by Abby Gavit
I have distinct memories of sitting in a book-cramped study and spectating over the shoulders of my male cousins while they traded the joystick back and forth in an attempt to beat the trench run level of X-Wing Alliance. It was summer in Texas, meaning that second story room was swampy and too warm with three of us clustered around the computer screen as my cousins flew and got shot down in rotation. Anyone familiar with that sequence in A New Hope knows it’s mesmerizing – that it has an evocative simplicity which still managed to capture my imagination even after being rendered down into clunky late-90’s era graphics. I remember being riveted. I also remember not being allowed to play.
Honestly I’m not sure if I really cared about Star Wars a year ago. Sure, I was aware of it. It would’ve been hard not to be as a kid growing up in a media landscape that was rapidly redefining geek culture as pop culture. I’d seen all the movies, but the closest I ever got to feeling like anything but an alien in the Star Wars fandom was when excerpts about Obi-Wan’s terse examination of Anakin’s butt from Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith novelization were making the rounds on Livejournal fanfiction communities. Maybe it isn’t weird to say that somewhere between six movies largely packed with dudes and having grown up in a family where genre fiction was something boys got handed first that I figured Star Wars just wasn’t mine to love. To Like? Sure. But not to own.
Certainly nothing about my Star Wars experience growing up encouraged me to go digging into the Extended Universe, now known as Legends. I viewed Legends as an impenetrable garbage fire. It was too dense and not worth diving into on the basis that I had better things to do with my time than read what was probably trash. But here I am, telling you all about how Corran Horn who – despite being a model of all the things I should dislike in a character, the absolute picture of a fiction not meant for my consumption – has been central to my becoming a Star Wars fan.
When Corran is introduced in Michael A. Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron, he’s busy fussing that he isn’t quite the pilot that Luke “Actual Jedi” Skywalker is. When I say this is a high point for his characterization, I’m not joking. Who is Corran Horn? Corran is merely the space carved out to accommodate the intended audience of – largely white – men. I don’t want to call him a self-insert, because that would require him to be specific. Corran is purposefully broad. He’s a renegade ex-cop on the lam from the Empire for being, among other things, just too dang moral. He’s a talented ace pilot; he’s super rich; he’s force sensitive with a dramatic family history steeped in the Jedi Order. His lightsaber is silver. All his friends love and respect him, and all the ladies want a piece of him. His grandfather turns out to be one of the most powerful people on Corellia. Corran Horn learned to cook from a luxury yacht’s private chef. His wife is hot. He’s a celebrated war hero. Every single one of these statements is absolutely true and not hyperbole.
Part of me can see where Stackpole is coming from when he writes this character. When Rogue Squadron, the first of what ultimately would be a series of ten books, was published in 1996, it was the first long-form narrative Legends book whose central character hadn’t been canonized in the movies first. Corran was the lead of a story starring an almost entirely new cast of characters, and Stackpole had been tasked with a unique opportunity and a daunting challenge: make readers care about a bunch of people they at best barely know. The solution? If you want to catch a lot of fish then you’ve got to cast a wide net.
Maybe that’s why even I find the Corran Horn found in the pages of Rogue Squadron to be strangely relatable. Or maybe it’s because I was just forgiving, as it was the first Legends book I’d ever read. I was prepared for it to be dated, a little trashy, and written for the kind of person who really loved original trilogy Boba Fett. I could deal with the fact that the non-human characters were largely relegated to set dressing; I could grin and bear it when the female characters were just there to motivate or make eyes at Corran. Frankly, those things weren’t surprising and at this point in my life I’ve read a lot of mediocre fiction written by white men. This isn’t new, heretofore undiscovered trash.
Here’s what was surprising: sometimes characters in the story called Corran Horn on his bad behavior. Even when the narrative might ultimately reward him, a lot of the first four X-Wing books are populated by characters telling Corran he’s being a jerk. Corran’s major (and consistent) failing was not communicating his thoughts and feelings with his friends. I wasn’t anticipating a character who was legitimately frightened in the brief moments leading up to a combat situation.
I can’t help but be compelled by that kind of small failure on the part of a character who both narratively and in a craft sense has been factory-made to be good, if not the best, at stuff. It’s kind of a relief. Those faults – a minor, brief flash of cowardice; a handful of petty rivalries that supporting characters tend to actually identify as silly – are how Corran manages to be momentarily sympathetic. It certainly isn’t the considerable amount of page time spent on attempting to demonstrate that Corran is the embodiment of everything Good and Cool in the universe.
That said, it helps that that Corran’s surrounded by good stuff. All roasting of him aside, Stackpole is the proverbial father of some of my favorite Legends elements. The X-Wing books are jammed with political intrigue and thoughtful plotting that highlight some of the ugliest ways to wage a war – biological terrorism, brainwashing, and positioning the good guys to metaphorically cannibalize themselves while the bad guys do their machinations in the shadows, just to name a few. Anyone who loves the gray morality in Rogue One should find the politically charged conflict here compelling.
