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Prequel Problems: The Star Wars Sins and Wins of Michael A. Stackpole

By Tom Anderson

Mention the words “Star Wars” in an article series entitled “Prequel Problems” and half the readers are now picturing bad CGI aliens and monologues about hating sand. Worry not, for though I plan to do a number of articles about Star Wars in this series, we will not be getting to the prequel films for quite a while. Instead, I want to talk about the old Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, in particular the primary 1991-1999 phase of novels that debuted under Bantam as publisher.

These were not the first Star Wars spinoff media ever produced, of course. As early as when the original film came out in 1977, fans were hungry for more, and Marvel comics continuations initially filled the gap; predictably, as the Galaxy Far Far Away was little fleshed out at this point, these often feel jarringly unlike what Star Wars has become, and few of them ever had elements retained in later canon. More successful from this point of view were the Han Solo Adventures trilogy of novels written 1979-80 by Brian Daley, and the Adventures of Lando Calrissian trilogy written by L. Neil Smith 1983. Though the latter books are a little...strange, both sets work well as the ‘more adventures with the characters you love’ variety of prequel. They are carefully set geographically a long way away from anywhere important for the main films (the Corporate Sector for Han, the Tion Hegemony for Lando) and are self-contained tales that don’t feature any recognisable characters other than the principals. They also try not to establish anything too concrete about backstory, just feeling like the sort of generic adventures that would slip plausibly into the backstories of the characters as we meet them in the films. But already these early stories (published by Del Rey, who later once again obtained the Star Wars rights) have an issue that would later plague the Bantam books: they are published in anachronic order. This is because both Han and Lando’s stories are set aboard the Millennium Falcon, the iconic ship from the original films, and it’s said in the films that Han won the Falcon from Lando in a sabacc game. So Lando’s stories must be set before Han’s, though their self-contained nature means this is not too much of a problem.

Star Wars went through a period of an uncool reputation in the mid to late 1980s before returning to prominence with a popular roleplaying game and the first Bantam Expanded Universe book: Timothy Zahn’s critically-acclaimed and best-selling “Heir to the Empire” (1991). More authors were brought on board and an entire series of novels was published between 1991 and 1999, covering an in-universe time period from “Return of the Jedi” till fifteen years later, when the Rebels’ New Republic has completely defeated the Empire and the last Imperial Remnant sues for peace. This was, however, not as well organised as I may make it sound. Each author had their own ideas and characters they brought to the table, the chronological order bore no resemblance to the publication order, and interaction between the books was often vague to say the least. This was a particular problem because, unlike the self-contained books of Daley and Smith, most of the Bantam EU books featured glimpses of the entire galaxy and its central government – which unaccountably seemed to change quite a lot from book to book.

As a teenage reader noting these inconsistencies at the time, one thing I did not appreciate was the rapid time span over which the books were being written and published. The inconsistencies, often more of tone rather than outright contradictions, are unsurprising when many authors would not have had access to final versions of each others’ works as they wrote near-simultaneously. Kevin J. Anderson often comes in for criticism, not all of it unjustified, but one cannot help but feel sorry for him when he was reportedly told AFTER plotting much of his “Jedi Academy” trilogy that two of the planets it was set on had got smashed up in the questionable “Dark Empire” graphic novels set a year earlier – which did “the Emperor comes back as a clone in a stupid way” years before “The Rise of Skywalker” made it cool.

The anachronic order also did not help. Just covering the publication years 1991-1995 gives us the following, with setting dates of ‘+years after Return of the Jedi’:

1991-1993: Thrawn Trilogy (+5)

1991-1995: Dark Empire (graphic novels) (+6)

1992-1993: The terrible young adult “Glove of Darth Vader” novels which everyone subsequently ignored

1993: The Truce at Bakura (+0)

1994: Jedi Academy trilogy (+7)

1994: The Courtship of Princess Leia (+4)

1995: The Crystal Star (+10)

1995: The Corellian Trilogy (+14)

1995: Children of the Jedi/Darksaber (+8)

Almost all of these examples were written by different authors, some already famous for other non-Star Wars works, others less so. One might wonder why “The Crystal Star” and “The Corellian Trilogy” inflate the years so much – the reason is because the authors wanted to feature Han and Leia’s children as being old enough to be characters in their own right. Considering the apparent anarchy, perhaps it is a miracle that the Bantam books are not more inconsistent than they are.

