Since the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA) first showed us Luke hiding away on an island, one of the biggest mysteries of the new trilogy has been what the f*ck he’s been up to for the past 30-ish years. It’s a closely-guarded secret. The decade or so leading into TFA especially has been kept under wraps, a plot spoiler hopefully to be at least partially resolved in the upcoming film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which will be released December 15, 2017.
Even the most recent novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker (Legends hereafter), only teases possibilities rather than offering hard facts. Nevertheless, the novel is both poignant and moving. Equal parts humorous and mystical, the book has a touch of the travelogue and folk tale both, as well as an action-packed adventure and hero’s quest for the mysteries of the Force. More than anything, Legends is an ode to the power of storytelling and an explanation for the diversity of voices and perspectives at the heart of New Canon Star Wars.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
As a cargo ship rockets across the galaxy to Canto Bight, the deckhands on board trade stories about legendary Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker. But are the stories of iconic and mysterious Luke Skywalker true, or merely tall tales passed from one corner of the galaxy to another? Is Skywalker really a famous Jedi hero, an elaborate charlatan, or even part droid? The deckhands will have to decide for themselves when they hear The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
The Good Stuff
As with Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Legends is already in my list of top five Star Wars books, if not top three. I enjoy how different it is from a traditional novel. It’s not a linear narrative. Or, it is, but interspersed within it are a series of short stories /legends/interpretations of the mythic figure of Luke Skywalker. I love me some story within a story writing, especially when we get to see how the stories within the larger story impact the characters in the linear narrative. It’s very meta.
Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award-winning author Ken Liu proves why it is that he’s won so many awards. I loved his short story in Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View (“The Sith of Datawork”), so I was pumped to read Legends. He’s funny, engaging, and skilled. Legends offers not just one but seven different perspectives in the form of the six legends themselves and the narrative framing and interludes around them. Each and every one of these has a different tone, voice, ambiance, and setting. He captures everything from the emotional suppression and slavery of a construction droid to the delusions of grandeur of an eloquent mole-flea to the fevered fears of an Imperial officer and more. It’s breathtaking in its scope and his ability.
New Canon Legends and Old Canon ‘Legends’
I also appreciate the play on ‘Legends’—the new name for the formerly-canon Expanded Universe that has now been officially archived. Legends proposes that even stories that are non-canonical, or even flat-out wrong, can be valuable if they generate empathy for people who think differently from ourselves. We see this theme from the very beginning, as the first story offered in the collection, “The Myth Buster,” is clearly ‘wrong’ in the factual sense (as is number five, “The Tale of Lugubrious Mote”). In a way, naming one of the current canonical books ‘Legends of Luke Skywalker’ and including in it stories that are clearly incorrect or warped in their perspective honors the place of the old EU. Those stories still matter, even if they’re not canon anymore.
“Legends about our heroes don’t matter as much as what we choose to make of our own lives when the legend moves us.” (p.123)
That’s what Legends shows us. And it’s a perspective that honors both the entertainment and personal value of the old EU, now dubbed ‘Legends.’ It also reflects a diversity of perspectives about and ways to interact with the Force—another intentional emphasis in this new continuity—as well as pointing to a truth even beyond Star Wars canon.
Legends as an Apology for Diverse Stories
I’ll get to that truth in a moment—trust me, I have a lot of good things to say about it—but I also want to point to how Legends functions as a kind of apology for the goals and methodology of New Canon Star Wars. Not apology in the sense of an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Rather, apology in the philosophical sense: a case or explanation for why one does something a certain way or believes a certain thing.
For New Canon Star Wars, this is the intentional inclusion of diverse characters, perspectives, and worldviews. This includes characters of diverse ethnicities, diverse racial or species backgrounds, diverse genders and ages, diverse sexual orientations, and even diverse alignments (Imperial, Rebel, rogue, smuggler, First Order, Resistance, etc.). New Canon Star Wars has very purposefully set out to generate sympathy for all manner of points of view, and this has upset some people.
