Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)
Before anyone gets too excited, we won’t be discussing the taxation of trade routes in the Outer Rim or the establishment of trade franchises in the Old Republic. Instead, we’ll be talking about the use of real world politics in Star Wars, whether by allusion or direct reference and whether to draw out certain themes or to make sociopolitical commentary. We won’t be surveying the entirety of the EU, but just specific examples that come to the author’s mind as particularly good or particularly poor ways to integrate real world politics into the fictional Star Wars narrative. If there are any striking examples you think we’ve missed or you think are worthy of discussion, please mention them in the comments!
Political references have been a part of Star Wars since the very beginning, so the argument that Star Wars is purely escapism is untenable. In 1977, A New Hope comingled references to Nazi Germany with allusions to the American Revolution. Imperial uniforms closely resemble those of the Wehrmacht, while Imperial stormtroopers appropriated the nomenclature of the Nazi SA. By The Empire Strikes Back, it became a decided theme that Imperial officers would adopt various British accents while the Rebels would resemble plucky Yankee revolutionaries. Lucas had mentioned in interviews before the release of the Prequel films that the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of Senator Palpatine to the position of Galactic Emperor resembled the rise to power of historical dictators such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler. Lucas drew from more than history though, because he drew themes from contemporary political events as well. The older drafts of A New Hope – the influence of which still permeates the novel ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster – presented a weak, corrupt, and ineffectual Emperor Palpatine largely controlled by his advisors. Supposedly, this portrayal was based on President Richard Nixon, who had resigned from office earlier in the decade. Neither the films nor the novel directly allude to the former president in any real way, and though the original film channeled the political pessimism of the day towards an old-fashioned heroic romp, the only evident political allusions are to historical events decades and centuries past.
How has the EU handled real-world political references? Well, answering that question thoroughly would take more words than I have the patience to write and more words than a reader would have patience to read. More importantly, I don’t intend to just document all the political references used in the EU because I don’t think that would be very useful, and would just be cataloguing for the sake of cataloguing. Instead, I’m going to focus on only two authors and I’m going to direct my attention on how they used contemporary political references to the benefit or detriment of their story telling. I’ve deliberately picked two authors that I actually like, and those two authors are well-regarded by the fandom because I want to make it clear that it’s not a matter of good writing or bad writing: even a really good author can use politics in an ineffective way, and that’s what I’d like to show.
James Luceno’s first contribution to the Expanded Universe was the Agents of Chaos duology for the New Jedi Order series. He was subsequently known for his intricate handling of continuity as well as his portrayal of in-universe politics, such that he was tasked to write two novels taking place immediately before and immediately after Revenge of the Sith – namely Labyrinth of Evil and Dark Lord – as well as the celebrated Darth Plagueis. These works – along with his other EU contributions – have cemented his reputation as the go-to novel author for delicate and weighty matters in the EU. He even rehabilitated the confusing and nigh-nonsensical trade dispute plot of The Phantom Menace with Cloak of Deception and Plagueis, but I’ll have to leave it at that since I promised not to write a dissertation on Outer Rim taxation disputes.
Where Luceno goes wrong, however, is his invocation of real-world politics. This problem manifests itself most glaringly in Labyrinth, but it also mars the otherwise stellar work that is Plagueis. Without giving anything away, both novels document different stages of the Sith plot to subvert the Old Republic and replace it with the Galactic Empire. In so doing, Luceno details the emergence of organizations and individuals later iconic in the EU’s presentation of the EU – we see the rise of the totalitarian and fascistic Commission for the Preservation of the New Order (COMPNOR) as the Commission for the Protection of the Republic (COMPOR) and we see the political involvement of the inner circle of Palpatine’s advisors, who would later appear in Return of the Jedi as fellows in cassocks and miters who accompany the Galactic Emperor. These are great touches, and appropriately show continuity in the storytelling sense: they give the impression of an enduring and substantial fictional world.
Unfortunately, Luceno also accompanied the Nazi-esque COMPOR organization with another late Republic entity: the department of Homeworld Security. Coupled with a reference by Chancellor Palpatine to a “Triad of Evil,” Luceno’s invocation of the then-governing Bush Administration could not have been more clear. Plagueis subsequently makes more overt references to real life politics: the rituals on the world of Sojourn closely resemble those of the Bohemian Grove, while Sith governing philosophy appears to imitate stereotypes of rich Republican politicians. Finally, several planets are granted “Most Favorable World status” – a term that betrays a misunderstanding of “Most Favorable Nation” clauses in bilateral investment treaties (to wit: nations are not classed as “most favorable” as if they were placed on some exclusive list – which seems to conflate the term with free trade agreements, but are rather guaranteed the most abbreviated procedural hurdles in arbitrating private investment disputes for their citizens).
