Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Travissty of COGs and Mandos (Author Review)

I'm putting this up one day ahead of the usual Thursday slot due to problems with a work schedule, but I hope the length and detail of this piece makes up for this slight change.

This is a slight departure from the usual viws as it takes a look at the problems with one author, Karen Traviss, mostly focusing upon her novels within the Star Wars franchise rather than a single item.
Some readers might not like what I am about to say and I am going to be critical of the author's actions as much as her writings. Mostly because her behaviour and personality seems to have led to the decline in quality of her work.

But before I begin there are a number of thing which I wish to state.

I do regard Traviss as being a somewhat competent writer.
The style in which she describes scenes both in and out of combat is highly professional and detailed. What's more is that while there are a lot of elements within her books which I hate, there were more than a few ideas which I took an immense liking to. One such example being the ARC Null unit.

If she had kept out of Star Wars and her Republic Commando series had been written as an entirely independent universe, the chances are that I would be a fan of it.
Her main problem is that she's a terrible writer when it comes to universes already heavily expanded upon and seems to have incredible difficulty characterising individuals written by other authors.
What Traviss needed was to move onto a franchise with little in the way of novella already having been written about it. She's now doing this with the Gears of War series and managed to achieve the position of head writer for the final game, so it appears she is not as incompetent as it would seem from her Star Wars tales.

Secondly I want to point out that I'm a long time fan of the clone troopers and Mandalorians. Characters like Alpha-17, Jango Fett and Canderous Ordo are some of my favourites amidst this universe. I also enjoyed the grey morality which was occasionally displayed with their civilisation and while I thought they made better villains it was good to see elements of how they developed from the Crusaders into the Defenders.
I'll also give Traviss credit for trying to create a Mando'a language through the rhythmic chanting present within the opening screen of Republic Commando. The only complaint of which is how grammar was simply tossed out the window making it somewhat painful to read/use.

Now, with that out of the way I'm afraid I'm going to have to start criticising her works.

The first and foremost of these is her apparent obsessions over Mandalorians. Or outside of Star Wars a number of very similar proud warrior cultures she portrays as being utterly superior to all other races. Similarly she's intent upon bashing a franchise's current heroic faction and demonizing them to make her own group look better.
This is just as visible within Gears of War as Star Wars with her books containing COG operated mass gang raping facilities with some contrived reason for them wanting a steady supply of soldiers to be sent into warzones.
Ignoring the massive logic problems with these facilities having only been in operation for a few years, how long it takes a child to grow, the obvious and easier alternatives to this etc. I just want to point out that she's trying to demonize an organisation of soldiers already being forced to commit atrocities in the name for survival by turning them all into operatives within a group which utilises rape activities.
Additionally, the weapons developers which humanity needs? She repeatedly tries to hammer in the idea that all of them are war criminals, no matter their intentions or for what reason they're creating them.

Traviss also introduced us to the Pesang warriors. These are presented as being hyper-competent, misunderstood and absolutely perfect. They are shown as presented to be almost exactly like her version of the Mandalorians within her Star Wars books and just happen to be fighting for humanity and frequently outdoing the COG units at every turn.
 The exact same thing is present within Traviss' portrayals of Jedi and Mandalorians within her Star Wars novels. Whenever a Jedi appears she often does everything within her power to show them to be the worst kind of irredeemable scum possible. Ignoring almost all good they can do and making them incredibly decadent, weak and overconfident. This is done to the point in which a Jedi character within Hard Contact is taught how to properly melee fight by a Clone Commando.
She also showed them to be incredibly hateful even to members of their own kind, something I'll get into later on, and treat those who lack 'sufficient Force power' as being inferior. In Traviss' mind any Mandalorian would beat the living crap out of any Jedi no matter the skill or stature of the Force user.

They're constantly used as an excuse to either show how badass her Mandalorians are: Convert to being a Mandalorian; or sit quietly in the corner and listen to very long speeches by Mandalorians about why they suck so badly. Always being highly impressed by them in the process. In fact, Traviss goes so far as to directly portray the Jedi as being Nazis while understanding nothing more than the bare basics of their society, comparing their raising Force sensitive from childbirth to a relentless desire for a genetically pure race.
In spite of the fact that their number consists of hundreds of species rather than a single race.
In spite of the fact that this is impossible as the Jedi of this time were bound to oaths not to enter any romantic or intimate relationships with others.
In spite of the fact they dislike the use of cloning and genetic modification.

