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Han Solo’s First Flight

‘Solo’ is far from the first time the galactic smuggler’s early years have been explored. In the late ’70s, one Vietnam vet turned sci-fi scribe fleshed out the iconic character’s endearing, paradoxical nature with a series of spinoff novels.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Star Wars cinematic universe grows a little larger this week with the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a prequel that fleshes out the origins of the grudging-good-guy smuggler with the lopsided grin. Solo is the latest lucrative salvo in Disney’s precisely plotted campaign to dominate the multiplex, and as such, it’s easy to see it as an expression of creeping commerce. But as many directors and reshoots as it took to complete it, and as many millions as it makes for the Mouse, Solo stems from the same desire to delve into the past of an iconic character that’s animated Star Wars storytellers for four decades. The urge to understand Solo dates back to the beginning of the saga: Even before Vader had Han frozen in carbonite, one author was already exploring where the scoundrel had been before the fateful meeting in Mos Eisley.

Well before the public first saw Star Wars, George Lucas struck a deal with Ballantine Books editor Judy-Lynn del Rey, who in 1977 — the same year Star Wars debuted — would cofound Del Rey Books, Ballantine’s science-fiction imprint, which still publishes Star Wars books today. “Our initial investment was not large because nobody knew what would become of it,” says former Ballantine editor Owen Lock. “Of course, we had no idea what was about to happen.” Lock, who was hired in 1975, recalls attending a Star Wars screening in New York a week before the film’s opening. On the way out, he ran into del Rey and the company president. “He said, ‘Whadja think?’” Lock says. “I said, ‘I think we’re all gonna be rich.’”

The paperback novelization of Star Wars, credited to Lucas but ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, was published by Ballantine in November 1976. Lock says it sold a quarter of a million copies before the film arrived six months later, and the company subsequently capitalized on Star Wars hysteria by rushing out a hardcover that sold millions more. The following February, Del Rey released Foster’s sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was originally conceived to be the basis of a low-budget fallback film in the event that Star Wars didn’t do well. The short book, which took place about two years after the Battle of Yavin, featured Luke, Leia, droids, and Darth Vader on the swampy planet Mimban (which makes its first film appearance in Solo). Following explicit instructions from Lucas, Foster omitted Solo from the story, because Harrison Ford hadn’t yet committed to reprising the role. While the first novel in the Star Wars expanded universe was totally devoid of the franchise’s most magnetic character, though, the second starred him — and, appropriately, it owed its existence to an author who acted and looked a lot like the charismatic pilot he brought to life on the page.

A young Brian Daley in his Army uniform.
Courtesy Lucia Robson

Brian Daley was the first writer Lock ever discovered. Then in his late 20s, Daley was working part-time jobs as a waiter and a FedEx package-truck cleaner when Lock plucked his manuscript out of Ballantine’s “slush pile” of unsolicited submissions. “The best way to make the pile at least seem smaller was to start with the biggest books, because you could reject them very quickly and the height of the pile would go down,” Lock says. In Daley’s case, the strategy backfired: The rookie could write, and with Lock’s guidance, Daley’s manuscript eventually turned into his 1977 debut novel, Doomfarers of Coramonde, which followed the crew of an Army APC that was transported from Vietnam to a fantasy setting and tasked with killing a dragon. Coramonde and its sequel sold well, and that track record, combined with Daley’s reputation as an editor’s dream, made him the most obvious candidate to take on Del Rey’s next Lucas-licensed work.

Star Wars made a major impression on Daley; after seeing the film for the first time, he told his friend and frequent collaborator James Luceno (who would later illuminate some of Solo’s backstory himself) that “he had finally seen on screen what he had been imagining for years.” Asked by Ballantine to pick a character to carry a Star Wars spinoff, Daley chose Han, because, in the words of his wife, Lucia Robson, “Han was the only one who made a moral decision. … He started out on the wrong side of the law, but joined with the good guys.” Of the original film trilogy’s central trio, Han is the only character who doesn’t have his course charted for him by birth or Imperial atrocity. He’s also the only one with a past more eventful than a farm boy’s and more unsavory than a senator’s. Ballantine contracted Daley to pen a trilogy.

Del Rey Books

The first of the three installments that would eventually be packaged together as The Han Solo Adventures, the best-selling Han Solo at Stars’ End, was released in April 1979, with the next two, Han Solo’s Revenge and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, hitting stores in October 1979 and August 1980, months before and after the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, respectively. The three stories share a similar structure, opening on a backwater world where Han is working a moneymaking scheme, embroiling him in a larger conflict when a routine run goes wrong, and culminating in a massive score that seems to ensure the outlaw’s financial future, only for him to be broke again when the next book begins. Along the way, he meets a memorable cast of fellow fringe members of galactic society, encounters a string of feisty proto-Leias who first find him off-putting but finally fall for him, and invariably finds his deep-seated sense of self-interest coming into conflict with his barely submerged moral code.

