When I first pitched this article I was just one-third through Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, the first book in a trilogy that’s supposed to show us what happened to the Star Wars galaxy right after Return of the Jedi (and that apparently doesn’t involve soul-stealing velociraptors, for some strange reason). At that point I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading; it’s not that I was offended or that I thought I was reading a baby-cooking recipe book written on Satan’s scrotum with Gandhi’s blood, but I was wondering exactly where we were going. The terrible editing had started annoying me (you simply can’t have a character change races, from Rodian to Abednedo and back, and expect no one to call you on it). I wasn’t feeling the main characters, either, and I was starting to suspect the story was going to go nowhere and that the whole thing was going to end up being just another inconsequential side trip.
When I first pitched this article it had a very different tone, believe me. I was annoyed with most of Del Rey’s last offerings, from the weak Heir to the Jedi to mediocre offerings like Tarkin or Dark Disciple, and I was starting to wonder if the reboot was going to end up being a lost opportunity to improve the overall quality of Star Wars media tie-ins. But then I started to read and hear people complaining about the prose used in the book, using terms like “LiveJournal-like crap” or “hipster jive speak” (really). I had to stop reading and wonder for one second: if Wendig’s style choices alienated what seemed to be such a big part of the readership, just how much does the Star Wars readership actually read beyond Expanded Universe novels? Because no one beyond eighth grade should feel uncomfortable just because a novel doesn’t use a third person omniscient point of view, or because it doesn’t use past tense; don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to dislike it or to be annoyed by Wendig’s prose, especially if we are sick of seeing present tense used in an effort to sound contemporary and relevant, but the horror and hair-pulling that seemed ubiquitous in the fan reaction seemed to be completely out of place.
(A word of warning before getting into the topic: I’m not going to talk about the Save Our Legends movement (or Viva la EU, Waru Wankers, Andersonites, or whatever the hell they are calling themselves) and their harassment campaign and Amazon-review-humping: it’s been pretty well-documented and, to put it bluntly, if you are involved in anything like that, you are a danger to your safety and the safety of others and need urgent psychiatric help and, honestly, that’s beyond the scope of this article.)
As I write, I’m just trying to wrap my head around the mindset that would make anyone automatically consider Chuck Wendig’s style unacceptable or even offensive. I mean, I can understand not liking his style, but calling it poor? Of course, we have to be rational and assume that it’s mostly Internet hyperbole, the kind that makes you go “this is the worst movie ever and I hope everyone involved dies, their houses are torched, their fields salted and their cattle scared away” instead of simply saying “I didn’t care about the photography and found the pacing wanting”. But still, let’s assume there is a contingent of fans that’s actually confused by what they read. Let’s operate on that premise.
Although it seemed like the overuse of present tense in novels had died with the eighties, it has seen a recent resurgence thanks to some pretty popular young adult series and has become a (let’s say) plague on literary contests around the world. For a while, it seemed that everyone wanted to write using the present tense, everyone wanted to sound terse and cool. So yes, let’s concede that it’s not a choice without controversy and that it hasn’t just annoyed Star Wars fans: it has also caused hundreds of tirades and similarly hysterical hair-pulling fits in the literary world. For its fans, the use of present tense makes the writing vivid, engaging and immediate; it helps us be there, right in the middle of action alongside the narrator and characters as things happen, just like we would feel in a film. For its detractors, present tense is seen as a tool often used by beginner writers as a crutch and it’s often suggested that it can make harder for the writer to develop interesting characters. Our poor present tense has even been accused of being limp and inconclusive, as it would seem that it refuses to state what really happened.
So, is it a choice that works for every kind of novel? It probably doesn’t, and it’s becoming wearying without any doubt. But does it fit a pulp sci-fi space opera? It does, like a glove, especially when the novel has the mission of making us feel like we are there right now, in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, in this unexplored world of the new canon. Wendig’s staccato-like prose and his constant use of interludes also help get this feeling of immediacy: it reminds us of CNN, of shaky cam, of war reporting. Even if it might feel weird at first—if you’re used to the bland generic style of the EU—the style eventually wins you over… or loses you forever. Because you certainly don’t have to like his style, or at least I’m not going to be the person to tell you that you have to. I, myself, am not enamored with the abuse of present tense we see in modern fiction, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I welcome Wendig’s attempt at using a different voice. It feels fresh like someone was trying to get Star Wars fiction out of the ghetto. It feels a deliberate choice that the author considered the best for the text, not just a random gimmick. People have also complained that Aftermath’s narrator doesn’t possess a neutral voice, that it seems to find fun in the things that are happening and has a sarcastic tone, but I more than welcome it: it’s been a long time since omniscient, neutral, third person narrator was the only acceptable point of view.
Aftermath allows a new and pretty singular voice enter the Star Wars universe, in a time when we should be happy there is less uniformity. I might not agree with some of his style choices, but I’m so happy to see something new, something fresh, something unexpected, that I’m more that willing to let it pass. Bring it on, Wendig.