The Expanded Universe Explains, Vol. I

archaiclightsaberWhen I’m explaining this site to people, one of the most important points I have to make is that the tone is intended as Expanded Universe-conversant, without being totally mired in thirty years of miscellaneous continuity. A lot of people still speak in hushed tones of the great Canon Wars, wherein the “everything counts” people waged a holy crusade against the “only the films count” people that rivaled the Galactic Civil War itself, but in my experience, for every Star Wars fan I know who’s actively opposed to the EU, there are five to ten who are at least dimly aware of it, and consider it more or less a valid enterprise; it just isn’t their thing.

Now that the sequels are coming and Lucasfilm is making noise about using at least assorted bits and pieces of the EU in their big-screen storytelling, I want Eleven-ThirtyEight to be as much of a resource for those people as it is for hardcore EU fans—somewhere they can go to get a sense of context as the Sequel Trilogy unfolds without needing an encyclopedic knowledge to gain entry.

If I’m honest, we haven’t quite gotten to that point yet; there’s so little known about Episode VII right now that there’s not much to be said about it beyond “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they took this or that from the books”. So in the interest of reaching out to those casual fans out there, who have heard of Grand Admiral Thrawn and maybe even read Dark Lord or Shadows of the Empire but otherwise haven’t been paying that much attention, I reached out to Pearlann Porter, a good friend of my own who’s every bit the SW fan I am, but doesn’t know a Houk from a Hoojib, and asked her to provide me with any burning questions she might have about things the films never explained. So without further ado, I give you Volume I of The Expanded Universe Explains. Read More

On Ultimate Star Wars—Implied Canon and the Foggy Window

“I always like the smaller, more personal stories best. Because the movies contain so much big action and so many galactic threats, a lot of writers want to replicate that in the comics and fiction. Unfortunately, because the stories are almost all considered ‘canon,’ it means that the Star Wars galaxy is subjected to a constant stream of dire threats. To me, it strains credibility. I’d much rather see a smaller story, the events of which are important to just one or two characters. I say, leave the big stuff to the films.”Randy Stradley, 2002

Let’s get this out of the way: nothing can save post-Return of the Jedi continuity but Michael Arndt. I, honestly, see no reason just yet to make any assumptions on that matter. This article is primarily a thought exercise, and for the purposes of such I will indeed be assuming a scorched-earth scenario—no Mara, no Jacen or Jaina, even a totally different resolution of the Galactic Civil War—but the points I intend to make will stand no matter what actually comes to pass.

I describe this scenario as “Ultimate Star Wars” for a reason—but not, actually, to suggest a full continuity reboot; I believe a number of lessons can be learned from the example of Marvel Comics’ Ultimate universe (a modern reimagining of their primary continuity’s origins) without going quite that far.

kotorgamecoverFor starters, consider the Knights of the Old Republic video game. Not only is its popularity unrivaled among Expanded Universe stories, with the possible exception of the Thrawn trilogy, but the thing is a giant, hulking brick of story plopped right into the middle of what was previously a fairly empty span of time—it certainly owed a lot of groundwork to the Tales of the Jedi comics of the nineties, but I think few would argue that it didn’t run a good bit farther with the ball than Anderson and Veitch ever did.

So now that we’re all on the same page…try to envision a scenario where KOTOR had to be thrown out of continuity. Not retconned, but totally thrown out; to the extent that Legacy of the Force would be if Jacen Solo were erased from history. Read More

What Star Wars Can Learn From the Avatar Franchise


C’mon—for a split second there, you thought I was gonna talk about the movie Avatar, didn’t you?

No, today is all about the other Avatar—the cartoon one, what with all the bending and such—and the lessons it could teach future (and current) Star Wars creators.

The Avatar franchise is primarily composed of two major Nickelodeon animated series—Avatar: The Last Airbender (henceforth ATLA) and The Legend of Korra (henceforth LoK). ATLA told the story of Aang, a long-forgotten magical totemic force who’s been frozen for one hundred years and wakes up to find the world he’s supposed to protect has moved on without him, and is now under the thumb of the expansionist Fire Nation.

