Snapshot 2016

The Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot has been taking place periodically since 2005, when Ben Peek interviewed 43 people involved in Australian speculative fiction. Over the years the project has expanded enormously, and it’s taking place again! My interview with David McDonald can be read here, where I’ve announced a couple of new projects that I am very excited about. The rest of the interviews can be found at the Snapshot website and they make for wonderfully interesting reading. If ever you wanted to find out what’s going on in Australian spec fic, this is the time!

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Return of the Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

I’m watching the original Star Wars movie on the original 1992 video tape, which amazingly still works. The cover art on the VHS tape is – hm, interesting. Luke is a sword-and-sorcery type with his shirt ripped open, raising aloft a blinding white sword while Leia drapes herself in front of him with a split skirt definitely not seen in the movie. Han doesn’t feature at all. Nor does the title A New Hope, it’s just called Star Wars. The movie is prefaced by a hilarious ad for Lost in Space, another science fiction landmark from my childhood that I may end up reviewing someday. And there’s the 20th Century Fox music that I still associate, indelibly, with Star Wars. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The Galactic Republic is long gone, the galaxy now controlled by Emperor Palpatine and his vast armies, but civil war has broken out once again as rebels seek to overthrow him. They score a significant victory when agents of the rebellion manage to steal plans to the Emperor’s most secret, and most powerful, weapon: the Death Star, a military space station with enough destructive force to obliterate an entire planet. The plans are given into the hands of Leia Organa, a Senator and Princess of Alderaan. Her spaceship is boarded by imperial soldiers in a swift and brutal attack led by Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right hand, but she manages to hide the plans inside her droid – R2-D2, at the scene of pretty much every important event in Skywalker family history – and together with a confused, amnesiac C3-PO, R2 escapes the captive spaceship in an escape pod. They land on that most inescapable of planets, Tatooine.

Surrounded by clone troopers – now known as stormtroopers – with the rest of her crew either imprisoned or dead, Leia doesn’t give an inch. “Darth Vader,” she says coldly. “Only you could be so bold.” She claims to be on a diplomatic mission. Vader calls her a traitor and arranges for a false story to be distributed that all aboard the ship were killed, presumably in some sort of freak accident, to prevent Leia’s supporters in the Imperial Senate generating sympathy for the rebellion. When the missing escape pod is noticed, a detachment of stormtroopers are sent down to recover its contents.

R2-D2 and C3-PO have a bilingual confrontation, in beeps on one side and insults on the other – C3-PO won’t followed R2 down what looks like a more difficult way (it’s ALL SAND DUNES, there is no easy way) and is promptly seized by Jawas. To be fair, so is R2. I seriously love Jawas. They’re tiny and a bit dangerous and they have the best language. On a completely unrelated note, the first computer I ever used had a Star Wars screensaver and if you left it unattended too long the Jawas would steal bits from all over your desktop. It was brilliant. I’m feeling the nostalgia today.

Anyway! The kidnapped droids are taken to a moisture farm and offered for sale to Owen Lars, who initially picks a different droid. That one malfunctions. Present for the exchange is Owen’s nephew Luke Skywalker, who takes C3-PO’s advice and suggests they get R2 instead. Luke doesn’t actually want to be there. He wants to be hanging out with his friends instead of cleaning up a pair of talkative droids and sulkily swoops a model spacecraft around while C3-PO chatters, though he laughs when C3-PO gets mixed up and calls him Sir Luke. Could it be any more obvious that this is a fairy tale with spaceships?

While he’s fixing up R2-D2, he accidentally switches on a projection of Leia, looping through the same few seconds of her recording. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says, over and over again. “You’re my only hope.” Luke is instantly captivated. R2 claims to be the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke connects the name to an eccentric hermit known to live around here, called Ben Kenobi. Cunningly, R2 convinces Luke to remove the Jawas’ restraining bolt, and Luke is subsequently distracted by his aunt Beru calling him inside to eat.

It’s a tense meal. First, Luke mentions Obi-Wan and his aunt and uncle exchange very shifty looks. Next, a well-worn argument erupts as Owen tries to convince Luke to stay on at the farm for another year. Luke wants to submit an application to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot and Beru is inclined to let Luke have his way. “He has too much of his father in him,” she points out, when she’s alone with her husband. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Owen says grimly. Fair enough, considering. Frustrated, Luke walks out into the evening, where the twin suns are setting. He learns that R2 has taken off on a hare-brained quest to find Obi-Wan for himself.

