Tales of the Bounty Hunters presents, of course, the background stories about each of the small group of bounty hunters glimpsed aboard the bridge of Darth Vader's star destroyer Executor, right after the Rebels escaped from Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back." The armor-covered Boba Fett was the only one of these bounty hunters to play any kind of significant role in that film, and its sequel. The other bounty hunters were never seen again on film, but were immortalized as action figures.
This volume provides rich and interesting stories about characters who originated as little more than window dressing. The downside is that some people might not be particularly interested in stories about the reptilian Bossk or the cyborg Dengar or the others, because they've never heard of them. But the nice thing is there fictional possibilities were quite open, and Anderson recruited excellent writers to tell what are essentially very original tales which just happen to be told against a familiar backdrop.
Think of this as historical fiction set in a fictional history: some of the events are familiar, such as the destruction of the Death Star, the raid on Hoth, and the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba's palace. But the characters featured in these stories are for the most part original and the tales are completely fresh and new. The authors were not hampered by trying to squeeze a screenplay or finished film into the very different constraints of a short story.
As is typically the case with authors allowed to write in the lucrative and tightly controlled Star Wars universe, these writers are not no-name schlockmeisters. All of them are experienced, award winning authors, most of whom have been nominated for Nebula and Hugo awards. M. Shayne Bell is even the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts grant (though I don't expect PBS will be making the TV version of his bounty hunter tale any time soon). Dave Wolverton is the author of such critically acclaimed novels as On My Way to Paradise; Path of the Hero and Serpent Catch, as well as such best-sellers as The Courtship of Princess Leia and A Very Strange Trip. Kathy Tyers is the author of many novels popular in Evangelical Christian circles, such as Firebird, as well as the popular Star Wars novel The Truce at Bakura.
Obviously most readers of Tales of the Bounty Hunters will pick it out because of its Star Wars connections. But as one familiar with the work of Bell, Tyers and Wolverton (and, to a lesser extent, Anderson and Moran), this reviewer found it especially interesting to see how each author's style, background and thematic interests were evident even when they wrote within the confines of a semi-linked anthology set in somebody else's well-established fictional universe.
For example, in Tyers' story, the Trandoshan bounty hunter Bossk's essentially "evil" and "false" hunting- and scorekeeping-based religion is contrasted with the true and good religion of the Force. This good faith vs. bad faith theme can be found in other Tyers fiction, such as Firebird. Anderson's tale of IG-88 is the funniest story in the bunch, and the one most tightly intertwined with Star Wars history and trivia. Dengar, as portrayed by Dave Wolverton, is a fully realized character, yet also becomes a means of exploring what it means to be human. Dengar's path as a character is unique, but in it one can sense echoes of some other Wolverton protagonists, such as from Path of the Hero. Cybernetics are prominent in this tale, as in On My Way to Paradise. The ending to Dengar's tale is one which authors such as William Gibson or Harlan Ellison could never have written. But Wolverton, with his deep understanding of and appreciation for the type of communities Gibson and Williams have never even experienced, makes the story's surprising plot developments between Dengar, Boba Fett and the beautiful Aruzan dancer completely believable.
Each of the five stories is described in more detail below.
The opening story in the anthology is written by Anderson himself, the book's editor and author of many other Star Wars stories and novels. The story opens with IG-88's initialization and surprising instant sentience as his neural nets form pathways in ways unanticipated by his creators. Unfortunately, the Empire-hired creators of this lethal assassin droid didn't build Asimov's basic Three Laws of Robotics into their creation. Once they realize that IG-88 was self-aware, they tried to shut it down. But once IG-88 realizes that his creators want to shut him down, his burgeoning mechanical philosophy tells him he should do anything necessary to survive, so he kills everyone in the lab.
IG-88's story displays a wry, dark humor appropriate for a tale about a robot whose great desire is to destroy all "biologicals" in the galaxy, but until he can do so takes great pleasure in killing people individually. The story kept me interested and frequently surprised, although the ending was a bit predictable once the final leg of IG-88's plans were initiated. This is to be expected, because we've all seen the Star Wars trilogy, and this story was tied closely to it. In fact, the reader's understanding of the ending actually depends on them having seen "Return of the Jedi." This is an unusual choice for the author to make, but it works here. It's no more inappropriate than expecting a reader to have familiarity with a common Bible story or the assassination of John F. Kennedy in order to fully understand a story. Star Wars, after all, is one of the foundations of post-modern mythology and culture.