Oh and the Force? That power which binds all life together? That ability which allows those strong in it to use telekinesis and telepathy? That power which shaves reaction times, allows certain users to move in bullet time, pinpoint accuracy, precognition, strength enhancement? That helps to better oxygenate the blood and even heal wounds in a matter of seconds?
In her books it does nothing for them or is never used in an intelligent manner in the slightest. In spite of the films, novels, comics, cartoons and short stories all contradicting this portrayal of them.

Keep this portrayal in mind while I define the Mandalorians and Clone Troopers as she shows them in her novels.

The Clone Troopers of her stories utterly contradict those shown in every other book in the Star Wars EU. Traviss ignores all that mental conditioning, training, sleep taught tactics, discipline and everything else which they have spent the last decade being given to make them more sympathetic and misunderstood.
So, she shows them mostly to be child soldiers in grown men's bodies who've been handed small notes upon which way to hold a gun and sent out to be used as cannon fodder. The only exception to this seems to be the Commandos the novels focus upon so they can be shown to be superior to Force users. The Jedi (who again in everything else) were shown to be sympathetic towards the clones and hated having to use them as soldiers, are presented as bloodthirsty slave drivers caring nothing for the troops under their command.

I should point out here that Traviss ended up contradicting herself badly with this statement and even with the average clones she showed hints of her undying love to how 'awesome' they are in terms of their kill counts. The average Clone Trooper was noted to make two hundred kills before being brought down. This is a ridiculous amount even by action film standards, and to prove my point here are some statistics for comparison:
The Bride in Kill Bill (Vol. 1) – 76 on screen kills
John Preston in Equilibrium – 118 on screen kills
When an average unnamed faceless grunt is capable of outdoing John Matrix then the author has clearly either gone too far or is trying to parody herself.

I'm not going to go and bash the characters of her stories, as I enjoyed some of their portrayals. While there were a number of characters I disliked it would take me too long to give a proper in-depth analysis of the aspects I was at odds with, so I'm going to ignore them for the time being.
However, that's not going to stop me from bashing the Mandalorians as shown in the series.

Now, let me give people here a quick history lesson on how the Mandos have been portrayed in other novels. Jango Fett's group were mercenaries more interested in getting the job done than doing the right thing but still held a good moral compass and were unwilling to commit direct actions of wanton destruction of they could avoid it. However, they were still living an existence which had them killing people on a daily basis and were far from being the most sympathetic of people.

In Knights of the Old Republic they were shown to be a very 'grey' morality force at the best of times and frequently villains who were being led to self-destruction as a result of their lifestyle. All of their tactics and strategies frequently validated the use of war crimes and atrocities against sentients. They frequently ignored honourable tactics in favour of mass orbital bombardments and sneak attacks against planets who could fight back. Terror tactics, mass destruction, targeting civilian populations with war machines, genocidal campaigns to wipe out whole species, all were used. Just look at the Cathar.

Those who survived these attacks were frequently either sold into slavery or press-ganged to be used as cannon fodder in future crusades in a failing attempt to sustain the Mandalorians' numbers. Even genetic experiments and mass torture were used almost purely because they wanted to test if their enemies could actually put up a decent fight.
By the time of the Clone Wars their defeat and their efforts to antagonize everyone in the galaxy had left them with only a small handful of worlds, enclaves, with their kind trying to hide and prevent others finding an excuse to wipe them out. As such while they did change and kept many of their values they were in no way the perfect society Traviss portrays them to be.

