Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Splinter In My Mind's Eye

So there this gaming blog I sometimes read, and Jeff Rients was talking a while back about how different the Star Wars universe would look if you knew nothing about any of the films past the first one and all the retconning Lucas did. And a few days later, while it was still obviously on his mind, he mentioned Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the Star Wars sequel written by Alan Dean Foster and published in 1978, the year after "Star Wars" came out.

I didn't remember much about the novel except that I didn't much like it, so I reread it last week. And I still don't much like it.

The novel takes place on a planet called Mimban. Luke, Leia and the droids are on their way to a secret rebel meeting on a neighboring planet when Leia's Y-Wing fighter develops an engine malfunction and she sets down on Mimban to effect some quick repairs. Problem is, Mimban is a savage, mostly unexplored planet, and both Leia's ship and Luke's are irreparably damaged in the descent. Even worse, the settlement they thought was a repair station or scientific outpost is actually a secret Imperial mining facility. And the planet holds another secret, a fabled mystic gem called the Kaiburr Crystal that can magnify a person's ability with the Force.

According to Wikipedia, the novel was written as a proposed low-budget sequel should "Star Wars" perform as Lucas apparently expected and tank at the box office. There's even mention that Foster had a space dogfight sequence in the book that Lucas nixed because it would cost too much to film.

In other words, even though books have no effects budget, Foster was apparently obliged to write his to the budget of a TV show. So that, for instance, not only is there no space dogfight (leading Leia's Y-Wing to crash-land because of a coincidental and unidentified engine malfunction), but later scenes in an Imperial jail feature metal bars that disappear and reappear instantly, like most of the special effects on the Lost in Space TV series. Also, since Lucas apparently did not have Harrison Ford signed for a sequel yet, Han Solo does not appear in the book and is only mentioned in passing a couple of times.

There are also clear elements of sexual tension between Luke and Leia, though they don't go anywhere. It appears pretty clear that Lucas had not yet decided to make Leia Luke's sister. This is further supported by the fact that, though Leia fights Vader with Luke's lightsaber, she displays no Force sensitivity at all. The presence of the Kaiburr Crystal, which both Vader and Luke can sense pulling at them, doesn't affect her at all.

Not that I mind the fact that Luke and Leia appear to have a budding romance in this book. That's not my complaint with it at all, nor that it departs from later established canon. After all, I didn't like the book upon first reading, when there was no other canon.

So what didn't I like? A few things. Number one, it didn't really feel like "Star Wars." The scope of the story, limited almost completely to one swampy Dagobah-like planet, felt cramped and small compared to the sweeping interplanetary action of the movie. Also, although the first film built tension by intercutting often between parallel storylines--Luke and Ben trying to get to Alderaan, Vader and Tarkin interrogating Leia to find the rebel base--the book doesn't really do that. Luke and friends flee through the woods, knowing that Imperial troops are in pursuit, but the reader never sees the pursuit. It's kind of boring.

Number two, I didn't like the way Foster used Vader. Foster first sets up the local Captain-Supervisor of the mine as this bad-ass villain, then brings in Vader, but holds him back until the final confrontations. It felt kind of cheap and exploitative to have Vader, such a constant menacing presence in the film, reduced to a cameo walk-on in the sequel just so fans wouldn't feel cheated. If Vader's going to be the bad guy, bring him in early and let him do his thing. If not, then let the other bad guy be the bad guy. As it is, the villainy is spread too thin between two minor figures.

And yes, by "minor figure," I'm speaking of Vader, because he's a chump here. Another big problem I had with the book was the way Foster writes the Force. Taking heed of Kenobi's admonitions to "Let go your conscious self," Foster has Luke using the Force instinctively and unconsciously. Luke blacks out, and when he wakes up, people are telling him, "Wow that was awesome." And despite having only a few hours at most of instruction from Kenobi (on the Millenium Falcon from Tattooine to Alderaan), Luke faces Darth Vader, a Jedi Knight who's been using the Force longer than Luke has been alive, and beats him in a lightsaber duel. At one point. Luke even repels an energy sphere attack by throwing up his arms and closing his eyes like Lois Lane fainting at an imminent flying saucer collision. Please.

I also expected the MacGuffin to come into play in the end. Although I didn't really buy the idea that Luke could beat Vader on his own, I certainly was prepared to see Luke whip Vader's ass with the help of the Kaiburr Crystal, which doesn't even come into play until the fight is over. Halla the crazy woman makes off with Crystal during the fight, and neither Luke nor Vader really seem to care, even though the Crystal is the reason they were all there.

And worst of all, I hated the ending, in which Hin and Kee, the two faithful alien allies who supported Luke throughout the book and were pivotal to his success at several points, were basically forgotten and left to rot once Luke had what he wanted. Luke didn't try to save them with his magical healing crystal, nor did he even consider it. Once Vader was defeated, Luke didn't even offer a moment of regret for the loss of his friends. Instead, the book ends with everyone amused at Threepio's cluelessness. It's very weird and off-kilter.

But it is a fascinating look at how the "Star Wars" universe might have developed. Luke going to a swamp planet to develop his Force abilities is clearly a foreshadowing of Dagobah, with crazy Halla and her magic Force crystal standing in for Yoda. And the big battle between the Imperial soldiers and the native alien Coway tribe clearly scratches the same itch for Lucas that the Ewok battle in "Return of the Jedi" and the Gungan-Droid battle in "The Phantom Menace" did, with primitives pitting themselves against the most advanced technology and prevailing.

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