Specter of the Past: A reflection on the Star Wars Expanded Universe

specter of the past (2)The Iredell County Public Library will always hold a special place in my heart: it was there that I discovered the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It was a discovery that, in a certain respect, changed my life forever.

You might scoff at this, but let me explain. I was about eleven or twelve years old, and had reached “peak Star Wars,” so to speak. I was entirely obsessed with George Lucas’s epic saga. I had action figures, I had Star Wars Risk. I played Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Lego on XBOX for ungodly hours with my brother, cousin, and neighbors. I had (and still have) a Darth Vader folder in which I kept my intricate sketches (ahem, well…tracings) of clone trooper armor. My parents had bought me the 2004 Special Edition DVD set of the Original Trilogy along with the soundtracks to Episodes I, III, and VI, music and visuals that framed my imaginative adventures for years. My brother and I had light-up lightsabers with sound effects, Darth Vader’s red and Mace Windu’s purple blades respectively, with which we pummeled each other so thoroughly we had to duct-tape the shattered points at the top. It was a glorious time to be a kid.

Glorious, yes, but even at a young age it was bittersweet. Revenge of the Sith had been released in 2005, an event which I treated with an almost religious anticipation and reverence. The week spent waiting for my parents to decide whether my brother and I were old enough for a PG-13 movie only heightened the sense of honor that we would be blessed with the opportunity to see the last ever Star Wars movie in theaters. And so our dad took us to the Statesville Marquee Cinema, where we met another father and son we knew from church and buckled in for what remains the single greatest cinematic experience of my lifetime. I was overwhelmed from the opening shot of the battle of Coruscant to the final image of the binary sunset on Tatooine, during which I cried, struck with the sudden realization that this story that I loved so much was over.

The fervent and impassioned discussions with friends at lunch in my homeschool co-op, the thrill at having new Complete Locations and Incredible Cross-Sections books to dissect along with an ARC-170 Lego set to labor over (don’t get me started on those technic s-foils) softened the finality of it all, but eventually a subdued sense of mourning started to set in. It might be hard to explain outside of the context of childhood, but try to understand: a significant part of my life up to that point was spent in anxious anticipation for Revenge of the Sith, and no matter how satisfying that movie had been my imagination craved more. I had my own adventures to act out with friends, of course, the stuff of hundreds of outdoor lightsaber fights, but they always devolved into arguments over each other’s Force powers (“What do you mean you blocked my Force push!?”). I didn’t like that. I wanted stories. I wanted narrative.

Enter the Iredell County Public Library. It was towards the end of the school year, and my mom had stopped at the library before we went to get our yearly standardized testing done. Instead of hopping onto one of the computers downstairs as I usually did, I decided to wander around upstairs, where the “real” books were kept.

Now, it should be noted that I was and always have been a voracious reader, but at this point I mostly stuck to classics and history books of the children’s variety, the Wishbone series being a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t regularly dig into “grown-up” books, but everything was about to change.

As my eyes scanned the shelves I caught a glimpse of the Star Wars logo, those fat, rounded letters that blasted onscreen with the London Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of every episode. I almost did a double-take. “On a novel!?” It was a big, hefty, library bound copy with a blue spine that read: Heir to the Empire. I quickly yanked it off the third shelf to look at the cover.

 

heir to empire

There were Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, all arranged in stunningly true-to-screen likeness (my artistic sensibilities at that time were easily impressed), Stormtroopers illuminated by an explosion in the midst of combat, X-wings cutting through the sky just as they did at the end of Return of the Jedi, and a mysterious Imperial officer, dressed in white with skin that looked vaguely blue, scowling in the bottom left-hand corner. What struck me most, however, was the robed, bearded man with piercing eyes, a medallion dangling from his neck, whose hands sent splinters of light shooting across the sky in some act of primally-focused power. And there, right over the logo, were the words that sent shivers down my spine: “THE SAGA CONTINUES!”

