At the age of fifteen, I made what would prove a truly formative purchase.
That year my mother decided to join a book club, having been seduced by a glossy flyer that slipped out from between the pages of one of her plebeian lifestyle magazines. The premise of said literary racket was that, upon joining, the applicant could select five books to own at zero cost, but would commit to purchasing one additional book per month at full cost for the following 24 months.
Deaf to my father's calls that she should carry out some basic arithmetic before making such a reckless financial commitment, my mother filled out the requisite forms and set about choosing the titles that would constitute her introductory batch of complimentary literature.
In a gesture that I mistook for motherly nourishment of her son's burgeoning literary talent, she asked me if I would also like to choose a couple of the free books that would make up the initial order (it proved to be an act of cold practicality, as she later calculated the combined Recommended Retail Price of the books I chose and deducted the total from my allocated Christmas present budget). Perusing the glossy flyer, I observed with glee that more than half of the books on display were from sci-fi and fantasy - genres I had begun to get very interested in since reading "the Hobbit" some years before - and therefore I accepted mine mater's offer with grateful ebullience.
So it was that when the parcel was delivered some three weeks later (yes, deliveries used to take three weeks), stowed carefully between the Barbara Cartland crud and Maeve Binchy dreck were two handsome tomes that would change my life.
The first book that I removed from the box was The Lord of the Rings - a single prodigious volume whose cover depicted a weather-beaten Gandalf striding purposefully across Middle Earth on some wizardly errand - and I don't think I need to speak further of the profound influence JRR's magnum opus had on me.
As I removed the second book and held it in front of me to examine it, my own awe-struck face gaped back, for this great tome was enveloped within a glossy black dust jacket. Upon opening its heavy cover, the richly illustrated folios of Stephen J. Sansweet's "Star Wars Encyclopaedia" were revealed to me, accompanied by the heady aroma that is unique to virgin printed pages.
I got stuck right in, and for at least three hours I lay there on the living room carpet traversing sections A to E, utterly engrossed in the "Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU)", as it was known. Until that point, I had been under the impression that the world of Star Wars comprised naught but the three main films plus charming Ewok caper "Caravan of Courage". I'd had no inkling of the rich mythos that had quietly developed over the years under the able authorship of Timothy Zahn and those acolytes who followed him.
I finished the full encyclopaedia in less than a week, but needed more. I was hooked.
Now that I was aware of its existence, I swore to conquer the full Star Wars extended canon, and over the following years I read almost nothing but Star Wars EU books and comics. From the rollicking, swashbuckling Stackpole to the bafflingly ponderous Hambly, I sought out every novel. From the hapless Jedi Academy to the beleaguered New Jedi Order, I savoured every word.
What a journey, and such vivid writing! One day I could be exploring the labyrinthine sprawl of Hosk Station, the next I could be kicking back with IG-88 in some unsavoury cantina in the Outer Rim, planning a spice raid or a contract kill. The fact that I was in actual fact lying in a darkened bedroom on a warm summer's day in County Antrim mattered not.
Who knew that Jabba's fat rancor-keeper had a name and a backstory? Or that the capital of the galaxy was a bustling ecumenopolis called Coruscant, where violent youth gangs and mutants stalked the city's long-abandoned understories? Who could have foreseen that Luke's one-armed Wampa matriarch would survive to lead a Wampa bum-rush on Echo Base? (In fact, who even knew she was a she? One cannot discern any female Wampa parts in Empire, and believe me I've tried). Before long I could recite the name and species of every member of Rogue Squadron off by heart and would become genuinely emotional when they were imperilled or killed. I even mastered the ins and outs of the Imperial military structure, skilfully negotiating the many inter-author technical contradictions.
I loved it. In the Star Wars EU, I was content as a Hutt with a fully loaded hookah.
Yet even at the height of my zeal something niggled away at the back of my mind. It was hard to pin-point, and I struggled to identify what it was that kept me awake at nights. And then one day it hit me.
