Building a Galaxy: Expanding the Universe

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: Expanding the Universe

Following the successes of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, Bantam Spectra found it had stumbled on a gold mine: the public had a ravenous appetite for new stories in the franchise, and over the first four years of the program, a timeline was slowly being written, under the careful watch of the publisher and their partners at Lucasfilm, chronicling the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo.

With each new entry, a larger picture of the post-Return of the Jedi story began to appear: an epic struggle between the New Republic and the Empire for control of the galaxy, told through the eyes of Luke Skywalker’s growing Jedi Order and the Solo family. As the books continued, the stories were beginning to grow more complicated.

Read Part One: Origin Stories and Part Two: Heir to the Trilogy

In these still early years, Bantam Spectra editor Betsy Mitchell reached out to author Barbara Hambly, who had placed a short story in Kevin J. Anderson’s Tales of Mos Eisley Cantina. Mitchell had a new direction that she wanted to explore: a love interest for Luke Skywalker.

“I didn’t need much convincing," Hambly explained. "I was an unshakeable Star Wars fan from the moment I first saw it." After she was recruited, she began to write Children of the Jedi, which would take place several months after Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy. In it, Luke Skywalker comes across an abandoned ship in the depths of space with the spirit of a long-dead Jedi Knight, Callista Masana, aboard.

“I have always loved haunted house stories, so I did [it] as a haunted house book,” Hambly said. “While I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, people were still finding little nests of isolated Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands, stationed there in World War Two, who weren’t aware that the war was long over (I think the last poor fellow they found in 1985!), which I think turned my mind towards the thought of people—and computers—who are still fighting a war that’s been over for years, simply because nobody has told them to stop.”

Mitchell noted that the stories that Bantam Spectra had begun to put together were large and complicated, and as a result, the company opted to simply expand upon them: “Some stories just work better at a greater length. So rather than keep the writer working for a year or more on one long book, we decided to bring them out in duology or trilogy form. ”

One early example of this was Roger MacBride Allen’s Corellian trilogy, which delved a bit into Han Solo’s past, as well as events taking place long after Return of the Jedi. The trilogy was released in 1995, and was comprised of Ambush At Corellia, Assault at Selonia, and Showdown at Centerpoint. The longer trilogy was the furthest book out in the chronology, and considered not only Han Solo’s past, but also the lives of his children.

As Anderson’s books were hitting bookshelves in 1994, the team behind the project was changing: Mitchell had left Bantam Spectra for a new position at Warner Books, replaced by Tom Dupree and Janna Silverstein.

Mitchell was incredibly important to the formation of the Star Wars line: she championed Timothy Zahn to write the first trilogy, and her personal tastes informed her acquisition decisions: “I was the one signing up novels, and that was a story I wanted to read,” she said. With new visionaries in place, the types of stories being commissioned began to change.

While Callista was set up to become Luke Skywalker’s love interest, other changes were put into place: fans had taken a liking to a character introduced in Zahn’s novels, Mara Jade, and the decision was made to eventually link the pair up. Hambly and Anderson shifted those plans. Bantam recommended simply killing off Callista, but both Anderson and Hambly disagreed. They felt that that wouldn’t be as emotionally powerful, so they changed the trilogy so Darksaber would be used to take Callista out of the picture, sending her on a quest to rediscover the Force. Children of Jedi appeared in bookstores in 1995, with Darksaber arriving shortly thereafter. Planet of Twilight wrapped up the arc in 1997.

In her novels, Hambly worked to introduce some new thematic material into the Star Wars universe: Callista’s narrative drew its influences from cyberpunk, while she also looked “to address the culture of that world—the Imperial ‘high culture’ and the cultures of the individual planets—as cultures. As if this were a Jane Austen novel instead of Star Wars.”

At the same time, Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta were hard at work on a new series aimed at younger readers, The Young Jedi Knights, while Moesta and Nancy Richardson worked on another youth-aimed series: Junior Jedi Knights. Each series would follow some of the newer, younger characters, such as Han and Leia's children, Jaina and Jacen. While aimed for a younger audience, “the stories and the writing were pretty much at the same level as my adult novels,” Anderson said. Unlike the earlier young adult novels, these were designed to fit better into the existing continuity.

