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Literature / Wing Commander

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Once upon a time, there was a Space Flight Sim Video Game called Wing Commander, by Chris Roberts (Freelancer, Star Citizen) and Origin Systems (Ultima, Crusader). It had relatively arcade-ish qualities, but also featured a fairly in-depth plot and a real sense of consequence due to persistent NPC deaths and Story Branching. It caught on, spawning five distinct sequels, three Gaiden Games, a number of Expansion Packs, a Saturday-morning cartoon and even a live-action movie. All that was left... were books.

A series of novels were authorized by Origin to fill in the blanks left by the games or otherwise expand on the setting. Mostly published by Baen Books, some of them were novelizations (WC3, WC4, and the movie), but a majority of them were original stories, though as part of the official universe the various works all reflect on one another. In publication order:

  • Freedom Flight by author Mercedes Lackey and Origin employee Ellen Guon, is a P.O.V. Sequel to the Wing 1 Expansion Pack "Secret Missions 2: Crusade," in which the Confederation was called upon to defend the planet Firekka, which the Kilrathi have occupied for use in a religious ritual involving the mass sacrifice of lots and lots of slaves. While players fly the missions, the novel focuses on the ground resistance through four Switching P.O.V. characters: Non Player Characters James "Paladin" Taggart and Ian "Hunter" St. John; Kirha, a Kilrathi servant to Defector from Decadence Ralgha nar Hhallas; and K'Kai, a Firekkan native.
  • End Run marked the beginning of William R. Forstchen's dominance over the franchise's novels; every novel on this page is either authored or co-authored by him unless otherwise marked. It takes place in two parts. The first, "Milk Run," is written by Christopher Stasheff, detailing a recon mission to identify a Kilrathi cultural site. The second, "End Run," details a strike to destroy that site, causing the Kilrathi fleet to rush headlong into a trap. Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky, fresh from his introduction in "Secret Missions 1," is assigned to the TCS Tarawa, which, while the Kilrathi are on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge over the desecrated site, travel to their home planet, Kilrah, and cause as much chaos as possible. The Tarawa will be "First To Kilrah," but since the ship is barely more than a heavy freighter with a flight deck stapled on, this is likely to be a One-Way Trip...
  • Fleet Action: I Surrender, Suckers, The Novel. In this case it's the Kilrathi, who are buying time for their new Hakaga-class supercarriers to come online. But Properly Paranoid elements within Confed, specifically Admiral Tolwyn, suspect the true nature of the situation. Bondarevsky and the Tarawa cross the entirety of Kilrathi space and confirm the existence of the carriers. Now Tolwyn has to Race Against the Clock to get the Confederation's military from "demobilized and in cold storage" to "fighting status" if he wants to save the human race...
  • Heart Of The Tiger: the novelization of Wing Commander III, co-written by Andrew Keith. Its Road Cones are considered untouchable Canon—even when it takes the Downer Ending at Locanda. Whilst fighting a losing war, Blair becomes involved in two secret operations to force the Kilrathi to surrender. Admiral Tolwyn's pet monstrosity, the "Behemoth", is a space-going Wave-Motion Gun, while Col. Taggart's "Project Temblor" exploits unstable fault lines on the Kilrathi homeworld. Both end in an Earth-Shattering Kaboom, but it's Blair's job to make it happen...
  • The Price of Freedom: the novelization of Wing Commander IV, co-written by Ben Ohlander. As with the Wing Commander III novelization, it sets as the Canon events where players of the game would get a choice. In particular, where the player got to choose between the Circe and Speradon mission sets, the Speradon route is the official path. Having said that, the two played fast and loose with other aspects of the game, including some major departures in characterization and a complete discarding of the Border Worlds' Cool Spaceships. (Heck, the cover of the novel shows a fighter from the game which the novel doesn't even mention!)