Luke gives chase early the next morning, once it’s light enough, and soon catches up, but is ambushed by Tusken Raiders. He appears to have no self-defence training and is promptly knocked out. Fortunately, Obi-Wan arrives while the Tusken Raiders are, well, raiding Luke’s possessions and scares them off with a predator’s mimicry. He’s unsettled by Luke using his name, a name he has not used in a very long time, and isn’t sure what to make of R2, but takes them and C3-PO (who was damaged in the fight) home with him. Having seen the prequels, it’s doubly sad to see how isolated Obi-Wan has become – also, it’s noticeable how the time-frames don’t quite match up, with Obi-Wan claiming to have gone by the name of Ben since before Luke was born.

Other lies fit better into the narrative. Luke has been told his father was the navigator on a spice freighter, but Obi-Wan tells him that Skywalker Senior was a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars, the best star-pilot in the galaxy. He leaves out ‘genocidal cyborg Sith Lord’, but hands over Anakin’s old lightsaber. “Not as clumsy or random as a blaster,” Obi-Wan says wistfully as a shimmering green blade bursts from the hilt. “An elegant weapon from a more civilised age.” Luke is rather enchanted. His mood turning darker, Obi-Wan speaks about the persecution of the Jedi and claims that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader, which is only true in a poetical sense. He also tells Luke about the Force, an energy that ‘binds the galaxy together’. How much of my life have I spent quoting bits of this movie?

Obi-Wan watches Leia’s recording. She is aware that he served with her father in the Clone Wars (good on you, Bail Organa, for raising this excellent human being) and asks him to take the Death Star plans to Alderaan now that she’s unable to do so herself. Obi-Wan takes approximately one minute to make up his mind, and tries to recruit Luke for the mission with the promise of teaching him how to use the Force. Luke, though torn, feels a duty to his family and feels helpless against the overwhelming monolith of the Empire. The best he can offer Obi-Wan is a lift to the nearest town.

Meanwhile, the imperial officers aboard the Death Star are arguing over what they should do next. When Vader doesn’t like the direction this dispute takes (a casual dismissal of the Force that really drums home the radical social shift since the very title of Jedi commanded awe throughout the galaxy) he chokes a dissident half to death until Grand Moff Tarkin, the person who is actually in charge around here, calls an end to the ‘bickering’ with elegant distaste. The Emperor has just dissolved the Senate for good – he is that powerful – and is relying on the Death Star to keep the star systems in line. That means they have to find out where the plans went, and fast.

On their way across the desert, Luke and Obi-Wan find the wreck of a Jawa vehicle, its occupants slaughtered – seemingly by Tusken Raiders, but Obi-Wan sees at once that the attack came from stormtroopers on R2-D2’s trail. Horrified, Luke makes a frantic dash for home. It’s too late. The farm is on fire; his aunt and uncle are dead. As he stands there staring at their bodies, it is unnerving how much he looks like Anakin.

With nothing left to lose, Luke recklessly pledges himself to Obi-Wan’s mission and they travel to Mos Eisley spaceport to find a pilot who will take them as far as Alderaan. Stormtroopers are searching the place, but Obi-Wan gets them through with a tidy Jedi mind trick. They end up in a cantina full of disreputable-looking characters, where Obi-Wan gets talking with a very familiar Wookiee. Though it would seem they’re not familiar to each other. Chewbacca is now co-pilot on the Millenium Falcon, working with his friend Han Solo. The cantina has a rigid no-droids policy but is well-populated with thugs; the one who picks a fight with Luke gets his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan (his old go-to attack move, if history serves). Luke is awed.

In quite a rush to get off the planet, Obi-Wan accepts Han’s opportunistic asking price in return for a rapid departure and no questions asked. Han would also like admiration for his reputation as a pilot, but Luke’s being indignant about such obvious fleecing and Obi-Wan hasn’t been impressed by anything in decades. Plus Han has his own problems. He gets cornered by a bounty hunter called Greedo, who has tracked him down on behalf of crime lord Jabba the Hutt after a business transaction gone very sour. This scene got notoriously edited in later editions of the movie, but Han DEFINITELY SHOOTS FIRST. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that Greedo got the chance to shoot at all, only that he really wanted to. The extended editions also include a personal confrontation with Jabba that Han manages to talk his way out of, but the original skips straight to a shoot-out with stormtroopers just as the Falcon is taking off.

