Matthew Stover is not a man who makes things easy for himself. Make George Lucas’ script for Revenge of the Sith into a compelling, interesting, well-rounded story? No big thing. Adapt Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now into a galaxy far, far away? Sure, he’ll do it, and even succeed. Because while his novel Shatterpoint is not without flaws, it is a great example of what Science Fiction can be.
The task Stover was assigned with Shatterpoint was “a Horrors of War novel starring Mace Windu. Period.” What you might expect out of that would be an overly dark, edgy, shallow and trite mess. What he produced out of it was much more than “Mace Windu fighting in the Jungle, several times, and by the way, war is bad”; it is pretty much a discussion of the relation between Civilisation and War.
How does he achieve this? By taking his subject seriously. Shatterpoint is not a simple page-turner. There are, of course, page-long, detailed descriptions of shower fights, there is the humorous sidekick, there is the equipment porn. But around this core, Stover manages to spin a story that adapts the source material of Heart of Darkness to fit into the narratives given by the world of Star Wars, and meanwhile make it relevant to us readers in the real world.
As the author says himself; “Fantasy is a tool; like any tool, it may be used poorly, or well. At its best, Fantasy reveals truths that cannot be shown any other way.” Stories always reflect on the real world, no matter what world they take place in. The colonial and Vietnam parallels that make up Mace Windus homeworld of Haruun Kal are, in fact, sometimes too obvious. The fiction stays too close to reality, is too much written to be relevant to still be taking place far, far away.
But Shatterpoints largest problem comes up where this is not intended.
That is the fact that, for some reason – on Haruun Kal, savages are brown.
This is where underlying narratives become obvious. It’s a story about civilisation and the jungle, about colonisation, so obviously the civilised colonisers have to be white. Right? Well, not really. If it was our world, sure; But why is it that way on Haruun Kal? Why does it have to be Mace Windu who is related to the indigenous inhabitants? Why not anyone but him? (Or the voice of Darth Vader or Lando Calrissian?)
One answer would be that a comment on racism has to depict racism as we know it to be relevant. But this doesn’t really hold up; if we can tell a story about a non-existing member of a non-existing order fighting in a non-existing jungle in a non-existing war, why does it have to be skin colour that determines the level of civilisation? This is where the novel misses the full potential of Science Fiction to show the randomness of prejudice.