The Best of the Worst—Awesome Stuff in Atrocious EU

Man oh man, the Bantam era. Not having discovered Star Wars until the Special Editions in 1997, I spent the next couple years racing through dozens of already-published novels before catching up to the “present” right around when the New Jedi Order started. As such, those first fifteen years after Return of the Jedi are kind of a blur for me; though I at least had the advantage of reading them mostly in chronological order. I don’t really remember the stories of that era, for the most part, as much as certain distinct moments—Han crashing the Falcon on Kessel. Bib Fortuna’s brain in a jar. Leia hiding from Thrawn on Honoghr. Anakin on Centerpoint Station. Jaina in her cell.

Cell? What cell? Why, on Hethrir’s worldcraft, of course, in The Crystal Star.

Having abducted all three Solo brats just prior to the opening of the novel (which was admirably in media res of him if nothing else), Hethrir, leader of the Empire Reborn cult, steals away to his worldcraft, which is a spaceship that’s also kind of a planet and…eh, it’s not important. Jacen and Jaina, all of five years old at this point, are locked in separate cells with a bunch of other kids at something of a reeducation camp designed to teach toddlers—the only people who could possibly buy Hethrir’s argument—how great Emperor At least the cover art was pretty in those days.Palpatine was and how thrilled they should all be that Hethrir is bringing evil back. The twins aren’t buying it, of course, and soon enough they lead an exodus with the help of a friendly dragon (no, really).

It’s fairly standard young-reader pablum, really; told well enough, but nothing especially clever or original. Except for one thing.

Hethrir is using the Force to dampen, and monitor, Jacen and Jaina’s still-burgeoning powers; Jaina describes it in her internal monologue as a heavy, wet blanket covering them and preventing them from exerting themselves to escape. So one night in her cell, Jaina starts to experiment—she reaches out to a single air molecule floating in the room. Wiggles it around. Hethrir doesn’t notice. She adds a few more, tries rubbing them together—a light appears! Hethrir still doesn’t notice.

She keeps adding bits and pieces until she’s got a little floating glowy ball in there with her, warming her hands and giving her enough light to slowly but surely carve her way through the (sigh) wooden cell door, over the course of a couple days, like a tiny Andy Dufresne.

Of course, because she’s five and this is The Crystal Star, she also seizes an opportunity in the meantime to use her newfound ability to sprinkle sand on the guards’ Pop-Tarts and drop insects in their pants. But that’s beside the point. The point is, Vonda McIntyre was one of the first people (and only, to this day) to realize that “size matters not” goes both ways, and to properly exploit that. There is another early example, ironically, in the form of Cilghal’s healing of Mon Mothma in the also-not-overly-beloved Jedi Academy trilogy by painstakingly plucking the poison out of her body one microscopic bit at a time, but this, to both my teenage and adult selves, was an absolutely perfect representation of both the potential of the Force and how an especially powerful five-year-old with only a basic understanding of the world around her might self-discover it. Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.

One of the saddest things about The Crystal Star‘s overall crappiness is the fact that nobody was ever motivated to take Jaina’s molecule-bending™ and run with it. Think about the difference between a youngling levitating a piece of fruit and Yoda doing the same thing to an X-wing, then imagine what a master of this kind of precision telekinesis could accomplish. It would open up a whole new world of Force use, without being so far removed from the basic package as to strain credibility. Especially when you consider that what we got instead was teleportation and time-travel.

Moving on—this was something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, but I didn’t know if it would warrant an article all by itself, nor was I sure how I might frame it as such. So instead, I asked a few of my compatriots to share their own “best of the worst” ideas; not “so bad it’s good”, or “I appreciate what they were going for”, but things that they genuinely loved from what were otherwise deplorable Star Wars stories. My thanks to Tyler and Lisa for pitching in, as well as special guest contributor Alex Richardson for his “grand finale” on the one thing none of us would touch—the Jedi Prince series. Strap in, folks.

