Lit Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

Discussion in 'Literature' started by CooperTFN, Sep 2, 2012.

  1. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    This won't be new information for many of you, but now that the new forums are up, I thought the launching of Diversity 2.0, so to speak, would be a good opportunity to sum up the conversation thus far, in particular all of the great statistical work done on the temp boards.

    The foundation of this essay, and the ensuing discussion, is the belief that the Star Wars Expanded Universe has a responsibility to present a diverse galaxy of characters, and that with some notable exceptions, this responsibility has been largely neglected.

    Following from that are a few more precise assertions:
    • There are too many white human men. While passionate and fair arguments can be made for any number of specific "minority" groups being given a larger role--aliens, people of color, women, LGBTQ, the disabled, and so on--the one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that more white human men (hereafter referred to as WHMs), of standard body type and orientation in particular, are helpful to no one, and only by making their long-held "default" status painfully obvious can anyone else hope for a fair shake.
    • Ignorance is bias. Which is to say, when presented with a divisive issue, choosing to disregard it still constitutes taking a stand. To ignore race and orientation is itself a biased act, not a neutral one. The images below are of the Jedi Council from Episode I and the leadership of the New Jedi Order as of the early Legacy Era. It is my position that no clearer evidence of a problem exists than in these two images, wherein the WHM ratio is essentially inverted.
    • Lastly, it should be understood that this situation stems from the accumulation of numerous decisions, policies, and cultural trends--over a period of decades--and cannnot be laid at the feet of any specific author, editor, or even publisher.
    [IMG]

    The primary goal of this manifesto is for you, the reader, to look at those two images and see a problem. The goal of this as a discussion thread, then, is to break down the can of worms that follows from that.

    ____________________________________________________________


    What's Happening Here

    In order to understand how we got to this point, one of the most important things to consider is the distinction between primary characters--not just the ones most heavily featured, but those whose points of view are typically given in the text, and who in some cases are even meant to be stand-ins for the reader's own point of view--and secondary characters. Even among some of the most diverse works in the EU, you would be hard-pressed to find a cast without a WHM in the top spot - Cade Skywalker in Legacy, Jax Pavan in Coruscant Nights, Dass Jennir in Dark Times.

    Those series are absolutely better than the alternative, and should be seen more as detracting from the problem than contributing to it, but it's this phenomenon that's responsible more than anything else for the unfortunate state of the post-NJO era and that picture of Mara Jade's funeral. Even if every story from the Bantam/New Republic Era were as diverse as Coruscant Nights, as time went on, ninety percent of those secondary characters would still have faded into the background, and you'd still be left with the cast of the NJO and beyond - essentially a collection of WHM primaries from the twenty years of material leading up to it.

    This is why disregarding the issue, as LucasBooks have largely done in the past, is still contributing to the problem. The NJO was a perfect opportunity to usher in a new generation of main characters, but too much of the work done to expand the cast ultimately proved fruitless--characters like Ganner Rhysode, Eryl Besa, Droma, Nom Anor, and Danni Quee die or fade away, while Corran Horn and Kyp Durron soldier on. Those of us who were around when Del Rey first took over will remember the NJO beginning with the stunning pronouncement that no one was safe, and to prove their point, they dropped a moon on the most prominent alien in the franchise. Now, more than a decade later, that policy has been far more true of their own creations than anyone else's--and certainly not of the Big Three. In fact, that Chewbacca was indeed an ideal kill--beloved by fans, but completely unnecessary to the story--should speak volumes.

    When I first started documenting this issue, I came up with something called a Diversity Score. It's derived from a given book's Dramatis Personae when available, or educated guesses when not, and basically boils down to the percentage of non-WHMs in a story's overall cast. While it's an inherently messy measurement--and perhaps unfairly lumps many types of characters into one big group--with a great deal of input from the community on the temp boards, and a lot of math and page-flipping on everyone's part, the system has been refined to the point that we were able to get a nice collection of data. In the interest of neatness, all the scores obtained thus far can be found in the spoiler tag below. Special thanks to @Kais_Jai_Sheelal, @, @, @, and @FiveThreeOhNine for a lot of help compiling this information.

