Book Reviews, Novels, YA

The forgotten sci-fi sibling of Goosebumps — Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear (1997 – 1998)

a series of 12 novellas

During the peak of the ’90s Goosebumps craze, LucasFilm contracted John Whitman, then an editor for HighBridge Audio, to tap into this rich market with a six-part series of Star Wars-themed horror novellas. Whitman’s work on adapting countless classic Star Wars stories into audio dramas, complete with John Williams’ scores, sound effects, and multiple actors, was counted as a boon for the YA market, where the audio-drama format would have contributed to framing quick, punchy stories full of action and suspense.

The result was Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear, a quirky combination of classic Star Wars tropes ‘n’ cameos, original characters that can best be described as Saturday Morning Cartoons,* and untethered gore. Six books turned into 12, and the series lasted with modest (but decreasing) success through 1998 when John Whitman and LucasFilm both decided to move on.

Unlike R.L. Stine’s series that inspired it, Galaxy of Fear meant to tell a continuing story about siblings Tash and Zak Arranda, 13- and 12-year-old survivors of planet Alderaan’s destruction in the original 1977 film, Star Wars: A New Hope. The siblings were left abandoned and homeless by their homeworld’s destruction, and, six months after the fact, are living with their uncle Hoole and his research assistant, a droid named DV-9 (or Deevee, for short). Given the unsettling background story for our leads, Galaxy of Fear was a series unafraid to tackle uncomfortable and mature themes: The deaths of loved ones, mistrust of parental figures, the malleability of our own memories, the worth of friends’ lives in relation to their actions, et cetera.

Hoole isn’t a typical parent figure: He’s an uncle only by marriage, and, most significantly, he’s not even human. Hoole is a shi’ido — a shape-shifting species capable of taking on the form of any living creature in the Star Wars universe, but whose normal appearance is as a tall, gaunt humanoid with grey skin. He’s also terrible with children; most of the Galaxy of Fear adventures start only because he leaves the Tash and Zak to fend for themselves, or even encourages them to go off on their own on dangerous planets. Deevee is no better, and his dreary personality has more in common with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Marvin than C-3PO or R2-D2.

The first six books in the series covered the Project Starscream story arc. Artist Steven Chorney provided the non-holographic cover art throughout the entire series.

The series was originally conceived as a six-part story about the Empire’s scientific experiments under a mad scientist named Borborygmus Gog. Each book would open and close with an unveil for the incoming experiment — piece of a greater puzzle designated ‘Project Starscream.’ It’s a fantastic idea — having an ongoing storyline of interconnected conspiracies, characters that are growing and evolving as the readers themselves do, always backed up by cool franchise cameos — but it’s also evident from the narrative’s failings that Whitman was not yet prepared for the exercise, and wouldn’t be until after Project Starscream’s tale was told.

With planets that devour life, Dr. Cornelius Evazan (of “You’ll be dead” fame) creating a zombie army, manufactured viruses that transform victims into self-replicating sludge, and genetically-modified beasts that control victims’ dreams (and, consequently, their lives), Project Starscream dips into a number of classic horror conventions to tell an arc of science-gone-wrong. Seeing the mystery unfold is absorbing for younger readers — and I was obsessed as a kid, living the series month-to-month. It wasn’t until books five and six that the puzzle pieces fell into place enough to understand what Project Starscream’s goals were, why Hoole, their only living family, was so untrustworthy, and just who exactly ForceFlow, an anonymous contact offering free information, could be. It was the YA version of tuning in weekly for Lost or Battlestar Galactica, hooked on the mystery of just what exactly is going on.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Whitman’s writing during the Project Starscream arc is scattered in quality. It wouldn’t be until the later independent adventures that Whitman’s sense of narrative structure was sharpened. These first six books, however fun and enthralling and gross and clever they could be, are hampered by no sense of editing: Important storylines are introduced and dropped without mention; the timeline within the Expanded Universe (EU) is incoherent, with characters (e.g., Vader) existing before they actually did; many characters — mostly the cameos from the major movies, like Yoda or Wedge Antilles — frequently act out of character; other characters play dumb or are blind to shockingly obvious plot points, or forget events immediately after they occurred.§

In the U.S., four of the novellas featured ‘limited edition’ holographic covers instead of Steven Chorney’s creepy artwork.

