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The Troublesome Notion of Fan Consensus

The other day, I saw a very simple message on Twitter –

Megan @blogfullofwords
Involving the Yuuzhan Vong more in the EU could reinforce Star Wars’ lessons about redemption: http://bit.ly/HtsSMe

My immediate reaction was an emphatic nod of agreement. I like the Yuuzhan Vong, the villains of the sprawling New Jedi Order storyline from 1999-2003, and I’ve been disappointed by their general absence in the more recent Star Wars storylines.

Then I went and read the full article, and I found myself nodding in agreement some more.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Megan before, but I suspect I’ll pay closer attention in future. Star Wars fan culture is a big space, and it’s always nice to find an interesting new vista within it.

But as soon as I stopped reading, questions started to crowd together in my head. I wrote the first draft of this article immediately afterwards, as a way to get my thoughts straight on the topic.

Then Mike had a gap in his schedule of material for this blog, and, well, here we are.

The thing that struck me was this –

0. Are we sure this is the good idea we think it is?

A broad cross-section of Star Wars fans might think that bringing back the Yuuzhan Vong is a great idea, but others might be less sure. And that sums up a much bigger and more fundamental problem with the Star Wars audience, and a big challenge that’s faced by anyone creating Star Wars stories.

You can’t please all of the fandom all of the time. Whenever you think you have a great Star Wars idea, you risk getting caught up in a very nasty knot of questions and problems and disagreements.

Any question or suggestion is simply a starting point. The question of a Vong revival forces us to consider several other questions, all of which are relevant to Star Wars creativity in general.

The first, most obvious question is –

1. Who would you get to write this?

Which creators would you tap to ensure a good result?

With the Yuuzhan Vong, the answer is probably fairly simple. You could bring in just about any writer from the New Jedi Order series, or any of the other creative personnel who have used the Yuuzhan Vong in subsequent novels and comic-books.

Whatever disagreements there are about tonal shifts and structural plotting in the New Jedi Order series, there’s a general consensus that the authors all wrote the Yuuzhan Vong well enough. The same goes for the people who have done things with them in more recent books and comics.

There’s a long list of authors, from Allston to Zahn, who could perform well on this particular gig.

Nonetheless, even the right authors don’t always get it right. The danger of trying to repeat a successful storytelling formula is something Star Wars has had trouble with before.

After the success of the Thrawn Trilogy, with its iconic Imperial admiral, the people who make the decisions decided to commission another epic trilogy, with another Imperial villain, similar in concept.

Daala, however, was no Thrawn. The clash in tone and style was very jarring. As the same idea was perpetuated in several subsequent storylines, the “Warlord of the Week” convention became a mocked cliché in the opinionated parts of fandom.

I’m sure you can think of other examples.

Sometimes, even eagerly-anticipated stories by well-respected Star Wars creators don’t work well. That’s a phenomenon which is probably true of any storytelling, and one that perhaps needs to be better understood.

I suspect fiction in general, and genre fiction in particular, would benefit greatly if we could figure out some basic rules about why some sequels and follow-ups simply don’t work.

Those dissonances between different stories are actually hints of another, subtler challenge –

2. It’s easy to get iconic characters wrong.

With hindsight, I feel slightly nervous about the reference to “lessons about redemption” in the tweet that I used to open up this discussion.

I’m not sure if Megan sees “redemption” the same way that I do.

For me, the lesson of redemption in the New Jedi Order was that the aliens can also be good guys, without ceasing to be very strange. It was a lesson that embraced the Jedi and their antagonists alike.

I’m worried that we might lose that in any follow-up story. I worry about vanilla Yuuuzhan Vong, with their thoughts and loyalties and actions assimilated to a more ordinary and reassuring standard of behaviour, Yuuzhan Vong with the symbols of their own identity repurposed as nothing more than a form of fan-friendly cosplay – the armour, the slogans, the amphistaffs and blast-bugs, all the recognizable clichés of what some fans call the “barking Vong”.

I wouldn’t want that to happen at all.

But on the other hand, I imagine that some fans think that’s what should happen to the Yuuzhan Vong, and for the best possible reason.

We don’t always think about our iconic characters in the same ways.

This problem is encountered in all sorts of places in Star Wars canon, from the Empire to the Jedi.

