Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Horrible Truth of Nien Nunb

For those of you too young or insufficiently interested in the minutae of Star Wars trivia to recall, Nien Nunb was the Sullustan "co"-pilot who, together with Lando Calrissian, successfully detonated the power plant at the center of the second Death Star orbiting the forest moon of Endor. This assault marked the demise of both Emperor Palpatine and the last remaining Sith apprentice, Darth Vader.

Astute viewers will notice that while aboard the Millennium Falcon, Lando occupied the seat typically filled by Han Solo, and the froglike Nunb took Chewbacca's seat. Even more astute viewers will note that nearly every scene in the previous movies that required both adept piloting (the escape from the first Death Star or the flight from Hoth eg) and assistance elsewhere aboard the Falcon, Chewie kept his post, while Han went off to man the turrets or flirt with Leia or whatever. Han may have had legal title over the Falcon, but Chewbacca was its main pilot. This is not unlike our own terrestrial seagoing vessels, where the owner of the ship, the captain of the vessel, and the pilot are seldom the same person. If Nien Nunb was actually in the pilot's chair, it was he who deserves the lion's share of credit for the victory at Endor.

Despite this obvious-in-retrospect conclusion, Nunb is virtually unknown to casual fans. I had to wait until the action figure came out to learn his name, and it was only because of the extended universe novels that I remembered it with any regularity. How could this happen? Why do we so cavalierly forget one of the most important figures of the Rebellion?

The answer is a little complicated, so bear with me. On Nien Nunb's homeworld of Sullust, his distant ancestors civilized themselves in low-lying swamplands on one of the larger continents. This continent was a dangerous place, chock full of toothy predators and geological hazards. Proto-Sullustans competed with a number of similar Anurials for the same sorts of swamp resources. What set Nunb's ancestors apart from the other contenders for intellectual advancement was an idiosyncratic propensity to cooperate. This propensity arose almost by accident when a group of medium-status individuals found that by banding together to kill individually powerful males one at a time, they were able to avoid domination and capture a larger share of the community wealth. Of course, they were still social animals, and the Anurials clever enough to band together were also clever enough to exclude the very low-status members, obliging them to accept either charity or a BATNA of autarky (you get what you can make with your own two hands). Nota bene, in order for coalition members to avoid becoming the next assassination target, proto-Sullustans got very good at loudly championing equality for all, while surreptitiously hoarding wealth and excluding the untouchables.

Ancient proper Sullustans organized themselves by loosely-hierarchical clans. Members were more or less equal, with a clan head (usually an elder) to give direction where needed. But the habits of their Anurial ancestors was already baked into their DNA, so to speak, and they carried with them a strong skepticism of overt domination, or of bragging, or other displays of individualism. It was only with the development of stable farming that they began to deepen hierarchy and re-assert a measure of dominion.

Unfortunately for the military accolades owed to Nunb himself, re-emergent hierarchy was arrested by the arrival of hyperspace-capable vessels. Sullustans had all the mental faculties required for spacefaring, so it was simply a matter of a couple generations' training to get them serving aboard freight vessels and eventually as the chief pilot responsible for the fall of the Empire.

And so we have Nunb, heir to a culture that had never provided much in the way of reward for exceptional courage, and had indeed gone out of its way to punish overt displays of dominance. And as heir to this culture, he readily joined with Mon Mothma's fleet to overthrow the most domineering regime in the entire galaxy: Palpatine's Empire. But he also had flowing through his cold veins just enough contempt for lower-status creatures that he couldn't much care about the flaming debris that cascaded down onto the surface of Endor. Ewoks barely register as sapient, their ultimate sacrifice so that the galaxy can be rid of a hated sovereign was more than worth it. After all, it would have been a heck of a hassle to wrest control of the Death Star (and the rebel fleet had no way of knowing that Vader had killed Palpatine anyway) and move it out of Endor's gravity well. Right?

Nunb was in thrall to his biological and cultural programming. He could have no more sought recognition for his vital role in overthrowing the Empire than our own hotheaded champions of "justice" and "fairness" could have kept themselves from frothing up a lather over the unprofessional sartorial choices of a European rocket scientist who just helped land a tiny probe on a distant comet. Sullustans, much like we humans, are social creatures first and foremost. The tiny little triggers in our heads itch to be pulled, and they're tuned not for unfathomable greatness in achievement, but to slight cues of dominance. It is only by mastery of the Force can anyone hope to Jedi their way out of the swamps and savannas whence we emerged.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?