In an alternate universe, Star Wars was only a modest success. After a marketing bonanza, the film eked out a bit over its budget at the box office. In this alternate 1977, George Lucas scrapped the nascent plans that became The Empire Strikes Back and took the action from desert planets and jungle worlds and onto the fog-enshrouded world of Mimban, where Han and Chewie were long gone and Luke and Leia were well on their way to romance.
This was the idea behind the first-ever Star Wars spin-off, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster. Released in 1978, the novel picked up where A New Hope left off: It sees Luke, Leia, and the droids stranded on Mimban, a dark, foggy mining world that contains a powerful crystal also sought by the Empire. Vader shows up, and there's a thrilling finale fight before Luke and Leia are able to escape that world.
The genesis of the novel came before Star Wars was released. Alan Dean Foster had been contracted to ghostwrite the 1976 novel Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, which was based on the screenplay of the first film. But the book contract stipulated that two novels be written: one an adaptation of the first film in advance of its release, and the other a backdoor sequel that Lucas could use as a backup second film.
“The only restriction that George put on me was he wanted me to write something that could be filmed on a low budget, the idea being that if the first film, Star Wars, didn't make a lot of money but made enough money to justify a second film, that he could reuse a lot of the same props and costumes and backgrounds,” Foster says. “That's why, for example, Splinter is set on a fog-shrouded planet and a lot of the action takes place underground. It really cuts down on the need for expensive backdrops.”
At the time the first novel was released, Harrison Ford had not signed on to star in any subsequent movies. Lucas stipulated that Han Solo, thus, couldn't be in the sequel as well, which is why Foster says he also wrote out Chewbacca. The two are only mentioned in passing in the novel. And Vader himself isn't as omnipresent as in the first film, only becoming integral to the story at the end—after all, every action movie needs its thrilling finale.
But of course, this theoretical timeline ends in 1977. Star Wars grossed $307 million that year and toys flew off the shelves, cementing it not just as a film juggernaut, but as an encompassing empire with rabid fans waiting for more. Lucas simply didn't need to have a low-budget sequel when he could instead realize the story he'd been plotting out in his head.
“It was fairly obvious that George was going on a story arc that he had developed and that he was continuing to develop and that developing film projects from spinoff properties was not necessary for him, which was fine,” Foster says. “I understood that going in. I mean, that was the idea going in. It's always nice to have a backup, but you don't always have to use your backup.”
Subsequent Star Wars novels like Brian Daley's Han Solo trilogy were meant to sate rabid fans rather than serve as crypto-sequel fodder. And until Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, Splinter, the Solo novels, a Marvel ongoing comic book series, and a Lando Calrissian trilogy by L. Neil Smith were about it for an expanded universe outside of film and TV. As the Star Wars universe expanded post-Zahn, Splinter became even more of a mere curiosity, since its romantic undertones between Luke and Leia might make it a bit jarring after the sibling reveal in Return of the Jedi.
Foster has since dabbled a little in the Star Wars franchise, penning a few short stories and the novelization of The Force Awakens. But in another time and place, he kicked off a modest franchise, perhaps the first movie in a series of sequels to an ambitious but only modestly successful film.
Any time Foster has revisited the franchise, though, he says it's like no time has passed at all.
“It was very comfortable,” he said of writing the Force Awakens novelization. “It was just like putting on old clothes.”