Recently, I decided to finish up a few books that I’ve had laying around for a very long time. There is some interesting insight that can be gleaned from looking at the time and influences that were evident in this era that didn’t really seem like it was that long ago.
The first book I’m looking it is from The New Jedi Order series of books. I’m going to look at the series as a whole and the trends that were evident, instead of the book in question. Also, I would just like to say, up front, I’m not accusing any particular author of any specific thing, I’m just looking at things that our pop culture (and those of us consuming that pop culture) integrated into content, without a degree of thoughtfulness.
Just in case you weren’t around at the time, The New Jedi Order series revolves around the galaxy being invaded by the Yuuzong Vong, a species that hates traditional technology, and gets everything done through biological devices that can accomplish pretty much the same thing as standard technology. They have organic hyperdrives, organic shield generators, spore-based weapons, etc.
My History With The Books
I had largely dropped out of the Star Wars Expanded Universe at the time these books came out. While I was still watching the movies, I had already started to burn out on the parade of Imperial Remnant resurgences, unrelated Dark Side cults, and prototype superweapons that were better than the Death Star.
I’m going to posit some modern critique, from my perspective now, but I want to make it clear that I wasn’t thinking this deeply about any of this at the time. I was mainly just tired of what felt like a perpetual cycle of galactic government collapsing, rebuilding, and collapsing again, with the exact same heroes doing the exact same things every few years.
If you have criticized the sequel trilogy without reading the old EU, we never had a 30 year period of peace in the galaxy, The New Republic, as it turns out, didn’t so much win the war as just quit fighting it until the next Imperial Remnant leader showed up to unite what was left of the Empire, and we didn’t get a new Death Star like weapon after 30 years, we got a new superweapon about every five years or so, that the Empire lost track of for a while and then found.
On one hand, The New Jedi Order started to reverse this, by coming up with villains that weren’t the Empire or some divergent version of the Sith, and by focusing on a broader range of strange technology that was hard to deal with across the board, but didn’t add up to one specific superweapon. On the other hand, The New Jedi Order took forever to resolve, and was very sure it was positing very serious early 2000s era philosophy.
In case it makes a difference, I got roped back into the Star Wars EU with Knights of the Old Republic (the games and the comic book series), and The Legacy comics (which were very early 2000s edgy on their own, but for some reason it felt more “Star Wars Edgy” to me because of the comic book storytelling medium—don’t accuse me of being consistent).
The New Jedi Order series was published from 1999-2003. These dates are going to be important. The series also comprised 19 novels, as well as a few short stories and later comic book series. This was a pretty comprehensive storyline that isn’t to be engaged with casually. There were a few books that originally came out as hardcover novels that were the “high points,” but overall, there was a lot going on across a lot of stories.
What could have possibly happened that made some elements of the story . . . uncomfortable by the end of the series? While there were already some overtones evident in the structure of the story, things just got more uncomfortable after 9/11.
Framing the Villains
The Yuuzong Vong were from “outside the galaxy.” They weren’t “normal” aliens. They were “alien” aliens. They were cut off from the Force, the religion of the “normal” galaxy. They had their own religion, to which they adhered to “fanatically.” They hated droids and traditional technology in favor of their own biological technology. They also employed “suicide bomber” tactics, and had terrorist cells in various New Republic worlds to sow . . . terror . . . in their enemy’s territory.
It’s hard now, looking back on the Vong, to not see some of the uncomfortable analogies that the story was introducing.
They don’t adhere to the “right” religion. They have suicide bombers. They hate technology (even if they have a version of their own). It’s like a laundry list of jingoistic commentary about Middle Eastern terrorism all wrapped up in one enemy species.
There is also some uncomfortable commentary from characters regarding the personhood of the Vong. In one case, an attractive female Vong (of course) is captured by the New Republic, and the New Republic officers comment that they didn’t know any of their females could be this attractive. It’s like a double word score of racism and sexism.
There is also the uncomfortable discussion around which Vong are “close enough” to human that they can wear Maskers, technology that lets them pass for human. See, some things that aren’t human and are inherently bad can “pass” for human.
This wasn’t one person that came up with this. This was a group of people working on this overall, long term storyline that didn’t spend the time to be introspective enough to see where there were some issues with how this came across. I suspect, having lived through it, there were a lot of people after 2001 that didn’t care, even if they saw the parallels.
