Man, George Lucas really screwed things up for other Star Wars writers when he decided Luke and Leia were siblings. Poor Alan Dean Foster, unaware that Lucas would come up with that one day and make his book full of “Luke’s face flushed as Leia’s body brushed against his” more awkward than it already was. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written before Star Wars was subtitled “Episode IV: A New Hope”; before Star Wars was released; before Star Wars was even finished. It was the first attempt to expand the Star Wars universe beyond the movie, at a time when everyone assumed there probably wouldn’t be a second movie and before Lucas started going on about having written an entire nine-film multi-generational saga, a claim that seems from our vantage point today and with the evidence at hand, somewhat dubious, at least as things stood in 1977.
The story of how 20th Century Fox wrote off Star Wars as a dumb flop before it was even completed is part of widely circulated cinema lore now, so we need not rehash it here. George Lucas did not share their low opinion of his breezy little space adventure though, and as the release of the movie was drawing near, he started making plans for a potential sequel. To complete this task, he enlisted the aid of Alan Dean Foster, a decent science fiction author whose name has become so synonymous with novelizations of sci-fi films that it’s easy to forget he ever wrote original material. My first — in fact, my only — brush with Alan Dean Foster before reading Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was his 1987 novel Glory Lane, which I bought entirely because there was a punk rock dude and an alien in a sweater vest on the cover, and I thought that might be entertaining. It was, though my memory of the book’s actual contents and plot is vague at best.
But that cover is still glorious.
I’d never read any of Foster’s film novelizations, because I never really warmed to novelizations. Something about reading a book about movie characters felt (and still feels) odd to me, even when they aren’t straight novelizations, though of late I’ve been revisiting some of the books. The Han Solo and Lando adventures, for example. Recently, to celebrate the imminent release of a new Star Wars film that thankfully didn’t use George Lucas’ idea for it, which was to make it a movie about a group of children (I swear, that man’s favorite Star Wars property must be Caravan of Courage), I finally picked up Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. When I was a kid, I never knew Splinter of the Mind’s Eye existed. I found the Han Solo adventures easily enough, but somehow this first foray into the “Expanded Universe” slipped through the cracks.
When Lucas contracted Foster to write the book (as well as the novelization of Star Wars itself), he told him the following: that he wanted a new story, one that could potentially be adapted into a sequel film. But since Star Wars was probably going to succeed only modestly (a more positive outlook than the one held by the Fox suits), it had to be a story that could be filmed on a very low budget, so no fancy space stuff. Oh, also, Harrison Ford says there is no way he’d sign on for a second Star Wars film, so no Han Solo and Chewbacca. If Lucas had any inkling at all of what to do with “Star War”s beyond Star Wars, he didn’t clue in Foster. In a way, this was good for Foster. This was before Star Wars had to shoulder the weight of being a “cultural touchstone” or worry about pedantic fans obsessed with canon and continuity. So Foster, like Brian Daley when he wrote the first of the Han Solo adventures in 1979, was more or less given free reign as long as he stuck to the few guidelines about making it cheap to film. In the end, according to Foster in an interview with Empire magazine, the only thing Lucas excised from the manuscript Foster submitted to him was an opening space dogfight, which Lucas feared would be too expensive to shoot if he managed to get a sequel green-lit.
Which is why Splinter of the Mind’s Eye opens with Luke, Leia, C3PO and R2D2 flying in an X- and Y-wing to a secret meeting during which Leia hopes to recruit some fence-sitters to her cause. It’s the only space scene in the entire book. They never make the meeting, because Leia has engine trouble, forcing them to land on a murky swamp planet with a mysterious homing beacon. A freak storm causes them both the crash-land, stranding them on what could very well be an underdeveloped planet with no means of getting back to space or contacting anyone. Except there is that beacon, and as they trudge together through the swamp, they soon discover that it belongs to a secret Imperial mining operation. Disguising themselves as miners in hopes of finding a way off-planet, they instead stumble into a plot involving a magic crystal, a sadistic Imperial commissar, and an old lady named Old Halla who calls Luke “boy” all the time but senses he is strong with the force. Other than the opening, the entire adventure takes place on the foggy swamp planet, set either in the forest, in the grimy mining town, or in a cavern. Its most extravagant scenes include a giant monster worm and a showdown between Imperial troops and a band of natives in an underground village. There is a single mention of a lovable rogue smuggler who helped Luke and Leia once, and they drop Ben Kenobi’s name a couple of times, but beyond that the only other character to appear from the movie is Darth Vader. To call his role in the book underwhelming is downplaying how comically inept he is.
