The OF Blog: Reading Tie-in Fiction: An Outsider's Perspective

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reading Tie-in Fiction: An Outsider's Perspective

Outside of reading some Star Trek novels when I was a teen, I never really have had much exposure to tie-in or shared/expanded universe novels. My first fantasy reads (outside of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings) did not come until my mid-20s, meaning that I never read any Dungeons & Dragons-based novels (in fact, I have never played the game, as board games typically bore me within minutes). I also am not a big movie person, which means that although I have seen bits and pieces of the Predator and Aliens movies, I have seen enough to remember whole subplots or characters. Same holds true to a lesser extent in regards to the Star Wars franchise. I've seen the first three films several times in my childhood, but I have not watched those or any of the prequel trilogy after seeing the disastrous Episode I flick back in 1999.

So when a series of events (two of my favorite authors, Jeff VanderMeer and Brian Evenson, announcing that they had written books in the Predator and Aliens universes; Paul S. Kemp writing this little bit on his LiveJournal about his frustrations of people prejudging his books because they were set in the Forgotten Realms setting; and the timely arrival of Matthew Stover's Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor) occurred in the past couple of months, it led to me being curious enough to take the plunge and to read a sampling of each of these shared universe settings. Of course, it helped that I was familiar with and enjoyed the works of VanderMeer, Evenson, and Stover, but that too set up interesting possibilities.

When I decided that I would read the following four books (Predator: South China Sea, Aliens: No Exit, Forgotten Realms: Shadowbred: Book One of the Twilight War Trilogy, and Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor), I approached the reading from the angle of how would a shared universe "virgin" make sense of these stories? What would be some of the points that would capture my attention and which elements would be confusing to me precisely because of the shared universe setting? Also, for the three authors whose original fiction I had read previously, how would those experiences color my reading of their tie-in novels?

I began by reading VanderMeer's Predator: South China Sea in late November. While I knew the basics of the story (alien hunter with dreds and all sorts of cool gadgetry used to bring down the big prey, including humans), I went in with no other knowledge of that setting. VanderMeer's novel proved to be a good novel for someone like me. The plot is relatively simple (at least compared to his original fiction novels), as it is set on an island in the South China Sea with a motley crew of unsavory characters set to participate in a big hunt sponsored by a shady ex-military commander, only to discover that another hunt is about to take place, with the Predator appearing to cull this herd. Although at times I felt the "red shirt" effect with some of the characters (there momentarily for the sole purpose of being killed off), what I liked is that in little over 300 pages, VanderMeer developed interesting character arcs, gave his Predator some purpose in being there, and that the action felt smooth and cinematic. Only on a few occasions did I feel as though there were elements that I didn't "get" due to my lack of knowledge of the movie franchise; the rest of the time, it read like an original action/adventure novel. It was a pleasurable reading experience and while I usually don't read pure action/adventure novels, VanderMeer did an excellent job of keeping me hooked and entertained.

I cannot quite say the same for Brian (or B.K. for this novel) Evenson's Aliens: No Exit. The beginning to the novel was a mess for me, confusing and containing too many references to subplots from the movies (and perhaps other Aliens novels) for me to understand what was happening. Another element that noticed is that unlike my perceptions of the movies (claustrophobic settings, with a handful of characters struggling to survive the Aliens' onslaught), Evenson's story is sprawled out too much, leaving me confused for a while as to what type of story I was reading - was it a power struggle novel with the Aliens as a sideshow? Was it a tale of the main character's psychological trauma (an issue that I felt Evenson should have developed more, incidentally)? Was it to be a high-powered shoot-out? It felt a bit muddled at times to me and it certainly was the weakest story by Evenson that I have read to date.

