I don’t generally read Star Wars novels.
I read and loved Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Brian Daley’s Han Solo at Star’s End decades ago because they were on the book store shelves and the shiny newness of the Star Wars films sparkled and glittered like the pyramids of Giza must have when they were completed. Plus, Foster had Vader, Luke, and Leia, and Daley had Han and Chewie, and both books added so much content to what at that time was a relatively narrow storyscape with enormous potential but little realization or growth.
Nearly forty years later, we stand at the other end of the spectrum. There is a shipping container full of stories dealing with the old school characters, the new school characters, their ancestors, their descendants, and so on. But I’m not really drawn to the novels as much as I was to those first releases. The stories are wonderful, but the shiny newness has long since worn off. I need a particular hook to pull a Star Wars (or Star Trek) novel off the shelf and devote my time to it.
There have been two recently. The first was Death Star by James Luceno, a book I have literally been waiting for decades to read. The second was Aftermath by Chuck Wendig.
Disclosure: I’m a Wendig fan. I have been since I discovered Wendig’s Terrible Minds website. I own a bunch of his books on how to improve writing. I devoured Backbirds and Mockingbird in a few hours when they were still new. Under the Empyrean Sky is waiting for me on my Kindle account for a long enough break in my schedule for me to read the silly thing. So when I heard that he was doing the official (i.e., Disney-approved) book that told what happened after Return of the Jedi ended, I was on board.
I’ve read the book. I liked it. I don’t love it the way I loved Mind’s Eye and Star’s End. But I can’t quite figure out where the Wendig hate is coming from.
I’m not going to write a whole thing on the problems that established Star Wars fans have with Wendig. Author friend Will Swardstrom has already written one of those, and it’s excellent.
Still with me? Okay, here we go.
The Galactic Empire’s new and improved Death Star is gone, the Imperial Fleet is scattered across the galaxy, and Darth Vader and his master, Emperor Palpatine, are dead as well. The celebrations across Coruscant are in full force, and as one determined crowd of citizens manages to topple the statue of the emperor outside the senate, others pick up pieces of debris and start chucking them at nearby police. The incident escalates into a riot, police give way to stormtroopers, and the real shooting begins.
The empire is dead. Long live the empire.
Wedge Antilles jumps his starhopper into the Akiva system, followed and captured by Admiral Rae Sloane. Sloane has other ships with her Star Destroyer task force, including the Ravager, the last Super Star Destroyer in operating condition. Sloane’s plan is to gather other high-ranking imperials–politicians, bankers, merchants, and officers–to her, and band together to form the backbone of the new and improved Galactic Empire.
But a lot is happening on Akiva. Bounty Hunter Jas Emari is looking to fulfill contracts on the same banker that Sloane is working on. Ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer Sinjir Rath Velus is looking to keep his head down–he’s painfully aware that his side lost–but neither of them can avoid Akiva’s worst loan shark, Surat Nuat. Rebel fighter pilot Norra Wexley is finally home after three years of battle–including the over Endor–to gather her son, Temmin, and escape to calmer placed. But Temmin has plans of his own which do not include leaving the planet he calls home. And Surat Nuat has plans of his own for Temmin and they don’t include Norra or her new friends.
Wedge is missed and Admiral “It’s a Trap!” Ackbar knows where he was last seen. While Akiva’s surface lends itself to politics, gang wars, treachery, wild high-speed escapes, and acts bravery, the space above it becomes the point of contention between Sloane’s and Ackbar’s space fleets.
Meanwhile, hell breaks loose throughout the galaxy as survivors of the decades-long civil war realize that the conflict hasn’t ended for them as much as it has entered a new phase. A longer and more dangerous phase. The imperials struggle to maintain a semblance of control as the politicians on Coruscant tries to re-establish the senate and turn the New Republic into an official galactic government.
Aftermath is a rare book in that it openly and immediately acknowledges that the Empire and the New Republic are really two sides of the same coin. Empire and republic are two words that refer to roughly the same thing: power and organization. The connotations are abstract: rule by force, versus rule by self-determination. Control itself is beyond question. But the films, old and new, gloss over the infrastructure, the nuts and bolts that keep the galaxy revolving on its axis except when our heroes blunder into them. It’s easy to assume that the Star Wars universe begins and ends with awesome space battles. It’s a lot more work to imagine the millions of pilots, engineers, miners, industrialists, bankers, soldiers, laborers, etc., whose time, energy and investment made those space battles possible or influenced their outcome. And we all knew the rebels would win because that was the story the George Lucas wanted to tell. Wendig’s narrative is far more ambiguous.
The frame that’s used here is almost apocalyptic: the people in charge are are dead, but the machine cranks on. All the trappings of the official economy are still in order. The factories build parts for ships and weapons that still come off assembly lines, letters of credit still clear banks, construction firms still lobby for contracts, and the legerdemain of politics continues unabated. Below that is the shadow economy, composed of bounty hunters, mercenaries, information brokers, pirates, informants, and outright criminals. The thing that Wendig remembers is that both sides needed all these elements to keep their part of the conflict alive. In that respect, little has changed except the stakes and the players.
Beyond that, Aftermath is very much the first work of an extended story. Wendig is setting up future conflict and continuity, showing us the shape of his story arc, and this arc is wide indeed. It has many moving parts, all of which carry considerable history with them as they appear on stage.
I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with it.