Some of the Star Wars novels were crap.
For every magnificent sequence penned by an accomplished author, there was a trite and laboured set-piece produced by some lesser hack. In other words, for every Grand Admiral Thrawn, there was a Callista.
Some of the concepts and storylines offered up by the lesser authors were so ridiculous as to defy belief. Take, for example, the high degree of gender dimorphism of the Devaronian species; this whole moronic idea was obviously introduced as an extremely contrived plot device. Or Bobba Fett's pointless fan-service escape from certain death in the jaws of the Sarlaac. Or fucking Skippy the Droid.
I bristled at the insolence of those responsible. Who did they think they were, introducing inane additions to (or modifications of) the beauteous Star Wars cannon, willy-nilly? And where would it end?
When he killed off Chewbacca during the initial phase of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, RA Salvatore faced a barrage of criticism. I actually found myself on RA's side in that debate, for I thought Vector Prime was a strong effort and the moon-crushingly brutal death of Chewie was well handled. But I could understand the ire of the fans he'd offended. Why did RA get to say when and how Chewie died?
In essence, the key questions that perplexed me were: Why should low-quality, hack tripe be accepted as full Star Wars canon, just because Lucasfilm said it should be? Where were the quality controls? Why the hell was Kevin J. Anderson continuing to receive commissions?
And so we come to "EU Scepticism". This school of thought, of which I was leader and principal exponent, posited that the works of any given Lucasfilm-licensed author, artist or game developer set in the Star Wars universe did not automatically qualify for acceptance into full Star Wars canon, because (regardless of what pronouncements came out of Skywalker Ranch) such acceptance could only be bestowed upon said individual by The Fans, once they had confirmed that the work in question work met a sufficient standard of quality.
As such, the adherents of EU Scepticism developed a rigorous methodology through which any Star Wars work could be reviewed and analysed in order to determine if it was of sufficient quality to merit ascendance to the Star Wars universe. If the work in question passed the test, then it could be revered as a work of true canon. If it failed, then it could safely be ignored (and preferably chucked in the bin, to save future generations from stumbling upon it). Checklists, forms and a spreadsheet were included within the EU Sceptic's "Toolkit"; combined with a centrally-maintained master database and a neat little computer program, written in Pascal on my school PC. The full review process took a long time and a considerable amount of effort on the part of the reviewer - but what was such effort when measured against the timeless benefits to Star Wars fans of a consistent and robust EU?
When we - the EU Sceptics - introduced EU Scepticism to various Star Wars internet message boards, there was initially some confusion, because many people were under the mistaken impression that we were promoting a contemporaneous British political tradition known as "Euroscepticism", adherents of which espoused a hostile view of the UK's membership of the European Union (known colloquially as the "EU").
We eventually managed to clarify to the web that we were referring to something else entirely, and slowly but surely EU Scepticism began to take hold. The Toolkit was downloaded hundreds of times around the world as The Fans got to work. Before long it was not just new Star Wars EU works being tested, but the older ones too. Even I was shocked by some of the results; books that I'd assumed would be safe as houses in the canon were ignominiously stripped of their status and cast out of the EU. Harsh as this sounds today, we were a committed bunch using an uncompromising methodology, and in slimming down the EU we were massively improving upon its quality.
But just as the movement was taking off, it came crashing down. Disunity erupted amongst the EU Sceptics when, in casual conversation, I happened to observe that, as a doctrine, Euroscepticism did sit comfortably with my own clan-based libertarian-survivalist socio-political beliefs.
For reasons I am unable to fathom, when it comes to politics most sci-fi fans are hopeless pinkos (all the more surprising when considering the conservative views espoused by some of their greatest heroes - Robert Heinlein, John Milius, Robert E. Howard, L. Ron Hubbard, Emperor Palpatine, etc.). Cognizant of this, leftist agitators amongst the upper echelons of the EU Sceptics - who had long been envious of my role as undisputed leader - seized upon my innocent remark in order to further their own nefarious goals. They used my political views against me, appealing to the bleeding hearts of many of the rank-and-file. Ultimately I was branded an "obstinate fascist" and told to disassociate myself from EU Scepticism.