Additionally, the oblique references to the Vong adoration of pain as part of their religion feels like some BDSM kink-shaming on a massive scale.
Framing the Heroes
Hey, let’s throw another disclaimer in here . . . I think there is room for introspection about how the Jedi Order has lost the thread of why they did some of the things that they did in the past, and that they could use some reform. I also think there is room for discussing how sometimes it may be healthier to integrate the darkness, understand, and mitigate it, than trying to avoid it altogether.
In retrospect, the deeper philosophy of The New Jedi Order doesn’t feel as deep as it might have at the time. Long story short, the Jedi “learn” there is no Dark Side, everything is 100% based on your intentions, not on elements of the Force itself having tendencies one direction or the other.
More modern treatments of this discussion, such as from the canon novel Dark Disciple, frame this as the Dark Side being a real thing, but that Dark and Light are less Good and Evil. Giving in to the Dark Side thoughtlessly is bad, but understanding how and why it exists, and what the consequences of tapping into it are, may be more important than avoiding it all together. Essentially, it is likened to predatory instincts, which may be useful in some situations, but which shouldn’t be used to guide one’s day to day life.
But, hey, there is no good and evil, the ends justify the means, etc. was very popular in the early 2000s. Remember, the Jedi learn this in the middle of a war. If your opponents are bad enough, maybe its okay to do things that others, in the past, wrongly thought were “The Dark Side.” Kind of like how maybe treating prisoners without human dignity in order to get information from them warrants not calling something torture but coming up with a new term like enhanced interrogation. The intentions are what’s important.
This story also paved the way for the Galactic Alliance to supersede The New Republic. What this meant was, the old Imperial Remnant wouldn’t be villains anymore. They got to be allied fascists that could keep their neat uniforms and slightly less fascist rules as long as they were part of the Alliance, because the Outsiders were the real threat.
In other words, the real villains weren’t the people that looked like the New Republic, it was the people that were complete outsiders. The Imperial Remnant may have practiced virulent human supremacy, misogyny, and colonialism, but if they just “tone it down” and help the New Republic to guard against “the bad ones,” all will be forgiven.
A Little Bit More Of The Unfortunate
When the creatives on this project were trying to come up with who to kill, they decided to kill off Chewbacca, rather than any of the established human characters. Its not as directly bad as if they had killed off their only person of color from the original trilogy, but “alien sidekicks are expendable” is not the best message to send when aliens were used as a shorthand for marginalized groups in the EU narrative.
Also, while we’re talking about Han’s alien sidekicks, Han’s new copilot in this series, after Chewie dies, is a character from a species that is framed as “space Roma.” On one hand, the text points out they are persecuted and driven out of places unfairly. On the other hand, they are noted as having a reputation as thieves and con artists, and they physiologically have a built-in musical instrument. Also, Han meets this new partner in conjunction with underworld contacts, so no breaking stereotypes there.
I’m not saying everything in The New Jedi Order books is bad, racist, or sexist. I am just pointing out that there were some very structural, foundational elements to the overall story that play up some destructive, oppressive systems of oppression.
Is this still relevant? Well, the books are what they are, but they are still in print under the “Legends” banner. The biggest thing I would point out is that this could all be more relevant of the Vong ever get introduced into the current stories.
I would hope that some of the creepy sexist ogling while still denigrating the species could be avoided easily. It would also be great if the species weren’t monolithically portrayed as adhering to the same religion, and/or if they weren’t portrayed as having a uniformly bad religion. Also, saying they were cut off from the Force is kind of like saying “God doesn’t like them” in Star Wars speak, so that plot element really feels out of place.
Ironically, for as edgy as the series was trying to be, The Legacy comics started doing the work of not portraying the Vong as universally bad, with the Jedi working with them to terraform planets and reconnect with the Force, although this narrative, while playing to the Star Wars redemption theme, also plays to the “they need to get right with OUR god,” story elements.
What Almost Was
Just in case you are convinced the Vong would have never moved beyond novels and comics, there was a potential Clone Wars episode where Anakin would encounter an early Vong scout force. Given that we’re seeing new Clone Wars episodes, who knows of they will remain 100% Legends.