In Traviss' version, their whole civilisation is perfect and they can do no wrong. To quote a compact and good description of their existence:
Traviss' Mandalorians have a mandatory draft for all males, who craft their own armour. Females often do likewise and go to war as well. Some of them stay at war, acting as high-paid mercenaries for various individuals and governments, although some take up less warlike professions (apparently the surname "Fett" means "farmer") all are nonetheless required to have armour and fighting capability.
The language has a single gender-neutral pronoun for living things and is quite easy to learn; the society is welcoming to those who can fit into it, all of them love children, marriage and divorce are done with a few phrases in a few minutes. Women bearing sons traditionally wait five years to conceive again, one year if it's a daughter, because daughters don't always want to go to war. While this would be an interesting and valid society, and it's more developed than a lot of the others in
Star Wars, Traviss always portrays it as a desirable culture with several of people wanting in and no-one but a few degenerates wanting out, and with most Mandalorians believing themselves superior to all the other societies.

In essence, Traviss portrayed them in the same light as James Cameron does his Na'vi. Ignoring all the wrong they have previously done (and still do) and showing them to be people who can perform only good deeds. No race in any franchise which plays a major role in events should be shown as this, bar one off civilisations which are only mentioned or briefly appear. But not one so heavily intertwined with the history of Star Wars and heavily focused upon.

Now with that out of the way I can start to move onto some of the background information of this author and her works.
Let me just repeat something at this point though: I still think that had this been set in its own universe rather than Star Wars it would have been at the very least a very good setting. The idea of having a corrupt sect of geneticist psychics leading armies of clones who are little more than child soldiers against vast robotic legions, as well as having the only 'good' society are a handful of scattered worlds left over from a fanatical crusader civilisation, would have made a good series.
It could have been very dark and used to highlight a lot of good elements of morality and been given the freedom to expand upon the themes Traviss wanted them to. Her major mistake was trying to join a universe which she was seemingly uninterested in, had never read any novels from and held no interest of sticking to the established history. Or writing up about characters that she had not created.

I've already brought up points upon how she has broken from the canon with both the Jedi and Mandalorians in incredibly bad ways, but this is nothing compared to some of the character portrayals.
As she has simply no interest within the rest of the Star Wars universe, much of the information she gets are things she asks for from other writers who have a much broader understanding of the universe. For her novel Order 66 she asked for a number of Jedi characters whose deaths had not been confirmed and could be used in the novel. I'll avoid much of the things which irritated me in that book but I'll point out one character that briefly appeared within it: Scout (Tallisibeth Enwangdun-Esterhazy).

The character was a Jedi who had previously appeared in a book called Yoda: Dark Rendezvous who was noted to have little in the way of strength with the Force. This lack of ability was made up for by her resourcefulness, sheer determination and willingness to use very creative tactics to win battles. Yoda respected this, believing her to have a future ahead of her within the order as a result of this as did a number of older Jedi. Traviss appeared to only hear the part relating to Scout's lack of strength with the Force and as such she appeared within Traviss' novel stating that she had been thought of as worthless as a result of this. Thus contradicting not only her entire history but the core idea and basic aspects of her character.

Similarly, very jarring events and personality shifts took place in the ill-fated Legacy of the Force series:

•In an effort to shoehorn the Mandalorians into the series Jacen Solo suddenly becomes a hideously violent monster, something he had admittedly been working towards under the guidance of a Sith, and murders Ailyn Vel via the Force in an attempt to gain information rather than through more tactful methods.

•Jacen also gains the Force ability to time travel and view events of the past in spite of no such ability ever having even been suggested to exist.

•Luke Skywalker becomes an incredibly callous character during one book and begins leaping to conclusions, eventually executing a villain in cold blood with a movie quip. In spite of it being heavily against his character and the teachings he has followed for all of his adult life.

•Tahiri Veila appears to ignore all character development she had in the previous twenty preceding books by other authors and goes from a strong and independent individual to latches onto Solo and follows his every command. Resulting in a horribly abysmal death for Gilad Pellaeon, one of the oldest and best established Imperial characters of the series.

•Daala becomes a tactical genius despite every aspect of her history contradicting any capability of good leadership or understanding of battle tactics. This was a woman whose every military campaign had either led to massive casualties amongst her troops or total failure. This was the mistake of Troy Denning as well, but it's difficult to decide who used her the worst.

•Jacen Solo, a master of the Dark Side, only survives a brief encounter with a handful of Mandalorians because their leader ordered him not to be killed. They took him down in close combat without breaking a sweat.

