What We Want and What We Need From a Good Tie-in Novel


#1

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.

MechWarrior Online screenshot courtesy of Piranha Games

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?

Let me know in today’s open thread!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/bjpkp8/what-we-want-and-what-we-need-from-a-good-tie-in-novel

#2

Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron books are legitimately pretty good genre fiction and I’m so glad that someone else appreciate them.

Some of the Halo novels are… fairly readable.


#3

I loved the Doom novels for how absolutely bizarre they got, and how much they had to invent to keep things moving for FOUR books.

I still think the wildest part of it is that at some point it became clear that the author was working some frustrations out about literary theory they learned in college, as a major plot point late in the series is that two massive alien empires (hyperrealists and deconstructionists) went to war over some differing interpretations of literature and somehow that spilled over into aliens pretending to be demons to attack Earth.

All that considered, it still felt like Doom spliced with some truly weird space opera shit.


#4

The whole Rogue Squadron series is really good. The Stackpole books are certainly more dry than Allston’s books but I think they both manage to capture the aspects of space combat in Star Wars that I connected with. I went back to them recently and managed to find that same spark of excitement that I had when I first read them as a 10 year old kid. I wish there was something in the new EU fiction that had that same feel as those books, but the focus now seems to be more generalist and action-adventure styled than dogfighting military action.


#5

My favorite tie-in novel is probably Tom Dowd’s Burning Bright, which was the Shadowrun novel that described what happened to Chicago before Bug City – it was not lost in endlessly arcane wonky exposition for the most part, and there was some real emotion and pathos to the characters and scenes. There is one in particular involving some roach spirit pupae that will stick in my memory for a very long time.

I think for Battletech in particular, it is hobbled by the fact that it is first and foremost a wargame, and the actual mechanics of Mechs going toe to toe is not a particularly exciting thing to read about. I recently reread the Gray Death Legion novels for much the same reason as Rob, and I think the most interminable parts were the parts describing the actual clashing of 'Mechs, and the more interesting parts were dealing with the personal dramas. I don’t think they were high literature, but they were still enjoyable reads for the most part.


#6

The first Mass Effect book was ok for doing some backstory work for the first game. Never quite got round to buying the other books (which I guess mirrors my general view of the series as never quite capturing the '70s scifi tone of the first game so being less worth expanding with more details of the universe).


#7

I dug out some of my old novels a month or two ago, including the Jade Phoenix Battletech books. I remember the plot well enough, but it’s been 20+ years since I actually read the books.

I couldn’t get far.

What I really want to re-read are the Baldur’s Gate books. Not because they’re good, but because they’re memorably awful and it’s funny how, when they changed author with the third book, the new author immediately wiped the slate clean and removed most of the garbage the previous author had created.

I wish I still had my Doom and Resident Evil books, but I think they were lost/abandoned in a move at some point.


#8

Oh hey speaking of tie ins if you haven’t read Ryan North Reading The Back To The Future Novelization I highly recommend it


#9

Some of those Halo books were pretty legit,

Also, I was a big fan of the Myst books growing up. Not sure how well those have held up. I don’t remember anything that would be gross now. It was just really cool to see how things got the way they did for the game, and the second book lets you see what D’ni was like before it all went bad.


#10

I wanted access to an expanded Mass Effect universe so badly back in the day, but I couldn’t swallow more than 10 pages of the first tie-in novel - extra disappointing and baffling since I think most of them were by Drew Karpyshyn, who did a bunch of script writing for ME?

I’ve never met a tie-in novel that was half as thoughtful about the Lore as upper-tier fanfiction, but it’s rare to find fanfiction that is so devotedly plot- and world-heavy, especially for more niche media franchises. (Why has no one written a gritty detective series set in C-Sec on the Citadel? Writers of the world, explain yourselves (and please don’t make me do it).)


#11

At the end of last year I started playing MechWarrior Online again, after a four year hiatus. So much about the game had changed, it felt like starting all over again, learning everything from scratch. It didn’t take long before I was knee deep in details again, learning the current meta, the mech quirks, talking to anyone who could bear to hear me drone on about ghost heat and torso twist.

Diving into forum posts and wikis reignited my infatuation with the BattleTech universe. I never actually played tabletop, I was either too shy or too intimidated to even find people to play with, but I had a bunch of the novels and manuals. All those paperbacks were discarded years ago, so I spent real hard cash on the Kindle version. If I’m honest, I actually fucked up and bought Dark Age #1 by mistake, having forgotten the “Classic BatteTech” rift. But once I had a copy of Decision at Thunder Rift, I tore into it and made it… about three chapters. My interest in the lore wasn’t enough to propel me through the writing I devoured as a kid. It is so dry and perfunctory; I was instantly deflated.