Han and Chewbacca are a formidable team, though, even with Luke peppering questions at them in the cockpit. The jump to lightspeed gets them away.

Darth Vader has tried and failed to torture the location of the rebel base out of Leia. Tarkin takes a different tack. “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” Leia bites when she’s brought before him. “I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board.” He’s already decided to execute her, but has brought the Death Star into the Alderaan system to test its weaponry on her home planet first. Appalled, she chokes out the location of a base on Dantooine, but Tarkin fires on the planet anyway. It is destroyed instantly before her eyes.

On the Falcon, Obi-Wan has begun Luke’s lightsaber training, trying to teach him to act on instinct, and R2-D2 is beating Chewbacca at a holographic board game. Obi-Wan crumples suddenly as the shockwaves in the Force caused by Alderaan’s destruction hit him hard. He doesn’t know what has happened, only that many people have died. Han jeers the very idea of the Force. The only greater power he believes in is luck. When they arrive at the co-ordinates for Alderaan, however, all that’s left of the planet is a field of debris.

Leia may have been devastated, but she did not give Tarkin what he wanted. The rebel base on Dantooine has been deserted for a long time. Tarkin is ridiculously indignant about this.

A short-range imperial fighter ship attacks the Falcon and Han chases it towards a small moon, hoping to destroy it before it can report their presence. Obi-Wan is the first one to realise that they are not heading towards a moon at all – it is a space station of previously unheard of size, and it sends out a tractor beam that drags the Falcon in towards it no matter what Han does. Once they have the ship captive, stormtroopers board and search it. They’re dealing with a higher level of sneaky here, however. Han conceals everyone in the floor compartments he uses for smuggling and together with Luke, overcomes two stormtroopers to steal their armour. They also manage to take over the communications centre overlooking the hanger bay. Obi-Wan slips off on his own to disable the tractor beam, gently dissuading Luke from following him. “The Force will be with you,” he says before he leaves. “Always.”

Han slouches grumpily in a chair and Chewbacca mutters darkly. R2 is more constructive. Having found Princess Leia in the computer system, the droid pinpoints her precise location and her dire circumstances. Luke is determined to rescue her. He wheedles Han around with promises of a hefty reward and they march off with Chewbacca as a fake prisoner between them, leaving the droids to hide as best they can. The three rescuers manage to claim another control centre on the way to the cell blocks, but the commotion is overheard and Han completely stuffs up subtlety by shooting out communications mid very awkward conversation. Luke gets to Leia, who spots the height discrepancy between him and his armour at once (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”). Upon hearing he’s here with Obi-Wan Kenobi, she launches out of the cell at top speed.

She’s not the only who knows Obi-Wan is aboard. Vader feels his presence through the Force. His imperial colleagues are more skeptical about it, insisting that the Jedi ‘religion’ is extinct, and are much more concerned with Leia’s escape. Vader storms off to face Obi-Wan himself.

Another shoot-out takes place in the cell block as stormtroopers corner the escapees, and Leia is amazed by the sheer incompetence of her new allies. “This is some rescue,” she snaps, and leads them down into the garbage chute. They end up in a sort of disgusting swamp. And they can’t get out. Han and Leia start screaming accusations at each other and an unidentified thing drags Luke under the filthy water. I hope he’s up to date on all his vaccinations, because the number of diseases he’s being exposed to is mind-boggling.

Leia and Han scramble to help him, but they soon have bigger problems. The thing releases Luke and disappears, aware of what the sudden clunking means – the garbage disposal is compacting, i.e. the walls are literally closing in around them. Luke shrieks urgent instructions to C3-PO while the others try vainly to brace the walls apart. Just in time, C3-PO gets the message (he’s been busy talking his way past stormtroopers, quite effectively I might add) and turns off the garbage disposal. The elation of unexpected survival doesn’t hold their group in harmony for long; being prickly people, Leia and Han soon fall into argument.

