Thu
Sep 5 2013 9:00am

The Wild, Wild Jundland Wastes? Star Wars: Kenobi

Star Wars KenobiWriters know that most stories can easily be split into one of two categories—“a child leaves home” or “a stranger comes to town.” The western is practically always the latter; someone enters a ramshackle settlement and changes how things are done, how frontier society functions.

So what happens when a noble Jedi Knight finds himself amongst the moisture farmers, disgruntled Sand People and barren wastelands of Tatooine? If your thought was that it sounds just like a good old “enter the lawman” tale, you’d be right about that. John Jackson Miller’s Kenobi makes Tatooine stand in for the Wild West and sets up Ben (he’s not old enough to be Old Ben yet) as the only man capable of bringing justice to the frontier. Or something like that. Really, he just wants everyone to get along and forget he was ever there.

What’s great about the tale are the most important parts—Obi-Wan’s voice really shines through every time he’s on the page. Because Star Wars characters are so beloved, making sure that they sound like themselves is paramount, and “Ben” certainly does when he’s in the limelight. It’s particularly exciting because I think most of us can agree that Obi-Wan deserved a lot more than he got in the prequel trilogy, and getting some time with him to observe his immediate response to the events of Revenge of the Sith is both rewarding and heartbreaking.

The book contains his frequent meditations to Qui-Gon, and that’s equally heartbreaking; at this period in his life, Ben is so very alone that it makes sense for him to direct his meditations toward his old master. That he never receives an answer just hurts all the more. We see how his persona is perceived by the Tatooine population, how he takes steps toward those labels of “wizard,” “crazy old man,” and “hermit.” We find out why people know his name, and where his reputation comes from. It’s an important in-between story for those who wonder exactly how Obi-Wan occupied his time while keeping a watchful eye on Luke. There are more stories to be told, but this is where we find out how Obi-Wan dealt with his first days of exile, how he built a life on Tatooine after years of being used to the battlefield and acting as a Jedi.

In fact, the story goes to great lengths to show how being a Jedi makes it entirely impossible to live in the universe as a passive force: Obi-Wan constantly finds himself at the center of conflict no matter how hard he tries to hide. The fact that he manages to stay hidden enough to keep the Empire off his back until Luke grows up is a credit to his own abilities and a point against the Emperor’s hubris.

The secondary cast in the book are an interesting group of farmers, including a woman named Annileen, who really deserves better than she’s got. The camaraderie that she instantly forms with Ben (despite all his best efforts not to foster it) is probably the most interesting dynamic of the book, and though there is a romantic underpinning there, it bears out into a relationship built on mutual need and understanding. Which is great because Obi-Wan is always a more interesting guy when he is not acting opposite his superiors. Though Dexter Jettster and his Saturday Night Special Diner didn’t really make the point to us, we all know that Obi-Wan would be the best buddy to have around for gossip and a helping hand.

Star Wars novels in the past decade or so have made a point of fitting into subgenera outside of sci-fi and fantasy. There have been forays into horror and heists and thrillers, and so a trek into the western was only a matter of time. What this leads to is a pretty clear allocation of roles under the twins suns of Tatooine; the farmers are western settlers and the Tusken Raiders are obviously meant to be stand-ins for American Indians. Which makes sense logically, but does come off incredibly awkward in terms of ‘othering’ the Sand People. While the author makes every effort to show them as complex, feeling beings, and makes it clear how their actions are logical from their perspective, the Raiders spend part of the novel firmly under the “mysterious noble savages who believe in special sun gods” umbrella. The fact that they seem to internally refer to themselves as “Tuskens” (which is the settler name for them that they took on after a raid on Fort Tusken) only furthers that awkwardness; why don’t we know what they call themselves? Other similar details sprinkled throughout make the Sand People sections cringe-worthy, especially in the first half of the book before one the best twists is revealed.

It definitely doesn’t help that to start the central Tusken Raider of the story seems to think of Jedi as the “magical white man savior” deal we got from Dances With Wolves and Avatar. This is partly a result of the fact that the way of life for Sand People has changed drastically due to all the species that have come from off-world—humans aren’t entirely to blame in this case and Jedi are something of a novelty to everyone, after all.

The settlers themselves are predictably racist, which is certainly accurate to Tatooine and the Star Wars galaxy in general, and sheds a perturbing light on what Luke’s upbringing must have been like surrounded by similar folk. Every human settler on the desert planet seems to have low and nasty opinions about practically every other species. (And cultural misunderstandings abound as well; for example, we find out that the traditional Raider weapon is not actually a “gaffi stick”—the settlers just call it that due to mispronunciation.) There are community drunks and plenty of lowlifes to worry about, and no one is particularly happy. It is nice to get some background on the settlers themselves—why does anyone decide that moving to Tatooine is their best bet? How do families end up there and why do they stay?