Tyler Williams on Planet of Twilight

So Barbara Hambly’s Planet of Twilight is often seen as one of the low points of the Bantam era, and rightfully so, but that doesn’t mean that the novel is completely devoid of value. POT features one of the more interesting side-characters of the 90’s era EU in the form of Beldorion the Splendid, a Hutt who also happens to be a fallen Jedi Knight. For readers who have never subjected themselves to POT, Beldorion is the warlord who controls Nam Chorios, the titular planet of twilight. He briefly captures Leia, who promptly escapes and successfully smites the great worm with her lightsaber.

Wait--what's up with those teeth?

Beldorion’s characterization isn’t anything new- Hutts are generally depicted as unrepentant scumbags in the EU- but his back story was a departure from the Hutt norm, and paved the way for greater variety in the depiction of Hutts. With most Hutts, we’re given the standard Jabba motif- corpulent, Force-resistant gangsters who rely on minions to do their bidding. Beldorion was a trained Jedi who fell to the dark side and did his own dirty work, maintaining a rather un-Huttish figure and even wielding a lightsaber. It set a precedent for Hutts breaking the mold set for them by Return of the Jedi- the Bantam Era in particular was quite guilty of typecasting alien species based upon their movie depictions, so Beldorion was actually rather outside the norm.

What it leads to is characters like Mika Anjiliac, a Force-sensitive Hutt from the Tempest Feud scenario for Star Wars D20 (also starring in Jeff Grubb’s Scourge) who, while manipulative and ultimately the antagonist of the story, is intelligent and quite capable of holding his own against the Jedi archivist Mander Zuma. Another Hutt who benefited from Beldorion’s portrayal is Supreme Chancellor Blotus, who ruled the Galactic Republic for 275 years. The Essential Atlas describes Blotus as one of the finest statesmen to ever lead the Old Republic, ushering in several centuries of peace and stability. Beldorion in and of himself isn’t wildly impressive- he’s a throwaway villain who gets killed halfway through the novel, if memory serves- but his concept served to further the idea of intra-species diversity in Star Wars, which can only be seen as a net gain for the fandom.

Lisa Schap on Ruins of Dantooine

Like many of you I have been reading and collecting Star Wars books for a long time. A new book was never left long on the shelf before I picked it up for my collection and because I wanted another Star Wars book to devour. Voronica Whitney-Robinson’s Ruins of Dantooine has been out for almost ten years now and it is the one book I continually pick up at the bookstore and then set back down. I stepped out of my own Star Wars Universe and joined the online community in 2006. I learned then that people didn’t have many good things to say about the book. I recently asked myself “How bad can it be?” especially compared to the current timeline books. So this time, I reached for the book and decided to read it.

Precisely as fun as the cover makes it look.One of the first things I really liked is this description of Leia, “Though only in her twenties, she was wise beyond her years. She wore her mantle of responsibility with a strength that defines reason.” A few pages later we also get to see the humanity of Leia when she confesses how difficult it is for her to send people into dangerous situations. This fits Leia’s characterization well as we know from other works that she’d prefer to go herself but the burden of who she is and how important she is as a symbol frequently prevents her from running into danger. These descriptions fit Leia well throughout the Bantam era of the EU and it is how I hope Episode VII continues to look at her.

Later in the book we get to see how an outsider views Leia. Dusque is an Imperial Biologist and a woman in the Empire. While in sick bay she observes how Leia though small and female is somehow in charge of everything and is still the one helping everything get done from giving orders to moving crates. On the surface it seems a little silly to have this be her epiphany moment to decide to defect to the Rebellion, but the situation is something I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of in Star Wars and it makes sense. We have seen many non-human defectors and many Alderaanians but we sort of forget that women were also oppressed in the Empire. We hear about it with the likes of Admiral Daala’s story but she doesn’t leave the Empire. I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of a female Imperial who had the guts to walk away. The execution of the rest of the story was less than desirable and somewhat predictable but I enjoyed the try to give us a strong female lead and the characterization of Leia throughout the book.

