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Eleven-ThirtyEight – Where do I start?

Now that we’re officially live, this post is just a brief rundown of what we’ve got going on for your reading pleasure. First up, under “About the Site” you’ll see a Site Map page with a rundown of every current part of the site–even a couple that haven’t kicked into gear just yet.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the territory, check out some of our staff contributors’ op-eds—over in Cry Havac, Lucas Jackson is already three entries into his series Star Wars and Genre, and Ben Crofts is using Obiwomble’s Outlook to explore fans’ fear of “the end” of the story, and how the EU feeds into that. Maybe later he’ll explain what an “Obiwomble” is. As for myself, I wrote a little about the background of this site in D-Day, an’ Everything After, and I had a bunch of stuff I just had to get off my chest about X-Wing Alliance.

Beyond the op-ed section, if you look under Feature Articles in the “Simple Tricks” section, you’ll find “The restoration of the Republic and the ‘Glorious Cause’“, a piece by guest contributor Nick Adams on the New Republic—both the one we’ve seen already in the books, and the one we’re hopeful to see in Episode VII.

Last but not least, keep an eye on Not a Committee—that’s our group discussion feature, and by the end of this week we’ll be tackling our first topic: the bad guys of the Sequel Trilogy.

D-Day, an’ Everything After – The Story of Eleven-ThirtyEight

One of my earliest memories of Star Wars fandom is the day Attack of the Clones was announced.

Not the film itself, which was obviously a given, but the title. It was August 7, 2001—I had been posting on the Literature section of TheForce.net’s Jedi Council Forums for a couple years at that point, in addition to running my own low-rent fansite dedicated to the New Jedi Order novel series, but before that day I had never ventured into the more, let’s say, mainstream waters of the movies-only section. I knew enough to know that most people, even many of those you might call superfans, were at best only dimly aware of the novels and comics of the Expanded Universe, and many were downright hostile to them.

At best, they saw the EU as silly, or crass; at worst, they saw it as illicit, as glorified fan fiction. Even those who were reasonable enough to believe that the Empire wouldn’t simply have given up after the Battle of Endor felt that the real story ended at Return of the Jedi—anything else was beside the point. And besides which, Star Wars was George Lucas’ story. Even if he grudgingly accepted the existence of tie-in material continuing his story, it still wasn’t his story, so it didn’t really count, when you thought about it.

aotc-posterAnyway, back on that day in the summer of 2001, I tiptoed into the movie forums to see what people were saying about Attack of the Clones. Some of you are probably too young to remember a time when Episode II was just “Episode II”. Suffice it to say, Attack of the Clones was not what people were expecting. Ewan McGregor was caught reacting to the title on camera, while doing press for Moulin Rouge, and he and Nicole Kidman were visibly flabbergasted. The reaction at the Jedi Council Forums, meanwhile, was somewhat less good-humored. I happened to have the day off from school, and I pretty much spent the entire day staving off a riot from bitter, betrayed fans—and these were people who’d already weathered The Phantom Menace.

It’s not that I thought it was an awesome title or anything; I just didn’t think we should’ve expected anything else from the man behind The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and if there’s one thing that pushes my buttons, it’s unreasonable complaints. Love it or hate it, Lucas has a shtick and he sticks to it—and I’ll never understand why anyone who isn’t at peace with that would want to waste their time with him.

Which brings me to D-Day. The “D”, of course, stands for “Disney”.

Much hay has been made (at least if you’re reading the sites I’m reading) of the Disney sale presaging the obliteration of the Expanded Universe. And certainly, no one in their right mind could ever have believed Disney would voluntarily shackle themselves to adaptations of 20-year-old tie-in material—though some were happy to insinuate that we did. The best we could, and still can, hope for in terms of preserving the existing canon is that the jainafiguresequel trilogy jumps clear past the bulk of the EU into 50 ABY or so, and maybe—maybe—sticks Jaina Solo or Ben Skywalker into the slot of “next generation character” that we all know very well is coming.

