‘Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu’ by L. Neil Smith: Review

After the enormous success of Star Wars in 1977, publishers were desperate to cash-in with any kind of spin-off novel that was available and sci-fi author Brian Daley’s trilogy of novels featuring Han Solo and Chewbacca were a big hit. Three years later and the release of The Empire Strikes Back offered a chance to repeat that success, only this time with a brand new character; the super-cool gambler and entrepreneur Lando Calrissian. Three books were written by author and polymath L. Neil Smith detailing the early exploits of the one-day administrator of Bespin Cloud City. Both the Solo and the Calrissian books divide Star Wars fandom; they’re often unfairly dismissed because they don’t fit into a continuity that didn’t exist at the time they were written, but if you come at them with an open mind, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had.

Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu is the first book in the Lando trilogy. The three are quite loosely connected to each other and even more loosely connected to the Star Wars universe. There was little known about Lando when these books were written; he was an old associate of Han Solo, a gambler, a swindler and rather reluctant when it comes to acts of heroism, so L. Neil Smith had a fairly clean palette to work with. Lando Calrissian was also the former owner of the Millennium Falcon, the acquisition of which is the starting point of The Mindharp of Sharu. Unlike Han, Lando isn’t a natural space captain and from the very beginning he’s shown as keen to get rid of the Falcon. He’s been sold a faulty automated co-pilot and is forced to land in the Rafa System to try and win himself a new one. This he does, along with a cargo of the Rafa System’s famed Life Crystals.

However, he’s been tricked – the transportation of Life Crystals is illegal and pretty soon he’s being blackmailed by the corrupt Governor Duttes Mer into undertaking a dangerous mission to recover an ancient and powerful mind-control device, the Mindharp of Sharu, with only his newly-won droid Vuffi Ra and a mysterious primitive called Mohs for company. Vuffi Ra is a character that ruffles a few feathers among Star Wars fans because he doesn’t follow the familiar droid naming pattern of having a mixture of numbers and letter. But if this is how you see it, you may be missing something in the text, as it’s specifically stated that is a droid assembled by an alien civilisation, hence his unusual starfish-like design – so who’s to say that Vuffi and Ra aren’t numbers and letters in another language? Whatever the explanation, he’s a fun character and he gives Lando someone to spar with through the course of the story.

Making Lando a character that is coerced into being a hero gives this book a feeling of classic science fiction works such as Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat or Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp and it works for the character as we knew him at that time. Making him a kick-ass space hero would have been contradictory to the Lando Calrissian that we see in The Empire Strikes Back, so it’s clear that L. Neil Smith gave a lot of thought to how he presented the character. You have to remember that when modern writers author a Star Wars novel, they have 4 decades’ worth of background to inform their work, whereas all that Smith will have had are the first two movies. With that in mind, he does wisely to not introduce any galactic politics into the mix; all the action takes place on remote one-horse planets that bear no danger of contradicting the movie series. These early novels don’t try to read like a Star Wars movie, they’re much more like trad sci-fi of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

After various misadventures, Lando, Mohs and Vuffi Ra find themselves inside the mysterious pyramid that houses the legendary Mindharp. This is where things get really surreal and as they descend further in the depths of the pyramid, scale and perspective start to become distorted in a manner reminiscent of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. It’s a sequence that would be hard to imagine on the screen, but which is incredibly effective on the printed page. Eventually we learn that everything Lando thought he knew about the indigenous people of the Rafa System and the true purpose of the Mindharp is wrong. The device is found and taken back to Duttes Mer where, in best Raiders of the Lost Ark tradition, we have an artefact of infinite power in the hands of someone who doesn’t really know how to use it properly. So, you can guess that it’s not going to end well for the Governor, whereas Lando still has a cargo of now-priceless Life Crystals.

Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. I’m sure there are a lot of die-hard Star Wars fans that will find it difficult to detach this from retroactively established continuity but hey, their loss. This may not be a galaxy-shaking tale of the overthrow of empires, but it’s picturesque side road off that particular highway and it’s a lot of fun to read. I’ve had this book in my collection since 1983 and this is the first time that I’ve read it; I’ve been doing that a lot lately and the results have been mixed – some leave me thinking ‘why didn’t I read this sooner?’ and others are a colossal disappointment. I’m pleased to say that Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu falls in the former category and I’m looking forward to reading the two books that follow.

This edition of ‘Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu’ by L. Neil Smith was published in paperback by Del Rey / Ballantine (1983).

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