Review: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

Title: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

Author: James Luceno

Format: Audio (downloaded from Audible.com)

Reader: Daniel Davis

Rating:

Publisher: Random House Audio

Review:

One of my most guilty pleasures is reading novels from the expanded Star Wars universe. It’s a diversion that I haven’t treated myself to in a number of years, but after receiving a subscription to Audible.com, I thought it was a good opportunity to revisit the space opera that shaped much of my childhood.

I have read some previous James Luceno Star Wars titles in the past and when I saw that Darth Plagueis received high marks, it made for an easy decision. Even though the prequel trilogy has been panned by most fans (and rightfully so for a number of reasons), I still find the rise of the Empire to be the most fascinating era in Star Wars history.

For those desiring an introduction to Star Wars novels, Darth Plagueis is an excellent place to start. The novel begins with Plagueis, a pallid-fleshed Muun, killing his Sith master. Plagueis, unlike his master before him, does not use violence and strength to subdue his enemy. He is wise and cunning, playing puppet master in the galaxy’s political system.

Quite by circumstance (or led by the dark side of the force), he ends up becoming acquainted with a young boy named Palpatine. After urging an already maniacal Palpatine to embrace the dark side of the force, the two Siths embark on a quest to rule the universe.

The title of the novel, Darth Plagueis, is a bit misleading. The novel is more of a coming of age story of Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious. It tells of him murdering his family, orchestrating many alliances for political gain, and growing strong in the dark side of the force. The novel also tells of the origin of Darth Maul’s introduction to Palpatine (as an infant), the conversion of Count Dooku, and the initial plans for the clone army in subduing the Republic.

Daniel Davis does an excellent job of narrating. There are many voices (and I think he ran out of them by the end), but he does a nice job of acting out the different roles. There are also some nice sound effects and music that help build a sort of ambiance to the story.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to call Darth Plagueis the definitive novel of the rise of the Republic. It spans a long time period, from Palpatine’s beginnings as a boy, through much of Episode I: The Phantom Menace where Palpatine takes an interest in Anakin. Darth Plagueis is primarily told from the viewpoints of Plagueis and Sidious, but the novel still remains light as in most Star Wars novels.

There is not much to criticize, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the novel lacks the action of other Star Wars novels. Even though there are very few Jedi appearances or light saber duels, I never found the story to be lagging. It was interesting to see how the political takeover of the Empire was actually accomplished. One thing I could have done without is the lengthy discussion on the nature of midi-chlorians. This is not something to fault Luceno for, as Plagueis’s manipulation of them to create and prolong life is one of the few things we knew about him. So as the saying goes, it is what it is.

Darth Plagueis is an essential novel for anyone who is reading the Star Wars expanded universe. It ties in very well to the prequel trilogy and provides a backdrop for many of the events that lead to Sidious becoming Emperor. As evil and self-serving as he is, Sidious credits Plagueis as being wise and that the rise to power could never have happened without him. Even so, the novel provides a rich portrayal of the greatest enemy in Star Wars history.

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Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Title: I, Robot

Author: Isaac Asimov

Rating: 

Publisher: Random House Audio

Format: Audio CD

Review:

The first Isaac Asimov book I ever read was an autobiography. Perhaps that sounds strange — and I suppose it is — considering that he wrote or edited over 500 books. After acquainting myself with the author, I am now going back and reading some of the works that made him famous in the first place. I, Robot is the first of these.

It has been more than sixty years since the I, Robot collection was first published. Nine short stories are told within a larger frame story where robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, recounts her experiences with several different robots manufactured by U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. Considering that the short stories were individually published in magazines the decade prior, it is astounding that Asimov was able to collect them into one larger story.

The common thread in the stories is that the robots are governed by Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

What most of these stories boil down to is a study in the nature of these laws and how they affect the robots and the people around them. For instance, in the story “Runaround,” a robot gets caught in an endless loop where the second and third laws conflict with one another. For a normal robot, this would not be an issue — the second law always outweighs the third law. But Speedy, the robot in question, was expensive and its third law was strengthened to guarantee it would not injure itself. Two practical engineers, Powell and Donovan, travel to Mercury to investigate the strange behavior of this robot.

In “Little Lost Robot,” a robot, Nestor, has its first law modified so that it doesn’t intervene when humans are exposed to a radiation that won’t harm them in the first thirty minutes of exposure. After a researcher loses his temper and tells Nestor to get lost, the robot blends in with sixty-two other robots on site, thus becoming unidentifiable. A psychologist is brought on to help identify the lost robot. Elements from this short story were incorporated into the Will Smith movie that came out a few years ago.

I really struggle with how to rate such a collection. After all, the stories are quite different than modern short stories. They are not about character or plot, but center more around the idea of robots and their nature and relationships with humans. Science fiction is losing its status as a genre of ideas, but at the time this collection came out, ideas was what defined the genre. Aside from the first story, “Robbie,” you probably won’t find any stories that leave you with any emotional attachment. Rather, the stories read more like logic puzzles in which you debug robot logic with the other scientists.

I’m probably not giving the collection its proper justice — after all, these stories provide so much foundation and inspiration for later works. I did enjoy hearing them and I find it worthwhile to read the collection. If you want to get a flavor for what’s inside, I’ll recommend the stories Robbie, Evidence, and Little Lost Robot. They represent the greater collection well and have what I consider to be the strongest characters and plots. If someone is new to the genre, I, Robot is not where I would lead someone, but for those trying to whet their appetite with the classics, I, Robot is an essential part of the diet.