•She then decided that there had been no female Imperial Moffs (systems governors) in spite of the series directly preceding this contradicting that.

•And an early major error in one of her book previews stated that Qui-Gon Jinn had killed a Sith on Naboo. I should just point out that in this instance she proved to be unable to even keep track of a major event within the films which spawned the books she writes, and the prequels' first major character death.

This is simply skimming the largest problems her books have created and in spite of all these errors and questionable events they are not the worst elements of her works by any length.
The worst aspects of her works come from her reactions to criticism and her personal views of the fanbase.

One rather glaring flaw repeatedly pointed out within her works was the estimate for the numbers of clones used by the Republic in its war against the Separatists. Rather than correcting a small piece of trivia which stated only three million clones made up the entire army, Traviss decided to stick with it and make the estimate an official fact. Meaning that the republic's 1.3 million worlds had approximately two clones to help defend each one. The size of this force means that in every single major conflict displayed within the cartoon, comics and films the Republic was deploying a huge portion of its entire fighting strength.

This was a factor repeatedly brought up and questioned by fans, scientists and military soldiers all of whom pointed out that the numbers were ridiculous and could not match up in the slightest. Rather than correct this or back down against this criticism Traviss decided to try and 'pull rank' upon them, pointing out how she had once been a deck seaman (the lowest rank within the British navy), and initiated one of the stupidest plots in the history of the franchise in an effort to get back at them.
In a venomous act against the 'Jedi fanboys' she wrote a story called Odds in which it was revealed that the Jedi and Confederacy of Independent Systems were conspiring together to prevent anyone knowing the true scale of the war taking place across the galaxy.
An even worse attempt to strike back can be seen in Dooku's internal monologue in the novelization of the Clone Wars film. I'll let it speak for itself:

"I've spent years preparing to break the Republic's strangle-hold. Years. A long way to go, still, but it'll come. The galaxy is ready for it. Worlds want to run their own affairs. Make it happen soon, Darth Sidious. The Republic's the worst kind of dictatorship-a pseudo-democracy cloaked in smiles and tolerance, as long as you do as it says.

And I will not do as anyone says. I'll think for myself.

Dooku stared into the mesh of light that showed the plan of a castle-like structure full of passages, chambers, and high walls.
Don't think, Padawan Dooku

"You were wrong then, Jedi," he said aloud. "And you're wrong now."

Destiny was not about feeling; destiny was about thinking, about rationality. Dooku didn't see reacting blindly to feelings as some mystic virtue, but as a weakness.

In a child, he would have punished it as giving in to impulses, a lack of maturity and self-control.

As a child, he had been trained not to think. As a child, he had been trained to be a Jedi.
Don't question so much, Padawan Dooku. Feel. Don't doubt. Believe.

Well, he questioned things now. And he didn't believe. The Republic was corrupt to its core, and the Jedi were its lackeys-sanctimonious mercenaries. Their comfortable little cartel was coming to an end. Darth Sidious would finish it off, and Dooku knew it was his moral duty to help bring about that day,

Then he saw the snow again, not the polished apocia wood desk; a battlefield in winter, finally silent. The schematic's hair-fine lines of red light became spatters and trails of blood that Dooku feared he would never be able to wash from his hands.

He was standing ankle-deep in the muffled, ice-cold whiteness of Galidraan in winter. Jedi and Mandalorian dead lay every-where. And he could still hear his own appalled voice, his own shame.

What have we done?

It was a massacre; and the Jedi had carried it out, pawns of the corrupt Galidraan governor, who had set up the Mandalorian army for his own agenda. Looking back on it, Dooku saw it was the tipping point that had changed his life. It was the moment he had started to think.

I believed my Masters. I didn't think for myself. They didn't question, either; they took the governor at his word. They just believed. And we killed people. We killed them on the say-so of a criminal.

If you were going to take lives, go to war, then there was no benefit of the doubt to be given, no other's word to take. Dooku trusted only proof now.
What have I done?

You came to your senses.

But I'm setting up the Jedi now. That makes me as degenerate as they are.

Think of it as using their own complacency against them. Turning their own weapon on them. Poetic justice. Whatever it takes. They won't say sorry and step down simply because you point out the error of the Republic's ways, will they?

