After Disney announced the much-anticipated cast for the next “Star Wars” movie yesterday, io9’s Annalee Newitz pointed out just how male the list is. “There is only one new female character being added to what is arguably the world’s most beloved mythic series,” she wrote. “It’s as if 51 percent of the population cried out in pain, and was suddenly silenced.”
She has a point, and I would be particularly interested to know what happened to newly minted Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o’s talks with J.J. Abrams about the project. But for me, the casting announcement, which included the welcome news that “Attack The Block” star John Boyega and “Girls” veteran Adam Driver will be in the mix, comes second to a bigger loss announced late last week.
The folks who are guiding Star Wars have decided to abandon the Expanded Universe, the novels, comics and games that carried the original story forward. Those stories will live on, but as a sort of alternate timeline rather than as material for adaptation as Disney, which now owns the franchise, plans a major build-out of the Star Wars universe. Animated series set during the events of the live-action prequel movies, and another animated show in the works, will continue to count; the events of those series will be factored into world-building and character development. But the rest of the stories so many of us have spent so many years caring about? Like Alderaan, they will live on more in memory than in reality.
I know, I know, it is hard to take a fangirl’s lament seriously when a huge company is putting a lot of money into telling new stories set in a world I enjoy so much. But the Expanded Universe was everything big action franchises these days are not. It was weird and occasionally silly; it used the setting to jump off to new kinds of stories, and, yes, it was full of fascinating, complex female characters.
Take “The Courtship of Princess Leia,” by Dave Wolverton, published in 1994. The book is full of Force-sensitive witches who have monstrous pets. But it also uses the conventions of science fiction and fantasy to think about marriage and relationships. Turns out that after you say “I love you,” he says “I know,” you rescue him from carbonite and explain that no, you are not secretly into your twin brother, it is not all fireworks and dancing Ewoks going forward.
As Han Solo and Leia Organa get pulled apart by the pressures of helping run a new, democratic government, Leia considers accepting a marriage proposal driven by strategic considerations rather than love. Han, who has never exactly been good about being a responsible grown-up, freaks out and basically kidnaps Leia for what is supposed to be a romantic getaway. A scene in which he tries to cook her dinner is worth the purchase price alone.
There is a spaceship crash (spoiler: the Millennium Falcon does not get more reliable) and a lot of the aforementioned nonsense. But, substantially, “The Courtship of Princess Leia” is about what it takes for two adults with incredibly high-pressure careers to make it work in the middle of a war. “The Courtship of Princess Leia,” as well as a later novel in which Luke Skywalker deals with his post-traumatic stress disorder by having an affair with a ghost, are a nice break from what seems to be the usual blockbuster topic of late: figuring out how much property damage our heroes can get away with.
I also have a particular fondness for the first four books in the X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole. The novels are an excuse for a lot of dog-fighting in space — they follow Luke Skywalker’s fighter jock pal Wedge Antilles as he refounds a legendary pilot squadron. But when the books are not walking us through shootouts in sometimes painful detail, their great main character Corran Horn, a cop-turned-rebel from Han Solo’s home planet, becomes a terrific vehicle for stories about government-building, political internment camps and the rights of alien species in a new regime.
What really makes Stackpole’s four novels shine, though, is the women. The antagonist throughout is Ysanne Isard, a tactical genius who engineers a biological weapon that affects humans less than other species and can be cured only with a scarce resource, playing up racial hatreds and economic pressures on the New Republic. Corran falls for Mirax Terrik, a terrific pilot in her own right who smuggles critically important drugs, helps run off-book operations and keeps the squadron afloat when it runs into economic difficulty.
I could go on. The Star Wars Expanded Universe gave us Mara Jade, a former agent of the Empire who went through a titanic moral struggle to become her own woman — and a Jedi master. The novels gave us Han and Leia’s daughter Jaina, who grows from a curious child to an all-time great Jedi, burdened with glorious and terrible purpose. The Expanded Universe even tossed out the original Star Wars premise when a race of pain-worshiping aliens who are immune to the Force invade the galaxy and start terraforming planets left, right and center.
If these stories sound shaggy and uneven and strange, it is because they are. But the Expanded Universe could be the best possible result when big corporations get excited about monetizing fan enthusiasm. It was a place where female characters thrived, where telling a genre story did not always mean following blockbuster conventions and where there was endless hunger for worlds that felt new.
These things could happen in the Expanded Universe, though, because it was never really meant for mainstream consumption. It was a way to keep making money off nerds, so it could afford to be gloriously eccentric and relatively feminist. Now that Disney has decided that Star Wars is a big, mainstream business again, the company has killed off the Expanded Universe in favor of something grander and probably blander. That sound you hear? It is the Imperial March, heralding the arrival of the new age of pop culture consolidation. We all are poorer for its arrival.
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