In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
I was recently browsing in my favorite used bookstore, and ran into a pristine copy of the trilogy of Lando Calrissian adventures written by L. Neil Smith back in 1983. I’ve always enjoyed Smith’s books, and while I can’t find my original copies, I remember this trilogy fondly. So I purchased the compilation in order to revisit these old favorites. Shortly after that, I heard the sad news that Smith had passed away on August 27, 2021. So this review will be not just a look at the first book in the trilogy, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, but a farewell to one of my favorite authors.
I have long been a fan of L. Neil Smith and his witty adventure stories of subversive characters in settings filled with anarchy, and Lando Calrissian, the clever gambler and conman, is a perfect character for an author with Smith’s sensibilities. But while the author and the character are a perfect fit, the corporate culture of Lucasfilm and the irreverent Smith were apparently not. A friend from the local science fiction club, when we were recently talking about Smith and his career, recounted that Smith spoke at a convention about feeling constrained by corporate requirements while writing the books. And from the other side, I can imagine the editor assigned to Smith no doubt had their hands full, as his books are brimming with odd, inventive ideas and sly and subversive humor. Reading the Lando adventures now, which have more than their share of creative ideas that stretched the bounds of canon, I wonder if they could have survived the vetting process for modern Star Wars books.
The Lando trilogy includes Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka. All are set during the period where young Lando still owned the Millennium Falcon, and before he attained a level of respectability as administrator of the mining colony on Bespin. When Lucasfilm narrowed the Star Wars canon to include only information presented in screen versions of the tales in order to make room for the newest sequel trilogy, the books were consigned to the Legends category and no longer considered part of the new canon.
In the movie Solo, however, there is a scene where, while the rest of the crew is stealing coaxium fuel, Lando is standing by as the getaway driver on the bridge of the Falcon. He is occupying himself by dictating his memoirs, “The Calrissian Chronicles, Chapter 5,” and according to a transcript I saw online, speaks about the Sharu and their temple. So, while they still exist under the Legends banner, fans of the Lando books and the adventures they contain were at least given this little hint that the stories did indeed occur within canon.
Being an enthusiastic Star Wars fan, I have reviewed Star Wars books before, including Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster and Han Solo at Star’s End by Brian Daley, and Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole. I have even reviewed Star Wars audio dramas, and the new Star Wars land at Disney World.
About the Author
L. Neil Smith (1946-2021) was an American science fiction writer who first appeared in print in 1980. I’ve reviewed his work in this column before, including The Probability Broach, his first novel, and the space pirate novel Henry Martyn. You can find more biographical information in both of those reviews. Just a few years after his first novel appeared, Smith was selected to write a trilogy of books about a new fan favorite character in the Star Wars movies, Lando Calrissian.
While Smith wrote a number of other novels, he is best known for his libertarian alternate history series about the North American Confederacy, books that included The Probability Broach, The Venus Belt, Their Majesties’ Bucketeers, The Nagasaki Vector, Tom Paine Maru, The Gallatin Divergence, Brightsuit MacBear, Taflak Lysandra, and The American Zone. While Smith’s books were full of political themes and ideology, he had a gift for wrapping those points in adventure, humor, and witty observations, so his writing was always entertaining.
Other than his work, I knew very little about the author before his death. But reading through the obituaries and testimonials online, it is clear he leaves behind many fans and friends who will miss him dearly. He was a loving husband and father, a musician, and a gunsmith. He was involved in libertarian politics and ran for office a few times without success. Smith helped the Libertarian Futurist Society establish the Prometheus Award, intended to celebrate the best libertarian science fiction novel of the year, and won the award three times himself. And in 2016, the society recognized Smith with a Special Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The Adventures of Lando Calrissian
I’ll never forget seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the theater. This was the rare sequel that didn’t simply and safely rehash the story of the original movie, but moved the narrative into new territory. One of the new elements that immediately caught my attention was the character of Lando Calrissian, a former gambler who had become the administrator of an atmospheric mining colony on the planet Bespin. The role was brilliantly played by Billy Dee Williams, whose casting brought not only some much-needed racial diversity to the original Star Wars films, but also a sense that the universe contained more than just frontier desert and swamp planets. Lando was classy, clever, and sophisticated. His Cloud City, with its elegant architecture and design, introduced a new aesthetic to the universe. Lando’s prior ownership of the Millennium Falcon and long, friendly rivalry with Han Solo gave additional depth to both characters. Williams stole every scene he appeared in and quickly became a fan favorite.
