Transcript of Cheapskates #6

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.

Before we really get started with today’s Review, I wanted to share a few cheapskates-related news and notes.

First, for any of you who followed my lead and got a $79 ad-supported Kindle, you might like to know that there’s a software update now available. It’s supposed to create a crisper, more paper-like experience, at least according to Amazon. Frankly, I don’t notice much difference, but then again, I was pleased with the previous software version as well.

If you have kids who enjoy picture books with you, however, you’ll appreciate the new version. These now display with thicker border lines, giving you clearer pictures in the black and white format, even if they were originally in color. 

Second, on to the Kindle’s main competitor – the Barnes and Noble Nook. They now have a new product offering that I think is brilliant – the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. It’s nearly cheapskate-worthy at $139, and it solves one of my greatest frustrations with the Kindle – it looks like paper, but you also have to light it like paper if you want to read before bed. This version of the Nook claims to create a soft, even glow across the e-ink display when you turn on built in light. No turning on an endtable lamp or buying a clip-on light. It sounds like a great solution that will likely make the Nook my next reader when I have – inevitably – broken my Kindle.

Finally, I wanted to let you know about a bit of an expansion to the reviews on Cheapskates. While the free books I review for Cheapskates are a big chunk of my content consumption, they are by no means the only things I’m reading or listening to. So, I’m starting this new thing I’m calling “Cheap Cheeps” that’s c-h-e-a-p c-h-e-e-p-s – just the perfect joke for an audio podcast, right?

Anyway, these will be Twitter-length reviews of science fiction and fantasy books, short stories, movies and other SF podcasts. These will all be content that I’ve enjoyed for free, but I’m not able to use them here for Cheapskates because I have no way to guarantee that you can get them for free. I might have enjoyed these for free thanks to a library loan, a free promotion, search rewards points, gifts and so forth.

You can check out these short reviews on Twitter by looking up the handle @CheapCheepSF. I’ll also use this new Twitter handle for other Cheapskates news and updates. Hope you enjoy.

All right, on to today’s review. Two months ago, I promised you Star Wars, but put you off to do a tribute to Ray Bradbury instead – I hope you didn’t mind. But now I’m making good on my promise with a review of the free “Lost Tribe of the Sith” novellas by John Jackson Miller. These come in eight parts, so I thought I might use this as an opportunity to do something a little different on the Review. Here’s the setup:

See, a few months ago, my wife bought me the best phone I have ever owned – a credit to her generosity… and everlasting patience . It’s a Samsung Replenish, and it’s the first phone I’ve had with a touchscreen and running the Android operating system. Owners of fancier phones might scoff, but for me it’s awesome. Just a quick rundown of what my phone can do at this moment  includes, Web browser, calculator, calendar, camera, video camera, clock, contact list, Email, GPS device, Navigator, MUD Client, Crossword puzzles, Sketchbook, an app that does nothing but turn on my ringer back on when I forget to, mp3 player, Text messaging, Voice mail, To-do list, Word Processor, Spreadsheet program, Power Point Presentation program, stopwatch, kitchen timer, more games than I can ever hope to play including Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, two hundred and fifty solitaire games and a flashlight… or, a torch, if you insist.

There’s… something else it can do, too, but it, uh… can’t be too important. Hm…. (Phone ringing under this).

This all comes around to say: there are three apps in particular on my phone are relevant to this episode of Cheapskates. The first is a standalone game of Pazaak – which players of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game would recognize as the Star Wars universe card game that’s part blackjack, part collectible card game. What an age we live in, huh?

The first other two relevant apps are the Kindle and Aldiko ereader apps currently on my phone. As I was tinkering with ereader apps, it occurred to me that the Star Wars novellas I’m reviewing this month come in eight parts, so I thought I would put my phone through its paces and read each one using a different eReader app, then review each of them on my blog.

However, this proved to be a far more difficult in practice than in theory. The first four were easy enough, for the most part they’re made by the same people who are doing a decent job of making full-size ereaders.

The Kindle app made the grade even though it’s clunky and basic because, well, it’s the only one that can read Kindle format. Aldiko was recommended to me by my local library: it reads the more open-source epub format fairly well – even with digital copyright protection features – and with a minimum of space.

Nook and Kobo apps were also fairly easy to find and performed competently, but were simply too big for me to keep around on my bare-bones smartphone.

But after that, finding another four was a torture of programs that wouldn’t work, incompatible formats and awkward processes to just get them to read. In the end, I managed to eke out getting Moon + Reader, iReader, HAL eReader and Digibooks4All to actually read the last four books, but it was a close thing.

I won’t consume my segment with detailed reviews of each app, but if you want that, I’m going to post the blow-by-blow on my site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.

