* * *
Things changed the year I was born. When I say that, I’m usually talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union: the trick that whisked away the Iron Curtain and revealed, not the Evil Empire, but just a collection of states, confused, stumbling a little, trying to decide whether the past or the present was the hypnotism act. But this time I’m talking about Star Wars.
On May 1st of 1991, Heir to the Empire was published. It wasn’t the first Star Wars novel, but it might as well have been. It was the first in eight years, the first since Return of the Jedi. It was the first to be set after the films. (An extensive discussion of what, exactly, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye means for this claim has been omitted here. You’re welcome.)
It was the start of a whole new universe. (The Star Wars Expanded Universe, or EU for short. And yes, it does predate the European Union. It also has a weirdly similar but ultimately much cooler flag.)
Like most third-trimester fetuses, I was illiterate at the time, and so I can’t say I’ve been there from the beginning. But this universe, born just a few months before me, is one I would grow up in.
* * *
It’s hard to explain exactly how much the EU meant to me; I keep coming at it from different angles. I could tell you that I own hundreds of Star Wars novels, literally hundreds of them, that I slept with them overlooking my bed. I could tell you that I’m writing this in a room that contains a Lego TIE Defender, that the first thing I hunted for and bought with my first real adult paycheck was a Lego Star Wars set that wasn’t from the movies, that belonged to the larger universe.
I could tell you that my favorite mockery of Young Earth Creationism is that it proposes a universe smaller and younger than the EU (6,000 years and presumably 6,000 light-years vs. 25,000 years (at least) and 120,000 light years [not counting the Yuuzhan Vong galaxy and other extra-“Galaxy Far, Far Away” locations]). I could tell you about everyone I’ve impressed with that argument (nobody).
I could tell you about the time at Safeway that a guy behind me in line said he liked my Mythosaur-skull t-shirt, the design drawn from Boba Fett’s shoulder, and that when I said hey, thanks, he pulled up his sleeve and revealed the same pattern tattooed onto his shoulder. Turns out he was a member of the 501st Legion, Vader’s Fist, the world’s most serious Star Wars costuming association. (How serious? Very. Let’s leave it there.) I could explain that I knew what the 501st was, that I can identify them in the movies and talk about their history, how I know it started as a fan club but later became official.
I could tell you that I cannot remember being happier than the day I won the What’s The Story? contest, making my own small official contribution to the EU. It was a 250-word encyclopedia article about a spaceship in the background of Return of the Jedi, and I am about as proud of it as I am of my undergraduate thesis.
I could tell you that I still remember the playground swing I sat on when I heard that Chewbacca had died.
Hell, I stole these three-asterisk transitions from Heir to the Empire, and I haven’t re-read that book in years. What more do you want?
On April 25th, 2014, the EU came to a close. In retrospect, the novel-universe EU may have been dying for most of the time it’s been alive—a sad graph I made while working on this article shows a peak at 20 novels in the year of 1997, followed by a gradual and bumpy decline to the present. Disney, the new owner of Star Wars—
[Okay, pause. Let’s talk for a second about how weird it is that someone (even if that person is a faceless fictional metaperson like the Disney Corporation) owns Star Wars. How weird is that to you? Rest assured that to me it is far, far weirder. It’s like saying, oh, yes, Disney owns the moon, or the history of the UK from 1910 to 1960. (And now imagine that you grew up in the UK during that time.) And yet at the same time it was only because Lucasfilm owned Star Wars that there was a single coherent universe for me to have all the feelings about the universe that I did, and that I outlined below. So now think about how weird that is. Feeling appropriately unsettled? Good. Unpause.]
—April 25th, 2014, Disney announced that all new Star Wars content, going forward, would not be beholden to the 40 years of history that had come before. That while earlier materials might be used by future authors, the covenant of consistency was being broken. That the EU was being repackaged “under the new Legends banner.”
Legends. What a perfect name for everything that I feared.
