One of the great questions posed by the Lucas Story Group’s detonation of the Expanded Universe was how the team planned on filling in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Considering that the original trilogy only covers a span of five in-universe years, and there was now a gap of 30 in-universe years between ROTJ and TFA, and there was much ground to cover: the dissolution of the Empire, the rise of the First Order, the establishment and (evidently) destruction of the new Jedi Academy, the formulation of the Resistance, and so on. It was an ambitious task therefore to assign the duty of “bridge the two films” to one Chuck Wending and his Aftermath Trilogy, a series of novels that would connect the two films and begin the process of rebuilding the Expanded Universe. But in considering the quality and value that Aftermath brings, it actually sheds light on a grander issue facing the Star Wars universe: is there any reason to be interested in what happens outside of the new movies themselves?
If you consider the Aftermath Trilogy (AMT) in light of all the other Star Wars novels available, the first thing that makes it stand out is the very writing style that Chuck Wendig uses. These books are written in present-tense, a departure from almost every other novel. This is, evidently, a comfortable vein for Wendig to write in as he has done so in at least one other novel, Zer0es. While this has the one effect of keeping the reader engaged in the real-time event-ness of the story, it feels like it lacks the maturity that past-tense prose allows. If we are privy to a character’s thoughts in the moment that they have them, then there is less opportunity for the writer to embellish, describe, or dwell on those thoughts. Imagine if Tolkien had written in first-person with the same sort of immediacy and “we have to keep going” that Wendig employs: we would miss the poems and songs of the Hobbits, the history of the Men of Gondor, and the ancient bloodlines of the Numenoreans.
Here, the first-person storytelling detracts from us getting to spend actual time with the characters, and it has a dramatically negative effect on how those characters get written. Rather than seeming like actual characters in a world, they come off more as caricatures of what they are supposed to be. Archetypal and stereotypical characters abound and no one seems to be able to shake off the bounds of those issues. Nora is a mom who regrets choosing a career in the military over raising her son. Sinjir is an ex-Imperial who cannot really decide whether he appreciated what the Empire turned him into or not, he waffles on it so frequently. Jas Emari is “the bounty hunter” because there are virtually no other occupations in this universe, and Jom Barell is Call of Duty anthropomorphized.
\Perhaps if these characters could breath a bit, if their personalities were allowed to develop with uninterrupted prose, if they were not forced to pick up the pace and keep going because time keeps on tick tick ticking away, maybe they would be more than just cartoon versions of actual people.
But the AMT suffers from something more serious than present-tense writing: a severe case of hero worship. Now, the AMT is not unique in this disease; very often in the Star Wars universe when new characters are introduced and supposed to be the main characters in a story, they invariably run into the main heroes from the films. In the case of the AMT, Han and Leia play larger-than-they-should roles, with a guest appearance from Wedge “Hero of the Rebellion” Antilles.
Adding in characters that the reader is already familiar with into a story they are not is tricky enough because it requires representing what the reader already knows faithfully but leaving room for them grow. It also has an immediate effect on the new characters introduced. The newly created characters view Han and Leia with the same type of hero worship as the reader likely already has. And while it is not unreasonable for the reader to feel this way, it must be reasonable for the characters in-universe to feel that way or else they run the risk of no longer being compelling and competent characters. The second novel in this trilogy, Life Debt, is especially egregious since it dragoons the new characters, the alleged focus of the trilogy, on a novel-long side quest for Han Solo to rescue Chewbacca from capture.
If it is not already a bit ridiculous that somehow Chewbacca was kidnapped and that Han Solo allowed it to happen (for which, the provided explanation falls flatter than a dining room table), all the new characters drop every bit of what they are doing to get this taken care of. We no longer care about the newly introduced villain, the regathering of Imperial forces, nor the impending troubles of establishing a new democracy. No, put all of that pesky “plot” on hold merely to make sure that the reader remembers Han Solo. Remember him? He’s cool! Let’s go do cool things with him.
Hero worship of this kind sucks any agency and focus on the new cast away and dumps all importance on a cast we already know. And that raises the question: why bother with any of this new cast at all then? And if the new cast is not worth the time, is the rest of the AMT?
Sadly, the series ends without much recovery. The third book brings the major conflict between the Imperial Remnant and the New Republic to the skies over Jakku and then kicks the Imperials out to Wild Space to regroup as the First Order. That’s it, the end, see you in thirty years in The Force Awakens. No clarification on Luke’s whereabouts or his plans to re-establish the Jedi Order (or not, for all we know). A gaping hole is left between the end of the AMT and TFA of probably twenty-eight years. What did we really get from the AMT in terms of bridging the gap between the Original Trilogy and the new films? We got the equivalent of getting through the toll booth before actually getting onto the bridge itself.
But, truly, this raises a different issue altogether, one that hampered much of the Expanded Universe novels. Is telling the story of events between films as compelling a narrative as continuing the story post-films? Consider the difference between the AMT and the series of the Expanded Universe, like the New Jedi Order (25 years after the Battle of Yavin), the Legacy of the Force (35 years after the Battle of Yavin), and so on, versus the AMT (placed between ROTJ and TFA).
When there were no more films coming out to tell the story of the Skywalker family and the galaxy they inhabited, the novels were free to pursue all sorts of ideas and adventures. There were stakes that made them feel important and unpredictable. The AMT is hampered by its place in the timeline because we know 1) none of the newly introduced characters are in TFA so they either do not survive or are not important by then, and 2) none of the old characters are in any real danger because they instead do appear in TFA. Any stakes or threat of danger introduced in AMT is immediately undercut by the audience’s awareness of its place in the timeline. Since we know who makes it out alive and the general state of things in TFA, the AMT cannot make us wonder if they will make it out alive.
The Expanded Universe included stories both prior to the timeline of the films, concurrent with the films, and after (sometimes well beyond) the end of ROTJ. Those stories after ROTJ were able (some of them, not all of them) to capture that excitement of vulnerable main characters. When the New Jedi Order series began with the death of Chewbacca, it instantly made each character mortal rather than the invincible divine-like beings they had come to be in our imaginations. There was no longer a guarantee that our heroes would all make it out alive (and, if you made it all the way through the New Jedi Order series, you could see that not everyone did…).
Which leads us to the problem that the Disney Universe is going to face for several years: if stories that take place in between films lose their compelling narratives due to their place in the timeline, it can only be recovered if they take place after the films. However, if you find the schedule of Star Wars books currently planned for release, you will find over thirty titles, yet only two of them novels. And of those two novels, one is Battlefront II: Inferno Squad which is another immediately-post-ROTJ story and the other is Phasma with a publisher’s summary of “Discover Captain Phasma’s mysterious history in this ‘Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ novel.”
Clearly, Disney is not yet ready to tackle stories after the films. And until they are, I think it may be time to resolve that the new Disney Universe is not interested in telling the same caliber stories that the old Expanded Universe was. And while there are examples of Disney-era novels still being worth your time (Ahsoka gets a solid C+ grade while Tarkin gets a hearty A- from me), the AMT does not so much set the bar for future novels but rather trip all over it in a hasty present-tense hero worshiping disappointment.