brother Akio a wink to reassure him. The boy looked anxious and pale. No doubt he feared for his sister. It was cruel to make him watch her fate, but in eight years it would be his own. The standing wisdom was it was better for children to become accustomed to the trial they would face.
No…don’t remove the cruelty…just get everyone used to it early…
She stared into the eyes of her father, Osamu Daisuke. Tall, strong and imposing, in the teal and white robes of the council—the Shogun’s advisors—Osamu shook his head. The white streaks that had begun to take root in his hair would dominate its coloring soon, of that he was certain.
Osamu stood victorious in this very ring twenty-five years ago, having mortally wounded his own childhood friend. As much as Hikari and Li agreed the contest was madness, Osamu and his friend esteemed it. As they fought, they were filled with a sense of destiny and tradition that had driven countless men to their deaths over the centuries of human existence.
His emotions were torn between the love for his daughter and his fury at the way she disrespected their tradition. As Hikari stared into his eyes, she recalled the sharp slap her father delivered to her face when she suggested fleeing the planet instead of facing the fight. She was told she should fear dishonor more than death. Today Hikari was prepared to suffer both.
She shifted her gaze to her mother, Noriko. The years were kind to her, and she looked every bit the part of Hikari’s older sister. Only the purple robes and jewelry spoke to her age and societal rank. Just two years after Osamu’s victory, she fell on this very spot—a blow to the temple rendering her unconscious. It was early in the competition, so her life was not required of her. Osamu was in attendance, and marveled at the young woman’s durability, as the strike should have killed her. Marriage and children followed, but Noriko always struggled with a sense of failure that she was determined her children would not feel. She had already failed her eldest son, in her own opinion, and she was determined that the trend would not continue with Hikari.
Hikari recalled how her mother had echoed her father’s sentiments—slapping the other side of her face when she begged them to help her run. She knew her parents loved her, but somehow they were convinced this tournament was the key to every moment of her future. In fact it was—but in a way none of them could imagine.
Distraught, she looked away from them, looking up to the glass domed ceiling. The stars were out. It was a clear night. She smiled as she thought of her grandmother. Hikari took more than her name from Hikari Shousuke, who had been an outspoken opponent of the old traditions. Her writings and speeches resulted in her exile--and Hikari's eternal admiration.
No matter how deranged her society was, there were always a few who spoke out for the values of the soul. There were always a few who spoke out for love, friendship, and "true honor" as Grandma Hikari called it. To her parents’ horror, Hikari adopted the beliefs of her grandmother. Her grandmother was finally exiled for trying to get her brother out of the contest. He didn't fear death; in fact everyone feared his size, strength and skill, all of which was considerable. He too steadfastly refused to kill. Their parents disowned him, and he left the planet with his grandmother.
Li looked into her eyes. "If I am to die, at least it will be by your blade, and not a stranger. I could not ask for more."
"More likely I will die by your blade, Li. I do not see myself as able to kill you."
“You are a sister to me. I do not relish the outcome either way. But now we are out of choices." Li drew her sword from its sheath, and took up a defensive posture. Hikari followed. One thought took all her attention: There must be another way out of this!
In the training room on Bellona-4, Hikari was beginning to sweat now. The practice armor didn't have the cooling features of her main battle armor. She wore no power cell to aid in her movements. So when she did the wall-walk somersault it was done with pure athleticism, just as it was six years ago...
Her robes had been slashed by near misses. Her stomach was bleeding from a glancing blow--just the tip of the sword, pressed deep enough to cut. Both of Li's legs and arms were bleeding from similar blows. If she could just disable her, Hikari thought, perhaps she wouldn't have to kill...she could make an argument before the Shogun...
In the present Hikari was breathing hard. She was soaked with sweat. The moves came more easily for her now than they did then. They required less of her strength and concentration. But the emotional stress was much worse, for she understood it all so much better now...
Finally she got inside Li's defense. She overpowered her sword to the right, and slammed the butt of her sword in Li's jaw. Li dropped to the ground, totally unconscious.
