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The End of Illusions: Part 2: Big Three? We Don’t Need No Big Three!

Some riffs just can’t be avoided and the title’s one of them. My experience with the Big 3 can be considered to be a 3-phase one. Phase 1 was Bantam’s run that, along with Dark Horse Comics, got me interested in the EU in the early 1990s, around 1992. Phase 2 was the NJO / Prequel era of 1999-2006 and phase 3 is very minor due to a sense of despair at the late era direction favoured by Del Rey.

(That as fine an editor as Lester Del Rey’s name should become a kind of curse-word for SW fans is a sad outcome whichever way you slice it.)

I returned to SW in 1992, watched the films again, this time in Widescreen – yes, once upon a time that was something special – and was hooked. But where now? Zahn’s Thrawn books, only 2 of them, beckoned, as did Dark Empire and the rest was history. Bantam’s run was, by its nature, experimental – they had an unexpected universe they didn’t know what to do with so they experimented. Some of it worked, some of it did not, the former was raised up and the latter quietly forgotten.

Leia’s arc of rebuilding the Republic, dealing with numerous political hurdles, succeeding Mon Mothma and then making peace with a reformed Empire that she once despised was a triumph. Han’s arc was patchier, but his turn as General Solo in Allston’s X-Wing books was a high point, Zahn and Stackpole generally used the character effectively too. Where there is a void is once the kids are born! If Leia is too busy rebuilding the Republic then Han should have stepped in, I don’t see any reason for him not to except that children and their upbringing was perceived – and perhaps still is – as a woman’s job and men should not butt into that!

Why is this a big deal? One of the more rubbish plots in the later NJO had Jaina Solo, in a fit of teenager attitude, lay into Leia for not being around when she was younger. This never worked for me. The reason was simple. As a kid, my Dad was out at evening meetings a lot, the job demanded it – my Mum ensured my sisters and I knew why it was so. My parents had their own arrangement, my Dad looked after the bills, my Mum looked after us and it worked for them. Due to that, I had no reason to really resent him for being absent in that respect. I was old and smart enough to understand. Therefore, the notion that Jaina would not have been looked after, either by babysitters or Han, did not work. Plus, if she’s supposed to be smart, she’s smart enough to know why too. It would have been very satisfying for Leia to snap back she didn’t have to be, Han was! The only way Han and Leia’s marriage could work with two strong individuals is to divide up who’s doing what – Leia goes out for the career, Han is more free-wheeling but more in charge on the domestic front. Alas, the EU, at this early stage, lacked the courage to take this radical step. In many ways it’s understandable, but still a missed opportunity.

Luke’s arc of rebuilding the Jedi was not all that well-planned out, but, nonetheless, worked out well as the new Jedi play a key role in extinguishing the flames of the Caamas crisis depicted in the Hand of Thrawn books. It also, with reference to my fellow conspirator Lucas’s article on Jedi, Sith and Tunnel Vision, had Luke pull a blinder of a move. With the bulk of the information on the Jedi destroyed, Luke revives an ancient Jedi tradition he learns of from a rare Jedi holocron. In this tradition, one Master trained several students and often on a world where the Master had defeated and contained the dark side, with those places serving as testing grounds for apprentices.

1999 saw the start of the New Jedi Order project and it’s an undertaking that, even in hindsight, I can’t help but see as a missed opportunity. For all its successes, it still has a vast amount of untapped potential that it failed to tap due to squandering time on needless other plot strands. In some respects, the moves made for NJO were subsequently used again but with far less success for the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. For me where it went wrong was in seeking to emulate Babylon 5’s 5-year TV arc in book form. It was also, despite setting them up as a truly terrifying adversary that was far beyond the ability of the Jedi alone to defeat, far too protective of its villains, the Yuuzhan Vong. Cue the Republic that Leia had restored to working order demonstrating suicidal incompetence to the point of being utterly destroyed, then the same plot that required the heroes to be ineffective for 2 years, permitted them to be effective for 2 years and win. In the end the only thing that really made NJO work for me was the utterly unexpected success that was its finale, The Unifying Force. It did what all strong conclusions do – finished well but in doing so raised up its predecessor volumes as well. I’m never going to be a big fan of it, but the success of the finale and how well it used Luke, Han and Leia along with other, newer characters cannot be denied.

Onto phase 3 then and here all those flaws that blighted NJO, yet were held back enough to prevent them taking over, are permitted to bloom in all their poisonous glory. After reading the Dark Nest trilogy, one of the most blatant set-up series I’ve ever read, my interest in the big 3 was severely reduced. The first Legacy of the Force book went and destroyed it completely within the specific era. I simply could not credit or buy into the events and characterisations being depicted.