Daley captured the character because in more than one way, he was the character. “Brian had a lot of Han Solo in him,” Lock says, adding that he had “an extraordinarily winning personality.” Like Solo, Lock says, Daley “didn’t suffer fools gladly” and “could be an extremely funny tearer-down of people’s illusions.” But also like Solo, “he was willing to do almost anything for a friend.” A lifelong sci-fi lover who Lock says “liked to live in the world of the mind,” Daley, too, was a former military man who enlisted at 17 and served in Vietnam and Germany in the ’60s; according to Lock, after leaving the Army, he resolved to “decide his own fate” rather than defer to his superiors (or, maybe, a mystical energy field). “He really just decided one day that you have to take control of your life,” Lock says. “That following somebody else’s system is good for them, not necessarily for you.”

Although a career as a fiction writer mostly freed Daley from following orders, he had no choice but to comply with the wishes of a higher power while working on his Han Solo trilogy. Unlike later Star Wars authors, who inherited mountains of material, Daley had very little to work with: one movie, Foster’s two books, a Marvel comic series, and a notorious TV special. Worse, much of what was out there was off limits to Ballantine, out of fear of interfering with the forthcoming films. “We were very restricted in what kind of use we could make of what appeared in the films,” Lock says. Lucas and his highly protective lieutenants had approval over every aspect of the plot and, in Lock’s experience, were almost always unwilling to compromise. “You could take it or leave it,” Lock says. “So we decided to take it.” The books, which are still in print, were warmly received and sold well. “Everybody was quite pleased except Brian, who was champing at the bit,” Lock says. “He wanted to go off in different directions, and it just wasn’t possible.”

Daley in the NPR studio while working on one of the Star Wars radio plays.
Courtesy Lucia Robson

The only directions Daley could go were backward in time and far, far away from the civil war of Episode IV. According to the timeline of the “Legends” books — as the non-movie material that preceded the sale of the franchise was dubbed when Disney decanonized almost all of it, including The Han Solo Adventures, in 2014 — the Han Solo trilogy takes place one to two years before the Battle of Yavin. There’s no Lando, who hadn’t yet debuted on the big screen in 1979, and Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are already entrenched as Han’s constant companions. Although the books are sprinkled with occasional allusions to Han’s early history and ample foreshadowing of his hero turn, The Han Solo Adventures aren’t an origin story so much as a vibrant romp through a period when a slightly younger Han’s life and livelihood are often in danger but the fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake.

Speaking of Solo last week, pinch-director Ron Howard told Yahoo UK, “It’s not a war story, there’s not the religion of the force involved in this — it’s earthy, in a way.” In that respect, Daley’s work prefigured the film. The first two stories are set in the Corporate Sector, a far-flung region of space with no native inhabitants and overseen by the bureaucratic, cruel, and corrupt — but crucially not cartoonish — Corporate Sector Authority. The third takes place in the Tion Hegemony, an even more lawless Outer Rim region. In these distant territories, where the governments aren’t planetary, the munitions are nuclear, and the disease-susceptible natives can be captivated by holoprojectors and jetpacks, the Empire is an afterthought and the Rebel Alliance is a nonentity. As much as or more than the movies, Daley’s books convey the cosmic scale and the intoxicating sprawl of species and planets that make the Naked City–ness of Star Wars — or, as Daley expresses it in Stars’ End, “the need for the boundless provinces of space” — as compelling as the Skywalker saga.

Del Rey Books

Nearly 40 years after Stars’ End’s debut, the practiced Star Wars observer can see signs of the scant Star Wars precedents at Daley’s disposal. In its detailed treatment of interstellar travel, for instance, the Han Solo trilogy resembles the hard-sci-fi classics in Ballantine’s back catalog: Daley devotes time to atmospheric makeups, life-support systems, and surface gravities that later Star Wars writers and moviemakers largely hand-wave away. At times, Han acts too callous and violent to be a Disney good guy; in one shocking passage, he executes a captive traitor by ejecting him out of an airlock. The Corporate Sector Authority, meanwhile, makes interrogation droids seem humane, employing a House Boltonesque torture technique called “The Burning” in which a low-powered blaster is used to “scorch and sear the flesh off a prisoner, leaving only blood-smeared bone.”