Michael Stackpole speaking at the 2017 Phoenix Comicon. Photo by Gage Skidmore and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

All of this is a long-winded way of leading up to Michael A. Stackpole, who published his first Bantam Star Wars book, “Rogue Squadron”, at the start of 1996. This was the first in a new “X-wing” series that would see books written by both Stackpole and Aaron Allston, who I’ll look at in a future article. The series was inspired by the popular X-wing series of video games, which is most obvious in “Rogue Squadron”, the opening of which involves a simulator exercise actually based on a difficult level from the first game. While the first novel seems to be a self-contained adventure, from the second one “Wedge’s Gamble” onwards they take on a much greater scale, with Rogue Squadron playing a key role in the Rebel conquest of the galaxy’s capital planet of Coruscant. This was a story that had not been told in earlier-published books, which just show the New Republic in control of it in the Thrawn Trilogy (+5 years) and “The Courtship of Princess Leia” (+4 years). Stackpole’s first phase of the X-wing series is set +2.5-3 years after “Return of the Jedi”, and he therefore had an opportunity to fill this gap—albeit with the usual Prequel Problems of an anachronic release.

I should briefly comment on the quality of Stackpole’s writing before I go on. The X-wing Series is generally well liked, but some people tend to criticise Stackpole for making his main viewpoint character, Corran Horn, into an alleged Mary Sue. I personally think this is a tad exaggerated. Horn’s narration may make him look like a Mary Sue because he is an egotistical ace pilot (the series was, after all, conceived as Top Gun In Space) but he messes up a great deal, is not the best pilot in this elite squadron, etc. In a later book (er, spoilers) he finds he is of Jedi descent and has some Force sensitivity, but when he opportunistically thinks this alone is enough for him to mind-trick a stormtrooper, it predictably doesn’t work and ends in a firefight in which the lightsaber he inherited is almost useless because he’s not trained to use it. Compare to all the fan complaints about Rey being able to do exactly this, to another Force-user, with no training, and then use a lightsaber in “The Force Awakens”; who’s the Mary Sue now? I also think Horn is a more interesting character than many fans give him credit for; he’s a former police officer with the Corellian Security Force who followed his (deceased) father into the service, but quit to join the Rebels when he was framed by an Imperial political officer. Compared to Star Wars usually relying on rogues and scoundrels inspired by Han Solo as characters, having a lawful, authoritarian ace pilot is a refreshing change.

This is not to say there isn’t valid criticism to be made of Stackpole’s functional prose or his habit of ending every chapter on an incongruously melodramatic bit of dialogue – though this is, after all, Star Wars. However, I will go to bat to defend the man because of how he took the opportunity of his chronologically earlier X-wing books in an attempt to weld together the disparate, disconnected continuities of the other Bantam books that had already been published. He could have kept narrowly to his own characters and planets as much as possible, as some authors did, but he chose the harder path and faced the Prequel Problems head-on. Later, Timothy Zahn (with whom he became good friends) wrote in the preface to his first “Hand of Thrawn” novel that Stackpole had worked hard to fit a later book into continuity with those as they were being written simultaneously, even though they were set several years apart. Stackpole clearly approached the challenge with gusto. His efforts in the cause of forging links between the existing EU books are to be commended; however, the actual results of them could be more mixed, hence the ‘sins and wins’ of this article’s title. I’m going to look at a number of Stackpole’s linking ideas and critique whether they represent good prequel writing tactics (these qualify as prequels as they are set before all other then-published novels except “The Truce at Bakura”) or not. I should also point out that Stackpole, clearly a glutton for prequel problem punishment, later wrote comics set just before the X-wing novels and starring some of the same characters!

