Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Best and Worst of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Part One

I'm a huge Star Wars fan. Obsessive, even. But my fannish tendencies tend mostly towards the 'Expanded Universe' material- books, video games, comics, etc. There is a TON of additional material in the Star Wars universe, and most of it is actually good, surprisingly. In this, the first of what I hope will be a regular feature of my blog, I will examine what I consider to be the best and worst of this mass of fiction.

Note that I have several unpopular opinions: I liked the prequel films, the much-derided Legacy of the Force novels, and the works of Karen Traviss- who may be the single most hated writer in the franchise. In addition to that, I dislike a not insignificant portion of the novels published by Bantam Books in the 1990s. The Expanded Universe (hereafter referred to as the 'EU') fandom is very divisive, so you have been warned.

Also note that I can't seem to figure out how to embed hypertext into my posts, so I won't be able to personally supply references for those reading along. Therefore, I suggest going to the ever-helpful Wookieepedia, and looking up everything I mention, if you want background. The site can be found at

BEST: Timothy Zahn
Pretty much everyone who likes Star Wars novels loves Timothy Zahn. And why not? He pretty much created Star Wars as a literary phenomenon. There had been novels before Zahn, but none of them had the same effect on the franchise as he did. Zahn came up with many characters and concepts that would show up again and again throughout the years: the affable yet menacing villain Grand Admiral Thrawn (who can best be described as a cross between Erwin Rommel, Hannibal Barca, Robert E Lee, and Sherlock Holmes), Mara Jade (the future Mrs Luke Skywalker), Coruscant (the galactic capital planet that would later be the centerpiece of the prequel trilogy), and much more. Zahn really fleshed out the galaxy in a way that hadn't been done before, and remains to this day the king of Star Wars novelists.

WORST: Kevin J Anderson
Kevin J Anderson was a writer who more or less dominated the EU during the 90s. He once compared writing Star Wars to flipping burgers. This should tell you how much thought and care he put into his writing. Anderson's work was characterized by several recurring tropes: the Empire making yet another goddamn superweapon (of increasing ridiculousness), Jedi having practically unlimited powers, love of Mary Sue characters* (including, memorably, the Sun Crusher- a Mary Sue weapon), and just general suckiness. This wouldn't have been an issue had it been just one novel, but Anderson was more or less omnipresent during the Bantam era (Bantam held the Star Wars license during most of the 90s. Their contract expired in 1999, I believe, and Star Wars novels have since been published by Del Ray.). To be fair, his young adult stories, the Young Jedi Knights books, were actually good- though they were co-written by his wife, who I think balanced out her husband's suckiness- and were responsible for introducing many younger readers to the EU. So there is a good side to this.

* Mary Sue: a pejorative term used by writers to denote an overly idealized character, almost always used as a stand-in for the author.

BEST: Lumiya
Lumiya (born Shira Brie) was the first female Sith. Well, out-of-universe anyway (in-universe, there have been female Sith for thousands of years). She was created in the 80s during Marvel Comics' Star Wars series (the license has since shifter to Dark Horse) as an enemy to fight our heroes after the death of the Emperor. She was a badass, lightwhip-wielding cyborg (lightwhips are actually MUCH cooler than they sound) who used to be Luke's girlfriend. And it was AWESOME. After languishing in Obscure Star Wars Character Hell for years after her defeat in the Marvel comics, she returned in force (pun intended) in the controversial Legacy of the Force novel series. In this series, she set up an elaborate plan of revenge against Luke Skywalker that would make the Count of Monte Cristo hang his head in shame- carrying out assassinations and manipulations in order to inflame an already volatile political crisis, corrupting Luke's nephew, killing his wife, and just generally sending the entire galaxy to hell. Made even more magnificent by the fact that getting herself killed was part of the plan. Damn, Lumiya. Damn. Because of this, she is probably one of my favourite Star Wars characters ever. Also, I find her strangely sexy. This is weird.

Not too much to say on this one. Waru was in the horrifically dull novel The Crystal Star. He was a strange lump of flesh from another dimension that had been brought to the Star Wars galaxy in an experiment. He had some kind of cult set up around him or something, and made a deal with yet another Imperial warlord to gain power (Power for the warlord, that is. Waru just wanted to go back to his home dimension.). Okay, now. Alternate dimensions and stuff make for good material, but that never really seemed like a very Star Wars-y concept to me. They work in Star Trek, but not with Star Wars. The book itself was, as I mentioned, terribly dull- it showed characters like Han Solo bogged down and tired from paperwork, for fuck's sake! That makes it the only Star Wars novel I've ever given up on reading- I read Star Wars for fun, and this was the first time I ever found the galaxy to be depressing. And Waru symbolizes everything wrong with The Crystal Star: strange, boring, and completely out-of-place.

To finish on a higher note:
BEST: The Old Republic Era in general
The history of the Star Wars galaxy covers much more than just the decades surrounding the feature films. Many works deal with the Old Republic era- the thousands of years preceding the films-, an era of Jedi heroism and Sith villainy, of personal journeys and galaxy-spanning wars. There were the Tales of the Jedi comics, covering the histories of the Jedi and Sith (I haven't read these, but I hear that they're good). There's the Knights of the Old Republic series of video games and comic books. There's also the wonderfully dark Darth Bane novels, whose antihero Bane is both a terrible monster and a compelling protagonist. And a complete badass. There's lots of great Old Republic material out there, and I encourage you to check some of it out, if you haven't already.

So, that's today's installment of the Best and Worst of the EU. There will hopefully be more to come.

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