“Magic” is a loose term here, because all supernatural abilities in this universe are rooted in one of four natural elements—earth, fire, water, and air. To “bend” an element is a learned skill rooted in one’s natural temperament, but each has been taken up as the banner of a different nation, and the practicing thereof has become strongly segregated. Once the Fire Nation has been, well, let’s just say dealt with, at the end of ATLA, LoK picks up years later, and tells the story of a new, and much different Avatar (the only being capable of mastering all four elements, who is eternally reincarnated much like the Dalai Lama) alongside the remnants of ATLA’s cast.

Of course, this Avatar spawned a movie, as well—but the less said about that, the better.

Lesson #1: White is not the default

When Lando Calrissian showed up in The Empire Strikes Back, people no doubt marveled at George Lucas’ bold storytelling choice—a black man, old friends with a white main character? And his race never even comes up? Such a thing was scarcely done in those days. Even still, if you go back and read the Marvel Star Wars comic series of the time, you’ll notice that while the authors just loved using Lando, very few of them bothered to make even one other human character, Rebel, Imperial, or scoundrel, a person of color. I mean, Lando was enough, right?

Things have certainly improved in the thirty years hence, but as followers of my ongoing diversity conversation at can tell you, not nearly as much as you’d think—for example, in the New Jedi Order novel series, a sprawling nineteen-book saga that rivals the Original Trilogy itself in scope, about one out of every three main characters is a straight, white, human man. And that’s in an entire galaxy of species!

Meanwhile, in Avatar, the presence of white people is so muted as to be entirely debatable. Aang himself can easily come across as white to the casual viewer, as can the bulk of the remaining airbenders we see (which, given the title, is not many). The same goes for members of the Fire Nation, including ATLA’s main antagonist Prince Zuko. Where this becomes tricky is in the two series’ heavily anime-inspired character design, and further, in their extremely Asian-inspired cultural design. I’m sure others could put this more elegantly than I can, but in the broadest possible strokes, airbenders are inspired by Tibetans, and firebenders are inspired by the Japanese—both groups whose skin tones could be mistaken for white in the absence of distinguishing features.

In any event, all this is to say that the extent to which the light-skinned characters are “white” or “Asian” is open to the interpretation of the viewer. And meanwhile, the Earth and Water Kingdoms are largely (though not exclusively) composed of darker-skinned characters—the former inspired by “mainland” Chinese heritage and the latter by the Inuit and Eskimo peoples. As such, there’s something for everybody; not only are people of almost all colors accounted for (though I have to admit, you’d be hard-pressed to find a character who could pass for, say, Nigerian), but the world of Avatar is distinctly everybody’s—since each nation is a hodgepodge culture to some extent, it’s impossible to graft any larger statements about one real-life nation or another onto the narrative, and best of all, several of the protagonists—notably water tribe members Katara and Sokka, and later Korra herself—are such an ambiguous shade of brown that pretty much any race could claim them if they really wanted to.

Other big Avatar fans might disagree with me on this, but I don’t think the strength of the franchise’s inclusivity is its overwhelming Asian-ness, but rather its overwhelming everything-ness.

Lesson #2: Everybody can contribute

Of course, just because one is born into, say, the Water Tribe, doesn’t mean they’re a waterbender. My personal favorite character in the entire franchise is Sokka, brother to waterbender Katara and practitioner of the ancient and deadly art of…boomerang.

It’s never made totally clear why some people aren’t benders—this subject actually gets way more interesting in LoK, by which point the Fire and Earth Kingdoms have founded the wholly-integrated Republic City; where a firebender and an earthbender can and will have children of both types, or even nonbenders altogether.

In Star Wars, two Jedi—or even one Jedi and a muggle—will almost always, like 98% of the time, give birth to Jedi children. Not only does this diminish the franchise’s “everybody can make a difference” message more and more with every birth, but it turns Force-users into some kind of bland, amorphous super-race.

Sokka, meanwhile, is with every breath the Han Solo of ATLA. No destiny is so epic, so spiritual relevation so profound, that Sokka won’t roll his eyes at it and wonder aloud when they’re getting something to eat.

But just like Han Solo, he’ll still buckle up in the end and launch himself into the cause of the week alongside his magical friends—and often he’ll even be the brains of the operation, as he’s only too happy to tell you. At first, LoK seemed poised to sidestep the nonbender type with its already-noteworthy introduction of Bolin and Mako, two brothers of two different bending types, but by the end of the first season they had given us Asami, Mako’s nonbending girlfriend, who held her own in battle thanks to another innovation of the LoK era—technological know-how.

