Monday, February 29, 2016

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: The Last Days of Krypton

(SPOILER ALERT: Krypton blows up at the end.)

Back in the day, I read a lot of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. Nearly all of them, in fact. (Not counting a number of children's books and such, though I read a fistful of those as well.)

I didn't stop until the "Jacen is a Sith" story started wearing me down*, which means I sat through the entire friggin' Yuuzhan Vong storyline from one end to the other and spent a lot of time carping about the creative choices that were forced on the story by various editorial and publisher mandates**.

And so that means I read a pretty fair fistful of works by Kevin J. Anderson, the author of this book, The Last Days of Krypton (who wrote a trilogy, a fistful of short stories, edited collections of short stories, and co-wrote a pile of kids' books with his wife, all of which are part of the now-defunct Star Wars EU).

I didn't have a problem with the stories at the time, but looking back, a lot of his works... well, let's just say I understand the criticisms leveled at them. (It likely has a lot to do with the fact that I've since had a big chunk of literature-focused college education and my brain finished growing; I was kinda still a kid when I originally read them.)

So how does The Last Days of Krypton hold up?

Eh, meh.

A work like this was always going to borrow a lot from preexisting media; it was published in 2007, well into the nerdstalgia era. This isn't inherently bad; the DCAU managed to take that sort of thing and trim it down into one of the best possible versions.

This, well... it basically wants to be the prequel to the old live-action Superman movies, and just filled in the gaps with Silver Age stuff lifted wholesale from the comics.

Those movies were, well, mostly mediocre except for their casting (I know I'm in a relative minority for not liking them, but I'm not the only one) and so I found details such as Jor-El having white hair and the Phantom Zone being a window pane to another dimension stupid distracting.

There were, on the other hand, things I did in fact like.

For instance, an alien shows up and (rather heavy-handedly) tells the isolationist Kryptonian government that they really would benefit from outside contact and trade. They don't respond well to him, and so he wanders off with Jor-El, who he clearly sees as a kindred spirit of some sort as one of the only serious scientists on Krypton. Jor-El and the alien are trying to figure out something to do about the seismic issues Krypton's been having, when Zod (because OF COURSE there's Zod) has the experiment sabotaged and it blows up in their face, killing the alien.

Because a visitor from outside, a place Krypton has no familiarity with, has just been killed, and Zod is whipping up paranoia in an effort to gather personal power to himself, the Kryptonian government decides they should throw Jor-El under the bus for the accident and punish him to the full extent of the law.

But before that can happen, Brainiac carries off the capital city of Kandor, and does so in such a way that only Zod knows the truth. And Zod uses this as an opportunity to seize power for himself.

I should note that I find Zod kinda really silly, but this explanation for how he came to power actually really works***.

This actually ends up being where the story kind of goes off the rails, though; thanks to Zod coming to power, Jor-El is able to effect a solution to save Krypton.

You read that right-Jor-El stops the original Krypton disaster.

It isn't that simple, of course; while watching the skies as part of Zod's new planetary security mandates then spots an incoming comet. (He also overhears a message from Mars at the end of its history, which ends up being why he sends Kal-El to Earth-because J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter, brought his attention to our solar system. Which is another thing I'll admit to liking pretty well overall.) In a convoluted but predictable fashion, Jor-El is then forced to engineer Zod's downfall and destroy the comet in one fell swoop by wasting Zod's doomsday weapon trump card on it.

(Another thing I'll admit to liking: The weapons in question were extremely long-ranged and very powerful missiles created by an ancient Kryptonian warlord who definitely had panache when it came to naming stuff, such as these weapons, the nova javelins.)

Day saved again, right?

Except then a bunch of idiots throw the Phantom Zone into a volcano ( does that even work? That's why I don't like the stupid movie version of the Phantom Zone), and Krypton explodes anyway, because it's a bad idea to throw naked singularities into your planet's core.

