Building a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Endings and Beginnings (2006-2015…and Beyond)

swmindorAll week long, we’ve been exploring the formation of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Click here for the index page.

The New Jedi Order was a massive project for Del Rey Books: 19 novels, 11 authors, and a galaxy-changing conclusion. With the end of that project, the publisher had to figure out how to follow it up in a way that would continue to attract and retain fans, but also advance the story.

Troy Denning, who had written Star By Star, came on to write a post-NJO trilogy that dealt with the immediate aftermath of the series: The Dark Nest. The events of his book and the remainder of the series had a major effect on the younger crop of Jedi, and he focused on that with The Joiner King, The Unseen Queen, and The Swarm War.

As he was wrapping up that series, Shelly Shapiro asked him for his thoughts on how to proceed with a new, shorter series of nine books. “I wrote up a couple of pages that outlined the [Legacy of the Force] series,” he said. “This was on a Sunday night, and by Tuesday, we had a contract. They wanted to limit it to three authors, and to keep it under control.”

Denning noted that involving so many authors in the NJO was almost unmanageable: the quality of the series was uneven, and the story followed a much wider group of characters. “They also felt, I think, the number of books was more than fans would want, but you can’t make every series a monument. Let’s do the same approach, something that would move the continuity forward, but let’s limit the scope so that it’s manageable.”

They proceeded with Legacy of the Force, which would be written by Denning, Aaron Allston, and Karen Traviss. The first novel, Allston’s Betrayal, hit bookstores on May 30, 2006, and was followed by Traviss’ Bloodlines in August and Denning’s Tempest in November. They rotated release order for the next three books in 2007, and wrapped up the series in May of 2008.

Legacy of the Force picked up in the years following the New Jedi Order and The Dark Nest series. By this point, Jacen and Jaina Solo and their friends had become principal characters. The series dealt with the impact of Jacen’s fall to the dark side of the Force, set against the background of a new civil war between the Galactic Federation of Free Alliances (an homage to the “galaxy far, far away”) and the planet Corellia.

In addition to the series, Del Rey began to introduce more stand-alone novels set in the same era: Millennium Falcon by James Luceno and Crosscurrent and Riptide, both by Paul Kemp, took place alongside the Legacy series.

Other novels explored earlier time frames: Timothy Zahn was permitted to write Outbound Flight, finally answering some lingering questions raised in Heir to the Empire, while other novels explored a range of events within the timeline: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, by Drew Karpyshyn. explored the origins of a Sith lord; Death Star, by Steve Perry and Michael Reaves, chronicled drama behind the construction of the superweapon featured in A New Hope.

The Coruscant Nights trilogy explored terriroty between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and the video game The Force Unleashed received a tie-in novel. They began to experiment with new concepts: Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber, introduced a horror element to the franchise with zombie stormtroopers, while Mathew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor was a throwback to the earliest Expanded Universe novels.

Legacy of the Force seemed to be a hit forumla—nine books, three authors. The next series, Fate of the Jedi,  featured books written once again by Allston and Denning, and joined by newcomer Christie Golden. Allston led off the series with Outcast, followed by Golden’s Omen and Denning’s Abyss.

Not only was the order of the series reduced from that of the New Jedi Order, but release dates were spaced throughout the year, which helped alleviate buyer fatigue. This series dealt with the aftermath of the Legacy series, and how Luke Skywalker approaches a new threat to galactic stability with a new group of Jedi Knights.

Not all the books were new ideas. For 2011’s Shadow Games, written by Michael Reaves and Maya Bohnhoff, Del Rey returned to one of Reaves and Perry’s original pitches for their Clone Wars novels. “We pitched one, about the entertainment industry and its entanglement with Black Sun, the criminal organization, and they liked the basic idea but wanted some serious changes,” Perry recounted. “I liked our idea better, so we decided not to write that one. Later, they came back and asked about it. Nothing had changed for me, but Reaves was interested, so I gave him my blessing to do it.” The book brought back Dash Rendar (who appeared in Shadows of the Empire) in a thriller-styled novel.

Considering the massive scale of the New Jedi Order, Clone Wars, Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi, Del Rey feared reader fatigue would set in after so many large, complicated storylines. While fans of the series had hung on, jumping into a detailed chronology spread across dozen of books was daunting for newcomers. Del Rey realized there had to be another major change in their approach to the series.