However, to give you the broad strokes, reading on a phone is an entirely different ebook experience, altogether.

(Layered) Reading on a phone is an entirely different ebook experience.

OK, Bad jokes from the “Airplane” movie aside, relying on my mobile phone to read these was as different from reading a traditional book as possible.

For starters, there’s the size – my Samsung Replenish has a mere 2.8 inch screen, making it feel like I’m reading a book off of a pad of post-it notes. An iPhone gets you to just 3.5 inches and even the phones with the absolutely largest screens fall well short of 5 inches. In addition, there’s the much shorter battery life – I have to charge my phone daily, but with eink we’re talking about a month.

But on the positive side is the high portability – because my phone is already in my pocket, it’s easy to open up my books and catch a few minutes of reading in the small gaps of life – waiting in lines, walking to the car, waiting for a meeting to begin.

Part positive, part negative is having a lighted display like a computer screen rather than the eink. The good is that it’s possible to read in the dark before bed, although even on the lowest brightness setting it feels too bright. The drawback is that it’s much more difficult to read a phone in bright sunlight – even on the brightest setting it never feels quite bright enough.

 But that’s enough on the medium, let’s get to the content.

When I first bought my Kindle, one of my first orders of business was to browse the top 100 free science fiction books list on Amazon. I was shocked when some of the first books to stand out to me were the “Lost Tribe of the Sith” novelette series by John Jackson Miller. I mean, who gives Star Wars away for free?!

I was dubious at first that the books were even official. For one, John Jackson Miller was new to me as an author. What I now know is that Miller is best known for his works on comic books and graphic novels, having been the writer on Star Wars: Knight Errant, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and the graphic version of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull for Dark Horse comics. He’s also written Iron Man and Crimson Dynamo for Marvel.

Miller’s had his share of more traditional sci fi fiction with novel versions of Star Wars: Knight Errant, a number of short stories for the official Star Wars site, and a contribution in the “Armored” anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams.

I also then quickly found that Del Rey was the publisher and that the novelettes were listed in the official timelines of the books and movies.

I also figured out why it’s free content – each has been associated with the release of a new book in the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi series and includes a teaser chapter to encourage the ultimate purchase of a full-length novel. I’d actually read some of Fate of the Jedi series before discovering the free novelettes, and I’d actually recommend reading the full-length novels first, even though that isn’t the intention. It’ll give you some context for what’s going on and why you should care about the characters.

And if I may use that to transition into the plot, figuring out what’s going on was one of the biggest issues I found as I started into the first novelette, entitled “Precipice.” You’re pretty much thrown into the Bacta tank and told to swim.

Actually, whether you understand that metaphor or not is a good first test of how much unfamiliar territory you’ll encounter in Lost Tribe of the Sith.

For example, right up front, you need to know that 5,000 years BBY stands for “Before Battle of Yavin” aka Star Wars: a New Hope aka the first time they blew up the Death Star aka the first Star Wars movie.

If you need another reference point, 5,000 years BBY makes the initial tales told in the first four books – Precipice, Skyborn, Paragon, and Savior – the oldest tales in the chronology of the Star Wars universe – already a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

So if, like me, you aren’t readily familiar with Ho’Din, the Houk, Primus Goluud, the Massassi, or the dark lord Naga Sadow, you’ll probably want to have Wookiepedia – the Star Wars wiki – brought up on your computer and handy for reference.

The plot of the first four books follows the captain and crew of The Omen – A Sith mining and transport ship – that is attacked by Jedi and jumps to hyperspace to escape. Off in their navigation by just a hair, they crash onto the backwater of Kesh – a mineral-poor planet populated by a beautiful, pale-purple-skinned people holding to a religion laden with superstition. The small but powerful population of Sith take advantage of this fact to subdue the locals under their control, even as they squabble and backstab each other, in the manner you would expect from an entire society of Sith. This is complicated further by the existence of a Keshiri resistance to Sith rule.

I found the turns of these first four novelettes generally unsurprising and the writing … solid even if it wasn’t stellar. Nothing to complain about, truly, but neither have I been bringing them up with like-minded nerds – the clearest sign I’ve been impressed with a work of fiction.

No, what I actually found the most compelling in the first four novelettes is the underlying concept. In the rest of the Star Wars fiction I’ve encountered, everyone takes the precognition, telepathy and telekinesis of the Force, Lightsabers and hyperspace travel in stride. It’s just a given of their universe.

Here we get a whole new view by seeing force users for the first time through the Keshiri eyes. For the first time, it made me consider what would happen on our own planet if Jedi – or heaven forbid Sith – were suddenly to appear.