In retrospect, people like to pick on this book for the number of things it gets wrong about the Star Wars universe. But those criticisms ignore the fact that there was no Star Wars universe. Luke and Leia are written as little more than teenagers, and their characterizations seem overly petulant. But if you isolate Star Wars and forget any other movies were made, well, they were basically teenagers (Carrie Fisher was only 21 when Star Wars was made). Luke whines to his uncle about wanting to hang out with his friends. He pouts in his bed while playing with a toy spaceship. Leia is assertive, but she’s also condescending and snide. It’s not so difficult to take those characters and see them as the more juvenile versions of themselves that appear in Splinter. Similarly, who knew at the end of Star Wars that Luke would be all Force powerful? In fact, who even really knew what the Force was besides pulling pranks on stormtroopers and having an old man’s ghost whisper to you? So the fact that the Force is of very little use in Splinter isn’t as far afield as it would become. Nor is Luke’s awkwardness in a fight. He’s basically still a farm boy, after all, not a seasoned warrior. In fact, whenever a fight breaks out, Leia goes in full-tilt (she even splits a dude with a battle-axe) while Luke philosophizes in his head about how tragic is man’s thirst for violence.
I quite like what Foster does with Luke and Leia. They are both considerably more complex than they would be in the movies, making a lot of bad but believable decisions and occasionally being overwhelmed by things, being petty about things, and generally performing like two people only just beginning to learn the art and science of war. That Foster propels them further toward romance might elicit snickers now, knowing what we do about the brother and sister thing, but none of that lore existed when Foster wrote the book. Continuing the schoolyard crush between Luke and Leia made perfect sense in 1978, with nothing to go on but Star Wars (and the assumption that, with Harrison Ford not returning for a potential second film, we’d seen the last of Han Solo). In fact, I like Foster’s Leia substantially better than what Lucasfilm came up with for her. In the movies, they introduce a potentially tough, cool character only to reduce her to hanging out in control rooms, criticizing Han, sitting around in Lando’s hotel room, and getting her hair braided by Ewoks. Oh, and then they turn her into a scantily clad sex slave for a giant slug. Sure, she gets to shoot some stormtroopers from time to time, but compared to Luke and Han, she’s only slightly more developed than Wedge. Yeah, yeah, she kills Jabba the Hutt. But Jabba the Hutt was a giant immobile slug with pitiful wee little arms. I’m pretty sure Salacious B. Crumb could have killed Jabba the Hutt.
In Foster’s hands, Leia is a much better developed character. She is still petulant and haughty and not always likable, but she is also brave and tender and witty. Foster delves a bit more into what she’s been through: the destruction of her planet (which she puts aside in order to console Luke, devastated by the death of one old man he met just a few days earlier); the murder of her family; her torture at the hands of Grand Moff Tarkin (Foster never fully describes the interrogation process she underwent on the Death Star, but he does enough to communicate that it was horrific). This is a Leia who suffers from PTSD. When Luke slaps her in the local pub as part of their cover, it’s more than just a comical “oh no you didn’t” scene. The book doesn’t treat it as a throw-away gag. It is a really uncomfortable scene. It causes her genuine, and justifiable, pain and rage. Not just because she is a stuck-up princess, but because she is a woman who has been abused. This is also a Leia who suffers under the weight of leadership thrust upon her still very young shoulders. A Leia who despite that, manages to stand up and fight. If she is at times abrasive, we can understand why. Girl’s got a lot to deal with.