  • Action Stations: a Story Within a Story, this is a fictionalized account, written by a Confed historian, of the "McAuliffe Ambush," the Pearl Harbor-esque sneak attack that opened the Terran-Kilrathi War; it was published just a few (in-universe) years after the events of The Price of Freedom and is its author's attempt to explain why Geoffrey Tolwyn became a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • False Colors: co-written by Andrew Keith, though the cover mistakenly says "William H. Keith". An "interquel" between Heart of the Tiger and Price of Freedom, this book details the adventures of Jason Bondarevsky, serving with the Free Republic of the Landreich, and his ship, now renamed the FLRS Independence, to stop separate conspiracies by both humans and Kilrathi to restart the war. It was meant to be the beginning of a trilogy, but Keith's death brought an end to that.
  • Wing Commander: the Novelization of the film, written by Peter Telep. The film (and its novel) detail the adventures of Christopher "Maverick" Blair and Todd "Maniac" Marshall as they first join the flight line on the TCS Tiger's Claw. The novel retains the Mole subplot which was cut from the film, and also goes into more detail about Blair's status as a "Pilgrim," a Hollywood Mutant with supernatural math skills.
  • Pilgrim Stars is the second novel of a trilogy by Telep. While the Kilrathi conflict continues, Blair, Angel and Maniac must deal with a group of Pilgrim rebels who have stolen a Concordia-class super-cruiser mounting an experimental FTL drive which doubles as a Wave-Motion Gun. And these Pilgrims seem bent on pursuing a war against their Muggle oppressors...
  • Pilgrim Truth details the adventures of the three heroes as they attempt to prevent a genocide against the Pilgrims, as prompted by the events of the previous novel. In 2000 it was canceled before publication; in August 2011 it was finally made available through some bargaining by both Electronic Arts and the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, the franchise's largest fansite. It can be read there for free.

Tropes employed by the novels:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Geoffrey Tolwyn. The reader is given a much clearer view into his motivations and Character Development, and he is essentially the Big Good of End Run and Fleet Action.
    • It even leads to a case of Broken Aesop in the novelization of IV. The overall theme of the game is quite clearly that Tolwyn's Well-Intentioned Extremism has resulted in him going too far. The novel? Has the characters sitting around and wondering if the ends didn't justify the means after all.
  • Adapted Out: It's actually a pretty rare Wing Commander novel that features the main character of the games. Most of the books flesh out the Expanded Universe and focus on either Admiral Tolwyn or Jason Bondarevsky, or occasionally on some of Blair's wingmen from the games.
  • Apocalypse How
    • Class 6: In Fleet Action, the Kilrathi on the warpath use Strontium-90 clad thermonuclear weapons to render several human planets incapable of sustaining any life, and threaten to do so to Earth until Max Krueger's Big Damn Heroes moment.
    • The novelization of Wing Commander III states that the official outcome of the Locanda system missions is that the Victory air wing fails to intercept the bioweapons, which devastate life on Locanda IV (Robin "Flint" Peter's homeworld) in a Class 3a scenario.
  • Artificial Gravity: In addition to the traditional use of this on human spacecraft, the "hopper" drive mentioned in Confederation Handbook (essentially the manual for the movie) creates a temporary gravity anomaly to effectively make the equipped ship superluminal (though not with the ease of use of traditional jump drives). The novels building off of the movie novelization, Pilgrim Stars and Pilgrim Truth have an improved version of this drive that eliminates some of the limitations and can be used as a weapon, equipped on a ship that gets hijacked by Pilgrims.
  • Boring, but Practical: A number of the features on the escort carriers such as the TCS Tarawa that were holdovers from their original design as merchant ships prove quite handy, including a setup where equipment and cargo can be secured to the ceiling of the cargo bay for storage. When the cargo bay ends up being the hangar bay, this ends up being the solution to a lack of deck space for a force of Marine transports that are taken aboard.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": what on Earth are these Pilgrims on about? Do you really need to tweak the word "Friday"?
