We’ve got a bit of an interesting case on our hands in that the “What Star Wars Can Learn From . . .” series here at Eleven-Thirty Eight generally tends to focus on other franchises entirely disconnected from Star Wars. The Jupiter Pirates: The Hunt for the Hydra is a brand-new novel by veteran Star Wars writer and esoterica enthusiast Jason Fry, who has written in his own original world but is definitely a player in the Expanded Universe that we all know and love. To that end, this article may well have been named: “Reasons why Jason Fry should be allowed to write a Star Wars novel.”
We shall try to maintain a dignified and discreet air about all this, though, because that suits our style better. But please imagine a subtext running throughout this article that amounts to a wink and a nudge to Lucasfilm and Del Rey to give this man a novel. We – that is, we ourself and not ETE proper – can also give our approving endorsement of this novel and certainly encourage our readers to give it a look.
This novel is kid-friendly in the best way: it’s written for a young adult audience (aged 8 to 12, according to Amazon, though the young adult label on the official website would suggest to us the ages of 13-18) and balances action with thoughtful world-building. It’s set in the future, but influenced by familiar history in a way that leaves the story grounded. That future is still plagued by some of the problems of today, but despite the historical tinge it’s not mired in backwards gender structures. These are all things we could stand to see more of in Star Wars.
How to Handle a Youth Audience
We must confess a lack of experience with young adult Star Wars novels. Young Jedi Knights, Jedi Apprentice, and other such stories were not our preferred form of entertainment due to the prevalence of – mirabile dictu – Jedi. Galaxy of Fear was a singular pleasure, but we do have experience with recent television offerings such as The Clone Wars, and the future television series Rebels will hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls of its predecessor. The Clone Wars was rated TV-PG and it was geared towards both younger children as well as older children who may fit into the age range Amazon provided for The Jupiter Pirates. Teenagers and adults enjoyed the show too. Nevertheless, the show seemed as if it had difficulty deciding whether it ought to be a children’s show or an adult show: it was at times farcical and goofy, and it was at other occasions somber and dark.
The Jupiter Pirates shows no such difficulties. We would almost call it a family novel, but we’re certain it’s not geared towards younger children: but whether the intended audience is older children or teenagers (our inability to figure this out is partially due to the fact that this is the sort of novel we may have read as an older child), it’s something that can be enjoyed by adults without being inappropriately mature. It’s deep in a way fitting for a novel with a 12 year-old protagonist: the narrative explains the space-age science and the politics of a day in a way comprehensible by that child, but also in a way that an adult can read in between the lines. Consequently, it suits its audience but avoids looking down on it or alienating older readers.
It’s also – and we cannot stress this enough – wholesome without seeming tediously moralizing and trite. We’re sorry, but we simply cannot stand the fortune cookie messages that preface episodes of The Clone Wars nor can we approve of the usually simplistic manner in which these moral lessons are delivered. In The Hunt for the Hydra, the reader follows young Tycho Hashoone along in his journey learning how to be a pirate – sorry, privateer! – along with his family. There are a strong set of values here: doing what’s right by one’s family, crew, and country but also lessons about self-esteem and one’s value as a person. We can’t help but think these bits are particularly important for the target audience: siblings can often be a source of frustration for children and teenagers, and self-esteem issues (particularly wanting to be like everyone else and not appreciating one’s self) are ever present, and this novel does a great service in both entertaining and teaching its audience. These important lessons about personal growth and character aren’t spelled out: Tycho learns and the reader learns along with him. That’s important, and though television is a different beast than a novel, it’s something that works in both media.
A Familiar Future
Star Wars isn’t set in the future, but it features futuristic space-aged technology. One of the touchstones of the films was the notion of a ‘used future,’ and we and our fellow writers at ETE have often discussed the real world historical influences on the Star Wars films and the Expanded Universe. This sense of history is what makes Star Wars feel alien and yet familiar at the same time. Expanded Universe offerings set in a time period similar to the movies have no problem in getting an audience situated, but stories set hundreds or thousands of years away from the films often seem concerned the audience will feel confused or may even feel that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Star Wars shouldn’t need to constantly refer back to the films in order to explore new ground.