Applause erupted from the crowd, as they anticipated what would come next. Hikari would bury her sword in Li's heart, and take the championship.
Except that wasn't going to happen.
"Speak the words." The Shogun said. "No." Hikari replied, drawing a gasp from the crowd. "We need fighters like her. You need fighters like her, my Lord. What is the point of wasting this talent?"
"I have no use of fighters who cannot kill." The Shogun replied. "We do not have the resources yet to build a fleet to protect ourselves. So we must rely on fear—the fear of an armed populace that will fight to the last breaths of the invaders."
"With swords and martial arts? I think not. You should have a shooting competition then if that is your goal. My Lord this is pointless. I will not kill my friend."
The Shogun turned to her parents. “What say you of this treason?” he asked. Her father replied first as her mother seemed paralyzed with shock. “This is her Grandmother’s influence; I should have done more to drive it form her when she was young. I…I…accept the blame for this dishonor, and ask that my daughter not be punished for my failings as a parent.” Hikari was momentarily surprised, but quickly realized that her father understood his daughter well. He was prepared for this moment.
“Such acceptance will not come without cost,” Ivy replied. “Your council seat, your lands, your own honors in the games, all will be forfeit if blood is not spilled on this floor.”
That was enough to draw a response from her mother. She screamed at her daughter: “You are ruining us! We will lose everything for your disrespect! Kill the girl! She doesn’t expect anything else.”
“Riko, please take hold of yourself,” her father bellowed. Turning to the Shogun, he began. “I accept your terms and ask…”
“Wait,” his daughter yelled, gathering everyone’s attention. “Master Shogun, I planned for no such sacrifices by my family. If you require a sacrifice, I will make it. If you want blood on the floor, then let it be mine.” The crowd gasped again at her words, and began to murmur amongst themselves. Her mother blanched, and fainted dead away.
Her father protested, but guards seized him. A quick hand signal from the shogun, and he was struck with a stun pole, rendered unconscious.
Her ten year old brother hid his face in his mother’s gown.
The Shogun stood, and drew the sword of leadership. He used his suit jets to sail upward, 20 feet in the air, his long purple cape billowing behind him. He landed in front of the girl, who was silently crying. “Don’t worry, your wishes will be upheld. Your father is just unconscious. I would not have him suffer through this event.”
He walked around her, and addressed the crowd. “Her courage is tremendous. But her wisdom is lacking. Both are required for survival of the challenge. Each of these girls has failed. And both shall die at my hand—beginning with the one who chose failure.”
Shock would have been an appropriate reaction, but she just fell to her knees in acceptance. If the Shogun wanted that much blood, nothing would stop him. “Spill as much of my blood as you like,” she said. “When you’ve had your fill, please consider sparing my friend.” Without replying, he lifted the sword to behead her, and she bowed her head in acceptance.
"Kari!" Joe called out. Hikari looked up from her reverie, startled. She had been kneeling in the middle of the floor with her head bowed, still waiting for the blow that was not to come.
Joe was standing there in the same outfit he had purchased as a disguise on Earth. He looked exhausted, and she saw the telemetry strip on his head, indicating he’d been hurt.
“Joe! What...happened…your head… are you alright?” He rushed over to her as her armor melted away and she cast it behind her. Tears were streaming down her face.
“I’m fine. You weren’t in your apartment, and you weren’t answering your communicator, so I figured you might be here. As for the shorts and sandals, it’s a long story.”
He wiped away her tears and said, "You know, when I can't sleep I lift weights, or go for a swim—the swimming works best. Going over awful memories doesn't work nearly as well." She nodded and put her head on his shoulder.
"You were reliving the contest, weren't you?"
"Yep." She said. "I can do it move for move."
She put her arms around him as he held her close.
"What's funny is you came in at the same point you did last time."
Six years ago, a shadow leaped from the crowd. His jet-suit took him high in the air, and he landed between Hikari and the Shogun. Hikari looked up to see a man clad it black armor. There was no shine to it--it was as if light simply didn't exist where he stood.