Whitman’s background as an editor for audio dramas also shows through in the earliest adventures, which often feel like story outlines or scripts rushing to tell a complete story in under 120 pages. In the first novella, Eaten Alive, an entire planet is the subject of the story, and yet there are only three defined settings: Their ship, a small strip of road in front of a rough saloon straight out of a western, and an underground lab immediately outside of town. The planet beyond the barriers of these small sets remains nebulously defined. Planet Plague, the third novella (and a good one!), was reportedly written in a hectic 48-hour period with no sleep and minimal editing, further suggesting that this series was being rushed out for the market.

Project Starscream, the great network of conspiracies spanning the galaxy, makes no sense once it’s unveiled. This is exemplified in the fifth (and worst) entry in a moment after the Empire’s mad scientist, Borborygmus Gog, has explained exactly where the good guys went wrong and what’s in store for them. Tash calmly takes this moment to reflect on Gog’s nefarious plans, and her response flatly encapsulates the narrative issues with the Project Starscream plot:

“This doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone go to all this trouble? There’s no reason to fool people with [this].”||

“It’s a children’s series” is an excuse that can only go so far, and I think if your own characters begin calling out the story for not making a lick of sense, the suspension of disbelief has been passed. Beyond this point, the audience — even a YA audience — is perhaps being insulted. Army of Terror, the sixth and final entry in the Project Starscream plot, even goes so far as to explain that the five experiments of the five previous books were unnecessary, as this final experiment inherently contains the previous five, and has since Project Starscream’s inception…which technically means the culminating experiment has been ongoing since before any of the others.

The final six installments were all standalone horror stories that took better advantage the Star Wars mythos’ many characters and worlds.

Project Starscream is put to rest, however, along with Borborygmus Gog. It’s only in the final six novellas that John Whitman leaves the formulaic mad scientist shtick behind in favor of exploring the existing Star Wars universe through more creative horrors. The degree of plotholes, misused movie cameos, ridiculously comic prologues, and the rough-draft feel quickly vanish, and Whitman’s style only continues to improve from one book to the next.

Starting with the Brain Spiders until the Hunger, Whitman gives far more focus to increasing the depth of siblings Tash and Zak Arranda as they stumble into adolescence. Tash, in particular, goes from an average 13-year-old girl to a confident Force-sensitive Jedi-in-training. She tackles with the lure of the Dark Side completely on her own, as well as the sense of jealousy Zak begins to feel as he’s left behind. This sort of complex characterization was far outside the comfort zone of YA series during the time, and I suspect Whitman’s background in martial arts# may have contributed some to the unapologetic dark places his heroes frequently go.

The use of cameos also improves. In addition to fighting off brain-stealing cults, swarms of carnivorous insects, a psychopathic artificial intelligence, a clone of Darth Vader, and cannibalistic crazies, Tash, Zak and Hoole find themselves fighting alongside or against the likes of Dash Rendar or Thrawn. These EU characters are used to much better effect than the earlier movie cast, as they don’t rely on the movies’ handful of catchphrases (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” — Han Solo, everyday).

Thrawn’s story in the Swarm is a highlight. While the Swarm features some of the most grotesque horror — giant insects that swarm and burrow into bodies looking for food: imagine crumpling over, heaving gore and insects out of your stomach as creatures the size of an adult fist chew through your insides — Thrawn stays true to character: Smart, tactical, and idealistic. He uses the heroes for his own gain, protecting them only so far as it doesn’t endanger himself or his men. He even points out flaws of the plot early on, which until then was an ignorant deconstruction of trophic cascades.

The degree of horror gets increasingly unsettling and mature as the characters do, as well, like when a crying clone of Tash — a 13-year-old girl, remember — is surrounded and beaten to death by clones of her own family. Spore includes not only a deliciously-dark cameo from Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II‘s (1997) Jerec, but an ancient parasitic alien straight out of John Carpenter’s the Thing (1982) or the X-Files‘ 1993 episode ‘Ice.’ ‘The Children’ of the final book are the creepiest: Their parents are long dead, and the children’s only positive memories of them are a final cannibalistic feast where the parents sacrificed themselves to feed their children. Due to this, the Children’s minds are warped into thinking people should desire to be eaten by those simply capable of eating them.

