The other week, the same day as the official opening of “The Force Awakens”, a new Star Wars book came out which gives some background of three of the main characters. “Before the Awakening”, written by Greg Rucka, is an easy read, designed for a younger reading audience, but it’s enjoyable for all ages. There are three sections, with the first focussing on Finn, one on Rey, and the last on Poe Dameron.
Finn’s story focusses on him as a First Order Stormtrooper who shows promise in the eyes of Captain Phasma, but also looks or for his fellow stormtroopers, earning him the rebuke of Captain Phasma. Rey’s story focusses both on her scavenging skills as well as her survival skills, but, more importantly, also provides us with the backstory of how she learned to fly, especially never having left Jakku. Poe Dameron’s story gives us some scenes of his flight skills, but also of how he went from the Republic navy to the Resistance, as well as General Leia Organa’s recruiting him for it.
I want to look a little bit at each of these sections and to see what the most important pieces are of these stories and what they tell us about each of these characters. Let’s start with Rey.
She wasn’t afraid of violence. She didn’t enjoy it, but she wasn’t afraid of it. It was a necessary part of surviving on Jakku. She’d learned to defend herself early. She had been in more fights than she could remember. More wins than losses, thankfully. She was good enough that the word had spread in Niima to stay clear of her and what she could do with her staff. She could fight. She would fight, if necessary.
In the movie, we see Rey piloting the Millennium Falcon even though it’s not hers. We also know that she has only ever been on Jakku, so how does she know to fly? Apparently, through a simulator (65-66):
She’d jury-rigged a computer using pieces scavenged from several crashed fighters over the years, including a cracked, but still-usable display from an old BTL-A4 Y-wing. There were no radio communications to speak of – no way to transmit or receive and, frankly, nobody she wanted to talk to anyway. On the wreckage of a Zephra-series hauler, though, she’d once found a stash of data chips, and, after painstakingly going through each and every one of them, she’d discovered three with their programs intact; one of them, to her delight, had been a flight simulator.
So when she wasn’t sleeping or just sitting and listening to the storm or tinkering at her workbench, she flew. It was a good program, or, at least, she imagined it was. She could select any number of ships to fly, from small repulsor-driven atmospheric craft to a wide variety of fighters, all the way up to an array of stock freighters. She could set destinations, worlds she’d never visited and never imagined she would, and scenarios, from speed runs to obstacle courses to system failures.
Of course, it doesn’t come easily, but she learns (66):
At first, she’d been truly horrible at it, quite literally crashing a few seconds after takeoff every time. With nothing else to do, and with a perverse sense of determination that she would not allow herself to be beaten by a machine that she, herself, had put together with her own hands, she learned. She learned so much that there was little the program could throw her way that would challenge her now. She’d gotten to the point where she would, quite deliberately, do everything she could think of to make things hard on herself, just to see if she could get out of it. Full-throttle atmospheric reentry with repulsor-engine failure? No sweat. Multiple hull breach deep-space engine flame-out? A walk in the park.
However, her flying of the Millennium Falcon is not the first time she has flown, as she finds a ship, finds parts and puts it all together, taking her months and months, demonstrating a very knowledgeable and skilled set of abilities. Ultimately, she gets it flight-ready and, during her first flight, she sets it down and enjoys it (104):
Rey banked the ship, the maneuver graceful and effortless, and circled back to where they’d lifted off. The sense of movement, the response of the freighter to her commands, had her smiling again. Her flight sim, for all its wonder and entertainment, had never captured that, and how could it? How could it have ever synthesized the reality of that freedom and power?
However, although a couple others find about her possessing this ship, they enter into a partnership with her, helping her. However, she doesn’t want to leave Jakku and they most certainly do, so they leave with the ship, leaving her to stay on Jakku.
Now on to Finn. In the earliest scene with him, we read of him going back to help a fallen member of his fire-team in a simulation. His team succeeds in the simulation and FN-2187, as he is known, demonstrates solid leadership abilities (13):
“He isolates himself,” Hux said, turning to look at her. “A good leader, part of his unit, but standing apart.”