It’s true that taking up other genres is a really fun idea for Star Wars novels, but the western genre is a fraught one. It’s probably best to leave it alone. Nevertheless, getting a chance to spend more time with Obi-Wan is one I’ll usually take up. It’s that wry sense of humor he’s got.


Emily Asher-Perrin really just wishes Obi-Wan had a talk show where he made sarcastic comments at all his guests. She has written essays for Doctor Who and Race and Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

13 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I always thought the Tusken Raiders were called that because they had tusks. But I just looked at some photos, and apparently they don't -- they have some kind of metal tubes sticking out from just below their eyes.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
I didn't read this too closely (I wasn't sure how spoiler-y it is...if somebody could clue me in on if this article is safe to read, that would be cool) but...it does look intriguging. I'm not a huge fan of the western genre, but I think it could still be a fun read, if for no other reason I've always wanted to know what Obi-Wan got up to for those intervening years, and how he gained his reputation!
Chris Nelly
3. Aeryl
@LisaMarie, it hints at plot stuff and characters, but nothing explicit.

It addresses a few problems with the way it handles the material, Ben as white savior, and the Sand People as noble savages.
John Jackson Miller
4. John Jackson Miller
It's spoiler-free.

I appreciate the coverage and the thoughts presented here, particularly on the challenge of moving between genres. For what it's worth, things like what the Tuskens called themselves, their gender roles, and their history of recruiting Force-using outsiders were established in previous works -- we sought to add some texture (and a few surprises) while working within those bounds. (As to nobility, that's left to the judgment of the reader; Ben, for his part, never seeks to justify their violent behavior.)

Christopher, as to the actual naming, the first mention of "Tusken" is in Lucas's second draft of the movie, referring to a local Imperial spy on Tatooine. I'm not sure there was any idea at the time of the character's appearance, so I assume he just made the name up. J.W. Rinzler's comic-book adaptation of those early drafts began from Dark Horse yesterday as "The Star Wars," so it'll be interesting to see what their depiction of that character looks like.
Dave Thompson
5. DKT
I'm actually kind of tempted to give this book a listen (that it's read by Jonathan Davis is a HUGE plus). I don't read a ton of SW books anymore, but this one sounds...fun. (I did listen to Scoundrels recently and was mildly disappointed.)

Thanks for the review!
John Jackson Miller
6. TN
Does the book explain why Obi-Wan's great plan to keep Luke out the the clutches of Darth Vader was to take him to Darth Vader's home planet and give him to Darth Vader's half brother while hiding out nearby by cleverly changing his name from "Obi-Wan Kenobi" to "Ben Kenobi"?
John Jackson Miller
7. John Jackson Miller
A part of your question gets a definitive answer in the book. I shouldn't elaborate beyond that.
John Jackson Miller
8. Nico_F
To be fair, the odds of Vader going back to a planet that held little more than bad memories for him to search for a child he thinks died along with its mother aren´t that high.

About Kenobi keeping his family name, that wasn´t his best idea certainly. Even if he´s in the most isolated part of the Empire, I doubt Kenobi is the SW version of Smith. He was really lucky the name didn´t reach local imperial ears.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
And I often wondered why they didn't even change the name of young "Skywalker" if they were trying to hide the boy.
If I remember it correctly, in the comics, unmasked Tusken Raiders looked very humanoid, but they had lots of markings on their faces (kind of like Maori tattoos).
I am a western fan and Kenobi was one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars movies (and Ewan McGregor's portrayal was one of the few saving graces of the prequel trilogy). I don't read many Star Wars books any more, but I think I will give this one a try.
Chris Nelly
10. Aeryl
@6, Owen is his stepbrother, not half-brother.
Ben T-Moore
11. BenTGaidin
I just recently finished reading this, and have to say that I highly enjoyed it, especially because while it was clearly part of the Extended Universe, I wasn't required to actually _know_ any of what was going on there. I could tell that there had probably been other books featuring Tuskens and Jedi, for example, but there was enough information to tell this story without feeling like I really had to go try and figure out what else to read to make sense of it all. I've been highly recommending it to my Star Wars friends because of this... and also just because it's a great book; as mentioned, it really does feel like Obi-Wan's voice, there's plenty of other little fun references, and it's an exciting self-contained story.
John Jackson Miller
12. 2nihon
Semi-related: I haven't read any of the Star Wars EU books that agree with the prequels, but how do they reconcile (IF they do at all) Ben's statement in the original trilogy that Yoda taught him everything and the prequel trilogy showing clearly that Qui-Gon was his former master? At some point, Qui-Gon would have had to fade into the ether (or whatever old Jedi masters do when they disappear forever) and transition to Yoda's training. Does this book address that?
Emily Asher-Perrin
13. EmilyAP
@6 - It is sort of addressed - the suggestion is that it is actually a very common name (or a name that sounds just like Kenobi is very common), so no one seems to notice...

@12 - Actually, that was addressed in books about tiny Obi-Wan: the point is that Yoda was Obi-Wan first master when he was a child, before Qui-Gon took him as a Padawan.

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