What We Want and What We Need From a Good Tie-in Novel
Revisiting my nerd-fiction collection, I realize how much I needed pure lore when I was a kid, and how little I need it as an adult.
image by author, to his shame or pride
I spent part of this weekend revisiting my collection of old BattleTech novels, which squeeze in on a shelf alongside my old (no longer canon) Star Wars novels and a couple Halo novels I collected somewhere along the way. When I was younger, I knew these books almost backwards and forwards, and prized the insight they gave me into the MechWarrior games I loved so much. I studied the campaigns of Victor Steiner-Davion as closely as I studied real history, and felt like there was no one in the world I understood as well as Phelan Kell, the hotheaded mercenary prince who rose from being a prisoner to becoming one of the rulers of the greatest of the Clans.
But after talking a bit about them last week on stream with Austin, I was curious about how well they held up and whether they were as problematic as I now suspected. I was crushed, though not surprised, to discover that, for the most part, they don’t hold up. Characters speak in preposterously long paragraphs, heaping expository backstory on one another until almost every exchange resembles a wiki entry. If the national stereotyping isn’t quite as bad as I feared in these novels, it’s only because their reliance on stock character types overwhelms the their impulse to cast characters as treacherous Chinese courtiers, oafish German merchants, and noble, tragic samurai.
I suspect, however, that what makes the novels less enjoyable now is what made them so special to me when I was growing up. They are books whose action unfolds according to the rules of the board games that inspired them. The fights are almost blow-for-blow recountings of weapon exchanges and dice rolls. They explain in detail the legendary histories of individual characters and military units, with little nods here-and-there to the smaller outfits that pop-up in BattleTech lore—outfits like Team Banzai, a group of science and engineering nerds who travel the stars as a mercenary mech unit, and then take breaks to be visiting professors and surgeons at prestigious universities.
What these books understood, I think, is that there is often a part of a young fan who desperately wants to have that moment in Galaxy Quest when Tim Allen’s Shatner-esque character calls a superfan desperately needing his knowledge of the lore and blurts, “It’s all real!” A lot of tie-in fiction’s main purpose is to transform the games and movies we love into real, detailed places that our imagination can escape to.
But of course, as time goes by what you need for something to feel “real” is less reams of backstory and worldbuilding and more relatable details about the people who inhabit that world. For the most part, I’m not sure most of my old BattleTech books ever pull that off. They are always fantasies of militaristic wish-fulfillment, where wise rulers and brave leaders triumph at gunpoint over the forces of treachery and oppression, using the same weapons and tools you remember from the games.
It’s little wonder, then, that the fictional tie-in that I find myself thinking about more and more favorably is Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron Star Wars books, which are less military fiction swashbucklers than they are books about people grappling with depression, trauma, guilt, and loss. When I first read them I wanted them to be more like those BattleTech books, or like TIE Fighter, full of detailed combat sequences that both flattered and expanded my knowledge of their fictional universe. Now, I’m grateful someone wrote a series of licensed adventures that gave my teenage self an inkling of the struggles to come with time, and models and a vocabulary to help deal with them.
What are some of your favorite pieces of genre and tie-in fiction from when you were a kid? What parts hold up, and what parts don’t?