More complicated projects were on the way. Following with Mitchell’s assertion that the stories that Bantam was working to tell were more complicated than a single installment, Bantam began to explore some new projects that went beyond a single author pitching their story for the franchise.

Image: Andrew Liptak

The first came in 1994, shortly after LucasArts released a flight simulator called X-Wing. It was enormously successful game for the growing home PC market, and Bantam began to explore the feasibility of releasing a line of novels that would build on that particular franchise.

Bantam Spectra approached Michael A. Stackpole, an author who had written military-style books in worlds such as Battletech, and who had worked with games in the 1980s, and asked him to write an initial four-book arc. After accepting, Stackpole made the trip to Skywalker Ranch, where he met with Lucy Wilson and Sue Rostoni to break the story. At the same time, Dark Horse Comics was also interested, and brought on Stackpole to help coordinate their stories, so that they would remain consistent.

The first comics came in 1995, taking place immediately after Return of the Jedi. With those released, Stackpole turned to the novels, pulling in some characters from the comics and bringing a cast of new ones. This was something different: rather than focusing on the core trio of Han, Luke, and Leia, the series highlighted background characters such as Wedge Antilles and Admiral Ackbar.

With the initial arc set before Zahn’s trilogy, Stackpole realized that with the military-style stories he was writing, he was in an ideal place to show off how the New Republic began to take over the Empire’s territory.

X-Wing: Rogue Squadron hit stores in 1996, and was followed that year by Wedge’s Gambit and The Krytos Trap. Stackpole’s final book in the arc, The Bacta War, arrived in 1997. Upon their publication, each became a New York Times bestseller, something that surprised everyone — expectations had been lowered because the books featured a different cast.

Given the success, Bantam wanted additional books, but Stackpole urged the publisher to bring on another writer: Aaron Allston. Allston, who had also worked in the gaming industry, was to write three additional novels. His books followed a new unit: Wraith Squadron, and his stories took on a different, more humorous track. Wraith Squadron appeared in March 1998, Iron Fist in July 1998 and Solo Command in February 1999. Stackpole returned the same year with Isard’s Revenge, while Allston completed another installment, Starfighters of Adumar.

The X-Wing series demonstrated an important thing to Bantam: up to that point, each of the Star Wars books had largely remained with the central cast of characters seen in the movies. The successes of the series helped to demonstrate that they weren’t essential to the success of other books, and helped to push the boundaries of the Expanded Universe by introducing other new characters that readers would follow. Indeed, a few years later, Stackpole wrote I, Jedi, which followed his lead character, Corran Horn.

Bantam Spectra had another complicated stories to map out. By 1993, Lucasfilm had made a decision: they would begin to work on a new trilogy of movies, while also re-releasing the original three films for A New Hope’s 20th anniversary. The next big project that would serve as a marketing and merchandising test of Lucasfilm’s franchisees: Shadows of the Empire.

Dupree had worked with author Steven Perry for another project, a novelization for the movie The Mask, and asked Perry if he’d be interested writing for a much larger franchise. “I jumped on it,” Perry recounted. “A chance to put some of my favorite movie characters through their paces? Couldn’t pass that by.”

The project would involve more than the typical parties: representatives from Dark Horse Comics, LucasArts and Bantam Spectra, and Kenner and Lewis Galoob Toys came together for a central meeting to figure out how to put together a collaborative story. Perry said he “was given to understand that since it had been a while, they were gearing up for the new movies, and wanted to do a kind of test run. [Shadows of the Empire] had everything except the movie, and they wanted to see how the parts would mesh.” The dry-run would test out how well each group could collaborate when the real merchandising push came.

At the meeting, Perry came up with several character concepts, while “each of the licensees offered up what they wanted or needed — Dark Horse wanted to feature Boba Fett, the game guys wanted a motorcycle chase, the toy folks had ideas of what characters they wanted to feature.” He jotted everything down and began work on a detailed outline that incorporated all of the ideas.

