Friday, July 27, 2012

Series Criticism: Star Wars (Part 2): The Beginning of Expansion

As long as Star Wars has existed there has been an element of the expanded universe. Wait, no, that shouldn't be "expanded universe." I've always known it as the Expanded Universe. Capital letters for a proper title. These novels and comic books are wholly a different animal from the movies and action figures that came before. They were no longer gimmicks trying to bank off of the movies. They were legitimate stories in their own rights. Well, that's half true at least. I think at first they had to be marketed from the movies, put out to be sold as sequels to the stories seen in the movies. The first real novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, was certainly marketed as a sequel to Star Wars (the original movie) just in case the movie was not a success. It was basically a Plan B if things didn't go right. Splinter of the Mind's Eye is a special novel in its own right, not really adhering to the canon set out in the novels or movies that followed, but still having a certainly popularity and Star Wars feeling since it was penned by the same man who wrote the original Star Wars. The problem is that certain characters, very popular characters, don't return for the book, and Han Solo and Chewbacca were far too valuable as characters and marketing gimmicks to just thrown away to the wind.

The movies were ultimately very successful, bringing new life to both the space opera and the science fiction genres. It opened new doors that many thought could never be opened. George Lucas was a genius and his baby was the star of the moment. Of course things would change. Demographics would change. People would change. Hell, even Star Wars, both the movies and everything else, would change. But that was down the road a bit. First, we have to talk a little about the comics and some of the first Expanded Universe material.

Now, I'm not going to say I'm an expert on the comics from Star Wars. I've read some, most of the ones I've read are either very old, from my father's day, or fairly recent from a few years ago. The comics were never brilliant, never really needed to give insight into the story of Star Wars. Mostly they were little stories that expanded the Star Wars universe, giving life to different planets, different characters, villains, heroes, and many other things, to make the universe appear like an actual universe. It had depth, both emotionally and geographically, and most of all it had a soul to it. The Jedi story was expanded. The Empire's story was expanded. Everything about the main characters, even the things that ended up not being canon, were expanded. And although there were a great deal of silly ideas and executions, there was a love of the brand seen all over the products.

The things that I was really into when I was young and so full of love of Star Wars were the books. I loved the Expanded Universe books, all the little new adventures of the main cast of the movies. I loved the new characters that were introduced, and I loved the new planets, new conflicts, and new ideas that came streaming forth from those novels. Most of the books were poorly written. And I mean really poorly written. Some were written by established authors, but others were written by people trying to get their foot in the door of science fiction. My biggest gripes were the people who just wrote stories that were awful, simply awful, although that happened rarely, with only one particular series actually being close to unreadable.

The EU really started things off right though with The Thrawn Trilogy, and its books: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. These were novels by Timothy Zahn, an already established writer, who wanted to tell some new stories in this budding universe. He really got the ball rolling, creating these books that felt very much like the movies they emulated. The characters were five years or so older than they were at the end of Return of the Jedi, but they felt consistent to those earlier characters, but also as if those characters had grown and evolved from their earlier forms. Timothy Zahn penned these novels, focused around the titular Grand Admiral Thrawn and his new Imperial potential, and they worked incredibly well, showing an amazing sense of grey in a universe that had always focused so heavily on black and white terms. He showed both redemption in the character of Mara Jade, a former apprentice of the Emperor, and a villain who was not evil at all in Thrawn. There were important and delicate conversations in the novel concerning philosophy and the philosophy of the Force, if the Empire was evil at all or if the man of the Emperor was the rotten thing of that institution, and racism. All of these topics were discussed in the universe of Star Wars giving an insightful look at both the fictional universe and our own. It was a groundbreaking series, being the first popular novels in the series and really kicking off the EU and what would become a central backbone to the entire series.

