I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a long time. First, I read Joy V. Spicer’s review of it, which got me to download it, and then I let it languish on my Kindle. Then I read Peter Martuneac’s review and realized if two of my friends had recommended this, I really should get to it.
I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.
Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?
If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.
Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.
Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.
Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.
More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.
There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.
This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.
Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:
“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”
And then in the next paragraph we have:
“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”
I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:
“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”
Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!“
[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!“
How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.
I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.
Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.
I haven’t read the next book in this series, but Joy has, and her review was enough to dissuade me from picking it up. She made one observation about that book that I think is already foreshadowed in the first book:
Karen Traviss obviously does not like the Jedi…
There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.
Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.
You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.
Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.
Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.
I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?
I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”
This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?
My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:
Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.
Rey: That’s not true!
Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.
Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.
I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.
With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.
All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.