At the beginning of Han Solo’s Revenge, Han and his loyal friend Chewbacca are running a drive-in movie theater out of the back of their spaceship, the Millenium Falcon. Later, Han is irritated by a musical bottle of wine while Chewie chugs beer with gusto. Later still, Chewie fashions a hang glider out of a dead pterodactyl.
This is not the Star Wars universe people expect.
It is, however the Star Wars universe in print, back before the franchise was crushed under the weight of its own mythology. It was the Star Wars universe when people were allowed to really goof off in it and have it considered official, before much of it was locked into the creativity-crushing concept that is “canon.” This weirdness began in 1977 when Marvel Comics secured the rights to do a Star Wars series that carried on after the end of the movie. That comic got really weird, really quickly, but even that could not prepare people for the next foray into expanding the Star Wars universe, 1978’s disastrous Star Wars Holiday Special. That television special was so poorly received that it must have been tempting to George Lucas to just stick to action figures.
But there was no way to stop the expansion once it began, and in 1978 that carried over into books with the publication of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean “I’ve written every ‘novelization of the movie’ ever” Foster. The book takes place after the events of Star Wars (don’t give me none of that A New Hope balderdash, people) and features Luke, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Darth Vader. Oddly, despite being a direct continuation of the movie, it isn’t remembered by too many people outside of hardcore fans. Perhaps because it fails to include the movie’s most popular character (besides Grand Moff Tarkin and “that guy at the Mos Eisley Spaceport who was just a regular dude in a regular spacesuit”). No worries though, because Han Solo would appear in his own books, and despite the fact that they have almost nothing to do with anything in the movie, Han’s series is much better remembered — and much more beloved — than Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
I distinctly remember the first time I laid eyes on the first of the books in the trilogy, Han Solo at Star’s End. It was at the small public library in LaGrange, Kentucky, and I was seven or eight years old. Already an avid reader of science fiction and, like most kids in the US at the time, pretty excited about Star Wars stuff, I was shaking with excitement as I nabbed the book from the shelves and brought it up to to check out. That excitement turned to confusion then to righteous rage when I was told I was not allowed to check the book out. It was in the “For Teens” section, and I was not a teen. I pleaded my case with all the eloquence afforded an emotional child, but to no avail. I think she tried to assuage by anger with some Berenstain Bears crap or some such nonsense. Lady, I didn’t read baby books when I was six, you think I’m gonna read them at the wise and refined age of eight??? You think a bunch of cartoons bears learning about feelings and sharing is a replacement for space battles? When my mom came to pick me up, I was so furious that I didn’t even remember to ask her to check it out for me. That was 1980. I still have not forgiven that librarian, whoever she might have been. I hope you had fun reordering all the books when your library abandoned the Dewey Decimal System.
These three pulpy Han Solo adventures set before the events of Star Wars feature almost nothing recognizable from the Star Wars universe. No stormtroopers, no Jedi Knights, no Force, not even an Empire to speak of. Written by Brian Daley, the books instead introduce the nebulous Corporate Sector of the galaxy, with their goons as the bad guys. The Corporate Sector was later worked into the structure of the Empire, but within the context of the books it seems to have almost nothing to do with that particular aspect of the galaxy far, far away. Han and Chewbacca tear through Corporate Sector space smuggling goods and, of course, end up doing lots of heroic stuff despite Han’s better efforts to be a rascal and scalawag.
Now that I am a grown-up and no librarian can tell me not to read Han Solo books or have funfetti cake for dinner if I wanna, I can say that Han Solo at Star’s End kicks off the Star Wars literary universe in pretty fun, if unexpected fashion (thanks, again, to the lack of anything from the movies other than Han, Chewie, and the Millennium Falcon). We meet our two heroes in the middle of closing a deal with a sleazy loan shark named Ploovo-Two-For-One, a deal which includes the ol’ ravenous monster in a box gag and Han and Chewie shooting it out with cops in a zero g disco. If you ever wondered about who lived in the Star Wars universe besides rebels and Imperial guys, Han Solo at Star’s End is our first look at normal life (well, disregarding all the cooking shows we know they watch on the Wookiee homeworld of Kazzhshzshshzahz). And the Empire is full of cops, janitors, disc jockeys, exotic dancers, cab drivers, bartenders, office workers — all getting along just fine, it seems. If the Corporate Sector is an example of life under the iron thumb of the Emperor, then he seems to be doing a pretty fair job for most people who aren’t bitter former politicians and disgraced Jedi Knights.
