All Bets Are Off: John Jackson Miller on Canto Bight

The author talks to about his novella "The Ride," set in Star Wars: The Last Jedi's casino city.

With The Last Jedi only one day away, readers have a chance to get a sneak peek at a new locale in the Star Wars galaxy in a new book from Del Rey. Canto Bight is a set of four interconnected novellas set in one night in the glamorous gambling city of Canto Bight. With stories written by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller, Canto Bight, available now, sets the stage for a playground for the super wealthy that would leave Cloud City in the dust. Veteran Star Wars storyteller John Jackson Miller, whose tale wraps up the book, chatted with via e-mail about his novella, “The Ride.”

Coins and vehicles on the cover of Star Wars: Canto Bight. What is the allure of the exotic location of Canto Bight, and what is it really like?

John Jackson Miller: Canto Bight — which I joke is Monte Carlo spelled sideways — is a lavish, luxurious place where the rich and powerful people basically go to ignore all the strife of the galaxy. No First Order, no Resistance, no wars. It’s its own ecosystem, cut off and away from everything else. There’s money wherever you look, and people who don’t have any aren’t going to be able to stay there long without making serious compromises.

Famous and powerful people are everywhere, all with their own stories that have brought them to Canto Bight — and the same is true for the people who work and live there, servicing the casino and racetrack. The other authors and I tried to provide a good mix of all of those. There are four novellas in the book, but it’s clear there are countless others to be told. Your story “The Ride” focuses on a professional gambler with one night to pay off his debts. Who is Kaljach Sonmi, and how did he get into the casino scene of Canto Bight?

John Jackson Miller: Kal started off on a poor world threatened by all the various conflicts in the galaxy; lots of different armies went through. As such, he got exposed to games played by many different cultures, and learned them well. He worked his way from card room to card room on one planet after another, finally arriving at the pinnacle, Canto Bight — but, as a friend of his says, getting to stay at Canto Bight is the real problem, especially when you’re not independently wealthy. Things have gone bad enough that he’s taken a job as a proposition player for the casino: a player paid a salary to sit at multiplayer games in the slow hours, using his own money.

These are not important, high-stakes games he’s in, nor are his opponents quality. But he’s still got hope of hitting the big score, and as the story opens, he’s thinks he’s made it, just in the nick of time. That’s when wild cards show up in the trio of Dodi, Thodi, and Wodi — and after that, all bets are off!

Rose and Finn stare at each other inside a casino on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi. The four novellas, by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and you form an interconnected mosaic of storytelling. How did Canto Bight come about and how did the other authors and you work together to weave this collection of tales?

John Jackson Miller: I was contacted by Del Rey, and provided access to a lot of materials about Canto Bight and the characters populating it by the Lucasfilm Story Group. I looked at the character descriptions and pretty much knew right away what I wanted to write — and when we all did a conference call with the Story Group I was delighted with how the pitch went over.

As the process continued, each of the four of us had access to the others’ plots and, later, manuscripts, so we could interweave elements. I suggested that “The Ride” should go last, as even though the stories happen simultaneously, that location seemed to fit the beats of Kal’s story. I offered suggestions when elements of my novella turned up in the earlier material, and I think what I wrote synchs up pretty well with the piece in general. It’s not some byzantine, overlapping thing; that would be sort of a stunt, and we didn’t want it to overtake the individual stories. But the narratives do share the same physical space and time and the book reflects that. As an analyst of the comic book industry, you’re a bit of a numbers person yourself – how does that play into the development of Kal as a gambler with a system?

John Jackson Miller: I’d always been a gamer as a kid, and had certainly played in my share of card games in college; I’d read John Scarne and Ken Uston and some other writers about gambling. But it was when I was in grad school when the wave of legalized gambling began to spread across the country. Louisiana, where I was studying, got the lottery, with casinos soon to come — and while it had always had horse-racing, off-track betting parlors started proliferating. So there were a lot of options that weren’t there before.

