Lando Calrissian enters an underground cathedral, one constructed to force a feeling of awe in a person, one with polished floors meant to force a person to take small steps, precariously balanced, with no choice but to contemplate the power of gods and subservience of man. Lando reacts by taking a running start and sliding across the floor as he shouts “Wheee!”
This is still not the Star Wars universe people expect.
In the latter years of the 1970s, Alan Dean Foster wrote Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, the first Star Wars continuation novel. Shortly thereafter, Brian Daley wrote the wildly popular Han Solo adventures — Han Solo at Star’s End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. Between then and the publication of L. Neil Smith’s Lando Calrissian adventures, a lot had changed in the Star Wars universe. A second film, The Empire Strikes Back, was released, proving even more popular than the first and cementing the franchise’s spot in pop culture history. Yet, despite the endless onslaught of Star Wars merchandise in basically every medium, the Star Wars universe remained largely unexploited on the printed page (well, other than coloring books, novelizations of the films, and storybooks).
In 1983, with Return of the Jedi scheduled for release, someone in charge decided it was time for some more Star Wars novels. As with the Han Solo books, the novels would again avoid conflicting with the movies by avoiding the bulk of what had become the known Star Wars universe. Still no stormtroopers or Darth Vader, and no rebels or mention of a rebellion — though there would be a few mentions at least of the Empire and the Old Republic. Although Han Solo was still riding high as the most popular character in the franchise, a new round of Han Solo adventures seemed a little too repetitive. So Luke, then? Please. No one wanted to read the thrilling tales of Luke driving to the Tosche Station for parts or squabbling with moisture harvesters. Princess Leia? Actually, those would be pretty interesting stories, but alas they were not to be.
Luckily, there was a new guy introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, one a lot like Han Solo but smoother, cooler, charming where Solo was abrasive. A character with a back story that seemed easy to fill with wild adventures. And weird adventures. Supremely weird. Even prepared for the weirdness of the early Star Wars book universe (which, in the Han Solo stories, had delivered everything from Han Solo in a shiny skintight bodysuit to Chewbacca cruising around in a hot rod with a couple admiring ladies), I wasn’t fully prepared for the amount of weirdness delivered by the Lando Calrissian adventures.
Given Lando’s background as a rogue and an adventurer, one would expect the trilogy of adventures featuring him to be pretty similar to the Han Solo adventures. And in some ways, they are. They are still old-fashioned space pulp, with lots of thrills and joking around. Lando, like Han, is forever struggling to keep the Millennium Falcon operational. But here is where the first of the differences arise. Han Solo is a hot-shot pilot. Lando basically stumbles into owning the Falcon possessed of no piloting skills to speak of. He has no idea how to operate it and spends much of his gambling money repairing the damage he does to the ship and assorted landing facilities. Lando is also a pacifist, more or less. Han might grouse about fighting, but he is always up for it. Lando, by contrast, hates fights because they ruin the creases of his fancy trousers. He’d rather smooth talk his way out of a prickly situation. He also hates space gear because it wrinkles his fancy velvet tunics and usually ships in dreadful colors. His goal in life is simply to live a happy and carefree existence as a gambler, playboy, and lover of fine cigars.
These things we learn in the first of the three novels, Lando Calrissian and the Mind Harp of Sharu, in which Lando finds himself manipulated into seeking out an ancient artifact at the behest of Rokur Gepta, a member of the feared Sorcerers of Tund. We also meet Vuffi Raa, an odd droid (with a mysterious past) that Lando wins in a game of sabacc (the preferred card game of your more discerning Star Wars gamblers). Although the narrative bogs down as author L. Neil Smith tries to describe the game (describing in prose how a card game is played almost never works, but that doesn’t stop everyone from Smith to Ian Fleming going on about them at length), these forays into the mechanics of space gambling are surrounded by some wonderfully quirky adventures.
He and his droid companion Vuffi Raa also engage in a number of philosophical conversations about the nature of servitude and problems of intolerance. In the fictional Star Wars universe, the fact that Lando is black is of no consequence. In real life, it does matter, since minority actors continue to struggle when it comes to finding substantial parts in Hollywood productions. That Lando, played in the films by Billy Dee Williams, was a black man amid a sea of Caucasian actors wasn’t as dismissible as the color of his skin was within the story. Smith, himself rather an eccentric sort of man, wanted to make a number of points about race and prejudice, but it wouldn’t have made sense, within the context of the world, to make Lando himself the subject of this intolerance. So the droid Vuffi Ra becomes the one discriminated against, as many establishments in the Star Wars universe have an exclusionary “no droids” policy.
