Heir to the Empire: Foreword, Introduction, and Afterword

will: Welcome to Force Visions. This week, something a little different: we’re going to discuss the Introduction, Foreword, and Afterword to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Heir to the Empire.

Though the 20th Anniversary Edition contains the novella “Crisis of Faith,” this is definitely not the time to discuss that story, so we’ll probably get to it at some future date. (Maybe when we do Allegiance and Choices of One, whenever that may be.)

So. The foreword to the book is by Howard Roffman, the president of Lucas Licensing. (A company/division that probably doesn’t exist, anymore, what with the Mouse…) He talks about how Star Wars was a huge brand while the movies were in theaters, but then “it all stopped…the world moved on.” From my perspective, that’s pretty amazing, given how much Star Wars is, well, everywhere now.

z: Roffman also says “The boys who bought the toys moved on to sports and girls…”

<clutches her, well, clutch of original early-80s editions of action figures, glares>

will: Nicely caught. Even for the ’80s, that’s more than a little sexist. Anyway. Lucas Licensing pretty much shut down Star Wars in 1986, giving it a rest for a few years, but eventually decided to try it again. They realized their market was older, now; the kids of yesteryear were in college or older, and they wanted to explore new ground, not just retread things.

This, I think, marks the difference between understanding Star Wars as a property, and as a cash machine. Compare these comments to the prequels…but I digress. Not much, though.

z: Roffman says something else here that emphatically does not make me glare: “…we reasoned, since Star Wars is all about story, the natural ground to explore was books–books that could expand the story.”

Compare that to the prequels.  Oh, I’m sure Lucas was telling a story too.  (“It was Anakin’s story, all along.”) But cramming in shinies here, there and everywhere, added to the fact that he’s not, um, a very good storyteller…

will: Roffman does talk about going to get Lucas’s blessing, which I can’t help but think of as comparable to asking for a benediction from the Pope or some other religious analogy. The interesting thing to note there is that apparently even then, the future beyond Jedi was fair game but the past before Star Wars was verboten. Also, no major characters could be killed off. Which is somehow appropriate, I feel, to the nature of Star Wars. No dark, grim reinterpretations (yet).

Roffman glosses over the process of shopping around the property. I can’t help but wonder about all the publishers who said no thanks to the project…maybe it made sense in 1989 when the deal was presented, but I can see a lot of those publishers kicking themselves when, as Roffman says, Heir premieres at the top of the Times Bestsellers list.

z: That’s one of those things that is obvious in retrospect.  I was too young and in the entirely wrong continent when the books came out, so I was not aware of them until at least five, six years later, when they started cropping up in used book stores around my hometown (some with stripped covers–yup, that trade was a thing).  And I snapped them up so, so fast.

will: And that’s about it, except for some cheerleading. So let’s go to the introduction, written by Zahn himself. This is the one I find the most interesting, naturally. Zahn was already a fairly well established SF author by 1989, having won a Hugo Award for a novella, “Cascade Point,” in 1984, and he’d also written a mil-SF trilogy for Baen and a handful of other novels by then. Still, it must have been a shock to get offered Star Wars.

z: In his own words, his agent called, and related the offer “[a]s I stood there staring out of a window in growing amazement…”

will: Zahn claims that Bantam had reached out to Lucasfilm, which is a bit at odds with the idea that Lucasfilm shopped around to publishers, but…details. Zahn was already under contract with Bantam (the novel he mentions working on at the time, Angelmass, was to Bantam–and was eventually published, in 2001, a good dozen years later. Not his best work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was published almost as it had been when Zahn put it down to pick up Star Wars), and I’m guessing the Hugo, the successful mil-SF, and who even knows what else, made him the right man for the job in the eyes of the publisher.

Anyway. After Zahn explains how he was, as was everybody at the time, a huge Star Wars fan, he gives a very real moment, saying that he was absolutely terrified at this opportunity. As is good and proper. This had to be Star Wars, effectively Episodes 7-9. Later authors could (and did, to greater or lesser successes) experiment with the formula, but the first stone had to fit perfectly. If it had failed he’d be saddled with “failed Star Wars author” for life.

z: <opens mouth> <closes mouth> <reaches for keyboard> <draws hands back> <sits on hands>

Around here, whether it was formulated that clearly in his mind then or is described with the 20/20  vision of hindsight, Zahn gives the specs for what the first Star Wars novel needed to be:

I was going to have to write Star Wars.  Not something science-fictiony or space-operatic with the name Star Wars on it.  I was going to have to write Star Wars. I would have to somehow capture the scope and feel of the universe; the faces and voices of the main characters, the ebb and flow and rhythm of the movies.  The readers had to hear Mark Hamill’s and Carrie Fisher’s and Harrison Ford’s voices inside my quotation marks. The people flipping through those pages needed to be able to hear John Williams’s music in the backs of their minds.

