Boba Fett - A Practical Man
3.7 / 4
3.5 / 4
"Why did the Mandalorians side with the Yuuzhan Vong? What were they thinking? They're not stupid, they had to have their reasons, and that was the gap I wanted to fill. It's actually not what it seems. And the title, A Practical Man, is a reference to an obscure song that I'm not very sure few people would have heard in the UK. It's about sticking to what you believe."
--Karen Traviss, quoted at StarWars.com.
What you need to know: Karen Traviss is back at her brilliant best with this dagger of a tale about the Mandalorians and the Yuuzhan Vong...
Tell me more?!
‘A Practical Man’ is a novella by Karen Traviss, available exclusively as an e-book from online bookstores. It takes its title from an old song from the 1970s, in which a writer refuses to compromise his integrity when faced with the demands and desires of a slimy music-industry exec. You can read the lyrics here.
In the story, these roles are taken by Boba Fett – now the nominal leader of his nomad people, the Mandalorians; and Nom Anor, a high-ranking Intendant of the Yuuzhan Vong, a race of alien invaders poised to launch a war of conquest against the Star Wars galaxy.
The basic idea is simple enough: Nom Anor wants the Mandalorians to work for the Yuuzhan Vong, and Boba Fett wants to hold onto what he believes in. The Yuuzhan Vong have resources that are truly staggering in scale and fearfully inhuman in power; the Mandalorians are scattered and few in number, self-contained inside their body armour and the cramped cockpits of their starfighters.
Of course, it’s a lot more subtle than that. On a metaphorical level, this is Traviss’ reply—conscious or unconscious?—to her critics within the fanbase. Her last full-length Star Wars novel, Triple Zero, disappointed a lot of readers because it wasn’t what they expected, and there’s also been a rather loud negative reaction from some quarters to the way she’s presented the overall strategies of the Clone Wars.
But she’s stuck to her guns, refused to bow to the wishes of those who think they know what the masses want – and, I hope, answered all her critics! On my first readthrough of ‘A Practical Man’, a couple of turns of phrase in the first few of pages seemed a little stilted, but I soon found myself caught up in the story, alive with awe and wonder.
The story told here is poised perfectly for its length, weighing in at less than seventy pages in total. The characterization is excellent, and the descriptive prose absolutely sparkles – capturing not just the look and mood of each locale, but also the reactions of the Mandalorian characters as they gradually learn more about the Yuuzhan Vong.
And within the lightweight package, there’s considerable complexity. The person who calls himself ‘a practical man’ here is Boba Fett, not Nom Anor; and the old bounty-hunter’s point of view is balanced by scenes and asides told from the perspective of his Yuuzhan Vong opposite number. Traviss also introduces another Mandalorian character, Goran Beviin, to provide a second narrative eye alongside Fett’s, creating a three-dimensional impression both of Mandalorian culture and of the Yuuzhan Vong as they encounter them.
There’s a lot to like in this: there are a couple of knowing variations on movie dialogue, and a lot of detail that should delight any serious fan of Star Wars without getting in the way of the story. Perhaps the best bit is the gradual shift of Boba and Goran’s perceptions, and the ultimate, reality-warping realization that they’re dealing with nothing like they’ve ever encountered before.
Or perhaps it’s the brilliant closing line.
So, it’s all good news then?
More or less, yes....
There are a couple of passages where I had to read and reread before I was quite sure of the meaning, and one or two places where I questioned the characterization—particularly that of Nom Anor. There was at least one piece of obscure ‘specialist vocabulary’ from the Star Wars backstory that was spelt here in a way I don't think I’ve ever seen before. But I couldn’t say that these things weren’t deliberate switchbacks, deliberately designed to surprise and disorient the reader, and thus adding to the overall effect of the story. Nom Anor’s character is notorious for being inconsistently handled by authors who’ve often been working in parallel on different books anyway, and the more I looked back over his scenes here, the more clever little nuances of characterization I caught—leaving me suspecting that yes, all those little quirks that made me pause might well have been deliberate.