    • TOR: Revan - 50
    • TOR: Fatal Alliance - 75
    • TOR: Deceived - 66
    • Darth Bane trilogy - 64
    • Knight Errant - 75
    • Darth Plagueis - 67
    • The Cestus Deception - 80
    • TCW: No Prisoners (total cast) - 74
    • TCW: Gambit: Stealth - 63
    • TCW: Gambit: Siege - 71
    • The Force Unleashed II - 57
    • Coruscant Nights trilogy - 77
    • Death Troopers - 60
    • Shadow Games - 59
    • X-Wing series - 54
    • Scourge - 91
    • New Jedi Order series - 69
    • Dark Nest trilogy - 65
    • Legacy of the Force series - 58
    • Crosscurrent - 57
    • Fate of the Jedi series - 61
    • Mercy Kill - 60
    • Legacy comics (total cast) - 73

    While hashing all this out, a few quirks had to be ironed out - first and most notably, all the multi-book series are scored as one giant cast, rather than averaging each book. This proved to be more favorable to the authors overall (as Luke Skywalker is only counted once instead of numerous times), while also better illustrating the aforementioned issue of primary characters sticking around while large groups of secondaries come and go.

    Second, it was decided that any character whose race isn't clear from the material would count in the negative. This was a tough one, but in the end, I felt it was more in keeping with the "ignorance is bias" philosophy.

    Lastly, a few special cases were made:
    • Another essay entirely could be written on the lack of decent attention paid to droids as characters--even Artoo and Threepio--but in the meantime, I made the decision that out of all the books we scored, the only droid character that earned their DP inclusion, and therefore affected the score, was I-5YQ.
    • Goran Beviin and Medrit Vasur, as the only definitively gay characters in the entire franchise, were counted as non-WHMs, on the basis that I would've added "straight" to the WHM classification if not for the fact that gays were almost nonexistent.
    • Another executive decision I made was to count all the main alien characters in Darth Plagueis twice. Despite having an utterly enormous cast, the prequel films saddled the book with what I felt was unfair WHM baggage; by contrast, nearly every single character in the book that Luceno created himself was something else. This strategy took the book from a 53 to a 67, which I felt was a fair adjustment.
    • Lastly, all clones were counted as different characters. Some may see this as unfairly boosting many of the Clone Wars books, but while no author can take credit for the fact that Temuera Morrison happens to be Maori, they do deserve credit for the extent to which they choose to utilize the clones as individuals.
    Note that the "best" books tend to be in the 70s or 80s--and the recent Scourge manages an impressive 91--while LotF scores a 58 and FotJ a 61. Even the NJO and its plethora of Yuuzhan Vong characters only manages a 69. The Dark Nest trilogy, which revolves around a blossoming war between the Killiks and the Chiss, and which features among its supporting cast a Sullustan-Ewok partnership and a trio of Squibs, stillonly scores a 65.

    With all these exceptions and caveats, what can we truly take away from these numbers?

    In the entire X-wing series, almost half the characters are straight, white human men.

    In the entire New Jedi Order series, one out of every three characters is a straight, white human man.

    In the post-NJO era, two out of every five characters is a straight, white human man.


    Why It's A Problem

    Historically, one thing that almost everyone has brought up when disagreeing with the thrust of this argument is that Star Wars is escapism--whether or not one sees it as neutral, is should be neutral. They read Star Wars books to get away from real-world concerns and controversies, and don't want to see what they consider political advocacy in the franchise, no matter which side it's on.

    For starters, a lack of diversity isn't only a problem for "political" reasons - it's a continuity problem. Aside from one highly dubious page on the old Wizards of the Coast RPG website (thanks to @ for pointing it out), there is essentially nothing in the way of official information on the demographics of the GFFA. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't believe that humans make up a plurality of the galactic population, and some might even say a majority, but if two out of every five beings in the galaxy were human men (of any race, for that matter), that would mean another two are human women, which leaves only twenty percent of the galactic population to be made up of all the other species in existence.

    Think about all the insect species we've seen, and all the species born in litters. Some, like the Verpine and the Selonians, are presented as having every bit the spacefaring history that humans have--yet after thousands of years of membership in galactic society, how many characters are Verpine or Selonians? One in a hundred? Two hundred? Five? Certainly in-universe explanations for this kind of thing can be formulated--indeed, they have to be--but the longer this pattern continues unnoticed and unimpeded, the more it strains suspension of disbelief.

    And that's just the empirical argument; there are, of course, "political" reaons for greater diversity as well. It is my opinion that, just as the facilitation of ignorance contains inherent bias, the facilitation of multiculturality in storytelling has inherent value. From the Mos Eisley cantina on, the GFFA has always been constructed as a place where the bug people can come together with the humans and the dog people and the skeleton people to champion freedom and equality, and no one cares if you have hooves or three eyes (or, well, miscellaneous) as long as you're into the whole peace and justice thing. The franchise can talk up that angle all it wants, but it does fundamental damage to your message of inclusivity when all your protagonists look like they're from Elstree Studios. George Lucas had pragmatic reasons for that, but no novelist has anything of the sort.

