A Long Time Ago: Max Gladstone on the Inclusive Star Wars Universe


Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Star Wars is a common language of story, and that makes it special.

Here’s what I mean. Tell me a Star Wars story, without using any characters or events from any Star Wars film.

It’s pretty easy, right? You don’t have to strain. The tales come unforced. Okay, so there’s this smuggler – she’s wanted by the Imperials for ambushing a cargo ship that she thought was carrying valuable ore, but was in fact carrying a Rebellion prisoner from one secret detention site to another. Now they’re both on the run from the local Sector Moff, who had told her superiors that the Rebel spy was dead, for reasons of her own…

Or a librarian, let’s see, in the library on Coruscant, discovers some texts missing from an unused archive. Working with her buddy the ancient languages scholar, she finds what she, thinks is a student stealing books to sell on the black market – but it turns out the books are actually ancient Sith texts, and when they try to bust the ring, things get way out of hand.

A bunch of small town crooks try to run a con on the local crime boss. Asteroid miners band together to stop the Hutts from shouldering in on their business. A museum deals with a newly-appointed Imperial political officer hell-bent on wiping out Jedi history. The leaders of a band want to pull one big gig to get their home orphanage out of hock.

Okay, the last one is just “The Blues Brothers.”

All the stories I just rattled off fit in the Star Wars Galaxy, in the Galaxy Far Far Away. They fit both in the sense that they’re Star Wars-y stories – they feel like Star Wars, the characters are making Star Wars-ish decisions, and are operating in a world with Star Wars-like dimensions – and they fit in the sense that the Star Wars galaxy is large enough for them. They could be true. They could be happening two systems over from Tatooine.

Yes, these days every movie is a franchise. It seems every other new film is the first chapter in some cinematic universe. I would be saddened, but not terribly surprised if someday I saw the phrase “Baby Driver Cinematic Universe.” (Saddened because “Baby Driver” is beautiful and utterly complete in itself. But that’s another essay.)

But even in this cinematic smorgasbord age, so few universe-building attempts match the breadth of Star Wars. So few are large enough to hold the stories their fans and viewers pour into them. The Marvel movies spawn boatloads of fan fiction and tie-in comics, yes, but the universes in which they take place are quite small, consisting of the same characters over and over again – characters who fill the universe, rather than fit inside it. (It looks like Taikia Waititi is due to break this trend with “Thor: Ragnarok,” which comes as no surprise, since his “What We Do in the Shadows” is one of the few movies that nails the suggestive, impressionist, quick-brushstrokes worldbuilding of the original Star Wars.) Star Wars, on the other hand, shows larger-than-life characters in a world the viewer doesn’t fully understand, but swiftly learns how to navigate. There are bars, there are aliens, the aliens who drink at the bars. There’s a spaceship academy, and an intergalactic war, but there’s also a kid desperate to get off his family’s farm.

This means, too, that Star Wars is one of the few storytelling universes large enough for people who don’t have PhDs in Star Warsology to feel comfortable playing around. There’s no one complete and coherent Star Wars universe; nobody knows everything. There’s always room for one more system, one more ancient civilization, one more secret, one more shocking twist, one more civil war between species nobody’s ever heard of before. When the first Knights of the Old Republic game introduced an ancient precursor race never before referenced in the Star Wars films, let alone in the hundred-odd Expanded Universe books, everyone… thought it was pretty cool. Nobody was sitting there saying “that’s impossible, it contradicts everything we know,” because, well, it’s a big galaxy.

This makes it welcoming in a way that many universes just aren’t. When I put my big Star Wars roleplaying campaign together back in college (WEGd6 yeah!), I had players whose encyclopedic knowledge of “Expanded Universe” canon outstripped even my own, which takes some outstripping (get your head out of the gutter), and I had players who had only seen the trilogy once. Some were practiced gamers and storytellers, while others knew the concepts of gaming, but had never sat down at a table with dice before. And everyone could contribute. People built large stories and small, built scholars and adventurers and mercenaries and Jedi-in-waiting and wanderers from distant worlds, and they all just… fit. Everyone in the party could sit down at the table together, and tell a story, and feel that they belonged.

And that’s Star Wars, for me. It’s a home of story – a world where you can wander and make your own, and still a world your friends will recognize. The Star Wars universe is large enough for you, no matter who you are, or what story you want to tell. And yet it’s comfortable enough to share.