Of course, Ben would be hard (though not impossible) to use without explaining his mother Mara Jade, which means explaining Emperor’s Hands, and possibly Thrawn, and well…you can see why that probably isn’t going to happen.

But I don’t see that as the death of the Expanded Universe—I see it as a new beginning. Remember those movie fans I mentioned? The ones who thought Lucas’ story was the only story, and that it ended at Jedi? Well, Episode VII breaks both of those rules. Jaina or no Jaina, from here on out, it’s all the Expanded Universe.

That’s what I’ve come to learn in the twelve years (Christ, I’m old) since I logged into TFN to stand between AotC and a bloodthirsty mob—deep down, we’re all here for the same reasons. The Unofficial New Jedi Order Homepage begat TFN Books begat a blog at Starwars.com back when Starwars.com had blogs, and what I know now is that Star Wars fans are like the three blind men who place their hands on an elephant and describe three different creatures depending on what they’re touching, when the reality is all those things and more. Star Wars wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is if that weren’t the case.

Over the nine months or so since D-Day, what I’ve witnessed to a large extent is that the most vocal fans have divided into two main groups—those who worship the ground Lucasfilm walks on (or would, if it had feet), and those who believe the whole thing is going to hell (or worse, being maliciously driven in that direction).

With the help of some of the smartest internet beings I know, my goal is for Eleven-ThirtyEight to be the bridge between those two camps. Passionate, but not sycophantic. Pragmatic, but not cynical. Intelligent, but not haughty. Well, maybe a smidge haughty.

And above all, genuinely excited to see what comes next.

The restoration of the Republic and the “Glorious Cause” – Five things we need to see in the Sequel Trilogy

Declaration

The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that… it was the Republic.

The prologue to the novelization of A New Hope, drafted by George Lucas himself and ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, opens with this powerful statement of the Galactic Republic. For over 25,000 years, the Republic, under the wise rule of the Galactic Senate and the protection of the Jedi Order, expanded galactic civilization and pushed outwards. In the Original Trilogy, the Republic has been dead for nearly two decades, replaced by the Galactic Empire and ruled by a Sith Lord. As Grand Moff Tarkin pointed out, with the dissolution of the Senate, the “last vestiges of the Old Republic” were swept away. Yet, despite the seemingly invincible forces of the Empire and the grip Emperor Palpatine had on the galaxy, there were those that fought to restore freedom to the galaxy. They joined together, beings from countless worlds and species, to form an alliance.

The Alliance to Restore the Republic.

Casual fans know this group as the Rebel Alliance or Rebellion, but that name is itself their charter, to defeat the Empire and resurrect the Republic. In the three movies that compose the Original Trilogy, we see our Rebel heroes destroy the first Death Star, barely escape from the Battle of Hoth, and then go all or nothing at the climactic Battle of Endor. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star is destroyed, the Emperor killed, the pride of the Imperial Starfleet is defeated, and Anakin Skywalker redeemed. The movie ends, amid the Rebel victory and countless celebrations across the galaxy, on the precipice of a new era. The Rebels, however, cannot rest on their laurels. Their hard work is just starting. To truly achieve their charter, they must restore the best of the old and forge something altogether new.

new Republic. Read More

Character Shields & Chronology: To The End!

My fellow contributor Lucas made this comment, in part, on the Fleeing the End piece:

We’ve got over forty years now to tell stories about them going forward, and that time hasn’t been used up yet.

I may have misread his comment but do we have 40 years to tell stories of Luke, Han and Leia? I’m not so sure.

Over the last few years a viewpoint has arisen that argues that the only stories that matter in a franchise universe like Star Wars are those that occupy the furthest chronological point. The reasoning for this is that if there are no stories set after it then no character can be deemed safe. It’s the “character X is in the next episode so why worry” viewpoint, but it goes a step further and posits that this is a problem in need of solution. Is it?

