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Books

January 14, 2010

Mapping the Galaxy of Far, Far Away

Author Jason Fry discusses the challenge of putting the Star Wars universe into an authoritative atlas.

Michael Gluckstadt

To the uninitiated, the vastness of the Star Wars galaxy is difficult to comprehend. Sure, everyone's seen the original trilogy, and is at least aware of the Phantom Menace, but only the diehards know the full depth of Star Wars lore. There have been hundreds of spin-off novels and comics, a current animated television series, and even an ill-conceived Christmas special. And that's just part of the material that Lucasfilm considers part of the official Star Wars canon.

Authors Jason Fry (left) and Dan Wallace depicted as hyperspace scouts. Image illustrated by Chris Trevas.
"We felt very strongly that the Atlas wouldn't work if its appeal was limited to hardcore fans."

Authors Jason Fry (left) and Dan Wallace depicted as hyperspace scouts. Image illustrated by Chris Trevas.

With all of that material, the geography of the Star Wars universe was something of a mess. Jason Fry and co-author Dan Wallace sought to map it out. Started in 2006, the Star Wars Atlas project would consume the attention of the two authors and four illustrators until its publication this past August. Now, Star Wars: The Essential Atlas is the authoritative guide to the galaxy.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, Jason Fry tells Gelf about resolving contradictions within the Star Wars texts, finding an illustrator on the other side of the world, and when he first got hooked on Star Wars.

Gelf Magazine: The Star Wars Atlas is astonishingly detailed, with maps and tables for dozens of planets. Where does all of this information come from?

Jason Fry: The book builds on all the lore created for the Star Wars universe over the last 30-plus years. Which means not just the six movies and their screenplays and novelizations, but also hundreds of spin-off novels, comics, a huge number of books created for a role-playing game set in the Star Wars galaxy, videogames and TV projects, with the weekly Clone Wars show the latest source of such information. All in all, there are some 4,500 star systems that have been created, from important places visited in the movies and seen in many other adventures since then to hopelessly obscure planets mentioned once in, say, a choose-your-own-adventure book only released in the U.K.

Gelf Magazine: Is the book considered canonical?

Jason Fry: Yes, the book is considered canonical. Dan Wallace and I ran everything we wrote past Lucasfilm, who were great about answering our nitpicky questions and helping us hunt down obscure sources, spellings of worlds heard in a cartoon for which no written screenplay could be found, and other such things.

Gelf Magazine: How did you go about researching the material?

Jason Fry: Between our various Star Wars books, both Dan Wallace and I already had a pretty good working knowledge of the Star Wars galaxy—Dan wrote The New Essential Chronology, which covers the Star Wars galaxy's history, and both of us have always been obsessed with geography, so we didn't need to come up to speed on things like galactic regions and trade routes and exploration.
That said, a couple of things did take an enormous amount of doing. The first task was synthesizing all this information into a coherent whole that was simultaneously an overview of the physical galaxy and the society that had developed within that galaxy, and to retell the history from a geographic perspective without just rehashing New Essential Chronology. We both worked really hard to make sure the Atlas would be an entertaining read in its own right, and not just a resource for hardcore geography geeks like us.
The second huge task was fleshing out the galaxy with systems and bits of information: Probably about half the star systems invented for Star Wars needed to be assigned to some place in the galaxy for the Atlas. We went about doing that in one of two ways. Sometimes we'd have a star system and we'd want it to go in Location X, so we'd comb through all the references to that star system in Star Wars products and figure out whether or not it could go in Location X. Which really means you have to take into account any other geographic clues related to that system—sometimes trying to place one planet would lead you down this rabbit hole of connections, and you'd just pray that the chain would end without running into some kind of impossibility. Other times we'd have a dot on the map and want it to have a certain characteristic—a mining world, say, or a planet raided by slavers. In that case, we'd go through all our unassigned star systems and find the possible fits, then research each of them and cross off the ones that wouldn't work—which would leave you with a few possible candidates, or one, or sometimes none. Either way, each night's work on the Atlas would finish with a huge teetering pile of books on the floor. Do that process thousands of times and you've got an Atlas.

