Ken Liu tells Star Wars tall tales in The Legends of Luke Skywalker novel
“Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.”
That’s how Rey responds when she first hears Luke’s name in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. By the time Rey comes around, word of the Jedi hero and his actions to bring down the Empire have spread across the galaxy, as far as the deserted world of Jakku. But the exact details of his heroics have faded into legend, distorted and shaped as the stories pass from planet to planet.
That’s the concept behind Ken Liu’s new book, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Liu, the renowned author known for The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie, joins a galaxy far, far away with this middle-grade collection of tall tales, all concerning everyone’s favorite Jedi.
Legends follows a number of young deckhands working aboard a ship bound for Canto Bight (a casino world featured in the upcoming The Last Jedi). Together, they swap six different stories about Luke, each passed down from a different storyteller. One comes from a droid who claims to have witnessed Luke singlehandedly lead a droid rebellion, while another comes from a tiny, flea-like creature who claims to have had a pivotal role in Luke’s escape from Jabba’s palace. One of the particular highlights is the tale told by a former Imperial engineer, who says that Luke Skywalker was nothing but a piece of propaganda made up by the Rebellion. The real Luke is a con artist named Luke Clodplodder, who orchestrated a massive scam with his friends aboard a ship called the Century Turkey.
Before the book hits shelves Oct. 31, EW caught up with Liu to talk about Luke’s legacy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did this idea come from?
KEN LIU: I’d been a lifelong fan of Star Wars. Basically, the Lucasfilm folks reached out to me and said they were thinking about releasing some books that would tell the stories about some of the characters to lead up to the next movie. And they asked whether I would be interested in taking on one of these books. Since I’ve always wanted to write something for middle-grade audiences, and I also have a fondness for Luke who appeared for a couple seconds at the very end of The Force Awakens, I thought it would be interesting to try to write a book about Luke.
What was it that made you want to focus on Luke?
It’s interesting to think about Luke as a character in the Star Wars universe because to many of us, he is this great Jedi, the hero of the saga, but to most of the galaxy, he was a figure of legend. Most people have not met Luke. They don’t know what he’s really like. And like any kind of celebrity, tons of legends and stories would spring up about him around the galaxy. He’s a symbol for many people, even as he was this hero going on his own journey. So I thought it’d be interesting to try to write a book of stories about Luke that would treat him as a figure of legend in the same way that we tell stories about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, about these important figures of our own revolutions and our own successful rebellions. Luke must also mean different things to different people, and he must inspire all kinds of different stories passed from cantina to cantina, from bar to bar.
How did you decide on this framing concept, where these young deckhands on a ship are swapping six different stories?
In some ways, Star Wars for us serves the same purpose. It’s mythology. Star Wars now has become such a cultural phenomenon that it often has a shorthand for the way people talk about big important concepts. President Reagan invoked Star Wars as a way to sell the missile defense shield to people, and the Death Star and the evil Empire are concepts often invoked to describe terrible ideological evil and things that we can’t comprehend. This kind of way of speaking of Star Wars in shorthand as modern mythology is very much part of our culture.
So, I wanted to explore that idea about what myths and legends would look like within the Star Wars universe. How would ordinary people relate to a figure that they’d only heard about or seen from a distance? What kind of interpretations would people give? This is true of humans, but I suspect that it’s true of all species in the Star Wars universe: We don’t really relate to things as they are because, in the real world, it’s just one random thing happening after another. We have to make sense of it by telling stories about what is happening to construct a narrative that makes sense. So I wanted to explore what kind of stories people would tell about Luke to make sense of who he was.
At the same time, I wanted to make sure that one of the things I get across is the importance of stories in the way we construct our own lives and the way we are in charge of our own narratives. So these children, these deckhands in the book, are a stand-in for the audience. One of the important things that stories can teach young children — or really honestly all people, not just children — is the idea that we are in control of our own destiny. In the Star Wars galaxy, we are not passive pawns who have to submit to the fates laid out for us by others. We are in charge of our own destiny. And the reason we tell stories about great heroes and try to make sense of legends is so that in some ways, we can understand how we are also the heroes of our own stories and we have our own journeys to go on.
I wanted to show these kids being inspired by stories of Luke’s. They aren’t just worshipping Luke as some kind of celebrity whose life has nothing to do with them. They are inspired by him to act, and that was important. That’s why the framing story is just as important as the legends because here we show the children actually doing and acting out who Luke would be in their minds.
You mentioned that you are a lifelong Star Wars fan. I was reading that your first experience with Star Wars was through books, is that right?
That’s right! I was a kid in China, and one of the unique things about Chinese fandom of Star Wars is that most Chinese fans did not become Star Wars fans through the movies early on because during the ‘70s and early ‘80s when the original movies were coming out, they weren’t shown in China at all. American films just weren’t imported. So as a very young kid, I wasn’t exposed to these films at all.
