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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.

Star Wars and Genre: The Western

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Not just a great Western, but also the inspiration for the first name, Beilert, of Star Wars’ Valance the Hunter.

If I’m going to be talking about Star Wars’ integration with genre stories, it would be best if I first distinguished between two aspects of genre. One aspect is the core concepts of the genre — the features that make the genre what it is as a genre and control the types of stories told in that genre. For the Western, this might mean the idea of the frontier as an unpeopled or underpeopled area being settled by hardy pioneers, the idea of man vs. his environment, civilization vs. the state of nature, revenge and justice, and the centrality of the individual — in conflict with another individual, in conflict with society, or standing up alone for justice when no one else will. These are core concepts around which the genre revolves. The John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is directly concerned with the clash between civilization and the lawless frontier. High Noon showcases Gary Cooper as the only man in town willing to stand up to a villain at the risk of his own life. The same theme is the subject of both the original and remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid focuses on individuals who find themselves unable to fit into society and take refuge in an increasingly retreating frontier. These core concepts are what make Westerns Westerns, the things that all Westerns are ultimately about in one form or another, the stories Westerns are telling.

The second aspect is the trappings of the genre — the features that do not necessarily make a story part of the genre themselves, but are commonly found throughout the genre, often signal the genre to the general public, and can be used outside the genre to evoke it without necessarily changing the sort of story being told. For Westerns, this means elements like cowboy hats, horses, ranches and herds of cattle, mining towns, crooked land barons, saloons, barfights, the cavalry, drinking and gambling, a desert setting, nomads who wander from town to town, sheriffs versus bandits and outlaws, Indians, and quick-draw showdowns in the street.

Nomad: The mysterious stranger strides into a dusty mining town.

My point is not necessarily that there is a hard and fast distinction between two types of genre elements, but that I wish to draw a distinction between telling a genre story and using trappings from the genre to tell a different kind of story. As I already explained in my original post, A New Hope uses trappings from the Western genre — the frontier homestead, the dangerous natives, the cantina as meeting place, the barfight scene — to tell what is not, ultimately, a Western story. The film is not about the frontier; it just wants to establish that Luke hails from a familiar frontier setting, and use some of the Western tropes that lead to adventurous action, like the cantina fight or the Sand People attack, in the service of a space opera story. The Star Wars Tales comic Nomad, on the other hand, is a Western story set in the Star Wars universe. It is the story of an ex-soldier, Darca Nyl, who retired to a farmstead with his wife, only for her to die giving birth to their son. When a wandering Dark Jedi kills his son, Darca pursues him across the galaxy. Darca passes through a frontier mining town controlled by a corrupt boss, a forest in which he rescues a woman from a posse before realizing that the villagers are right to pursue her killer brother, and a desert ranch beset by bandits before finally engaging in a mano-a-mano showdown with the Dark Jedi in the middle of the desert. Nomad is up to its ears in Western tropes, but it is more significantly a Western story at its core — that of a loner on a quest for revenge, trying to do the right thing, struggling with his environment and with the society he comes across on the frontier of civilization.

Nomad is not the only Star Wars Western; the Tales comic Incident at Horn Station also comes to mind, as do some of the recent Dark Times arcs. John Jackson Miller’s upcoming Kenobi looks as it if may be the first Star Wars Western novel. But overall, the Expanded Universe has been much quicker to use the trappings of Westerns than to tell Western stories. This is very understandable. Most “big-picture” Star Wars novels are locked into the larger space opera storytelling format, and cannot devote themselves purely to Westen storytelling. In other stories, Western trappings are highly useful in establishing the frontier status of the Rim, but don’t play directly into the story that’s being told. The trappings — mining towns, barfights over sabacc, bandits — are plenty of fun when they’re deployed, and could arguably be made even further use of. The next time the writers need to put Han in danger on the Outer Rim, how about instead of the thousandth blaster battle, they have him caught in a stampede?

