Some of science-fiction's greatest writers have stepped into ready-made universes and created media tie-in novels. From small beginnings some forty years ago, media tie-in books have become a huge part of our publishing universe. Here are some of the highlights.
Note: This is not a history of novelizations of existing movies or TV shows — just original novels and story collections set in those worlds. And for the sake of sanity, we're not going to touch on non-SF tie-ins like the amazing Shaft and Starsky And Hutch novels of the 1970s. (Even though Starsky And Hutch: Kill Huggie Bear and Shaft Among The Jews have pride of place on my shelves.)
Also, I'm not even going to pretend this covers every tie-in novel ever published. Feel free to chime in in comments with stuff I've missed!
The early years:
Doctor Who didn't get its own tie-in novels until the early 1990s (although there were annuals that included short fiction published almost ever year from 1964 through to the show's cancellation in the late 1980s.)
But Who's 1960s rival The Avengers had a slew of books. Berkeley-Medallion put out nine books, including The Moon Express and The Magnetic Man, both by Norman Daniels. And star Patrick Macnee himself co-authored two novels for Hodder and Stoughton: Deadline and Dead Duck. The 1960s also saw a ton of novels based on Get Smart, Man From Uncle and Mission Impossible, over in the U.S.
There were also a handful of novels tying in with The Prisoner — most notably, Thomas M. Disch wrote a Prisoner book called The Prisoner, in which Number Six finally tracks down Number One — and she's a female robot whose hand falls off. Hank Stine also wrote a demented novel called The Prisoner: A Day In The Life, in which Number Six falls through a succession of loopy, acid-trip realities designed to undermine his sense of self.
Fawcett also put out one novel tying in with the 1970s TV show The Invisible Man, called simply The Invisible Man by Michael Jahn.
Jahn also wrote one of a half dozen Six Million Dollar Man novels that Warner Bros. put out in the mid-1970s. The Six Million Dollar Man, of course, was based on an original novel series, Cyborg by Martin Caidin, but the television show was drastically different and the later novels had more in common with Lee Majors' portrayal than anything from the original books. (Update: Jahn wrote to us and explained: "I wrote five "Six Million Dollar Man" books (one under the name Evan Richards), not just one, and about 15 other tie-ins including "The Invisible Man" book that you know about. The pseudonym was required because Caidin was afraid he was losing Steve Austin to me, which is a bizarre concept.")
But probably the most significant stand-alone media tie-in of the 1970s, in retrospect, was the Star Wars novel Splinter Of The Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster. Splinter quickly became non-canonical thanks to its climactic battle scene in which Luke manages to lop off Darth Vader's arm — not to mention its incestuous embrace between Luke and his sister Leia. According to some reports, Foster wrote Splinter to be a low-budget sequel to the original movie in case it bombed — hence the fact that it reuses many props and sets from the first film, and avoids ambitious locations. It also doesn't feature Han Solo, because they didn't think his character was going to catch on. Han Solo did get to star in his own trilogy of novels as consolation, though, starting with Han Solo At Stars End There were also a handful of Lando Calrissian novels.
The rise of Star Trek novels:
According to the excellent book Voyages Of The Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion by Jeff Ayers, the first original Star Trek novel was 1968's Mission To Horatius, a young adult novel by Mack Reynolds. But the best known early Trek novel was the second, 1970's Spock Must Die! by James Blish, who also wrote adaptations of the original series. Spock Must Die!, which I totally read as a kid, involves an accident which produces two Spocks — and only one of them can be allowed to go on living.
In the 1970s, Bantam put out a series of original Star Trek story anthologies called The New Voyages,, plus a dozen original novels, edited by famed science fiction author Frederik Pohl.
The golden age of Trek novels, though, was probably the 1980s, with David Hartwell editing the Trek line for Pocket Books. Vonda McIntyre, who also did incredible novelizations for Star Treks II, III and IV, wrote two great books: The Entropy Effect in 1981 (ignore the horrible cover) and Enterprise: The First Adventure in 1990 (which would be a good counterpoint to the recent J.J. Abrams film in terms of showing how the crew got their start.) In this interview, McIntyre explains why she identifies with Sulu, and how she gave him his first name: Hikaru. (The publisher freaked out, until someone actually asked Gene Roddenberry and George Takei, who were both fine with it. But you have to wonder what Takei thought of Sulu's porn stache. Probably he didn't mind it.)
Another great author who wrote a couple of memorable Trek books was John M. Ford, who vastly expanded our understanding of Klingon culture in How Much For Just The Planet? and The FInal Reflection. (Ford also wrote Klingon manuals for the Trek role playing game, and was always treated as an honored guest at Klingon gatherings. At the 2009 Worldcon, a panel about the late Ford included a moving tribute from a Klingon audience member.)
