Ever since word got out that Disney had decided to determine the canon-status of everything in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, there's been fierce debate. About whether it's a good idea. About what should be kept or not. But to people unfamiliar with the EU, this announcement has brought the question: Who cares? Why is it important?
Top image: Thrawn by Steve Argyle
Obviously, Star Wars isn't the only expanded universe out there. There are tons of tie-in novels, comics, games, etc. for many franchises. Like Star Wars, Star Trek's characters are preserved most strongly in numerous books. Buffy and Angel have gone the comics route, mostly. Doctor Who's most famous expanded universe works are the Big Finish audio dramas. And so on and so forth. There's obviously an appetite for works set in existing universes.
The ensuing reaction to the news from Disney has had me trying to understand why expanded universes are so important, why, given that they're not canon, they mean anything to fans. The obvious answer is that, when there's no new canon being released – the time between the end of Enterprise and the newest Star Trek movies or Doctor Who's years off of TV, for example – they just fill a need. But if that's all they do, why are fans still so attached to them? If they're just filling a need, the happiness at the announcement of new canon should trump any sadness at the other stuff being swept aside.
I thought about this, and every answer I came up with came back the idea that they act as gateways. To their genre. To fandom. And to writing.
The Expanded Universe as a Gateway to Science Fiction Reading
Recently, io9 asked, "Which science fiction classic is best read before the age of 18?" And while they're not necessarily classics, my answer is almost always the EU. Here's the thing: everyone can watch a movie before they can read. They can watch a TV show or a movie and be fans of them long before they can read on their own. But once they can, expanded universes are a ready-made bridge to reading.
There's something to be said for name recognition. For handing a child a book with a character they already love on the cover. And following that with, "If you liked that, why not [insert classic of your choice here]?" It works. I know it works, because it worked on me.
I don't owe the fact that I am a science fiction fan to the EU, but I do owe the fact that I am a science fiction reader to it. I have an extraordinarily clear memory of how this happened. I was nine when the Star Wars Special Editions were released in theaters. I have no idea if this was the first time I'd seen Star Wars, but it was what ignited a passion for it in me. And can recall, with odd clarity, seeing the Star Wars logo on a book. It was Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy, and my parents bought it for me.
This started a reading obsession that lasted years. I brought them to school. I did a book reporton an EU novel in fourth grade. I only stopped reading a little bit into the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, although I'll still pick up a new book by a favorite author or one that sounds interesting.
From there, it was an easy jump to other science fiction. Honestly, I can't even remember much of what I read before the EU entered my life. I have vague Nancy Drew-shaped memories. But I know what came after: I liked Star Wars, so why not try Dune? But then you also need to read Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Heinlein, and so on and so forth. I can't say I neverwould have read these things, but who knows?
Expanded Universes as Gateways to Fandom
Remember before the Internet? Before "nerd" culture and pop culture were the same thing? When ship, slash, and fanfic weren't words you'd see or hear in any kind of mainstream discussion? Back then, if you were a fan who wanted more of your favorite characters, the tie-ins were pretty much it. As a kid, getting a book at a library or a store was pretty easy. Certainly easier than trying to get a fanzine at that age.
If you had no friends who shared your passion, the expanded universe allowed you stay engaged in it. To stay in it, when there weren't any more books or movies to wait for. Or if you couldn't get to a con. Or if you hadn't ever heard of a con. It was simply more of that thing you loved, a step beyond just engaging with the original work. Fandom isn't just a community of people on the Internet, it's choosing to actively engage in a work. To argue about it is fandom, and so is seeking out non-canon material. (By the way, I'm not saying that being a fan requires knowing the expanded universe or being "in" fandom as I've defined it. I'm just saying that expanded universes can facilitate fandom for people.)
Even with the Internet, I'd argue there's still an important place for expanded universes. Fandom exists in the spaces left by canon. Fanfic, fanart, meta – they all explore things missing from canon. Expanded universes occupy a place between canon and non-canon. It both helps satisfy the desire for more stories while also making you comfortable with something that's not exactly canon.
Any discussion about expanded universes will eventually run head-first into the question of canon. The bright-line rule is that anything that isn't from the original work isn't canon. Every episode of Star Trek is canon. Fanfiction is not canon.
Expanded universes muddy those waters a bit. They're authorized by the owners of the original works, and therefore have status above fanfiction. More than that, the authorized works can't contradict the material they're based on. For example, aStar Trek: Voyager book set during the show's run can't get the ship home. A story like that would never be authorized. So the books never contradict canon, so fans can believe they happened.
Two other events can make the canon status of expanded universes slightly confusing. The first is the relatively new phenomenon of cancelled shows being continued through them. While it's pretty clear that, for example,Buffy the Vampire Season Eight, is canon, now canon doesn't just mean the show. The second is when the original work adopts something from the expanded universe. For example, both Sulu and Uhura's first names were originally from expanded universe works, before being made canon in later films. On a larger scale, the prequel to the 50th Anniversary special had the Eighth Doctor salute his various companions. Except, those companions were created in audio dramas. So now that's canon. Ish.