Star Wars shouldn’t need to learn how to use the Han Solo character type; Star Wars invented it. But all too often—both in the prequels and in far more of the Expanded Universe than is excusable, it has proven itself willing to ignore the valuable lesson of the crafty smuggler.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to move on

And speaking of Korra, if there’s one truly critical thing ATLA has over Star Wars, it’s that it knew when to quit. The original series knew the exact bounds of the story it wanted to tell from day one, and mercifully, the creators got the chance to complete that story without compromise or dilution. But once that story was over…the series ended.

And time passed.

And for a few years, there was nothing. But when ATLA’s popularity finally gave them a chance to continue the story, they didn’t give us a half-hearted Continuing Adventures of Aang and Friends—they jumped seventy years ahead.


Given that the Avatar, the magical pivot around which this universe turns, has to die for a new one to appear, they wisely realized that Aang’s story was done. And while he no doubt had many years of continuing adventures ahead of him, they were beside the point; to squeeze another conflict anywhere near ATLA’s level of import into Aang’s life would at best be a retread with an older and wearier cast of characters, and at worst, would be downright mean.

So they jumped, and jumped far. Aang has grandchildren now, and only a few of his generation remain. But not only does that give us a new Avatar in the kickass waterbending woman of color Korra, but it also provides a totally new context in which to tell a story—while still far-flung, the nations have begun to merge, and that merging has given way to astounding leaps in technology. While the world of ATLA could have been plucked wholesale from the middle ages, by LoK things have jumped straight through to the Industrial Revolution—which also carries with it a handy message about integration, if you ask me.

Story-wise, Korra’s problems are out of Aang’s wildest dreams—major-league sports competitions, killer mechs (no, really), and an antagonist leading an anti-bender revolution (remember #2?). The second season premieres in a couple weeks, and while the first season was pretty self-contained by design and largely resolved its story, I have no doubt that where they’re going from here will be totally unheard-of.

As for Star Wars, well…we’ve got Episode VII. People may roll their eyes at EU fans once we find out that Force lightning made Luke sterile and Han and Leia’s kids are named Steve and Linda, but the fact is, when it comes to the time period following Return of the Jedi, we’ve seen it all—reborn Palpatine, rogue warlords, Sith armies, extragalactic invaders? Done, done, done and done. As excited as I am at the prospect of spinoff movies about Rogue Squadron and young Han Solo and the Knights of the Old Republic, I have a hard time meeting Episode VII with anything more than muted apprehension—not because it’ll erase the EU, but because I’ve seen it all before.

But then, maybe they’ll take a page from Avatar and surprise me.


Kenobi Review: The Smaller The Pond, The Bigger The Ripples


“Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” – Luke Skywalker

Kenobi opens onto a galaxy that has been ravaged by three years of open civil war. Countless planets lie in ruin, and countless rim populations are warily, often forcefully, being brought back under the “protection” of the Old Republic, which is suddenly calling itself an Empire.

But as it happens, Kenobi opens on Tatooine. And Tatooine doesn’t give a shit.

Tatooine’s human population, the book is careful to point out, are settlers, nothing more—even those who’ve been there for generations. Kenobi‘s main human characters are Orrin Gault and Annileen Calwell (whose nickname, brilliantly, is “Annie”), two people who, while they’ve done pretty well considering the circumstances, would describe themselves as barely keeping their heads above water…so to speak. Life on Tatooine is a constant battle—against the elements, against destitution, and against the natives.

Which brings me to the third main character—the Tusken clan leader A’Yark. While Orrin and Annileen practically leap off the page from the get-go and easily overcome my reflexive aversion to excessive human characters, A’Yark is hands-down the most interesting thing about this novel, and every moment in the character’s head is a window to a new world. John Jackson Miller does a great job of incorporating all the existing bits of Tusken lore while creating a unique clan that’s not quite like any we’ve seen before—and in particular, one that’s unique to this point in time. Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken camp in Attack of the Clones still weighs heavily on the Tuskens’ consciousness, but isn’t dwelled on excessively, or made into a giant plot point (nor, incidentally, are the Larses), because while A’Yark’s clan is shaped in a huge way by that event, this story isn’t about that.