Corran is supported by great characters like Tycho Celchu, a Rebellion pilot who consistently attempts to do the right thing even while all his higher-ups question his loyalty. Wedge Antilles, Star Wars’s dedicated number one sidekick, is a prominent feature, too. Corran is also is pitted against Ysanne Isard, a female mastermind type villain who isn’t perfect but sure has a lot going for her.
Speaking honestly, Stackpole writes a surprising number of women. It’s true that a lot of them are there to fawn over the male heroes, but almost all of them have something else they genuinely care about and dedicate themselves to in addition to that. Iella Wessiri, Curran’s old partner from his days of being a too-cool space cop, and Mirax Terrik, aforementioned hot wife and more importantly an exceptionally business savvy and cunning smuggler, are a few of my favorite ladies in the entire Legends universe. These are the things that finally made Star Wars accessible to me. Here were people I cared about and an approach vector that I felt I could somehow own.
Conceptually, Stackpole’s ideas are often brilliant. The Imperial prison ship Lusankya is compellingly chilling. A character in I, Jedi hides blackmail worthy data in the DNA of genetically modified plants. The Camaasi are a shrew-like pacifistic race that isn’t so much nomadic as it is simply a culture of refugees born out of the Empire’s many atrocities, their daily practices and beliefs deftly extrapolated from that trauma. Stackpole manages to weaponize bacta, effectively nerfing one of the franchise’s magical cure-alls, and he addresses the possibility of Luke Skywalker being kind of bad at teaching. He has a young woman become a pirate queen through sheer force of will, and even questions whether it’s actually just for the Star Wars universe to forgive the past monstrous actions of Force users simply because they make a conscious effort to turn away from the dark side.
Further, Stackpole is at his (and possibly Legends’) best when it comes to action and tactical writing. He manages to make ship combat in 3-dimensional space read on the page, something plenty of authors in both Legends and the new Expanded Universe canon can’t quite seem to nail. Meanwhile, Stackpole makes writing fighter engagements seem as easy as breathing. He has a deep love for the mechanics of ship-to-ship engagements, and starfighter jockey culture (there’s a fantastic cantina in I, Jedi called ‘The Crash’ where pilots display their “ghoulish” trophies: debris from kills or from crashes they’ve survived). His enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. It’s hard not to love these things, even when viewed through Corran Horn’s massive ego.
The problem is that Corran is a great squanderer of potential. He’s the black hole of the stories he’s in – the closer something exists to him, the more likely it’s going to get sucked into propping him up, and this contributes to some really cruddy things in Stackpole’s X-Wing books. There’s a frankly gross moment in I, Jedi where he takes time to recognize how if he wasn’t married, he’d really like to bone down with a female character; the lady in question has just finished crying about a traumatic event in this scene). It’s rumored and endlessly re-visited that the reason Isard was in a position of power in the Empire is because she was Palpatine’s lover. Most of the non-human characters are so minor that it’s frankly difficult to remember which is which without the Dramatis Personae (yes, seriously) at the front of the books. There’s a fundamentally unnecessary shaming of a female character who dares to be both emotionally chilly and sexually attractive (love triangles are dumb, y’all). On their own, they’re just garbage elements of a mid-90’s genre tie-in novel. Not great, but inescapably prevalent in so much of the writing of the time. However, the closer we as readers are to Corran’s perspective, the more likely he is to seem absolutely intolerable. Like much of Legends, Stackpole’s X-Wing books are written in the third person. While Corran might progressively become more a Cool Dude™ than (arguably too) subtly flawed character, it’s easier to be forgiving of him because at least there’s some distance between us and his often insufferable inner life.
Unfortunately by I, Jedi these traits feel intrinsic to the main character himself. This book is written in the first person, so all of the really unfortunate things — like describing every female character down to the last agonizing detail, the repulsive conclusion that every attractive woman must somehow be fascinated by Corran, the minimization of Corran’s flaws in favor of trumping up every good thing he’s ever been — all start to feel very personal. It becomes impossible to divorce Corran’s character from the frequently clunky writing. Before, it could be forgiven as incidental. They could just be symptoms of the books, but not the character. It’s a problem when the content of a book is largely four hundred pages of needless, masturbatory soul searching. If your character is too busy learning to be a cool Jedi, or going on a journey to get in touch with his family’s roots, and narrating how all this is important, your character is going to look like a self-obsessive jerk. It doesn’t help that Corran’s first person perspective exacerbates a weakness of Stackpole’s writing: he has a tendency to write people saying exactly what they think and feel as a shortcut to making the reader believe a character has actual emotions. This makes Corran’s internal monologue incredibly robotic; in combination with the bizarrely circuitous route he takes to rescue Mirax, it makes Corran really hard to empathize with.