And so I did. but not before deleting my Pascal programme and changing the access password for the master database.
The Thought Police had their victory, ejecting this incorruptible free-thinker from their Stalinist cabal. Yet said victory was truly pyrrhic, for with my final act of sabotage I crippled them.
What emerged following my departure was a movement that was a mere shadow of its former self. Calling themselves the "New EU Sceptics", this band of lefty ne'er-do-wells attempted to "start over" in the aftermath of my sabotage. They implemented a "leadership committee", and pledged to collaborate with the rank-and-file to re-think the methodology and rebuild the master database.
As Heinlein observed, whilst it might be the best form of government humanity has discovered, Democracy remains a heavily flawed system. And so it proved for the New EU Sceptics. Re-designing the Toolkit by committee resulted in a watered-down, insipid mess. Without a strong, decisive leader, the New EU Sceptics struggled to maintain focus or build a strategy, spending weeks in meetings soliciting the thoughts and feelings of everyone involved.
I have said it before and I'll say it again; when every input is equally valid, every output is equally bland. Especially when that input is largely coming from nerds.
Unsurprisingly, the New EU Sceptic movement began to fall apart over the following months as volunteers drifted away, disillusioned by the lack of progress.
In a desperate attempt to revive the dying beast, a splinter group (calling themselves the Real EU Sceptics) approached me in secret, begging me to come back. In the subsequent negotiations they agreed to reinstate me as "Supreme Leader" (my terminology), and I agreed to make available the central database and original Toolkit. We were to call ourselves the "Original EU Sceptics", and we agreed that, due to previous upsets caused by Bolshevism, anyone identifying politically as further left than "Social Democrat" would not be eligible to join (I initially demanded the benchmark be set at "One Nation Conservative" but softened my position when I realised there'd be only two people in the group, and the other guy made me very uncomfortable).
We were all set to get going when I received an email from a prominent and licensed Star Wars EU author, threatening legal action against us in the strongest terms. I will not identify who it was; suffice to say this individual had fallen victim to the rigors of the Toolkit time and time again, to the extent that, amongst the EU Sceptics, their name had become shorthand for "non-canon shite."
The Original EU Sceptics were peerless Star Wars anoraks; but lawyers we were not. Neither did we have access to money (only one of us was employed at the time). Therefore, the day we received that email was the day EU Scepticism - in all its guises - died.
We were completely shell-shocked, and it took a considerable amount of time for us to accept the situation and move on with our lives. At least one of us never accepted it, and as far as I know he is still active, peddling EU Scepticism (and untraceable gun parts) in some obscure corner of the un-indexed internet.
Looking back at those tumultuous times engenders the full range of emotions within me. Pride, of course. Regret. Frustration. Bitterness. Anger. Loathing. Hatred. But also Hope...
Hope... that one day a legally-astute and monied Star Wars fan happens upon some obscure internet archive and learns all about EU Scepticism, and what we nearly accomplished. And that they then peruse the official list of Star Wars EU canon, and raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of certain inferior works therein (because over the last decade the situation has only gotten worse). And then they take their fat old solicitor's salary and put it to use in reviving the EU Sceptic movement in a legally-sound manner, remembering to contact the founder to arrange the generous terms of his involvement (including remuneration, expenses and pension provision).
Do not think that this is over, friends. Do not think that I am finished. After all... everybody had written off Pellaeon following the fall of Thrawn, but now he is Supreme Commander of the Imperial Remnant.
Johnny Fisher, 2007
(Postscript - This article was originally written in 2007, long before the great bulk of the Star Wars EU had been branded with the "Legends" tag and cast into the dustbin).