Sotmrtroopers in Afghanistan. #StarWarsNotStarWars. The guilty pleasure book you’d stay up reading if you didn’t have plans on Saturday night. Galaxy’s Edge co-authors Jason Anspach and Nick Cole have come up with a vivid litany of elevator pitches for the first book in their blockbuster sci-fi series. It’s the kind of compelling ad copy I’ve come to savor from my fellow Dragon Award winner.
There’s an old proverb in the ad game that good copy is like a bikini. It should tantalize without revealing everything. Having read Galaxy’s Edge Book 1: Legionnaire, I can confidently report that Jason and Nick followed that advice to a T. There’s more going on here than the book’s taglines imply.
Take what’s probably the novel’s most accessible description: Stormtroopers in Afghanistan. For the first couple of pages, Legionnaire seems like it’s going to be a case study in Exactly What it Says on the Tin. Lest you think that’s a criticism, Nick himself has said that a major driving epiphany behind this series is the realization that “Cliche is cliche for a reason. Cliche works.”
I’d be more charitable. What Anspach and Cole are dealing with here aren’t strictly cliches, but tropes. And yes, tropes work. George Lucas understood that fact better than anyone in Hollywood, and he created the biggest franchise on earth.
That’s not to say Nick and Jason did a copypasta on Star Wars, filed the serial numbers off, and called it a day. Pertaining to the example above, the image that Stormtroopers in Afghanistan calls to mind is a mob of bumbling white-armored clones getting mowed down by Kalashnikov and RPG fire in some arid mountain pass. But we quickly learn that leejes aren’t Stormtroopers.
What Jason and Nick did was take the Stormtroopers’ informed attribute of badassery: “An entire legion of my best troops…” and back it up with ample competence. Leejes aren’t just troopers that can hit the broad side of a barn. They can hit the top of a humanoid’s head poking up from behind a boulder three klicks away.
The “in Afghanistan” part is pretty much accurate, with the addition of some choice sciffy tropes. Victory Company is stuck on a hostile planet, not just a war-torn country, and the Afghans are aliens. We still get to see what’s essentially a surplus Russian tank, though.
It’s often said that the secret to making a top shelf parody is that the story still works if you take out the jokes. That’s why Airplane! is still a classic while contemporary comedies vanish from the public consciousness as soon as they leave theaters. Watch the Zucker brothers’ parody again, and pay close attention to the performances. Everybody’s playing the goofball comedy straight, which lends the film extra weight.
Anspach and Cole apply the same trick to mil-SF. The battles, the characters, and the secondary world politics that shaft them are all played straight. I you went through and stripped out the speculative elements, Legionnaire would still work as a damn fine war story. The whole novel could easily be re-purposed as the tale of a Marine company in Kandahar Province.
Besides the explosive, visceral battles, the authors paid the most attention to the book’s characters. The legionnaires of Victory Company aren’t cookie cutter clones. They’re relatable men with their own hopes, desires, quirks, and rivalries. Jason and Nick paint these (mostly) faceless characters in such a way that you will end up caring about them. Considering that they usually didn’t have the luxury of showing facial expressions, that’s a remarkable achievement.
In the same episode of Geek Gab linked above, Nick revealed another key ingredient of GE’s success: telling simpler stories. Legionnaire succeeds at that aim. The plot is almost brutally streamlined. If you’re looking for a Clancyesque military thriller with convoluted twists and intrigues around every corner, look elsewhere. Anspach and Cole boil their mil-SF story down to the bare bones: fight, survive, and escape.
But what of the authors’ #StarWarsNotStarWars meme? Fans of the swashbuckling, clear black and white morality, and heroism of the galaxy far, far away might be inclined to simplify the hashtag to #NotStarWars. Legionnaire makes ample use of Star Wars tropes, but it also subverts them. Turn the throne room scene at the end of A New Hope on its head, you’ve got the idea. The subversion makes sense when you bear in mind that the whole premise is to tell a story from the Stormtroopers’ perspective. It’s easy to forget in light of how sympathetic the leejes are, but they’re basically fighting for the Empire.
The authors were clearly aware they’d inverted reader expectations, and they obviously know their audience, because they offer a classic space opera-flavored treat in the epilogue. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun, but suffice it to say, Nick and Jason saved the best for last with what is hands down the most captivating, inspired writing in the book. I sincerely hope they give Legionnaire’s epilogue its own novel-length treatment some day.
With the implosion of Mouse Wars in progress, it’s encouraging to know there are creators who are stepping up to fill the galaxy-sized void.
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