<points up> As the kids say nowadays, “This.”  This is someone who understood the job very thoroughly, up to and definitely, definitely including the role of the music.

will: For all that, how does one turn down this opportunity?

z: One… can, unfortunately.  There can be reasons.  If I’m very, very lucky, one of these days I will have a story to tell about such opportunities.  (Don’t worry, it will have a happy ending.)  But anyway, there are reasons.  The quickest that comes to mind is “schedule conflicts.”

Although, well, Star Wars.  Given the reward-to-risk ratio, I think schedules would have been cleared.

will: The bits about contract negotiations are interesting to me, certainly, especially as it relates to editorial control and changes, but I’ll gloss over them. Zahn’s time frame of six months of writing is impressive, and even more so the three months he apparently needs these days.

And then there’s the news—the book comes out in May 1991, and pretty much explodes on to the stage.  I don’t think I can imagine a comparison situation today. Largely because of Star Wars, tie-in projects like this are huge deals today. The idea that Bantam and Lucas would lowball the price because they weren’t sure it would sell just seems…ridiculous.

z: I think what they were going by is that there was no comparable product in the market, if you will allow me a little bit of marketing-speak.  There were no other franchises that were blooming after eight years of radio silence (to my knowledge); there were definitely no Star Wars products whatsoever.   I wouldn’t blame them for wanting to stack the deck a bit more.

And that’s another good point Will makes.  Star Wars changed quite a few things about how movies were made.  About a decade later, it also changed quite a few things about how tie-ins are regarded and produced.

will: And then it happens. Zahn’s words:

“It’s been said by some that the Thrawn Trilogy restarted Star Wars. That sounds very impressive, but it’s not really true. A more accurate statement would be that I was the first person since Jedi who was permitted to stick a fork into the piecrust to see if there was still any steam underneath.
There was steam. Man, was there steam.”

The success was unbelievable: sellouts, print run after print run, beating out John Grisham for the bestseller spot (and The Firm is considered Grisham’s masterpiece!), and even a Jeopardy question.

Of course, Zahn also has to grapple with what every artist does looking at old work: where he would do things differently. But unlike some *cough*, he handles it admirably, simply moving on.

And finally, the brief Afterword, by Zahn’s editor at Bantam, Betsy Mitchell. (Betsy is now retired from publishing houses, but now has an independent editorial-services company and is a “strategic advisor” to Open Road Media, an ebook publisher. That all happened after the Afterword, though.)

Betsy claims she knew Tim was right for the job, and gives the reasoning I outlined above: his Hugo, his mil-SF experience, and his familiarity with Star Wars. But she doesn’t outline how his was the name chosen. I suspect it wasn’t the first on the list. At any rate, Betsy also spills that Tim got a personal thanks from Lucas at some point, and that she “could have swung a cat under Tim’s boots” at that point.

And that’s about it. It’s an interesting historical look, in light of the powerhouse that is modern Star Wars.

Next week, it’s time to dive into Dark Force Rising.


z: I don’t remember if we mentioned this before in Force Visions, but if we didn’t, this is the right place for it.  The dedication to the 20th Anniversary Edition, in a sans-serif font that reminds me of the opening scroll of the movies (which I bet was intentional on the part of the book designer):

To all the fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe:
Thanks for letting me be a part of your lives these past two decades.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

Aw, Tim.

Yes.  Yes we have.

In fact I think it is entirely fair to say that I would have been and remained a Star Wars fan without the Expanded Universe, but nowhere near as involved a fan, and I definitely would not have gotten involved in any communities.  (My first foray into Usenet was in rec.arts.sf.written.star-wars.  Note the “written.”)  And if the Expanded Universe did not have the average quality level it had, such a fandom could not have grown.  And we all know which side of the quality bell curve Tim’s books are, I think.

So, again: Aw, Tim.  May the Force be with you, always.

And with you, dear readers.


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