With the end of the Fate of the Jedi, Denning noted, the plan was “to reset the EU to refresh everything, so that they [could] publish all types of new stories.” Playing out major epics that couldn’t fit in a single volume was constraining: they required a dedicated reader who followed along, book-by-book, and by their very nature, confined authors to tell specific types of stories.  Several novels and trilogies were cancelled, including a novel called Sword of the Jedi, a long-planned work that tied into the various post-NJO arcs.

Following Apocalypse, the final book of the Fate of the Jedi series, Del Rey refocused their efforts on a wider range of novels from across the entire timeline, and used the next few years to ease out the novels that had already been announced and were still under contract. The first came in 2012 with Scourge, written by Jeff Grubb, which followed a Jedi Master trying to uncover the killer of his apprentice, set during the end of the Bantam era. This was followed by Mercy Kill, a new installment of the fan-favorite X-Wing series, penned by Aaron Allston. Other series were being phased out, such as The Old Republic, which saw its last installment, Annihilation, arrive in November.

2013 brought out several titles: a final novel from Timothy Zahn, Scoundrels, described as ‘Ocean’s 11 in the Star Wars universe’; The Last Jedi, a standalone conclusion to the Coruscant Nights trilogy; Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void, by Tim Lebbon, which took place 25,000 years before the battle of Yavin; Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller, a story about the Jedi Master in the years following Revenge of the Sith; and Crucible, by Troy Denning, which served as a sort of conclusion to the Fate of the Jedi, and serves as the final novel in the franchise, chronologically. Denning wished he had some foresight about the end of the Expanded Universe while he was writing it. “[Crucible] was as far as the EU went,” he said. “[It] was being written when Disney bought Lucasfilmt, and it would have been very different if I’d known that the EU was going away.”

In the same year, Del Rey announced a new set of books which would form a loose trilogy that would take the EU back to basics. Martha Wells, James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank) and Kevin Herne would each write a novel about the original trilogy’s central trio of characters: Leia Organa, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, respectively.

Wells led the trilogy with Razor’s Edge. In 2012, she remembered, she “got the phone call from my agent when I was at ArmadilloCon in Austin, then wasn’t able to tell any of my friends there about it.” Wells had grown up a Star Wars fan and had written fan fiction for it as a teenager, and she’d read some of the EU novels over the years. “I felt like Past Me would never forgive Present Me if I turned it down.”

Her book was to be set in the period between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, and Wells decided to focus on the aftermath of the destruction of Alderaan. “I wanted to look at how Leia had reacted to it, and how other survivors might have reacted,” she said. “And I also wanted the story to be a fast-paced adventure, because that’s one of my favorite things to write.” Wells’ novel came out in the later part of 2013, after the announcement that Disney had bought out LucasFilm, but before they had determined that the Expanded Universe would be eliminated.

Razor was followed by Honor Among Thieves, by James S.A. Corey, known for their ongoing space opera series The Expanse.

Related: Evolution of an Epic: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse.

Daniel Abraham noted that Honor Among Thieves was an easy sell for the authors: it was about Han Solo, and it took place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The book was “meant to be a kind of entryway into the Expanded Universe,” he said. “The idea was that readers wouldn’t need to know a lot of the background in order to come in.”

The Expanded Universe had long since reached the point where it was daunting to beginners. The new initiative would help provide an entry point. The authors were aided by a sort of back to basics approach: “We wanted to really match the classic characters from the film with as little of what would come later as we could.” Abraham explained. “We wanted to have the younger Luke still be an enthusiastic farmboy who hadn’t studied to be a Jedi yet. And Leia still be reacting to what happened to Alderaan. And Han when he wasn’t quite joined up with the rebellion yet. It was interesting to watch the films and see what Harrison Ford had done with Han and then try to match that.”

At the time, neither Abraham nor Ty Franck realized theirs would be the final book in the Expanded Universe. On April 25, LucasFilm announced the creation of a new story group, and the fact that any books from that point forward would be worked through that, while the older EU novels would be rebranded and excised from the larger continuity. “After us, they turned out the lights.” Abraham reflected. “It’s a little melancholy in that none of the things we kicked off are going to be followed up on.”

Some of the books that had already been commissioned, such as Kevin Hearne’s Luke Skywalker novel Heir to the Jedi and James Luceno’s Tarkin, were held over and absorbed into the new canon.

Denning believe Lucasfilm didn’t take the “decanonization” decision lightly. “Crucible was really kind of one of those things that helped them crystalize that thought process. We [didn’t] know how the new movies would be written, and based on not knowing those concepts, they knew that they have better not move those timelines forward.”

There was a lot of information for the Lucasfilm story team to go through: just what stories were important to the larger narrative? Ultimately, the decision was made: the novels, games, comics, and other items that moved past Return of the Jedi would be pulled out of the continuity established by the films.