One could complain that IG-88 displayed little character growth, but that's sort of the point. As a droid, IG-88 basically fulfilled his programming. His plans progressed and his capacities increased, but he never swerved from his goals, his initial faulty programming of survival through annihilation and domination. In this way he was really very much less than human, despite the fact he was a nearly unstoppable killing machine well on his way to conquering the galaxy. Told from the droid's perspective, the story never seems philosophical, and is certainly not preachy. In fact, I wondered if Anderson himself is a souless machine to write something like this. But in retrospect, it seems rather sublime.
With the bounty hunter "Dengar," author Dave Wolverton may have been given the least material to work with, but he made gold out of lead with this story. Dengar is the bandaged, deformed-looking human glimpsed on the bridge of Vader's Star Destroyer Executor in "The Empire Strikes Back." He was an action figure, but perhaps never anything more. Based on appearances, he might seem something of a loser: battlescarred, unattractive, and without the creative avenues possible with the other bounty hunters who are aliens, robots, or at least semi-important characters in the films (Boba Fett).
But Wolverton brings Dengar to life in a touching, unpredictable and original story. Given Wolverton's reputation for creating interesting, literary, meaningful science fiction it shouldn't be surprising that he didn't disappoint, even with a mere "media tie-in" short story about an unpopular character.
Dengar is a surprisingly interesting character whose depths are expertly explored by Wolverton. He is from the same planet as Han Solo, and was in fact injured during a dangerous hovercar race against Solo. Near dead, Dengar was operated on by Imperial surgeons and given cybernetic parts which enhance his strength, speed, and general lethality. The same surgeons altered his brain to remove most emotional capacity, and make him an Imperial assassin. Obviously the cyborg premise isn't original; well known parallels include the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop, etc. But Dengar's story and character are very original.
Some of these events are relayed through flashbacks. "Payback" actually opens in the jungles of Aruza, where the already cybernetic Dengar has been hired by the peaceful Aruzans to assassinate the evil foreign governor appointed by the Empire to subjugate the planet. While performing this particular "legally sanctioned" termination, Dengar picks up Manaroo, a young Aruzan who happens to be a phenomenally talented dancer. Manaroo's natural empathy contasts with Dengar's almost complete inabilty to feel emotion. The relationship between Manaroo and Dengar becomes an interesting romance with frequent unexpected developments.
Aside from his desire to recover his lost emotional capabilities, Dengar's other goal in life is to exact revenge upon Han Solo, whom he blames for causing his injuries in the first place. So Darth Vader's call for bounty hunters to hunt Solo is particularly appealing to Dengar. He has many encounters with a rival for the bounty, the famed Boba Fett. The interaction between Fett and Dengar, alternatively thwarting and then assisting each other, is yet another interesting aspect of this story.
The ending is surprising and has developments which few authors would have attempted, but Wolverton pulls it off in a way that seems completely natural and satisfying. "Payback" would be a strong science fiction story on its own, with or without its tie to "Star Wars." This is a mature, emotionally gripping piece of fiction.
Star Wars fans know Tyers as the author of Star Wars: Truce at Bakura, which takes place immediately after the events depicted in "Return of the Jedi." Other readers may be familiar with Tyers' impressive Christian science fiction, such as Firebird. "The Prize Pelt: The Tale of Bossk" will likely appeal to many readers, but certain problems prevent it from being as good as the book's other four stories.
The biggest difference between Bossk's story and the others is that Tyer never makes Bossk's point of view entirely believable or sympathetic. He's simply a BAD GUY, while the other four bounty hunters are more fully rounded characters, with interesting, even redeeming qualities. Even IG-88, who was bent entirely on destroying all life, was more "likeable" because his motivations and background were understandable. Bossk is Trandoshan, a member of a reptilian species whose central religious beliefs glorify the hunt. But in Tyers' hands, Bossk's culture simply seems bad, even when described from his own perspective. Certainly other races, such as wookies, who are hunted by Trandoshans, would be expected to view them as evil, but even from Bossk's point of view there is no glimpse of nobility or even rationalization explaining the superiority of their way of life. Given the well-developed background of the other characters in the book, even of the wookie secondary character in Bossk's tale, I never found Bossk fully believable: He seemed to be a character who was bad because his religion/culture was bad, and that background was bad simply because the author portrayed it as bad.