I have seen complaints about the inclusion of ‘so many’ Imperial point of view characters, on Twitter and Tumblr, for example, and no doubt the Lucasfilm Story Group (the team coordinating all New Canon media) has as well. The critiques I’ve seen argue that humanizing the Imperials amounts to support of fascist ideologies. Moreover, that humanizing them is an attempt to force marginalized voices to sympathize with their oppressors.
Now, I’m not here to say whether or not that is a possible Reader Response reaction to the inclusion of humanized Imperial characters. What I will say is that given what we see in Legends, that’s not the primary goal. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not a potential implication for certain people; just that’s not what the writers and creative team behind New Canon are going for.
The story “The Starship Graveyard” gives us the perspective of an Imperial officer involved in the battle of Jakku. Calling Luke a ‘terrorist’ within this story, to my mind, signals that this is a summons for the privileged to see that their version of events is wrong. To consider that perhaps their perception of themselves and those they’re oppressing is wrong and that they only believe it because it’s the only story that they’ve been told. Their point of view is limited by the lack of space for diverse voices.
Think about it. The vast majority of Star Wars fans have, historically, been white men. Or, better put, the most vocal and pandered-to fanbase has been. They’re not asking marginalized voices to sympathize with the Empire; they’re asking the voices of people in privileged positions to do so. And I think by doing so such people will realize that they are the Empire in this scenario, the ones who participate in an oppressive system for ‘good’ reasons but still end up hurting people. Rather than vilifying, New Canon is humanizing. This creates space for those who can see themselves in Imperial characters to see the flaws in their own perspectives in a non-threatening way. At the same time, it opens up space for them to understand why listening to the voices of those who are oppressed is important.
It’s ‘hear your own story’ but in a non-threatening way. It reflects oppressive systems back to those who support, perpetuate, and benefit from them. If it helps the oppressed have a bit of sympathy or at least understand that it isn’t a 100% black/white, good/evil dichotomy without justifying it in any way (since those characters are condemned and frequently get punished or have to live with regret/remorse the rest of their lives) at the same time, then so much the better. Empathy creates more space for dialogue and positive change. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal as I see it is to elicit self-reflection, understanding, repentance, and a desire to make amends and do better from those who are privileged.
I also want to point out that this and other stories like it are frequently being written by women, people of color, and people in the LGBT+ community. So to me, it’s hard to see this as coming from a place of trying to force forgiveness on marginalized folks or justify/absolve those who participate in oppressive systems.
“Some of [the Imperials] fought for the Empire because they weren’t told any other stories.” (p. 61)
That’s a powerful statement right there. And the message isn’t ‘and that makes it okay,’ but rather ‘this is why we need to tell more stories and have sympathy for people who weren’t given any other options to believe in and help them to do better.’
Legends as Social Commentary and an Ode to the Power of Stories
There’s a specific kind of social commentary being done in the interweaving of the meta-narrative, what we see of Luke’s character and the interplay between those two aspects and the reader. The meta-narrative actually shows us what the novel itself (and I believe Star Wars New Canon as a whole) wants to see happen in the audience. And it starts with listening to lots of stories:
“Every story is true to the teller…That doesn’t mean they’re all equally true in the larger sense. The only way to tell what is true in the grand scheme of things is to listen to lots of stories.”…
“Hearing stories you don’t like can be a good thing. It reminds you that not everyone thinks alike.” (p. 60)
We’re then given several examples of how stories can shape people to be heroes. “Fishing In the Deluge” highlights the importance of uplifting one another, of taking turns bringing people up alongside you and sharing the load. There is no shame in allowing others to help you and helping them in turn. Nor is there any shame in not being a warrior. There is power in creating safe, tranquil places away from the struggle. In words that would make the Teacher of Ecclesiastes proud, Luke declares that he has learned,
“[T]here are more ways to serve good than by fighting and confronting evil. You also serve the good by standing guard and maintaining pools of tranquility and peace; you also rebuke evil by showing that there is another way than death and warfare. We are all connected through the Tide, and there’s a time and place to rest, as well as a time and place to act.” (p. 200)
“I, Droid” offers a heartbreaking insider view of ‘civilization’ built on the backs of droid slaves. Given that the treatment of droids by humans/organic sentients has been largely ignored in the Old EU—and even some of New Canon—this story in itself is worth the entirety of the book. Terms like ‘code-switching’ and the description of taking on the master’s vocabulary and mannerisms reinforce the metaphor we’re being shown: slavery through the eyes of a construction droid literally rewired to lack empathy in order to serve as an enforcer.
