In addition to being one of the reigning kings of what he calls “non-fiction fiction” in the Star Wars franchise—meaning reference books like the Essential Guide series and even explicitly in-universe books like the forthcoming The Bounty Hunter Code: From the Files of Boba Fett—Jason Fry is a prolific sports and media writer whose must-follow blog, Jason Fry’s Dorkery, is every bit as diverse as his professional résumé, and every bit as minutiae-heavy as the title suggests.
Now, after over a decade of experience improving other people’s IP, Fry is on the verge of releasing his first work of original fiction with the HarperCollins young-adult series The Jupiter Pirates. He was kind enough to answer a number of our questions on both his original and Star Wars work, and on the trials and tribulations of continuity.
Eleven-ThirtyEight: In both the Essential Atlas and the Essential Guide to Warfare, one common theme is the difficulty of maintaining a galactic union on the scale of the Republic, Empire, Galactic Alliance, etc. You have spilled more ink on the subject than most, so what are your views on how to make galactic government work? Would you be Emperor Fry or Supreme Chancellor Fry?
Jason Fry: This is one of those things that’s better looked at quickly, as it tends to break down under thorough scrutiny. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, mostly with Dan Wallace, to imagine how 1,000-odd regional “prequel” sectors and millions of “West End Games” subsectors could work together, and to explain the many oddities/contradictions of the Senate, but that’s really playing the hand that’s been dealt, not imagining things from the planets up.
Which brings up one of the oddities and occasional frustrations of being an EU “non-fiction” author — your mandate is making existing material work, but your books are often judged based on people’s opinions about the established infrastructure of the EU, which is outside of that mandate. So when I read comments critical of the Atlas because the Unknown Regions are too big, or bashing Warfare because the clone army is too small, all I can do is shrug and try not to take it personally.
But goodness me, I’m ranting already. Back to your question. Frankly, I can’t imagine any government working on that scale — you have too many leaps upward in terms of the few representing the many, too much power concentrated in too few hands, and too many opportunities for very large populations to feel disenfranchised. I suppose if you handed me a galaxy and told me I had to govern it — and I think I’ve just set some kind of record for the unlikeliness of a hypothetical — I’d set up some kind of large loose-knit confederation, with a few simple do-no-harm rules to govern relations among neighbors and promote commonly accepted standards and practices.
Just go with it, y’know? This is space opera, with dogfights in space and faster-than-light travel that goes as fast as the plot demands. The Senate’s basically Rome, with flamboyantly corrupt Senators, a handful of statesmen and chancellors who will always be tempted by an authoritarian power grab. As a reader/viewer, I get that, it works and I quickly move on to what story’s being told with that framework. That’s the important part.
ETE: One of the fun parts of the EA and EGTW is the various “Greatest Stories Never Told” that finally get elaborated upon, such as the Alsakan Conflicts or Orinda Campaign. Are there any specific stories that you personally think would be great topics for future elaboration? (Bonus points if you mention the Ackbar v. Pellaeon clashes at the end of the Galactic Civil War!)
JF: Oh, definitely Ackbar vs. Pellaeon — I fleshed out the Orinda campaign because I thought that confrontation would be fun, and because I thought the overall chronology needed a showdown that would allow the rump Empire to become a stable entity. One of the fun things about “non-fiction fiction” is planting seeds, which Dan and I did a lot of through geography in the Atlas and Paul and I did through interesting snippets and possibilities in Warfare. So for instance, there are a ton of Rebel-Imperial clashes out by Virgillia in the Outer Rim — enough to suggest a pretty vicious campaign. And there are a lot of Separatist industrial worlds in a swath around Metalorn. Maybe someday an author will run with those possibilities, or stage a drama about family tradition and military service that’s set on Anaxes, or something else that I helped set in motion. And if not, if it gets readers wondering, I’ve done my job.
ETE: Speaking of family tradition, you’ve got an original young-adult series beginning at the end of the year called The Jupiter Pirates, which specifically focuses on the competition amongst three siblings to become the next captain of the privateer spaceship captained by their mother. As someone with such an extensive background in not just “non-fiction fiction”, but drier subjects like cartography and politics, why did you go the pirate—excuse me, privateer—route for your first wholly-original story?
