Tag Archives: Star Wars

Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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Who Is The Everyman

I talk a lot about the concept of the everyman on this blog, though mostly about how they don’t have to be white guys. And there’s a reason it’s such an important thing. Spider-Man shows you don’t have to be rich and smart like Iron Man or an alien like Superman to be a superhero, you can just be a nebbish kid from Queens. It’s the whole point of the everyman: anyone can be a hero. Especially you, because, after all, the everyman is meant to be you.

Star Wars, with Luke and Rey, takes full advantage of the everyman. The totally mundane farmboy and scavenger turn out to really be special heroes who help save the galaxy. The characters’ motivations are built to be universal, certainly more so than the other characters around them. Han’s a smuggler who wants to get a bounty off his head and Leia wants to save her planet and the galaxy – Luke just wants to get off of Tatooine. Finn wants to escape from the First Order he used to be a part of, Poe is on an important mission for the Resistance – Rey just wants to belong. They’re universal wants, ones more translatable to ordinary life than paying off a crime lord. Again, Luke and Rey could be anyone, including you. And anyone, including you, could be the chosen one.

This is why it’s so darn important for there to be diversity in the everyman. Rey is important because she shows that you don’t have to be a dude to be a chosen one, to be special. Same with Ms. Marvel, where the superhero of New Jersey is Kamala Khan, saying that, hey, a Muslim girl can be an all-American superhero.

And that’s what makes the cast make up of Rogue One so important. Unlike Luke and Rey, these folks aren’t particularly special. No one’s a Jedi or super skilled smuggler. Jyn, Cassian, Chîrrut, and the others are, in the vein of Peter Parker and Kamala Khan, fairly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the right place at the right time and step up. They’re meant to be normal people, like you and me. So they look like normal people, like you or me.

There’s the rub. What do normal people look like? What do we look like? For me, that’s half-Asian/half-White, and based on the majority of (western) media out there, one of those halves is what heroes look like. The other half is usually a villain or, if not a token, then usually a stoic wise, old master. Not a swashbuckling hero or a badass mercenary. That’s the other half.

(In case you haven’t realized, it’s the white half that’s portrayed heroically and the Asian less so).

The diversity in Rogue One, however, flips that on its head – and in frickin’ Star Wars, one of my favorite stories! The heroes of the film come from all sorts of (real world) backgrounds, with a white woman as the lead and a Latino guy as deuteragonist. The others on the core team are a couple Chinese guys, a Pakistani-British guy, and Alan Tudyk as a droid. None of these characters are meant to be particularly special, not even the sense of being super well-trained or anything.

They’re normal people.

Who step up to be heroes.

And some of them happen to look like me.

Of course you don’t have to look like someone to emphasize with them. It’s why I see myself in the crew of Serenity in Firefly or wanna be Rey because she’s the best. It’s why I’m sure you can still wanna be Cassian Andor even though he’s Latino and you might not be. But who we see as heroes affect our perception of reality. If the only time we see Asian characters are as wise, old master, then that’s all we see them as. If the everyman is universal, then everyone should get to see themselves as the everyman.

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In Which Josh Rambles Aimlessly About Science Fiction on Christmas Eve

I liked the idea of Passengers when I first heard about it: On an extra-solar space mission Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up from cryogenic sleep and have to deal with being alone together. It’s like Lost In Translation… in space! And I’m a sucker for a riff on Lost In Translation (Monsters: Lost In Translation… with aliens!). But then I saw the trailer. And look! Explosions! Peril! It’s not just about two people being people with each other.

Bummer.

But then reveals started coming in and it turns out that Pratt’s character wakes up Lawrence’s deliberately: because he’s studied her file and wants to fall in love with her. And he doesn’t tell her the whole waking-her-up-and-ruining-her-plans-without-her-consent-because-he’s-lonely thing and it’s portrayed as, get this, romantic.

So, y’know, my disinterest has now soured to disgust. Woo, another movie where the female character’s agency and goals are subservient to the male character’s want for a warm body.

