Here I am, writing a column telling you to stop buying Star Wars novels if you don’t like them. “Why would you waste your time saying something this elementary? Do you think we are stupid?”, I hear some of you grumbling (especially you, the dork in the Robotech shirt: I can see you). No, I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you are smart enough to still read books in the era of the iTwitterbook, and you are obviously intelligent enough to choose this website as your place to go for Star Wars discussion (we are on your bookmarks, right? Right?). I know you are a smart person. I’m assuming you also have disposable income and that you regularly spend a chunk of it, no matter how large or small, on material that will make Lucasfilm’s coffers fill up. That’s good! What I’m trying to tell you is that if you are buying part of that material just because of a completist need, then you are part of the problem, this problem being that a lot of crap is getting released.
“But I like collecting figures!”, you say. Yeah, sorry, I should have explained myself: I’m talking about fiction, not about collectibles. If you collect fiction, you are making it worse for the rest of us. What a bold claim! How do I dare? Well, I dare because I have a keyboard, that should be obvious, but also because I love Star Wars and I’ve seen our relationship (mine and Star Wars’) become an abusive one for years, all because of that terrible c-word, the one that rhymes with “Mitch Buchanan”. It’s such an awful word (and so often misused!) that for this piece I will use the “continuity” euphemism in its place. But let me explain what I mean, and I’ll do it using my favorite conversation topic: myself. Hi, I’m David, and I used to be a completist.
My relationship with the concept of continuity has always been complex. Back in the late nineties, before I joined the larger fandom I was just a dumb kid in Spain that loved the original movies, directed an RPG campaign (still ongoing) and wasted hours and hours on the classic LucasArts games. I read the Expanded Universe novels as they were published in my home country, years after they were in the States, and whenever I found a continuity error (for example, Luke being called “destroyer of the Sun Crusher” in Children of the Jedi, or Kevin J. Anderson being called “writer” in Darksaber) I merely ignored it as an edition mistake and moved on. I liked seeing TIE Defenders and Dark Troopers appear in the Rebellion strategy game, and finding a comic that starred Mara Jade (By The Emperor’s Hand) excited me to no end, so it’s not like I was repulsed by continuity: I found it enhanced the storytelling experience and was happy with it being a thing.
This changed when I, like many of my colleagues here in this website, joined the Literature board at the Jedi Council Forums. I actually lurked for months, and started seeing that those guys had a very different approach to continuity. I saw fans creating convoluted patches to make everything fit, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of continuity mistakes being just that, mistakes. It appealed to my intellectual side: it was a challenge and well, it was fun. How to make the Marvel comics fit with the New Jedi Order? How to make Tales of the Jedi fit with The Phantom Menace? I saw that once a fan retcon was achieved, it was accepted as fact and quoted over and over in different threads. I found it weird but I wondered if that was how Star Wars continuity worked (and, if I was mean enough, I would say that this approach would eventually give birth to Wookieepedia, but I won’t). I accepted it as the norm and became a continuity-minded fan. One more.
As years went on, I eventually stopped reading Expanded Universe novels (not by choice, but because they stopped being published in my home country and apparently I hadn’t heard of Amazon) and limited myself to a couple of comic ongoings, but I never stopped being interested in the growing Expanded Universe, so it’s not like I had became a continuity hater. Even if the quality of the books didn’t do it for me anymore, there was still some wild imagination involved in the world building process. I mean: electric caliphs! You have to love that!
I also started reading dissenting voices, and not just from random fans: I remember Randy Stradley complaining about how the technical specs of the TIE fighter, defined ages before in the RPG, had forced them to use some awkward storytelling choices in Darklighter and how world-building should serve the needs of storytelling and not the other way round, something I thought made total sense. I myself remember thinking when I first read about the story of Darth Ruin, “Why? Why does one paragraph in one reference guide rob a future author the chance to write his take about something as important as the rise of the New Sith? What do we gain with this? Why is this okay?” I posed the question online, once, and I was told that authors should be able to write around this, or they shouldn’t be writing for Star Wars. That was the first time that I thought that this approach to continuity was (if you excuse my French-Canadian) boneheaded.
Then, one fateful day, I read a transcript of the panel where Legacy of the Force was first announced. I couldn’t believe it when I read that Lumiya was going to be the main antagonist! That night, drinking beers with my friends, the same friends that had played the RPG with me for many years, I mentioned that a new novel series was coming. They were excited about it, as they had missed on the New Jedi Order novels but were aching for new Star Wars, so I mentioned what I had heard on the panel. Their shared answer was:
“Wait, who is this Lumiya?”
I smiled and answered, explaining her story, from her Shira Brie years to her apparitions in Star Wars Gamer. One of my friends, the only one that still cared a bit about the Expanded Universe, laughed and said:
“One second. So the bad guy of this new series is going to be some ex-girlfriend of Luke Skywalker who became an apprentice of Darth Vader and an Emperor’s Hand and who somehow has been under the radar as the only Rule of Two survivor for years. And before this she’s only been featured in some comics from the 1980s and some RPG adventures? Really? Who the hell are they writing these novels for?”
It hit me. Who the hell, indeed. These guys loved Star Wars, but in the span of one minute I had seen their excitement going from ten to zero. Had continuity become poisonous to new readership, as I often saw editors claiming in comic book message boards? Had Del Rey given up and were just trying to appeal to hardcore fans, the ones that would buy anything just because it was part of the same continuous story? And worse than that: had continuity become an excuse to stop trying to offer quality?
I’m not saying that you should agree with me when I say that Star Wars novels, with a few remarkable exceptions, have become terrible: I’m saying that, if you do, you should stop giving them your hard-earned money. There’s a saying you’ve probably heard: we live in a capitalistic society, so you vote with your wallets. If you don’t like something, you just stop buying it. You don’t buy it because you want a complete collection or because you are afraid you will miss some cute retcon. When you do something like that, you’re just giving the editorial no reasons to give a crap. Why bother offering good content -or even proofreading the damn things- when your readership are going to buy any crap you release?
If you agree the quality of the books has gone downhill but are a continuity addict, I have good news for you. Your continuity is no more. This plea would probably have fallen on dear ears just three years ago, when books derided almost universally still hit the New York Times bestseller list every single time, but that time is gone. They made it easy for you! It’s time to vote with your money. It’s time to hit them where it hurts. So stop buying books automatically without reading reviews and asking around: your money is limited and, if you don’t like what you hear, you should wait until the book gets cheaper or -God forbid- just don’t buy the damn thing. If you feel insulted by a book or if you feel like you’re the victim of a con game, just don’t buy their next offering: there’s a lot of good pulpy fantasy that will satisfy your need to be entertained. I’m not saying you should expect Star Wars novels to be like high literature, either: I’m telling you that even pulp novels have standards, that there is Conan and there is Gor. Don’t give them an excuse to keep producing low quality because they know you are going to keep buying it no matter what. And if you still feel like you have to keep buying Star Wars because you are going to miss out on the world-building or because you are going to drop off the train of the new continuity, let me tell you a secret: good continuity is always secondary to well written books. No, it’s not a matter of taste: you are buying fiction, not guidebooks. Continuity is Star Wars’ consolation prize. And you know what it means when you get a consolation prize? That you lost.