  • Call-Forward:
    • One scene in Action Stations features a group of Confed officers in a bar, and one of them makes a toast: "To a long war or a bloody plague," being a sort of "break a leg" way of wishing rapid promotions for your fellow officers. The book was released a year after The Price of Freedom, which would show Tolwyn's career, marked by decades of war, coming to an end after he is arrested and convicted after he, among many other crimes, unleashed a horrible plague on an unsuspecting planet.
    • Also in Action Stations, a young Baron Jukaga is instructed to dedicate himself to studying the humans in order to learn from and understand them better. By the time of Fleet Action, he has learned about humanity all too well.
  • Cats Are Mean: They're not any more kind in the novels than they are in the games. In fact one scene in Heart of the Tiger is expanded on ain't pretty.
  • Cat Folk: The Kilrathi, a species of feline bipeds.
  • The Cavalry:
    • The Landreich forces in Fleet Action, during the Battle of Terra, saving Earth from being made uninhabitable by "dirty" nukes.
    • Admiral Tolwyn's task force in the climax of End Run, rescuing the Tarawa after her behind-the-lines raid on Kilrah's moon.
  • The Clan: Kilrathi court politics and rivalries between the ruling Imperial clan and the other major clans, centered on Baron Jukaga against Prince Thrakhath, are highlighted in End Run and Fleet Action.
  • Curiosity Causes Conversion: Baron Jukaga's admiration of the humans makes him betray his own side and prevent the Strontium-90 thermonuclear bombardment of Earth, buying Krueger's fleet critical time for the Big Damn Heroes save.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Pilgrim Truth.
  • Death from Above: In Fleet Action, multiple Terran Confederation planets are bombarded from orbit by a massive Kilrathi fleet the humans are unable to stop, using antimatter warheads and dirty nukes specifically employed to sterilize worlds, as described in Apocalypse How Class Six, above.
  • Demoted to Extra: A lot of this goes on in the Price of Freedom novelization. Vagabond and Catscratch, two of the six main pilot characters in the game, simply disappear once Blair leaves the Lexington: they do not follow him as they do in the games. (This creates a plot vacuum for the Love Interest whom Catscratch is supposed to romance, and — perhaps predictably — she ends up with Blair instead.) Panther and Hawk, another two of the six pilots, get likewise stripped of almost all characterization. And finally, the Banshee, Vindicator and Avenger, the Cool Ships on the Intrepid, get ditched entirely in favor of Wing Commander II-era ships. This intensifies the stakes of the David Versus Goliath conflict between Border Worlds and Confed, but can result in raised Internal Consistency eyebrows when Maniac takes a Rapier II into the fight against Seether's Dragon superfighter, which (according to the games' respective manuals) has 100 times more Hit Points and can One-Hit Kill Maniac's ship with three of its four guns tied behind its back.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: A lot of named characters tend to get linked together this way, though usually it's more that they knew each other from previous commands while serving in the military, not from schooling.
  • False Flag Operation:
    • The Kilrathi's "I Surrender, Suckers" plot in Fleet Action. This is met by a counter False Flag Operation in which Tolwyn persecutes his attack of a Kilrathi carrier despite the armistice having already been signed, allowing Confed to dishonorably discharge him for being a Military Maverick. He then goes to the Landreich as a (politically) Fake Defector and launches the recon op into Kilrathi space... All whilst operating under secret orders to do all these things and confirm whether the armistice is a ploy or not.
    • The plot of False Colors, taking place after the events of Wing Commander III, centers around a Landreich operation to recover and repair a crippled Kilrathi carrier from during the Kilrathi war, and use it to slip across the border and launch a pre-emptive strike on a nearby Kilrathi warlord who is massing surving Kilrathi forces under his banner.
  • Future Imperfect:
    • In the novels, a few references indicate that they take certain movie stars to have been the people they portrayed in their films (one character was confused at how John Wayne seemed to have served in multiple jobs) although there is some confusion about why the "historical evidence" (movies) is so self-contradictory.