Gelf Magazine: Were there many contradictions in the source material?

Jason Fry: Most Star Wars material was written without reference to a map. So while Star Wars continuity is really good overall, inevitably there are contradictions, and situations where we had to pick and choose what's "correct." That wouldn't happen with a real-world atlas: You might start off not knowing where Philadelphia is, and you might have to figure that out by discovering that one reference says it's 94 miles from New York City and another reference says it's on the Schuylkill River, but you're not going to get one reference that says it's on the Schuylkill and another that says it's on the Hudson. In a fictional universe that kind of contradiction is entirely possible.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that having a definitive Star Wars Atlas will give future authors a framework to work within, or will they continue to map out the galaxy as their imaginations, or plots, dictate?

Jason Fry: I hope the framework will be useful, both in suggesting stories and in making some of the heavy lifting easier so that other authors can focus on storytelling. I'm sure there will be more contradictions—it's an awfully big galaxy—but that's OK. It happens, and either Dan or I or whoever takes up the geography baton will figure out ways to make it all work. Certainly Dan and I would hate for any author to have his or her imagination or good story derailed by something we put in the Atlas. I hope we didn't do that anywhere.

Gelf Magazine: Did everything come from an existing source, or did you fill in some of the blanks on your own?

Jason Fry: The bulk of the book is from existing sources, but we did fill in a lot of blanks. For instance, there wasn't a lot of detail about how the galaxy had been explored, and there was a lot of contradictory information about how the galaxy was governed. Those were places we did a lot of work. We also had some blanks to fill in within the movies—does Boba Fett follow the Millennium Falcon all the way to Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance? And we had a lot of fun adding little stories or details of our own. Dan invented a list of Wonders of the Galaxy which is really great. I wrote a synopsis, complete with song titles and characters, for an opera.
The biggest thing I've learned about creating material for a fictional universe is to leave other authors plenty of leeway to tell their own stories, instead of locking them into something you made. The more opportunities for storytelling and the more pathways people's imaginations can go down, the better.

Gelf Magazine: The artwork in the Atlas is pretty astounding. How much did you collaborate with the illustrators?

Jason Fry: Quite a bit. We were very lucky to have such great artists in Chris Trevas, Chris Reiff, Modi and Ian Fullwood.
As our chief mapmaker, Modi was a particularly interesting story. We found him online, because he'd made this awesome site full of very accurate galaxy maps. Early on, we asked him if we could use his basic map as a template for our draft maps, and he very graciously agreed. Our working relationship grew from there.
We knew Modi was a great artist, but by passing emails back and forth we soon came to realize he also knew as much about this fictional galaxy as we did. After about the 500th mistake he rescued us from, Dan and I decided he had to be an official part of the team—which was when Modi told us somewhat sheepishly that he was a teenager from Hungary. Seriously. There were times he had to stop working because he had finals. We kind of gulped, but decided since he was clearly the best guy for the job, what did it matter how old he was? To their credit, Lucasfilm and Del Rey felt the same way, and on we went.
I've never met Modi and in fact I don't know his real name, but we've collaborated on a book. Only on the internet could something like that happen.
Oh, and Chris Trevas was kind enough to not only supply gorgeous illustrations throughout the book, but he used me and Dan as models for two hyperspace scouts. So I guess we're part of continuity ourselves now. When do we get to be action figures?

Gelf Magazine: Who did you see yourself writing the book for?

Jason Fry: We felt very strongly that the Atlas wouldn't work if its appeal was limited to hardcore fans. We wanted more-casual fans to be able to pick it up in a bookstore, leaf through it and find things they knew. So we made sure all the movie planets got write-ups (except for Polis Massa from Revenge of the Sith, which we somehow forgot), and we did walkthroughs and big maps for each of the movies, with plenty of movie photos. The Atlas could have been terrifying for the uninitiated, but I think it wound up being pretty accessible. At least I hope so!