Lando appeared in a number of spin-off adventures, and in addition to this trilogy from the 1980s, appeared in other books and comics both as a lead and supporting character. Billy Dee Williams did not appear in the first two movies in the new sequel trilogy, but showed up in The Rise of Skywalker, and as always, Lando proved to be a pivotal and entertaining character. A new book, Star Wars: Shadow of the Sith, by Adam Christopher, has recently been announced; it will follow the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Lando referenced in the film.
I was also excited to see the talented actor Donald Glover portray a younger version of Lando in the Solo movie, which tells the story of how the characters originally met, an early adventure involving the theft of a valuable and volatile fuel. It also shows how Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando—and once again, Lando was one of the best parts of the movie. And now, Disney has announced a new Lando series that will appear on the Disney+ streaming service, although few details are available, and it is not clear if the series will involve Donald Glover, Billy Dee Williams, or perhaps both.
Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu
The book begins at a sabacc gaming table, with Lando doing his best to stay ahead. He has recently acquired the Millennium Falcon, and is now doing his best to win enough to keep the ship fueled. During the game, the players talk about treasure hunting, and in particular the mysterious Mindharp of a lost race called the Sharu who once inhabited the Rafa system. The Rafa system is now inhabited by a primitive race called the Toka, and is the source of mysterious and valuable mind-crystals. Lando wins a piloting droid from one of the players, and heads for Rafa to pick it up—a droid with piloting abilities will be very helpful, as Lando has very little skill in that department. Smith had a knack for creating exotic alien characters, and this droid is no exception: Vuffi Raa is a techno-organic creature that looks like a five-tentacled metallic starfish, who has been sent from outside the galaxy on a mission to gather information for his species. The existence of a powerful race of androids is just the kind of detail Smith was fond of weaving into his stories, but it’s also the kind of detail that can play havoc with continuity. Vuffi Raa and Lando initially get along like cats and dogs, although their relationship quickly improves.
Lando is arrested and taken to the corrupt governor of the Rafa System, Duttes Mer. A mysterious character appears in a cloud of smoke: Rokur Gepta, a Sorcerer of Tund (who becomes an antagonist to Lando throughout the rest of the three novels). The two men want to find the mysterious Mindharp, and extort Lando into searching for it. They provide him a key with strange physical properties that will help him access the Mindharp once he uncovers its location. An ancient Toka in a bar sees the key, refers to Lando and Vuffi Raa as the Bearer and Emissary, and offers to lead them to the ruins where the Mindharp is located. He identifies himself as Mohs, High Singer of the Toka.
Thus begins a quest filled with twists, turns, and mysteries. Lando will be attacked, tortured, and have his mind tested by all sorts of strange events. Vuffi Raa turns out to be programmed to betray Lando, but once this programming imperative is satisfied, turns out to be a loyal and helpful companion. The ruined temple where the Mindharp is located is a place where either the laws of physics or the minds of the visitors are twisted like pretzels. Lando has his hands full, but eventually lands on his feet with a valuable cargo, solving some of the mysteries of the peculiar Rafa system and its inhabitants along the way.
The book is a lot of fun, harkening back to the earliest days of science fiction—it is pulpy, evocative, and entertaining. And it effectively captures the space opera feel of the Star Wars universe while staying out of the best-known parts of the Star Wars galaxy, which gives Smith enough creative freedom and latitude to devise some wild adventures.
Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu is a light-hearted and entertaining read. Smith has a good feel for Lando’s personality, and the book fits quite well with the portrayal of the character in the movies and other media. Moreover, Vuffi Raa is a fascinating sidekick, and an entertaining foil for the protagonist. While the book is no longer part of Star Wars canon, it doesn’t directly contradict the currently approved canon, and is still worth reading. Whether you’re a regular reader of media tie-in fiction or are relatively new to it, L. Neil Smith did a good job with this story, bringing the inventiveness and wit of his original works to the Star Wars universe.
I was saddened to hear the news about Smith’s death, and am one of many who will miss his distinctive work. If you haven’t encountered his books yet, I would highly recommend seeking them out. Now I’d like to hear your feedback: If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Any thoughts about Lando and the Star Wars universe would also be welcome. And if you’re a fan of L. Neil Smith’s other work, please chime in.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.