I find this is the case with a lot of sci-fi. It’s so focused on whatever premise or macguffin the story relies on, it lacks any flourish in presentation. I recently went back to The Lost Fleet series, and it suffers from this. The premise of that series, which is that advanced battle tactics and strategy are lost over generations of high attrition, is so cool but the writing is just not that interesting to read.


#12

I see it’s time for me to break out Dragonlance Chronicles again. It’s been a number of years since I read them. I wonder how well it holds up.


#13

For real though the best tie in novels are Dan Abnett’s Warhammer 40K books

Like, I’m somewhat shocked that Rob didn’t mention them/hasn’t read them.


#14

I actually came into this thread to say that while most of the Warhammer/WH40K books I’ve read have been “reams of backstory and worldbuilding”, there are a few exceptions that at least approach “relatable details about the people who inhabit that world.” The 2 example scenes that came to mind were from the Eisenhorn books and the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, both Abnett joints.


#15

S.D. Perry’s Resident Evil books were like candy to me in junior high. I must’ve read the novelizations of RE 1 & 2 (“The Umbrella Conspiracy” and “City of the Dead” respectively) collectively 8 or 9 times over. Even the side-story books that weren’t canon like “Caliban Cove” and “Underworld” were fairly entertaining in memory. I’m positive if I revisited these books now they would be a misery, but as a kid I was a big fan of Perry. I owned her Alien and Predator books as well.


#16

14 year old me was a pretty big fan of the Black Dragon trilogy of Battletech novels by Victor Milan. Now they’re more of a guilty pleasure but for different reasons than the books Rob sites in his piece. They’re less dry and technical but they display more of the special mix of graphic violence, attempts at feminism that only underscore the use of sexist genre tropes, and caricature in place of characterization that was too common in the mid to late 90s. On the other had, they do treat the post Clan Invasion Nobility of the Inner Sphere with the utter scorn they so richly deserve while the rest of the cannon bends over backward to lionize the Aristocracy.


#17

There’s already a novel length Stephen E. Ambrose style account of the Miracle at Palaven with all the little fleshing out minutiae and moments of charm and character in wartime both you and Rob Zacny could ever ask for. At this point the Mass Effect fanfiction community owes us nothing.


#18

It’s nice to read that the Wraith Squadron stuff holds up; I’ve avoided returning to them, for fear of being disappointed.

I’ve probably got half a shelf of them stashed away in a box somewhere along with half a dozen Shadowrun tie-in novels, which I’m equally afraid to revisit. However, I think the value in those books was a bit different from what most folks would get out of a Star Wars or Halo tie-in.

At the time, the Shadowrun tie-ins seemed like fun reads that also happened to be chock-a-block with characters, plots, and scenes that you could adapt into your own tabletop game. They were like campaign modules, but cheaper and more readable to boot.


#19

Despite not being a huge fan of the game I’ve always liked eve’s particularly cynical streak of space opera. The first book the empyrean age was pretty good. A critical eye could probably find a lot to have problems with it, but eve has always explicitly been a hyper capitalist and exploitative society with in-fiction problems (yo the amarr have slaves).

That said post trump it would be a different book for sure. One of the main characters is basically an alt-right folk hero who uses progressive language around wealth inequality but is also a huge racist (but again I think the book tries to do it just to make him less ‘sympathetic’ and make the book ‘grittier’.

The dust tie in was a bit weak tbf.


#20

I find the best tie-in novels are those that expand on the universe and don’t stick with the main characters. It’s what made the Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron books so good. They went beyond Han, Luke and Leia to showcase “everyday” people in Star Wars. That’s also why the Tales of Mos Eisley Cantina/Jabba’s Palace/Bounty Hunters were fun books - no idea if they held up.

Because tie-in novels are inherently fan fiction, I think they’re best when they’re not trying to impose on the original story. It’s a chance to see what else is possible in that world. The Republic Commando books from Karen Traviss were great at this. They established Mandalorian culture, showed the clones as being more than mere cannon fodder and explored the impacts of war. But because they’re fan faction everyone focuses on different things that “make” that universe for them.

And as far as good tie-in novels are concerned, the Thrawn book by Timothy Zahn was excellent and compelling and have left me looking forward to the next.