When it comes to ‘original novels’ based on a franchise – especially a science fiction franchise – I think I expect them to have grown up with me, rather than the more usual vice versa. It happened through my teens and twenties with both Doctor Who and Star Trek, with the tie-in writers producing richer, more sophisticated explorations of ideas and images from their parent shows. In terms of getting older just as the books were getting broader and deeper, in both cases I timed it just right.
Star Wars was different. As a child I was obsessed with the film and the comics and the novelisation and the radio version and the play figures – everything that existed in the late seventies. But it was all too easily outgrown. Even the first two film sequels – at the age of ten and thirteen respectively – didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ – the very first sequel to ‘Star Wars’ – was a novel and it meant more to me than anything else that came after. So, I was ready and waiting for some more novelly elaborations of the Star Wars world.
When the novel series started up in the early 90s I somehow missed out on it. I think I thought it would just be all about spaceships and stuff. When the ‘special editions’ of the original movies came out I felt even less inclined. And then the prequel movies were such a let down. They seemed to be made by a man who had forgotten what was so great about his original film; a man who just wanted to produce hollow spectacle and reduce characters to chess pieces he was moving around a sketchy melodrama he’d probably tinkered with for too long.
And this is where I part company from much SF (and other genres, too) – when the tropes and the plotting get in the way of characterization. What was great about Star Wars was that they were real people getting caught up in a galactic muddle. Real, grown-up people with all their anxieties, foibles and quirks.
This is a long introduction to saying that, in picking up A. C Crispin’s first Star Wars novel, ‘The Paradise Snare’ – from back in 1997 – I feel a bit like I’ve been reintroduced to the world of Star Wars – and found it inhabited by living, breathing people with everyday problems played out on a cosmic scale… rather than a parade of gadgets and gizmos and flickering computer-generated creatures.
This is the novel that delves into the backstory of one of the series’ most fascinating characters, Han Solo. We see his early life as a pirate’s slave, growing up in space and bonded to an elderly Wookie grandmother (who we just know isn’t going to make it past the first few chapters.) There are ingredients here woven from cowboy tales, war stories and pirate adventures, reminding us that Star Wars was best when it was playing genre-games and sampling every kind of story. When Han is forced to learn pickpocketing – we even get a touch of Oliver Twist, as he’s instructed in the art by a droid called F-8GN.
Crispin writes with great verve and wit – and takes us off into an adventure to do with a fake religion created by drug-dealing slug creatures who sit in mud baths and chortle together about duping the faithful. She gives us brand new characters such as Han’s seven-foot tall cat bodyguard, and a new love interest called Bria… all of them wonderfully convincing – with their own stuff at stake and their own destinies to face. It’s the first book in a trilogy, so we feel the worlds opening up before us – and I get that sense again, that Star Wars once gave, that everywhere was reachable somehow. Any planet could be got to within about half an hour, given a rusty old bucket of bolts and a gung-ho sense of adventure.
What A C Crispin does is put the human element back into these stories. Even into – especially into - the giant cats, the gangster Hutts and the grandma Wookies. I even cheered when the villains were soundly routed – with Zavaal the Hutt losing control of his ant-grav platform and zooming disastrously about a priceless art collection… exactly like a giant slug in a china shop. It’s funny and exciting and everything Star Wars ought to be.
I’ll have to read the next two in the series as soon as I can. See? It’s given me back that sense I had – as a teenager, mostly – that, having started a series, I had to get the next and the next until the whole story was over. And it’s true – I feel like I’ve rediscovered a whole galaxy that I left behind a long time ago. But I suspect it’s A C Crispin’s universe that I’m enjoying, rather than simply Star Wars – just as it was Alan Dean’s Foster’s world I was digging when I read and reread ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.’ These are writers who, by writing well, expand the remit and limits of the tie-in and make the world their own.