Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster

It’s 1978. There is only one Star Wars movie, and it doesn’t have a subtitle or an episode number. Star Wars is still playing in some movie theaters, more than a year after its release. There are a ton of toys, and fans are busily imagining what their beloved characters were up to before and after the events of the movie (well, American fans mostly, Star Wars did not premiere in the UK until late December of 1977, and it took even longer to arrive elsewhere), but as far as official Star Wars stories go that was it. Until Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was published in March 1978. With that cover!

Splinter of the Mind's Eye

Darth Vader dominates Ralph McQuarrie‘s painting. Vader has the drop on Luke and Leia, standing atop a pile of rubble between stone two columns with a misty forest in the background. Something bright and red and glowing is in the middle of the pile, commanding a viewer’s attention almost as much as Vader does. What’s happening? How did they get to where they are? I still find the cover and the title almost as irresistible as I did when I first bought the paperback way back in the days before the Empire struck back.

A copy recently made its way to me, a Del Rey paperback with a cover price of $1.95 and an ad in the back to mail-order books by Robert A. Heinlein, 50¢ to cover postage and handling, please allow four weeks for delivery. I hadn’t read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in at least thirty years, more likely forty. Had the Suck Fairy paid a visit? I mentioned it on social media, and replies ran the gamut — liked it, couldn’t get into it, anticipation followed by disappointment, loved it (but how did Luke learn to swim while growing up on Tatooine?), it always sucked — but nobody said they had read it recently.

So I dove in. It didn’t take long to read: the book is a svelte 200 pages, about half the length of a the William Gibson I am currently reading, and much shorter than what’s usually marketed as a novel these days. The story is linear, and this review is full of forty-year-old spoilers. Luke and Leia make a forced landing on the swampy planet Mimban. They make their way toward a landing beacon that turns out to be located in a secret Imperial energy-mining (don’t ask) settlement. Their efforts to blend in and find a way to sneak off-planet fail, but not before they make an ally of Halla, an older human woman living on the fringes of the settlement. She’s got some skill with the Force and is looking for a crystal that greatly magnifies a Force-sensitive person’s abilities. Luke and Leia fail to blend in so badly that they get into a fight with some miners and wind up captured by the local garrison. I am sure that Luke’s use of a lightsaber did nothing to hint that he might not be the newly transferred miner he claims to be. (The book badly needs Han Solo’s anarchic energy. There’s no one to blast the communication desk and say “Boring conversation anyway.”)

Luke and Leia escape jail with some help from Halla. Unfortunately for them, the local commander has sent a picture of Leia up the chain of command, and higher powers are beginning to take an interest. The price of Halla’s help is that they have to help her find the crystal she’s been seeking for so long. Will that help them get off-planet? (Hush, this isn’t the kind of book it pays to ask many questions about.) In the swamps, various things try to eat, maul, or smash them. The group, which also includes C3PO and R2-D2 as well as two furry aliens that aren’t Wookiees but might as well be, winds up separated. Luke and Leia find themselves in a tunnel complex, where they fight off some of Mimban’s resident humanoids. Halla and company are less fortunate, although they are above ground, and find themselves captured by the same humanoids, the Coway. Luke defeats a Coway champion in single combat sans lightsaber, with some unexpected help from the Force, and suddenly no one is bickering about who killed or captured who. That’s pretty useful when stormtroopers show up at an inconvenient time.

They shoot about as well as stormtroopers ever do, and when that’s done Luke, Leia and company decide they have to get to the crystal before Vader does. Luke senses that he is on Mimban, and fears what he could do with the crystal’s Force-multiplying traits. They find the temple, which is obviously dedicated to Cthulhu, though the Mimban god is called Pomojema. Alan Dean Foster has crossed the streams, and that’s never good. Anyway, they have arrived ahead of Vader, but only just. Fighting ensues. Vader monologues some. Leia picks up the lightsaber and gives a good account of herself when Luke is in a particularly bad spot. Luke recovers, and in further fighting he cuts of Vader’s right arm. Both are nearly spent, which offers the barest of justification for Vader not noticing that he is about to step into the ancient temple’s sacrificial well of unplumbed depths. This he does, plummeting to an uncertain fate that Luke’s Force sensitivity tells him isn’t death.

Luke uses the crystal to heal himself and Leia. He entrusts it to Halla and says she might as well keep it since she’s coming with them to meet up with the Rebellion. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye ends before saying how they will escape from a secret Imperial installation where all incoming spacecraft are tightly controlled. This is not the kind of book it pays to ask too many questions about.

The things I liked about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye include its efficient storytelling. There’s not any bloat in its 200 pages. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of depth either, and the characters are stock rather than individuals, with mannerisms instead of personalities. The most interesting thing about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is a glimpse into a Star Wars continuity that never happened. It’s one less obsessed with Skywalker family soap opera, one in which the Rebellion still has to make a political case for systems joining up, one that’s much bigger than the main films eventually gave audiences. (The Last Jedi is a partial exception, and Rogue One shows what this kind of Star Wars universe could have been like.) The book itself is workmanlike at best, except for Vader’s entrance, which is as genuinely chilling as it should be.

I hold the Unpopular Opinion that making Vader Luke’s father creates an indelible dramatic moment at the expense of breaking the rest of the Star Wars universe. It makes the Empire less than 20 years old; it stretches credulity that Vader had no idea that Obi-Wan Kenobi was on Tatooine; it makes the Emperor a fool; and it leads to the kind of creative paucity that puts Death Stars into two additional films. Making the galaxy revolve around one family neutralizes two of the greatest strengths of Star Wars in the first movie: the apparent size of the setting, and how it seemed to possess a great age. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye points toward connected stories that play to those strengths, instead of collapsing them to a few years about a few people. If it were a better book, it would have done that more effectively, though not strongly enough to turn the cultural juggernaut that Star Wars became onto another path. I’ll just stare at that evocative cover and think about what might have been.

In late 2020, the Science Fiction Writers of America went public with the news that Disney, as current owners of Star Wars, was not paying Alan Dean Foster royalties for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Disney apparently took the bullshit novel legal position that it had acquired the assets of Star Wars but not the obligations that went with them. Here is a small part of what Foster wrote about the matter:

You want me to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) before even talking. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs in my 50-year career. Never once did anyone ever ask me to sign one prior to negotiations. For the obvious reason that once you sign, you can no longer talk about the matter at hand. Every one of my representatives in this matter, with many, many decades of experience in such business, echo my bewilderment.

Once that news came out, many other artists who had contributed to Disney’s success found that the company was not holding up its end of their contracts. Their view appears to be “we can do this because we’re big, and creators are small.” Parallels to the Empire or other aspects of contemporary American life are left as an exercise for readers. More information is here. Foster’s situation has been resolved for an undisclosed sum, presumably because he was a big enough name to cause embarrassment. Contracts are there to be honored, even by big corporations, and #DisneyMustPay.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/12/11/splinter-of-the-minds-eye-by-alan-dean-foster/

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