Novel force of 'Star Wars' Spinoffs: A galaxy of books employ characters and subplots of the popular movie trilogy and build on them for loyal fans.

September 09, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

At the rate "Star Wars" fans are salivating over next May's prequel to the original trilogy, you'd think they'd had nothing to swing their lightsabers at since 1983's Ewok-infested "Return of the Jedi."

Not so.

More recent "Star Wars" stories abound. Dozens of books take fans forward in time, not backward, and they're closer to George Lucas' vision than the rumors flying around the Internet. (You'll find that accurate information about the new movies is as limited as Mark Hamill's acting ability, unless you go to the official Lucasfilm Ltd. site -- http: //www.starwars.com. "It's not as much secrecy as trying to keep the surprises for the fans," says Lynne Hale, director of communications for Lucasfilm.)

The Force has been with the publishing industry since Lucasfilm and Bantam books made a licensing agreement for novels based on the revolutionary films. Hugo Award-winning author Timothy Zahn's "Heir to the Empire" was published in 1991 and spent 29 weeks combined on the New York Times paperback and hardback best-seller lists.

"Heir's" only predecessor was the early spinoff "Splinter of the Mind's Eye" by Alan Dean Foster, published in 1978 before the release of "The Empire Strikes Back."

The books don't correspond directly to the actual movies, though books of that kind exist as well. It was recently announced that best-selling author Terry Brooks will be writing the novelization of the first of three prequels for Ballantine Del Rey, which gets the "Star Wars" book license in 1999.

But the novels we're talking about here flesh out secondary characters or subplots and take the original characters on new adventures, thereby creating a unique literary universe.

Nearly 40 adult-fiction "Star Wars" novels have been published since 1991, more than half of which have appeared on the New York Times best seller list, according to Lucasfilm Ltd. sales charts and Howard Roffman, vice president of licensing for Lucasfilm.

Representatives for Bantam say that nearly 26 million copies of the novels are in print.

"No one knew how well they would do," author Zahn says. "The fans had nothing much to grab on to until the books came out."

Lucasfilm Ltd. doesn't take this spinoff industry lightly. Don't mistake these books for what one "Star Wars" author, Kevin J. Anderson, calls "quick and dirty media tie-ins," books of popular films that instantly appear on bookshelves and disappear within a matter of weeks.

After all, "Star Wars" is a powerful cultural and commercial force with a solid reputation to uphold.

"This is 'Star Wars,' this isn't 'My Favorite Martian,' " Anderson says. "I have to make darn sure [fans] are happy with what they're reading."

Lucasfilm Ltd. asks publishers to suggest their best and brightest science-fiction authors and then reviews their work and selects those best equipped to play in their universe. Such acclaimed names as Timothy Zahn, Mike Stackpole and Kevin Anderson are as familiar as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Anne Rice on this elite publishing planet. The authors often write series and are a close-knit group, constantly bouncing ideas off one another.

It's an honor to be chosen and a tremendous career-booster, according to the authors. But once one is designated a "Star Wars" author, writing the book is a challenge worthy of a Jedi knight.

The select authors are provided with a "Star Wars" "bible" fatter than Jabba the Hutt. It's an intricate chronology of the series, continually updated with each new book. Authors know where a certain character or setting stand at a given point in time and what parameters they have to work in.

"We made a decision early on that continuity was very important to maintaining integrity," Roffman says. "We do a very rigorous editorial review."

The authors and Lucasfilm Ltd. are careful out of respect for their devoted fandom.

"The fans out there, they don't miss a trick. They really watch this stuff tightly. If you make a mistake, you'll hear about it," says Mike Stackpole, who has written seven "Star Wars" books, including "Rogue Squadron" and "The Bacta War." He meticulously footnotes his books to make it easier for the fact-checkers.

Once authors establish the particulars of their chosen time frame, whether it be five years after "Return of The Jedi," between that film and "The Empire Strikes Back," or whenever else, they can take the story wherever they please.

Well, within the rules of established "Star Wars" decorum, of course.

That means no space-sex, drugs, rock and roll or even swearing. Aside from audience reaction to Princess Leia's skimpy Jabba-slave-girl get-up, the only heavy breathing in the "Star Wars" universe comes from Darth Vader.

"You can't decide you want Luke involved in homosexual relations with a bug-like alien," says Eleanor Lang, senior publicist for Del Rey. "It's important that you don't mess with the universe."

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