Saturday, May 24, 2014

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (3.5/5)

By 1991 the Star Wars series had been in a carbonite type deep freeze.  Return of the Jedi had come out eight years earlier, and in the interim Star Wars fans were tossed mere scraps, including two laughable made for television Ewok films.  If you wanted a decent Star Wars story between 1983 and 1991, then you pretty much had to start writing fan fiction.  Aside from the actual quality of Heir to the Empire, I think its reception, then and now, is clearly colored by the fact that when published in 1991 the novel served as a veritable oasis at a time when fans of Star Wars had been trudging through the desert.  That might seem like hyperbole, but not only has Heir to the Empire made it on just about everyone’s list of best stories from the Star Wars Extended Universe, but the entire trilogy was also voted onto the list of NPR’s 100 greatest sci-fi and fantasy novels.  (It beat out Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man!)  While I’m not sure Heir to the Empire qualifies as one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy stories of all time, I can understand why people hold the book in such high regard.  Zahn has a real talent for creating new characters who fit within the Star Wars galaxy while also writing old favorites in ways that make them believable simulacrums of our celluloid heroes.

But the story begins not with Luke, Han, and Leia; it begins with Grand Admiral Thrawn, a red eyed, blue skinned Chiss who, after the demise of Emperor Palpatine five years earlier at Endor, has taken over the remaining imperial forces in the outer rim.  In a retcon to the films, the Empire is represented as racist (speciesist?), preferring to promote only humans into the ranks of the upper echelon.  On the one hand, considering that the work of Leni Riefenstahl and the Third Reich form the visual template for the Empire, this makes a certain amount of sense.  But considering the vast diversity of species within the Star Wars Universe, and considering the films never hinted at this policy, it seems somewhat counterproductive.  Still, the fact that Thrawn achieved the Empire’s highest command despite this policy of discrimination tells us a little about his skill as a leader and tactician.

Questionable retconing aside, Thrawn is a wonderful villain for our heroes.  Where Vader was quick to anger and would execute underlings at a steady clip, Thrawn is reserved, mindful.  When not occupying the bridge of his Star Destroyer, he’s often in his quarters studying hologram images of art created by different species from a myriad of different worlds.  Of course, he’s doing this in order to better understand the culture of these people so that he can get inside their heads and understand how to defeat them.  In the tradition of the erudite villain, like Hannibal Lecter, Thrawn can appreciate both tactics and aesthetics.  Part of Thrawn’s scheme to reassert the Empire as the central power in the galaxy involves recruiting Joruus C’baoth, an insane cloned Jedi master.  In order to convince C’baoth to aid him, Thrawn collects a bunch of small lizard-like creatures, the ysalamirir, which have the power to dampen a Jedi’s use of the force.  He also promises C’baoth that he will deliver Luke, Leia, and the twins Leia is currently pregnant with.

Of course, all these machinations are unknown to Luke Skywalker and the now married Leia and Han Solo.  They’re busy attempting to rebuild the New Republic, which also appears to be teetering on the brink thanks to political infighting and a lack of resources.  Han Solo is tasked with recruiting smugglers into legitimate shipping operations for the new government, but because it’s not clear how long the New Republic will last, many of these illegal operators are wary of taking any sides so long as the Empire is still a power player.  Zahn does a wonderful job of capturing the voice of not only the three main characters but also of secondary characters like Lando Calrissian and C3PO.  Even Admiral Akbar and Wedge Antilles make appearances.  But he’s especially great at capturing Han’s sardonic charms, something that’s not easy to mimic. 

The book is well plotted and has the easy momentum of a snowspeeder on Hoth.  As the protagonists attempt to unravel the mystery of who is attempting to kidnap Luke and Leia, Thrawn is drawing them and the fledgling Republic into further traps.  I don’t want to give away too much plot, but Thrawn’s plans come to a head on Mykyr, the planet where he collected the ysalimiri and home to the criminal operations of smuggler Talon Karrde.  Karrde is another great creation by Zahn.  As a smuggler with a code—he appears to have a sense of duty towards anyone he views as his guests—he fits nicely within the Star Wars galaxy.  Likewise, Karrde’s mysterious underling, Mara Jade, appears to hold a burning grudge against Luke Skywalker for reasons that even Karrde is unaware of. 