The rescue party head for the Falcon and split up when they are attacked again – Han runs headlong towards a mini-blockade of stormtroopers, loyally followed by Chewbacca, only to turn and hurtle in the opposite direction when it’s clear he’s too badly outnumbered. Luke and Leia, already getting along very well, take a different route. Leia proves handy with a blaster and Luke gets creative with a grappel hook, swinging them across a chasm to safety. She kisses his cheek. It would be a sweeter moment if they knew they were siblings, but it’s a tad awkward with that knowledge.

Obi-Wan, meanwhile, has reached his goal and disabled the tractor beam. On his way back, he meets with Darth Vader, who is triumphantly certain of victory. They battle in the corridor, red lightsaber against blue. The stormtroopers guarding the Falcon see the duel and move away to handle that crisis instead; Luke sees it too, just as Obi-Wan shuts down his lightsaber and allows Vader to strike. His cloak is empty before it hits the ground. Vader pokes it just to be sure. Han and Leia yell at a stunned Luke to get moving and they bolt for freedom.

On board, Luke sits grieving and Leia joins him in silent sympathy. Within the space of a day or two, they have both lost everyone they loved at the whim of the Empire. There’s no time to mourn yet, though, with imperial fighters surging in pursuit. Han and Luke command the Falcon’s gun towers to combat them and Luke shows talent; the Falcon gets away unimpeded. And that’s exactly what Vader wants. He’s put a tracking device aboard the ship. Leia suspects something of the kind. Her pragmatism isn’t what Han wants to hear and he reminds her that he’s not a part of her cause, he’s in this for the money. Her response is a chilly withdrawal. Luke is bewildered by their mutual antagonism, and quietly possessive of his princess when Han speculates idly over his own relationship potential with her.

They land on a moon around the planet Yavin, true location of the rebel base. It is a hive of activity. The leaders greet Leia with relief. As they hoped, the Death Star has a weakness – a small fighter ship, considered to be no threat against the huge space station, can travel through trenches in the exterior armour to a thermal exhaust port. A precisely aimed shot should set off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire station. The rebel pilots are doubtful that such a shot is possible, but Luke is optimistic. “May the Force be with you,” a rebel leader says as the pilots are sent off, proving that not everyone sees the Jedi as extinct.

Han is preparing to leave with his reward. Luke is hurt. He’s jumped headlong in the cause and rejects Han’s offer of crew membership out of hand, pointing out how badly the rebellion needs their help. “May the Force be with you,” Han says, by way of goodbye and apology. Luke goes to complain to Leia, who kisses his cheek again (it’s faster than therapy) and C3-PO bids an anxious farewell to R2 as pilot and droid get ready with the rest of the rebel fighters. As he takes off, Luke hears an echo of Obi-Wan’s voice as ghostly encouragement.

The Death Star arrives in the Yavin system and prepares to fire on the planet. If the rebel fighters fail, everyone they’ve left behind is going to die. It’s a desperate obstacle course just getting past the initial defences and that’s before the imperial fighters head out to do battle directly. Vader leads the counter-attack personally. Everything else may have changed, but he’s still a lethal pilot. The rebel fighters are picked off one by one. Leia listens helplessly from the planet while Tarkin scornfully rejects any notion of an evacuation protocol.

No one has successfully made the shot. It’s Luke’s turn to try. Vader guns straight for him but is sent spinning off into space by a blast from the Falcon as Han changes his mind and comes back to help. I think Chewbacca’s discontent may have had a part in that, also the enormous soft spot Han tries to pretend he doesn’t have. At the last minute, Luke hears that echo of advice from Obi-Wan again and impetuously decides to listen, turning off his targeting computer and relying on the pull of the Force to make that crucial shot. R2 is damaged in the approach. Luke is alone now. It is a matter of seconds before the Death Star fires on the base.

Luke takes his shot. It goes in like a dream. The Death Star explodes into fiery wreckage and Luke lands to wild celebration, hauled into a group hug with Han and Leia. They are seriously adorable as a trio. R2 is taken off for repair, C3-PO worrying all the way, and a ceremony is arranged to honour the two pilots who brought down the Death Star between them. Leia presents Luke and Han with a medal each (and a little smile). It remains one of the inexplicable injustices of the Star Wars universe that Chewie doesn’t get one.