I wanted to believe that all this was on purpose when I started reading I, Jedi. It’d be neat to have a point of view character in a Star Wars book be myopic, selfish and ultimately unlikeable. I like an unreliable or opinionated narrator, even when their values are different from mine. It’s cool when fictional people do stupid things when they’re convinced they’re right as long as the rest of the in-universe narrative is there to balance it. The problem is that people in the universe stopped questioning Corran after the first Rogues book, so as much as I’d love to give Stackpole that credit I don’t think that I can. It requires more editing that I think these books ever got.
Would it even matter if it was on purpose if the end result is frustrating? I, Jedi is the source text for a lot of really interesting ideas – the Jensaarai, an order of Force users whose methodology blends Sith and Jedi ideas, are awesome. Leonia Tavira, the girl turned Imperial Moff turned pirate queen, is great, too. Unfortunately they’re all so sidelined by Corran’s quest for personal discovery – or his selfish, self-obsessed soliloquizing – that they feel incidental and meaningless to the plot, even though they consume a huge portion of an already too long book. Someone once described I, Jedi to me as “Corran Horn deciding which privileged entitlement he likes best while his wife is kidnapped,” and they aren’t wrong. I, Jedi makes me want to dislike a character I once had some masochistic fondness for.
Part of me kind of wishes the book had been entirely successful. That it didn’t do for me what it didn’t do for so many others who (rightfully) don’t care for Corran as a character. I don’t have any interest in defending Corran, but it’d be easier to dismiss these books if I didn’t care about everything he’s tangentially involved with. I’m not sure I like being attached to a character who spends so much of his time evaluating women by what they look like. I shouldn’t really want to care about a character who is written broadly to appeal to an audience which seems to have only ever been intended to be white men, only to have that broadness eventually mutate into a character who is virtually infallible as the stories he’s in no longer seem to question his motives. But I am.
I think the reason why I can’t help but care about Corran is because, for better or worse, he is central to a series of stories that finally had me calling myself a Star Wars fan. If it hadn’t been for Stackpole’s writing, I probably still would’ve seen The Force Awakens a few times in theaters but I likely would’ve let the DVD collect dust on my shelf. Star Wars (and Legends especially) has always seemed like a sprawling juggernaut that was too intimidating to aimlessly tackle. But it’s amazing how finding a niche you love makes it more manageable. I didn’t care about starfighters before I read Stackpole’s books, but now I could talk at length about their technical specs. Corran is my incredibly faulty entry point to exploring and owning this canon. He’s part of stories that have led to me strengthening old friendships and making brand new ones. Those books and they attachments I formed from them are why last year, I bought a cool joystick and finally got my chance at that trench run in X-Wing Alliance. I cried when I realized there was a narrative story in that game; I’d only ever seen my cousins flying missions.
I just can’t bring myself to hate the guy. But I don’t have to love him and I don’t have to defend him. Questioning his portrayal – and lots of other not great things – in Legends has made me a more thoughtful storyteller. He gave me something to fixate on and be frustrated by. As a writer (and a masochist, probably), I like examining things that don’t quite work or good ideas that feel like they’ve been traded for less fantastic ones. Perfection doesn’t often inspire me, but brilliant moments in lopsided narratives often do. It’s ultimately what keeps bringing me back to Star Wars every day.
Finding things I hate and wondering how I could make them useful is really valuable to me, and Corran is a great example of how to make a character who’s morally considered good while simultaneously being an aggravating heel. He’s central to some fundamentally interesting stories that get knocked down by sometimes less than stellar execution. Learning to recognize wasted potential is a great way to tell stories better. Everything can teach you something, even Corran Horn’s stilted monologuing.
I want to remember that as we get new Star Wars canon where it tends to be a lot more difficult to spot the bad, damaging ideas than in I, Jedi. I want to remember to think critically about the things I enjoy, to ask it to do and be better that what it’s done and been before. I’m really excited to love Star Wars, as long as loving it also means I’m able and allowed to recognize when it’s treating me badly. Star Wars has lots of good stories to tell and uncover; some of them will be legitimately excellent, but most will at least probably have something to teach me – even if it’s just determination to make better stories.
So thanks, Corran (and thank you, Stackpole). You’ve taught me a lot about being a better writer. You’ve given me a lot of friends. You’ve opened the door to a corner of this big universe that I can love a whole lot for a whole lot of reasons. You’re incidental to a lot of characters who really matter to me. Corran Horn you may be a real sleemo, but I guess you’re my sleemo.
The author (@prosodi) is an incredible artist and an excellent human being who made the mistake of letting her friend Pranks write this bio. She is a constant source of joy and reinforcement and a shining light within the Star Wars fandom. Support her on Patreon and buy her excellent artwork, linked at http://prosodi.tumblr.com