November 1999: Death of a Wookiee

So.

If you're reading this, I hope to god you've already read R.A. Salvatore's Vector Prime, the latest Star Wars spinoff and the first in what will be, by all accounts, a gargantuan story arc from Del Rey Books. (We're talking about 30 titles all told; if you're the sort of person who must own every one, rev up your credit card.) Otherwise, you're going to get spoiled, and we're death on that sort of thing around here. Something to do with the smell, I think.

Vector Prime renewed my interest in the Star Wars novels. With the final two from Timothy Zahn, where a plot that could have easily fit into a single novel found itself stretched into two hardcover books, I'd finally had enough. I was exhausted. Burned out. I couldn't stomach another round of silly almost-cusses and blow-by-blow battle accounts from Mike Stackpole; nor could I even browse the section of the local comics shop where the latest horror from Dark Horse might be found. The cow had been milked dry and I was irritated.

Not, as you might think, because I view Star Wars as some sort of sacred trust. That attitude annoys me almost as much as Dark Empire, and I can only say to those who believe otherwise: vote with your wallets and shut the hell up. Rather, I'd just been disappointed with bad writing, convoluted plotting, and the complete and utter ability of the Big Three (and company) to walk out from under anything completely unscathed. Luke should be in therapy by now, at least, when you consider what Kube-McDowell, Zahn, Wolverton, Anderson, and the rest put him through.

It was really the latter that disturbed me the most. Star Wars characters had become ciphers, going through battles, wars, kidnappings, romances, near deaths, lost parents, crash landings, reincarnated clones, and the umpteenth telling of "The Little Lost Bantha Cub" with nary a qualm. None of the considerable shocks and tragedies visited on the characters in these novels had the impact of, say, the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or the revelation of Darth Vader. The post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars universe, it seemed, was doomed to be one long episode of SuperFriends.

Vector Prime changed all of that. I'm not talking about the Big Event, the one that has fans on Usenet and various discussion boards across the Web squabbling. At least, I'm not talking about solely that. Salvatore managed something that only a few other Star Wars authors have: he made me give a damn about the characters again.

Not just the big three, either; he did a stellar job with Mara Jade, making her more real to me than even Zahn did (granted, characterization is not exactly Zahn's strong point). And his own characters-the human ones, at least-were just as solid. His biggest success, though, was with the kids. In every book where they appeared, the Jedi Wonder Kids were annoying as hell. I kept hoping against hope that someone at Lucasfilm would admit that all three were mistakes and kill them off, and that's a horrible failure when you consider that these are characters readers are supposed to sympathize and, in some cases, identify with. Finally, a Star Wars author pulled off the near-impossible, and made the kids appealing, Jaina in particular.

More than that, this is the first Star Wars book I've read in a long while where the threat was convincing. The threat is also fairly one-dimensional, as evidenced by the fact that I had a hard time telling the individual Vong apart, not to mention that the whole warrior-race-conquering-the-universe thing is pretty stale nowadays. Friends who like Star Trek insist that the Vong aren't Klingons, but honestly, how do you tell?

But for the first time in ages, the New Republic has a threat to deal with that it can't just shoot down. Salvatore is also able to portray bureaucracy with some degree of realism (without, need it be said, turning the book into something more boring than this year's tax forms), and to illustrate some of the inherent problems posed by a bunch of cocky superhumans running around the galaxy. And even though Threepio was even more annoying than usual, the scene where fanatics toss a whole bunch of droids into a pit was actually chilling.

"All right," you say. "We accept that you liked this book. But what about Chewie? What about THE WOOKIEE?"

It's a reasonable question. This is, after all, the first time a Star Wars author has killed off a major character from the films. (General Madine doesn't count. I doubt that anyone who's not a hardcore fan remembers him as the deadpan guy with the bad haircut in Return of the Jedi.) And oh, the hue and cry that resounded from Usenet and elsewhere at this particular turn of events. Reports of people weeping, people throwing the book across the room, people setting their copies on fire and storming online to announce that they did not accept it and, furthermore, were going to write to Del Rey to express their displeasure.

Sorry. Unless you're weird enough to mail Del Rey a horse's head, they're probably not going to notice. Kristine Kathryn Rusch once related a story of a would-be author who sent her a submission in a black envelope covered with fake cobwebs and dead spiders. The story wasn't accepted, but that author goes down in history as the guy who sent Kristine Kathryn Rusch a submission covered with fake cobwebs and dead spiders. In other words, your storm of protest isn't likely to change anything, or even get you any press. If you really want to change the world, join Adbusters and don't shop the day after Thanksgiving.

It seems like blasphemy to say so, but the death of Chewbacca actually didn't upset me that much. I might have been unhappier about it, had the character not been so abused in previous novels-Kevin Anderson turned him into a full-time babysitter, partnered with Threepio, for gods' sakes. When you look at it that way, it was a mercy killing. And since Salvatore managed the near-impossible trick of making me give a damn about the Jedi Wonder Kids, Chewie's death was even meaningful. Pretty cool, that.

The incredible upset among fans over this, though, points to a larger and somewhat more disturbing question: why do we care?

Think about this for a second. This is a fictional character, one who was first introduced in a movie almost twenty years ago. Granted, we're all fans of that movie and its sequels, or we wouldn't be here. And people have been weeping for the deaths of fictional characters in novels at least since Samuel Richardson killed off Clarissa. For that matter, we've been known to weep over the deaths of real people we've never met, from JFK to Princess Di. But the sheer venom and angst pouring into the online community over this has given even me considerable pause, and honey, I got venom and angst to spare.

The reasons are likely as diverse as the Star Wars fan community itself; but if I had to guess, I'd say that despite the incredible commercialization of the franchise (which, by the way, is nothing new; some truly ludicrous tie-in products were invented in the late 70s and early 80s), a lot of us still tend to view the story and its characters as a sort of sacred trust. Despite our constant bitching about the novels, in which nothing really changes, we don't want things to change. And death is the greatest change of all.

But in all honesty, I have to say that there are a lot of things we could be concerned about instead, real-world things with real-world ramifications. When we get this upset over the death of a fictional character, enough so that more than one individual has proposed a boycott of Del Rey products (mind you, that requires that you not purchase anything published by Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Knopf, Crown, or any of the other numerous Random House subsidiaries-you might want to investigate some small-press reading), maybe it's time to step back and reassess our priorities.

"But," say you, "it's only entertainment. It doesn't mean we're not concerned about real-world issues!"

Sure. But if we get this het up over our entertainment, maybe it's become more essential to us than we realize. And maybe we should be concerned about that.

Look, I'm not saying to ignore the death of the Wookiee. I'm not saying to not be upset over it. I am saying, move on. Get over it. Read another book. You'll feel better, I promise.