Timothy Zahn's books are of incredible quality, really being an expansion to the movies, almost so much so that they were for a time (and still kind of are) referred to as the "Sequel Trilogy." Most of the main themes from both the prequels and the original movies came into play here in these novels despite the fact that the prequels wouldn't even be considered for years. Elements from this series would end up in the prequels, most specifically Coruscant. In general the novels were brilliant, and they introduced Star Wars as a new type of series, one that could be taken seriously in both movie and novel form. These novels paved the way for Star Wars to be the multimedia franchise it certainly is today with their success.

Now, while I could go on for a very long time about just how amazing the Thrawn Trilogy is, there was one inherently bad aspect of them, and that was the idea that Luke Skywalker had to be paired off with a woman. It wouldn't have been bad if Mara Jade had been that woman and that was it, but for some reason she simply was not good enough for Luke, and another four years or so (ten in universe) would go by before Luke would successfully settle down with the character he worked so well with. So, while this isn't a negative aspect of these novels per se, it became a negative aspect when all the next four years of novels seemed to be were pairing off Luke with different women to see which one would stick the best. The next few years of novels were painful to say the least, with very few main series novels of any worth at all because of the focus on either Luke's love life or trying to make the series as sci-fi and different as possible.

I love the Thrawn Trilogy for what it is. I would gladly read those novels again, but when we talk about the Kevin J. Anderson novels, the Vonda McIntyre novel, and heaven help me, the Barbara Hambly novels, we get into territory best left for only the most hardcore of fans... or at least the fans who can put up with simply awful things. Kevin J. Anderson's novels, specifically the Jedi Academy novels, Jedi Search, Dark Apprentice, and Champions of the Force, were incredibly difficult to enjoy. Honestly they were at times painful to read, often focusing on plots and characters that made no sense, portraying certain characters from the movies as basically being superhuman, knowing everybody in the galaxy, and generally making everybody seem awful to be around for any period of time. Han Solo comes off as the best thing in the entire galaxy when in the movies he had been portrayed as a screw-up who got hit with the wrong end of the intelligence stick. Starting in these novels and continuing in many others, Han Solo is suddenly the best there ever was: the best pilot, the best husband, the best survivor, and the best of everything. It's sickening and a large reason why I dislike the character so strongly. I won't go as far as saying Kevin J. Anderson is a hack. He does have some decent novels to his credit, specifically the Young Jedi Knight series, but the Jedi Academy series and even moreso, Darksaber, are some of the worst things that Star Wars offers.

I can create an entire diatribe out of what Vonda McIntyre was thinking in writing The Crystal Star, having that be one of the most baffling books in all of existence. I will admit it isn't badly written. It simply was not Star Wars, not even slightly.With multiple dimensions and a being of infinite power, it comes off as a jumble of ideas better left for sci-fi than the space opera of Star Wars. The portrayal as Han as a character who could easily cheat on Leia at any moment and Luke as a bumbling fool also leaves a lot to be desired. It's easy enough to avoid though, even if you are the biggest Canon junkie of them all.

The real dark part of the early Star Wars novels has to be Barbara Hambly's mess. Children of the Jedi is unreadable, with one of the worst plots I have ever seen, with some of the worst writing I have ever read. It is a novel terrible in every conceivable way. Even my ten year old self couldn't abide taking the time to read that piece of crud, and I read everything Star Wars related back then. The fact that I hated, hated, hated Callista and everything she represented, and that the entire plot was an excuse to make Luke and Callista be in love whether Luke, Canon, or anything agreed was too much for me. It was awful, painful, and terrible. I hated the Eye of Palpatine, a weird ship that did things that made no sense. I hated the contrived plot, the terrible love story... the everything. It was the first and only Star Wars novel I ever stopped reading simply because it angered and annoyed me so much. No, it disgusted me. The saddest thing about that novel is that today it is considered one of the better ones from the era of novels. What is wrong with people? If you are reading this and enjoyed that freaking novel, shame on you. Shame on your existence. I am disappointed with you, internet reader whom I've probably never met and never will. You now represent everything that is terrible in Star Wars. While Kevin J. Anderson was mediocre, Barbara Hambly started something in the EU (and even in the prequels) that never stopped: contrived romances, melodrama, a focus on getting girls and women to read the novels rather than just making it for the people who loved the series regardless of age, gender, sex, or whatever. It was selling out, pure and simple, and you'll see that the novels that are out today I have very little to say about because I have not read or bought a Star Wars novel in about five years or so. But I'll be getting to that in another review. Children of the Jedi is almost as bad... or would be if I remembered any of it. It was so rough that I basically forgot about it all. I know it was mostly about Luke looking for Callista, finding her, and then her disappearing from his life FINALLY. For all intent's this is the low point of the early EU, and it would not be matched for quite some time.