Perhaps the only drawback during this section of the novel is that because of the ysalimiri, Luke is without the powers of the Force.  I can only imagine the disappointment of fans who waited eight years since Return of the Jedi in order to read about Luke swashbuckling across worlds as a full fledged Jedi Knight, only to have the author take away those powers.  The ysalimiri are a somewhat dubious plot device to begin with (they’re strangely reminiscent of the controversial midichlorians from the prequel films), but using them as Luke’s kryptonite somewhat deflates the novel’s action and adventure. 

There are a few other aspects of the book that are creakily constructed.  Despite C’baoth being positioned early in the novel as integral to Thrawn’s schemes, he does very little throughout the course of the story.  Leia does not get much attention, and she’s essentially shuffled off to the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk where she’s forgotten for a long stretch (a chapter following Leia even ends on a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until much later in the story).  There’s a little more retconning here and there that, as someone who’s protective of the original trilogy, I could have done without.  For instance, the novel suggests that Emperor Palpatine used the Force in order to increase the performance of his men during the battle of Endor.  (Was he also doing this while simultaneously attempting to turn Luke to the darkside?)  The prose is mostly serviceable, and while this makes for easy, fast-paced reading, it would have been interesting to see how an author might try to remake George Lucas’s visual palette into language.

Still, for those hungering for Star Wars adventures beyond the films, Heir to the Empire may very well be the perfect place to start.  Zahn does more than give us adventures with our favorite characters in a galaxy far, far away; he adds invaluable characters, places and concepts to this world.  Without a doubt, Heir to the Empire shows what creative minds can further conjure beyond the original trilogy. 


I would like to touch upon one issue that I remember having with some of the Expanded Universe novels when I was a kid and that reading Heir to the Empire really reminded me of.  In the sticky concoction of influences that make up Star Wars, the novels always include far too much science fiction.  In an article about Heir to the Empire, Ryan Britt argues that the novel brought science fiction into Star Wars.  He argues that the ysalimiri demystify the Force and that even though the Clone Wars were mentioned in the original trilogy, making C’baoth a clone feels more like hard sci-fi.  I don’t agree with all of Britt’s examples, but he has a point, especially about the ysalimiri. 

Zahn’s non-Star Wars work is in the genre of science fiction, and it shows in the novel.  There’s a lot of technobabble that belongs more in a hard sci-fi world like Star Trek than in Star Wars.  Kevin J. Anderson, the other major author of the Star Wars EU novels, also writes primarily in the genre of science fiction.  The problem is that Star Wars is only partly a world of science fiction.  I remember as kid starting to realize that Star Wars and Star Trek had very little in common with one another beyond similar titles.  This made me happy since I never had to choose between these two distinct series. 

While Star Wars has some elements of science fiction, mostly culled from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the old Flash Gordon serials, the space setting is used simultaneously as a means of escapism and a mythical projection outward.  In other words, this unreal setting serves as a means for us to forget our surroundings and delve into another world for a few hours and a new version of mythology’s tendency to project us backwards and outwards.  Myths never take place at the time they are being told.  They always take place in the past in order to provide gravitas and to create a sense of continuity between the mundane now and the transcendent world of myths.  Using space as a setting for mythic storytelling has always been one of the genius aspect of George Lucas’s creation.

Star Wars is a collage of so many diverse influences, from David Lean’s epics to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, that it would be shame to overemphasize its sci-fi roots.  In fact, I would argue that Star Wars has more in common with fantasy than science fiction.  That’s not to say that science fiction authors shouldn’t work on Star Wars properties.  But I do hope that after this latest reboot of the Star Wars EU, Lucasfilm will decide to bring in a broader set of creative minds to work on the Star Wars novels and comic books.  It’s a big galaxy; let’s not make it smaller.

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