Kayshyyk

A map from of Chewbacca's home planet from Star Wars: The Essential Atlas.


Gelf Magazine: Now that the Star Wars universe has been mapped out, will the Atlas be updated when new material is created, like the current Clone Wars animated series?

Jason Fry: We were all too aware that the Star Wars universe wasn't going to hold still for us, and so we worked with Lucasfilm to ensure the Atlas could be a living document of sorts. There's an online companion for the book, where we've posted updated versions of the appendix and added new maps. And we'll keep doing that. We've come this far, after all.

Gelf Magazine: Is the online companion intended only for additional materials, or is it also a place for hardcore fans to point out any mistakes you may have made?

Jason Fry: The online companion is primarily for new stuff, but the appendix updates are a great way to correct slips and oversights on the fly—we've already addressed some that way. We also put our email address—it's essential.atlas@gmail.com—in the book and have welcomed folks' comments, questions, and criticisms. Plus we're pretty active on the various Star Wars discussion sites. I think that's the web guy in me—iI love books, but it's frustrating that they're fixed and unalterable. So my inclination from the very beginning was to "webify" our book somehow.

Gelf Magazine: Why does Star Wars have the unique appeal that could command a fictional atlas? Are there any other franchises with a lore and fanbase that could support such a product?

Jason Fry: I remember poring over Karen Wynn Fonstad's The Atlas of Middle-Earth (Revised Edition) as a kid, and that book was certainly an inspiration for our work. Though so was Colin McEvedy's series of decidedly real-world historical atlases for Penguin—I read McEvedy as a teenager and was fascinated by the ebb and flow of names and borders and the arrows that meant military campaigns or migrations. Granted, both of those authors had an advantage over us in that their maps had continents and mountain ranges and rivers and oceans as raw material. A map of a galaxy is a harder to make compelling—it's basically dots connected by lines.
Star Wars is far from unique in being a fictional universe people like to explore. Lots of folks seem to respond to maps of imaginary places—depending on your temperament, a good map can let you get happily lost in a fictional world, make it seem more real, or both. So I'm sure many more franchises will be mapped. (Pandora's got to be ready for its closeup by now.) I hope whoever tackles those atlases has as much fun as Dan and I did mapping George Lucas's galaxy far, far away.

Gelf Magazine: As someone who keeps a watchful eye on developments in the press, how do you feel about the glaring absence of journalists in the Star Wars galaxy?

Jason Fry: Actually, there are a few journalists in Star Wars. The little girl from the two Ewok movies grows up to be a journo, for instance. Maybe somebody can win a really geeky bar bet with that one.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Palpatine would have been able to consolidate power in the Senate in the presence of a vibrant free press?

Jason Fry: Yes. Liberty died to thunderous applause, remember. One of the better lines in the movie.

Gelf Magazine: When did your Star Wars fandom go from casual to where it's at now?

Jason Fry: May 1977. I'd just turned eight. Princess Leia's ship went zooming across the movie screen, and the nose of this ship appeared chasing it, and then there was more ship and more ship and more ship and more ship … I was gone from that moment.

Gelf Magazine: There is something of a religious rigor attached to some Star Wars fandom. How do you think future generations will look at Star Wars?

Jason Fry: Well, every generation gets new Star Wars chapters to take to heart. There are young adults now whose Star Wars movie experience was the prequels, and those movies are first in their hearts, the same way my generation will always identify with the "classic" trilogy. My son is seven and he loves the Clone Wars TV series—in part because it's "his" Star Wars. The fact that the stories are new puts him on an equal footing with everyone else.
As for religious rigor, c'mon man. Star Wars is just fun. You're thinking of baseball.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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