This diagnosis rests upon the need for the characters to be in constant peril of death. The “character shield” of being in the next story is not in place so all bets are off. One problem I have with this notion is that, if a major character is going to die, it is unlikely to be a surprise. That development will be marketed to the max! The last big surprise death was probably Anakin Solo in Star By Star, but after that the fans got wise to the trick and by the time the Sacrifice book came out, bets were for Mara Jade to die. Those bets would have paid out. If Lucasfilm ever decide to kill off Luke, Leia or Han – you’ll know about it months before the book or film or comic – could it be? Who knows? – comes out.

It cuts both ways too. When the comic Legacy series started in 2006, it ended up kicking off a huge amount of controversy over its time jump of around a century. The creative team greatly indulged the “character shield” concept by leaving what happened in the interim unknown. The back-story goes to around 10 years before at most, leaving what should have been a more than adequate gap. Not so! Legacy got blasted for not going far enough ahead and for not using popular successor characters. Yet had they done that they would have also been hit because we would then know character X lived long enough to spawn and procreate!

As the latest Star Wars book, Crucible, looks to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia, I wonder if that can truly take? Because if it does, then that means the further adventures of these characters will have to be set at an earlier chronological point. There have been but a handful of these books – Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor in 2009/10 and Tatooine Ghost in 2003/4. The focus has been on blasting through the years – twenty, thirty, forty years after the films!

At present Dark Horse Comics are indeed attempting new stories set in the film era with Darth Vader and the Empire running the galaxy. Yet one criticism made at an early point is there is no suspense because the characters are known to survive. One answer to this is new characters should be developed, the trick being to make those new characters of interest sufficient for the audience to invest in and follow. But here that fatal jeopardy requirement rears its head, as if a character is developed only to be killed off, the audience can decide to be more cautious with its investments! The effect of subjecting characters to fatal jeopardy at all times can reduce them to pieces on a game-board, while always moving the timeline forward with abandon.

Solutions? Well, one is that authors are more creative in how they draw their audience into a story, with the aim being to so transfix their attention they never consider the temporal setting! In this respect, both books cited above can be said to have done this. Yet, the viewpoint, if held, is one that’s resistant to being so drawn in. In a way it could be termed post-modern as the reader is deliberately placing their self outside of the story while criticising it. The problem I have with this is that it is highly destructive. Without abandoning character shields and chronology blinkers to a degree, we cannot have an end point for characters while enjoying new, earlier adventures.

Key questions to ask, in searching for alternative avenues to pursue are:

  • Is the future of the expanded universe more important than the worlds and characters that make it what it is?
  • Is plot and jeopardy more important than characters?
  • Can you have fates worse than death in a story?

For all that chronology and continuity can enhance and raise a series up, they can also be lead weights if taken too far and the character shields outlook, applied as far as it has been, for me, represents that step too far. What is the future for Star Wars stories if character shields and continuity are indulged at the expense of all else? Bleaker than the deserts of Tatooine!

Star Wars and Genre: Military Fiction and the War Story

The Dam Busters inspired the fighter and bomber action seen in A New Hope

In a series named Star Wars, it’s inevitable that war stories will influence the universe. From the beginning, Star Wars has been a universe of war and battles. The films, however, did not go into “war story” mode that frequently. A New Hope focused on the individual adventures of its heroes, only widening its scope to focus on the war being fought between the Rebellion and Empire in the final raid on the Death Star, which drew heavily from the World War II aviation film The Dam Busters for inspiration. The Empire Strikes Back opened with the frenetic ground action on Hoth, but from there became a story of Luke’s Jedi training and Han and Leia’s flight from the Empire. The prequels gave us the opening and closing battles of the Clone Wars, but declined to become simple “war films.”

The films borrowed techniques and tropes from war films when it was time to depict the big battles (the pre-battle briefings, the comms chatter during battle heavy with military-sounding lingo, the visual storytelling used to depict a battle beyond the experience of simply a few lead characters), but they did not exist simply to tell the stories of their wars. They borrowed from, but were not themselves military fiction, a term I like as it suggests slightly more specifically the defining characteristics in which I am interested: fiction that is about the military itself and concerned with military actions.