On the other hand, if the verbal tics and typos aren’t deliberate, then the editing of this short story was somewhat sub-par; and that’s not just a shame considering the overall quality of the storytelling: it⁽s especially odd given the fact that it seems to be conceived as something of an advertisement for the wider world of Star Wars prose fiction, with Boba Fett as its poster boy.
‘A Practical Man’ seems to be consciously designed to entice readers deeper into the portfolio of Star Wars novel from current publishers DelRey. It serves as a prelude to the massive nineteen-book New Jedi Order saga, which tells the story of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, and also looks forward to the new Legacy of the Force series, in which Traviss is writing three of the nine novels, and where the Mandalorians – including both Fett and Goran Beviin – are expected to play a major role. To this end, there are teasers for both of the first two Legacy of the Force novels: Aaron Allston’s Betrayal, reviewed here a few months back, and Traviss’ own Bloodlines, due in bookstores on August 29th, plus short interviews with both authors. In terms of page count, this stuff takes up almost half as much space as the novella itself – twenty-seven pages compared with sixty-six.
So it’s presumably pitched at fans who’ve been brought into Star Wars by the Prequels and the Clone Wars; and people movie who know Boba Fett as the cool guy with the T-visored helmet in Empire and Jedi, but who have no idea who the Yuuzhan Vong are, and have never heard of Anakin Solo or Grand Admiral Thrawn. An e-book is relatively cheap and psychologically weightless: buy on impulse; buy online; and then buy more... before you know it, you’ll have ordered Vector Prime and Betrayal to see where the two series go, and Bloodlines because it’s from Traviss; probably Hard Contact, too...
There’s certainly a slightly disconcerting feeling trying to balance the underlying metaphor of ‘A Practical Man’ against the commercial purpose that it’s apparent been designed for. But Karen, like Boba, seems to come through with her reputation intact, and probably even enhanced. The story somehow transcends both its business strategy and its own literary metaphor: which is a lot to say for a few dozen pages of prose with a cover built around a publicity image from a movie that’s now more than two decades old.
I’m sure some people will focus too much on little quirks and quibbles; some people will gripe that the plot is essentially predictable in its parameters and structures; and some will say that Karen Traviss, for all that she urges readers to draw the distinction between narrative point-of-view and authorial intent, is too fond of the Mandalorians. And yes, consciously or unconsciously, I do think the simple elegance of this finely-wrought and eminently portable little download betrays her sympathies for the stripped-to-the-essentials nomad culture she’s helped to define.
But in reply to the critics, all I can say is this.
I was all tooled-up with cynicism when I began to read ‘A Practical Man’ myself: and I came away inspired, delighted, and thoroughly entertained.
Mike: The best thing about Karen Traviss' Star Wars work, I think, is that it really feels like she cares about it; and not just in the way that Star Wars authors generally care about their creations (which they do, of course; I don't want to suggest otherwise). With Traviss, though, you get the feeling that she's as interested in seeing what else will happen to these characters as we are. The events depicted in A Practical Man serve a real function in catching you up on Boba Fett's life since his final chronological appearance (since which a long time has passed here on Earth), as well as establishing what all the things we've learned about Fett's early life have meant for the development of the preexisting, older Fett (confused yet?).
It doesn't seem, though, that that's why the story was written; Traviss could easily have related all the necessary information in only a handful of lines once we catch up with Fett in Bloodlines, her first Legacy of the Force novel. Instead, I think she was just plain interested; she wanted to explore who Fett was at this point in his life; how he would've interacted with the traditional Mandalorians she's spend so much time developing, and how he'd have handled the Yuuzhan Vong invasion. It's been well-established that she likes to create outlines of her characters' entire lives before delving into a particular story, and as prominent as Fett is in the canon, real character development moments have been few and far between (which is probably why some of us have had to hold up the occasional nuanced depiction in stories like No Disintegrations and The Last One Standing as signs of the character's evolution over time), so it's more than welcome now.
As for the story...well, it's fine. Traviss is good at what she does, and as a reviewer I tend to have more to say about what a given story means to me as an EU fan than what my reactions were to particular things that did or didn't happen in the story itself, especially with more tangential material like this (hooray for more Nom Anor, though). The most complementary thing I can say about A Practical Man is that I want to see more like it; both from Traviss and otherwise.