Tyers certainly doesn't have to accept Bossk's culture as equally valid to her own (or to the righteous believers in the Force, or to wookies). Trandoshan religion emphasizes earning merit from God for "good works." Tyers consciously created a fictional culture whose philosophy is different from her own. There's nothing wrong with that -- it's a common technique in science fiction and fantasy. But the tale of Bossk didn't work as well as the other stories because Tyers clearly didn't respect its central character. That attitude was all too evident, and made Bossk less believable and less interesting to the reader.
Perhaps recognizing the weaknesses inherent in such a character, Tyers actually introduces a pair of other bounty hunters who more prominent in the story than Bossk: a human female ("Tinian") and her wookie mentor ("Chen"). They are each from a good religion/culture, and they themselves are each good. Bossk teams up with them in his hunt for Chewbacca, while intending all along to double-cross them. Of course, they know what Bossk will try to do (because, after all, Trandoshans are bad and Bossk is bad), so they scheme to double-cross him instead. The resulting story has by far the most complex plot in the anthology, full of surprises as the good and bad bounty hunters supposedly work towards one goal, all the while scheming against each other. Some readers may enjoy the complex intrigue, while some may find it convoluted. But Tyers' writing is fairly clear and only in a few spots was the plot difficult to follow.
Unfortunately, some annoying plot points mar the mar the story. For one, the plans of the good bounty hunters hinge in large part on the abilities of "Flirt," a thumb-sized robot called upon to infiltrate Bossk's ship's computer. Flirt starts her work near the beginning of the story, and continually reports on her difficulties encountered in gaining control over Bossk's ship's computer. But once she gains control, the tables turn completely and Bossk is quickly subdued by his own ship, under the control of his enemies. The plot device isn't quite a deus ex machina, because Flirt is introduced at the beginning. But the reader soon realizes that Flirt won't control the ship until the end of the story, when the good guys are in dire straits, and then, yea!, everything turns out okay as Flirt gains control Just In Time. This crucial plot element is surprisingly weak given the generally interesting and compelling plotting characteristic of the rest of the story.
A less critical flaw, but something was still annoying, was the way that Bossk's bounty hunter ship, which seemed no bigger than Boba Fett's Slave-1, somehow manages to have room for about 200 wookies at the end of the story. There's on reason a ship couldn't really be that big, but it certainly didn't seem that big during the first 95% of the story.
"The Prize Pelt" has much to commend it. It is a well-told, interesting story. Even the characterization is generally well done, except for Bossk himself. As the story's intended central character, Bossk deserved a writer who respected him, even if she didn't agree with him.
"Of Possible Futures" is about two bounty hunters: the injured Zuckuss and his self-aware droid companion 4-LOM. Perhaps more so than the other stories in the anthology, this story has a very clear thematic focus: intuition. This story is almost as totally focused on the subject of intuition as Raymond F. Jones' classic treatment of the subject, "The Non-Statistical Man." Although "Of Possible Futures" does have the additional elements of the Star Wars background, and the hunt for Han Solo, the heart of the story is 4-LOM's quest for the secret of intuition, as possessed by his alien companion Zuckuss.
Zuckuss' race (the Gand) developed powerful intuitive abilities on the gaseous, fog-covered planet where they developed. These abilities were used to hunt when sight and other senses were insufficient. As technology came to their planet, scanners and modern equipment became available, and the intuitive abilities declined in most, except for some individuals, such as Zuckuss, who became bounty hunters and used their intuition to locate individuals beyond the reach of any scanners.
Intuition, as described in the book, could be described as knowledge gained from a powerful connection to the universe. But such a description is simplistic and doesn't do justice to the impressive way the subject was explored in the story. The story describes in detail 4-LOM's observations of Zuckuss' intuition, and his own attempts to develop the skill, despite the fact that he is a robot. The story presents very interesting ideas regarding intuition, how it is related to and distinct from the Force, and its advantages, disadvantages, and limitations.
4-LOM, like IG-88, is a sentient droid, but their life stories contrast starkly, and are interesting to compare. 4-LOM began his existence as a servant droid rather than an assassin droid, and although he became a thief and a bounty hunter, his primary goal was to improve himself and expand his capabilities. IG-88, on the other hand, remained focused on a goal of destruction. Both are very interesting, but 4-LOM is ultimately more "human," while IG-88's story is so interesting precisely because he remains so non-human.
