Star Wars and Genre: The Exploration Story

Space explorers from The Essential Atlas — who just so happen to be real life’s greatest Star Wars space explorers, Jason Fry and Daniel Wallace

Exploration stories are a staple subgenre of pulp adventure. These are tales centered on heroes who venture to strange, usually untamed lands and their encounters with nature and other peoples. The genre is characterized by the use of unknown or ancient civilizations and man-against-nature themes that lead to frequent use of natural threats like avalanches, quicksand, floods, sandstorms, and dangerous wildlife. Some stories, like H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain novels, feature intrepid explorers who make careers of penetrating the wild unknown. Others, like Robinson Crusoe, star ordinary individuals thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Some are active stories of expeditions for exploratory or scientific purposes (Journey to the Center of the Earth), sometimes emphasizing the discovery of lost civilizations (The Lost World), the exploration of ruins (At the Mountains of Madness), and/or treasure-hunting (The Mummy). Some follow the Robinson Crusoe pattern — the Robinsonade subgenre — of emphasizing the struggle for survival in and mastery of wild nature. The uniting element is the protagonist (or in the case of ensemble-focused stories like The Swiss Family Robinson or The Mysterious Island, protagonists) discovering something or encountering the unknown in a foreign environment.

Don’t judge a book by its cover — unless it has a rampaging elephant on it, in which case, pick that shit up. You just got promised ADVENTURE.

The genre became most prominent in the Victorian era, when Europeans were spreading across the globe, discovering new (to them) civilizations, ruins, lands, and species. This colonial past has sparked some criticism of exploration stories as racist. They have tended to focus on white heroes expanding colonial influence, and both due to the racial attitudes of the time and the pulp imperatives toward action, often portrayed natives unflatteringly as dangerous savages whom the white hero must subdue or naive primitives whom the white man must lead and civilize. Even a modern exploration story that avoids the colonial narrative, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, comes in for accusations of racism due to its use of a native cult as antagonists. Many modern takes on the exploration genre continue to be produced, however, and are particularly prominent in video games, with top titles like Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and BioShock fitting into the genre.

Science fiction settings, however, have been able to provide a somewhat safer venue to use the exciting action tropes of the genre with less real-world baggage. Space adventures to uncharted planets are common to pulp science fiction, and Star Trek is practically built on the exploration story. It is less known due to the relative obscurity of the material, but exploration stories are well-represented within the Star Wars Expanded Universe, too.

Early EU featured a lot of crashes on untamed worlds. This sort of thing was the result.

The first EU novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, featured Luke and Leia crashing on a swamp world with a single colonial mining outpost. Stranded, they journeyed across and even underneath its surface, facing Imperial authorities, deadly terrain, spectacular wildlife, and tribal natives in a quest for a gem hidden in an ancient temple. Setpieces featured a giant mud-burrowing worm attack, a journey across an underground lake, and a cave-dwelling civilization of aliens — it was pure exploration pulp. Other early EU was replete with similar stories. Our heroes frequently crash-landed on strange worlds throughout the various seventies and eighties comics, or found themselves exploring remote planets in search of new bases or allies. They found a supercomputer protecting the ruins of a lost civilization, a smuggler hideout, a magical siren, and a monster guarding an ancient city. Han Solo and the Lost Legacy featured Han and Chewie’s quest for the lost treasure of Xim the Despot on a backwater world that featured water monster fights, a lost cult, and ancient vaults. The Lando Calrissian Adventures, oddly so given Lando’s profile, focused on Lando as an adventurer pulled into exploration, discovering the secrets of an ancient civilization within their bizarre ruins in Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu and protecting a newly-discovered species of spacegoing manta rays from exploitation in Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka.