My friend wrote on my Facebook wall “I feel like this means much more to you than it does to me.” He was right. Mostly what it meant was a sense of loss.
Something has been changed in my life, I hummed in my head, quoting the Talking Heads as I only do in my most emotionally intense moments. Something must be returned to us.
What did Disney take from me? It’s a tricky question. It’s not the joy of having read the books I loved, or the noble suffering of having finished The Crystal Star (sorry, Ms. McIntyre). No official-licensing announcement could change that. I’m still going to refer to Yoda: Dark Rendezvous (full title: Star Wars: Clone Wars: Yoda: Dark Rendezvous: Attack of the Colons) as the wisest book I’ve ever read. I’ll still keep quoting Shatterpoint about how to deal with bullies and with doubt, and I’ll always remember what Traitor did for me when I needed to learn how to believe in myself.
Nor have I lost a vision of the future. I’ve left the flock, faded into apostasy and stopped buying the new novels. (I was betrayed, funnily amusingly enough, by Betrayal. I do not accept what’s been done to Jacen Solo. As opposed to Traitor, which I loved. So it’s kind of a mixed bag with the titles.)
Oh, I check in, from time to time, go drift around Wookieepedia remembering the good old days. But they’ve moved on and so have I.
No, what I lost was a universe. A universe I could be right about, could be sure about. The boy I once was loved the Star Wars novels, yes, but not as much as he loved the encyclopedias. I reread the Essential Guide to Characters more eagerly than any other book. It was a bit of a bizarre choice: the Guide was spoiler-ridden and flat, turning the pulpy pulp of the novels into a few dry sentences per character. But I loved that book, because I wanted to know everything, and the Star Wars expanded universe was just the right size. It was large, and growing—hundreds of books, ultimately—but oh-so-safely finite, and oh-so-carefully consistent. I could tell that with just the right amount of effort, I could come to know it all.
“Know-it-all,” of course, is a dirty word. And I can see why. I was not the most pleasant conversationalist in those days, unless you had quite a lot to say about Star Wars. I still remember walking with my father, perplexed frustration in his voice as he tried to get me to talk about something other than X-Wings. He failed, that day. (But then, he probably wanted to talk about securities law, so, Dad, it takes one to raise one.)
I paid for it, too. My insistence on inhabiting a universe that others merely visited, if at all, left me lonely. When I found the rare person who shared some substantial portion of my interest, the strength of the connection I felt is, in retrospect, a little shocking. It took quite a deliberate bit of effort to get to the point where I could contain discussion of Star Wars just to appropriate contexts. So I don’t mean to present a dishonestly shiny view of things.
And yet, it seems to me we ignore the gift of a universe. My passion to know, to consume, to understand, to control the EU is regarded as the sad, bookish cousin of the fandom feelings. But why should it be? The project of carving out a space of control, of finding and seizing opportunities for mastery, is such an important part of childhood. It’s such an important part of life. It’s such a darling, nerdy type of love. We should be grateful for such a well-formed opportunity as the Star Wars EU provided. It’s hard to imagine a world built more beautifully to just the right scale.
Yes, perhaps it’s a little escapist. Perhaps it’s a little obsessive. There’s no doubt it’s sometimes a little silly. But it was a beautiful, spacious, precise universe I lived in, and it had space wizard fighter pilots with laser swords, so I kind of had it made.
Of course, the consistency I loved so much—the consistency that made it possible to talk about the Star Wars universe in such concrete terms—relied on the canon established by the license-holder. It relied on an institutional commitment to consistency in licensed materials, one that’s basically lacking in all other universes of comparable size (that I know of.) And now it’s gone. That’s what I’ve lost, and that’s why I mourn.
But we all lose our childhood homes, eventually. One way or another.
Another part of growing up is realizing that you get to choose what you believe in. So: call it Legends if you will. My passport still reads Star Wars Expanded Universe. Ask me about it, if you want to know. I can still go on for hours.