Flirting with the Empire

Perhaps the most intriguing idea to spring out of George Lucas's latest Star Wars installment is that the insidious Senator Palpatine does not become dictator through an uprising in the streets, but through silent machinations in back rooms. The change is gradual, until one day you realize the Republic is the Evil Empire.

Take, for instance, the world of publishing. You can find books on the shelves from dozens of houses, but a closer look shows they are all under the control of a single ruler. Knopf, Anchor, Ballantine, Bantam Dell, Crown, Del Rey, Everyman Library and its "competitor" Modern Library, Pantheon and Vintage books all pay allegiance to emperor Random House. Science fiction itself has been taken over by media tie-ins, ranging from novelizations of Star Trek to Dungeons & Dragons, taking far more shelf space than original science fiction.

"There are two schools of thought on this, and I'm not sure which is the correct one," says Timothy Zahn, who has won the prestigious Hugo award for his science fiction, but will always be known for his Star Wars series Heir to the Empire, which takes place five years after Return of the Jedi. "One is that media books are crowding out other titles, and the other is that if there weren't media books, those shelves would be taken by cat books."

The fear comes from a simple formula. It takes only a tiny fraction of fans of a movie or TV show to make a related book outsell any mainstream title by even the most respected author. So why would a publishing house want to print anything non-brand-name?

Surprisingly, authors of franchise fiction often have a lot of freedom with their stories because the readership is so minuscule that folks like George Lucas don't even bother green-lighting the projects. Still, Zahn has made his mark in a galaxy far away. His Jedi Knight and smuggler Mara Jade became popular enough to turn the tables and spawn her own video game and comic spin-offs. Lucas even paid enough attention to Zahn's success to use his name of the planet government Coruscant for Episodes I and II.

On average, Zahn says, his Star Wars books sell ten to 15 times more than his original creations. He's not ashamed to write about someone else's characters, and as he points out, the books he's written since have sold better because of them.

"I'm not writing to speak to the ages or anything pretentious like that," Zahn says. He plans to continue writing his own stuff, but if he can collect some of the money and recognition that comes from occasionally dipping into Lucas's universe, all the better. (He's got another book under contract that will take place shortly before Episode II.)

Neither rebel soldier nor imperial agent, Zahn, like more and more writers these days, has taken on the role of Han Solo, working the system so it works for him.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dylan Otto Krider