Building a Galaxy: Endings and Beginnings

While the Star Wars franchise is best known for its films, it's also well-known for its sprawling novel series, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. While it's no longer canon, it kept Star Wars going for decades, and still retains a loyal following.

Building a Galaxy: Endings and Beginnings

On October 30th, 2012, Disney dropped a bombshell announcement: it announced that it had purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas, and it was planning on releasing a new Star Wars trilogy, as well as a handful of other standalone films starting in 2015.

When Lucas had completed Revenge of the Sith, fans had largely assumed that the franchise would continue with projects like The Clone Wars or spinoff novels and comics, but that it might be a while — if ever — before a new Star Wars film hit theaters. That all came into question with the announcement of a new film, and some worries: what would happen to the books? Would Lucasfilm opt to adapt some of the novels, like Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy? Would we eventually see The New Jedi Order in theaters?

Plotting out the future of the franchise would prove to be a challenge, even before the arrival of the new films.

Read Part One: Origin Stories, Part Two: Heir to the Trilogy, Part Three: Expanding the Universe, Part Four: New Publisher, New Direction, and Part Five: Unexplored Territory

By the time it ended, The New Jedi Order was a massive project for Del Rey: 19 novels, 11 authors, and a galaxy-changing conclusion. Now, it had to figure, the publisher had to figure out how to advance the storyline in a way that would attract and retain fans. Its first post-NJO project was a sequel to the massive series, The Dark Nest.

Star By Star author Troy Denning came on take stock of the immediate aftermath of the series. The NJO had a massive impact on the younger generation of Jedi , and he focused on how they were dealing with their losses and moving on from their experiences in the trilogy as they dealt with an alien hive mind in The Joiner King, The Unseen Queen, and The Swarm War.

As Denning was wrapping up that trilogy, editor Shelly Shapiro asked him for his thoughts on how to proceed with a new, shorter series of nine books.

One of the biggest complaints for The New Jedi Order was how big and uneven it was. Bringing on so many authors for the project made it nearly unmanageable, and the quality of the series was uneven, as the story followed a much wider group of characters. “They also felt, I think," Denning mused, that "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.”

So, Denning worked on coming up with a shorter, focused series. “I wrote up a couple of pages that outlined the [Legacy of the Force] series,” he explained. “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.”

The series would be written by Denning, Aaron Allston, and Karen Traviss. The first novel, Allston’s Betrayal, hit bookstores in May 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. The NJO was a major turning point for the franchise by passing the baton from the original principle characters to a new set: Jacen and Jaina Solo and their companions. This new 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.

Legacy of the Force seemed to be a hit formula — nine books, three authors — and it proceeded with another followup project, Fate of the Jedi. This series was set after the brutal war that was instigated by Jacen Solo-turned Darth Caedus, and followed various characters as they worked to not only rebuild the Jedi Order, but deal with a long-forgotten evil that was about to reemerge. The series featured the return of Allston and Denning, as well as author Christie Golden. Allston led off the series with Outcast, followed by Golden’s Omen and Denning’s Abyss.

To stave off series fatigue, Del Rey began to focus on producing more standalone 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, while also helping to set up the next big series, Fate of the Jedi.

Other authors explored earlier time frames: Timothy Zahn wrote Outbound Flight, finally answering some lingering questions raised in Heir to the Empire, while Drew Karpyshyn went even further back for Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. exploring 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 was set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and the video game The Force Unleashed received a tie-in novel by Sean Williams.

Del Rey also used the period to experiment with genre a bit: it released Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber, billed as a horror novel, while Mathew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor was a throwback to the pulpy novels of the 1980s. For 2011’s Shadow Games, written by Michael Reaves and Maya Bohnhoff, Del Rey returned to a pitch from of Reaves and Steve Perry’s original pitches from the Clone Wars, Holostar. “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.

But despite the desire to shrink down long-running arcs and introduce standalone novels, there was no way to beat around the bush: the Star Wars Expanded Universe was big and foreboding to new fans. 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 long-time fans of the series had hung on from book to book, 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 franchise.

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.

Image: Andrew Liptak

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. And with the announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm, there was an air of uncertainty around the publishing project: would the books remain canon? Would Disney wipe the slate clean?

Somewhere along the line, Del Rey opted to hedge its bets before diving into another big trilogy: it canceled a long-planned trilogy by Christie Golden called Sword of the Jedi, which would have tied into the various post-NJO arcs, and would have followed Jaina Solo-Fel and her husband Jagged Fel.

Still, a handful of books were ready to hit stores over the next couple of years: Jeff Grubb wrote Scourge in 2012, about a Jedi Master trying to uncover the killer of his apprentice, set just after Timothy Zahn's Vision of the Future. Allston returned to the X-Wing series with Mercy Kill, while Drew Karpyshyn brought The Old Republic line to an end with 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 bit of a conclusion to the Fate of the Jedi, and has the distinction of being the last installment of the Expanded Universe, 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: Han, Luke, and Leia. It brought on a trio of new authors, Martha Wells, James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank), and Kevin Herne, who would each write a standalone novel about the original trilogy’s central trio of characters, set during the classic, original trilogy era.

The EU had long since reached the point where it was daunting to newcomers, and this 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.”

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 Corey's Honor Among Thieves, about Han Solo. Daniel Abraham noted that the book was an easy sell for the pair: it was about Han Solo, and it took place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and 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.”

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.”

Several books were already in production, like Hearne’s standalone Luke Skywalker novel Heir to the Jedi and James Luceno’s prequel novel Tarkin — they were were held over and absorbed into the new canon, and hit stores in 2014, just prior to the first sequel film, The Force Awakens.  

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.”

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. Set three decades after Return of the Jedi, the Abrams and his team had plenty of options for the future of the franchise — keep the keep the sprawling EU story in place and create a film that existed alongside it? Eliminate some elements and keep others within the canon? Or they could wipe the slate clean?  

Looking back, the choice is an easy one: keeping the Expanded Universe would constrain the storytellers, and provide an insurmountable amount of backstory for the larger public to return to the franchise with.

“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 told 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 wasn't without controversy: fans had spend decades growing up and living with the characters that we saw in the Expanded Universe, and while ending that particular storyline was necessary, it wasn't a popular decision for many. But elements of it lived on: fans pointed to elements of the sequel trilogy that seemed to draw some inspiration from the novels, and other fan-favorite characters, like Grand Admiral Thrawn, have been brought back into the fold thanks to the array of animated-and-live-action projects.

Related: Michael A. Stackpole's Rogue Squadron novels unlocked Star Wars' vast potential

The decision was made: the vast array of stories that had made up the Expanded Universe would be rendered non-canon and replaced by a new series of novels, coordinated with the Lucasfilm Story Group, would begin to rebuild the chronology following Return of the Jedi.

But those novels wouldn't go anywhere: Del Rey would keep them in print, rebranding them as “Legends.” The first book to take place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens was Chuck Wendig's Aftermath, and the novelization for The Force Awakens would take the franchise back to its original starting point: Alan Dean Foster, author of the very first Star Wars novel back in 1976.

To a person, all of the authors I spoke with for this series 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. But over the course of its creation, it was an incredible publishing experiment: one that brought together hundreds of authors, artists, and editors to build upon and expand the universe that George Lucas unveiled in May 1977. The series, created by Timothy Zahn, Kathy Tyers, Kevin J. Anderson, Michael A. Stackpole and others constructed a massive franchise in its own right, one that 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 and trilogies became tighter and focused. 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 frees 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 watched The Force Awakens for the first time in 2015, 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.

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.”

This feature was originally published on Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. I've reprinted it here with some edits and minor corrections.