I'm a little torn; I'll admit I find the sudden "Krypton is always doomed" factor kind of amusing, but mostly in a narmy way. It's almost as if the cosmos of the novel is self-correcting. "This isn't an Elseworlds," cries the cosmos, "Krypton's supposed to blow up!"

But that brings me to my biggest problem with the story: The way the narrative treats... well, a lot of things.

The reason the Phantom Zone gets thrown into a volcano is because some people who'd been in it had been put straight into positions of power afterwards, the Phantom Zone having been the way Zod quietly disposed of his political dissidents. These people had been quivering wrecks when they'd been brought out, and serious PTSD sufferers at best, and you people put them straight into positions of power in the government? At the very least, give these guys some time to recover before you give them serious responsibilities again!

And the narrative essentially treats these guys as being at least a little evil for having PTSD. What the hell.

It gets... further down some kind of rabbit hole. The author seems to find writing Zod romancing his girlfriend/consort/wife a little too fascinating, if you catch my meaning.

While it wouldn't necessarily have jumped out at me, the story ends up having Jor-El's and Lara's romance parallel that of Zod and his ladyfriend, and Jor-El's and Lara's relationship is very chaste while Zod's and his gothy hipster girlfriend's relationship is sexy (the reader is subjected to actual foreplay). There are multiple things I could see this meaning, one being what I've already suggested (the author finding it sexier than the other romance) and the other main one being that the author was depicting sex scenes as evil. And both those things are pretty screwed up. (Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, the author seems to like writing women who've had sex with powerful men, e.g. Admiral Daala from his Star Wars novels, who'd been Moff Tarkin's lover [yes THAT Moff Tarkin]. Weird.)

(And it's very specifically sex scenes, not actually sex. And having babies is highly acceptable, because Kal-El had to happen. Also Kal-El was conceived in his grandfather's Fortress of Solitude, which in the novel's universe apparently somehow inspired Superman's Fortress of Solitude. I'm not making this up.)

And oh yes, apparently gothy hipsters are evil and ambitious.

And then there's Nam-Ek, who aside from suggesting a DragonBall Z joke is a really horrible stereotype of a character, a man rendered mute by the horrifying experience he had as a child when his father killed the rest of his family and tried to hunt him down as well; he loves animals and tortured and murdered a man who slaughtered some animals, and implicitly from his skill and efficiency had been killing a lot of people. I'm not sure exactly what stereotypes these embody, but they sure as hell are stereotypes of something, and I don't like what they say.

Finally, there's the strangest, most bizarre thing in the entire story, which makes me shake my head at the whole thing: Supposedly, Krypton's long, heavily regulated history made everything too average, and as a result of this too average-ness, there was a sudden spike in violent maniacs and a fistful of supergenius people to counterbalance the disruption of the bell curve.


In review, let me put it this way:

I read this book so nobody else would have to.

Yes, there are parts of it to like, but they're isolated bits in what is for the most part a train wreck. Even if I'm not a fan of his Star Wars novels, they're better than this was.

*This is actually my biggest concern about the new Star Wars trilogy; it's already, in the first movie, retread a lot of the ground from the EU that I'd have been fine depth-charging into oblivion. I'm really hoping it goes in different directions with the next two.

**For instance, there were three Solo children in the old EU. They were going to have the youngest do some critical magic things in the war with the YV, but they were told that they weren't allowed to focus on that kid by Lucasfilm... because said Solo kid was named Anakin and the prequels were still coming out, so they were concerned audiences would confuse the two characters with each other. Might not have been so bad, except that they decided that meant it was time to kill Anakin Solo.

***It also ties Brainiac's theft of Kandor to Krypton's destruction, something that was done in a similar yet quite different way in the Legion of Superheroes cartoon. Actually, while LoSH was a rather underrated cartoon and one of my favorites from its era, I think I actually like the more sociopolitical explanation from this novel better, despite this novel generally being hit-and-miss.

-Signing off.

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