On the topic of sequels, I’m often drawn to the ‘weird’ ones. The ones that sit firmly outside whatever the heck the franchise formula eventually becomes. For example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often regarded as a lesser adventure, but it’s the best of them all for me (and one of my all-time favorite movies in general). I also love the way Nightmare on Elm Street 2 changes its formula by turning Freddy into a metaphor for budding sexual identity.
With that preamble out of the way, I want to talk about a book that was recommended to me on Twitter earlier this year. Published in 1978, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is the very first Star Wars tie-in novel and it’s maybe the most fascinating book I’ve read in some time.
It’s written by one of the greats, Alan Dean Foster, who had previously ghostwritten the original Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker novelization for George Lucas. As the story goes, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was Lucas’ “contingency sequel” (has there ever been another case of this?) as he thought Star Wars could wind up a box office failure. Given all the hell he went through to get Star Wars made, Lucas was determined to continue his universe by hook or by crook.
And in the event of financial failure, the next movie would have to be made much more cheaply than Star Wars, and so Foster’s marching orders were to create a more confined story that could be easily brought to the screen.
That explains Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It’s low-key stuff, hardly the galaxy-spanning adventure one might expect from Star Wars. Instead, it’s a dark and brooding story that follows Luke and Leia’s misadventure on an almost barren mining planet under Empire occupation. They traverse enemy strongholds, underground caverns, and ancient temples on a quest to find the “Kaiburr” crystal, encountering force users, wookie stand-ins (called yuzzem), and aboriginal natives who aren’t so pleased with the Empire squatting on their homeworld.
I’m sure some of that sounds familiar and it’s always cool to see elements in play before they’ve had an opportunity to fully settle into the established formula. That’s what we’ve got here. There’s plenty of elements that would go on to inform the later movies in the Star Wars saga, and reading Splinter of the Mind’s Eye invokes more than a few moments from Empire and Jedi (all the way up to The Rise of Skywalker).
The book even suggests Darth Vader may in fact be Luke’s father, even at this point in the franchise. He refers to Luke as “Skywalker,” suggesting that the sith lord knows his identity. But Foster isn’t interested in taking it any further than that (or was perhaps prohibited from doing so). But there’s also a bit that suggests R2 knows more about Vader’s past than he’s letting on. Foster handles this with a throwaway line, but these things certainly fuel speculation: What did Lucas know and when did he know it? There’s plenty more ideas found in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye that have clearly been rattling around at Lucasfilm for a while, from the planet itself having a very Dagobah vibe all the way to the end of the book where SPOILER Luke slices off Vader’s hand.
What’s super interesting about this book is that it exists in a canon that has been aggressively shaped and then reshaped over the years. I’m going to be frank about this: In Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Luke is beyond horny for Leia. The dude cannot keep his eyes off her, admiring the way her clothes cling to her body as they walk, the shape of her mouth as they sleep, and on and on. It’s gross given what we know now, but if I take a big step back to 1978, long before the sister revelation was a thing, then it probably lands as it should, given Luke’s age as a hormonal nineteen or twenty-year-old.
To paraphrase a great line from The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, “sex in Star Wars should never be more than a kiss” and so maybe this is just another example of a franchise in flux. A lot of the online criticism of this book comes from people unable to reconcile Luke’s feelings here, so if you’re going to check it out (and I’d recommend it), you need to know what you’re in for. Those who can’t deal probably won’t be able to deal.
Circling back to my earlier point about pre-formula sequels, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye finds Luke and Leia fairly aggressively out of character, at least in the grand scheme of things. That’s kind of a detriment since Luke and Leia are fully realized characters by the end of Star Wars, so when Foster has them thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that contradict their personas, well it’s kind of hard to reconcile.
It’s also not an especially kind book to Leia. She spends much of the adventure being beaten up and not doing very much of anything else. This is a far cry from the fearless princess we know and love, who, upon being rescued from the Death Star, grabs a stormtrooper rifle and immediately takes over her own rescue. At one point in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, she does pick up a lightsaber against Darth Vader (in a scene that’s very reminiscent of Finn’s big moment in The Force Awakens). It’s a nifty and exciting sequence that comes a bit too late in the game to make much of a difference. I’m not castigating this book for a perceived failure to live up to modern gender politics, it’s simpler than that for me. As a huge Leia fan, I’m just a little bummed by her overall treatment here.
But that’s okay, because it’s not like Luke makes out any better. He’s equally dim at times and check out the moment where he and Leia piss each other off so much they start mud wrestling in front of imperial soldiers. Seriously. This is intended as levity and would perhaps have been a better Han and Leia bit, but since everyone’s favorite smuggler barely gets a mention in this book, it’s what it is. What’s good here is the way Foster explores Luke’s adjustment to a post-Yavin life. Which is to say, he’s still too dumb a farm boy to have any grand designs. For now he’s content to fly an X-Wing while pining after the princess of his dreams. But his character sees some serious extension through this story as he grows his mastery of the force (in a climactic bit that has more than a few similarities to the end of Rise of Skywalker).
It may sound like I’m being more critical than I intend. I actually loved reading this book. It presents a Star Wars universe that, while familiar, is still unlike the one we know and love. Foster writes with an attraction to violence, including graphic passages of gruesome death that gives this story some really gritty flavor. His descriptions of the planet Circarpous V are vivid, giving a strong sense of an ancient world that makes this a nice bit of escapism. And the aforementioned confrontation with Darth Vader, reserved for the last couple of pages, is beautifully written and as thrilling as any of the cinematic saber duels.
Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is a curiosity. A glimpse of what might’ve been. It comes from one of science fiction’s best authors and delivers an action-packed, if limited, story. A quick and easy read for the devoted. If you’re into the whole extended universe thing, then this one gets a strong recommendation, especially because there’s nothing else like it out there.