Alex Richardson on the Jedi Prince series

If Star Wars has a skeleton in its closet, that skeleton is undoubtedly the Jedi Prince series. Sure, it has the Holiday Special, but that’s a known crime, one the franchise has had to live through and continually pay for. We accept the Holiday Special the way we might accept a grandparent’s casual racism; it may give us a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs, but it’s hard to truly hate them for it. Selective blindness is sometimes a valuable tool. Of course, there’s nothing selective about the kind of blindness you need for the Jedi Prince series. This is Star Wars’ dirty secret, its hidden shame. This is the work that all but the most deluded refuse to talk about.

I guess that’s why the good people at Eleven-ThirtyEight brought in a specialist.

Yes, those are space whales back there.Let’s get one thing straight: the Jedi Prince series reaches an almost profound level of terrible. It is without a doubt the worst work on this list. Every single chapter serves as an invaluable tool for writers everywhere, a detailed guide on how not to write a story. Legend has it that a straight read-through of all six books will awaken Cthulhu; naturally, no one has proven the validity of this one way or the other, because such a thing has never been done. This series is quite possibly the greatest argument against an all-inclusive canon (particularly if we’re talking a verbatim canon). The dialogue is as subtle as a Ric Oliê penned sonnet, the characters are so one-note that comparing them to cardboard boxes would just come off as a mean-spirited insult to box makers everywhere, and the plots are generally little more than excuses for an environmentally themed after school special.

Yet I am here to praise the Jedi Prince series. No, I am not Armond White, and much as I may wish it, I do not get paid for spitting on all that you hold dear while condescendingly suggesting that you’re just not smart enough to grasp the depth of something you could have sworn was a shallow cash grab. While I will, in a heartbeat, defend my opinion that the series is some of the most fun you can have reading a Star Wars book, the literary equivalent of Birdemic, I’m not going to fall back on that, either. I’m here to convince you that the series is built on the tomb of some genuinely compelling ideas. I just have to first convince myself first.

One of these interesting ideas, one that very well could have been a running theme throughout multiple novels, is the place the Force occupies in the Imperial hierarchy. If the EU is anything to go by, it’s a very inconsistent place, though it seems that we have come to a general agreement that Palpatine’s status as a Sith Lord is not common knowledge among the Imperial government. It does, however, seem to be known to some in his circle; whether this is due to Palpatine disclosing this information, or that certain members of Palpatine’s court just happen to be very perceptive is not usually stated. Either way, it suggests that the Force is not something that’s widely associated with Palpatine or the Empire (except, perhaps, through Vader: more on that in a moment).

The Jedi Prince series goes the exact opposite route. In it, the Force—or more specifically, the dark side—is practically worshiped. After all, it is said that he who holds the Glove of Darth Vader is “the master of the dark side”, and is therefore worthy of being Emperor (we’re just going to ignore that they’ve decided the ultimate emblem of authority is an item from the second-in-command of the Empire). What makes this interesting, however, is that the Force is depicted, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as something that’s venerated, but not at all understood. That latter part, at least, is something that I actually wish would be explored more often. How deep, exactly, does the average Imperial’s knowledge of the Force go? Had Palpatine’s anti-Jedi propaganda reached a point where it was able to make even Imperial figures who worked with Jedi believe they were simply purveyors of tricks and illusions?

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. While I won’t even attempt to claim that this was intentionally evoked, there are echoes of it underpinning most of the first book in the series. For the uninitiated, Trioculus, alleged illegitimate son of Palpatine, has Grand Moff Hissa (and presumably some scientists) install a kind of “lightning machine” in the Glove of Darth Vader, enabling him to mimic the effect of Force lightning. One would presume this is meant to be a ruse to convince the Grand Moffs that he is a true master of the dark side, and you would be partly correct. Partly, because Trioculus himself seems to be fooled. Though a significant portion of the book is told from Trioculus’ point of view, the reader is never once given the impression that he believes he is anything less than the master of the dark side. He even spends a large portion of the book attempting to “unlock” the Glove’s special Force Choke ability, utterly convinced that the power stemmed from the Glove and not Vader himself. Hilariously, this may very well be the authors misunderstanding—for all we know, they may have truly believed that Trioculus was every bit as worthy of calling himself “the master of the dark side” as Vader or Palpatine—but as is, it works quite well in illustrating the utterly bewildered idea of the Force that many Imperial figures undoubtedly share.