“FN-2187,” Phasma said, “has the potential to be one of the finest stormtroopers I have ever seen.”
However, Captain Phasma is not happy about what he did (14):
”But his decision to split the fire-team and return for FN-2003 is problematic. It speaks to a potentially…dangerous level of empathy. You heard him.”
“‘You’re one of us’?”
“Yes, sir. While I am entirely in support of unit cohesion, General, a stormtrooper’s loyalty must be higher, as you know. It must be to the First Order, not to one’s comrades.”
Hux glanced back at the window, surveying the empty simulation room.
“I trust you to remove any impurities from the group, Captain,” Hux said. “Wherever they may be found.”
Indeed, when Captain Phasma speaks to him, she reprimands him (19-20):
“Why did you go back for FN-2003?” Phasma asked.
“He’s one of us,” FN-2187 said.
“This is not the first time you’ve helped him. Your instructors have noted multiple occasions where you’ve been seen assisting him in various duties. Why are you doing this?”
“We’re only as strong as our weakest link, Captain.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“I want it to stop.”
He blinked, surprised. “Captain?”
“We are only as strong as our weakest link, FN-2187. While you believe you are attempting to strengthen that weak link, I assure you that is not what you are actually doing. Rather than fixing the problem, you are allowing it to persist. As a result, you are, in fact, weakening the whole. Further, you are weakening yourself.”
We are also given insight into the brainwashing that the First Order carries out on its stormtroopers (23-24):
There were mandatory morale sessions twice a day, when everyone was required to stop what they were doing and direct their attention to the nearest holoprojector to watch a recorded speech from High Command, most often from General Hux himself. Those would be interspersed with news feeds showing the deplorable conditions throughout the Republic: the famines on Ibaar and Adarlon, the brutal suppression of the population of Balamak, the unchecked alien advances throughout the Outer Rim. There would always be at least one story to follow about a First Order victory, the liberation of a labor camp on Iktotch or a fleet battle in the Bormea sector.
However, FN-2187 wasn’t such a fan of them (24):
For his own part, FN-2187 didn’t much care for the morale sessions, seeing them mostly as a waste of time that could be better spent in other ways. They were all First Order, after all; it wasn’t like anyone could forget who they were or what they were fighting for. He would applaud when he was supposed to applaud and chant when he was supposed to chant and cheer when it was right to cheer. But his heart wasn’t’ in it, and he wondered if he was alone in that, too.
We later read of a scene where his fire-team and him are ordered to kill some innocents and he doesn’t pull the trigger, which is a nice demonstration of empathy from him, but not good for a stormtrooper. We also read of him in a close-quarters combat exercise with weapons, where he does really well, however, he goes easily on a wounded friend of his, earning him another rebuke from Captain Phasma (40):
“A real stormtrooper has no room for sympathy,” Phasma told him. “A real stormtrooper is the extension of the First Order, of Supreme Leader Snoke’s will, nothing less.”
Toward the end of our time reading about FN-2187, we read of him struggling in a military simulation, trying to negotiate his feelings about his targets, where he seems to despair. This catches the attention of Captain Phasma (54):
Captain Phasma watched FN-2187 on the monitor in her quarters. He’d stopped firing, stopped even moving, and was just standing amid the ever-changing field of moving figures.
She sighed. She’d had such hope for FN-2187. He had shown such remarkable promise. He had shown the capacity to be special.
Nevertheless, since they were already en route to Jakku, she decides to keep him involved (55):
He’d be part of the detail when they reached the landing point on Jakku, she decided. Perhaps when someone was shooting back at him, he would understand what it meant to be a real stormtrooper, what it meant to serve the First Order, body and soul.
She would give him one more chance, Phasma decided.
One last chance or FN-2187 to decide his fate.
