Ken Liu on Exploring the “Perfect Mythic Figure” in The Legends of Luke Skywalker

The author discusses his new book and seeing a legendary Jedi from different points of view.

“Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth,” says Rey in The Force Awakens. For a generation in the galaxy far, far away, and for several generations here on Earth, Luke Skywalker is a character of legendary proportion: a Jedi in a time without the Jedi, the hero who saved the galaxy with his friends and his Force abilities. And just as Luke’s disappearance in his galaxy opened up a lot of speculation as to where he went and what he has been doing from the people who knew him, fans around the world also have been wondering what he’s been doing in the years after Return of the Jedi and before his appearance on Ahch-To. Filling in those gaps from a certain point of view is The Legends of Luke Skywalker, written by the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award-winning author Ken Liu. Released this week, this middle grade novel is published by Disney-Lucasfilm Press as part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi publishing program. caught up with the legendary Ken Liu via e-mail, and he shared his insight into his book, the character of Luke Skywalker, and the nature of larger-than-life stories. The Legends of Luke Skywalker introduces six different tales about Luke Skywalker, passed along from one being to the next, and shared among the crew of a freighter bound for Canto Bight. What is it about Luke Skywalker that makes him more than just a hero, but a figure of legend?

Ken Liu: Just listen to his name! How can you possibly not be a figure of legend when your name is larger-than-life?

Fantasy logic aside, Luke is the perfect mythic figure onto which we in the audience are free to project our hopes and fears. In the films, he walks a fine narrative line between destiny and free choice, and that is the narrow ledge on which all of us struggle as we construct and invent the plot of our own lives. It’s human nature to yearn for our actions both to be born of our own agency and to have meaning in a grand design, and that yearning is the rich soil in which legends and myths flourish.

In our world, as the deeds of famous men and women are distorted, simplified, and exaggerated into bare, impressionistic outlines, we fill them in with vivid colors according to our own understanding of the human condition and our own needs for the right story. The same person may be seen as hero or villain, as martyr or hypocrite, depending on who is doing the seeing and what colors are in their Crayola box.

As it is in our universe, so it is in the galaxy far, far away. How does the telling and retelling of a tale change the nature of a story, and how does that play out in your book?

Ken Liu: It’s worth recalling that the Star Wars we’ve come to know and love isn’t a single vision, but a collection of different visions in time and place.

Most fans will remember that Lucas himself said that the theatrical releases of the original trilogy were only [a fraction of his original vision]. He had a chance to create the Special Edition versions of the films later, which could be viewed as a re-telling of the story of the original trilogy.

Lucas certainly had an opinion on which version was definitive, but that isn’t necessarily the final word in fandom. There have been so many think pieces about the changes that I need not add to the heat and noise, but I do think that as Star Wars fans, understanding that stories change with each retelling comes to us as second nature.

I’ll use myself as an example. My initial exposure to the Star Wars saga came not from the films at all, but from the Chinese translation of the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, which was the first science fiction fantasy novel I ever read. Back then, as a kid in China, I didn’t have access to the films, and so I had to flesh out the descriptions on the page with my own imagination. Thus, later, when I finally got to the see the films (and in a different language than the translation I had read), I had the perhaps uncommon experience of seeing the original as a kind of “re-telling” of a story I already loved in a very different form.

Perhaps this isn’t as unusual as it sounds. Today, many fans new to Star Wars see the original trilogy only after they already know the story in detail and can even quote famous lines from it. So, like any other classic that has become part of the fabric of our culture (e.g., Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet), new fans only get to experience the original as a kind of re-telling.

Bonus digression: check out this collection of Star Wars posters from around the world to see how the story is transformed in each poster’s “re-telling.”

The point isn’t to argue over which version of the story is more “definitive” or “truer” — I find it far more interesting to think about how stories change as they’re re-told and re-understood. In fact, even viewing the exact same film a second time when we’re 48 will give us very different feelings and reflections as compared to our first viewing when we were eight — it’s a re-telling in which the story changes because the listener has changed.

I love thinking about how different versions of the same story help to illuminate the fact that the storyteller is inseparable from the story and also from the audience.

This dynamic plays out multiple times in Legends as the same events are recounted by different narrators and as Luke himself is refracted into a multitude of Lukes. Every storyteller has an agenda, as does every listener. In that narrative instability we discover the grandness and richness of the Star Wars universe itself — a galaxy with only one story is not a galaxy I want to live in.

A crashed star destroyer protrudes from the sand on Jakku in The Force Awakens. The main legends all involve a supposed first-hand encounter with Luke Skywalker from some rather unique narrators: a conspiracy theorist, an Imperial serving at the Battle of Jakku, a construction droid reprogrammed into being a mine overseer, and more. How did you create these characters and inform their points of view?