The RPGs have also tended to be good about including exploration elements

The concentration on exploration stories has declined since those early days, but they have not died out entirely. Lando again got an exploration plot in The Black Fleet Crisis, examining a starship that served as an artifact of an extinct species. The Hand of Thrawn Duology sent Luke and Mara into the Unknown Regions to explore Thrawn’s secret fortress, and they returned there for an expedition into the wreckage of Outbound Flight in Survivor’s Quest. Han, Leia, and a Murderer’s Row of supporting characters ventured into strange new ruins within Kessel in my favorite subplot of Fate of the Jedi: Outcast. Empire sent the Rebel heroes to wilderness planets a few times, and added the castaway clone Abel to the cast. John Jackson Miller’s Lost Tribe of the Sith short stories and comic have fruitfully explored the concept of a castaway group mastering and exploring its new, isolated home. Lesser elements from the genre can be found in the treasure hunt for the Katana fleet, Luke and Mara’s trek across Myrkr, Han’s sojourn into Kessel’s mysterious spice mines during his imprisonment there, and the need to find and understand the ancient repulsor technology of The Corellian Trilogy, among many examples. The exploration element definitely has not disappeared from the franchise’s radar.

The mysterious planet Lehon, from Knights of the Old Republic

It could be better exploited, however. Most of the stories have had their exploration elements as one subplot of galactic-scale tales, limiting their page time and thus the ability to get into the meat of the genre. Knights of the Old Republic used a classic exploration hook, the archaeological quest, as the basis of its story framework but buried the concept under a focus on yet another galactic clash and role-playing game mechanics. It was a notionally exploratory story that wasn’t really about the exploration. The days of stories built around uncharted planets and quests for ancient treasures are mostly in the past. Yet now, they would make a better change of pace than ever.

The incredible difficulty of challenging a fully-powered Luke Skywalker has helped drive the tendency toward overpowered villains in epic galactic conflicts. Yet why not challenge Luke with something that couldn’t simply be solved with a lightsaber: a crash-landing on a remote world filled with hostile flora and fauna? Surviving in the wilderness without supplies, battling predators, rockslides, poisonous plants, sandstorms, and floods would provide a legitimate challenge that doesn’t require yet another galaxy-distorting megathreat, and would be fresh and unique to boot.

Xenoarchaeologist Corellia Antilles

That’s not the only application; there are several established facets of the universe that would readily lend themselves to exploration stories if they were only exploited. Jag Fel has an established period as a castaway that could make for a neat survival novel. The Unknown Regions and their many dangers were introduced long ago, dangling the prospect of their future exploration; that promise has yet to be directly taken up by a story built around Unknown Regions exploration. We know that trailblazing explorers were key to galactic expansion throughout the Republic’s long history, but have no real stories built around that aspect of history, other than the use of the Daragons to spark the galactic-war storyline of the Great Hyperspace War. Star Wars already has its answer to Indiana Jones, Corellia Antilles, and her archaeological expeditions could be a perfect hook for classic exploration adventures and a potential window into galactic history. The role-playing game material has made much of the existence of scouts, figures who explore the galaxy and trek across harsh terrain for all kinds of purposes, hailing from the fringe or the government. Their nomadic existence, adventuresome work, and obvious utility to storytelling would seem to make them naturals for inclusion in Star Wars stories, but we have yet to see much of them — one reason I was so disappointed to see Dathomir outback scout Dyon Stadd killed off in Fate of the Jedi rather than made a regular part of the cast.

That’s what I’m talking about

Exploration is an important part of Star Wars’ history, both in- and out-of-universe. It is not only an integral part of Star Wars’ fabric, but a fantastic element to add a change of pace to EU storytelling. In its emphasis on themes of encounter with and discovery of the unknown, it complements central Star Wars themes of encounter with the mystic, knowledge, and self-discovery. The exploration story deserves the attention and consideration of Star Wars creators.

3 comments

  1. The Loyal Imperial says:

    Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost the concept of having a galactic “frontier.” The only remaining uncharted areas are essentially the Unknown Regions and Wild Space, with everything else having been charted, explored, and colonized long ago, all the way from the core to the very edge of the galaxy itself. If the Sequel Trilogy plans to wipe the slate clean, it would do well to restore that sense of frontiersmanship to distant worlds like Tatooine.

  2. Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

    Twitter comment from Megan at This Blog is Full of Words: “I thought that Rogue Planet and the Zonama Sekot stuff was a sort of exploration story too.”

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