Del Rey Books

Those examples are the exceptions. In his introduction to the most recent edition, Pablo Hidalgo, a member of the Lucasfilm Story Group that helps steer Disney’s tentpole today, calls Daley’s conception of Star Wars “eerily prescient,” and it is. But it seems that way in part because Daley defined what Star Wars would be, inventing not only some of the spacecraft (Z-95 Headhunters), hovercraft (swoops), and character types (deadpan droids) that still populate Star Wars stories, but the cornerstones of Han’s history: his hard-wired aversion to slavery, his expulsion from the military for defending a Wookiee, and the life debt that Chewbacca incurs in return. Daley deftly delivers Han’s quick wit and navigates his apparent personality paradoxes: The pilot who flies an interstellar spaceship, fires lasers from his trusty sidearm, and yet still doesn’t quite trust technology; the self-centered narcissist who can’t help helping others and masks his concern by blustering and ranting. (“It’s none of my business, so don’t tell me,” he thunders in Stars’ End when one client starts to trigger his hidden empathic streak.) As Jason Fry, a contemporary Star Wars wordsmith who authored the novelization of The Last Jedi, wrote upon revisiting the Han Solo series several years ago, “nobody — nobody — has ever written Han Solo better than Daley did way back at the beginning.”

Daley, Lock, and Luceno.
Courtesy Lucia Robson

When Daley depicted Solo, he was writing what he knew. At 6-foot-2 with feathered hair, Daley looked like Ford crossed with Kevin Nealon. “He had a great smile,” Lock says. “Women were charmed by him.” Robson, a prolific historical novelist, was one of them. She met her future husband at the sci-fi convention Balticon in 1979, after the first book in the Han Solo series had come out. Daley stood out from the convention crowd. “I was sitting there and he came and sat down in front of me, and, whoa,” Robson says. “I was trying to think of something to say to get his attention, and he asked if they’d shown the Star Wars teaser yet. I said no, and then he asked if I’d read the Han Solo book. … And I said no, I never read movie spinoffs.” Robson realized immediately that she’d inadvertently shot Daley down. “I remember [Lock’s wife] turning around and saying, ‘He wrote it,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot.’”

Daley and Robson in Central Park in 1979, not long after they met.
Courtesy Lucia Robson

It wasn’t a fatal faux pas: The two talked at the bar, fell in love, moved in together, and got married. In those days, predictably, Daley had a ride that deceptively didn’t look like much. “His Millennium Falcon was his old Buick Skylark,” Robson says, laughing. “Dumpster green, but it was a powerful car.”

Daley’s wife of 14 years echoes Lock’s comps to Solo. “[Brian] was always operating kind of outside the norm,” Robson says, adding, “He had a roguish personality.” Lock remembers meeting Daley at a fancy ’70s publicity party for Arthur C. Clarke at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World. Lock wore a well-tailored three-piece suit; Daley wore jeans and a black leather jacket and carried a single rose. After the party, Daley drove them on a motorcycle to McSorley’s, where the festivities continued. “I do remember at one point somebody in a lumberjack shirt saying that my friend was walking across his table to get to the men’s room, and Brian certainly was,” Lock says. “He was walking across all of the tables to get to the men’s room.” He probably got away with it because he was walking across the tables casual.

Daley, who wrote many more novels died in 1996 at age 49, succumbing to pancreatic cancer only hours after completing the script for the Return of the Jedi NPR radio play. “When we had his memorial service, somebody told me he’d never seen so many men crying,” Robson says. Thanks in part to The Han Solo Adventures, Daley still outsells his widow, which she says would have made him happy only in the sense that he wanted to provide for the people he loved. “He just had the most phenomenal mind of anybody I have ever met,” Robson says. “Not just smart-smart, but really creative.”

A publicity photo of actor Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) inscribed to Daley.
Courtesy Lucia Robson

During the formative years of the fledgling franchise, Daley had as good a grasp of the essence of Star Wars as anyone in the world. “I think he really could have helped early Lucas if anybody had ever given him the chance,” says Lock, who believes that Lucas and his company felt somewhat threatened by the positive response to Daley’s spinoff series and the public clamor for more. Daley could have helped the later Lucas, too; he unquestionably had a better handle on Han. “I happen to like shooting first, Rekkon,” Han says in Stars’ End, in a sentence Daley wrote decades before the Star Wars special edition spawned countless T-shirts that proclaimed the same sentiment. “As opposed to shooting second.”

Aside from the 1983 Lando Calrissian Adventures, Daley’s Han Solo books were the last new novels in the Star Wars expanded universe for 11 years, and the last Han Solo–centric entries for 18 years.

In both books and films, Han Solo’s story is being rewritten: The Force Awakens explains how Han’s story ends, and Solo, which is set a few years before Daley’s books were, traces the Corellian’s roots further than ever into the past. But canonical or not, Daley’s writing remains both a clinic in characterization and a testament to fans’ 40-year fascination with the flyboy. Solo is Lucasfilm’s latest word on the subject, but as Hidalgo’s introduction notes, “Daley did it first.”