JF: Pirates are just enormous fun to write about, whether they’re leveling carbines at someone, getting in trouble in port or merely going “Arrrr.” Their adventures revolve around dangerous journeys, unexplored terrain, old maps, lost treasure and thundering cannon — all stuff I love, and story elements that work in space as well as on the sea. Plus the appeal to kids runs into deeper and more interesting waters than you might think. On the one hand, pirates are agents of chaos, free to rampage and pillage and do whatever they want; yet on the other they have their own codes and rules and organization, which are driven by the idea that life ought to be more fair than it is when the rules are set by the established authorities. That’s a tension kids understand — they simultaneously crave order and kick against the rules set up by the adults they increasingly come to believe are crooked, clueless, hypocritical or all three.
ETE: Why make the distinction between privateering and piracy? Do you think it’s easier for younger readers to swallow that way?
JF: It probably helps the marketing folks sleep better at night knowing that the adventures of Tycho Hashoone and the rest of his family are technically legal — they aren’t space criminals. But that wasn’t the real reason for making the Hashoones privateers and not pirates. When Tycho was a baby, there was a big battle where a lot of the Jupiter pirates were ambushed and destroyed by warships from Earth. Following that, piracy was made illegal, with some of the surviving pirates given letters of marque as lawful privateers. Tycho’s grandfather Huff is an unreconstructed pirate and hates the new order, his parents are former pirates trying to play by the new rules, and he and his siblings have never known anything but privateering. So there are pretty serious differences within the family about the way things are and the way they should be, and that tension shapes the characters’ relationships and the decisions they make during the series.
ETE: Since we Star Wars fans already know what a “big picture” thinker you are—is Jupiter Pirates just a series of standalone adventures, or is there a larger, serialized plot at work?
JF: Oh, there’s definitely a larger plot. Besides the question of which sibling winds up as the captain of the family starship, Tycho and his siblings will be caught up in the hostilities between Earth and its former colonies. The competition for the captain’s chair and the deteriorating situation in the solar system will lead the Hashoones to take risks and make tough choices — some of which they’ll come to regret. And the tensions within their own family will force them to ask themselves hard questions about what they think is right and what they really want. Which I think kids will understand and appreciate: You’re a different person when you’re 18 than you were at 12, whether you’re a crewer on a privateer or a kid in school.
ETE: As a follow up to the second question, one area in the EGTW that jumps out as a “laying the seeds” section is “The New Hutts”. It lays out a newly militaristic Hutt regime that is building warships and has fundamentally changed since their heavy losses during the Vong War. Hutt Space has always been the largest non-affiliated region of the galaxy, and is full of secrets. In terms of potential future storytelling, do you feel a conflict between the greater galaxy and the Hutts is full of potential?
JF: I think Hutt Space is a very rich setting that I’d love to see more, but not as part of some big galactic conflict. I think the Hutts are much better characters in their traditional roles as gangsters, kingmakers and swine, manipulating the levers of power from behind the scenes — they’re the Keyzer Sozes of the galaxy. (Though I will make an exception to my own rule for the sometimes startlingly active Jabba in the great Jabba the Hutt comics, which are properly amoral and unsettling.)
By the way, I found it interesting that the New Jedi Order basically exterminated the Hutts and Hutt Space, but then the big slugs and their domain essentially reappeared, pretty much unchanged. It’s like the EU collectively decided that Star Wars needs the Hutts, and pulled an Armin Tamzarian on the idea that they’d been wiped out.
Going back a little ways, Hutt Space was the first of the “closer looks” that I wrote up for the Atlas, and I remember that I could barely restrain my glee that I was actually getting to fill in some of the blanks of that region. I worked hard there and in the Xim pieces on starwars.com to make the Hutts truly monstrous beings, and left plenty of mysteries and blanks in Hutt Space’s geography — I wanted it to feel a little like Mordor, a largely dead place of rumors and strange, evocative names.
