A Prelude to Star Wars Fiction
Throughout my lifetime I’ve perhaps read forty or fifty books based in George Lucas’s Star Wars universe. The cannon of literature spanned a few hundred years of fictional history (until the extended canon was jettisoned by Disney executives), with several long-running series planned out by some seminal authors.
Of these, it was the X-Wing series that I most adored. Let me pitch them to you: these books contained exotic planets, hot-headed pilots, exquisitely-detailed dogfights, and plenty of emotional growth and complexity between the characters. There were lightsabers and aliens, sure, but often these books read just like a straightforward military drama with a space opera coating.
The Best Novel in the Series
I have recommend Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston, to many friends. The exchange will generally go like this:
Me: This is a great series! You should read this one, it’s my favourite.
Friend: Thanks! Is this the first book in the series?
Me: Of course not. It’s the ninth and last book.
Luckily, Starfighters of Adumar is a standalone story. You don’t need any knowledge of the rest of the books to understand it, and there isn’t even any Jedi or lightsabers in the story. So, why do I recommend a book that is perhaps the least Star Wars-y in the entire series?
The reason is, at its heart, despite the name and the cover, Starfighters of Adumar is not truly a book about starfighters. (A majority of the book doesn’t even take place in space). Instead, I would argue that it is a book about relationships. The very opening chapter doesn’t open with a dogfight, but rather with a restaurant date, and the main character needing to end his relationship with his girlfriend.
“She was beautiful and fragile and he could not count the number of times he had told her he loved her. But he had come here knowing that he had to hurt her very badly” (Allston, p.1).
That was a pretty confronting opening to a book that advertises itself with explosions on the front cover. Wedge, the protagonist, expects that he will need to break her heart, but instead she breaks up with him over the meal. It is a mutual agreement. They needed each other for a time, but they have both realised that all they truly feel for each other is affection.
“Wedge, when we came together I was a different woman…Wedge, I feel as though I inherited you. From a friend who passed away. You were her choice. I do not know if you would have been mine. I never had the chance to find out” (Allston, p.4).
I first read this book as a teenager, and while I was still coked up on hormones and dreaming of the perfect romance, a Star Wars book was able to, in a small way, dispel the fairytale notion that people remain the same throughout the course of a relationship. It needs to be said: Allston is a master of dialogue and character. His characters speak effortlessly for pages, their conversations ebbing and flowing from topic, and yet somehow driven towards a poignant conclusion at the end of the chapter. Starfighters of Adumar begins with Wedge losing perhaps one of the more solid people in his life, as he begins to search for someone who he can spend the rest of his life with.
Fame and Toxicity
If I were to identify a second major theme in the novel, I would simply say that the novel addresses the dark side of fame. Wedge is tasked with being a political presence on Adumar, a newly discovered planet that produces weapons. It is a planet that idolises star pilots, and Wedge is one of the best star pilots there is.
However, Allston chose this particular premise, I feel, because it allowed him to delve into the issues with fame and fandom. Wedge and his team initially somewhat enjoys the praise lavished on them. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the cons of fame quickly outweigh the benefits. Wedge and his team are followed by a journalist who documents their movements, they are soon unable to travel freely without being mobbed, Wedge finds himself having to uncomfortably disengage from the romantic advances of a local, and his actions are consistently misinterpreted by everyone who oogles him from afar.
It is a joy to read how Wedge tries to outmaneuver the society trying to constrain him. Everyone has an expectation of how he should behave, and Wedge quickly grows tired of it, and has to strike out a path for himself. I’ve always wanted to be an author, but I think here Allston has cleverly tucked away advice about the perils of being in the public eye. Popularity quickly shifts. Fame can turn sour. There is a simple honour in being unrecognised on the street.
Band of Brothers
It is difficult to say much more without spoiling some of the best moments of the series. Simply put, in Starfighters of Adumar, Allston has expertly balanced many moving parts. His story, as mentioned before, is set against a backdrop of war and fame, while Wedge is internally determining who he is, when he isn’t fighting.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the humour. The novel uses its characters and their personalities to great effect.
“Oh, stop worrying, Wedge.” Janson’s grin was infectious. “It’s obvious they adore you. You could throw up all over yourself and they’d love it. By nightfall they’d all be doing it. They’d call it the ‘Wedge Purge.’ They’d be eating different-coloured foods just to add variety.” Wedge felt his stomach lurch. He half turned to glare accusingly at Tycho. “I thought maybe you’d be able to do what I never could. Get [Janson] up to an emotional age of fourteen, maybe fifteen” (Allston, p.33).
While Wedge’s desire for love is thoroughly explored throughout the novel, his camaraderie and banter with the other characters is really what ties the whole novel together. Despite whatever circumstances they are in, Wedge and his team inevitably find the time to dish out dry humour at the expense of some other poor character.
For awhile, I wanted to send these thoughts to Aaron Allston, to let him know how much his novel impacted me as a young person. When I finally decided that I should send this to him, I found out that he passed away six years ago, aged 53. I wish I had thought to write this article just a few years earlier, so that he could have read how much I appreciated his craft. He was a man with perhaps one of the greatest influences on my literary tastes. My debut novel (Lessons from the Wreckage) was heavily inspired by his work. And yet his life is summarised on a Wikipedia page that’s 800-words long.
Instead, I will have to be satisfied with this: you can find a copy of the book second hand, and cheap. You can still buy it on Amazon, as an audiobook or for Kindle. You may not particularly like Star Wars, but if you are someone who loves fiction with biting dialogue, action, and well-defined characters, then perhaps you can appreciate Allston alongside me. Even though he won’t be heralded as a powerhouse of fiction by many, I still find myself reminiscing about the half-forgotten teenage lessons I learned on Adumar.