Anyway, as will be the pattern for most of the books, Han and Chewie hightail it off the planet half a step ahead of the law and with a Falcon badly in need of some repairs. Han hopes to get those repairs from a group of hot shot outlaw techs led by a guy named Doc, but when he arrives at their hide-out, Doc is missing and the old man’s daughter, Jessa, tells Han that Doc is only one of many people who dared question Corporate Authority and then mysteriously vanished. She makes a deal: if Han will get to the bottom of the kidnappings, she’ll jazz up the Falcon for free and better than Han could ever have hoped for. The ensuing adventure includes everything from space dogfights to Chewie tearing around on a giant wheat combine to Han, Chewie, and their small band of friends infiltrating the secret prison at Star’s End in the the only way that ever occurs to the heroes of Bollywood films when they need to penetrate the villain’s lair: disguising themselves as traveling dancers.
A tremendous amount of mythological importance has been shoveled onto Star Wars over the decade, often by fans, sometimes by Lucas himself. But Star Wars, when it was just Star Wars, was no more or less mythical than the golden age sci-fi pulp that inspired it (Lucas himself once described it — although I can’t find the citation — as nothing more than American Graffiti in space). Han Solo at Star’s End was written assuming Star Wars would never be regarded as anything more than thrilling pulp fiction, and so the book itself is very much a throwback to those sorts of stories. It can be a little jarring to have so little of what appeared in the movies in the books, but I’m sure there was a reason. Perhaps they wanted to really explore the universe. Perhaps, knowing more movies were going to be made, Brian Daley was forbidden from doing too much with the cinematic elements for fear of conflicting with what might appear in future films. Whatever the case, after the initial shock one hardly notices the lack of stormtroopers (Corporate Sector security are just as bad shots as stormtroopers), because one is having too much fun trying to keep up with Han, Chewbacca, and the two droids — Bollux and Blue Max — that become their faithful crewmates.
The second book in the series, Han Solo’s Revenge, is where we get such bizarre scenes as Han and Chewie running a drive-in movie theater out of the back of the Falcon on some backwater desert planet, and Chewie gleefully chugging beer at the airport while Han struggles with a bottle of singing wine. If Daley was restricted from using many elements from the movie, he must have been utterly unfettered in every other regard. This time around, Han and Chewie get mixed up with a gang of slave traders, and though Han claims he only wants to collect on the money he was promised in a deal that goes south when he learns it involves smuggling captives, the fact that he passionately despises slavery (I believe there is something in Chewbacca’s back story about being a slave until Han met him and helped him escape) means that Captain Solo is in it for more than the credits.
Now, not only do our heroes have the Corporate Sector security forces still looking for them, they also get pursued by pirates, angry slave traders, local gangsters, and a slick gunslinger named Gallandro who wants to test his quick draw prowess against Solo. Things get much weirder in this second book, including a scene where a howling Chewbacca fashions a hang glider out of a dead pterodactyl. The action is also better. Although separated from each other for a portion of the book, both Han and Chewie get their own chapters and chances to have side adventures — Han trying to negotiate the complexity of a planet run by warring gangs, and Chewbacca trying to survive in the wild with a broken down Falcon.
The final book of the trilogy, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, really gets odd.
It starts with Han and Chewie enjoying some down time. Well, most Chewie. While Han is wheeling and dealing, Chewbacca is — I kid you not — getting a mani-pedi, sporting a stolen admiral’s hat at a jaunty angle, and driving around in a cherry red stretch Cadillac with two enthusiastic young ladies in the back seat who just love Wookiees. Eventually, he and Han hook up with an old smuggler buddy and launch a search for the lost treasure of Xim the Tyrant, a brutal warlord who ruled the galaxy before even the Old Republic existed. The adventure also puts Han on an inevitable collision course with Gallando the gunslinger, back for another round after Han Solo’s Revenge. Oh, there’s also a tribe of primitive harlequins who intend to sacrifice Han and the gang to their space god, but after you’ve read about Chewbacca driving around in a hot rod (“American Graffiti in space” indeed), a gang of murderous mummers will hardly faze you.
With no Darth Vader, no Rebels, no Tatooine and not even any Wedge Antilles, Star Wars fans even in 1979 might have been a bit let down by the trilogy. But the “Han Solo Adventures” as they are collectively known are great pulp fun, and they expand the Star Wars universe in interesting and unexpected ways while keeping that worn-in, lived-in feel that made the movie seem so real even when it was utterly fantastical. Han Solo is very much Han Solo as we know him, and it’s great to hang out in a medium that lets you know what Chewie is thinking rather than him being relegated to occasional roars and gurgles. Even though some children weren’t allowed to read them at the time, the books were still wildly popular, so much so that they are still available in an omnibus both in print and e-book. You can read each one of them in less than a day.
In the wake of the success of the Han Solo stories, and with the release of The Empire Strikes Back in May of 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, it seemed like hiring someone to write some more adventures would be a good idea. Doing another set of Han Solo adventures would have been too much retread. Doing a series of Luke Skywalker adventures would be…well, who the hell wants to read about him targeting wamprats all day and farming moisture? Luckily, The Empire Strikes Back gave fans a new character, one very much like Han Solo, with a similarly dodgy background.
And if the “Han Solo Adventures” got a little nutty, they were nothing compared to the adventures of Lando Calrissian…