Cleaning out my closet recently, I uncovered my reserve of Star Wars novels. I boxed them up prior to the last time I moved house, in 2007, and never bothered to unpack them. For a guy who grew up in the amniotic fluid of the Force, realizing I stepped away from that major influence without even thinking about it is humbling. That boxful of books forced me to reevaluate why I fell into the Star Wars fold, and more important, what drove me out again.
I was three years old, too young to understand what the first movie was, when it hit theaters in 1977. It initially became a success without my participation, or that of my family, who remain assertively outside pop culture to this day. Only after I started school, and my friends brought their action figures and movie quotes to the playground with them, did I finally see it in the 1981 re-release. Getting on board that train was a key to schoolyard acceptance.
That’s part of why, when Star Wars’ initial hipness gave way to The Transformers, and the action figures disappeared from store shelves, I felt disappointed: not because a cultural marker I grew up with had diminished in importance, but because I couldn’t purchase my way to acceptance any longer. Only when I was older did I understand Lucas’ mythic significance. As a kid, I just wanted to get on the bandwagon.
Rather than get on the constant rotating selection of bandwagons, which would require investments of energy I’d rather spend elsewhere, I chose to change tacks. Instead of being a mass movement, Star Wars became a cult. Instead of a way to get on the inside, I and my friends treated it as a shibboleth, separating the mass of ignorati from we few in the know. We started guarding our secrets from the muggles, who we kept unaware.
Then Lucas changed the game again. With the 1992 release of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the franchise crept back into a sense of currency. Books are a different business than movies, with a mindset that lets the industry float a shot in the dark in a way that movies can’t. If Zahn’s novel, and its sequels, had died, it would have been a quiet death, unlike the original movie, which came perilously close to euthanizing its studio before becoming a hit.
I wish I could say I was glad that Zahn breathed new life into the franchise. I at least didn’t have to deal with scorn from the cool table full of people reminding me how retro I’d become. I was au courant again. Yet because books, in this pre-Harry Potter world, did not create mass movements, Star Wars was suddenly in a knife edge. Lucas could only maintain the sense of cool by pushing out new books, peaking at a rate of over one per month.
When the books became a success, they did more than just revitalize the franchise. They proved a decades-old story could still communicate with the audience. This paved the way for the prequels, beginning in 1999. But they also diluted the arc begun in the original movies. If Luke Skywalker’s “hero’s journey” did not culminate in a galaxy truly changed, what had he fought for? And, more important, why should we care?
Neal Stephenson, writing in the New York Times, blames the prequels’ diffuse inscrutability on Star Wars’ transition from movie franchise to multimedia extravaganza. You can’t understand the stories if you haven’t read the novels and comics, watched the cartoons, and played the video games. Star Wars had become oriented toward moving product rather than telling the best possible story.
But I find John Perlich’s explanation in Sith, Slayers, Stargates, + Cyborgs more satisfying. The story fell not because it became too diffuse, but because it lost its mythology. Though Perlich makes a complex, multifaceted argument, I can compress my salient points into one sentence. Rather than tapping into the roots of human psychological need, the franchise fell into the desire to titillate with rote action scenes that could come from any film.
I started buying Star Wars novels in 1992, stopped in 2001, and boxed them up in 2007. Standing over the box now, I realized I didn’t miss them. Star Wars taught me some goals were worth striving for. One such goal is Star Wars itself. Like Tolkein or King Arthur, Star Wars should stand for something. If it doesn’t, I can’t stand for it.