All in the name of science.One has to wonder, then, if this was common thinking among Vader’s underlings. While religion in Star Wars is an inconsistent subject, to say the least, it is interesting to speculate that its place in the Empire was intentionally undermined to serve as yet another highlight of the contrast between the Empire and the Republic; while the latter seemed to place great value in mysticism, giving the Jedi Order a high position of respect and authority and incorporating phrases like “may the Force be with you” in everyday vernacular, the Empire seems to place more value in reason, technology and materialism. It would not surprise me at all, then, if the Force is something that the average Imperial officer simply isn’t capable of wrapping his mind around. Would most Imperials believe that Vader himself is some kind of sorcerer, or would they believe that his abilities are simulated to perpetuate an aura of fear and superstition around the Empire’s chief enforcer? Vader is, after all, himself a walking gadget as far as most of them are concerned. For an Imperial officer, brought up in an intensely social-darwinistic society that stresses the virtues of competition and caste-based nobility and encourages distrust and hatred of anyone claiming to be in touch with an “ancient religion”, would it be easier to believe that Vader draws his power from an omnipotent energy field, or from advanced technology that can be replicated? While we see echoes of this in other works—perhaps the most notable example being Orman Tagge from the Marvel comics, who was convinced the Jedi and Vader were nothing more than exceptionally skilled swordsmen—the Jedi Prince series is the only work that I can think of that makes it an important part of the plot.

When discussing the weirdest continuing series in the EU, it's only appropriate to bring up the second weirdest.

Though if we’re being fair here, Trioculus doesn’t even come close to representing a rationalistic viewpoint on the Force. I mean, his logic goes no further than, “well, it’s impossible for Vader to choke people with his mind, that would just be silly… but what if he had a magic glove that could do it?! Yes, it makes sense, I must have his glove!!!”

The dichotomy between nature and technology, magic and science, is one that runs through a wide variety of fiction, and while it has been explored in Star Wars, I believe that it could stand to be a much more present theme. Star Wars tends to depict a more harmonious relationship between the two; the Jedi themselves could be said to embody this. They dedicate their lives to serving the Force, yet also define themselves, and share perhaps their greatest kinship, with a piece of technology: the lightsaber. There are notable exceptions to this—the Yuuzhan Vong in particular, and of course the Force doesn’t tend to have a very good working relationship with anyone in Karen Traviss’ novels—and the Jedi Prince series isn’t even the first work of canon to attempt and express an “average person’s” view of the Force. If I’m being honest, I don’t even feel entirely comfortable crediting the series for this, as there’s a very good chance the authors don’t even know they were doing it. I don’t, however, feel I’m pulling it completely out of the air, either. As I mentioned, there are a number of interesting ideas and concepts contained within the series, even if exactly none of them are handled well. But the potential is there, and that’s more than one could say about a truly irredeemably terrible work.

 


 

Thanks again, Alex. If you’re a glutton for punishment and you want to see more—way, way more—of Alex’s somewhat-less-generous thoughts on Jedi Prince, be sure to check out his ongoing reread thread on the Jedi Council Forums.

3 comments

  1. Eric J. Brown says:

    … now I want to try and read the Jedi Prince (I never picked up any Juvenille stuff)… not only because I am a Pastor and now want to see the interplay with a materialistic worldview… but also because of the Cthulhu line.

  2. I’m so glad Planet of Twilight is on this list. It and Hambly’s “Children of the Jedi” are the worst EU books I’ve ever read. Strangely, the Kevin J. Anderson middle-book in that trilogy wasn’t bad.

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