Meanwhile, Diane Duane did more than any other author to flesh out both Vulcan and Romulan society, with 1984's My Enemy, My Ally and 1988's Spock's World, among others. The Romulans — who call themselves the Rihannsu in Duane's version — have never seemed as fully realized or believable as a culture on screen as they have in Duane's books.
According to Ayers' book, however, all was not well with the Trek novels — Gene Roddenberry wanted to micro-manage the book line and had his personal assistant, Richard Arnold, read every single book. And Arnold tended to balk at anything that went beyond what had been established on screen. If you want to read a hair-raising account of what it was like to write a Trek book that ran into trouble with Roddenberry or Paramount, here's writer Margaret Bonnano's incredibly lengthy account of her troubles writing the tie-in book that became PROBE. Shorter version: tons of micromanaging, characters being cut out, and calls for Bonnano to rewrite the whole thing in six days.
Other franchises to get tie-in novels in the 1980s included Battlestar Galactica — most of those books were novelizations of episodes, but eventually it looks like they ran out of episodes to adapt and started writing original volumes; and Blake's 7, which got a sequel novel called Afterlife. (There was also a horrendously poorly received B7 novel in the 1990s called Avon: A Terrible Aspect, written by actor Paul Darrow.) And of course, as we detailed in a recent post there were 16 great V novels, which continued the story after the original show went off the air.
Early 1990s: Star Wars and Doctor Who
Two other media juggernauts that had never had a credible presence in the tie-in novel market suddenly started producing in the early 1990s.
Star Wars launched an ambitious series of books set after the events of Return Of The Jedi, with Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which followed the exploits of Admiral Thrawn and also the fate of Luke, Leia and Leia's kids. These were the beginning of the Expanded Universe books, which tied in explicitly with the video games and comics, and often seemed to be canonical unless explicitly contradicted by the movies. Eventually, the Expanded Universe gave us a new alien menace to fight the descendants of the Jedi: the monstrous Yuuzhan Vong.
And once the Star Wars prequels were out, we saw more books and other tie-ins set in the era long before the original series — the Old Republic novels take place an an era long before the prequels, when the Jedi were plentiful and kept peace throughout the galaxy. Meanwhile, other series of novels take place during the Clone Wars, like Karen Traviss' amazing Republic Commando/Imperial Commando novels, and still others expand the stories of Han Solo's kids Jaina Solo and Jacen Solo.
The really breathtaking thing about the Expanded Universe novels, starting with the Zahn books, is the fact that they're the only continuation after Return Of The Jedi we've got. Most people, in George Lucas' shoes, would have insisted that only they should be allowed to tell the authoritative story of what happens to Luke, Leia and Han Solo after the third movie of the trilogy — but Lucas seems to be totally content with letting the novels be the final word on those characters' fates, reserving for himself the right to go back and annotate the stuff that happened before Luke came of age in increasing detail. At times, it feels like Lucas' Star Wars movies and Clone Wars cartoons are occupying the space that's normally reserved for tie-in novels — filling in backstory — while the tie-ins forge ahead answering the question, "What happens next?"
These days, it seems like a month doesn't go by without at least one or two new Star Wars novels coming out, from the Fate Of The Jedi series to the more esoteric volumes, like the zombie tale Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber.
Meanwhile, after Doctor Who went off the air in 1989, Virgin Publishing got the rights to do a series of novels that were "too broad and deep for the small screen." The New Adventures line was launched, with an odd mix of books ranging from John Peel's bland fanfic to Paul Cornell's bizarre, Vertigo Comics-influenced metafictional odysseys. At their best, the New Adventures were daring, loopy and sacrilegious — and several authors contributed to the line who later wrote for the TV series, including Cornell, Gareth Roberts and Russell T. Davies himself. There was also a lot more explicit sexuality and racy content in these books than the original show had allowed.
Unlike the Star Wars novels, the New Adventures novels don't tell the official story of what happens to the Doctor after the series ends — I'm pretty sure the new TV show has already contradicted them in many particulars. But what the New Adventures books do instead is something just as awesome — they vastly expand our understanding of the Doctor, and give him a new pathos as well as a terrible, Prospero-ish puppetmaster sensibility. Building on little hints from the TV show, the novels give us a Doctor who's much more complex and much more tormented than we ever realized — and also more fallible, on occasion. You could not look at the eternally childish traveler in time and space the same way after reading a slew of these books — and the new reinvention of the show in recent years has built on that reimagining.