Muddled doesn't come close to describing my reaction to reading Paul S. Kemp's Forgotten Realms: Shadowbred. I was of two minds when I was reading this novel: 1) Kemp writes at a fast clip, moving the plot along, but not at the expense of developing character depth, and 2) What the hell is he referring to? This novel represents the main reason why I have been so hesitant to read any shared-universe novels, as there are so many references to past events covered in other novels by other authors that I was thoroughly confused at times, despite this being an opener to a trilogy (and one the author himself suggested that people read the first five chapters for free before making any comments about shared-universe settings)! The closest I can come to illustrating this confusion would be as if I decided, "Pues, si yo escriba mis pensamientos en español and some gringo no lo entienda, sería confusing, as he entendría some pero the whole lo dejaría confused." That's how it felt to me, reading about mind mages, halflings, gods appearing in alley ways, and so forth. I almost could understand what was transpiring, but not quite. Since Kemp has written virtually exclusively (minus a short story or two, I believe) in a shared-universe setting, I really have nothing else by which to judge his work. All I can say for now is that if I knew what the hell he was talking about, the story would have been upgraded from "interesting, with some good characterization starting to take place" to "hey, I really want to read on and to learn what happens next!" In this case, a lack of familiarity with the setting put a major damper on my reading. I suspect someone much more familiar with this setting would have enjoyed this novel much more than I did, precisely because they would understand the underlying "language" and thus be able to see where all the parts fit.

Since I am most familiar with the Star Wars universe, Matthew Stover's Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor was very easy to follow. Set in the months immediately following the events of Return of the Jedi, his story was gripping because he took the backdrop of the chaos following the Empire's collapse and he wove a multi-layered tale revolving around Luke's struggle to define himself to himself (and to a lesser degree, to others) while dealing with a powerful enemy who threatens to seize control of Luke himself. Stover displays an introspective touch that weaves in a philosophical-like discussion of the Force/the Dark with a story involving a lot of action and regret (there is a very high body count in this story). Despite my initial shock over how different his writing is from his Acts of Caine novels (I was waiting for Luke or Han to say, "Well, fuck me like a virgin goat!"), I almost immediately was sucked into the flow of the action and I found that I didn't need to know a lot of backstory outside the original trilogy to understand what was transpiring. Stover told a damn good story, simple as that.

Would I read more tie-in fiction in the future? Perhaps. Looking at my four commentaries (not quite reviews, since the focus was solely on how my lack of knowledge would impact my reception of these tales), I would have to say that ultimately, it depends upon what the author chooses to do. A well-written, well-developed tale that takes into consideration the reader's possible lack of knowledge of all the other related stories might succeed better than a fiction that is so full of references to other stories that it seems at times as though those other stories are the main overarching plot and not what is transpiring in that particular tale being read. Of course, if a tale is unfocused and doesn't contain a taut string of plot and characterization development, those stories are not going to be well-received by me (or likely, most readers, regardless of their previous experience with those shared-universe settings).

Anyone else here care to share their experiences with reading tie-in fiction, especially those works with which they are relatively unfamiliar?


Neth said...

This a very interesting post (I especially look forward to Kemp's reaction).

I've had some similar experiences with tie-in fiction, but at least in the case of Star Wars, I'm fairly well read. I've tried a FR book before and it didn't work. I may try another at some point, but I'm in no rush. VanderMeer's Predator novel sound very interesting and has since I heard that he was writing it.

As for Stover's SW books - he is generally excepted as the best SW author. I think that you would really like his book, Shatterpoint. It's set in prequel time at the start of the Clone Wars. It follows jedi master Mace Windu (Sammuel Jackson in the movies) and is a very good character exploration of consequences of action. It's rather similar to his Caine novels in this respect. I'd say that you don't really need much outside knowledge to enjoy it.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, it'll be interesting to learn his reaction, but then again, what I said wasn't an indictment of his writing, but rather the admission that my ignorance of that setting dampened everything for me.

VanderMeer's book is indeed something worth reading. I've heard that about Stover as well and might read one of his earlier SW books later...if I could be bothered to buy any (I have at least five of them from this year lying about on a dresser and in two different bookcases.

Neth said...

I don't think Kemp will take it as and intictment of any kind - I think he'll react relatively positively to your ariticle.

Unknown said...

This is very interesting because I consider you to be a person with rather sophisticated tastes in literature (compared to myself).

I haven't read tie-in fiction since I was in high school (about nine or so years since school hurt reading for me). I've read some really good tie-in stuff and then a bunch of stuff that was mediocre at best. Star Wars has generally been satisfying for me, but I haven't gone back in a long while. I talked about tie-ins on my blog a while back and I may consider going back to tie-ins in the future, just to test the waters to see if they will still interest me as they did when I was a kid. We'll see.