    People also like to say that Star Wars should serve as an escape from real-world issues, forgetting that such an escape should be available to everybody, and that becomes much easier--especially for young children--when the people an the book cover remind you of yourself. Star Wars, more than perhaps any other pop culture phenomenon, has a tremendous history of shaping young people's self-image, and the effect on a young black child who has wants to dress up as a Jedi for Halloween and is given a mask of Hayden Christensen's face is real, serious, and not to be underestimated.

    And while I'm on the subject--homosexuality is only an "issue" to people who aren't homosexuals - for those who are, it's not a topic they can choose to avoid (as Lucasfilm did for a very long time), it's their very being.


    Solutions

    I am by nature a practical fan, and while this subject can trigger a certain amount of understandable anger in some people, I will always favor honey over a sharp stick. The best way we can work to make this situation better is by establishing ourselves as a not-insignificant part of the fandom, while always treating VIPs respectfully and fairly. As I said at the beginning, this isn't anyone's fault, and it's entirely possible there are many in official positions who feel just as strongly as we do and lack only positive reinforcement. Some concrete things you can do:
    • Talk to the authors. When asked about diversity, the editors will always say they're in favor of it, but there's a big leap from thinking diversity is swell to actively encouraging it. So the first step should be to pay attention to who's actually writing at any given time. Consider an author's previous work: have they done a good job? Are they writing aliens stereotypically, or at all? Are the female characters well-rounded, or tokens? Below this post I'll be adding contact information for the current roster of novel authors, with more to follow in the future--reach out to them through e-mail or social media and let them know you're a devoted Star Wars fan who'd love to see a couple small changes. Remember, constructive criticism will always be taken more seriously than ranting.
    • Having said that, talk to the editors, too. Make yourself heard at cons and in online chats. Spend at least as much time praising good work as criticizing bad work, and make it clear that you're there on behalf of the former. Are John Ostrander and/or Jan Duursema there? How about John Jackson Miller or Michael Reaves? Thank them.
    • I said at the beginning that I first want to make people see this as a problem. If I've done my job, then you may find yourself looking for certain visual descriptors the next time a human character is introduced. That's a good thing, because a huge part of what got us to this point is that no one really paid attention to whether novel characters were white or not (or straight or not, for that matter), and as time went on and they were drawn into this RPG book or that Essential Guide, no artist had any obvious reason to make them nonwhite, so they didn't bother. That's not wholly the artist's fault any more than it is anybody else's, but it's hard to cut down on ambiguous characters if we're not at least paying attention to them.
    ____________________________________________________________


    In conclusion, I just want to add that I've been coordinating this diversity conversation in one form or another for a few years now, and if any of you remember the early days, you'll know that I used to get a great deal more flack for harping on it then I do now (I didn't title the first thread "Beating a Dead Eopie" for nothing). Maybe we just argued all the dissenters into early retirement, but I like to think that I've brought some of you over to my side along the way, and that the Literature community is a more open-minded, progressive place because of that.

    I also want to specifically acknowledge the efforts of my partner in crime, @, whom I've known online for longer than I care to admit, and who has done a lot of great legwork on this by showing up and SDCC year in and year out to keep asking the same questions, never losing hope that one day the answers will start improving. Oh, and she also cofounded a little thing called Racebending. NBD.

    Lastly, I don't want this thread to become an echo chamber. If you do disagree with the above, in whole or in part, please--join the conversation. True diversity includes diversity of opinion, and an opinion that can't withstand direct scrutiny isn't an opinion worth having.

    Mike Cooper
    TFN EU Staff Emeritus
    Last edited by Havac, Sep 4, 2012
  2. AdmiralNick22 Fleet Admiral of Literature

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    Great first post, Coop. Your summary of what has been discussed so far is great. I will have more to add later today, but I just wanted to pop in and say the new thread looks good!

    --Adm. Nick
  3. Robimus Force Ghost

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    Wow, nice post there Coop.
  4. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    I do have to say, I've never been particularly bothered by the H in WHM. I'd gladly take a diverse human cast with a few aliens over a diverse alien cast with a few humans every time.