The Doctor Who novels are still being published — but after the 1996 TV movie, the BBC took them in house and toned them down considerably. And after the new series came on the air in 2005, they've become much more kid-oriented.
All in all, the twin early 1990s phenomena of the post-ROTJ Star Wars novels and the Doctor Who: New Adventures novels pointed to a greater potential for tie-in novels to be something more ambitious than the simple "adventure too minor to televise" format that book publishers had mostly stuck to. (With a few notable exceptions, like the Duane Star Trek books in the 1980s.) At the same time, Trek books were stretching their horizons a bit, with Peter David's sweeping Troi-Riker romance Imzadi gaining critical acclaim beyond what a usual tie-in novel would expect. If tie-in novels became big business in the 1980s, they came of age in the 1990s.
The mid-1990s: every big series gets tie-in books
By the mid-1990s, tie-in novels seemed to be pretty standard for most TV shows and some movie series as well. There were mostly forgettable novels tying in with Predator, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Alias, Farscape, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, The X-Files, Xena, the BSG reboot, and various other media properties. There were a host of authors who would churn out novels connected to Charmed, Buffy or whatever, like Keith R.A. DeCandido, Christopher Golden, K.W. Jeter, Peter David and Kevin J. Anderson. Two or three women wrote a slew of Star Trek books under the pseudonym L.A. Graf, which reportedly stands for "Let's All Get Rich And Famous."
And of course, William Shatner started writing his own Kirk fanfic with 1995's The Ashes Of Eden, with generous contributions from Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens.
The other interesting thing that happened in the late 1990s was the rise of novels based on comics — Byron Preiss put out a series of novels based on Marvel Comics' characters, and there was a well-received anthology of Batman short stories. Here's a fairly lengthy list of Marvel tie-in novels — the best of the bunch is probably the Incredible Hulk novel What Savage Beast by Peter David, which tells the story of what David would have done if Marvel hadn't 86ed his plans for the Hulk in his comics run. It brings back the Hulk's evil alternate self from the future, the Maestro, as well as an army of Hulks from alternate universes.
Babylon 5 also put out a bunch of tie-in novels, and from 1996 onwards creator J. Michael Straczynski was closely involved in the novel line, working to ensure a great deal of consistency with the television show. Gregory Keyes, Peter David and Jeanne Cavelos, in particular, put out a handful of B5 books each that were considered not just canonical, but essential. Cavelos' The Shadow Within has been reprinted a few times, and Dreamwatch Magazine called it "one of the best tie-in novels ever written."
Spin-offs, video-game novels and name authors:
The biggest development of the past decade has been the rise of spin-offs and tangents from established series — David has given us a series of Star Trek novels, The New Frontier, that follow a mostly new set of characters in a sector of space that no Trek ever visited before. The TNF books simultaneously play with tons of obscure Trek references — including characters from the animated series — but at the same time they color far, far outside the lines. With their weird hermaphrodite pregnancies, married captains, and above all their obsession with the dynastic politics of an obscure alien empire, the TNF books often feel like David's own space-opera/soap-opera series, only loosely connected to Trek.
Trek has also given us another spin-off, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers books by DeCandido. Meanwhile, Star Wars has given us the Jedi Academy books and the aforementioned Republic/Imperial Commando books.
And then there are the video-game books, which started as a trickle 15 years ago and are now accounting for a large and larger share of bookstore shelf space. The first Doom novel, Knee Deep In The Dead, came out in 1995, and was followed by several others. The Halo book series started with 2001's The Fall Of Reach by Eric Nylund. Nowadays, many TV shows don't feel the need to put out novels — where's our Fringe book series? — but every successful video game gets a ton of novels, without fail.
And that leads to the other big development of the past decade or so — bigger authors turning to tie-in novels to try and make some extra cash or win new fans, or just have fun with a beloved icon. Greg Bear surprised some fans by announcing he was working on a Halo novel, a sequel to Fall Of Reach. Tobias Buckell also wrote a Halo novel, 2008's The Cole Protocol. Jeff VanderMeer wrote a Predator novel, South China Sea, also published in 2008. And of course, Michael Moorcock surprised everybody by announcing he was doing a Doctor Who novel.
Some professional writers are alarmed at the growth of sharecropping novels, where authors dabble in characters they didn't create for media conglomerates that keep most of the profits. But they're a growing slice of the publishing world — and at this point, you can't claim it's impossible to create meaningful, groundbreaking work in the tie-in novel world. As a whole, tie-in books may look like a shower of drek — but they've helped expand our understanding of some of science fiction's most iconic characters, and — perhaps — helped those big media properties become more interesting and thoughtful along the way.
Additional reporting by Josh C. Snyder.