So the end of the line? Not quite. There have been a handful of earlier set books over the last 6 years. There were 2 books by Zahn, but while sold as being Luke, Han and Leia I don’t consider them to be so, they’re more supporting cast. No, the big release for the trio in recent years has to be 2009’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover. It’s a masterclass in how to do a complete story, without giving any character in a large cast short shrift and convince the reader that, all appearances to the contrary, their heroes are in real jeopardy! Sadly, there has been no further Stover Star Wars books.

So what does it boil down to? The characters need to develop without leaving their essential aspects behind. Luke as a Jedi who won’t surrender to the dark works fine, as does Leia as the one politician you can actually believe in, with Han as the ultimate wild card agent. There have been attempts in recent years to move them away from this, to making Leia a Jedi (she was already as of 1992 but that got forgot!) and Luke more of a manager but neither has really worked for me. That and the amount of time that has passed – around 40 years!

Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision

Jedi vs. Sith is a fantastic comic, but its title should not be applicable to the entire EU

No, Force Tunnel Vision isn’t a Force power you’ve never heard of. It’s the tendency that has emerged ever since the release of the prequels to focus stories on the Jedi and emphasize the Jedi-vs.-Sith conflict as the core of storytelling. This has compounded the issue of supporting cast underuse in the post-Return of the Jedi era, as the focus has become too narrow to take in much of the wider universe. In all eras it has resulted in repetitive storytelling as the Sith are trotted out again and again to fight Jedi protagonists. In this post, I will cover how the prequels transitioned Star Wars from stories that included Jedi and Sith to stories that were about Jedi and Sith, just how monotonous this has made the Star Wars universe, and how this has damaged the Star Wars universe by excluding non-Force-sensitives from the story.

The way it was

Jedi and Sith were both present in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was central to the films’ story that Luke Skywalker learned to become a Jedi Knight from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda so that he could defeat the evil Force-user Emperor Palpatine and redeem his father Anakin Skywalker from life as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. How, then, can I say that the prequel trilogy changed Star Wars’ focus? The difference is between stories that include Jedi and Sith as a component and stories that are centrally about Jedi, Sith, and the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. The issue is the context in which the Force elements of the storyline are placed.

In the original trilogy, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, and later the Emperor, was vital. The introduction of the Jedi Knights and the light and dark sides of the Force were key components of Star Wars’ unique universe. The story, however, was not simply about the Jedi. Luke’s conflict with the dark side’s servants was one component of a much larger storyline concerning the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the light and dark sides were merely elements of the struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil in the broadest sense. Luke did not fight alone, but as part of the Rebellion, alongside the gunslinger Han, political leader Leia, scoundrel-turned-administrator-turned-Rebel Lando, and ordinary warriors like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and General Rieekan. He and his allies fought not only Darth Vader and the dark side, but also Forceless manifestations of tyranny like Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Stars, and stormtroopers; and Forceless agents of criminal corruption like Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett. Jedi and Sith were one component of the bigger story, which included ordinary soldiers, political figures, and the criminal underworld.
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The Rise and Fall of the Supporting Cast Post-Return of the Jedi

The New Jedi Order featured tons of supporting characters

One of the most distinctive features about the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe is the wealth of characters who have become part of a large, unified cast supporting the small group of movie leads. This sort of cast is a fairly unique asset for a franchise, and even for an era within this particular franchise, yet in recent years it has been dismally handled. Not only have fewer members of the secondary cast been used and been used more poorly, but the focus has crept from a large cross-section of the galaxy squarely onto members of the Jedi Order. In this post, I want to address how this situation came to be and make the case for better use of the unified cast, to be followed up by a post specifically focusing on the implications of limiting stories to an emphasis on Force-sensitives.

The road to the unified cast

The initial EU did not set out to create a large-cast universe in the way of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the original films had not featured a big recurring cast. They did, however, set the stage for the eventual expansion of the cast.

Aside from the villains and the core cast of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and eventually Lando, the films featured almost no recurring characters. Wedge Antilles was the only supporting good guy to make it through multiple movies, much less the entire trilogy. The focus was clearly on a small band of heroes. But what the movies did have was a large-galaxy aesthetic resulting from the use of a lot of supporting characters who just didn’t recur. We didn’t get a consistent Rebel leader throughout the films, but in getting General Dodonna, General Rieekan, General Madine, Admiral Ackbar, and Mon Mothma, we got a large body of distinctive, interesting leaders who could be used and expanded on in further stories, along with the sense that the Rebellion was big and full of important people. There was a lot there for the EU to work with, and a sense that the Star Wars galaxy should have a deep bench of characters.
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Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

Politics and the Expanded Universe (Part I)

Introduction

Before anyone gets too excited, we won’t be discussing the taxation of trade routes in the Outer Rim or the establishment of trade franchises in the Old Republic. Instead, we’ll be talking about the use of real world politics in Star Wars, whether by allusion or direct reference and whether to draw out certain themes or to make sociopolitical commentary. We won’t be surveying the entirety of the EU, but just specific examples that come to the author’s mind as particularly good or particularly poor ways to integrate real world politics into the fictional Star Wars narrative. If there are any striking examples you think we’ve missed or you think are worthy of discussion, please mention them in the comments!