The misunderstanding of the MFN clause highlights the key issue with this kind of political reference in Star Wars: the use of certain buzz words and terms to substitute for actual argument. Authors should absolutely feel free to have political opinions, and may even use the vehicle of literature – even tie-in literature – to communicate their ideas. Literature has been used for this purpose for thousands of years. The problem is when this message undermines and distorts the work of literature it’s placed in. As seen in A New Hope, the Imperials are already “space Nazis” – making them “space Republicans” does not enhance this portrayal. The implication is that such real-world references are used less to characterize the fall of the Republic into the Empire, but more to characterize real-world politicians – or in other words, to compare these politicians to Sith. I’ll leave comparisons to terms such as “Darth Blair” aside. Using Star Wars as a platform for real life political beliefs in this clumsy a fashion draws the reader out of the escapism of this fantasy universe, and doesn’t contribute to the story.
Michael Stackpole is one of the earlier writers in the Expanded Universe – he contributed five books of the X-wing series as well as the Dark Tide duology of the New Jedi Order, he partnered to write several short stories with Timothy Zahn, and he authored the X-wing series of comic books published by Dark Horse. Though known primarily for his ability to write detailed and convincing military sci-fi, I have a particular appreciation for his talent at portraying politics, both in-universe and out-of-universe. Since this article is about real-world politics, I shall have to discuss his deft handling of the foundational years of the New Republic at a later date.
Though his X-wing novels have an ensemble cast, Stackpole’s primary point of view characters are Corran Horn and Wedge Antilles. Their chapters highlight what I feel is a very effective use of real-life politics in the EU: politics that are very tightly drawn to a character’s own thoughts and beliefs, and politics that channel in-universe concerns and ideas. Such is Stackpole’s handling of politics in his books that I never get the sense that he is ever preaching to the audience, or that he is using his novels to make a political point.
For example, Lieutenant Corran Horn is a former Corellian Security Officer who has become a Rebel X-wing pilot. He is very much a law and order type of person, and is distinctly uncomfortable with joining an illegal criminal insurgency. This tension between his police background and the moral imperative to free the galaxy from the Empire is an important part of his character development. Along those lines, Corran Horn is exploring his romantic feelings as he is torn between his attractions to one of his co-pilots, the aristocratic Erisi Dlarit, and to a smuggler, Mirax Terrik. His law enforcement background initially provides some friction between him and Miss Terrik, but he eventually realizes that their common homeworld unites them more than their occupations separate them. On the other hand, he is physically attracted to Miss Dlarit but realizes she comes from a completely different world in every sense of the term: she is prone to conspicuous consumption and treating those who work for a living as her inferiors. His discomfort with her entitlement is more social commentary than political commentary, but Lt. Horn’s internal monologue about privilege and wealth mimic those seen in contemporary political discourses.
As another example, Commander Wedge Antilles – an almost life-long Rebel – ponders the state of mind required to be an Imperial Loyalist after the death of the Emperor. His thoughts are more directly rooted in politics, because he considers the impact prestige and comfort have on convincing a populace to be quiescent in the face of tyranny, or the willful disregard of information that would portray the government as far worse than it is letting on. These ideas were jotted down in Wedge’s Gamble almost two decades ago, but they are as relevant then as they are now. The examination of willful ignorance and the condoning of governmental action, and the stakes necessary to forgo material comfort and rise in revolt against an unjust government is just the sort of thing we might see on a political blog or a Facebook post today – but in Stackpole’s novel, it’s tightly rooted in the time and place of the story.
These are just examples of two characters with similar points of view on wealth, government, and society. Stackpole does similar service to the villains of his story, where their personal station and life experiences inform their views: it’s just that the villains have the complete opposite conclusions about government and society. In both cases, the characters thought processes are compelling and realistic.
Therein lies the key difference between Stackpole’s use of politics, and Luceno’s. Luceno uses buzz-words that would be familiar to anybody remotely aware of politics: there is no subtlety, and the reader is forced to make a mental comparison to the real world. On the other hand, Stackpole keeps his political references contained within the world of the story. Consequently, the ponderings of his characters enhance the story because they develop and flesh out the political entities being described in almost entirely in-universe terms. That’s not to say that out of universe references are unwarranted – they belong, as A New Hope demonstrates, but they belong in a fashion that is wrapped up in story and characterization: they should develop and enhance the verisimilitude of the fictional world, rather than draw the reader out of it.
When reading the political cogitations of Stackpole’s characters, a reader can easily stop and explore the applicability of these thoughts to the real world, or to history. A reader’s experience is therefore enhanced, and one of the key goals of literature – causing people to think – is thereby achieved. However, that goal is reached in a way that does not figuratively bang the reader over the head with a mallet or directs the reader to think a certain way prompted by the author. Instead, the reader is invited merely to think and draw his or her own conclusions, just as Wedge Antilles and Corran Horn drew their own conclusions based on their own life experiences.