Jason Fry has written quite a few bits of reference material for the Star Wars universe, and one of the things we most appreciate about his writing is his sense of history. Often, he will describe a planet or an ancient war and it will remind us of a period of history that we’re familiar with, sometimes even one that he may not have even intended to reference: but it’s enough to catch our imagination, which quickly fills in the detail surrounding his textual narrative. The Jupiter Pirates is the same way: it’s set in our familiar solar system, yet in the future. It’s set on spacecraft, yet reminds us of the age of sail. There’s a helpful drawing of the family spacecraft in the beginning of the book, but the craft is organized in a way similar to a pirate ship of yore and I’ve seen enough movies to understand exactly how those things are organized.
Star Wars built itself on a futuristic galaxy that resembled our own. Even when Star Wars was brand new and we knew little about it, we could fill in the gaps in our knowledge with our own perceptions and experiences with the eras and influence George Lucas was evoking. The same ought to be true of Star Wars licensed fiction: if I see a novel about the birth of the Old Republic (hint: I want to see a novel about the birth of the Old Republic), I might be thrown into a galaxy completely unfamiliar from that of the films. I don’t want to see Sith and triangle-shaped spacecraft, but perhaps something else that’s familiar can take its place. It’s world-building, though, so it’s always consistent with the structure that’s been built: there aren’t pirates in this setting just because pirates are cool, but the origins of piracy are discussed and explained in the course of the story. As we’ve discussed in our Politics and the EU articles, too much appropriation of the real world without internal consistency can drag the reader out of the experience rather than enhancing it.
Girls Read Star Wars Too
Readers of ETE and our fellow Star Wars blogs will know that the presence and treatment of female characters and the female audience is a very pressing issue. It’s an issue that is not isolated to this fandom, but all of popular media in general: it comes up in video games where executives wonder if they should put female characters on box art, it comes up in comics where executives wonder how to appeal to a female audience while still continuing to prefer pandering to a male audience, and it comes up in movies where a film about princesses can turn out to be startlingly feminist (seriously: go watch Frozen. I will pop out of my pluralis majestatis to underline that recommendation).
Star Wars novels and comics with female protagonists are pretty rare, which is a crime that could be discussed in its own article. But the treatment of female characters is pretty interesting too: a recent image that has been popping up on social networking sites has indicated that Princess Leia had fewer lines in A New Hope than Jar-Jar Binks did in The Phantom Menace, despite Princess Leia’s role as a self-actuating female lead. Star Wars also has the rather unfortunate problem of treating the concept of a strong female character as a Whedon-esque caricature: without allowing for many personality types.
Where The Hunt for the Hydra succeeds admirably is how it deploys female characters. The captain of the pirate ship that serves as the main story setting is a female: Tycho’s mother, Diocletia Hashoone. She’s the captain, and basically the head of the family too. The most important part about this, and why I think it is particularly important for a young audience (but really, everyone) is that it isn’t once commented on as unusual. It’s not an issue: mom’s in charge. Her husband doesn’t make a fuss, her father doesn’t make a fuss, and the only person who could have ever had a claim to the captain’s seat is her sister: but Diocletia earned it by merit (how one earns a captaincy is a running theme in the story), and that’s that. Tycho also has a twin sister – Yana – who seems to have a decided disdain for dresses, and there’s a scene where a particularly snooty character remarks that it’s not very ladylike of her to be a privateer but then that character doesn’t think anyone ought to be a privateer, so it’s not a gendered put down. Yana wants to be who she is, and nobody really has an issue with it.
Star Wars could really learn from this. We have strong female characters and female leads, but their gender is almost always conspicuous. Ahsoka Tano was a great role model for children in The Clone Wars, but for some reason she has to wear a tight revealing outfit instead of the Jedi robes that everyone else wears because we have to remember that she’s a girl. Mara Jade is an excellent pilot, spy, and Jedi, but we’re almost always reminded of other aspects of her role as Emperor’s Hand. This is not to say that traditionally female roles ought to be disregarded or even treated as inferior as masculine ones (another facet of sexism), but that a person ought to be what a person wants to be. Star Wars is a form of escapism and some girls like seeing themselves as pretty pretty princesses while others like to see themselves as pilots and gunslingers. Some boys like seeing themselves as genteel and gallant princes (they do exist!) and some boys like seeing themselves as action heroes. None of these are wrong, and the EU sometimes shows us that – but it needs to do much and more to recognize that its audience is varied and wants to be represented without seeing real life prejudices reflected back at them. If Star Wars is to have moral lessons about the light and the dark, let it also have empowering lessons as well.
Special thanks to Jason Fry and HarperCollins Children’s Books for providing us with a copy of Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra that we could evaluate.