Are the Imperials a nation of irredeemable villains who will always do nasty things to better people, and thus become fair game for heroic opponents to kill and plunder with no real moral pause? Or are they ordinary men who were misled into the wrong wars by a corrupt leadership, who might see past the lies and struggle to stay good in spite of their own mistakes and prejudices? People who might eventually redeem their inheritance of pointy space galleons and Prussian salutes as a force for good in the Galaxy?

Or are they more complex human beings, who might not believe in Peace, Justice and the Jedi Way, who might sometimes be extremely annoying and confrontational, but who can still surprise and frustrate us with bright flashes of humanity?

And what about the Jedi? Serene, sexless beings who stand in the way of darkness with a self-sacrificing inner light? A religious group swinging away from the arid, self-regarding formalism of their past towards a more inclusive and liberal interpretation of the will of the Force?

Or are they simply a group of struggling human beings, flawed heroes and unintentional hypocrites? Even armed with their mystical abilities, are they just trying to figure out what to do with the same mix of ideals and uncertainty we face in our own everyday lives?

Regardless of what you think, you can hopefully see the problem. Not everyone in the fandom has the same interpretation of how the characters should develop. Not everyone in fandom is going to be happy with the decisions that are made.

That makes it really hard to tell a good Star Wars story these days.

Precisely because I’m a big fan of the Yuuzhan Vong, I worry that returning to them in the post-NJO setting might undermine the reasons I like these characters.

And then, if you’ve not guessed already, the third point I want to make is this –

3. These opinions of mine aren’t going to be shared by every fan, or even by the majority.

Back in 1994, the transition from Timothy Zahn to Kevin J. Anderson was jarring for many fans who’d been drawn back to Star Wars by the Thrawn Trilogy, but there are a whole legion of other fans out there whose attitudes to the Jedi Academy Trilogy are favourably nostalgic or even outright enthusiastic.

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While the mainstream pop-culture portrayal of the Prequel movies is unremittingly negative, there’s a whole generation of younger fans who are thrilled by Padmé’s love-life, or enthusiastic about the mechanical rhythms of battle droid armies.

What we think everyone thinks about the Prequels is really just the orthodoxy among white folks in their thirties with alternative-media soapboxes.

And while a lot of the people on those soapboxes are vocal critics of some recent storylines in the Star Wars novels, I’ve spoken to quieter and less aggressive fans, but no less passionate ones, who were caught up with delight and shock by the roller-coaster acrobatics of the same plotlines.

The Star Wars fandom’s nexus of twitter accounts and blog posts and discussion forums is not necessarily a good guide to the overall mood of the fandom. The opinions we express are not always going to reach the whole fanbase, or even represent a big part of it.

That’s even true of me, writing this, and you, reading it.

There are also, therefore, some fans with opinions of the Yuuzhan Vong that are very different from my own. Some fans regard them as aberrations who should never have been introduced into the Galaxy far, far away. Some sections of the audience probably still think they’d be best employed as irredeemable villains to be killed and killed and killed without troubling anyone’s conscience.

And some fans, as I intimated above, probably think they ought to be helped back into the storyline through a more thorough form of cultural assimilation than I would ever be comfortable with.

I’m sure you can think of other issues that aren’t so obvious to me – places in your Star Wars fandom where you’ve been caught by the sudden realization that there’s a completely different alternative opinion out there.

Oddly, there’s one character who doesn’t seem to have this problem, and that’s Han Solo, because everyone gets him. I doubt I’d get any fans disagreeing if I said we need more Han-like protagonists in the earlier and later generations of the storyline, either.

But then again, there have been various misguided attempts to give the captain of the Millennium Falcon developmental character arcs. The fact that Han has survived all those storylines doesn’t change the fact that he’s constantly being written into corners, and having to fight his way back out.

Telling a Star Wars story isn’t easy these days. We all have our own points of view. That’s true even when we don’t consciously realize it.

It’s especially true when we’re certain that we’re right.

But that’s enough bandwidth wasted talking in circles about the problems with Star Wars. To conclude, I want to think about the possibilities –

Do I think that it would be a good idea to see a swashbuckling hardcover (or several) by one (or several) of the NJO novellists, giving a major role to the post-NJO Yuuzhan Vong, with some of them proudly unrepentant, and others almost embarrassingly pro-Alliance?

You can guess my answer.