It’s not a heavy message, or one delivered with some sort of thunderous importance, but it’s notable for its inclusion. The Star Wars universe is a lot of things, but it’s rarely a sounding board for real-world issues. Of course, this is still loony space opera, so the occasional conversations about slavery and injustice are snuggled between expansive passages describing Lando’s more straight-forward adventures as he discovers the true nature of the Mind Harp and what really became these mysterious pre-Republic aliens known as the Sharu (even here there seems to be a political criticism of the treatment of native peoples by colonists) who left impenetrable monuments scattered throughout the Rafa System. It’s Lando’s irreverence in the face of all things impressive and sacred that really makes the book. When witness to a crass display of the sorcerer Rokur Gepta’s power, Lando simply lights a cigar and urges everyone to get to the point. As a thug is attacking him in a bar, Lando takes a brief moment to admire the man’s tailoring. This is the sort of protagonist I would want to go on adventures with.
The second book, Lando Calrissian and the Flame Winds of Oseon continues in a similar vein, this time with the wily gambler pressed into helping the administrator of a space resort take down a drug addict crime lord. Lando is still trying to learn how to fly the Falcon properly, covering the sundry expenses associated with running the ship by selling everything from jam to fishing rods out of the back. Seriously, the Falcon is like a Cracker Barrel gift shop in this book (“Hey, spaceman! How would you like some horehound candy and a DVD of Ma and Pa Kettle movies?”). Rokur Gepta is still gunning for Calrissian, and we begin to peel away the mystery behind Vuffi Raa’s origins as a rag-tag group of fighter pilots show up to kill the plucky little droid, convinced that Vuffi Ra is responsible for exterminating their entire civilization.
All of these pieces come together in the third and final book, Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka, in which Lando and Vuffi Raa befriend a naive but incredibly powerful race of space manta rays that live in a giant nebula. It is here that, at long last, the Empire makes an appearance, albeit a pretty mundane one. Imperial ships, upon getting a taste of how powerful the benign inhabitants of the nebula are, blockade it in hopes of starving the beings into submission (or preferably extinction). Just as life under the Empire in the Han Solo adventures seems pretty all right, the Imperial fleet here isn’t all full of planet smashers and Sith Lords and stormtroopers. Yes, they are engaged in rather a heinous military operation at the command of Gepta, but none of them seem to know what’s going on or why. It’s just a bunch of bored guys who are more than willing to let security go a little lax when Lando shows up with a ship full of ice cream.
Seriously, Lando runs an Imperial blockade by dazzling the rank and file with ice cream. God, I love these books.
L. Neil Smith is nearly as strange as one of the characters he might put in these books. An early member of the Libertarian party and an outspoken member of the libertarian futurist movement (which has been responsible for a number of amazing, if slightly crackpot, ideas, like building a futuristic sea city, a dream that served in many ways as the basis of the setting for the video game BioShock). He’s run for political office a couple of times but never achieved much success. Apart from his work on the Lando adventures, his best-known series is about an alternate-reality America where sound libertarian-futurist principles form the basis of the government. His libertarian beliefs don’t manifest too much in the Lando books, though they perhaps explain Lando’s irreverence in the face of that which is supposed to cow him into worship; and why Smith was a little more willing to address real-world politics in his books than was at the time common in Star Wars material.
One of the problems with Star Wars‘ position in modern pop culture is that so much fun is drained out of it. Pedantic bickering about canon, trivia one-upmanship, snide and condescending dismissal of others for “not knowing enough,” these things force into the back seat the actual point of Star Wars: sitting back with some space pulp and just enjoying yourself. These goofy, charming books are the perfect antidote to taking things a little too seriously. Lando makes for such an affable hero, unwilling to take anything too seriously. Even the fact that he saves two ancient, hyper-intelligent alien races from extinction doesn’t make him the least bit self-centered or self-important.
Like the Han Solo adventures, Lando’s trilogy can easily be consumed over the span of a couple of days. They are excellent companions and continue to turn the Star Wars universe into something more substantial than just a bunch of rebels fighting a bunch of Imperials. Hitching a ride on the Falcon with captains Solo and Calrissian is like going on a sight-seeing tour of a galaxy much more diverse and complex than we ever see in the movies, one populated by con men and space riverboat gamblers, heroes and janitors and shamans and wizards and folks just trying to make a living. We never find out how Lando and Han met and became friends, but that’s not important. There are cigars to be smoked, formal wear to be properly fitted, and jokes to be cracked at the expense of those who, unlike Lando, are obsessed with their own power and importance.