Imagine there’s this universe where everyone thought the first Star Wars film was some awful kiddie flick, so a low-budget sequel was released in 1980 starring only Luke and Leia. The decidedly-not-brother-and-sister tried to recruit people to the Rebellion, got stuck on a planet with a mysterious Force-enhancing crystal and… got into a mud fight?
This is the alternate universe we might have lived in. Thankfully, Star Wars broke the box office bank and Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never a film. In fact, looking at it now, it’s only barely reconcilable as canon in the Expanded Universe. (And that’s saying something.)
The plot of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye revolves around the Kaiburr crystal, a shiny red gem that basically amplifies the Force. Luke and Leia, whilst heading for a planet that they want to recruit for the Rebel Alliance, crash-land one rock over on Mimban. It turns out that the Empire is using the planet to mine dolovite (this is a retcon within the EU itself—the actual material is never identified in the book). Luke and Leia meet a Force-sensitive older woman named Halla who volunteers to take them to the crystal, but Vader gets alerted to their presence and starts tracking them down. It’s a race to the crystal. Battles ensue with the native population of Mimban and the Imperials. Luke and Vader showdown, and Luke gets the Kaiburr prize. He and Leia and Halla ride off into the foggy sunset.
Certain facts surrounding the creation of this potential sequel make sense of the incongruities; Harrison Ford had not been signed on for any more movies when the book was written, hence his and Chewie’s absence from the book and the downplaying of their importance. Though Lucas has claimed many times that he had the original Star Wars trilogy all plotted out, it’s fairly clear this is not true regarding Luke and Leia sibling status. As a result, there is an obvious romantic subplot between the two, leading to all sorts of strangeness. It is possible that this is the reason for the implied attraction that surfaces in Empire Strikes Back; earlier drafts of that script showed Luke outright declaring his love for Leia, and her rebuttal as she tells him that they cannot afford romance due to their duties to the Rebellion. (This sounds painfully like the exact same conversation their parents ended up having in Episode II, so that’s an extra layer of serendipitous weird.)
The swamp planet of Mimban, where this whole shebang plays out, is likely the inspiration for Dagobah; swampy and foggy and full of strange creatures that are well-equipped to eat or maim you. And in a comical case of influence, it looks as though the god Pomojema (whose temple houses the Kaiburr crystal) is heavily based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, at least in appearance. The novel's cover is a gorgeous illustration by Ralph McQuarrie, which only makes me wish he had done more Star Wars book covers. There are also funny little flubs scattered throughout the text, such as Vader’s blue lightsaber, and a suggestion that the Sith Lord knows the code words to shut off C-3PO… what’s crazier is that the retcon provided by Episode I actually makes that plausible.
But there are so many loose ends that Splinter leaves if the adventure is meant to tie into the Star Wars universe that we know now. The Kaiburr crystal is not a problem in and of itself, but it is a problem if Luke has it—why wouldn’t he have used it throughout Episode’s V and VI? The crystal was apparently present in early drafts of the first Star Wars screenplay, but Lucas reportedly removed it because he wanted the Force to be a more ethereal power, making its appearance in the book even more unimpressive. What about Halla? If they had actually found another wizened Force-sensitive buddy along the way, why wouldn’t she have helped to train Luke? Where did she go?
And then there’s Luke’s aptitude, which is off the charts in the book, as he manages to fight off Vader and sever the guy’s arm. His sudden drop in skill during their confrontation in Empire is something to marvel at if this tale is indeed canon. Sure, you could chalk it up to the crystal's influence, the fact that Luke sort of channels Obi-Wan’s spirit, but that doesn’t explain his increase in lightsaber technique or the sudden super-active mentoring coming from a guy whose initial help amounted to vague directions like “Trust your feelings” and “Run, Luke, run!”
There’s also some oddly outrageous sexism in the book. When an Imperial officer at a bar begins to get suspicious of Luke and Leia, Luke makes an executive decision that people will calm right down if everyone thinks that Leia is his slave. So he slaps her and scolds her for talking back to him. And it works. That awkwardness is compounded when Leia calls Luke on his behavior once they leave the bar and they proceed to get into a cute mud fight. Yup, this is a wince-inducing bit of sexual tension that happens. As a result of being slapped. Counted outside of canon, it’s hilarious that the scene exists. Counted inside of it, that snippet of wrongness is hard to make peace with.
On the other hand, the book does have Leia pick up Luke’s lightsaber and attempt to fend off Vader herself, which is far more than the films ever allowed her....
It’s easy to imagine how this sequel would have appeared on film—between the setting, the various generalized alien monsters and the mystical magic jewel, the story functions far more like one of the many popular fantasy films that were produced in the 1980s for kids. It has more in common with Labyrinth, Legend, and Willow than it does with Star Wars. Which gives you an idea of what sort of series Star Wars might have become if it hadn’t made the money the studio wanted.
On the other hand, in 1978 it was the only new Star Wars material available for mass consumption. That counts for quite a bit in the long run, and is undoubtedly why this novel has remained popular for over 30 years, mud fights and all.
Emily Asher-Perrin guesses that it makes sense for Luke to assume sexist Imperials when there are clearly no lady Empire officers in the films, but really? You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.