The huge man addressed the shadow in a voice that was unnaturally calm. "Who dares to approach me, in my own arena?" The black figure spoke. "I’m one of the people from the outside you seem to fear so much. I’m a representative from your neighbors on Bellona-4. They call me The Black Knight.”
"So you see!" he said to the crowd, and more to the point, to the thousands watching on live video. "The threat I spoke of is proven before you!" He focused again on the figure. "So were you sent as an emissary of war?"
"Actually I was sent as an emissary of peace. But after this display of barbarism I think you may get the war that frightens you so badly."
"You are not signatories to the Safe Battle Treaty of 2306, but we are. Under the rules of that treaty, the only organization eligible to claim this system is the Bellona Mining Company. There is nothing on Katana-3 so valuable that another army would go through our system to attack you. No offense intended, but this place is a toxic hole without any valuable minerals to be found. It’s simply not worth the trouble.”
“In any case, if anyone were crazy enough to try to take this place, we are obligated by treaty to stop them. In fact, the worm ship on our side would close and lock to prevent access. We would fight to defend you, and all other signatories would come to our aid, regardless of the politics. Your enemies would meet an unstoppable army. Up until today, you were perfectly safe. It was brought to our attention that no one had ever explained this, and I was sent with the simple task of bringing good news."
The Shogun's eyes narrowed. "And what happened today to endanger us?"
"This contest: under the treaty, if a society is found to be excessively cruel or barbaric, the signatories have the freedom to put an end to it in any way they see fit. Forcing children to murder each other in a contest would be recognized by most signatories as meeting that criterion."
The Shogun smiled. "If I simply kill you, my friend, along with the two girls, then there will be no report."
"Sir, this suit does more than protect my body. The entire event has been transmitted to my ship, and retransmitted to the worm ship. They sent it on to my commander on Bellona-4. The signal is fed back to me from Bellona-4, so I know it has not been jammed."
The Shogun's smile faded. "So what do you propose?" "I propose you free these girls. Then you will make your contest optional, and remove the requirement of death. We'll put together an inspection committee to make sure there are no other forms of institutionally mandated murder on your planet--I detected none in my time here so that shouldn't be a problem. For your compliance, you will be given protected status. You can stop being so afraid and actually do something productive here. You can have a military if you insist, but they'll be really bored."
"Protected” the Shogun said with derision and pride. “You would enslave us; deny us our freedom to live in the traditions of our own society.” He was speaking more to his own people that the Black Knight, and the Black Knight spoke in kind.
“I don’t think removing the so called ‘tradition’ of having children murder each other just as they come of age qualifies as slavery. I don’t know anyone who could make that stretch of logic.” Then he corrected himself. “Well, perhaps one or two people but believe me when I say you wouldn't want them as advocates. ”
“Listen to his condescending tone!!! Tell me Shadow from another world, what happens if I refuse, and shove this sword in your chest?" The man in black took a step forward—and shrugged his shoulders.
"You are welcome to try. Should I defeat you, according to your own rules of succession, I would replace you as Shogun. I would then implement the reforms I discussed, sign the Safe Battle Treaty of 2306, and turn the entire planet over to BMC.”
“Should I lose," the black figure continued, "You will face an invasion force far larger and better armed than you are prepared to fend off, I guarantee you." He added, "We're not really interested in having your world. Its resources are limited, its habitat is dangerous, its infrastructure is underdeveloped, and it's tactically insignificant." He took a few more steps forward. "But to end the barbaric and ritualistic slaughter of your youth, we're more than up to the challenge."
The Shogun looked up and away, at a group of colorful tapestries hung on the far wall. "Oh, and when you signal your sniper, don't be disappointed if he isn't terribly effective." A ball of white light burned through the tapestry and headed straight for the mysterious figure’s head. A sphere of transparent blue energy momentarily appeared around him, and deflected it into the ceiling, vaporizing the glass above. "See what I mean?" he added, as the wind began to whistle through the opening.
"I will not be bullied in my own arena!" The Shogun shouted. "That shield will not work against my sword!" The man in the black suit didn't comment on the capabilities of his shield.
“Your point is?”
