Sunday, January 20, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 4: The Thrawn Trilogy.

I can still remember the first time I saw a copy of the first book in the series.  It was in an old indie chain, one of those brick and mortar booksellers that are now something of an endangered species.  I was either in the children's or Sci-Fi stacks, I forget which one it was now.  Either way, I turned into one aisle and there it was.  It featured all the old familiar faces, along with someone who looked like, yet on closer inspection was not Alec Guinness.  I don't think I ever noticed the smaller figure with red eyes way off in a corner of the front cover.

I think the first coherent thought I had after I first saw the book was one of surprise.  Next came an instant of incredulity, like I couldn't believe anyone would ever think of taking these characters and putting them in an actual ink and paper book.  I noticed it there on the shelf, yet I moved on and never even gave it another thought until quite a while later.  The next time I saw it was on the shelf of a used bookstore (this one still thankfully around) and it must have been sometime after the release of Episode 1, because this time I bought it, brought it home on impulse, and dived right in.  I can't say it's a decision I regret.

How it got up there on a shelf in the first place is almost as big a fluke as the first film's release back in 77.  By about 1986 the original trilogy had left an impact on both Hollywood, and American culture in general.  This was best seen in the slew of Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies, such as Raider of the Lost Ark, E.T., Back to the Future, and Labyrinth, that were green-lit in wake of Return of the Jedi.  The irony is, that while this re-orientation of the industry toward a more genre centric, family friendly model of storytelling was the result of the efforts of Kurtz and the Lucases, the fire of the franchise
that started the whole avalanche was sort of dying down in terms of audience awareness and enthusiasm.  Sometime after 1986, Howard Roffman, the head of what was then Lucasfilm's licensing department began to think of ways bringing the Far, Far, Away back into the public consciousness.
 "The first thing we realized was that our fan base had grown a bit older.  The kids who had bought the toys were now in college.  Fans who had been teens or adults when the films came out were probably starting careers or families.  Where could we take Star Wars that would be relevant to their lives?

"It was clear to us that simply revisiting that past would be of marginal interest.  It was too early for a
nostalgia play and, frankly, not  very stimulating.  We needed to give the fans something new, something that appealed to a more mature sensibility.  And, we reasoned, because Star Wars is all about story, the natural ground to explore was books - books that could expand the story, starting with the characters and situations so vividly established in the films and taking them to places never before imagined (HTTE20A, xiii - xiv)".

Timothy Zahn was the author contacted by Lucas's company with possibility of writing first continuation novel set in the SW universe.  By his own account, he more than just a little intimidated.

"At issue was the fact that this offer was very much a two-edged sword.  I had the chance to jump-start my career in a way I could never have anticipated or even hoped.  I also had the chance to fail spectacularly in front of a potential audience of millions.

"Because I was going to have to write Star Wars.  Not something science-fictiony or space-operatic with the name Star Wars on it.  I was going to have to write Star Wars.  I would somehow have to capture the scope and feel of the universe; the faces and voices of the main characters; the ebb and flow and rhythm of the movies.  The readers had to hear Mark Hamill's and Carrie Fischer's and Harrison Ford's voices inside my quotation marks.  The people flipping through those pages needed to be able to hear John Williams's music in the backs of their heads.

"If I couldn't do that, or at least get close, it wouldn't be Star Wars.  It would be An Adventure of Two Guys named Han and Luke.  And that would be a waste of everybody's time.

"There was more.  Not only did I have to get the feel of the universe right,  I also had to come up with a story - a three-book-long story, in fact - that wasn't simply a rehash of what George had already done.  I would have to age the movie characters believably, and create new characters that would fit seamlessly into the mix (xviii - xix)".

The irony is the net result of all those misgivings was more than a one-off.  Together, Zahn's three book series helped launch was is now fondly remembered as the Expanded Universe, a collection of novel, comics, and audiobooks detailing the rest of the lives of everyone's favorite, space-faring power-trio.  While I can't say every entry was a gem, part of the glory of the EU was that it always managed to have something for everyone.  If you didn't have the stomach for a multi-book story, you could help yourself to a neat stand-alone novel about the history of the Millennium Falcon.

It was Zahn, however, who kicked started the whole venture onto the printed page.  In what follows, I've been making use of the author's handy annotations from the 20the anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, the first book the series.  I also want to highlight the work of one fan who seems to have go quite a way towards looking at the underlying structure of all three novels.  With that in mind, I'd like to take a closer look at a trilogy I think serves as a worthy successor to the one started way back in 1977. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 3: A Case for the Expanded Universe.

I've always had one over-arching goal for this series.  What I'd like to do is try to come to an understanding of what Star Wars is, and why people liked it in the first place.  The franchise has been in a precarious ever since 2017.  As far as I can tell, the fandom seems to be dividing itself into various fronts.  This could be an inevitability, something that is bound to happen to most fandom, or it may have been preventable.  I'm not certain either way, really.  All I know is that I find it more useful to define what works in terms of a viable Star Wars canon, and what individual works best fit the bill to called a legitimate sequel.

So far, nothing is really working for me in terms of Disney's attempts at a sequel.  I can neither hide or change the fact that my reactions are always the same, and it's always in the negative.  For better or worse, there it is, at least as far as Disney is concerned.  The funny thing is I have the exact opposite reaction when it comes to a series of books and performed dramas that make up the old Expanded Universe.  In many ways it's been like looking in a similar yet differing mirror.  Here, in the latter case, my reactions have been a more or less uniform positive.  That sort of begs a series of questions, though.  Why do I continue to like this stuff?  Does that make it canon, or where you find some sort of verifiable criteria?

Some of those questions may prove easier to answer than others.  The best I can do here is to list why I think a number of EU productions deserve at least consideration as worthy successors to the OT.  To do this, I can suggest at least a certain number of criteria that more or less help the following stories I intend to consider in this and at least two more final entries to pass muster.