I played every week in a poker game with the department’s head statistics professor, which got me thinking about systems — and then the other students and I started taking our books to the OTB parlors, where we’d bet on races while studying in the hope of actually earning while working. One student had programmed all the horses from the Louisiana circuit into the university mainframe, and was running analyses on them: he’d come in, bet big on exactly one race, and leave! When the casinos came along after I graduated, I had thought to put what I knew about statistics into use, but I pretty quickly realized that I didn’t have the time or discipline to do what real advantage players do. To be someone like Kal, you’ve got to be there every day, hours at a time, always aware and never deviating from the plan.

And that’s what made writing Kal’s story so fun, because he’s the perfect example of someone who, in another Star Wars context, would “always trust the targeting computer.” Putting his faith in anything else is alien to him.

Canto Bight at night in The Last Jedi. Kal eventually befriends a trio of unusual siblings in his quest to save his neck. Who are Dodi, Thodi, and Wodi, and what inspired them?

John Jackson Miller: The “Lucky Three” as we called them have an uncanny knack at games of chance; we don’t get into the metaphysics of whether they’re using the Force or something else, because they’re not even conscious of what they’re able to do. As a result, they’re often completely oblivious to the problems they cause for those surrounding them. And it’s not like they never lose: they just don’t care when they do, because life has been such an “easy-come, easy-go” experience for them. They are a random variable that wrecks all of Kal’s careful formulas.

And they’re not identical: Dodi is affable, but Thodi is the worst sort of lucky person: he thinks his successes are all about his own non-existent knowledge and skill. And Wodi lives for mischief. Together, they’re a bit of a hurricane blowing through Canto Bight — and our character’s lives.

To draw on another Disney property: There was a character in the old Carl Barks comics, Donald Duck’s cousin Gladstone Gander, who served the same story function. If Gladstone had had three frog-faced nephews of his own, they might be Dodi, Thodi, and Wodi! As well as introducing several new characters, “The Ride” brings back an old face from the background of A New Hope. What was it like adding to his story?

John Jackson Miller: I don’t want to say who it is — it’s a fun surprise, for those who know the character’s rather complicated behind-the-scenes story. I’ll just say I had written the character before, and getting to bring him back in the sequel era adds a wonderful additional layer to his already illustrious career. I got a serious kick out of it.

Another fun thing is I get to draw upon a lot of the in-universe games that have been developed for Star Wars, including some that previously were just names from this West End Games book or that one. And yes, Knights of the Old Republic fans, we do see Pazaak! You’ve written quite a few Star Wars stories, both in prose and in comics, but this is the first one to connect to material for an upcoming film – how does Canto Bight stand out for you?

John Jackson Miller: A lot of the stories I have told — A New Dawn, Kenobi, Knight Errant, Lost Tribe of the Sith, the Knights of the Old Republic comics — spend a lot of pages looking at the regular people whose lives are affected by the colossal events going on around them. Here, we’re getting to do that in advance — and Canto Bight gives us an interesting angle on it, because the whole point of the place is that those who live there get to be indifferent to the suffering taking place elsewhere. We know that that can’t always work, and we show some of it — but one of the things I get to in “The Ride” is that all the excess and revelry here serves a purpose. Farmboys on far-off worlds like Tatooine know there’s a bright center to the galaxy; if Canto Bight isn’t it, it certainly aspires to be. So the people there figure they had better enjoy themselves, or they’re letting everyone else down!

Canto Bight is available starting December 5 in hardcover and ebook from Del Rey and as an audiobook (CD and download) from Random House Audio, read by Sean Kenin, Saskia Maarleveld, Marc Thompson and Jonathan Davis. Check out an exclusive excerpt from “The Ride”  and an exclusive audiobook excerpt from “See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Say Nothing” by Rae Carson.

James Floyd is a writer, photographer, and organizer of puzzle adventures. He’s a bit tall for a Jawa. His current project is Wear Star Wars Every Day, a fundraising effort for a refugee aid organization. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamesjawa or check out his articles on Club Jade and Big Shiny Robot.

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