It was too good to be true. I rushed the book off to the circulation desk and checked it out on the spot. When my family left I was the first to our Dodge caravan, curling up in the front seat and eagerly flipping to the first page: “‘Captain Pellaeon?’ a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation. ‘Message from the sentry line: the scoutships have come out of lightspeed.’”

By the end of the first chapter, in which it had been revealed that Captain Pellaeon commanded the Star Destroyer Chimaera (what a beautiful, mysterious name it was!) and served under the brilliant alien Grand Admiral Thrawn, I was enthralled. In the coming weeks I stayed up late into the night (probably till 9 o’clock or so) awe-struck by the fact that the New Republic, led by our heroes, was still fighting the remnants of the Empire five years after defeating the Emperor. And these remnants were led by a blue-skinned red-eyed man who could defeat his enemies by understanding their art. Their art!

I had stumbled upon the section of the library that held science fiction author Timothy Zahn’s books, and I left clutching what readers know as the first novel in the Star Wars Expanded Universe tightly to my chest. It was such a blurred, euphoric moment of discovery that I can’t honestly remember whether my selection was purely the will of the Force or instead the result of me noticing the “VOLUME 1 OF A THREE-BOOK CYCLE” pronouncement right above the title, but either way I was taking my first steps into a larger world, a world that stretched beyond what is now known as the Thrawn Trilogy to Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn Duology, to Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight, to Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando novels and James Luceno’s Dark Lord Trilogy.

Vision of the FutureThis world would take me to incredible places imaginatively, narratively, and morally that I had never realized existed. It was like watching Lucas’s movies for the first time all over again. There was Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand, a young woman whose arc from pawn of the Emperor to friend and eventual wife of Luke Skywalker spoke to the possibility for redemption and freedom even for “bad guys,” and whom I definitely never crushed on. There was Joruus C’Baoth, a crazed Jedi-clone who warned me about the seductive, maddening desire for power. There was Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial of brilliant cunning but with an unexpected sense of honor. There were space battles, temptations of the dark side, clones, smugglers, and enslaved assassin peoples who broke the bonds of their oppressors through the reception of knowledge from their enemy. There were Interdictor cruisers that yanked enemy ships out of hyper-space with their gravity-well generators, intricate villainous political plots that preyed upon racial tensions, smugglers that learned to act with nobility, space pirates who foolishly chased money and ambition to their own destruction, and clones who rejected their created-purpose to serve as destructive agents of the Empire to live peaceful, quiet lives of farming. These were the stories that filled my childhood imagination, that challenged me to think about right and wrong, heroism and cowardice in ways that I had never thought before.

So why bother writing this? On April 25, 2014, Disney declared all these works to be “non-canon” for the purposes of creative freedom in building a new Star Wars trilogy. With a stroke of the pen, a corporation had deemed these books and stories to be irrelevant, null and void. They had been deemed “Legends,” a golden banner crying out a warning to newcomers that these stories are a fiction within fiction.

I understood the decision, but it remained a little strange to have books you loved as a child declared “untrue.” As I speculated on the upcoming Star Wars films with friends I thought, with a twinge of sadness, that Zahn’s novels no longer mattered. But after the disappointment of The Force Awakens and the sudden return of free-time post-thesis writing, I’ve revisited a few of these old friends (The Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn Duology) to find that they’re just as alive and well as when I first found them in the Iredell County Library those many years ago.

All fiction is untruth, in a sense. In the end, stories are still just stories. Does it make any sense then for an executive to impose factual and historical restrictions on a universe that allows characters to heal themselves via Force-trance and fight mob-boss space-slugs? The universe of these particular stories is so beyond the factual it defies canonization.

I’m not here to claim that the Star Wars Expanded Universe produced great literature (it didn’t). I’m not here to tell you that the old canon is better than the new canon, or to engage in one of a thousand silly arguments of continuity and textual faithfulness that fandoms fixate on. That’d be wasting your time.

I’m just here to say that those books rang true to me, resonating with such strength that the love of story they helped build provided the kindling for a fire that burns even brighter today.

May the Force be with you, Timothy Zahn. Thanks.

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