Expansionist Tendencies

Over the course of this foray into internet muck and obscurity I’ve mentioned my love for Expanded Universe content in pre-established mediums, with the most prominent being Star Wars. I also noted my disdain for current EU trends that border on psychotic abandonment of the source material and tone in favour of increasingly shitty examples of what can barely be classified as fiction at best, and complete and utter disregard of established canon and characterization as a whole at worst.
Not that I want to seem like a one-trick pony when it comes to my ability to critically evaluate the fiction I love, but it seems that the majority of editorials I read tend to skip over the cash cow novels and comics that are produced for various series’ as nothing more than flights of dollar sign fancy that cannot be accurately classified as works of literature. So I therefore tend to be overly critical with these books, if only because almost nobody else wants to be.
My most recent dipping into the EU Jacuzzi has included explorations of Deus Ex, BioShock and Crysis material. Now, there’s a distinct difference between a book that expands the narrative of a universe and makes for an interesting read, and a book that is created solely for the purpose of adding another million to the main developer’s bank account that only scarcely embraces the conventions of narrative fiction. A good example of the former is anything for Star Wars that’s written by Timothy Zahn (in particular The Thrawn Trilogy and Outbound Flight), whereas a bad example is the execrable StarCraft dross by Gabriel Mesta, Shadow of the Xel’Naga.
Currently, all three of my newest books sit resolutely in the first category, which is gratifying since it at least justifies me blowing almost a hundred for the privilege of reading them. They are of course not without their banes though; Deus Ex: Icarus Effect starts out quite slow with an Illuminati meeing, and BioShock: Rapture has a section during the book’s first half which shows the assemblage of main characters prior to the titular city’s construction that drags on for a while and has most of its content casually forgotten once plasmids and ADAM enter the picture.
Reading these books has once again highlighted to me the pitfalls of EU writing (which is close enough to the name of the original Facebook post where I talked on the same topic), so I thought that since one or two of my five regular readers may not have the ability or desire to go hunting through my ranty Facebook post backlog I’d post the abridged version here, all professional-like.
When writing an EU book its important, once you’ve decided on if it takes place prior to the prequel trilogy, during the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi or after Luke Skywalker’s been put in an old folks home, to pick a tone and stick with it. Even the most mainstream and well-known franchises that have a set mood and atmosphere can have the tone adhered to or subverted; a good example is during the utopian and optimistic Star Trek series where a quartet of novels about the black ops Section 31 cast negative light on several major characters with previously established virtuous personalities (including Captains Kirk and Picard). If it can be pulled off well you can adapt almost any mood to almost any setting, whereas if its done so poorly that the reader can see the bruises and red inflammation where an awkward tone has been roughly shoehorned into the setting then it can be, as a certain caustic internet game critic would put it, “a dogshit bullet between the eyes”.
An example of the latter is Star Wars’ Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber; building on the success of the wonderfully atmospheric if very brief Death Troopers, featuring a tiny team of survivors versus a Star Destroyer filled to bursting with stormtrooper zombies, Red Harvest attempted to transplant the same tone into a Sith Academy several thousand years previous, during the Old Republic era. Ignoring for a moment that the plot takes FOREVER to actually start moving, and the characters are so flimsy and two-dimensional you could be forgiven for getting their (lack of) personalities mixed up with one another, the harrowing survival horror of a zombie apocalypse does not gel well with an academy full of redoubtable assholes wielding crimson lightsabers with a taste for bipedal flesh. There are few moments compared to Schreiber’s previous novel where the real horror element comes through, and a lot of the moments where that horror is emphasised occur with the already absurdly evil Sith – an early moment in the book has the partially-zombified Sith Lord controller force a smuggler to eat his co-pilot’s head on a platter. While the moment is escaped from before the doomed smuggler can acquiesce, the horror feels so over the top and out of place in a zombie story that it only goes downhill from there, feeling more like part of a slasher film than an undead survival marathon.
So once mood is settled on and stuck with, you need your characters. The most creatively-deprived writers will more often than not settle on established protagonists from the original medium, which will result in cardboard cutout character depiction and most of the time a complete removal of the je ne sais qua that movie and game writers introduce to make the character interesting in the first place. That’s not to say that all writers who use Master Chief or Marcus Fenix only write crap that removes all interest in the character, as Eric Nylund proved when he wrote the awesomely popular Halo novels The Fall of Reach and First Strike. However, the methodology of taking a protagonist from the medium relates to a quote I heard once that went along the lines of ‘if there’s a prequel, it should be about a different character in a similar setting and universe to the work it’s from.