If there’s a character Foster mishandles, it’s Darth Vader, who shows up for a big shootout in a cave followed by a lightsaber battle in an ancient temple. In both cases, he is comical more than menacing, despite how earnestly Foster writes that Vader is menacing. His dialogue is B-grade serial villain boasting and threats. In one showdown, he marches into an ambush and is almost immediately shot in the chest by Leia; a killing wound if not for his chest plate. He promptly goes scurrying out of the cave after that, practically fingering a handlebar mustache and shaking his fist at Luke and Leia while declaring “Curses! Foiled again!” In the second and final conflict, Luke — who has almost no experience with a lightsaber — holds his own against the Dark Lord for most of the fight. When he falters, Leia picks up the lightsaber and holds her own. Vader comes out of that conflict minus an arm then trips and falls down a well. Basically, he is as much of a chump as Boba Fett proved to be in Return of the Jedi, defeated by a blind guy who bumps into him and sends him falling into a carnivorous hole in the ground.
Initially, I was shocked by how violent Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is. Luke, Leia, and their eventual allies (the aforementioned old woman and two creatures that basically sound like they are wookiees but with anteater noses or something) kill a lot of people. I’m not just talking laser blasting stormtroopers. Weapons are shoved through skulls and into eye sockets. Men are ripped in half. One is beaten to a bloody pudding by one of the not-wookiees wielding a severed droid leg. Luke tosses a grenade into a crowd of soldiers. Leia, as I mentioned, goes full Robert E. Howard and decimates people with a battle-axe while howling like a banshee (or a “steel kitten,” as she is described), even throwing it at a fleeing, disarmed combatant and nailing him in the back. Then I remembered that Star Wars was pretty violent itself. I mean, they cut Walrus Man’s arm off; Luke’s family is burned alive and their charred corpses were just laying there; C3PO tosses Jawa corpses onto a bonfire with hilarious casualness; Han Solo shoots Greedo in the crotch; and Luke kills all the cafeteria workers on the Death Star when he blows it up. So maybe Leia shoving a stalactite through someone’s face and an Imperial bureaucrat who gouges out eyeballs isn’t that much of a stretch.
Of course, Star Wars ended up being a mildly bigger hit than Lucas anticipated, so when it came time to make a sequel Lucas could afford a much more lavish film, and Alan Dean Foster’s intentionally modest adventure was discarded. But at least a little of it made it into The Empire Strikes Back. The swamp planet, for example, became Dagobah. The creepy tree with Vader emerging from it enshrouded in mist made it in as that weird little aside where Luke faces imaginary Vader during his training. Darth Vader getting his arm chopped off in a lightsaber duel before falling down a well became Luke getting his hand chopped off and falling down a well (more or less). Some of the darkness that colors Empire was pioneered in Splinter. Sadly, the films never had Leia wield a lightsaber (or a battle axe). As for the romance between Luke and Leia — well, it turns out Harrison Ford was willing to make a second movie when the money was good enough, so the romance angle was rerouted to be between Leia and Han Solo. As a consolation prize, Luke had to go do push-ups while a little frog-man with Grover’s voice yelled nonsense at him.
While it might have been overshadowed by the storyline as it developed in the films, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is not without its appeal or its fans (of which I am one). It is a fun quest adventure, well-written by Foster, who doesn’t use writing the potential novelization of a film yet to be made that will be read mostly by kids as an excuse to half-ass it. He pours on some complex vocabulary, deals with the growing sexual attraction between two young protagonists, makes them flawed and awkward heroes, and doesn’t shy away from either gory violence or rumination on the cost of such violence. It’s not the pulpy camp that we would get soon after in the trilogy of Han Solo adventures. As much fun as those books are — and man alive, are they ever fun — Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is just as fun but in a different direction, a relic from a time before Star Wars had so much baggage.
Now when do we deal with the big green bunny rabbit?