Lsrry said...

Glad this article was of interest! Thing I've noticed about re-reading virtually anything, especially after a length of time, is that one's opinions almost always shift in some fashion or another. Sometimes, I don't know if re-reading is anything more than an illusion and that what we're doing is just engaging anew a text in a way that is going to be different from the first time.

Thea said...

Really interesting article, Larry. I have read some tie in fiction, with varying degrees of success (or should I say failure?). I have read a few of Kevin J. Anderson's X-Files novels which generally are pretty true to the show and straightforward (though these tended to be 'monster of the week' in style, as opposed to heavy in the mythology of the show). I've also read one or two of Peter David's Star Trek tie in novels which are a bit more in-depth, but these were still easy enough to follow.

Recently, however, I tried to get into the Angel comics (from the Buffy universe), but found myself lost since I never really watched Angel much. I tried to power through it and while there are some aspects that wowed me, I think my appreciation of the comics is severely limited by my lack of familiarity with the universe (especially since the comics are almost unanimously hailed as awesome, and I found them so so).

On Star Wars--I recently read a review (I think on Graeme's site?) for another Star Wars novel, Order 66, that had me thinking about tie ins. Now you've got me interested in picking up Shadows of Mindor as well, so thanks for that :)

Eileen said...


DEFINITELY check out Peter David's Star Trek novels. Q-Squared and Vendetta are absolutely amazing. I'd recommend them just as great sci-fi.

My brother reads Halo novels. Yes, that's Halo the video game. Are they any good or not, I have no idea.

Lsrry said...


Stover's book certainly is worth the read, as there is quite a bit of internal character tension there that made a good plot a great story.


I believe Vendetta was one of those Star Trek novels I read 18-20 years ago. The name is familiar anyways and I certainly have read at least one Star Trek novel by David.

As for the Halo books, well...I bought my middle brother Halo: The Cole Protocol for Christmas. He's liking the Gears of War novel by Karen Traviss that I gave him (I received it as a review copy) a month ago.

Anonymous said...

IME, the 'what happened to my horror' aspect of the Alien novel is typical of that series. A little too much 'evil corporation', not enough 'ah! Xenomorphs!'

And then there were the last 30 pages of Earthhive, which morphed into a war novel or somefink.

Joe said...

I do read Star Wars tie in fiction, and I agree with Ken...Stover really is the class of the field (with Karen Traviss pulling a close second), but outside of Star Wars, I don't read tie in fiction.

At first it was a bias, but I've seen both some crap as well as shining gems in Star Wars, and I've come to realize that it is like anything else. There's a bunch of crap, some decent novels, and some that make you stand up and say "holy shit".

And if Stover DID have Han say "fuck me like a virgin goat", my man-crush on Stover's fiction would be complete. Actually, it would probably be "fuck me like a virgin bantha", if we want to stay in-universe with the reference.

But, now that I've come to accept tie-in fiction as, well, real fiction (it took a while), I'm still hesitant to try stuff in established series.

Where do I jump into Forgotten Realms? How much do I have to wade through to find the good stuff? Can I really *get* Kemp if I haven't read what came first.

Same with other stuff. I want to read Tobias Buckell's Halo novel and Karen Traviss wrote a Gears of War novel that I also want to read (because it is by Buckell, and by Traviss)...but stepping into a new tie-in shared universe is a dicey thing.

I tried Peter David's Battlestar Galactica novel and I couldn't get through two chapters.

(clearly this just needs to be a blog post of my own, if I was inclined to do so)

nstinson said...

I am a big Star Wars fiction reader (because I'm a nerd like that) :)

I generally always enjoy any by Stover...
-"Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Traitor" is part of a long series, but is (from what I recall) a very good, introspective look at the force and an exploration of the nature of the force.
-"Star Wars: Shatterpoint", as mentioned before, is a very good read
-"Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" the novelization is superior to the movie, and is very well written, especially for a movie novelization. I'd recommend it:)

Also, I didn't know if you knew, but Kemp is writing a Star Wars novel himself now.

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