The storylines never start coming together into a cohesive plot until, ironically, the Project Starscream plot is dropped in favor for stand-alone stories. At this point, the Arranda family is constantly on the run from the Empire, and the build-up in tension is subtle rather than forced. Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear had its ups and downs, but I’m happy with it despite there being no conclusion. And even though the series only existed to cash-in on the success of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, I actually feel like John Whitman did more with the genre as an outsider than R.L. Stine ever could. His messages tended to deal with far more complex issues faced in adolescence, and the horror his characters saw was always more mature and creepy. I only wish the series survived a measly 12 books. At the very least, Galaxy of Fear needs to be reprinted under the Star Wars Legends banner.


John Whitman.

Author John Whitman started his career as a scriptwriter for the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? games, and as an editor for HighBridge Audio, where he edited many Star Wars-themed audio dramas (including Dark Empire, Empire’s End, and multiple Dark Forces stories) prior to writing the Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear series. His other work includes penning multiple YA movie novelizations and tie-in novellas for properties like Digimon24, and Zorro. Today, he’s primarily known as a leading instructor of Krav Maga, and founder of the Krav Maga Alliance.

* See, for example, this exchange of dialogue between Zak and DV-9 in the sixth book, Army of Terror, which, with its comic timing, would be more at home in a TV show or audio drama:

“Zak, the odds of finding a single bit of information in dozens of datadisks and selecting it as an entry code are well over six hundred fifty thousand to–“
“Got it,” Zak said.

Or, from the Brain Spiders:

“Besides, how often does a guy get to pummel his own snobby sister and come out looking like a hero?”

 Excepting perhaps Zak’s dorky facial expressions, Chorney’s artwork conveyed the series’ creepiness and horror really well.

Close your mouth, Zak.

 Admittedly a plot device that doesn’t hold up under the suspension of disbelief as an adult, making this a rough introduction to the series today. There’s just no way an animal the size of a planet could subsist off of the calories from a couple human-sized critters per day — critters who have to choose to land on the planet in the first place!

§ This is likely worst seen in the second novella, City of the Dead, where a boy’s death is uncovered as a brutal murder, which everyone immediately forgets as it’s later labeled a ‘dumb accident.’ The planet of Necropolis also has a native fruit that induces death-like comas: One body is found with this fruit’s juice around their mouth, and the body is buried by the following morning with absolutely no investigation into whether they might be dead or in a coma. (And finally, the coffin they’re buried in is riddled with airholes, which no one notices….)

|| Brace yourself: Borborygmus Gog has, over decades, created a false mythology surrounding a drifting, derelict space station (Nespis VIII — from the Dark Empire II limited comic series). These rumors involve a ‘lost’ Jedi library, containing thousands of years of Jedi knowledge — essentially advertised as the answers to life, the universe, and everything — that the Empire ‘forgot’ to destroy, with the added legend that only a real Jedi can enter the library without being cursed. The location of both a) this space station, and b) the library within the space station, are hidden from the outside galaxy, with only the most vague of rumors to point the direction towards the former. (The latter’s location is a complete mystery even if one does find the station.)

Gog’s also built a replica of the library behind fake walls within Nespis VIII, and populated it with fake books that put any potential reader in a coma. Gog lives on Nespis VIII permanently — contrary to the other five books, which have him at different locations simultaneously — in the hopes that one of the many treasure seekers to find the lost space station and library will be a real Jedi, with whom he’d be able to harness their innate Force power for Mad Science and galactic domination.

To again quote Tash Arranda, “This doesn’t make any sense.”

 In scenes right out of Inspector Gadget (and consistently at odds with the rest of the stories’ tones), the prologues always feature an evil, scarred scientist in a dark, Imperial cave, looking over a myriad of flashing computer screens, analyzing his latest failed experiments and the happy-go-lucky kids that accidentally — unknowingly — defeated him. But! — he always has a back-up plan! A new nefarious scheme that will show those meddling kids what-for, full of cliche lines and family-friendly curses. This time — this time! — those kids will rue the day they messed with Borborygmus Gog! *cough, hack* And, for that matter, so will his bosses in the Empire. So will everyone! The whole galaxy will bow down before his evil genius! Muahahahahaha!

# In an interview with Bombad Radio, Whitman stated that he found his interest in martial arts after facing rough situations as a young adult, including a near-death experience during a street mugging.

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