“Rogue Squadron”, the first X-wing book, is paradoxically helped by its narrower and self-contained focus (a series of episodic missions with a new incarnation of Rogue Squadron) in portraying a feeling of this only being a snapshot of a vast and mysterious galaxy in which plenty is going on just outside our view. Stackpole also uses the book to create a vision of an Empire that is crumbling but still holds its capital of Coruscant, and is effectively run by the Director of Imperial Intelligence, Ysanne ‘Iceheart’ Isard. He draws upon “The Courtship of Princess Leia” by Dave ‘Walnuts’ Wolverton, in which Leia has just returned from a diplomatic mission to the Hapans while Han Solo has come back from commanding a task force against the Imperial breakaway Warlord Zsinj. Here he portrays Rogue Squadron commander Wedge Antilles meeting Leia just before she goes away on the mission, and Zsinj features as a little-seen but unpredictable third faction in the war between the Imperial remnants and the New Republic. In the second book, the Republic is keen to take Coruscant with its defences intact because of fears that Zsinj could waltz into the aftermath of a battle between they and Isard and take the planet for himself. Off-camera, Zsinj also blasts Rogue Squadron’s home base when the crew are infiltrating Coruscant, creating a subplot of them (incorrectly) thinking that key characters were killed, causing surprise when they turn up on Coruscant in turn. This attack is what triggers Han Solo being sent on his mission against Zsinj with a fleet.

These ideas are basically good ones, the main point of critique being that the time gap is a bit big – Leia must have spent eighteen months on her mission to Hapes, a period in which no other writer can use her. However, this isn’t really Stackpole’s fault. He also uses more subtle background references, such as Isard referring to Thrawn in exile, Zahn’s Imperial grand admiral who will return in the chronologically later Thrawn trilogy.

But there are also some serious no-nos. Some are inevitable; Zahn previously portrayed Wedge and Rogue Squadron as just another fighter squadron and the New Republic High Council has to be told who he is, whereas in these earlier books they call on him and the elite squadron for a key mission. In this case it’s arguably Zahn’s portrayal that feels less likely given Wedge’s high profile in the original films. A bit less excusable is Stackpole’s use of the intransigent Bothan politician Borsk Fey’lya as a recurring internal villain; he filled this role in Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, but one can’t really picture the characters giving him as much benefit of the doubt as they do in that if he’d already been acting that way for years, rather than it being a recent devleopment. The most blatant example of ‘misguided linker cameo’ however, is undoubtedly the use of Captain Afyon in “Rogue Squadron”. Afyon was previously introduced as the angry captain of a converted frigate in one of Zahn’s books, in which he yells at Wedge and Rogue Squadron for being assigned to it and getting in his way. The sequence is very, very obviously written as the first time Wedge has run into this guy. Stackpole promptly used him in “Rogue Squadron” as the captain of a smaller corvette – a realistic career path, except he meets Wedge after a battle and even drinks and bonds with his executive officer Tycho Celchu as they both come from the destroyed world of Alderaan. It may involve a minor character, but that’s an absurd and unnecessary plot hole.

This kind of balance characterises Stackpole’s cameos and links in the rest of the X-wing books. “Wedge’s Gamble” features a whizzo scheme by Fey’lya to distract the Imperials by taking various nasty super-criminals from exile on Kessel (including one whom Corran Horn put behind bars) and infiltrating them into Coruscant alongside the Rogues. This is partly an excuse to make a link with Kevin J. Anderson’s “Jedi Academy” trilogy, which begins with Han Solo going to Kessel to try to establish contact with the penal colony. Unfortunately, as with Afyon, the link breaks the logic, because the Rogues already discover how unpleasant things are on Kessel under Moruth Doole here, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to Han several years later. Amazingly, Stackpole wrote a sequence into his later book “I, Jedi” (set contemporaneously with the “Jedi Academy” trilogy and fixing some issues with it) which tried to address this by having Han arguing with Wedge about Kessel—which created another, worse, continuity issue in the process! This is that it’s portrayed as Han’s first meeting with Corran Horn (awkward, as Corran’s dad tried to hunt Han down once) when Rogue Squadron, including Corran, should have been serving under Han’s command on the mission against Warlord Zsinj. Stackpole’s colleague Allston then had to write a scene into a later X-wing book to explain that part!

