Star Wars is not a series of movies. It's not a collection of interconnected stories. And it's not a genre. Star Wars is instead a place, a universe, a setting for a series of movies and other interconnected stories.
Now, Star Wars is being refreshed, but it's still Star Wars. While the events are different, the things are still the same. Same alien species, same ships, same planets.
Star Wars began as a film in 1977, though a novelization and comic adaptations of that original movie actually predated it. By early 1978, the Expanded Universe was off and running with the Star Wars comics by Marvel a huge success and Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye novel serving as a backdoor blueprint for a sequel that was never made -- it told a story that was decidedly not The Empire Strikes Back. The Marvel comics continued well into the '80s, and the real meat of the EU kicked off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire. Hundreds of novels and comics and video games and 23 years later, Disney, upon purchasing LucasFilm and getting the ball rolling on a new sequence of movies, decided to wipe the slate clean on the Expanded Universe, leaving only the six previous films and the Clone Wars TV series as the basis for what is in effect a rebooted franchise.
The best Star Wars authors, whether it be in books, comics, TV or movies, knew that this galaxy is a lived-in place, and it has rules and a framework that they broadly operated within -- it's not really that different from writing fiction about our world. Those stories have since been erased from the timeline, but we still remember them. And the framework they established is still useful.
Leland Chee at LucasFilm has spent the last 15 years compiling a database of all the shit we've ever seen in Star Wars, and they're holding onto as much of that stuff as they can. Because it's by that stuff that we recognise Star Wars as Star Wars, even as we, the most hardcore of hardcore Star Wars nerds, venture into this unfamiliar territory.
Enter Aftermath, the first Star Wars novel set after the original trilogy in the new united continuity. Aftermath is part of, and the centrepiece of thus far, a new branded series of ancillary materials called The Journey to The Force Awakens. There's a lot of ground to cover between movies (30 years or so), and having a title like "Aftermath" implies it will go after a good chunk of it.
It picks up some months after the destruction of the second Death Star and the deaths of Darth Vader and the Emperor, and purports to show us where things went from there -- how the Rebel Alliance began to form a proper government, and how the Empire has begun to crumble now that its head has been chopped off, and what they're doing to try to stave off an ultimate defeat.
This new piece of Star Wars lore tells a rather mundane story. It is effective in giving the reader a broad feel for the situation in the galaxy in the wake of the Battle of Endor, thanks mostly to a series of brief "interlude" chapters that hop around to various places to see how the changing political situation is affecting random folks. And the idea of some Imperial power players gathering for a secret meeting to figure out how to keep the Empire from falling apart is very intriguing. It's also familiar, because the old Expanded Universe contained 15 years of stories about the Empire trying and failing to get its shit together.
But the main plot actually functions as an odd aping of the original Star Wars film (with a far less meaningful series of events), which is the sort of narrative that does not work after 38 years of storytelling in this universe. There's a sentiment, coming from the sorts of people who don't get the full scope of Star Wars, that Star Wars stories have to be a very specific sort of light and fun action/adventure/fantasy thing. Aftermath feels like the product of that idea. There's no room for behind-the-scenes development or scheming -- only high-scale, flashy adventures. But Star Wars exists in a universe with a thousand stories already told and a thousand more on the way. Authors creating new lore have to acknowledge that.
The latest chapter in Star Wars lore has another problem, and it's an issue I've seen come up a number of times before: a lack of concern for the particulars of the universe that serve to ground the most hardcore fans even in unfamiliar territory. Aftermath is the very definition of "unfamiliar territory," since it represents the first step forward in the rebooted Star Wars continuity.
One line, for instance, references a smuggler ship called the Moth, which carried protagonist Norra Wexley to Akiva, the planet on which most of Aftermath takes place: "Looks like a bog-standard smuggler, though. Flying a small Corellian freighter -- an, ahh, let's see, an MK-4." This is, so far as I can tell, the first mention, ever, of a model MK-4 Corellian freighter. Wendig never describes what it looks like, nor does its classification imply that it would be similar to a familiar type of Corellian freighter. In fact, the classification "MK-4" does not follow the naming conventions of any previously established types of Corellian ships, and there are a lot of previously established Corellian ships. The Millennium Falcon, by the way, is a modified YT-1300 Corellian light freighter -- if you didn't understand before why we might get weird about Corellian freighters, that might help explain it.