Ken Liu: One of the things about Star Wars that has impressed me the most is the lived-in feeling of the universe: scuffed armor, scorched hulls, jury-rigged engines. Every object has a history behind it, and every character has a backstory.

I wanted to write a book that honors that aspect of Star Wars. The galaxy is a large place, and it needs to feel that way. I worked hard to construct distinct points of view that were interesting to me and also hinted at the full spectrum of disagreements and opinions. Then I dug deep in research to flesh out their backstories to build solid foundations for how they’d come to hold the views of Luke that they did. It was such a joy to delve deeply into a universe I’ve loved all my life and to bring to life characters I wanted to get to know.

Without giving away spoilers, I do want to caution the reader against assuming that any of the Luke-like figures they encounter in the book is in fact Luke Skywalker. Sometimes we retell legends not just by recounting the stories, but by emulating their heroes. What opportunities and challenges are there to creating not just one but a whole series of different stories that fit into the realm of tall tales, campfire stories, or urban legends within Star Wars?

Ken Liu: Writing a series of stories linked together by a framing story poses a special challenge in that I believe in a book like this, the sum must be greater than the parts. I had to make sure that the different levels of narration and the disparate stories work together as a whole to tell a grander myth about Luke that the individual stories cannot. I had to do a great deal of planning, sequencing, and careful adjustment of the individual tales to make this meta-narrative work.

And of course, writing a book like this is just plain fun. Because the narrators are assumed to be unreliable (but are they really?), I can do all sorts of things that would not be possible otherwise. I could question consensus and pose outrageous speculation. It gave me a chance to explore how legends and myths can grow around a kernel of facts in one of the richest narrative universes ever created by the human imagination. Who are some of your favorite characters in this book and what makes them stand out for you?

Ken Liu: I love Redy, the conspiracy theorist. She dedicates her considerable intellectual powers to motivated reasoning to defend a story that fits her worldview. While the reader is free to dismiss Redy, I think we all have a bit of Redy in us — it’s just much harder know when the inner Redy is spinning her tales.

I also love Aya-Glon, a girl from a world covered in water. She and a mysterious visitor to her world challenge each other’s deepest held beliefs while also learning from each other. Some of my most cherished friendships have been like that. You also recently wrote “The Sith of Datawork” in the New York Times-bestselling From a Certain Point of View anthology. What made you want to explore the bureaucratic side of the Imperial Navy?

Ken Liu: As a law student, I had a particular interest in administrative law, and after that I worked for years as a corporate lawyer, having to deal with the government often. Bureaucracy, as a technology of organization and collective decision-making, is one of the crown jewels of human intellect.

I simply could not resist the chance of portraying the Imperial bureaucracy at work and the exciting stories hidden behind the stacks of datapads being pushed around. How does writing Star Wars compare to writing your own fiction? For readers who enjoy your style in The Legends of Luke Skywalker, what other of your works would you recommend?

Ken Liu: With my own fiction, I get to make all the decisions, but I do have to create everything out of my imagination. There are no reference books or experts to consult, and I’m always forging into terra incognita. It is exhilarating to work that way, but can also be very lonely.

With Star Wars, I’m working in a beloved universe that has been built up over the years by many legendary creators, and to be able to stand on their shoulders and participate in this joint storytelling effort is a dream come true. Moreover, I’m celebrating my love for Star Wars with hundreds of millions of fans around the world. It’s also a thrilling experience, but feels a bit like exercising different creative muscles.

If readers enjoy my work in Legends, they may also like my silkpunk epic fantasy series, “The Dandelion Dynasty” (The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms), which also plays with the idea of legendary history, fantastical machines, and magical creatures. They may also want to check out my collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which features short fiction in a variety of genres like hard sci-fi, magic realism, cyberpunk noir, and near-future thriller. What do Luke Skywalker and Star Wars mean to you?

Ken Liu: Star Wars may be the closest thing we have to a modern mythology. Its characters, images, vehicles, ideas, and magic have become a language of metaphors that we invoke in discussing everything from politics to baseball. As new stories are told in the Star Wars universe, the mythology grows and expands to better reflect our society and to comment upon our strides into the unknown future.

Just as Luke grows as a hero in his journey, I’ve also grown as a writer and as a human being in the years since I first met him. With this book, I hope that fans of Star Wars of all ages and backgrounds can come to appreciate the many facets of Luke, and I’m especially looking forward to introducing my daughters to this grand saga.

The Legends of Luke Skywalker is available in hardcover and as an ebook from Disney-Lucasfilm Press, with illustrations by J. G. Jones and as an audiobook narrated by January LaVoy from Penguin Random House Audio.

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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