Miller himself describes the feeling the novelettes create quite well in this except from an interview he did with Fictional Frontiers, a weekly radio show about pop culture on WNJC in Philadelphia:

[Audio clip]

The next two novelettes – Purgatory and Sentinel – form their own mini story arc and mark a jump forward in time of more than a millennium. These were actually my favorite out of all eight of the books. First, because it’s the only one where we encounter any Jedi and get to see their perspective of this forgotten Sith culture on Keshiri. Second, there are fun connections into the “Knights of the Old Republic” series, which I certainly enjoyed.

Next, the novelettes introduce the concept of there being a huge portion of the Sith culture generally outside of the political scheming and backstabbing. It reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s old bit on the Death Star Canteen. Here’s a short sample of that routine, just, well, because it’s brilliant:

[Audio Clip]

You know that these regular folks have to exist underneath the high-drama space opera, but I’ve never actually seen it shown in detail in any other work besides these novellas. It’s intriguing to consider that behind any dark empire, there’s a vast number of ordinary people going about their daily tasks with little or no concept of what happens at the upper echelons of society.

Finally, whether Miller intended it or not, I found fascinating parallels to first-world cultures of today that seem to encourage personal success, achievement and acquisition of power at the expense of almost anything else of virtue. Remind you of any countries you know of?

I found some comfort in Miller suggesting that we can choose to “opt out” of this kind of society, and find fulfillment in a simple life that’s its own reward. Consider the following passage from “Sentinel”:

 

“You can be strong,” he said, reaching for her and pulling her off the ledge, down into the water before him. Her feet touching the bottom, she looked up at him. “You are strong,” he said. “You just don’t have to rule the galaxy.”

She looked away from him, down at the pool. “It’s what we’re born to do, you know. To rule the galaxy.”

“Then the Tribe is built on a trick,” he said. “A deception. Everyone is fighting over something that only one person can have. Just one. Which means that to be a Sith—is to be an almost certain failure. Almost everyone who follows your Code is doomed to fail, even before he starts.” Jelph chortled. “What kind of philosophy is that?” Nudging her chin upward with his hand, he looked into her eyes, brown again. “Don’t be tricked. You can’t lose if you don’t play.”

 

What’s particularly interesting is that Miller doesn’t necessarily count out the good points of the Sith. Individualism isn’t all bad – sometimes you have to look out for yourself some if you want to help anyone else. The star-crossed lovers in this tale seem to come to a happy medium between Jedi and Sith into something altogether new.

 

Books seven and eight – Pantheon and Secrets – jump ahead another millennium, when Sith society on Kesh is crumbling, both figuratively and literally. One of the first scenes of Pantheon has our hero – the archivist Varner Hilts – nearly crushed by a collapsing aqueduct.

I have to admit here, having the bookish, bumbling Hilts as the hero of these last two books is a lot of fun. I think I enjoyed reading Hilts as much as Miller did in creating him.

The plot of these final installments is something of a race-against-time mystery novel. The Sith of Kesh have forgotten the true stories behind their grandiose myths, and all it takes to send their world into an apocalyptic tailspin is the revelation that the founders were lowly miners and subject to a much higher galactic society and an alien one at that. Hilts is racing against the clock of destruction to find a new rallying point for the Sith before they tear each other apart.

Again, I found fascinating parallels to our modern society. Especially amusing was a line about how any child can grow up to be the Dark Lord. I found it a wry, if dark, reflection on the old American dream of “any kid can grow up to be President” that was supposedly told at one point to all young children here in the states.

Also, Miller certainly steps up his plot pacing, writing style and creativity in these final installments, making them some of the best of the free series.

The ending certainly leaves you wanting a “what happens next” installment, and true to the P-S alternation of the series’ titles, Miller has a postscript available to read, as of July 24. However, the final installment – “Pandemonium” – will only be available if you’re willing to pay $4.99 in an ebook format for “Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith: The Collected Stories.” This omnibus will also include all eight of the free stories as well as maps of Kesh for the first time.

Touche, Mr. Miller. It’s almost enough for me to break my Cheapskates pledge. But will it?

Ah, but I am not telling unless you purchase “Cheapskates: The Collected Reviews.” Hahaha, take that Darth Miller!

In all truth and seriousness, I have nothing but appreciation for these fine free Novelettes, for letting me explore an ancient Star Wars culture in detail and thereby letting me reflect for a few moments on my own society.

If you visit my blog page, I’ll provide a link to Miller’s fiction webpage, which has excellent collected links to the free novelettes in a variety of formats.

Well, that’s all for today’s installment of Cheapskates. Theme music is by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license. This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.

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