December 1997: But Is It Canonical?

Canonical, schmanonical. Let me start by saying that I think this whole debate has gotten way out of hand in some circles. I mean, does it really matter if Moruth Doole is an official Star Wars character, or how long a Super Star Destroyer (sounds like a Marvel action hero, doesn't it?) is? If you're arguing about the validity (or otherwise) of Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, or discussing whether an SSD can kick the Enterprise's butt on one of the Star Trek newsgroups, apparently so. But I've seen nitpickers debating perceived inconsistencies between the X-Wing comic books and the novel series. For heaven's sake, they were written by the same author.

Let's start by talking about what the word "canon" means. I don't have a dictionary handy (though I hear Webster's is now online), but in general parlance, canon refers to whether a text is authoritative or not. College professors argue about literary canon all the time, including whether a particular edition of a book will be the one all of them refer to as the official one. The results determine what English students will be struggling through during the coming semester, among other things. (It's worth noting here that lots of people misspell "canon" as "cannon". Once and for all, folks, a cannon is a really big gun. Okay?)

It seems odd to apply such a high and mighty term to something as unabashedly pop- culture as Star Wars, but those of us who proudly declare ourselves to be rabid fans do exactly that. And it's worth noting that Lucas' famous inconsistences where Star Wars is concerned do give fans some cause for confusion.

Take the novels and the comics, for example. Timothy Zahn's novel trilogy and the comic book series Dark Empire were written around the same time, and originally neither one referenced the other. Suddenly the word came down from Lucasfilm, via Bantam Spectra and Dark Horse Comics: continuity was required. Since Heir to the Empire had by this time been published, Veitch and Kennedy, the Dark Empire team, were stuck in the unenviable position of making their story fit with Zahn's.

It's not a perfect fit, and it leads to questions from fans who've read the books but not the comics. At least once a month on rec.arts.sf.starwars.misc, someone who's read Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, but has never heard of Dark Empire, shows up and asks, "Hey, when was the Emperor resurrected?"

Some fans hated the whole idea of the Emperor coming back in the first place, arguing -- with some justification -- that it severely weakens Luke's big confrontational scene in Return of the Jedi. These fans often adopt the position that "I don't care what anyone says, Dark Empire isn't canon and that's that." And chaos ensues.

Now, yours truly has always taken the position that fans should decide for themselves what they like and what they don't like, and therefore what the Star Wars story is for them. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Hambly's Children of the Jedi, but I didn't like what Anderson did with Callista's character in Darksaber. Simple, really, for me to sort of ignore what happened in Darksaber, and for those fans who enjoyed it to do so without interference from me.

But the question of canon pops up in some pretty surprising places. In a discussion about the Force, for instance, which often occurs among fans like me who enjoy talking about religion, we use Yoda's lines from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as a starting point. Since the movies are definitely the clearest interpretation of Lucas' vision (as opposed to the books, comics, or the merchandising gala known as Shadows of the Empire), it's pretty standard practice to take Yoda's word for it: "Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, and binds us."

And sooner or later, someone always mentions the ysalamiri.

Remember them? One regular on Usenet referred to them as "anti-Force-bubble raccoons", which is a pretty good description. They're an obvious plot device, made to bring Luke Skywalker down to the level of mere mortals, where Zahn's villains can deal with him.

I'll leave aside the argument about how the ysalamiri are supposed to work, which is in itself subject to debate. Except to say that how they work sometimes determines whether a reader accepts them as plausible or not. The point is, some readers like them, some don't. Some accept them as part of the Star Wars canon, and some don't. Some say it doesn't matter what we think, if Lucas says it's canon, then it is.

So are the ysalamiri canon? And by extension, are Zahn's books?

To my mind, it depends on what you think of Lucas' idea of the Force in the first place, and whether Zahn's treatment jibes with that idea. My own personal opinion is that by treating the skills of the Jedi like some sort of telekinesis, and the Force itself as the equivalent of a magnetic field, Zahn removes the whole concept from the realm of the mystic, where Lucas was perfectly content to leave it, and brings it into the practical, physical world.

A glance at Zahn's other books is enough to show why he does this. He writes science fiction, not fantasy, and his stories are grounded firmly within the rational. Luke's visit to the tree on Dagobah, where he experienced such a terrifying vision in The Empire Strikes Back, is treated in Zahn's book with a certain amount of diffidence. Zahn almost seems uncomfortable with the idea. And the vision that Luke experiences on his second journey into the tree is not, in Zahn's opinion, sufficient reason for the visit. He also has to find a gadget buried in the mud, another plot device that allows him to meet up with his friends later in the book.

But Star Wars is not purely science fiction, though it has some of the trappings. To the science fiction aficionado, the explosions in space, the ships that fly as if they're in an atmosphere, and the Force itself are proof positive that Lucas intended to create a myth. Myths by their very nature lie in the realm of the fantastic, and in many ways Star Wars bears more resemblance to The Neverending Story or The Last Unicorn than it does to 2001. Pure science fiction is incredibly hard to sell to mass audiences, but space opera is always popular. Compare the box office receipts of Starship Troopers and Gattaca and you'll see what I mean.

For this reason, authors who lean more toward fantasy tend to have an easier time adapting Star Wars to print. Barbara Hambly's Children of the Jedi is one of those books that fans either love or hate, but there's no denying that her approach to the Force is more mystical than that of most of her colleagues. It's for that reason that I can accept Children while more or less disregarding its sequel.

And really, personal preference lies at the root of the whole canon debate. Many readers simply refuse to accept Roger McBride Allen's trilogy that centers around Corellia; many others reject Vonda McIntyre's The Crystal Star, for reasons that have nothing to do with adherence to Lucas' original material, or even basic plausibility, and everything to do with personal aesthetics.

And the debate may be rendered meaningless -- or else even more contentious -- if Lucas decides to film sequels to the original trilogy. Will he take all of the post-Return of the Jedi material into account? Since many of these books (and comics too; I don't envy the editors at Lucasfilm, Bantam and Dark Horse that have to keep track of all of this stuff) are only barely consistent with each other, it seems doubtful. (Not that the authors haven't given it a good college try, but in particular those books and comics that were written prior to Lucas' continuity decree really do read as if they have no intended relation to each other as indeed they don't.)

Canon is supposed to be a concrete thing, a definitive body of work that indicates what should be taken into account during a discussion and what should not. But when some fans accept only the films themselves, others accept some books but not others, and still others accept anything that comes with Lucasfilm's seal of approval (no one, to my knowledge, considers fanfic canon), a simple question like "Will Luke ever settle down, get married and have a family, for heaven's sake?", or even "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen YT-1300, and can it outrun the Defiant?" becomes not so simple. Going by the films, it's acceptable for Jedi to have families; going by the books, Luke can't seem to keep a girlfriend for longer than a couple hundred pages. Going by the films, the Millenium Falcon can outrun anything with half its systems shorted out -- but try telling that to a Star Trek fan without some kind of technical specification to back it up.

Even literary canon changes over time; you should hear the debate that rages in some English departments over Faulkner. But it's worth remembering that most great literature entered this world as simple entertainment, and where Star Wars is concerned, it's more trouble than it's worth to take some questions too seriously. For the sake of debate, take what you need, and leave the rest. Myths are nebulous, imprecise things, after all.

As always, thanks for reading. Join me next month to explore this deeply probing question: Is Star Wars science fiction? See you then!