ETE: You have touched on galactic cartography, military history, politics, planetary guides, episode guides, and just about everything in-between. If you were given “carte blanche” to write a novel/reference book/EU work of your choice, what would it be?
JF: These days I’m increasingly devoting my efforts to fiction — I had a blast adapting the “Mauldalorian” arc of TCW, the first book in my kids’ series The Jupiter Pirates comes out from HarperCollins on Dec. 23, and it’s been a lot of fun working with Del Rey to write Star Wars short stories for the Insider. My favorite areas of exploration in terms of opening up new storytelling possibilities have been the Kallea Cycle in the Atlas and the Western Reaches campaigns in Warfare. I think the Kallea Cycle would make for an entertaining standalone novel, while you could construct a really compelling trilogy about the “good Empire” around the Western Reaches operations — my short story “The Guns of Kelrodo-Ai” was a quick, bare-bones way of trying to do that.
One idea I can’t quite get out of my head is a new version of the Episode IV novelization, taking into account the full scope and swoop of an EU that no one could have possibly imagined when Alan Dean Foster sat down with a shooting script and some notes from George Lucas back in 1976. It would be fun to tell that story again, but with deeper context throughout. There’s so much rich stuff already established in the EU, starting with the radio dramas, but there’s also a lot that’s only been pointed to here and there: Obi-Wan and Yoda learning Qui-Gon’s secrets in exile, the Emperor moving to dissolve the Senate, Tarkin’s ambitions and Vader’s loyalty, how Bail Organa must have reacted to the disappearance of his daughter, and so forth.
The perils of such a book, though, would be a) creating something incomprehensible to readers who don’t have a Master’s degree in Star Wars; and b) losing the simple, compelling hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, which is the engine that makes the whole story run. My copy of the ANH novelization is the one that came out before the movie, with the McQuarrie concept art on the cover and the familiar Star Wars font nowhere to be found. I like that for the novelty factor, but also because it’s a useful reminder that storytelling trumps all. If Star Wars was just this one slim novel and not a vast industry, would that little novel still work? I think it does — and overloading the story with EU material might break it. But as I said, I can’t get it out of my head — it would be a big challenge, but also a pretty great project.
But that’s just one idea. I’d love to try my hand at a Star Wars novel, absolutely, no matter what the setting or era or characters. But there are a lot of talented folks who also have that dream, so we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m loving creating a family saga of my own in Jupiter Pirates, and it’s great working on Star Wars no matter what the area of emphasis or format. As long as I can hear the John Williams fanfare in my head while I’m thinking and writing, I’m good.
ETE: In the EGTW, you tackled some issues that were very controversial among fan groups, especially on issues pertaining to scope, scale, or size. By and large, fans at both ends of the spectrum were pleased with the final product. Did you experience any trepidation at tackling certain topics? What would be your advice to future authors who attempt to tackle thorny or controversial issues?
JF: Oh, tons of trepidation — I once called the clone army the “three millionth rail of Star Wars fandom.” I knew that would be an issue, as well as the basics of fleet size and composition and ship classes. But I also knew I had help and resources, and that it was my job.
Where the underbrush got dense I reviewed what I wanted to do quite thoroughly with Lucasfilm — I remember one conversation about stun beams that turned into this fascinating round robin including the likes of Pablo Hidalgo, Leland Chee, Dave Filoni, Tony Rowe and Robert Clarke, with me sitting on the sidelines thinking, “I have the best job in the world.” That was a pretty good safety net to have. From there, I saw my job as sifting through the EU evidence, trying to honor authorial intent, and approaching contractions by trying to preserve the spirit of something in those rare situations where I had to overrule it.
For instance, there’s an intriguing story out there connected to a videogame which basically postulates that stormtroopers don’t understand they’re clones. That had never been picked up by other Star Wars tales and pretty thoroughly overruled by the prequels and TCW, but I referenced it in Warfare in a way that I hope kept fans of that tale from feeling like something they loved had been red-lined out of existence. Nearly every story is somebody’s favorite, and as a voracious reader and huge fan myself, I have enormous respect for that. I also think that nothing derails a narrative more quickly and thoroughly than when you can see the author looking to settle a score or actively working to redefine something the way he or she would prefer it.