The X-wing series is the most prominent Star Wars military fiction

The Expanded Universe has followed that lead. There is usually a war, or at least a battle, and the battles often borrow from military fiction for their telling. Various historical military influences, especially as filtered through fiction, have had their own impact on the nature of the universe — the mixture of Age of Sail and World War-era naval warfare that informs the franchise’s space combat, its World War II dogfighting, large-scale ground combat that owes more to the Civil War and World War II than a realistic consideration of combat tactics in an advanced-technology setting, the medieval clashes between Jedi and Sith in sources like Jedi vs. Sith and Tales of the Jedi. Since that observation is not particularly revelatory, however, that’s not the aspect I want to focus on here.

The unique opportunity offered by the greater variety of the Expanded Universe is the chance to do “pure” military fiction, stories that are entirely or significantly about the military, interested in military details, and follow military characters and actions. The X-wing and Republic Commando series are perhaps the most readily notable military science fiction, following protagonists in military units. In the case of the Republic Commando series, the protagonists are clone commandos operating within the military sci-fi “space marine” tradition of grunts in ground combat. Michael Stackpole’s X-wing novels and comics follow the flyboys of Rogue Squadron, while Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron X-wing novels blend commando and aviation action.

Zulu inspired the To the Last Man storyline in the comic series Empire

These are not the only military fiction on display, however. The video game Republic Commando, as well as the X-wing and TIE Fighter video games drew from the same well for interactive Expanded Universe action. The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy prominently followed a fleet, and the politicians and commanders at home, through an entire war. It delved heavily into command structure, military intelligence gathering, and other issues of naval organization that most Star Wars novels skip, and showed a Tom Clancy-like interest in modern military affairs. To the Last Man, an arc of Empire, was directly inspired by the British colonial action of the film Zulu, which dramatized the real-life defense of Rorke’s Drift. The first Clone Wars novel, Shatterpoint, focused on telling a “horrors of war” story influenced by Apocalypse Now.

Yet, when all is considered, the amount of military fiction in the Expanded Universe actually isn’t that heavy, relative to the EU’s size. I think there could be room for a great deal more. We haven’t had a military comic series since X-wing: Rogue Squadron ended in in 1990s, but I think a comic following a military unit could provide an excellent set of ongoing adventures while playing to the popularly known, high-selling elements of Star Wars like X-wing-vs.-TIE action or stormtroopers and Star Destroyers. Fans have clamored for years for more X-wing novels, or a TIE Fighter series following the popular Baron Fel. Military-focused fiction on a larger scale, like The Black Fleet Crisis attempted, could provide an ideal path to telling a more unified story of the Clone Wars — stories about which have tended to focus on single, random battles on single, random planets rather than coherent large-scale campaigns — on a strategic level, and potentially bringing fan-favorite or established but underused characters like Pellaeon and Dodonna into use. The many untold or merely hinted-at campaigns of the New Republic would also be fruitful ground for a military fiction treatment.

Lord Hornblower, one of the Horatio Hornblower novels

There are also entire subtypes of military fiction that have yet to be fully explored. The style of heroic historical military fiction displayed in the Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe, and Aubrey-Maturin novels, which follows a heroic soldier or seaman as he fights in a war or wars and rises through the ranks in a series of adventures, has yet to be fully explored in a Star Wars context. I think it is especially promising as a way of introducing new characters or exploring existing ones. Imagine a comic series following an intrepid young lieutenant in the Old Republic’s Judicial Fleet as he tames the wild Rim and rises through the ranks in a series of naval adventures, or a set of Gar Stazi novels charting the Legacy-era Supreme Commander in his younger days as he climbed the ladder in earlier clashes.

Star Wars cannot devote its storytelling entirely to war stories and the military — massive aspects of the saga would go missing — but considering the importance of war to the saga’s storytelling, it could do much more to tell war stories and develop an aspect of the setting — the soldiers, pilots, admirals, and generals who belong among the cast — that has too often gone neglected in recent years.