This man is already a space cowboy. Consider telling space cowboy stories about him.

More importantly, though, I would like to suggest that EU writers take a second look at the Western as a potential storytelling format for the EU. The space opera format is getting old after the main characters have been put through a thousand iterations of it. Why not shake Star Wars stories up by branching out more aggressively to other genres? They’ve already started with Death Troopers and Red Harvest. Instead of the Jedi constantly going after Sith, how about one of them faces off against bandits on a remote world? The next time they need a story about Han in his smuggler days, consider a bounty hunter chasing him and Chewbacca across the wilderness. A lone space ranger or Jedi wandering across the Outer Rim righting wrongs could provide a compelling basis for a comic series.

The Western genre is distinctive enough that it can’t be relied upon too heavily, but it could be used much more than it has been to spice up the EU’s current slate of offerings and offer a change of pace. It is already one of the more prominent sources of flavoring to the universe in general; it may be time that writers step up from appropriating its trappings to finding ways to use its core concepts to structure stories.

Star Wars and Genre

A New Hope: Fantasy . . .

Star Wars is a space opera; that’s the most accurate single label for the genre in which the films, the majority of the stories, and the Star Wars universe in general fall. Yet space opera is itself a syncretic genre, drawing from a wide variety of pulpy story elements and templates to tell adventure stories in space. The term that “space opera” has largely displaced, “science fantasy,” is even more telling of the genre’s natural hybrid status. The trappings of science fiction are used, but not to examine the relationship between man and technology, or to illustrate truths about humankind in the way traditional science fiction attempts. Instead, they are used in the service of fantastic adventures in synthetic settings that can incorporate influences from a wide mixture of genres.

A New Hope serves as a solid example of the complex mix of genre elements present in the Star Wars setting. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy called upon to take up a mystic destiny among an order of knights who wield both swords and magic powers. This is unmistakably the stuff of fantasy. Yet he is also a farm boy living in the middle of a desert with his hardscrabble aunt and uncle, surrounded by hostile natives. His journey to his fantasy destiny involves going into town after the farm is burned down, striding into a cantina, getting in a bar fight with a couple belligerent outlaws, and taking up with a quick-drawing, bounty-hunter-dodging maverick with a heart of gold who is only a ten-gallon hat away from looking like a Wild West cowboy. It could be the start to a classic Western. Luke’s social life — going into town to bum around with his friends, tinker with hot rods, and race them — is taken straight out of the 1950s/60s teen flick genre, films like Lucas’s own nostalgia piece American Graffiti. The climax of the film is directly based on World War II war movies. The overarching storyline and setting are classic space opera, but by nature the genre enfolds other settings, both as influences to the core components of setting and story and as a sort of spice flavoring the story around the edges or influencing the way certain elements are depicted.

. . . meets Western. In space.

The films demonstrated that the space opera genre was broad enough to encompass other styles of storytelling. The Expanded Universe has run with that breadth, drawing from all kinds of genres. It has even openly dabbled in genre crossovers that more directly and completely place genre stories into the Star Wars setting, such as Joe Schreiber’s zombie horror novels, the “Star Wars Goosebumps” series Galaxy of Fear, and the tragically-canceled “James Bond meets Star Wars” Agent of the Empire series. Since the very beginning of the Expanded Universe, when Han Solo and Chewbacca reenacted the plot of The Magnificent Seven on Aduba-3, only for the climax to involve fighting a giant monster alongside a Don Quixote stand-in, the EU has incorporated a stunning range of other genres into the Star Wars universe.

My goal is to use this post as a launchpad for a series of posts examining Star Wars’ relationship with various genres, both in the ways genre has been used in the past and the potential I see for future stories. My primary interest is in ways the Expanded Universe can tell more kinds of stories, but with the news that “spinoff” Star Wars films are in the works, there is also potential for the films to approach different storytelling genres as well. I hope that you’ll join me on this ongoing look at Star Wars’ genre complexity.