The outline grew to become a story bible, which in turn informed the creation of the novel and the ancillary parts that accompanied it. Perry spent four months writing the novel before turning it in to his editors. As he did so, he spoke a with his counterparts at Dark Horse to make sure that they had their stories straight, and consulted with some of the franchise’s prior authors for advice.

Perry was excited for the project because of the ability to explain a couple of untold periods in Star Wars lore — the story was set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and served to set up the final film.

In 1996, the project was rolled out into stores. In April, Varese Sarabande released a soundtrack composed by Joel McNeely. Perry’s novel appeared in May, and was followed by Dark Horse's comic series through October. In December, the final piece of the puzzle hit stores: the Shadows of the Empire video game.

The project was a success, and between Shadows of the Empire and the X-Wing series, the Expanded Universe was becoming more complex. Not only were authors working to conform to stories published as books, they were beginning to coordinate between comic books and video games to maintain a consistent storyline.

By this point, Lucasfilm made a change in a long-standing policy: they wanted to tell the early story of Han Solo. It’s a move that made a certain amount of sense, considering the original trilogy was set to be re-released to theaters. Dupree approached author A.C. Crispin to pen the trilogy.

Han Solo was Crispin’s favorite character, and she began to work on the project, with some stipulations. Han Solo’s parents were off limits — he couldn’t know who they were. Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine couldn’t appear, and Han’s first encounter with Chewbacca, and the story of how he freed him from slavery, was also off the table.

Crispin also had to work around stories that had already been established in the 1980s by Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith. In her first book, The Paradise Snare, Crispin played out an origin story of a younger Han Solo, before jumping ahead several years to The Hutt Gambit, which worked around the older materials. The final installment, Rebel Dawn, helped to lead up to the events of A New Hope.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch joined the growing ranks of Star Wars authors when she published The New Rebellion in 1996. She noted that it was intimidating to enter an established and growing world: “I was a fan, and I knew how harsh the fans could be about things that didn’t fit in.”

With a body of work that preceded her entry, Rusch had the advantage of seeing what worked and what didn’t in earlier novels. “I took all the elements I loved about the movies and figured out what made them work,” she recalled. “Then I figured out which of the previous books I liked as well, and figured out what made them work.” She wrote the novel in late 1994, and coordinated with Lucasfilm to ensure it fit with the established canon.

Following The New Rebellion, Rusch met with Kevin J. Anderson and Lucasfilm officials to discuss the creation of a new series, only to have those plans thrown into disarray. Around this time, Bantam Spectra began to revisit how it paid authors: they had recently changed their license agreements with Lucasfilm, which raised the amounts that Bantam Spectra owed the company. With the sales volume declining, the publisher decided to change the arrangement from a traditional royalty model, where authors earned an advance and money per copy sold, to one in which authors would receive a single, upfront payment.

The change was met by intense criticism from authors and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, SFWA.

On October 1, the organization’s president, Michael Capobianco, sent a letter to Bantam Spectra’s president, Irwyn Applebaum, stating, “If Bantam persists in its present course, we will inform our membership and all interested parties that these contracts do not meet professional standards. We will also be obliged to oppose the flat fee scheme by negative publicity and direct appeals to Lucasfilm.” He sent an additional protest to Lucasfilm, blaming their contract negotiations for the new pay structure.

Lucasfilm, however, wasn’t behind the shift in pay, according to Lucy Wilson: “The novel authors were paid by the publisher, not by Lucasfilm. When their payment structure changed, that was Bantam’s decision.”

The reaction among the pool of Star Wars authors was mixed. Some denounced the publisher and refused to work under the new contract; others opted to continue to write for the franchise. Rusch was caught in the middle: according to her, her name was affixed to the letter, despite the fact that she wasn’t a member of the organization. The series that she was working on with Anderson ended up being cancelled, and Rusch was never invited back.  “I haven’t been able to work with Lucasfilm again — through no fault of my own. To say that I’m disappointed is an understatement.”

Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta noted that they would finish out their contractual obligations with Bantam Spectra, but wouldn’t write more books for the company: “Both my wife and I will not be writing any more Star Wars novels under the Flat Fee Contracts; however we will continue to write the paperback Young and Junior Jedi series.”