My advice to future authors navigating some EU thicket is not to kid yourself that your efforts will mark some kind of before and after. You know the old saw that you’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts? Well, there are enough contradictions in Star Wars about such basic things as ship classes and planets in the galaxy that people who are determined enough really can have their own facts — and fans are pretty determined. I watch some of these debates from the sidelines in bemusement, because it is literally impossible for either combatant to win. There’s always somebody who dismisses something new because it’s nominally from an in-universe perspective, or because of how they perceive Lucasfilm canon to work, or because they discount everything not shown or mentioned onscreen in one of the six movies, or because reasons.
And you know what? That’s fine. We all have our favorite tales and ones that we could do without. I’m no exception: There are certain elements of the EU that I reference … let’s say “sparingly.” For the most part the disagreements are all in good fun, and a sign of a healthy, vigorous franchise. They remind me of family squabbles, or the to-the-death arguments among my fellow Mets fans about who should play first base. When the disagreements get intense, it’s because we all love the same thing to distraction. Which is pretty cool.
ETE: The EGTW opens and closes with some very powerful comments about war and conflict. Grand Admiral Osvald Teshik states “War has always been with us” and Admiral Gar Stazi states “War will always be with us”. Stazi goes on to say “But we must always strive to be its masters, and resist becoming its servant”. Can you share some insight behind your decision to anchor each end of the guide in this manner? In addition, do you ever feel sorry for the GFFA as it is essentially always defined by galactic war?
JF: Sorry for the GFFA? Well, it is Star WARS, right? Wars are good storytelling business like any other business … though I will admit as a fan I’d love to see an occasional change-of-pace narrative whose triumph is a product of bold exploration or business acumen or political cunning, with nary a blaster discharged or lightsaber snap-hissed. (The section in Warfare about how the New Republic captured Kuat was a deliberate effort to zig when readers probably expected a zag.)
Regarding Warfare on war and conflict, I wanted to give the book a sense of narrative that would connect what ran the risk of being disjointed sections that jumped around between subjects and eras. The Teshik opening and the Stazi conclusion are bookends of a sorts, meditations on war and sacrifice. I knew how I wanted Warfare to end very early in the writing process, and had the Stazi piece half-formed in my head already. The Teshik opening was a late addition — Warfare originally opened with a transcript of a Imperial military debate about the Celestials and their capabilities, but Erich Schoeneweiss thought it was too dry and too removed from what most Star Wars fans were familiar with. He was like the old lady in the Wendy’s ad — “Where’s the war? There’s supposed to be war in this!” After some crabbing at Erich I realized he was absolutely right; fortunately, I had the idea of opening with Teshik, giving me a way to start in media res, as Star Wars tales so often do, and a chance to mirror the Stazi section.
I’ll admit I was a bit nervous in approaching these overarching themes — I’ve never served in the military, let alone seen combat, and I know there’s a segment of Star Wars fans who have and whose fandom has been shaped by that. Getting an email from someone who’s reading Warfare in Afghanistan is a powerful experience, believe me. Fortunately, I had thousands of years’ worth of thoughts from common soldiers and military leaders to draw on. And many of our greatest military leaders — Eisenhower comes immediately to mind — have been profoundly ambivalent about war. I was gratified and, yes, a little relieved that the reaction to that material and those themes was positive.
ETE: With the upcoming 2015 release of Episode VII just over the horizon, the future of the current Expanded Universe unsettled and in flux. What are your thoughts on the role that the EU has played as “keeper of the flame” during the periods between movies and what do you think is its lasting legacy?
JF: It’s funny — now and then I get complimented for having a good grasp of the EU or applauded for making it mesh with the films or TCW. This is always nice of people to say, even when it’s followed up by a complaint that there was a way to keep Ryloth tide-locked. (Sorry, folks.) The weird thing is I often think I’m the one least-bothered by some apparent contradiction that’s popped up.