Finally, we come to Poe Dameron, who actually is in the Republic Navy, yet starts chasing after First Order TIE fighters, against direct orders from his commanding officers. After one particular outing, he expects to be fully reprimanded and suffer various consequences, however, there is someone different waiting to speak with him – General Leia Organa (177-178):
“That was exceptionally foolish of you,” Leia said. “You barely got out of there with your life.”
“In my defense, General, there’s no way I could’ve known I’d find a First Order staging point.”
“But you hoped you would. Or something like it.”
“Yes,” he said.
“The need to do what’s right, and maybe find a little adventure along the way.”
General Organa then tries to recruit Poe to the Resistance, which is interesting that even Poe Dameron doesn’t really know much about it, although we also get a sense that the Republic does not particularly care to engage the First Order (178):
“Have you heard of Resistance, Poe?”
“Such as there’s a splinter of the Republic military that…that feels the Republic isn’t taking certain threats as seriously as they maybe ought to be taking them. Specifically, the threat posed by the First Order.”
“That’s a very diplomatic way to put it, but not an entirely inaccurate one.” General Leia Organa exhaled and settled back in her chair….
General Organa then makes her case for Poe to join the Resistance (179):
“You’ve made some people very angry, you know that, Poe? Not letting matters drop when you were told to, disobeying direct orders. Technically, one could argue that you stole a Republic X-wing for personal use.”
“I”m a Republic officer, General. I swore an oath to protect the Republic, to – “
She held up a hand. “No, you misunderstand. I like it. It was rash of you, as I said, it was foolish. But we could use some rash these days, and foolish and passionate are often confused and passion is something we desperately need.”
“I can whitewash your little trip out to OR-Kappa-2722 for you. I can sweep it under the rug if you like. You can go back to leading Rapier Squadron and having your hands tied by Command, by Major Deso, by politicians who don’t recognize what’s happening right before their eyes. I can make it all go away, Poe.”
She leaned forward.
“Or you can join the Resistance and help us stop the First Order before it’s too late.”
“Where do I sign up?”
Poe Dameron then spends time flying for the Resistance (180):
…for the next few months, Poe found himself putting more cockpit time than he had since training, now behind the stick of an older T-70 X-wing. Aside from the early recruiting efforts to find additional pilots, most of it was confined to scouting missions, long-range reconnaissance, searching for signs of First Order movement and positions….
One challenge was the peace that existed between the Republic and the First Order (181-182):
There wasn’t one of them in the Resistance who didn’t see the First Order for what it was, who didn’t believe that its threat was both real and pressing.
Despite that commitment, the Resistance found itself stymied. Republic space and First Order space were separated by a buffer zone of neutral systems, and the peace that had been negotiated – a peace that many, including Poe, believed existed in name only – meant that military action taken by one side upon the other was considered an overt act of war. It didn’t seem to matter that evidence of First Order incursions into Republic space continued to mount; the Republic refused to take any action outside of the most formal diplomatic protest. Striking directly at the First Order was out of the question. As Leia explained it to Poe, Resistance action had to remain covert, at least until irrefutable evidence of the First Order’s violation of the peace could be presented to Republic Command.
After carrying out a very covert mission, Poe Dameron is informed by General Leia Organa about some information that was recovered (216):
“We obtained a lot of information from the computers aboard Hevurion Grace,” Leia said, looking at the chip. “A wealth of information. But there was something else, something that…others may have missed. A piece of a puzzle I’ve been working for…for a long time to solve.”
She set the data chip in Poe’s palm.
“I think the First Order is trying to solve it, too, Poe. We have to solve it first. We have to find him first.”
“His name is Lor San Tekka.”
“Lor San Tekka,” Poe repeated. “Why’s the First Order so desperate to find him?”
“They think he knows something. I’m hoping he does, too.” Leia took his hand and folded his fingers closed over the data chip. She met his eyes. “I’m hoping Lor San Tekka knows where to find my brother, Poe. And Luke Skywalker may be the only hope we have left.”
Of course, this then leads into the beginning of the movie….