 

Political references have been a part of Star Wars since the very beginning, so the argument that Star Wars is purely escapism is untenable.  In 1977, A New Hope comingled references to Nazi Germany with allusions to the American Revolution.  Imperial uniforms closely resemble those of the Wehrmacht, while Imperial stormtroopers appropriated the nomenclature of the Nazi SA. By The Empire Strikes Back, it became a decided theme that Imperial officers would adopt various British accents while the Rebels would resemble plucky Yankee revolutionaries. Lucas had mentioned in interviews before the release of the Prequel films that the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of Senator Palpatine to the position of Galactic Emperor resembled the rise to power of historical dictators such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler.  Lucas drew from more than history though, because he drew themes from contemporary political events as well. The older drafts of A New Hope – the influence of which still permeates the novel ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster – presented a weak, corrupt, and ineffectual Emperor Palpatine largely controlled by his advisors. Supposedly, this portrayal was based on President Richard Nixon, who had resigned from office earlier in the decade. Neither the films nor the novel directly allude to the former president in any real way, and though the original film channeled the political pessimism of the day towards an old-fashioned heroic romp, the only evident political allusions are to historical events decades and centuries past.

 

How has the EU handled real-world political references? Well, answering that question thoroughly would take more words than I have the patience to write and more words than a reader would have patience to read. More importantly, I don’t intend to just document all the political references used in the EU because I don’t think that would be very useful, and would just be cataloguing for the sake of cataloguing. Instead, I’m going to focus on only two authors and I’m going to direct my attention on how they used contemporary political references to the benefit or detriment of their story telling. I’ve deliberately picked two authors that I actually like, and those two authors are well-regarded by the fandom because I want to make it clear that it’s not a matter of good writing or bad writing: even a really good author can use politics in an ineffective way, and that’s what I’d like to show.

 

James Luceno

James Luceno’s first contribution to the Expanded Universe was the Agents of Chaos duology for the New Jedi Order series. He was subsequently known for his intricate handling of continuity as well as his portrayal of in-universe politics, such that he was tasked to write two novels taking place immediately before and immediately after Revenge of the Sith – namely Labyrinth of Evil and Dark Lord – as well as the celebrated Darth Plagueis. These works – along with his other EU contributions – have cemented his reputation as the go-to novel author for delicate and weighty matters in the EU. He even rehabilitated the confusing and nigh-nonsensical trade dispute plot of The Phantom Menace with Cloak of Deception and Plagueis, but I’ll have to leave it at that since I promised not to write a dissertation on Outer Rim taxation disputes.

Where Luceno goes wrong, however, is his invocation of real-world politics. This problem manifests itself most glaringly in Labyrinth, but it also mars the otherwise stellar work that is Plagueis. Without giving anything away, both novels document different stages of the Sith plot to subvert the Old Republic and replace it with the Galactic Empire. In so doing, Luceno details the emergence of organizations and individuals later iconic in the EU’s presentation of the EU – we see the rise of the totalitarian and fascistic Commission for the Preservation of the New Order (COMPNOR) as the Commission for the Protection of the Republic (COMPOR) and we see the political involvement of the inner circle of Palpatine’s advisors, who would later appear in Return of the Jedi as fellows in cassocks and miters who accompany the Galactic Emperor. These are great touches, and appropriately show continuity in the storytelling sense: they give the impression of an enduring and substantial fictional world.

Unfortunately, Luceno also accompanied the Nazi-esque COMPOR organization with another late Republic entity: the department of Homeworld Security. Coupled with a reference by Chancellor Palpatine to a “Triad of Evil,” Luceno’s invocation of the then-governing Bush Administration could not have been more clear. Plagueis subsequently makes more overt references to real life politics: the rituals on the world of Sojourn closely resemble those of the Bohemian Grove, while Sith governing philosophy appears to imitate stereotypes of rich Republican politicians. Finally, several planets are granted “Most Favorable World status” – a term that betrays a misunderstanding of “Most Favorable Nation” clauses in bilateral investment treaties (to wit: nations are not classed as “most favorable” as if they were placed on some exclusive list – which seems to conflate the term with free trade agreements, but are rather guaranteed the most abbreviated procedural hurdles in arbitrating private investment disputes for their citizens).