Now, yes, there were some bad novels in this era and some equally bad writers, but most of the stuff to come out of it was pretty mediocre. I mean, forgettable and just plain average in execution and intent. The Black Fleet Crisis Trilogy was just another way to try to get Luke with yet another woman, this one named Akanah. Lando features pretty prominently in that series, but largely this and many of the other series of this period I didn't mention are just there. They exist.

But, despite the terrible books, the mediocre books, and the ones that are so forgettable I didn't even mention them despite reading and owning them, there were some amazing gems to come out of the terrible stuff. Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston both wrote the excellent side-series X-Wing, which is one of the better series of all time, focusing on the pilots and missions of the Rogue Squadron, the squadron that Luke and Wedge Antilles created between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and Wraith Squadron which was created during the series. The trials and tribulations of the pilots are some of the best writing in all of Star Wars fiction. Of course it had to take place for a side-series, right?

I, Jedi, also written by Stackpole, went and did something amazing, something only Zahn had been able to do before. He retconned some of stupid out of the EU, taking large chunks of the Jedi Academy Trilogy and making it make sense. It was a brilliant way of showing that even Canon with a capital C could be changed to have a greater quality than it had previously. I, Jedi stands in my head as one of the greatest literary achievements of Star Wars, not only retconning stupidity, but also having a first person perspective and really delving into a character that had never been in the movies with Corran Horn.

Zahn would come back in incredible fashion as well, giving two of the greatest novels in Star Wars with The Hand of Thrawn Duology with the books, Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future. The novels tell an amazing story certainly, but also exist to throw punches at most of the novels that came out between The Thrawn Trilogy and this series. Mara Jade, a character known for speaking her mind, seems to speak with Zahn's own voice for a time, telling Luke how stupid everything has been for so long, telling him how many bad decisions and baffling mistakes he's made, and arguably giving one of the best rants against other novelists who don't understand what they are writing in all of literature. I have to respect Zahn for what he accomplished here, writing the best Star Wars novel, hell, one of the best novels of all time, in Vision of the Future, and telling off both the Star Wars EU and the authors continually making mistakes at the same time. And somehow he got away with it and still writes Star Wars novels. The man is basically that good. And the duology stands as one of the great deconstructions of the Star Wars brand as well as being one of the most insightful, and certainly the best written.

With I, Jedi and the even more amazing Hand of Thrawn Duology, this era of Star Wars came to a close with an incredible bang. 1998 stands as the end of an era. It was a time before the prequels, a time when the original trilogy was the only movie trilogy. It was a time of innocence and trial. Many authors were still testing the waters of Star Wars, trying to get their feet wet, trying to make a universe that could be understood and emulated. It was still young, still vibrant. Twenty-one years has past since the advent of Star Wars, and only a year was left before a new trilogy would begin that would yet again shake up the Star Wars name. But in 1998 there was nothing better than being a fan of this series, believing that everything would be amazing. The books were so much better than they had ever been, the movie, Episode I of the franchise, looked incredibly promising, and so much was there to believe in...

So, there's my second part of this series. Tune in next time for a discussion of the early video games of franchise and maybe a little delving into what would become abhorrent to most pre-prequel fans of the series...

(You won't have to wait as long for the next part as you did for this one. I took way too long getting this out. The next should be fairly soon. Look for me kind of crushing out reviews for the next few weeks more than likely.)

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