If I’m “good” at EU continuity, it’s because a) I’m a huge Star Wars fan; b) my brain is wired to be OCD about some things; c) I’ve got a big library; and d) I’m old enough to have been able to read everything. The job of Star Wars “non-fiction fiction” is to make stuff work together as best as possible while still producing a compelling read, and so I’ve brought those four advantages to bear as best I can in doing that job. But as a fan and a reader, I’m vastly more interested in a galloping plot, characters with depth, and intriguing themes than I am in whether a new tale bumps into something established. Sure, I’ll get annoyed if there’s a contradiction that could have been easily avoided, but I move on pretty quickly.
Take TCW. I like or love the micro-series, “Obsession,” the Republic Commando series and the MedStar books, so I absolutely understand fans’ concerns about how TCW affected those stories. And I get the timeline worries, believe me. (By the way, I’ll tell you with 99.9% confidence that there is no secret LFL timeline.) But when TCW was firing on all cylinders — “Ambush,” “Trespass,”
“Innocents of Ryloth,” “Bounty,” the Umbara arc, “The Lawless,” “The Wrong Jedi,” etc. — I thought it nailed everything that’s fun and compelling about Star Wars. I enjoyed watching Ahsoka’s evolution from brash Padawan to capable Jedi and thought her character’s collisions with Anakin deepened our sense of him and the tragedy of his fall. I thought Satine was a great character, loved the interplay between her and Obi-Wan, and was intrigued by how Bo-Katan would have continued the Kryze family story. I was eager to see how Asajj’s character arc turned out, taking her from dark Jedi to bounty hunter to something else. I thought all of that was big-hearted storytelling that revolved around strong, character-centric writing, pulled off with great visual and thematic flair. And when episodes didn’t quite deliver, well, I was still thrilled to have new Star Wars tales every week, many of them stories that began with George himself. Lucas wants to do a Moebius-inspired story? Delve into the nature of the Force? Sign me up — even if it means rethinking Mandalorian history or Darth Maul’s past or the Twi’lek homeworld.
I don’t know what the relationship between Episode VII and the rest of the EU will be. And if Corellia turns out to be a gas giant revolving around Coruscant, yeah, I’ll let out a big Vaderesque “NOOOOOO!!!!” But I’m not going to go into the theater worrying about that. I’m going to let out a whoop when those blue letters come up telling me that this a tale from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and read the crawl, and hope that a great story comes after it, one I’ll want to see again and again and think about and talk about with other like-minded folks. If Episode VII delivers that, I’m good.
ETE: Hard-hitting question time—you make several good points about retconning, and where it should fall in a storyteller’s list of priorities. So let me play devil’s advocate—why should a casual fan pick up something like the Atlas? What’s the value of non-fiction fiction to someone who neither knows nor cares whether Ryloth is tidally locked? Are the Essential Guides just reference porn for wonks, or do you think they tell worthwhile stories in and of themselves?
JF: That’s a very good question, but probably an impossible one for the author — I’m way too close to projects such as the Atlas and Warfare to judge. Which is why we have editors, and why smart writers thank theirs each and every day. With both the Atlas and Warfare, I was very conscious of the need to create books that had entry points for more casual Star Wars fans — they had to be able to flip through the book in a store and see Luke and Leia and Naboo starfighters and things they knew, rather than just, say, Xim the Despot and a bunch of random Sith. Another rule of mine has always been that a retcon can’t stop the music — you can slip them in, but the mentions have to be in service of some larger narrative that a new reader can follow. For example, the Anaxes ship classification system was approached in-universe as a reaction to the rapid militarization in the last years of the Republic, rather than as a reconfiguration of previous and/or partial classification systems from West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, Curtis Saxton and others. The former approach, hopefully, works as a narrative on its own; the latter would made sense to about 100 people on Earth. I won’t claim that makes the Anaxes system a breezy beach read, but I think it’s an essential starting point and organizing principle for this kind of material.
The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is released on December 23, and is now available for pre-order on Amazon, as is The Bounty Hunter Code, which Fry co-wrote with Ryder Windham and Dan Wallace, which comes out on October 23. We apologize to Mr. Fry for not managing to work in any questions about the Mets.