This story also, by the way, isn’t about Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan is a giant stone thrown into the shallow pond that is the Pika Oasis, the community around which the book takes place, but Kenobi is very much the pond’s story. A rippling pond is still just a pond, however, and that brings me to the most important thing I have to say about Kenobi—this may be the smallest-scale Star Wars novel ever.

I knew right away that that would be the main point of this review, but in the month or so since I finished the book, what’s struck me is that it’s more true the more I think about it. There is no bad guy in Kenobi, no evil plot to foil. A’Yark is the most antagonistic, Annileen is the most sympathetic, and Orrin is, well, Orrin—but the story of Kenobi is the story of three people in a mess, and the stakes here are nonexistent beyond the lives of these three people and those they love.

What makes it work, simply, is that Miller creates excellent characters that you can identify with, and whose fates come to matter to you, despite the fact that a Star Destroyer could crash into the Pika Oasis and nothing in any other part of continuity would ever notice. Kenobi is the rare Star Wars novel that, in addition to telling its story, is about something—responsibility. Kenobi‘s three-people-in-a-mess, not coincidentally, are all parents, and when you dig down a little you realize that the book isn’t even about their needs and desires, it’s about how each of them chooses to handle that responsibility. Each has children with different needs and desires of their own, and each is a case study in a different style of parenting.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like the others, he now finds himself responsible for a child who needs him, even if that child doesn’t, or can’t, realize it. The struggles of the other characters so perfectly reflect Obi’s internal struggle at this moment that the entire book stops just shy of being a great big shadow play inside his mind—do I take a heavy hand, or keep my distance? Would I be a good influence or a bad influence? And what about what I want? What about my own legacy? All this is no doubt playing below the surface of his mind at the same time that it’s happening in three dimensions all around him.

Meanwhile, back on the surface, all Obi-Wan really wants right now is to be alone—to work on communing with Qui-Gon Jinn, and to keep from attracting Owen Lars’ ire. But even this far away from the bright center of the universe (or, in fact, because he’s this far from it), everybody is connected to something. Miller has gone on record about Kenobi, like Knight Errant before it, being an outlet for his own ruminations on what it means to be a Jedi when one is alone, with no support structure, and only the scarcest of mandates. Here Obi-Wan is far more alone than Kerra Holt ever was, and Miller’s answer seems to be that no one is ever truly alone. Everybody makes ripples, even in the smallest pond.

*   *   *

I’m going to be talking more in the near future about how books like Kenobi could factor into the Disney-era Expanded Universe (and join me again this Friday for a Kenobi group discussion with Lisa Schap and Jay Shah), but for now, suffice it to say that more stories like this, told by authors of Miller’s skill, are a win-win situation. Kenobi comes out today with my highest possible recommendation.

One last thing I want to address—I haven’t spoiled much of the story here, not for philosophical reasons, but because the mechanics of the plot are beside the point. I have taken care to avoid one or two big surprises because they make the novel more fun and mean nothing out of context, but there is one thing I think it would be helpful to address. A’Sharad Hett, ex-Tusken Jedi Knight, does not appear in Kenobi. His story, however, is very important to the book; like with Anakin’s Tusken slaughter, Miller’s genius is to factor existing material into the story in a natural way, without making it feel like he’s checking a continuity box. And having said that, there’s another cameo that is both awesome for EU fans and makes complete sense in context—but I’m not gonna be the one to spoil it.

(Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing Eleven-ThirtyEight with advance digital copies of this book)

Escape Pod: The Bothan Species

Welcome to Escape Pod, a new series here on Eleven-ThirtyEight, wherein a staff member picks one character or element from the Expanded Universe—independent of existing stories featuring said element—that they feel is vital to the Galaxy Far, Far Away and should survive a hypothetical continuity reboot. Rather than focus on the Sequel Trilogy specifically, the goal of Escape Pod is to detail the subject’s inherent value to the Star Wars setting itself.

Bothans occupy an interesting position in Star Wars continuity. Despite dating back to the Original Trilogy, they’re one of the last things the OT added to the galaxy before its completion—and as far as George Lucas is concerned, they never came up again.

As it happens, it’s not even clear from the dialogue in Return of the Jedi that they are in fact an alien species. Speaking for myself, I remain unconvinced to this day that in Lucas’ mind, “Bothan” isn’t just some special GFFA spy title—he certainly had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate otherwise, but between six hours of prequel films and over 100 episodes of The Clone Wars, he never felt the need.