The misunderstanding of the MFN clause highlights the key issue with this kind of political reference in Star Wars: the use of certain buzz words and terms to substitute for actual argument. Authors should absolutely feel free to have political opinions, and may even use the vehicle of literature – even tie-in literature – to communicate their ideas. Literature has been used for this purpose for thousands of years. The problem is when this message undermines and distorts the work of literature it’s placed in. As seen in A New Hope, the Imperials are already “space Nazis” – making them “space Republicans” does not enhance this portrayal. The implication is that such real-world references are used less to characterize the fall of the Republic into the Empire, but more to characterize real-world politicians – or in other words, to compare these politicians to Sith. I’ll leave comparisons to terms such as “Darth Blair” aside. Using Star Wars as a platform for real life political beliefs in this clumsy a fashion draws the reader out of the escapism of this fantasy universe, and doesn’t contribute to the story.

 

Michael Stackpole

Michael Stackpole is one of the earlier writers in the Expanded Universe – he contributed five books of the X-wing series as well as the Dark Tide duology of the New Jedi Order, he partnered to write several short stories with Timothy Zahn, and he authored the X-wing series of comic books published by Dark Horse. Though known primarily for his ability to write detailed and convincing military sci-fi, I have a particular appreciation for his talent at portraying politics, both in-universe and out-of-universe. Since this article is about real-world politics, I shall have to discuss his deft handling of the foundational years of the New Republic at a later date.

Though his X-wing novels have an ensemble cast, Stackpole’s primary point of view characters are Corran Horn and Wedge Antilles.  Their chapters highlight what I feel is a very effective use of real-life politics in the EU: politics that are very tightly drawn to a character’s own thoughts and beliefs, and politics that channel in-universe concerns and ideas. Such is Stackpole’s handling of politics in his books that I never get the sense that he is ever preaching to the audience, or that he is using his novels to make a political point.

For example, Lieutenant Corran Horn is a former Corellian Security Officer who has become a Rebel X-wing pilot.  He is very much a law and order type of person, and is distinctly uncomfortable with joining an illegal criminal insurgency. This tension between his police background and the moral imperative to free the galaxy from the Empire is an important part of his character development. Along those lines, Corran Horn is exploring his romantic feelings as he is torn between his attractions to one of his co-pilots, the aristocratic Erisi Dlarit, and to a smuggler, Mirax Terrik. His law enforcement background initially provides some friction between him and Miss Terrik, but he eventually realizes that their common homeworld unites them more than their occupations separate them. On the other hand, he is physically attracted to Miss Dlarit but realizes she comes from a completely different world in every sense of the term: she is prone to conspicuous consumption and treating those who work for a living as her inferiors. His discomfort with her entitlement is more social commentary than political commentary, but Lt. Horn’s internal monologue about privilege and wealth mimic those seen in contemporary political discourses.

As another example, Commander Wedge Antilles – an almost life-long Rebel – ponders the state of mind required to be an Imperial Loyalist after the death of the Emperor.  His thoughts are more directly rooted in politics, because he considers the impact prestige and comfort have on convincing a populace to be quiescent in the face of tyranny, or the willful disregard of information that would portray the government as far worse than it is letting on. These ideas were jotted down in Wedge’s Gamble almost two decades ago, but they are as relevant then as they are now. The examination of willful ignorance and the condoning of governmental action, and the stakes necessary to forgo material comfort and rise in revolt against an unjust government  is just the sort of thing we might see on a political blog or a Facebook post today – but in Stackpole’s novel, it’s tightly rooted in the time and place of the story.

These are just examples of two characters with similar points of view on wealth, government, and society. Stackpole does similar service to the villains of his story, where their personal station and life experiences inform their views: it’s just that the villains have the complete opposite conclusions about government and society. In both cases, the characters thought processes are compelling and realistic.

Conclusion

Therein lies the key difference between Stackpole’s use of politics, and Luceno’s. Luceno uses buzz-words that would be familiar to anybody remotely aware of politics: there is no subtlety, and the reader is forced to make a mental comparison to the real world. On the other hand, Stackpole keeps his political references contained within the world of the story. Consequently, the ponderings of his characters enhance the story because they develop and flesh out the political entities being described in almost entirely in-universe terms. That’s not to say that out of universe references are unwarranted – they belong, as A New Hope demonstrates, but they belong in a fashion that is wrapped up in story and characterization: they should develop and enhance the verisimilitude of the fictional world, rather than draw the reader out of it.