In the second or third grade, we had this concept called the free reading period, where the teacher would bring the box of books and give everyone a book and we were supposed to just read for an hour. So the box of books went around, and everyone could pick out a book they wanted. When it came to my turn, I was picking between this book that had this awesome light sword on the cover, wielded by a guy riding this giant beast animal thing that I had never seen before, and I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was like, “Wow, what is this?” And the other book was a biography written for children of Confucius, the great sage. So I picked what turned out to be The Empire Strikes Back, the Chinese translation of the novelization. And my teacher, being a teacher, was very disapproving of this choice. She was like, “Well, you can choose to learn about the deeds of great sages or to read about escapist ridiculous stories. I think you should pick the biography.” And I was like, “No, I think I want the pew pew pew.” [Laughs.]
I had not seen the movie, so my entire exposure to the Star Wars universe came from The Empire Strikes Back, the novel. I thought it was the greatest thing. I was imagining what a lightsaber looked like and how the Jedi would actually fight and manipulate the Force, what Darth Vader was like. I had no images to go off, so everything was based off my imagination and the description in the book. So I thought it was the most awesome thing ever. That was really the very first sci-fi book I read and sort of an introduction into sci-fi and fantasy for me.
Years later, after I came to the U.S. and actually got to see the movies, I thought the movies were amazing too, but in some ways, the definitive vision of Star Wars for me was always going to be the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back because that was my very first exposure to it.
How is writing within the Star Wars universe different than your previous work?
It’s very different. When I’m working on my novels, I’m constructing the world myself. Everything is me. I can do whatever I want. It’s also kind of lonely because it is just me. I’m the only one who knows these characters as intimately as I do and who knows the universe and every aspect of it. When I’m working in the Star Wars universe, I’m working alongside lots of other giants. These are all the people who are legends to me because they have created this wonderful universe collaboratively that I’ve been immersing myself in all my life. So trying to build out a little corner of it to add to what they’ve done is very intimidating.
I’m always curious about what it’s like to write a story that’s part of a larger canon like that. How much did you collaborate with Lucasfilm?
It was wonderful that I had access to all these books and reference books and other novels that I could really get into to understand the collaborative vision. I read a lot of the books and listened to interviews with George Lucas himself and also with the Disney folks to understand the overall vision and the general feeling that everybody wanted to create. Then, trying to fit my story into that fabric is very difficult. This is me working on a giant mosaic, a very tiny corner of it, along with many other people. It’s a huge responsibility because this is a gigantic fandom. I felt very honored, but it was also very challenging to do. But I thought it was just the most fun thing ever.
Of the stories in this book, do you have a particular favorite that you want to call out?
I think I like all of them, but the one about the former Imperial engineer who deeply believes this theory about what really happened with the Death Star and who Luke Skywalker really was, that one was probably my favorite. I loved creating a character like that who is convinced that she has the truth, that everybody else is a sheeple. She’s the only one who knows exactly what really went down and how Luke Skywalker was nothing like the legend. [Laughs.]
In some ways, she’s a Star Wars fan, and she’s come up with a fan theory. Fans love to come up with elaborate theories that actually happened. Like, “Jar Jar Binks is actually a hero of the prequels, and here’s why.” So here’s this character who comes up with this elaborate theory that addresses all kinds of details that we know about and then explains them in a way that makes sense, at least to her. She even explains things like changes in the films between different editions. So I think fans will have a lot of fun with that. [Laughs.]
That one really has a sense of humor and a winking quality to it. I’d imagine that’d be fun to write.
Yes! That story was maybe the most participatory with fandom in the whole book. It’s a book that engages with fandom in a bit of a meta way. I think one of the interesting things about it is that all the stories in the book, I strove to make them as different as possible. They were told from different perspectives by different figures with their own unique interests. And I always loved that — adding texture and layer to a universe to really make you feel that the Star Wars galaxy is a place where not everybody is a two-dimensional figure. All the minor characters have deep, important stories to tell. They’re the heroes of their own sagas, and Luke to them is sometimes merely a vehicle for them to expound upon their own vision of how life ought to be.
This book also occupies a really fun place because, on one hand, it’s canon, but at the same time, these narrators are clearly unreliable.
The fun thing about writing this book is that it’s a really interesting effort by the Lucasfilm story group to expand the range of stories that can be told in the Star Wars universe. This book, in particular, occupies a strange place. It’s sort of in-universe legendary stories or in-universe tall tales. So what is the relationship of these stories to canon? I can’t resolve this for you, and if you read the stories, clearly many of the narrators are not reliable. But, like all legends, maybe some aspects of these stories are actually true. Even though they are legends, you will be able to tell that they are based on actual factual facts. But there are also bits in there that you have never seen before, and they may also be factual truths. But it has this very unstable relationship to what fans usually think of as canon versus non-canon.
It occupies a very strange place. And I like that. I like trying to push the boundaries a little bit and write stories that do occupy a rather strange, tenuous relationship to the rigid definition of what is canon and what isn’t. Fans love to argue about what is canon and what isn’t, and I think this book will generate a lot of because clearly some of the stories are legends in the same way that made-up stories in our world are. But a lot of them may contain hints of the truth, and that is also truth. So I’m excited to see how fans react to the existence of a book that is canon but also clearly tells stories that may not be canonical.