Much of the plot is about the involvement of Zuckuss and 4-LOM with a crew of Rebel troops abandoned during the escape from Hoth. Many readers will particularly like this story's additional background about these events from "The Empire Strikes Back." The Rebel officer who finds herself suddenly with senority and in command of the situation is herself a remarkable, complex and interesting character.
"Of Possible Futures" is a powerful, contemplative addition to the anthology. It has less action and intrigue than the other tales, but it features strong character development, a compelling relationship between Zuckuss and 4-LOM and many unusual, thought-provoking ideas.
Daniel Keys Moran may seem to have gotten the best assignment: the tale of Boba Fett, an immensely popular character among the fans, instantly recognizable, featured in two films already, and slated to appear in the prequels, too. Fett is the only bounty hunter who actually is seen in the Star Wars films other than in the brief scene on Vader's ship. He's also been a character in other media, such as the Star Wars comic. But all of this can add up to a somewhat daunting task, as well. The other authors had more freedom to write their stories because their characters were essentially blank slates. But Fett has to be in certain places at certain times, because he was seen there in the movies.
This story doesn't stand alone (apart from the Star Wars mythos) as well as some of the others do, but Moran has used Fett's onscreen presence adventageously. There's no attempt to re-tell the Fett scenes seen in the Star Wars films. These are described elsewhere, including in the film novelizations. Much of that Boba Fett material is also in this very book, in fact, in other stories. This is because all of the other bounty hunters encountered Fett during their competition to find Han Solo, and certain events are retold from their perspective.
In a fascinating way, different from the other tales in the anthology, Boba Fett's story jumps from early in his life, to a middle period during the Star Wars films, to some fifteen years by which time he is aging and nearing the end of his career. The different, essentially unconnected events in this story are tied together through his intense dislike of Han Solo and the steadiness of his character against the galaxy's immense changes as it moves from Empire to New Republic rule. The individual scenes are action-oriented and fascinating, but the story as a whole works well as a character study with some well-developed themes.
One of the most interesting and surprising aspects of Boba Fett's tale was how completely he is the hero, the good guy of his story, and how Han Solo is one of the "bad guys." Seeing things through his eyes, we realize Fett is not at all evil. In fact, he's an intensely principled character. He never violates his principles and beliefs for personal gain or selfish reasons. Not only does he completely eschew alcohol, drugs, etc., he is a gentleman as well. When working in Jabba's palace, the Hut delivers the captive Princess Leia Organa to Fett's bedroom as a gift. Fett can't send Leia back because to do so would insult Jabba and endanger both of them. But Fett assures Leia that she has nothing to fear from him. The conversation between them is a high point of the story. Not only does Fett give Leia the bed and sleep on the floor in his armor, he explains to the stunned (and relieved) princess that sex outside of marriage is immoral. As a bounty hunter Fett is not evil or a criminal. In capturing Han Solo, Fett explains to Leia, he is working for the duly appointed governmental authorities in order to maintain a civil society.
As the "Star Wars" films were told entirely from the perspective of the Rebels, we tend to forget that they were rebels; they were outlaws and criminals. Fett dislikes Han Solo not simply because Solo has escaped from him, but because Solo has been a criminal, a smuggler, an underhanded and socially irresponsible person in many ways. Fett is apparently unaware of how evil the Emperor and Darth Vader are, and unaware of or unimpressed by the changes that Solo has made in becoming a more selfless person. Appropriately enough, Han Solo is also a major figure in this story. This story is largely about the very different paths and perspectives of Han Solo and Boba Fett, who are both flawed "good guys" from their own vantage points.
Obviously there is popular appeal to Tales of the Bounty Hunters, and, to be honest, the stories don't necessarily break any revolutionary new ground in terms of their concepts. This isn't landmark sf the likes of Starship Troopers or Ringworld. But this is extremely competent and worthwhile sf which won't disappoint a reader already interested in the book's premise or who follows any of these particular writers. The stories are fun and interesting on their own merits and also because they provide alternate views of the very familiar Star Wars storylines (similar to how Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow is parallel to Ender's Game). These tales are also surprisingly thoughtful, and, in the hands of some very character-oriented writers, the bounty hunters themselves are very human, and in some cases very alien as well.