When reading the political cogitations of Stackpole’s characters, a reader can easily stop and explore the applicability of these thoughts to the real world, or to history. A reader’s experience is therefore enhanced, and one of the key goals of literature – causing people to think – is thereby achieved. However, that goal is reached in a way that does not figuratively bang the reader over the head with a mallet or directs the reader to think a certain way prompted by the author. Instead, the reader is invited merely to think and draw his or her own conclusions, just as Wedge Antilles and Corran Horn drew their own conclusions based on their own life experiences.

 

 

The End of Illusions: Part 1: Not Really Liking the Big Three All That Much!

Credit for sparking this one goes to fellow conspirator here Lisa Schap, but she’s unaware of what she started! Do I like Star Wars because of the characters of Luke, Han and Leia or is it more than that? Do I even need the big 3 as they’re called at all?

In a way the OT succeeds where the PT mostly does not in running at a pace that sweeps the audience along. The result of this is that their attention is kept at all times and they do not notice the weaknesses. Those weaknesses being the characters! I’m fascinated to see what happens after ROTJ because, at that point, the characters work for me, but why do they not before? Because Solo’s the cocky bastard type I tend to dislike on general principle despite the considerable charm Ford’s portrayal gives him. Organa is, in a lot of ways, your standard aristocratic type and a ‘for the cause!’ evangelist. Don’t really like evangelists either. And Skywalker? He’s the fish out of water and in over his head who eventually wises up, but he is a bit of whinger in the OT.

But to be fair, these are their starting points! The whole idea of a character development arc is precisely that – so where do they go and what changes? It should also be mentioned at this point the OT, to a degree, delights in throwing gender stereotypes into a blender and generously splattering them!

Leia is the one who thinks she knows all she needs to, her foil is Han who also thinks the same way – in hindsight, of course they were on collision course! Luke is the one who’s far more aware than both of what he doesn’t know and needs to, give the kid some credit – he’s a fast learner. Until writing this I had not considered Han and Leia as being opposite mirror images, but it’s an interesting picture – Han teaches Leia that she can have some things for herself, that it’s OK to not share them with the world, while Leia brings Han into accepting the fight for the galaxy. And Luke? His arc is one of ascension, to gaining the knowledge and confidence he needs to be doing what is expected of him.

Back to those gender stereotypes in the blender! By rights, Han should be insufferably cocky, Luke too incompetent and Leia too cold and arrogant an aristocrat. There’s times when that happens, but the OT ensures it’s isolated incidents, mostly within ANH. Instead it tends to invert a few things – Leia’s the one who tends to keep her emotions under control, where Luke doesn’t and nor is she content to sit back and be rescued – instead in ANH the terms of rescuer and rescued flip around frequently between the characters. Now it doesn’t seem all that big a deal but it was cutting edge for 1977. Later ROTJ fanned the flames of controversy with Leia’s treatment by Jabba, which remains a hotly contested debate topic: Was Leia badly treated in character terms or not? For me, there is the little matter that she strangles the fat bastard that says not.

By the end of the OT, they’re all in different places and I want to see where they go from here in contrast to the films where I do want to see changes because, all in all, don’t like them all that much! Then again, if the screenplays are known to have weaknesses, then it’s also known to be in the characters – oh and let’s not forget the dialogue! Sometimes you need a better pair of hands to go to work. In the shape of Good win and Williamson on their Classic Star Wars run and Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, there are two excellent works that I’m inclined to say handle the characters better than the films. They can examine them more closely and bring their out better aspects more effectively.

Of the trio, Luke is likely the one I like most because he’s less out-right cocky, but inclined to do some really stupid stuff if he but thought about what he was doing – case in point, the Battle of Yavin! Fly around a moon-sized battlestation that’s going to annihilate a planet, then go into a narrow trench and hit this one small spot? But that’s also what makes SW what it is, people doing insane things and getting away with it! Outwardly confident characters who think they know it all? Nah, just not drawn to, I need to see some flaws and them then being aware of them, if only so they can turn them to their advantage.

The Emperor and his second Death Star are toast, Vader’s dead too, what happens now? Can you really consider the story over? Why would you not want to see Leia as the politician she’s said to be? Why shouldn’t we see her build a new government to take over from the Empire? That was the point of the rebellion. Equally, the Jedi knights, how is Luke to revive that idea? And Han? Han gets to stay the smartarse he always was, but not an insufferable loner who thinks he needs no one.

Part 2 will look at where they get taken, what has worked and has not and if these characters are needed for an Expanded Universe at all!