With one end came a new beginning.

The seventh Star Wars film, directed by J.J. Abrams, went into production shortly after Lucasfilm changed hands. With a setting three decades after Return of the Jedi, the company had several choices during the initial planning: they could keep the sprawling EU story in place and create a film that existed alongside it, they could eliminate some elements and keep others within the canon, or they could wipe the slate clean. They opted for the latter: the Expanded Universe, they reasoned, would likely constrain the options available to the film’s writers, director and producer.

“It became very clear that if we were to adhere to the Expanded Universe it would have been a very tricky thing to navigate,” Abrams said to io9. “It wasn’t even clear what is canon in the Expanded Universe. And I don’t think the vast majority of Star Wars fans have ever read [an EU] novel. We can’t try and please every fan of that universe first. We have to try and tell the best version of a Star Wars movie.”

The decision was made: the patchwork of stories that had made up the Expanded Universe would be rendered non-canon and a new series of novels, coordinated with the Lucasfilm Story Group, would begin to rebuild the chronology following Return of the Jedi. The older EU books wouldn’t go out of print: they would be rebranded as “Legends.” The first book to take place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens was Aftermath, authored by Chuck Wendig. The novelization of the new  film goes right back to the franchise’s print roots: Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the original Star Wars novelization, penned the adaptation.

To a person, the authors interviewed for this article said that they would have likely made the same decision: they were playing with someone else’s intellectual property, and with the width and complexity of the Expanded Universe, it would be impossible for a new movie to pick up the story in an accessible manner, though Denning said if he’d realized that the entire Expanded Universe would be decanonized, he would have focused his final book a little differently, and would like to have seen where their plans would have ended up.

The Expanded Universe was an incredible publishing experiment the likes of which hadn’t been attempted before., as hundreds of individual authors, editors, and artists came together to continue the story begun by George Lucas in 1977.

To fans of the Expanded Universe, the stories created by Timothy Zahn, Kathy Tyers, Kevin J. Anderson, Michael A. Stackpole and others were genuinely part of a larger story that extended far beyond the six films. Thy added years of new adventures, triumph, and heartbreak to the saga, becoming as important as the films–to some, more important–in developing the events occurring in that galaxy far, far away.

The collective efforts of Lou Aronica, Lucy Wilson, Sue Rostoni, Shelly Shapiro, Betsy Mitchell, and more helped construct a massive shared world that authors—all fans themselves—expanded, building an overarching story of the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in a way that had never been attempted before.

Along the way, Del Rey and Lucasfilm learned innumerable lessons: the novels became tighter, as details were shared across books and authors. Books went from standalone experiments probing in the dark, to incredible shared-author projects, to short, intense arcs that leapt the plot forward.

As a fan who literally grew up with these books, seeing the status of the Expanded Universe change was sad, but I can’t help but feel that a clean slate is an interesting opportunity. It free the new films of the baggage from the novels, but allows the Lucasfilm brain trust to tap into the collective wisdom of the fans of the EU. There’s a general consensus as to what worked and what didn’t, one that will inform the next generation of stories.

The Expanded Universe may have been excised from the canon, but it’s still out there. Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn is as menacing as ever, while Stackpole’s X-Wing dogfights continue to delight alongside thrilling action sequences in The Force Awakens. Parts of it live on: names like Coruscant and Nightsisters are all embedded in the canon, building blocks that originated from the West End Games repository of information. If the WEG books are like the source code that powered the Expanded Universe, then the operating system that powers Star Wars has been reformatted, but will continue to run on the same software.

Indeed, when I finally sat down to experience The Force Awakens last night (no spoilers here), I realized something: the new movie does exactly what the originals films did—it plants its story in a vast, unexplored corner of the universe, only hinting at countless as-yet-untold tales. We can only guess at which characters will get their own spin-off novels, and I’m eagerly anticipating the new adventures Lucasfilm, Del Rey, and their authors will come up with.

The Expanded Universe will live on in the minds and imaginations of fans for years and decades to come. The merits of the novels will be debated across message boards, Twitter, and Facebook, and the new crop of books will be compared to their predecessors. The books will sit on the shelves of public libraries and bookstores, waiting for eager, ambitious readers to discover them.

Daniel Abraham best summed up the end of the Expanded Universe: “I’m not big on canonicity in these things. Which Batman’s the one true Batman? I admire the stories in the EU. They’re still just as good as they were before. Not a word has changed.”

Click here to read other installments in this five-part series.

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