    And, on a related note, I would like it if we were treated to an expanded definition of what is considered "human" in the GFFA. There's no real reason we can't have humans more unusual than most of the "near-humans" we get, given the level of technology available to them. Four arms? Sure. Three eyes? No problem.
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  5. GrandAdmiralJello Community and Lit moderator person

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    I agree (and imagine everyone's surprise).
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  6. imiller Force Ghost

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    The human issue is a vexed one - and I think Mercy Kill showed why. I caught a significant number of reviews (about 3 of the ten or so I saw) which mentioned the fact that Piggy was something of a hindrance to them as readers.

    I adored it - I thought it was living up to the promise of his scenes in Solo Command - but I think it also showed that the fandom isn't necessarily ready for that many viewpoint characters who aren't human.

    And, since I'm perpetually late for the party, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to include Asian characters in the non-Asia-containing GFFA. Especially since none of the films seem to have any (except for Nemoidians...which, ugh).

    And the question of near-humans does bring up another question: they aren't WHM, sure, but are they WHM on the inside? One of the reasons I liked Piggy as protagonist is that he felt normal...and I'm still trying to figure out what that means in terms of how I would picture Piggy as a human...
  7. Esg Jedi Grand Master

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    Um Bultar Swan ?

    A few of the guys who signed the delegation of 2000
    Last edited by Esg, Sep 3, 2012
  8. imiller Force Ghost

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    Ah, yes, Bultar...right up there with Lando...
  9. A Tool Jedi Master

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    I think the New Jedi Order needs more characters in general, human or non....
  10. The_Forgotten_Jedi Jedi Grand Master

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    To echo the others, this was a fantastic opening post. Really nailed everything right on the head. I just have one little problem:

    This is something I completely disagree with. Droid diversity is just as important as racial, gender, and species diversity IMO. It is a highly important part of the universe, and I hold the opinion that droids in SW should be counted as beings with rights that are just as much alive in their own way as beings of flesh, and was really disappointed when that plotline was dropped from the NJO.

    To not count Lebo in Shadow Games or Whistler in the X-Wing books does those characters a great disservice.
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  11. imiller Force Ghost

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    Droids are interesting - but no one besides Reeves or Allston has really explored that.

    And really, YVH-1 doesn't count in the Enemy Lines books?
  12. Esg Jedi Grand Master

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  13. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    I hold that opinion, too; I just wish the narrative supported it more often. Whistler and Leebo are decent examples (though it's hard to give Leebo a lot of credit as an individual when a big deal is made about how he only acts the way he does because his last owner was a comedian), but it was either cut out a few important droids or include numerous rote, useless Artoo/Threepio roles. I only made an exception for I-5 because the story went out of its way to confirm his sentience, right down so his having something akin to a Force presence.

    The only other droid role I could see myself counting might be Artoo in Mindor, wherein he actually gets both dialogue and POV scenes. But yeah, an ideal scenario would be one in which I could count every single droid DP character. My choice not to actually spills directly out of my dissatisfaction with their status, which is the same as yours--whereas a more ambivalent person might have gone ahead and included them anyway.

    Like I said - that could be another essay entirely. :)
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 3, 2012
  14. The_Forgotten_Jedi Jedi Grand Master

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    If Artoo in Mindor, why not Whistler in Isard's Revenge? He gets a few PoV's in that one, and is key to the plot. Plus he clearly has his own personality. He chose to defend Tycho in The Krytos Trap because he believed that he was innocent and that his master, whom he had always been very loyal to, was wrong. He clearly demonstrates a sense of humor, loyalty, ingenuity, diverse opinions, and a distinct personality (much more so than many cardboard characters that get included and counted in DP's). I feel that Whistler at least should count for the X-Wing books.

    Agreed. That philosophical scene between him and C-3P0 is one of my favorites.
    Last edited by The_Forgotten_Jedi, Sep 3, 2012
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  15. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Note that I made a couple edits to my last post while you were typing that - but yeah, I do appreciate where you're coming from. I acted as I did because I want to hold all droids to the same standard as Whistler.
  16. Robimus Force Ghost

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    TCW series has actually examined this a fair amount as well.

    I still feel like human diversity is far more important that alien/droid diversity in any case. As I mentioned yesterday on the temp forum, the Sue Rostoni "Saba is a woman" type approach doesn't work all that well for me.
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  17. CaptainPeabody Force Ghost

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    Droids are a lot harder to deal with because as soon as you start doing much of anything with them, you realize the economy of the GFFA is based on mass-scale slave labor by programmable sentients whose memories are constantly wiped to keep them docile. It's really hard to touch on that in the middle of the story without it devouring your whole work, and it also doesn't really fit in with most authors' vision of GFFA society as "21st century Middle America with lightsabers."

