Guest Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

With Rebels, Episode VII, and the spinoff films on the horizon, we are bound to see an explosion in new books about Star Wars over the coming year. Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is the first in that opening salvo. Of course, given the numerous books about Star Wars already in print, one has to ask if this book could possibly contain anything new. We’ve gotten so many excellent books about the franchise, such as J.W. Rinzler’s Making of trilogy and Michael Kaminski’s Secret History of Star Wars. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anything left to be said.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Fortunately, Chris Taylor not only manages to put a fresh spin on an old story, but also takes readers on a memorable trip through the past, present, and future of Star Wars fandom. Taylor obviously realizes that most readers already know the basic story behind the making of the Original Trilogy. He does retell enough of the backstory for new fans to follow along, but by shifting the emphasis slightly Taylor manages to keep the book engaging for veteran fans. In particular, he focuses on situating Star Wars within American culture. He goes beyond simply citing the pop culture influences on the young George Lucas and actually tries to immerse the reader within the same cultural frame of mind. For example, although most fans already know that Lucas enjoyed Flash Gordon, I never actually understood the appeal of those cheesy serials until Taylor conveyed the excitement of seeing those fabulous costumes and archetypal heroes. I began to appreciate why Flash Gordon was so important to Lucas’ generation.

The book does work as a relatively short, one-stop primer on Star Wars as it covers everything from the making of the Original Trilogy to the recent sale to Disney. Taylor even manages to dig up a few fascinating details about the franchise that I hadn’t read elsewhere. For example, he presents new and convincing explanations for:

  • Who first revealed to the public that Darth Vader was Luke’s father;
  • Why Lucas insisted that the Special Editions were the one and only version of Star Wars;
  • Why many of Natalie Portman’s scenes were cut from Revenge of the Sith; and
  • What prevented the proposed live-action TV show Star Wars: Underworld from taking off.

Despite its title, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is not just about the making of the films, but also about those whose lives were remade by the films. I don’t know of any other book that takes such a comprehensive and in-depth look at fandom. Taylor explores various types of fandom, from casual fans who laugh at a Star Wars internet meme to those who have dedicated their lives to the Force. For example, he spends entire sections on the 501st Legion costuming outfit, fan reactions to the Prequels, and Steve Sansweet’s massive collection of memorabilia. Taylor is careful to treat fans respectfully, even when discussing the most bizarre fan behavior. At times, the book almost feels like a tribute to the fans who have become a part of the Star Wars legacy.

I enjoyed both the chapters about fandom and on the films themselves. However, at times the organization of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe didn’t quite work for me. The book is generally narrated chronologically, starting with early sci-fi influences on Lucas and ending around late 2013. However, at a few points, Taylor breaks out of this chronological sequence to try to make thematic links. For example, Taylor jumps from describing Lucas’ early ideas about the philosophy of the Force to the modern era in order to discuss a fan who offers Jedi fencing instructions. He draws thematic links between the two, but ultimately I couldn’t help feel that the modern segments distracted from the main narrative. Fortunately, after the first third of the book, the narrative becomes more cohesive and generally proceeds chronologically.

Ultimately, I found reading How Star Wars Conquered the Universe to be a cathartic look back on my own fandom. It helped me reflect critically on my relationship with Star Wars. Like many others, I remember seeing Star Wars for the first time; looking for action figures in the toy aisles; waiting on line for The Phantom Menace; reading about the sale to Disney; and mourning the cancellation of The Clone Wars. As much as I’ve enjoyed the roller coaster ride, I haven’t always liked the directions the franchise has taken. However, I’ve now come to accept that my fandom is simply a part of a much larger story. Star Wars is about more than the type of special effects, the continuity of the story, or even the merchandising. It’s about the experience of participating in a common mythology. Everybody has his or her own personal Star Wars experience; this is the first book I’ve read that tries to capture THE common Star Wars Experience.

[I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

Dom Nardi has been a Star Wars fan for 20 years. The first time he saw Star Wars: A New Hope, his father stopped the laserdisc midway because it was bedtime. He vows never to be so cruel if he has children. He also blogs about political themes in science fiction at the Poli-Sci Jedi