We see what happens to someone who must participate in the system they’re also a victim of by perpetuating the suffering of others under compulsion. It shows us the cycle of abuse and violence and the awful truth of slavery from the inside out. It’s tragic, awful, and poignant to read. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve read in years, and not just in the Star Wars universe. This is the kind of story that should be read in schools and talked about.
What it shows us about Luke is equally important, though less foregrounded. In this story, Luke is a man who goes to the out-of-the-way and forgotten places and reaches out. Coupled with the preceding story, we see firsthand his willingness to listen, learn, and help others be their best selves as he seeks to understand the Force. Rather than simply ‘free the slaves’ in a white savior kind of way (or would it be an organic savior?) his willingness to not give up on and then listen to Zeta allows him to give the droid enforcers back their ability to save themselves. He uses his power to uplift others and then allows himself to be uplifted by them in turn. He empowers others to help themselves and others; rather than simply being the rescuer, he’s the ultimate enabler in the best sense of that word.
“Gingerly, the other droids opened the blast doors, and the enforcer droids emerged, beeping and chirping with joy and disbelief. Luke had disabled their override chips without seeing them or touching them. He had just…reached out.” (p. 273)
What strikes me is how powerful a picture of ally-ship comes out of this book. Luke represents the best of what the Jedi could be—what they failed to be in the Prequel Trilogy, to their own destruction. Yet Luke never takes it upon himself to set himself up as some kind of magical hero hell-bent on rescuing the downtrodden. Rather, he was there to rescue his friend R2-D2 and in the process, saw a way he could use his power (and privilege) as a Jedi to help empower people to rescue themselves. This is what good ally-ship means.
Speaking of Luke, I also love what we see elsewhere of his character, even filtered as it is through layers of tellings and retellings. The best aspects of his character from the Original Trilogy shine through, particularly his humor and humility about himself. When faced with outright lies, he responds with gentle good-humor, curiosity, and a calm lack of retaliation or defensiveness. An example we all could learn from in these divisive, reactionary times.
Luke is also a shining example of how to submit to criticism. When faced with the reality that there are other perspectives in the world than his own and he might be wrong, Luke’s response is to say,
“There is no shame in unlearning what I have learned in the search for wisdom.” (p. 165)
Put that on a poster on my wall; tattoo that on my arm; put that on my gravestone. I want that quote to be how I live my life. There is no shame in admitting that I was wrong and unlearning harmful or ineffective things in order to be a better person. True wisdom lies in a willingness to be wrong, to unlearn, and consider alternate perspectives.
Then there’s the emphasis on community. In Legends, we also see that progress isn’t made by oneself. The stories about Luke quite literally band the meta-level listeners together to help someone else. Even if only for a time, stories bind us as a community around the shared story and the experience of engaging with it. And diverse stories, hopeful stories, stories of heroes who help others, will change us for the better.
The same applies to Luke. He might be a wandering star, a mystical hermit on a quest to uncover the lost secrets of the Jedi, but he doesn’t do it alone. Each person we see him interact with gives him a new piece to carry with him moving forward. As the group of listeners in the meta-narrative grow, so does Luke. As they learn to rely on each other, Luke also learns,
“We’re entire systems living in balance, not self-contained individuals.” (p. 385)
A lesson the story clearly wishes to pass on to its readers.