    Which...yeah, kind of ties back into your point, though personally I'm more bothered by the way in which all characters have been made to think and act exactly like 21st century Westerners than the fact that they all also look like them now as well (which yeah, doesn't make any sense and should stop existing now). The GFFA was set up in the films as a Roman Empire/Medieval Europe/Medieval Japan/British Empire thingamajig with droids as serfs/slaves and Wild West frontier societies dotting the fringes, and to me that's a heck of a lot more interesting than the current 21st Century Middle America with Evil Congressional Politicians and Veiled References to Current Political Issues.

    Besides that, I definitely support more human diversity, though what I'm personally most interested in is seeing more well-developed alien characters...because aliens can be an outlet for a lot of creativity, and they also provide a way to bring in more interesting ways of thinking, belief-systems, and cultures into the GFFA in a way that would be almost impossible to do with a human character (at least in the current EU). There's soooooo much room for creativity here that it makes my head hurt, and it kind of annoys me that no one ever does anything with it.

    Basically, as a fan of history, I think modern Americans are boring, and I want to get some Romans, Medieval Europeans, 18th century British, or Medieval Japanese up in my GFFA. Is that so much to ask?
    Last edited by CaptainPeabody, Sep 3, 2012
  18. The_Forgotten_Jedi Jedi Grand Master

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    I get that. I'm just hoping that Whistler can be made an exception to the rule like I-5. In the X-Wing series at least: I don't know if he ever made the DP again, but he kinda dropped off the radar after the start of the NJO.
  19. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    TFJ, aside from the fact that I can't edit the post anymore, and aside from the fact that I don't want to set a precedent for people arguing me into changes, I simply don't have the inclination to recalculate the entire X-Wing series in order to add one more non-WHM character. You're welcome to bump it from a 54 to a 56 in your personal canon if that helps. Or talk to Havac; I believe he's the one who added X-Wing up in the first place.
    And to top it all off, focusing on a modern western middle-American character type who happens to be a pig man is too much for some people. :p
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  20. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Resisting. Urge. Comment.
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  21. GrandAdmiralJello Community and Lit moderator person

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    Yeah Piggy basically read like an old white guy. I mean come on, people. If *I* can handle it, you can too.
  22. The_Forgotten_Jedi Jedi Grand Master

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    Understood.

    [face_laugh]
  23. imiller Force Ghost

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    Haven't kept up with TCW, so didn't know that. Good for them.

    Totally agree with you about the Saba thing. I think Saba is...fine...but I'd much rather see Shalla or Wran or some other similar type of character explored than having more "Thiz onez."
  24. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    As promised, below is a comprehensive list of all the current writers and editors, and contact information, I could find. Not every author listed is known to be working on something right this moment, but I've put the most relevant (and newest) authors up top. If I've missed any links (or any individuals), please let me know - if it's within 30 minutes I'll gladly add them to this post while I can.

    Authors:

    Christie Golden
    Sword of the Jedi
    Tim Lebbon
    Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void
    Martha Wells
    Untitled Rebels Leia Novel
    Kevin Hearne
    Untitled Rebels Luke Novel
    Troy Denning
    Crucible
    Drew Karpyshyn
    The Old Republic: Annihilation
    Aaron Allston
    X-Wing: Mercy Kill
    Timothy Zahn
    Scoundrels
    John Jackson Miller
    Lost Tribe of the Sith
    John Ostrander
    Dawn of the Jedi
    Editors:

    Randy Stradley
    Dark Horse Comics (also writes Dark Times)
    Jennifer Heddle
    LucasBooks Senior Editor
    Shelly Shapiro
    Del Rey Editor
    Frank Parisi
    Del Rey Editor
    • no contact info found
    Erich Schoeneweiss
    Del Rey Editor
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 3, 2012
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  25. Force Smuggler Chosen One

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    My main problem with the post NJO timeline is that there aren't enough engaging non-force users. What's the ratio for force users to non-force users?
    We need a new young Han Solo type character or two to counteract all of the Force-users in SW. Han Solo is one of the reasons why I like Episodes 4-6. Hopefully Chance Calrissian can fill his fathers shoes.
    R2-D2 and C-3PO need their own adventures. Their philosophical talks in NJO were very good. I looked forward to seeing where they went with that
    my kind of scum likes this.