He had these arguments with himself more than ever lately.

The snow had melted; the dead were buried. But he couldn't erase Jango Fett's face, the face of a man back from the living death of a slavery that Dooku had delivered him into, etched with all the bitter lines of surviving only to have his moment of justice. It was always the last image to leave Dooku. It wasn't just the millions of troops cloned from Fett that made forgetting impossible. It was that Fett hadn't lived to see the downfall of the Jedi. Fett's motive for sharing - aiding - Dooku's ambition hadn't been greed, he realized, but the same understanding that the Jedi Order was a destructive, destabilizing cabal.

The Jedi had killed Fett in the end. But most of him seemed to have died at Galidraan anyway, and only his insatiable hunger for justice had kept that formidable body moving.

We'll have our day, Fett.

Dooku opened the comlink again, this time to the monastery on Teth. It was time for the next stage of the operation.

"Ventress," he said. "Ventress, is the Huttlet all right? Bring me up to speed."

Now, ignoring the character's statements about the Jedi desiring their members not to think and only obey there's one obvious problem in this entire section. She has essentially rewritten Count Dooku's entire background and reasons for falling to the dark side to get revenge for the Mandalorians. This not only contradicts the basic aspects of his character, but contradicts his reasons for meeting Sidious and starting to fall to the dark side in the first place.

More and more of her plots within the books she made began to focus upon getting 'revenge' against certain critics to the point where some fans began to swear off some of her later works.
In the novel of the same name, Order 66 itself seemed to be written to excuse the clones as they mass murdered the Jedi. This was done to the point where a Jedi who had more or less converted to being a Mandalorian sacrificed herself to protect a clone from a Jedi padawan fighting for his life.

Later on she began directly insulting any fan who began questioning her writings or the portrayals within them.
When a fan questioned why she hated the Jedi, Traviss responded that it was 'impossible to hate a non-existent idea', then started calling fans neo-Nazis for liking them. Regarding the Jedi as being just Nazis for somehow trying to create 'genetically superior master race' by only accepting Force sensitives into their ranks.
She accused fans of being low life misogynists for telling her that she had clearly not done her research upon many of the subjects she was writing about. Insinuating that they thought a woman could not understand Star Wars. In truth no one I have seen or spoken to ever stated 'no woman', just her.
And finally she began to refer those who continued to point out the errors of her works and try to get her to correct them as being 'Tallifans'. And yes, that was an intentional reference to a certain extremist group of religious suicide bombers killing soldiers and civilians alike within the Middle East. Classy.
Amidst all this she constantly dared critics who pointed out flaws in her works to do better, challenging them to write something better than she had produced.
Many of these blogs and messages were deleted by her when even she began to realise she was going too far but records of what took place still exist within some circles.

That is why people dislike her. Because she treated those who did not share her views with no respect and endlessly insulted them, as well as directly opposing the writers who had come before her.

Finally, I'll finish on this note: Her writings apparently became so conflicting with the universe they were set in that the writers of the Clone Wars series retconned them out of existence in one episode, choosing the history of other writers over her own works.
In short she was becoming so much of a problem for Star Wars that a mainstream series intervened to prevent her doing more damage to the established timeline. She was becoming such a problem with her "improvements" that writers openly rebelled against her and stuck with the stuff she had tried to write out of the SWEU's history.
When you manage to frustrate so many people that your co-workers agree with the fans and try to undermine your nonsense, you have officially crossed the Matt Ward threshold of horrible writing.

Had she not let her ego get the better of her, kept her inner Mando-fangirl on a tighter leash, and tried to be more accepting of criticism I feel that her series would have been welcomed by the vast majority of the fanbase. Instead her works now exist as a monument of how not to do Star Wars books.
In spite of that, I would recommend at least taking a look into Hard Contact if you are interested in the series. It's the best example of her works before she became truly hate driven against the Jedi and started preaching for the Mandalorians; and does feature some genuinely good ideas about the clones and the training of the Republic Grand Army.

And before any of you start sending me hatemail, please note I was being reasonable with this. If you want someone much less forgiving about the author's flaws take a look at YodaKenobi's views of just one of her books.

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