Luckily, the EU has taken the most meager of balls and run very, very far with it.
By sheer coincidence, just this morning I happened to read the first instance of the word “Bothan” outside of RotJ in issue #80 of the Marvel Star Wars comics; alas, once that brief tie-in to RotJ was out of the way it looks like Marvel didn’t have anything to add on the subject either.
Enter Timothy Zahn. In 1991 Heir to the Empire unveiled Borsk Fey’lya, one of the earliest members of the Rebel Alliance, pillar of the New Republic government, and perhaps most interestingly, gigantic douche. Fey’lya added new depth to the “ambiguous bad guy” role invented by Boba Fett by undermining the heroes at every turn—including getting Admiral Ackbar arrested—while simultaneously being a figure of great significance to the Rebel cause and, frankly, not a totally-unreasonable dude.

I think the true genius of Zahn’s interpretation of the Bothan species is that he circumvented one of Star Wars’ hoariest tropes—OT character x has this job, therefore their entire species has that job—while still rationally extrapolating from what little info the films had given us. The Bothans were famous for their Spynet, sure, but that was basically an outgrowth of their true love: politics.

The Bothans rejected the Empire because when your business is politics, tyranny is bad for business. For his part, Borsk Fey’lya wasn’t really a dishonorable being; his actions came from a cultural understanding of chicanery that seems dickish to humans, but at his core he only wanted what was best for Bothan Space, and therefore, the New Republic.

That kind of moral complexity can be hard to find in Star Wars; it’s all over the place if you know where to look, but more often than not it’s well below a surface littered with guys in white hats and black helmets. By their very existence, and complicated status as protagonists, the Bothans are the perfect species to represent the Rebel Alliance in the popular imagination—as an organization that pulls together all sorts of divergent beings and ideologies, and is too often portrayed as only marginally less homogeneous than the Empire. And did I mention they’re crazy-looking horse-dogs?

Which brings me to my next point: the aesthetic value of Bothans. Another all-too-common trope in Star Wars is alien species that look like rejected Ninja Turtles characters—cat people, spider people, killer whale people (okay, that one is kind of awesome), and so on. Bothans are that rare breed (heh) of alien species that feel familiar, or at least plausible, without being a real animal hastily stapled onto an anthropomorphic frame. It’s actually become a bit of a running joke in EU fandom that two different prose descriptions of a Bothan can give rise to two totally different interpretations.

The plus side of this relative inconsistency is that if some seven-figure screenwriter felt like putting Bothans in a movie down the line, they’d have a fair bit of leeway to tweak the design to their tastes; after all, even a slavishly EU-faithful movie Bothan wouldn’t match all the existing imagery.

And speaking of which, my final point is one that even I don’t fully understand: in a galaxy dominated by humans, the Bothans, for whatever reason, have been consistently portrayed as one of the alien species most likely, and most willing (on both sides) to couple with humans. Well, part of that I do understand—one of those aforementioned lazy alien designs that comes up every so often is basically Puck, the half-goat faun character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Despite Bothans not having horns, well, ever, the EU has retconned a whole half-human, half-Bothan species into existence purely to explain the presence of things like this:

Furthermore, even in the far-less-flighty “modern” era of the films, regular Bothans have been depicted on more than one occasion to be romantically involved with humans. First in Requiem for a Rogue, as a brief fling for Rogue Squadron pilots Hobbie and Janson (movie characters, no less!) that notably comes and goes without anyone in the story so much as raising an eyebrow, then later in the Rogue Squadron novels as the really-quite-poignant relationship between Biggs Darklighter’s cousin Gavin and Bothan agent Asyr Sei’lar. Even better, the star-crossed lovers—literally!—end their relationship due to Bothan prejudice against humans, not the other way around, once again nicely subverting the expected treatment of a human/alien love story.

Only Rogue author Michael Stackpole, I suppose, could say exactly why Bothans have filled this particular role so often (second only, if I don’t miss my guess, to female Twi’leks), but given their distinctively nonhuman appearance, it speaks to a species that’s been integrated with humans longer than anyone can remember; one with a progressive mentality—political considerations notwithstanding—that both makes sense for the GFFA and would be absolutely vital for any 21st-century reimagining of such. For these reasons and more, it is utterly criminal that “higher” canon has avoided the Bothan species for so long, and were they to appear in a rebooted continuity, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything about them that bears improvement.