Finally, “Big Inside” highlights the importance of wonder and awe. The world is a beautiful place, and knowledge is the way through to a sense of awe. There is something enrapturing about understanding things as they are rather than imposing one’s preconceived notions on them. Luke is a symbol of child-like wonder in search of understanding, much like the Fool in the Tarot deck. His name stems from the Latin word for ‘light,’ which fits in with this theme. He’s a Bright-Heart in search of wisdom, bringing others along with him and transforming them into heroes along with him.
Above all, Legends wants to transform us into luminous beings, heroes who seek wisdom and wonder and help others. And it does so through showing us the power of stories, especially of diverse stories. Like G’kolu wanting more stories of droid heroes after he hears Zeta’s tale. Diverse characters generate interest for even more diverse stories, which leads to everyone being able to see themselves as the hero of their own story. Alien or human, droid or organic, man or woman, adult or child, Imperial or Alliance, everyone is, or can be, a Luke Skywalker. All you have to do is have a desire to learn, an ear to listen and change, a heart of compassion, and a will to use one’s power to uplift others.
I honestly can’t think of any. I loved every single minute I spent reading this book. It may look long at over 400 pages, but the typeface is large, and it’s really a quick read, so don’t let the size of the book deter you. It’s worth it.
It may be that some people might not find the highly meta aspect of it compelling. I’m a huge fan of symbolic literature and meta-commentaries. I also have a whole series of articles on the importance of storytelling and why diversity matters so of course, this book would appeal to me. It’s basically that thesis, just in story form rather than an essay. Someone just looking for an adventure story or a fun sci-fi romp, however, might be turned off by how mystical and meta it is.
It’s also pretty sharply critical of certain negative aspects of fandom and our society at large. So, some may feel directly ‘attacked’ by the clear intent behind it. To be honest, that’s part of what I love about it. Just like I loved S1 of Supergirl, but I do understand that’s not to everyone’s taste. What amuses me is that the book has a sense of humor about people who might find it an oversimplification or too ‘pushy’ by incorporating those views within its very pages (see Redy’s and Lugubrious’ stories). Once again, the meta of it all appeals to my sensibilities, but it may not do the same for everybody.
Final Score: 10/10
Legends is at once funny, sad, yearning, playful, and hopeful—much like Luke Skywalker himself. It’s as multifaceted as the character and showcases Liu’s skill with handling diverse worlds, characters, and writing tones. It’s diverse yet unified, much like the New Canon of Star Wars. Given how much emphasis in the novel is put on diversity and the power of storytelling, this isn’t at all surprising.
In fact, Legends encapsulates much of what drives New Canon Star Wars: diversity of perspective, hopefulness, the ebb and flow of light and dark, space for marginalized voices, and, consequently, creating space for everyone to see themselves as a hero. The magic of Star Wars is a renewed sense of wonder at the galaxy. A desire to learn about others, and yourself, out of the pure joy of knowledge. Out of such knowledge flows empathy, compassion, hope, and awe.
I can’t summarize it better than the closing lines of the novel:
“He hoped that their dreams would be filled with adventure in a galaxy more wondrous and beautiful than the wildest tales could conjure.
He was certain they would be the heroes of those adventures, each of them a Luke Skywalker.” (p. 425)
That’s what it’s all about, folks. This is the power of stories, especially diverse and sensitive stories told from all manner of perspectives. The more voices we make space for, the more wondrous the world, and our own humanity, will become.
The last thing I’ll say is that I hope The Last Jedi does this vision of Luke justice. Because this is the Luke Skywalker I love and believe in. This is my own personal Luke Skywalker legend who inspires me to be the same way and has since I was a child.
If you’re interested, Twitter users @ChrisWerms and @germanJedi will be discussing the short stories on Twitter next week using the hashtag #LukeWeek. That’s one story a day for a whole week! I know I’m looking forward to it. I have even more to say than I wrote down here (shocking, I know).