There’s a much bigger war to win. But this is a victory worth celebrating.

Review – Tam Lin

Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

Firebird, 2006

Originally published in 1991

The day she arrives at Blackstock College for her freshman year, Janet is told that her room is haunted, but really she’s more concerned about the roommates that are very much alive. There is enough oddness on campus, from Janet’s enigmatic advisor Melinda Wolfe to the quietly domineering presence of Professor Medeous, to Janet’s melodious but entirely unreliable classmate Nick and his theatrical friends, without bringing ghosts into it. The strangest things, however, do not always announce themselves so obligingly. They creep up on you unawares, or linger at the corner of your eye. And Janet is not entirely willing to look.

This retelling of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, set in the 1970s in an American university, is immensely readable and given my current blog project, very relevant to my interests. It’s a book infused with literary references, some more obscure than others, and Dean conjures a dreamy sense of mystery throughout. That said, I would have liked a clearer pay-off for all those hints, drawing in a greater number of the intriguing side characters, and I wanted to see more of Thomas Lane, as he spends rather too much of the book being quiet or absent. Janet is excellent. She’s delightfully pragmatic and very stubborn. My Firebird edition also includes the original ballad at the back, which is a lovely touch.

Ladies of Legend: Black Annis and Gentle Annie

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (Pantheon Books, 1976) by Katharine Briggs, http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm, http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A14129318

What is it about obscurely terrifying women that appeals to me so much? Because these two are the definition of enigma but everything about them fascinates me. Black Annis came from the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, in the English East Midlands. She was a blue-faced ‘cannibal hag’ associated with storms and winter, with wild hair, yellow fangs and iron claws that she used to carve out a cave called Black Annis’ Bower. An oak tree grew in front of this cave and Black Annis hid behind it in order to ambush lambs and small children when they passed by. Displaying somewhat vampiric tendencies, she would then drink their blood, eat the flesh and hang up the skins in her cave like a macabre tanner so that she could wear the leathers. In the absence of glass panes, locals used to hang up protective herbs so that Black Annis wouldn’t reach through windows into their children’s cradles.

It used to be an Easter Monday tradition in Leicester to hold a ‘drag hunt’, pulling a dead cat soaked in aniseed from Black Annis’ cave to the house of the mayor, a custom that fortunately petered out at the end of the 18th century. Annis’s legend remained strong, however. A folk story recorded during World War II sets her up as a very vocal presence in the landscape, whose teeth could be heard grinding for miles around.

It was said that daylight would turn her to stone. The White Dragon website recounts a story about three children sent out to fetch wood by their wicked stepmother, but who wisely took with them a ‘witch-stone’ (a stone with a hole worn through the middle by natural means) and with that talisman they saw Black Annis approaching. Promptly dropping their bundles of wood, the children fled for home. Black Annis stumbled over the branches, returned to her cave to treat the cuts and still managed to catch up with the children at the door to their house. Fortunately, their father met her with an axe. She ran off screaming “Blood! Blood!” and died at the first peals of Christmas bells – or so that version claims, anyway.

Gentle Annie makes a better first impression. Being mild-mannered and unremarkable of looks, she didn’t need to hide behind trees to get her nasty work done. She came from the Scottish lowlands and governs storms; there is apparently a gap in the hills near the Firth of Cromarty through which she called in gales. Her temperament seems to have been a capricious one; under her influence, a fine day could turn stormy without warning, threatening local fishermen.

It’s possible both Black Annis and Gentle Annie are distorted derivatives of the ancient Celtic water goddess Danu (mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan), the earth and fertility goddess Anu or the moon goddess Aine, all of whom can be conflated depending on the story. Other alarming ladies of the British Isles include Jeanie of Biggersdale, a murderous spirit haunting the Mulgrave Woods in Yorkshire; Caillage Ny Groagmagh, an elderly fairy from the Isle of Man who travels about as a giant bird to collect firewood and will influence the weather to ensure a good stockpile; Peg O’Nell, a water hag from Lancashire, specifically the River Ribble, who expects a token sacrifice every seven years – a bird or small animal will do – but will claim a human life if she doesn’t get it; and green, sharp-toothed Peg Prowler, another water hag, this one from River Tees in north-eastern England, who drowns anyone unlucky enough to set foot in her waters.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!