Not Automatically Good – Rethinking Star Wars Novels


“When you’re directing a scene on the Millennium Falcon, it doesn’t make the scene good. Now it’s bitchin’ that it’s on the Millennium Falcon. You want a scene on the Millennium—if I could make a suggestion, direct scenes on the Millennium Falcon, cause it’s hugely helpful. But it doesn’t make the scene automatically good.”

–JJ Abrams at San Diego Comic-Con, July 2015

One of the major recurring topics of Star Wars fandom over the last few years has been the notion that this is, in some fundamental way, a movie franchise. At face value that may seem obvious, but there’s more to it than there might seem right away. For a lot of fans, especially nineties kids like myself, far more of our formative years was spent reading Star Wars books, comics, Essential Guides, and so on than watching the films. Even once the prequel trilogy was coming out, and causing occasional headaches for the Expanded Universe, there was always an understanding that the film aspect of the franchise was not just finite but distinctly limited—they were a storm we just had to weather before the EU took over again. Just like there was never going to be an Episode VII, nor would there be a III.V, or a Zero, or a Negative Twenty. The films were Anakin’s life story, and if that wasn’t the major draw for you, no big deal. If you liked harder military science fiction, Star Wars was a novel franchise about the continuing war with the Empire. If you liked Jedi melodrama, the comics of John Ostrander and Jan Duursema were your Star Wars. If you were a gamer, Star Wars was Dark Forces or X-Wing Alliance or The Force Unleashed.

And yeah, one of the coolest things about it was that all those different pocket universes intersected and fed off of each other—at least in theory—so even if you mostly kept in one or two lanes yourself you still got to feel like part of this grand tapestry of SW fandom. Things are different now, and frankly I don’t blame some people for still not being okay with that, but it is what it is. Movies are once again steering the ship, and will be for the foreseeable future no matter what part of the timeline you’re into; that doesn’t ruin Star Wars, in my opinion, but it does necessitate a degree of realignment. What role should supplemental material—which is what the books are now, supplements—play in a movies-first franchise? What role can they play best?

For my money, even in the heyday of the EU, the best books tended to be ones that didn’t heavily involve the film characters. One of my favorites was I, Jedi, which not only focused on X-wing pilot-turned-Jedi trainee Corran Horn, but went so far as to weave in and out of the cracks in the Luke/Han/Leia-focused Jedi Academy Trilogy. I liked Shadows of the Empire for similar reasons—while it was a Big Three story itself (well, Big Two and Dash Rendar), I enjoyed the way it threaded together The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi while still finding its own story to tell by staying largely behind the scenes of the Empire/Rebellion conflict. I liked the Thrawn trilogy as much as anybody (and the New Jedi Order perhaps more than most), but it seems to me that a lot of the best character arcs in the EU were those that had nothing to do with the Big Three, because they were the most free to have character arcs. The Big Three not only couldn’t die, but couldn’t really change much as the decades wore on; they became wiser, I suppose, but largely from learning hard lesson after hard lesson as new horrible things continued happening all around them.

kenobicvrCompare that to Corran Horn, who as I mentioned started as a brash fighter pilot who knew nothing of the Force and ended up as a compassionate Jedi Master with a beloved family. Or to Etain Tur-Mukan, another Jedi who chose to start a family, but because she was born in the wrong era, sacrificed everything for that decision. Think also about Annileen Calwell, hardscrabble Tatooine shopkeeper, and Joram Kithe, timid Republic accountant, and Force-weak Jedi initiate Scout, surviving through sheer cunning. These stories aren’t inherently better than the Big Three’s, but they generally made for better prose than the Big Three did—because things were able to happen to them.

Let’s go back to Annileen Calwell, from Kenobi—the first novel release covered by this site. Leaving aside the ostensible threat of young Luke being discovered, Kenobi had some of the lowest stakes in Star Wars novel history. In a galaxy-sized civilization, Kenobi was the story of one neighborhood. Not a stellar neighborhood, a literal neighborhood. Obi-Wan was the selling point, but the story was about his effect on his neighbors rather than about him personally—because, again, nothing about Obi could really change. You might speculate that, going forward, if you’re going to use a major film character in a novel, this would be the smartest way to do it, because anything of real consequence that happens to Luke Skywalker is going to be in a movie. I do think this was a big problem with last year’s Heir to the Jedi; it was a good enough story, and competently told, there was just nothing to it. By the epic standards of Luke Skywalker’s life story, it was a book about going to the store to pick up a gallon of milk. I don’t think that’s an argument for a better-written book, I think it’s an argument against the story having existed at all.

But that brings us to Bloodline—the first true “Big Three novel” since HttJ. This time, thanks to The Force Awakens, it’s not just “Leia goes on a mission”. It’s got a real reason to exist. In truth, just because the movies are in charge doesn’t mean they’re able to show us every single important thing that happens to the main characters, and so ironically, we now find ourselves in a position where a novel can give us one of the most pivotal moments of Leia Organa’s life—her breaking with the New Republic and founding the Resistance. Nothing she did in the EU was half as big as that, and it’s happening in a book.

So the ideal path forward, then, is twofold. As the sequel films continue rolling along, certain peripheral events will come along that are well-suited to novels. In addition to Bloodline, the second Aftermath book looks to revolve around Han and Chewbacca’s efforts to liberate Kashyyyk. While I hope (and expect) that Aftermath‘s original band of misfits will remain a large part of the story, this too is a pivotal moment in Han’s life, possibly even the beginnings of his own break with the New Republic command structure, considering he initially aftermath-lifedebtheads to Kashyyyk against orders. Maybe once Episode IX is out and we have the full backstory of Snoke and Kylo Ren, the time will come for a novel about Luke’s first class of Jedi students. Again, pretty damned consequential—in all of these stories, the Big Three are transitioning from one stage of their lives to another. By defining an end point, the films have paradoxically allowed for real evolution to take place elsewhere.