"My point? I will stick you to the ground with my point, and slaughter these imps with my bare hands, before your dying corpse! And my army will do the same to anyone who approaches here with the intent of taking our freedom!"
The Black Knight shook his head, and unclipped a black ball from his belt. It turned to liquid, and sprang outward, making the Shogun leap back. In a blink it became a sword that was a yard long, two inches wide, and as black as the Shogun’s heart. "We’ll see.”
As the entire population of Katana-3 looked on, the Shogun lunged at The Black Knight. The Black Knight parried the attack to the right and backhanded his opponent with his left fist. Stunned, the Shogun failed to see the kick that drove him to the ground. The Shogun used his suit jets to scoot away, as he rolled and regained some sort of footing. As he regained his feet, the Black Knight was upon him again.
Desperately the arrogant leader tried to block the hail of attacks with his sword, but he soon found himself depending on his armor for protection. Sparks flew as metal struck metal. Blood flowed as the armor failed against the onslaught. Repeatedly the Black Knight struck with punches and kicks in addition to the sword strikes.
The Shogun rocketed into the air, some twenty feet off the ground, trying to buy himself some time. The Black Knight gave him some; as he soared to the same height, he backed about ten feet away. But the assault wasn’t over—the physical assault was paused, while the logical assault resumed.
“I offered you mercy once. I offer it again. You are bleeding profusely. Submit to my terms and I will let you continue as Shogun, over a period of peace and prosperity the likes of which your planet has not known. You will be renowned for your wisdom. Please accept the offer.” The Black Knight’s voice was calm and easy.
The Shogun’s voice was ragged, his breath shallow. “No…no mercy…you’re attack is spent, and now you shall face my wrath!” As his voice reached a crescendo, he aimed his sword at the Black Knight’s chest, and rocketed toward him.
The instant the Shogun refused, the Black Knight’s sword began to glow. A bright blue aura surrounded it. The shield that emanated from the black suit of armor was now focused around the sword. He had been toying with the Shogun all along.
In a split second, The Shogun was upon him. As the Black Knight’s own suit jets moved him to the side, he swung upward, cleaving the Shogun’s sword in two. He continued the arc in a lightning movement, drawing the glowing blade through back of the Shogun’s suit of armor. This lobotomized the control center of the suit, and shut down the power. The Shogun’s momentum smashed him against the wall, and gravity slammed him to the floor.
Before landing, the Black Knight surveyed the scene. The girls needed medical treatment quickly. The crowd was stunned, and all were so bound by this bizarre honor code that they probably would not attack him. With this estimation complete, he landed next to the broken Shogun.
“Finish it…” the bleeding, broken man whispered. The Black Knight shook his head. “Amazing—you crave murder even if it is your own.”
He turned towards the girls. “No, I’ll take these girls back to Bellona-4 for care. But when they are safe, and you are recuperating, I will return with a delegation to discuss your planet’s future.”
He turned to the crowd. “These girls will be free to return here when they wish. But for now I will see that they get medical care, and protect them with my own life.” His sword melted back into a ball, and was returned to his belt. He drew a pair of emergency nanotech injectors from the other side of his belt, and injected both the girls. Microscopic robots sought out wounds and mend them.
“This will take care of you until you can get proper care,” he explained. He picked up Li Tarawa, and helped Hikari Daisuke to her feet.
As they passed the wreckage that was the Shogun, Hikari stopped. “Do you have another of those,” she asked. “Yes.”
He handed her the injector, and she placed it against the inside of the Shogun’s arm. There the armor was ruined, and the bare, bloody skin exposed. She activated the injector, and delivered the mercy that he rejected so profoundly.
“What are you watching?” Hikari asked him, as she came out from behind the changing screen. She was wearing silver, silk pajamas that Joe bought her for her birthday. “Nothing really,” he replied. He lay back on the couch as she lay down on his chest. “You can put on what you’d like,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. Six years ago she asked—no, insisted—to join BMC as a warrior, to pay them back for her rescue. Gunsmith assigned her to protect Joe, but in reality, he wanted Joe to watch over her. At least this was the argument he gave to Joe, who insisted the poor girl had seen enough danger.