In other words, Deus Ex: Icarus Effect works well because it’s not about Adam Jensen or JC Denton, just as The Old Republic: Deceived works well because it has none of the characters from any of the movies and is set a few millennia previous.
Focussing on people from the established medium that may have taken a backseat during the original piece – for example, having Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter focus on the titular Sith Lord – can work really well, and having the main characters from the work included with novel-exclusive protagonists can also function as a really good tag team for combining author appeal with ongoing canon. It’s been my experience that a lot of books that focus almost entirely on the original heroes from a title get let down by being wearily predictable, flatly written and very unimaginative.
So once you’ve got tone and characters, think of a story. The following ideas should be regarded as contraband and be punishable with jail time if they’re utilised:
  •          Star Wars: Unknowable evil that later emerges and turns into Sith Lords vs Jedi, Jedi win heroically (see Fate of the Jedi, Legacy of the Force)
  •           Star Wars: Jedi who lose faith in the Force (see Dark Tide, Darksaber)
  •           Star Wars: Jedi turns to the dark side and wrecks everyone’s shit up as a Sith Lord a la Darth Vader (see Legacy of the Force)
  •           StarCraft: a bunch of marines get de-brained and fight Zerg on an infested planet (see Speed of Darkness, Shadow of the Xel’Naga)
  •           Halo: human marines vs. Covenant, one big battle scene for $25 (see The Flood)
  •           Halo: the genesis of the Human-Covenant war (see The Fall of Reach, Contact Harvest, The Cole Protocol)
  •           Star Trek: crew find a planet, planet is inhabited by random freaky aliens, crew barbecues freaky aliens with torpedoes and utopian justification (see almost every Next Generation of Voyager story out there that isn’t written after 2003)
  •           Star Trek: diplomatic negotiations with two warring sides, each having tissue-thin reasons for conflict (see above)
  •           Gears of War: as with the first Halo example, but replace Covenant with Locusts (while I haven’t read the books, I’m told they largely avert this. Still needs to be there as a “what not to do” example)
To use any of these ideas as the backbone of your story just feels token and unintuitive, like you’re looking for a nice tux to wear to dinner so you borrow a corpse’s burial suit. Fresh ideas are at a premium in the writing world at the moment, particular in science fiction where even the far-flung borders of galaxy 88 are being mapped and retreaded by at least a dozen and one writers per year.
If you’re going to write an Expanded Universe novel, the idea is in the first word – EXPAND. Don’t backtrack over old ground we’ve covered in the original medium, try something different. Karen Traviss did it with Republic Commando, giving us War in Afghanistan troops in a cloned sci-fi setting with distinct characterisations (made all the more awesome by remembering that each of the solders is a clone, and therefore very difficult to differentiate from one another to begin with). Graham McNeill gave us an exploration of Mengsk Sr. and Jr. in I, Mengsk for StarCraft, playing out more as a rags to royalty adversity tale that subverts the main character into the grim dictator he’s now known for. Greg Bear certainly pulled it off with Halo: Cryptum, presenting an incredibly deep (to put it mildly; I still haven’t finished it nearly eight months after starting to read it) and unique take on Forerunner-era Halo storytelling, with nary a shared character or circumstance between book and original games.
All of these examples fly in the face of the original stories they’re based off – and it works. These are authors who took a universe, and elements within it, and crafted a story that adheres to the established time and storyline while forging its own path, to create a narrative that is both engaging and original. Sure, sometimes making a new story in a universe can end up becoming acupuncture with a power drill – see Barbara Hambly’s Planet of Twilight or Christie Golden’s Star Trek duology Spirit Walk – but at least they present themselves as something other than the norm. If I read an EU novel, even if it ends up being a wheelbarrow full of smoked cartilage and shit, I want it to be different from the game I’ve just played or the TV show I’ve just watched. If I wanted to read those plots I’d buy the movie novelisations, which – with the exception of Matt Stover’s take on Revenge of the Sith – are mostly the shooting script with more dialogue and less blocking.
Expanded Universe novels are meant to explore untapped veins of narrative wealth within a franchise, and while not all can be as shining an example as Jeff Grubb’s Liberty’s Crusade the majority can still rise above and break the preconceived notion that they exist merely as additional pay packets for writers and developers instead of being intriguing books to read. So don’t dismiss James Luceno’s Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader out of hand at the bookshop. Think for a moment about checking out Eric Nylund’s Ghosts of Onyx or John Shirley’s Bioshock: Rapture.
Like with Anakin Skywalker, Expanded Universe novels can best be summarised with a paraphrased quote from Return of the Jedi: “There is still good in them.”

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