But that doesn’t mean nothing truly unpredictable can happen in novels anymore; there also remains lots of ground for stories about original characters. Think about how much conversation there’s been around the fates of the cast of Star Wars Rebels, in particular Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka, because the show has wisely stayed on the margins of the Empire. We know that Ahsoka isn’t going to turn Darth Vader back to the light side, and Kanan isn’t going to defeat the Empire single-handedly, but on the whole, we really have no idea what’s going to happen to them. So would it be with any novel not focused primarily on the SkySolos.

But what I’d rather not see from now on is “Luke/Han/Leia go on a mission” novels. Those kind of stories can be well done, and add nice character detail, but as the EU demonstrated, they can pile up very, very quickly—and the more there are, the less of an impression any one of them can make. One of the smartest priorities put forward by Story Group lately has been to not just fill in gaps because they’re there, but rather to look for where the most story potential exists. Hundreds of stories were told about the Big Three in Legends, enough that no one looking for random adventures with them will ever hurt for options (not to mention the canon Marvel comics, which could be another article entirely). But because there was no real storytelling goal in those days beyond “what happened next?”, a lot of them weren’t that great, and even a bunch of the great ones didn’t do anything especially bold or notable with the characters. I hope that from now on, a canon SkySolo novel will be an event; something that matters to the bigger picture of their lives. And if that means much fewer of them, so be it.

One big mistake of the EU, and part and parcel of this topic, was its failure to fully move on from the Big Three once the next generation had come of age. In that respect, The Force Awakens was a huge success, so much so that for the first time ever, it’s possible the desire for Luke/Han/Leia stories will fade over the next few years, replaced by the new “Big Three” of Rey, Finn, and Poe. I wonder what novels we’ll get about them.

5 thoughts to “Not Automatically Good – Rethinking Star Wars Novels”

  1. Another thing to think about was the Role Playing elements of the EU in the late 80s and 90s. The thrust there was that you could tell your own stories in the Star Wars Universe — and while the main characters were there, you weren’t really going to tell their stories… you’d have to make up your own.

    In the novels and comics, you did get to have some progression of the main, big three plots. But the strength of those series rest upon the new characters introduced — it’s why we don’t call it the “Heir to the Empire Trilogy” but rather “The Thrawn Trilogy.” It’s Thrawn and Karde and Mara Jade that really add the oomph to that series – that provide us new avenues of looking in at the Star Wars universe.

    (I’d conversely add that when the new characters fail or are weak… say, like, Daala… the series doesn’t carry the same oomph)

    So, yes, while books and comics can have great fun giving us backstory on the main movie characters, even then, they make or break on the other, new characters who interact with the main ones. Heir to the Jedi could have been an excellent book… if it had been Nakari’s story… but it wasn’t really. And so it didn’t stand up.

    1. I hadn’t even thought about refocusing HttJ on Nakari, but that’s not a bad thought. And as a bonus, she’d get to live!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this issue myself lately. Particularly as my reading has begun to incorporate more non-Star Wars sci-fi, I’ve begun to realize how tired some of the tropes have become over the life of the EU. I totally agree that I have had a lifetime’s worth of the Han/Luke/Leia go on a mission novels.

    The thing I most appreciate in my fiction reading is the sense of experiencing and discovery something new. I’ve most enjoyed new and old cannon books that give me that feeling. Kenobi is a good example, mostly because of the characters and format. I also enjoyed Twilight Company because it gave me a different “flavor” of Star Wars than what we usually get. Dawn of the Jedi was another cool book that made Star Wars feel fresh to me.

    I also am a little concerned that we are just going to be getting less innovative prose fiction in general from Del Ray. For the foreseeable future, one (or more) of the four or five yearly novel slots is going to be eaten up by a novelization. And the rest are going to be driven at least in part by promoting and supporting the movies. There is just less room for thinking outside the box.

    All that said, I will continue to buy and consume everything that comes out, because I am an OCD completionist. I know, I’m part of the problem.

    1. I don’t know that I see it quite that way—for starters, A New Dawn exists to promote Rebels, and it’s one of the best and most idiosyncratic canon books. Like I was saying about Bloodline, it’s possible that novels working around the margins of the visual media will end up being the most free to try different things. See also Twilight Squadron‘s status as a Battlefront tie-in. If anything, when DR is left more to its own devices the results tend to be more mixed—like Tarkin and HttJ, though admittedly those were conceived pre-reboot.

      I will say that you make a good point about the prospect of one novelization per year, though. Revenge of the Sith proves that there’s plenty of potential to think outside the box and create something special, but The Force Awakens was about as safe and unremarkable as a novelization could be, so it’s hard to know what to expect in the future.

      Though come to think of it—are we totally certain there will be a novel of Rogue One? Plenty of tie-ins are already showing up in catalogues, but I don’t remember seeing anything about a literal novelization. RO is already pretty experimental as a SW film, so here’s hoping its imprint on the publishing side is equally experimental.

      1. All good points. I would not be unhappy at all if they decided not to do a straight novelization for each upcoming film. The TFA novelization, as you said, was unexciting.

        Though my comment might indicate otherwise, I am happy about the state of Star Wars literature in general.The three announced books so far this year all have promise, especially Bloodline.

        Definitely an interesting topic to think about!

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