A similar problem arises in the fourth X-wing book, “The Bacta War”, where Stackpole features appearances from Zahn’s smuggler and information broker character Talon Karrde and his then-deputy Quelev Tapper. Tapper previously featured in Zahn’s short story “First Contact” in which he meets his end and Karrde meets the woman who will become his new deputy, Mara Jade, under the alias ‘Celina Marniss’. There are some issues with this. Karrde appears because Wedge, operating independently at this point, needs information and help from smugglers. Yet the Thrawn trilogy, set later, opens with Han Solo looking for information on who’s the biggest smuggler on the block right now, and his contact talks about Karrde as though Han’s never heard of him before (or only slightly) – while Han’s backup guy for the meeting is...Wedge Antilles! A related aspect is even more ridiculous. Karrde and the Rogues eventually uncover that they’re being betrayed by a mole in Karrde’s organisation, Melina Carniss. Look carefully at that name again. It does actually make sense (though I didn’t know this at the time) because Jade had previously run into Carniss and clearly adapted her name as an alias. But if Carniss later worked for Karrde, why didn’t he react in Zahn’s story on hearing “Celina Marniss” which must be set later because Tapper dies in it and, and...aargh!

In the third book, “The Krytos Trap”, Corran, escaping from an Imperial prison, ends up in a library facility and discovers ‘by chance’ that a box of datacards on the history of Corvis Minor actually conceals a small blaster. This is a reference to the Thrawn trilogy, in which Zahn’s character Mara Jade, a former Imperial agent, is able to find the same blaster in another Imperial library as one is always stashed there in that box. What was intended for a nice cameo just breaks suspension of disbelief that Corran could ‘just happen’ to find something so carefully concealed amid thousands of boxes – unless one appeals to the Force, of course. A similarly too on-the-nose reference to the Thrawn books comes in “Wedge’s Gamble”, in which the character Winter is introduced by the codename ‘Targeter’, mentioned in Zahn’s books, even though the whole reason this was brought up was related to the fact that she only briefly used the codename for a single mission that wasn’t this one. (In the end Zahn himself gave up on this and had her use it more generally in other books). Most cringeworthy of all is a sequence in which Corran Horn looks at the Grand Corridor in the Imperial Palace with a security expert’s eye and pretty much works out the exact secret of the mysterious Imperial ‘Source Delta’ that Thrawn baffles the Republic’s security secrets with two years later. Thanks for not bothering to mention it to General Cracken, Corran.

I don’t want to make it sound like all of Stackpole’s links are like this. There are also plenty of subtler ones. The X-wing books feature repeated appearances from “Ugly” kit-bashed starfighters which first appeared in the “Corellian Trilogy” for instance; in “I, Jedi” Stackpole also features a sequence set on Corellia, and we get to see the famous Treasure Ship Row when it is only part way on the path to the degradation Han sees in those books, set several years later. The captured Rebel Star Destroyers Emancipator and Liberator, which feature in the Dark Empire comics, are also used here in the first two X-wing books. “The Bacta War” features a natural and organic-feeling reference to the Katana Fleet from Zahn’s books. “I, Jedi” pulls in a number of characters who were retconned into being in Luke’s first class of Jedi students but not mentioned in the original “Jedi Academy” trilogy, such as Brakiss.

Though a lot of Stackpole’s references prompt a head-scratch and a ‘wait, what’ from the discerning reader after the initial ‘heh heh, cool’ reaction, as I said, I will certainly defend his good intentions. He was the first Bantam Star Wars author to really make an effort to reference others’ books, with previous attempts largely being limited to the “Jedi Academy” and “Corellian Trilogy” books featuring (rather mischaracterised) appearances from Zahn’s Mara Jade. He began a trend of other authors attempting to forge the same links, some of whom we’ll look at it in future articles.

Though Stackpole was the first, he was certainly not the best: in one such article, we’ll look at an example of a Bantam Star Wars author who wrote what are, in my view, probably some of the best-executed examples of prequel fiction in all of literature. That author tied up the loose ends of many other authors—including Stackpole himself. But that’s for another time. In the meantime, may the Force be with you no matter your continuity.



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