And it’s all a rotten shame, since the way I first understood the pitch had such promise. How much more isolated can you get than in the middle of space? Lost In Translation used the foreignness of Japan to heighten the isolation of its protagonists – the story wouldn’t work as well in, say, Cleveland. Now replace Tokyo with deep space and you’ve got yourself a whole ‘nother level of existential questioning.

It’s science fiction, and science fiction (and other ‘genre’ stories) is equipped to tell stories that ‘normal’ fiction can’t. Roaming a spaceship meant to house hundreds by yourself isn’t something that could happen in real life (yet), but science fiction can explore that heightened sense of solitude and isolation. Replacing alone in the crowd for a week with alone among the stars while your shipmates sleep for decades allows a story to really look at, say, humanity’s desire for connection and all the drama that comes with it. Fiction is, by nature, a stylized and heightened form of reality; science fiction ratchets that up a few notches.

In addition, the fiction of its world makes its story universal, in that because it hasn’t happened, it could happen to anyone (which doesn’t excuse the lack of diversity sadly prevalent in science fiction). As no one’s blown up a Death Star before, blowing up the Death Star isn’t a ‘white’ narrative. (And because it isn’t a ‘white’ narrative, all the more reason for it to not just feature white actors!) Look at Rogue One. Being a Star Wars story, it takes place in a galaxy far far away free of this one’s messy history with race. So why can’t the rebels be Chinese and Latino? More than ever, is there the leeway for the everyman to not be a white guy, and Rogue One pulls it off magnificently. Suddenly the Rebellion comes alive in a way it never did in the Original Trilogy; there’s room at the space-table for everyone. A story we always hoped was universal really is. You don’t have to look like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford to be a hero.

With that universality established, now we get to dive back into that heightened reality! It’s the Rebels against the evil Empire! But this is a world where anyone can be a Rebel, and where the Empire really is an unstoppable evil. Compare Rogue One to Saving Private Ryan or Fury, at least in concept. Both Ryan and Fury are World War II movies about Americans against the ostensibly-always-pure-evil Nazi Germany. There are insurmountable odds and crazy missions in all three of the stories, but in Ryan and Fury you’ve gotta be American to see yourself as the hero. Rogue One and Star Wars in general has a leeway you don’t find there.

Even war video games set in contemporary setting have a similar issue, with the Modern Warfare series usually being about American and British soldiers fighting vaguely Russian and Middle-Eastern soldiers/extremists. They’re stories about a certain group of people, during a certain part of time, fighting a certain group of people. Compare that to Halo: Reach which features an international band of soldiers fighting aliens. The villains are drawn in strokes as broad as in Ryan or Modern Warfare, but this time you don’t have to be an American to be the good guy. You get to be Noble Six alongside a team whose voice cast include those of Nigerian, Israeli, Haitian, and South Asian heritage. Anyone can be the hero because the villains aren’t even human. Even though the Halo world may be marked with some shades of gray in its morality, the extreme dichotomy of humanity=good, Covenant=evil lets it be a war story that isn’t reliant on an entire people group being evil.

And again, Rogue One. The Empire isn’t a real country or people group, it’s a fictional villainous government with analogues to real-life regimes. But in Star Wars, the good guys can win, they can really win! Yes, it may come at a cost, but it’s one against an Evil with a capital E. That latitude, for the baddies to be really bad and for the victories to be victorious, let’s a movie like Rogue One have a sense of the epic and hope that just doesn’t happen in reality. There’s a room for the ‘realness’ of realistic fiction, but so is there for the romanticism of science fiction like Star Wars and, yes, Halo.

I love science fiction. Always have. I will vehemently defend it even as I criticize the genre for its faults (ie: being overrun with white guys named John). Same goes for escapist fiction; there’s enough crap going on in the world that some days (a lot of days) I wanna read a book about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian pulling an Oceans Eleven style heist (Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels is wonderful, by the way). As I say a lot here, there’s a time and place for fiction to be ‘real,’ but sometimes lies about reality can be truer than the truth.

Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read it this far. This rant started somewhere and ended up somewhere very different, and it’s Christmas Eve and I’m too tired to make it the two essays it should be. So this has been Josh Rambling Aimlessly About Science Fiction. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, go watch Rogue One instead of Passengers.

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