Heir to the Zahn seminar—but scroll down for Catskills’s Lagoon post

I’m still catching up. A couple of lingering thoughts on Zahn. Catskills, by contrast, is right on time with her Lagoon post—pleased read that, which fortuitously also has Star Wars on its mind.

We never did pick up our initial conversational thread in our Zahn session on games and play. One way to think about the totality of Star Wars is as a set of rules for play, with each new entry in any medium being recognizable by adhering to the rules—or by modifying them in ways that the players accept, or by inviting players into a contest over rule-modification. This is how I understand the fact that Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game was an important source for Heir to the Empire (Guynes, 147). What makes Star Wars into a sprawling transmedia narrative is that there are many ways for players to join in the game, and many ways for play to be extended. In this metaphor, it’s important to remember that George Lucas and Lucasfilm, despite their outsize legal and economic power, are players rather than referees, and there is no game without the other players. The problem of “continuity” is not simply one of regulating consistency across the narrative but of ensuring that, precisely, the game can continue to be played. That doesn’t preclude radical changes in the rules and indeed in who commands the dominating positions (Disney now). Nor does it preclude surprising and fluid shifts in the legal and commercial Death Star that defends the cycle as intellectual property (see my favorite of the films, Star Wars Uncut).

On this understanding, Star Wars itself forms a cultural subfield in Bourdieu’s sense: a network of competitive and collaborative relations with a specific hierarchy organized according by the ability to legitimately and authoritatively produce and circulate Star Wars stories. As Somtapian pointed out in seminar, like some religious subfields, the Star Wars field uses scripture as one of its tools for producing and measuring authority, and this gives rise to a whole ancillary apparatus for choosing authoritative promulgators of scripture (“canon”).

Saying subfield is useful because it lets us think about capital conversion. Zahn’s pre-existing standing as a recognized SF writer (Hugo for best novella, 1983–the same year Butler won one for her story “Speech Sounds”) is converted into his ability to produce an authoritative continuation of the Skywalker saga. It also probably contributes to his ability to produce, in Heir to the Empire, a bestselling novel which finds an audience far wider than earlier Star Wars tie-in stories.

Another kind of SF capital is also being invested in the development of Star Wars: this is the pulp SF magazine heritage and one of its most stereotypical subgenres, the space opera. So far we have mostly seen Gernsbackian pulp as something to despise (Le Guin, Gibson); for Lucas, pulp is an object of calculated nostalgia. Heir is interesting for the way it converts the films’ pastiche of pulp into something that is reasonably up-to-date as a 1993 SF novel, by toning down the most melodramatic aspects of the films and supplying a wealth of plausible detail about New Republic politics, space-battle tactics, galactic cultural variation, and so on.

DFarin put it very well in seminar: in Heir, continuity with the films is the illusion of continuity. It is in many ways a radical departure, stylistically, from Star Wars as it existed before, at times even adversarial or parodic about the films (the cloned Dark Jedi, the Dagobah cave playing reruns, the Force-negating ysalamiri) but the familiarity of characters and settings knits things together well enough. Zahn is also careful to insert some highly familiar catchphrases from the films: “‘Why,’ she [Leia] murmured, ‘do I suddenly have a bad feeling about this?’” (122). This use of leitmotive may even have something to do with his attested habit of listening to John Williams’s scores while he writes: yet another stock of SW capital to draw on.

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

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