Gunsmith had his points though. Denying her the opportunity would have broken her spirit, and paring her up with Joe gave her instantaneous protection if something went wrong. And—this could not be denied—she was a tremendous fighter who would prove herself time and time again. In retrospect, it was the perfect decision. Their lives led parallel paths of self-inflicted exile, and each understood the other in ways that no one else could.
“Not that I’m in the mood to talk business,” she started.
“But you’re going to, I take it.”
“Does this mean my extended Earth assignment is complete, and I can go back to traipsing about with you?”
Joe considered the question. After a year or so, he had convinced Gunsmith to send to college on Earth. The argument was, if she was going to be an officer, she would benefit from higher education. Her fighting skills needed no development. She insisted on doing some work for BMC, so they gave her coordination and protection duties for BMC families on Earth. It was during this time that she became so close to the Zam family, who took her in as a daughter.
“I don’t know, Kari. I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow. I’m sick of having you in danger…having everyone in danger…I’m sick of being in danger myself, for that matter.”
She turned to him and cupped his cheek with her hand. “It’s late, and we’re both too tired to think. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m just happy to be with you again.”
He grabbed the large, soft comforter that had been draped over the couch, and covered her with it, pulling her close in the process. It seemed like it was too long since they both felt safe and warm. It took him back to the evenings where they were together all the time. For the most part those were sad and dangerous times for both of them, but it reminded him that there was joy to be found in any situation.
Hikari picked a channel at random, but they never found out what was on. They were both asleep before the commercials were over.
Why I Hope "Star Wars" Doesn't Go Gray
The first three Star Wars movies—Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi—forever set our expectations as to what a Star Wars movie should be. There's a feel and a flavor to the original three movies that we look for whenever we hear John Williams' score kick in. It's a futuristic movie with throwback sensibilities.
Yes the heroes are rescuing the princess, but the princess is a bad-ass and part of the team, not an object to be retrieved. It's got classic sword fights but the swords aren't made of steel. It's got WWI dogfights but they're in space.
These movies have samurai and wizards and pirates and side kicks and romance and bravery and humor and everything you'd expect from a classic movie.
So why do people hate the prequels?
They've got a bad-ass queen instead of a princess, same futuristic swords, same dogfights. Same samurai, wizards, side kicks and romance.
Wait...no pirates...were there pirates? I don't remember.
I could probably quote the first three movies to you verbatim. We used to have them playing over and over again in the engineering lab in college.*
I can't even quote you the plot for Attack of the Clones. I don't think I've seen it since it was in the theater.
Why is that?
It's not that the prequels were bad movies in and of themselves. The over arching plot of government manipulating wars to control people is as important as it was interesting. The settings were fantastic, and truth be told, I think the acting was more than adequate. George Lucas makes everyone in a Star Wars movie jump through hoops with the writing, and I think the actors took a lot of flack for what they had to say rather than how they said it.
Yes you can violently disagree with me on any of these points. But even if I give into your opinion, I don't think any of these things were movie breakers. But I think I do know what did break them.
Star Wars was a tale of redemption. It was a tale of good and evil. It was about pure evil becoming good, and pure good fighting the fall to evil.
That resonates with people. We're all either trying not to fall or trying to come back. If you're in a bad place and you feel you can't be forgiven, well *spoiler alert* here' s Dark freakin' Vader turning back to the light. You're not even trapped in black suit.
If you've ever been on the brink of losing it, while you really want to stay good, you've got Luke. Anyone not had that “Looking at the glove” moment when you realize you have to get your cool back before you go too far? Or is that just me?
Then there's Han. A self-serving criminal who will shoot first and not worry about the questions until he meets a strong willed woman with a cause. Through her he sees a new path and takes it.
So what do we have in the prequels?
In the prequels we have all that Obi-Wan regretted in the originals. The good guys are largely lacking in compassion, and largely self serving. The ones who aren't are swept along with events. The heroes are heroic, but they can't win. The bad guys are playing both sides of the chess game, and the end is a foregone conclusion.