Steve Perry, who wrote Shadows of the Empire, did not sign the letter, and didn’t think that what Bantam Spectra was offering was a bad deal: “I had gotten the royalty and a small advance on [Shadows of  Empire], and I liked that. I made more in the long run, but the flat-fee was a goodly sum, and it would have taken some time to get past that much to a royalty.” Still, he had concerns: “…there is a worry that such a deal will set a precedent and that shared universe work will all become flat fee. ”

A.C. Crispin, who had just finished her first trilogy, also slammed the deal: “The problem here as I see it is that it’s just a done deal; it’s a flat offer, no negotiation. Personally, I’d rather stake my abilities as a writer who cares about her work. Who puts a lot of time, effort, and research into producing the very best tie in book I can, and get a negotiated contract for a small advance and royalty so I would not feel ‘just like a hired hand.’ I want a stake in how well my books sell. ”

This wasn’t a universal feeling, though: Michael A. Stackpole noted that he was sticking with the publisher and franchise: “Above and beyond the money stuff, I’m writing these books because I want to write them. I’ve got more than enough work in my own universes to work on, but I like the Star Wars universe, love the characters I’ve created, and I want to finish off their stories”

Stackpole noted that his final X-Wing novel, Isard’s Revenge, and his hardcover standalone, I, Jedi, were written under the new contract terms, saying that because his older X-Wing novels still received royalties, the new books he sold would likely translate into ancillary earnings from the increased sales of earlier books.

By the end of the 1990s, Bantam Spectra commissioned Timothy Zahn to write another novel, one that would roughly close out their era of stories. In it, the Empire would do something unthinkable: it would come to peace terms with the New Republic, bringing the galactic civil war to an end. As this happens, forces collude to interfere, while Zahn’s long-lost villain Thrawn is rumored to have returned, decades after his death.

Zahn’s story was originally slated to be a single novel, but expanded into two: Specter of the Past and Visions of the Future. In many ways, Zahn’s Thrawn duology was the last hurrah of the Bantam Spectra publishing era, closing out the adventures with the author and story that had started it all.

Looking back, the Bantam Spectra books helped to define the Expanded Universes: the further adventures of not only the central heroes of the saga, but the entire galaxy. The appeal of Star Wars has always been, in part, the trappings of the universe, in addition to Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo.

It’s clear the books’ success was firmly rooted in the attitudes of Lucasfilm and the individual authors, who strove to match the stories from the films, extrapolating forward. But as the Expanded Universe grew, it became clear that fans were involved in the bigger picture: what was the fate of the Rebellion and the Empire, and how did the heroes remain involved? Furthermore, who else was involved in the story? Through Mara Jade and Corran Horn, fans found new characters to root for, bringing them to levels almost on par with that of their movie counterparts.

By the end of the 1990s, however, there was a creeping sense of exhaustion within the franchise, both from Bantam Spectra and Lucasfilm: the novels weren’t selling as well, and they had begun to feel repetitive, featuring a “superweapon of the week” formula.

That’s not to discount the phenomenal work that went into the Expanded Universe: Bantam Spectra did some interesting things with their novels, collaborating with fellow licensees like Dark Horse Comics and West End Games to ensure that they were producing a consistent continuity, while also working on multiple-author cycles, such as the Callista trilogy and the X-Wing series. Moreover, the continuity was the product of a collaborative effort between many authors, producing an epic story that grew as it was told.

Above all, Bantam Spectra arguably saved the franchise. Without the massive success of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its followup novels, Star Wars may very well have continued to dwindle, becoming just another fondly remembered film. The books demonstrated there was a strong appetite for new stories, and while probably not the lynchpin to Lucas’ decision to begin work on the prequels, it certainly didn’t hurt. What the Expanded Universe most certainly did was to create and foster a vibrant fan base that remained engaged with, and loyal to, the once-dormant franchise.

And even as Bantam Spectra’s time in the galaxy far, far away was coming to an end, Lucasfilm had greater plans for the Expanded Universe…

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.