Former LucasBooks editor Christopher Cerasi once explained the canonicity of the EU in a particularly good way:
The analogy is that every piece of published Star Wars fiction is a window into the 'real' Star Wars universe. Some windows are a bit foggier than others. Some are decidedly abstract. But each contains a nugget of truth to them. Like the great Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi said, 'many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.'
Why have I just prattled on about something that almost every fan knows? Because that question of canon plays heavily into expanded universes as gateways to fandom.
A lot of being a fan is wanting to know everything. And when you've exhausted the actual material, the expanded universe is there for you. The fact that it's authorized means that there must be something to it. Again, it fits into what you already know. It's believable.
In Doctor Who, for example, the Big Finish audio dramas were not only authorized, but featured the same actors from the series voicing their characters. And Star Wars created a united universe that actually changed and had a defined timeline. Despite all the different authors, major events in one book affected chronologically-later ones. Han and Leia's children had the same names and (roughly) the same personalities, no matter who was writing them.
Moving from strict canon to the canon-adjacent makes it easier to appreciate and understand the forms of fandom that are completely untethered from it. The jump between a bad EU novel and a good fanfic isn't that big.
Moreover, the expanded universes also make the playground for fandom larger. It's right in the name: "expanded universe." A species is shown in canon, named and described in the expanded universe, and becomes the basis for a great fanwork. It gives fans a shared vocabulary. "Twi'lek" is easier than "the species with the two tails coming out of their heads. You know, like the guy who worked for Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi?"
Expanded Universes as Gateways to Writers and Writing
This last one kind of ties both previous points together. Not only do expanded universes act as gateways to science fiction generally, they also introduce readers to specific writers. And not only do expanded universes encourage active participation with a work, they can also inspire writers and provide a proving ground for them.
There are people who first found Peter David through his Star Trek books. Or read her Young Wizards book because they recognized Diane Duane's name from her tie-in novels. How about Alan Dean Foster? Or, my favorite, Terry Brooks from his novelization of The Phantom Menace?
And, in terms of writing: I can't count the number of times I've seen an expanded universe work derided as being "fanfic." Because, yeah, expanded universe writers are often fans of the original work. Of course they are, they decided to devote considerable time and effort to produced a work in a universe not their own, subject to the kind of approvals an original work wouldn't face. And this insult also rests on the classic, erroneous, belief that all fanfiction is crap.
And yet, there are people who either started writing in expanded universes or wrote in them very early in their careers. The things they were fans of inspired them. A number of the people mentioned above fall into the latter category – their bibliographies show that writing in the expanded universe may not have been their very first works, but that they started early in their careers.
There's also the case of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which published ten volumes from 1997-2008. This was an anthology of short stories, set in the Star Trek universe, that was explicitly for "nonprofessional" writers. Anyone could submit stories, so long as they followed the rules. Broadly, they disqualified stories with graphic violence/sadism, major departures from canon, and explicit sexual activity. A number of these "nonprofessionals" went on to write for the Star Trek expanded universe proper and/or to be published authors in fields unrelated to Star Trek.
And finally, there are the writers that go full circle, from expanded universe to canon. Steven Moffat's Doctor Who short stories count, but Mark Gatiss wrote Doctor Who novels and audio dramas.
Conclusion and a Look at Star Wars' EU
What prompted me to think about all this was Star Wars. There are a lot of EUs, but they tend to have names like "Buffyverse" or "Whoniverse." But the Star Wars EU is pretty much just "the EU." That's because it was a universe where things happened. They got approval to do things that other universes would see as being way too big divergences from canon. And then all the other writers followed suit. One writer had Han and Leia get married, and every book after that accepted it.
The other thing that set the EU apart was its approach to canon. It was a massive, and pleasant, surprise that Doctor Who decided to adopt the Eighth Doctor's companions from the audio dramas into canon. But they were under no obligation to. But, prior to its sale to Disney, almost nothing in the Star Wars universe was non-canon. Lucas Licensing actually had a database tracking continuity and the canon-status of every element of a story. There were levels of canonicity, but still: the EU was canon.
Yeah, it's HUGE and of varying quality. And I don't think it was ever in the cards that Disney was going to make movies that adapted EU stories, but what people are reacting to is the idea that suddenly decades of canon's going to be wiped away. Not shunted aside or relegated to that quasi-canon space that all expanded universes live in. At least in that case, fans could still make arguments about how the EU was still canon-compliant, the way they do for other franchises. No, this sounds like Disney's going to stamp most of it "not canon" and throw it away. There's no reconciling the EU with the movies if they show Han and Leia with different children than the ones in the books.
I'd be happy if Disney just kept the names and basic features of the EU and kept its timeline vague. Then I could continue to keep parts of the EU canon in my own head. Otherwise, Disney's almost pitting its new movies against the image of the post-Return of the Jedi universe that fans are already used to considering canon. That's a lose-lose for everyone. That's the 2009 Star Trek not giving fans the "alternate universe" out, and just suddenly erasing everything but Enterprise from canon.
Expanded universes are important. Outside of making money for people, fans gain a lot from their existence. One movie or TV show opens up a whole genre to someone. Or brings them into fandom. Or introduces them to authors. Or makes them authors. That's why just getting rid of it feels wrong.