There’s an old saying in Star Wars fandom: “It’s just a movie.” If you’re really emphasizing the point, “It’s just a kids’ movie.” The Star Wars saga is a huge phenomenon, including everything from real-world Stormtrooper militias to immensely detailed online gaming worlds – but at its heart, it’s also a series of family-friendly mass-market cinematic adventures, and anyone who takes the story of the Sith, the Skywalkers and the Solos “seriously” should try and never lose sight of that essential lightness.
For me, this is summed up by the scene in A New Hope where the heroes get jumped by a dozen Stormtroopers on the Death Star: Han and Chewie, throwing realism to the wind, charge straight at them, screaming a war cry, and chase a vastly superior force of the Empire’s finest white-armored bad guys down the corridor in an all-out retreat. But then they careen headlong into an even bigger group of Stormtroopers, at which point Han and Chewie have to spin round on their heels and run away, their war-cry reduced to a panicked yell.
The Galaxy far, far away is a place where some kid with mystic abilities (aged nine or eighteen, depending on your favorite trilogy) hops aboard a space fighter plane he’s not been trained to fly, and sneaks in a torpedo shot that destroys the bad guys’ evil battle station. The laser pistols fire glowing energy bullets that are instantly understandable as the sci-fi equivalent of rounds from a cowboy’s Colt 45, but you’re only going to hurt your head if you try and find a sensible scientific explanation for why they work like that. The big guns on the space battleships thrust their dark muzzles out of heavy-lidded gunports like the cannons aboard pirate galleons.
A tribe of grinning little furballs slaughters a legion of the best high-tech sci-fi shock troops in the Empire – and that same Empire’s huge assault tanks are designed to look like war elephants, for the simple reason that elephant-shaped sci-fi tanks just look darn cool up there on the silver screen.
Even if we’re getting a little more serious, Star Wars is a place where a handful of outnumbered Rebels can take down a star-spanning dictatorship, armed with little more than hot-rod stunt planes and handguns, and where unblemished optimism and an ability to charm your way out of danger are essential parts of heroism.
That, and true love always wins.
But what do you do when you’re writing a book that needs to describe the technicalities of how an Ewok defeats a Stormtrooper? You have to come up with straight-faced explanations that don’t seem completely crazy or compromise the inherent fun and lightness of the saga.
That’s the situation I found myself in when I was asked to co-write Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare – a new guide to the warriors and weaponry of the Star Wars saga. Of course, I jumped at the chance, and thus, I became a sort of kilted Boba Fett sidekick to lead author Jason Fry’s baseball-bat-wielding Darth Vader.
And then I realized just what I’d gotten myself into.
How do you describe the technicalities of how an Ewok defeats a Stormtrooper?
Well, you have some fun doing it, for one thing. And for my inaugural blog post here on Unbound Worlds, I wanted to share some of the fun I had working on this book, and some of the things that I learned about telling a story.
Let’s start with the Ewoks.
Jason took the lead. He gave them poisoned arrows, and emphasized how tripwires and pits with spikes in them can take out infantry patrols, just like they did in Vietnam. In Warfare, the defeat on Endor is told by a veteran Stormtrooper, still struggling with the psychological scars of death-by-cannibal-teddy-bear but the hard-core fans will also know something that the Stormtrooper doesn’t. The newsroom interviewer he’s talking to grew up as a space castaway in an Ewok tribe on Endor, in a 1980s TV special that reminds us just how innocent and exuberant Star Wars can be.
On one level, that reminds us that this is a story being told for fun. The trooper’s wild-eyed fear of cuddly teddy-bears is something that we should chuckle at a little. But perhaps it also adds subtext to the Stormtrooper’s angst – the shifty-eyed strangeness of recognizing that Endor is somewhere a little weird.
Is there something going on that works outside the normal rules of warfare, something subverting the expected triumph of technology and ruthless reason? How else do you explain that prickling feeling at the back of your armored collar, the sweat inside the padded brow of your helmet, when there’s nothing at all to see on your combat displays. Did you just imagine the distant screams and panicked chatter in your earphones?
The lenses of your eyepieces feel too narrow. Are your systems malfunctioning? You feel vulnerable, as you grip your shiny black space rifle, and take your next step down the narrow trail. White armor and smart black accoutrements don’t feel comfortable in the undergrowth of Endor.
And then you trip over the tripwire and get mobbed by a bunch of three-foot-tall bears with stone axes and pointy sticks.
And that is how freedom is reborn, with fireworks and that “Yub Nub” song.
The battle droids of the Prequels and the Clone Wars cartoon are another part of Star Wars that need a careful explanation. Clumsily inept war-robots that chatter away with bad jokes and fall apart when kicked can make us laugh – but how do you make any sort of sense of that? Building on existing explanations in other stories, Warfare plays up two ideas: cheap and inadequate personality-emulation software malfunctions and produces disturbingly comical behavior patterns, and Republic sabotage makes those pre-existing problems so much worse. There’s a marvelous accompanying illustration by John VanFleet that shows one battle droid accidentally shooting another, and a third holding its head in comical shame.
Just remember that there are still enough of them out there to march over a garrison of heroes, and bloodlessly slaughter every last one of them.
And what about the AT-ATs? They ended up being one of the most satisfying things I got to play with in the book. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that designing your tanks to look like elephants might actually make a lot of sense, if you’re the Galactic Empire.