    • In a probable nod to Enemy Mine, the Kilrathi think Bugs Bunny is some kind of important figure, and sometimes insult him in an attempt to taunt human pilots, much to the amusement of the humans. According to Bear, Hobbes was heartbroken when informed of the unintended humor.
  • Guy in Back: In End Run, the death of a turret gunner in a damaged bomber that Kevin "Lonewolf" Tolwyn (nephew of the admiral) was supposed to escort back to the Tarawa (see the games section entry for Glory Hound) was a significant contributor to Tolwyn's Character Development from a wild hotshot to a reliable "team player".
  • Hideous Hangover Cure: In Freedom Flight, Hunter spends an evening at a bar drinking large quantities of potent Firekkan liquor. When his leave gets cut short, the doctor on the Claw gives him a much-feared clinical treatment known to pilots as 'The Green Goop'.
  • His Name Really Is "Barkeep": Discussed in The Price Of Freedom when Blair is momentarily confused as to whether or not the Intrepid's chief mechanic is actually named "Pliers" (he's not).
  • Home Guard: The Border Worlds Militia and the Landreich Free Corps, for the portions of space they occupy, both typically using whatever ships they could get a hold of, regardless of obsolescence. The Border Worlds forces traditionally relied on being backed up by the Confed forces, while the Landreich troops, being generally out of the primary fronts of the war, relied on tactics involving Refuge in Audacity to deal with the Kilrathi.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Tolwyn's discharge.
  • It's All About Me: Kevin Tolwyn's biggest problem in End Run. His uncle is none other than Admiral Sir Geoffrey Tolwyn, and his family is rather well-connected back on Earth. To make things worse, he really is as good a pilot as he thinks he is, but fails to fully understand the importance of being a team player in combat. He becomes much better grounded after his actions get someone else killed and Character Development ensues.
  • The Mutiny: "Shaggy Dog" Story'd in End Run. The Tarawa's commander is woefully incompetent, and Main Character Jason Bondarevsky is informed, by people both above and below him in rank, that they expect him to take charge if they are to survive. Then the captain is abruptly killed in battle, and Jason, who was the Number Two anyhow, gets the chair.
  • The Neutral Zone: The Free Republic of the Landreich exists between the Confederation and Kilrathi territories and hates both factions.
  • New Old Flame: Svetlana Ivanova to Bondarevsky.
  • Nom de Guerre: As the series centers mostly on pilots, the examples are many. Maverick, Maniac, Iceman, Doomsday, Hobbes, etc. At one point, the narration pauses to reflect on whether or not it's a good thing for your callsign to describe your state of mind.
  • Novelization: The Heart Of The Tiger (Wing Commander III), The Price of Freedom (Wing Commander IV), and Wing Commander (novelization of the film).
  • Nuclear Option:
    • In Fleet Action, the Kilrathi use Strontium-90 clad nuclear weapons to render several human worlds uninhabitable, and nearly succeed at doing so to Earth before Krueger's Big Damn Heroes moment.
    • Although technically not nukes, in the same novel humans use matter/antimatter bombs as part of a plan to destroy the enemy supercarriers from the inside, when regular spaceborne weaponry proves ineffective.
  • Psychic Powers: Pilgrims who have them are called "extrakinetics". Naturally, Blair is one in the movie continuity.
  • Radiation-Induced Superpowers: In the Confederation Handbook, mutations from cosmic radiation are said to be the cause of Pilgrim powers, though not in the short term as often depicted by this trope, taking multiple generations.
  • Ramscoop: According to the novelizations, most capital ships and fighters refuel in flight by hydrogen ramscoops. Because the Dragon and Excalibur superfighters use antimatter powerplants, this gives them infinite fuel.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: the "Expanded Universe" novels written solely by William Forstchen use this trope quite readily.
    • End Run is explicitly lampshaded in the dedication as being the Wing Commander version of the 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo.
    • Fleet Action is pretty much Wing Commander's Battle of Midway.