It seems like a small thing, but its effect is meaningful. The defunct old Expanded Universe canon is pretty well imprinted, and so moving forward in Star Wars fandom is always going to be uncomfortable to some degree as we try to understand the new order of things. There are ways to ease us through the transition, one of which would be to make liberal use of well-established terminology and ship types and whatever else is incidental to the story you're trying to tell. There's a ludicrous amount of that stuff in the archives, and so pulling from it whenever possible will make people feel more comfortable in this awkward time. Not doing so for no significant reason, on the other hand, is an easy way to make us uncomfortable.
Another line references existing lore in a way that betrays a lack of comprehension of it. "A Woman. Zabrak -- or is it Dathomirian? Or Iridonian? He's not sure of the distinction or if one even exists." The distinction in race here isn't important or even relevant to the story in Aftermath, just as it wouldn't be meaningful for you to care what brand of white person I am. Since it doesn't matter at all, that line just comes off as a weak attempt at fanwank that doesn't really work because anybody who would know what all that means (fans of the Clone Wars show, mostly) would wonder why that line was even there.
This sort of issue has come up before, in two main instances: when Lucas Licensing first created the Expanded Universe continuity in the '90s, and when the prequel films were released.
The prequels were bad. For people who aren't like me -- we'll call them "normal" fans, no disrespect intended -- that's all it was. They were just massively disappointing and shitty. That's a big deal, yes, but it could have been worse.
And it was worse for super-fans. To us, the prequels were an insult. Not an intentional one, probably. When writing the first new Star Wars films in a decade and a half, George Lucas did not set out to irritate his franchise's most ardent fans. But irritate us he did, by not paying attention to the details as much as we did and still do.
The Expanded Universe, we had always been told, was Star Wars canon. To us, it defined Star Wars. It did so because it explored that place far more thoroughly than a trilogy of movies ever could. The movies will always be what brought us to this place, but these other stories kept us there. Most people just visited Star Wars. Fans that obsessed over the Expanded Universe lived there.
I suspect George didn't quite understand what he'd unleashed when he created Star Wars, even decades later as he was collecting royalties on the sales of a hundred novels that carried its branding. And when he decided it was time to make new films, I'd guess he probably didn't think it was a big deal to just write them however he felt like writing them, acting as if he had a blank slate to build on the original trilogy.
The situation back then was not quite what it is now with The Force Awakens and this new sequel trilogy. Whereas the period after the original films has been heavily mined with new material, the Expanded Universe steered clear of the period before the films, where George would place the inevitable prequel trilogy. So unlike in this new era, there was no grand declaration of a canon reboot ahead of Episode I. There was, however, the qualification that any material written by George himself would supercede any of the Expanded Universe stuff. That, of course, was to be expected.
Being nerds of the highest order, Star Wars fans were certainly not opposed to retcons should they come up. Nerd franchises of all sorts had always been rife with them, as had the Expanded Universe itself -- a natural occurrence given how out of control the EU had been. Bantam Spectra's handle on continuity was solid in the broad strokes but the sheer density of the release schedule meant there were constant discrepancies in the smaller details. Some authors just wanted to do their own thing and didn't understand the world they were writing for. So we were used to seeing those discrepancies arise and later novels try to reconcile them or at least recontextualize them.
By the time the prequels came around, the folks monitoring the EU had gotten enough of a handle on it that such occurrences became rarer. The key to a workable retcon is that you know you're doing a retcon. It felt as though when George wrote that Jedi weren't allowed to have romantic entanglements or that Boba Fett was the cloned son of a guy named Jango, that he just didn't know they contradicted the existing continuity.
I've read Aftermath, pored over some of the new Marvel comics, watched Star Wars Rebels. This is the first ever official Star Wars canon reboot and it will take time to adjust. But this new version of the world still hasn't established an identity. Maybe the movies will make real progress in that direction -- they will at least be something more tangible to grasp on to -- but for now it feels like its stumbling through the darkness, not really understanding what it is. And since I did understand what it was, the uncertainty makes this awkward transition all the more awkward.
I still have some hope; JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy have said all the right things over the last couple years. But to look on the bright side: given the relatively tight handle the LucasFilm Story Group has on the new canon, it's almost impossible to imagine anything on the horizon being as bad as The Crystal Star.
But never say never.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and author of WTF Is Wrong With Video Games, an ebook which is available on Amazon and Gumroad.