Book Review: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

So, all my blather a month ago about the early days of the Star Wars phenomenon put me in the mood to revisit a novel I’ve not read in probably, oh, 25 years or so: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster.

Published in the spring of 1978 while the movie was still playing in many theaters around the country (it seems to me that it played at the Centre here in Salt Lake for well over a year; inconceivable these days when a movie’s box-office take is pretty much complete after only two weeks!), Splinter was the very first Star Wars tie-in novel, not counting the novelization of the film itself. (Which, incidentally, was also written by Foster, even though G. Lucas has always been credited as the author.) As such, it is something of a singular curiosity now. Other early tie-ins, such as Brian Daley‘s trilogy of books about Han Solo’s pre-movie adventures, and even L. Neil Smith‘s eccentric trio of Lando Calrissian tales, fit nicely into the “Expanded Universe” framework of the more recent Star Wars novels. Splinter, however, stands alone, uninformed by important character revelations that came in the second and third movies (Episodes V and VI, if we really must) and a bit off-kilter in tone from the well-established Star Wars formula.

Supposedly based on early screenplay drafts for either Star Wars itself or a possible low-budget sequel (depending on which source you consult), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye begins with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the droids en route to a meeting with an underground cell they hope to recruit into the Rebel Alliance. A mechanical problem forces their ships down on a swamp world called Mimban (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagobah, lending credence to the idea that much of the novel was borrowed from Lucas’ story notes). There, they discover a secret Imperial mining operation and meet Halla, a local eccentric who claims to be Force-sensitive. She convinces Luke to help her in her quest to find the Kaiburr Crystal, a legendary gemstone that is said to help Force-users like Luke focus and enhance their powers; Luke’s party and Halla, along with two alien sidekicks, set off across the foggy wilderness in search of the temple where the crystal resides. They are pursued by the sadistic ruler of the mining colony, Captain-Supervisor Grammel, a whole bunch of his stormtroopers, and a certain Dark Lord of the Sith who would like to possess the Kaiburr Crystal for his own purposes.

I remember that Splinter confounded me when I first read it as a kid, for two very large reasons: Han Solo and Chewbacca are conspicuously absent (they are mentioned in passing — and not even by name — only at the very end of the book), and there are no space battles. Indeed, the only scene involving spaceships at all is the very first one; once Luke and Leia crash on Mimban, the rest of the action is entirely planetbound.

These days, however, I actually found these aspects of the tale rather refreshing. The Star Wars novels of recent years, while not without their charms, have become extremely formulaic: the fate of the entire galaxy is always at stake, there are always multiple planetary locations and multiple space battles (both dogfights between one-man fighters and titanic slugfests between capital ships), and, between all our old favorites from the movies and all the new characters that have come to inhabit the Expanded Universe, the cast of the average EU novel is freakin’ huge, and (for me, anyway) difficult to keep track of. Splinter, by contrast, is a much simpler, much more focused story. I like that it concerns itself only with a small handful of people (and droids and creatures) in a single location with a single purpose in mind.

More problematic, in terms of the overall saga continuity at least, is the ways in which Splinter flat-out contradicts accepted Star Wars lore. The most obvious issue is that the Luke and Leia we see here are most assuredly not siblings. The sexual tension between them is startling and more than a little icky in light of the way the saga developed in the years following 1978. (However, it does support a pet theory of mine, which is that the sibling thing was not planned from the beginning, as the official history now claims, and only came along when Uncle George needed a convenient way to resolve the Luke-Han-Leia love triangle.) In addition, the droids aren’t as fully involved in the action as we’ve come to expect — they are hardly present in the story at all, actually — and Darth Vader demonstrates some odd abilities with the Force that aren’t supported in any of the six movies and, to my knowledge, haven’t been seen in any other EU novel. The only way to reconcile these things with our fully evolved, 30-years-on conception of these characters is to keep in mind when the book was written: before Empire or Jedi, before the prequels, before anyone really knew anything at all about Jedi or the Empire or anything else in the galaxy far, far away.

Turning to more technical matters, I’ve got to say that Alan Dean Foster isn’t one of our better literary stylists; he often sounds as if he’s swallowed a thesaurus and is trying desperately to impress us with his knowledge of big words. Also, Splinter came relatively early in his career, so his writing is rather clunky in places. However, I was surprised at how certain specific images from this book have stayed with me all these years, even a couple of which I’d forgotten the origin. For example, I remembered “clean grains [of sand] pressing into Luke’s nostrils” as he’s drowning at the bottom of a pond, and blood drying to a black crust on a cave floor after a big battle. And I remembered vividly the scene in which Captain-Supervisor Grammel puts out some poor bastard’s eye with a plastic recording rod, then offers to let him see the image of it, as well as the bit when Luke dials down his lightsaber blade into a thin stilleto and uses it to open a locked door. That’s something I would’ve liked to see in one of the movies.

Despite its flaws and anachronisms, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye remains a very enjoyable read after all these years. It doesn’t jibe at all with the Expanded Universe, or even the later SW movies, but it is a very pleasant way to revisit a time when Star Wars was fresh and its backstory was still an exciting mystery. And I’ve got to be honest: I think I prefer Luke and Leia as “a princess and a farmboy” who might become lovers, rather than brother and sister separated at birth. Even when I was twelve, that sibling thing was lame…

One final note that may or may not be interesting to anyone: my tattered old first paperback edition of the novel has an ad on the back page that shows large black droplets, conveniently labelled “Oil,” dangling from tree branches. The predictable caption: “It doesn’t grow on trees.” How sad is it that 30 years have passed and that plea for conservation remains as timely — maybe even moreso — as it was back in the days of Jimmy Carter and the big OPEC gas crunch?