    • Action Stations is an almost painfully obvious reflection of the Real Life attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Salt the Earth: In Fleet Action, the Kilrathi build a fleet of super carriers and begin a seemingly inexorable push into human space. Along the way they bombard any human planets with Strontium-90 clad thermonuclear weapons that ensure that the planets will be uninhabitable. Even if the Kilrathi had succeeded, they would have gained little because they would have been unable to use the conquered territory. Of course, as far as Thrakhath was concerned, this was precisely the point, and was the cause of an Enemy Civil War among the Kilrathi that ultimately prevented Earth from being obliterated.
  • Space Elevator: In Action Stations, as part of the Kilrathi attack on the Confederation base at McAuliffe (Pearl Harbor IN SPACE!), they attack the skyhook that supports the base, using torpedoes with the newly developed capability of bypassing the massive shielding on bases and capital warships, against which fighters were otherwise mostly useless, relegating them to scouting or other supporting roles.
  • Space Friction:
    • While the games themselves obey game-friendly atmospheric physics, the novels avert this by allowing fighters and capital ships to undergo indefinite acceleration (finite fuel supplies notwithstanding).
    • Also played straight: Space Fighters use ramscoops to collect free-floating hydrogen from space for their power plants. This somehow generates enough friction in space to cause the ships to operate similar to atmospheric craft. Operating without the scoops allows them to travel much faster, but then their effective range is much reduced (due to them not scooping in any extra hydrogen), not to mention neither humans nor Kilrathi having the reaction times required to engage at such speeds.
  • Space Marines:
    • While they get relatively brief mention in the games, the Terran Confederation Marine Corps plays an important part of several of the novels.
    • In Fleet Action they probably have their collective moment of awesomeness when they board a fleet of super-powerful carriers against which the normal weapons (torpedoes delivered by fighters) were nearly useless due to their extreme armor and shielding, for the purpose of detonating antimatter mines inside the carriers. Naturally, this is somewhat less than survivable for the Space Marines in question, but when the alternative is The End of the World as We Know It...
    • The Confederation Marines' commander, General Grecko, is so badass that when a bomb blows up the entire floor of the building he is on, he is still fit to go into combat the next day, minus a prosthetic arm that luckily helped shield him from the blast.
  • Spaceship Slingshot Stunt: End Run features an escort carrier making a raid behind enemy lines in the Kilrathi home system of Kilrah that uses a gravity slingshot around a gas giant in the system to make an escape after sustaining significant damage during the raid. However, the configuration of the system and the nature of FTL travel in the Wing Commander universe means that the only escape path using that slingshot is a string of single-exit star systems before making it to a Confed-held system.
  • Strawman Political: Not infrequently found in the books written solely by William Forstchen.
  • Subspace Ansible: Heightened stellar activity can interfere with FTL communications in the Wing Commander universe, as shown in Action Stations, but otherwise, the only time there's significant time lag for communicating across interstellar distances is the human steps relaying transmitted messages to/from the comm system and the people ultimately at either end of the line. No such limitations are mentioned in the game, FTL communication is just there.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines:
    • At the end of Action Stations, Max Krueger's ship is shot down over a Kilrathi-held human world during a raid on Kilrathi assets in the area.
    • The Tarawa, towards the end of End Run, after she has completed her mission and is attempting to fight her way out of Kilrathi space having just proverbially kicked the hornet's nest and mooned it.
  • You Are in Command Now: the captain of the Tarawa is a politically-appointed officer and quite clearly does not have the testicular fortitude to command the End Run. Subverted in that Bear is warned, by quite a few people, that he's going to have to take over if anyone intends to survive... not to mention that whole bit about The Mutiny never needing to occur.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: In Fleet Action, a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Confederation manages to hold off the Kilrathi fleet, at one point having civilian craft play "human shield" for the Marine landing craft to board the Hakaga supercarriers, to detonate antimatter mines from the inside, where the heavy armor not only didn't help the Hakagas, but helped focus the blast to gut the ships from the inside.

Alternative Title(s): Wing Commander Academy