Do I think it would be fun to see a book by Matt Stover that threw Nick Rostu and Kar Vastor up against the warrior caste? Or one by Greg Keyes dealing with Tahiri Veila in the Unknown Regions? How about Mike Stackpole, Aaron Allston, and a post-NJO Rogue Squadron series?

How about a revival of Invasion, at least for a one-shot? Or Ania Solo getting down and dirty in amongst the Yuuzhan Vong in the next Legacy comic-book arc?

You know my answer to these questions.

I suspect I know your answers, too.

You could even tell sharp and shiny new Yuuzhan Vong stories against the backdrop of existing frames of continuity.

James Luceno could probably get a very good audience if he pitched Yuuzhan Vong advance scouts against the prequel-era Sith, even if it’s the sort of Star Wars novel I’d be unlikely to read.

Timothy Zahn has said in public that he’d like to do something with the Yuuzhan Vong against the Empire of the Hand in the Unknown Regions.

That last one’s what Kevin Bacon calls a no-brainer.

And, finally, do I think it would be a good idea if the line between the “reactionaries” and the “redeemed” among the Yuuzhan Vong isn’t anything like the same as the line between villains and heroes?

Heck, yes.

That’s sort of the whole point of them, after all.

4 thoughts to “The Troublesome Notion of Fan Consensus”

  1. As a general rule, I didn’t like the New Jedi Order series. Now, mind you, I read them all faithfully – I just didn’t… like it. It was too massive a threat, it was too off to have the group from outside the galaxy suddenly take over almost all the galaxy. It didn’t… flow. We had the set up from Vision of the Future for all these threats in the unknown region and exploration and adventure… and instead we got a bizarre invasion and deteriorating politics and the basic abandonment of traditional light-side understandings of the force, and of course, an attitude of “we’re serious, we’ll kill off the good guys.” These are the things I didn’t like.

    Of course, you know, thinking about it – I’d almost welcome a reboot right there. They could be great villains with great menace. They could be places for stories of redemption within the Vong (and yes, I use the insulting term apurpose). But have them just be the villains, the threat… not try to top everything in terms of danger that we’ve ever seen before.

    But again, those are my ideas. I’ll take any reboot that keeps Daala from being the leader of the known galaxy, no matter how many Kevin J. Anderson fans there are and how fluttery they are over Admiral Incompetent. =o)

  2. You know, I really liked the way the Vong were handled in the original Legacy series in two ways:

    1) The implication that even without the tragic events of Kol’s doomed plan, they were still a race that existed very much on the margins, generations later, they still grift and do mercenary work on pirate ships because no one else will have them. Had the Vong been more present it could have been a good way of presenting the complex nature of national grudges; the effects of retribution on future generations.

    2) That when they tried to make amends, it was not “human”. The Ossus Project was surely envisioned by Kol as some beautiful new Eden, but Vong Shaping is inherently alien. Their *redemption* was to try and show us what was beautiful about *themselves*. I found that revelation very poignant. It wasn’t only the Jedi who lost something – a great race lost its chance at dignity and respect *for* the things that made their culture unique, instead of for setting those things aside.

    Anyway, great article. When counting the potential casualties of the Sequel Trilogy, I had genuinely not thought to consider the Yuuzhan Vong. That would be pretty tragic.

  3. I want that James Luceno Vong vs Sith book to be real. But I also want Luceno to write every Star Wars book. He’s the master at connecting the EU and movies’ massive continuity. My only issue with the NJO was its 19 book length, I do believe the Vong and the invaision were necessary to make the Post ROTJ EU worth something after years of mediocrity under Bantam.

  4. Eric, you’re probably right that the NJO could have had a similar psychological impact without breaking quite so much stuff. On the other hand I’m not sure if that’s any reason to avoid using the Yuuzhan Vong as “just the villains” in more stories!

    Becca, those are very good points. What I’m going to take from that is that they DID hold onto their integrity and security in Legacy – a subtly upbeat detail?

    Daniel, I’m probably less of a Luceno fan than you (I usually don’t empathize with his characters) but yeah, he’s great at continuity, and it seems we agree on “more Vong”!

    And finally, something that I forgot to say in my piece: I wish they’d stop giving the Yuuzan Vong these silly ears, and draw Tsavong Lah more like he’s described in the books!

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