Maybe I was just going crazy?
But think about it for a moment. The tracks of conventional armored vehicles are complex and vulnerable. The hovering repulsor drives of Star Wars have built-in liabilities when it comes to deflector shields. Add to that the problem that laser guns can only shoot in straight lines, so the Empire’s vehicles needs to have them mounted really high up to be able to fire over obstacles. Then mix in a little nod to modern attempts to make transports where the crew compartments are protected from mine blasts. The end result is a description of the All-Terrain Assault Transport that makes it exactly the right machine to storm the Rebel base on Hoth.
But if all that seems a little clever, one piece in Warfare that really recaptures the fun of the movies is Jason’s description of the Battle of Tanaab. This is the story behind that “little maneuver” that Lando Calrissian mentions in Return of the Jedi. The tale is told in Lando’s own words, and you can never be sure how much he’s elaborating the story with some fancy verbal flying, and maybe suppressing some of the less heroic details. But it’s a great story, and because it’s Lando’s voice, the narrative viewpoint feels exactly right for Star Wars.
Another thing that Warfare has to deal with is the rank badges worn by the Imperial officers in the movies. In a way, it’s a very logical system – the more important a character is to the camera, the fancier their decorations get. So Governor Tarkin has a huge multi-coloured insignia that looks like a set of medal ribbons. Admiral Piett gets a much bigger badge when he moves up one step in the command chain, so the viewer’s eye takes in his promotion at a glance. The guys who salute and have one line about tractor beams have some sort of small-to-mid-sized badge. And the officers who just walk along the corridors in the background have none at all.
But how do you put all that into a coherent system? There are several excellent, but contradictory, fan interpretations out there on the internet, but in the end, I went for something that tried to explain all the on-screen examples, and also incorporated every reference that I could find from the tie-in novels, comics, source books, and games. Even if it wasn’t the simplest of systems, I figured that fans might turn to the table in the book when they were trying to make sense of a title or insignia that seemed odd. You also never know when some once-mentioned rank from an obscure corner of the canon is going to show up again.
When Timothy Zahn revived some ranks from short stories written nearly twenty years ago in his novel Choices of One, I felt vindicated.
Then I read a few pages more, and I realized that Zahn had added a new rank that wasn’t among the ones I’d used. I had to quickly contact my editor with some last-minute changes to the table.
Then there are the little tricks that never quite got into the book. Close-support weapons like grenade launchers haven’t really appeared as much in Star Wars as they should, and it would have been fun to think of some good reason why not – but perhaps it’s just as well that we didn’t use some flat statement to justify their absence, when Republic troopers showed up recently with trench mortars in the Clone Wars TV series.
One other thing there wasn’t room for in the book was a close look at the classic “wave attack” massed-infantry tactic, where an artillery barrage is followed closely by a large force of infantry – so closely that troops in the lead ranks will get shredded by their own supporting fire, but so close because the artillery fire keeps the enemy trapped down in their dug-outs, unable to man their own defensive guns. When the artillery stops, the infantry rush straight into the enemy trenches in a brutally close-range hand-to-hand attack.
That sort of tactic would be useful to explain the survival of infantry armed with blades and spears in Star Wars. Imagine the slave janissaries of the Hutts or the Yuuzhan Vong being sent forward behind a massive turbolaser artillery bombardment, until they’re so close to the enemy that a knife is as effective as a blaster.
But maybe that’s a little visceral. So when playing it straight fails, you can always fall back on the simple trick of wordplay. This is something that I learned from reading Tim Zahn’s novels, back when I was in my middle teens. What you tell and don’t tell on the page can help you to swerve around potential incongruities in your storytelling, especially in a Galaxy with hyperdrives and swords.
For example, one of the noble Jedi Lords of the early Republic, Lord Farfalla, is a faun who travels the stars on a spacegoing wooden galleon. Now, he’s written that way for deliberate effect, because he’s also embroiled in a savage trench-warfare campaign that makes the Western Front look tame; but how do you present those details in a passing summary, in a way that doesn’t seem ridiculous?
For Warfare, I suggested calling him “half-Bothan”, something that I hope fans who know the comics will recognize as an acknowledgement of his odd appearance without tying down his origins too much. For his flying galleon, I provided what I thought was a decent explanation for a space warship made of timber, a sci-fi riff on a real-world idea: the great arctic exploration ships were built of flexible hardwood, because it could resist massive crushing pressures better than the rigidity of armored steel.
But what the text deliberately doesn’t mention is that Farfalla looks like Mr. Tumnus’s aristocratic cousin, and that his wooden spaceship has a keel and figurehead, a superstructure like something out of the Spanish Armada, and big medieval sails.
Some things, perhaps, are better left unsaid.
So, that’s how you try to write about all the crazy plans and lucky shots that are so essential to Star Wars. All of which, I suppose, doesn’t look that different from the bluff and dodge and wildly optimistic grin of the average Rebel Alliance soldier, as they dare to attack the seemingly unbeatable challenge of the Empire.
Did it work? That’s the other great thing I’ve discovered about being an author – I have no idea. All I can do is ask you to read the book, and find out for yourself!
Paul Urquhart is a pseudonym. He was born in Scotland between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and has been a Star Wars fan since he bought his first toy X-wing at the age of three. Although occasionally mistaken for a larger-than-life Ewok, he is a historian by training, specializing in medieval society.