[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]
On what Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels meant to fans, and what that can help us analyze about genre storytelling.
It’s very difficult to explain to my sons, growing up as they are in the era not only of the new Star Wars films and shows, but of the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, of numerous Star Wars video games, and even of Star Wars amusement parks for crying out loud, how much of a void there was for a young Star Wars fan in the years after Return of the Jedi (1984). I was almost 7 when Jedi came out, just coming into my own as a full-fledged Star Wars fan; the next new film, The Phantom Menace, wouldn’t be released until 1999, when I was about to turn 22 and not quite in the same place as that 7 year old StarWarsStudier had been. Although George Lucas tried to bridge the gap by re-releasing the original trilogy with new footage in the 1990s (not all of it uniformly awful, although I still shudder in horror every time I have to watch Han Solo step on Jabba the Hutt’s tail in that inserted New Hope sequence), I think it’s fair to say that if we fans had been left with no new Star Wars stories between Jedi and Phantom, many of us might have left the Star Wars universe behind for fresher storytelling pastures.
But we weren’t left so bereft, and the main reasons were the three novels in science fiction writer Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy: Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993). There had been novelizations and comic book versions of the films, but Zahn’s books, set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and featuring both returning and new characters, were the first truly new literary stories set in the Star Wars universe, creating (or at least popularizing) the now-familiar concept of the “expanded universe.” This teenage AmericanStudier had already read and loved plenty of fantasy and science fiction books and series by the time Heir to the Empire appeared, but there was nonetheless something different about such expanded universe books, something particularly potent in the way they (that is, the way Zahn) blended the familiar with the new, built on a world and characters and settings we knew and cared about while taking them and us in unfamiliar and uncertain directions. Clearly that wasn’t just me; Heir to the Empire was a #1 New York Times bestseller, the trilogy sold a combined 15 million copies (to date), and the books’ popularity has even been credited by one Star Wars historian (Michael Kaminsky) with helping convince George Lucas to make the prequel films.
So what might we make of those effects, of the potent cultural role of Zahn’s Star Wars novels? Much of what my Fitchburg State colleague Heather Urbanski argues in her study The Science Fiction Reboot: Canon, Innovation, and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises (2013) is certainly relevant to that question; Urbanski counter critiques of reboots or sequels as unoriginal, arguing instead that such works, and franchises overall, tap into audience desires and needs in profound ways. I would agree with all of that, but would also suggest that there’s something specific to novels and their form of storytelling that was also at play in the role and success of Zahn’s Star Wars books. Of course multi-episode TV shows can expand a universe in their own ways, as we’ve seen with the recent Star Wars shows (characters from which have, tellingly, made their way into the most recent films). Yet—and I grant that this might be the literary scholar in me talking—I would argue that a novel can expand and deepen a cinematic universe in ways that no other genre can, and that it’s thus far from coincidental that it was Zahn’s Thrawn novels that first truly opened up not only the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but even the concept of an expanded universe at all. They certainly had a distinct and vital effect for this StarWarsStudier.
May Recap this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?