The prequels are brilliant really. They can also match our real life experiences if we choose to look at things from a certain point of view.
But is it a fun point of view?
Do you want to see the movie where good triumphs over evil or where good falls to darkness?
That's why I think on a visceral level people hate the prequels. **
So what does this mean for the new movies?
Well, that kind of depends where they go with them.
The Force Awakens was just Star Wars with a slightly darker flavor to it. Are old heroes aren't doing that well, and that takes away a bit from the stories of the new heroes. Eventually your brain relegates Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie to smaller parts, but this isn't what you'd hoped for them.
But it does still seem to be good vs bad, with either destruction or redemption hanging in the balance for a lot of characters. Finn is the new Solo, trying to overcome a shady past and earn trust. Rey is the new Luke, gifted with powers she can use for good or evil.
For some, “The Force Awakens” might not be the Star Wars movie they wanted, but ultimately, unlike the prequels, it felt like a Star Wars movie.
In less than a year, we'll get to see “The Last Jedi,” and it seems like they may be embracing a concept from the vast body of work now considered to be “non-cannon.” And that is the concept of the Gray Jedi.
The Gray Jedi uses both the light and dark sides of the force. The Gray Jedi is good or evil depending on what said Jedi thinks will get the best outcome. It's Star Wars mixed with Nietzsche. It's the “Will to power” brought to the “Journal of the Whills” as Star wars was originally titled.
In a world where the only people who are considered evil are those who would claim that an action could be called good or evil, the Gray Jedi will be popular. Today we equate judging actions with judging people, which paints any sort of morality as devoid of compassion.
That topic is a pretty deep dive, and I'm not going to take the plunge here.
My point is, what will happen to the new Star Wars movies if they go there?
My theory is, they're going to lose the “Star Wars” feel. The simplicity will be gone. The good guys vs bad guys let-me-focus-on-how-good-the-popcorn-tastes feeling will be gone. The “I am your father” twist in Empire was powerful because we were so used to a straight road that a sudden massive complication threw us off completely.
It's not going to feel like Star Wars. And then no matter how good it is,some people aren't going to like it.
It's going to feel like an episode of “Babylon 5” or “Star Trek Voyager.” Those are great shows, but if you feel like watching Star Wars, don't watch Babylon 5. It's like if you're primed for pizza and then the plans change to fish and chips. Fish and chips are great, but not if you're in the mood for pizza.
If they go this route, if they don't keep to the original Star Wars vibe, these are not going to be movies you watch over and over again, memorizing every line. They might be fine movies in their own right. But they're in danger of falling into the same trap as the prequels.
The good news is, you have a say in what is considered cannon in any media you consume. The reader is as much a creator as the righter; the person in the theater controls what is acceptable and what isn't.
If in your mind, Han and Leia lived happily ever after, and “The Force Awakes” is a bunch of crap, then it didn't happen. It's just a story told using those characters that someone put on film.
Read a Star Wars book that doesn't feel right? Heck most of those aren't even official cannon anymore. Just drop it off at Goodwill and forget about it.
The consumer has the final say as to what stories it includes in the cannon we create in our imaginations. You can even like a story without thinking it fits. Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster is one of my favorite books of all time, but it doesn't fit on several levels.***
One way or another, “Star Wars” is going to go on—probably long after we're all long dead now that Disney has it.
I'm just saying it would be nice if when they make movies with “Star Wars” in the title it would be great if they were Star Wars movies.
If not, I guess we'll take what we can get.
*Along with The Smokey and The Bandit moves, The Cannonball Run movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the Hunt For Red October. We had a VCR hooked to an orange and black monitor from a Commodore 64 and an old boom box. That plus a lot of coffee, pizza, Pepsi products and some Jolt Cola for the longer nights and Gavascon for what we did to our stomachs made for good times.
**That and the ending was too short and made no sense whatsoever. If they had done something with the Emperor pulling the life from Padme' to save Darth Vader, that would have been great. As it was, it wasn't.
***The sexual tension between Luke & Leia is so wrong once you know they're brother and sister, but this book predates that revelation.