Heir to the Empire Rediscovered

A couple days ago I moved the front layer of sci-fi paperbacks off the bookshelf and started digging around in the row they had been hiding. I was trying to locate my copy of Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn’s first Star Wars novel and the book that pretty much launched the “Expanded Universe”. I probably read his trilogy a dozen times when I was growing up, and his books did as much as the movies to turn me into a Star Wars fanatic. In point of fact, Timothy Zahn understood the Star Wars universe much better than George Lucas ultimately did. Much of what I cherished in that universe is actually Zahn’s doing, not Lucas’s.

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the main protagonists in TIE Fighter and its expansions, was Zahn’s creation and remains one of the best villains I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Thrawn is as calculating as Sherlock Holmes, as charismatic as Patton, and as coldly brutal as Michael Corleone. An aesthete who studies art to psychologically profile his enemies, Thrawn consistently remains two or three steps ahead of the New Republic’s leadership until the very end. He is also an outsider to the Imperial power structure. A nonhuman who attained the highest rank in a deeply xenophobic military, Thrawn always seems to regard the dead Emperor and Lord Vader with a mixture of contempt and amusement. He is cleaning up after their mess because they were stupid and racist, and Thrawn is neither. He represents both the kind of talent that is driven underground in a society based on inequality, and the kind of unrelenting self-assurance and ruthlessness that come with being a minority member of such a ruling class.

If you played the Star Wars video games, you saw a lot of material and concepts that came from Zahn’s work. The Imperial Interdictor Cruiser, which prevented ships from entering hyperspace and often played a crucial roll in TIE Fighter missions, was his creation. As was the Z-95 Headhunter, the Dreadnaught-class Heavy Cruiser, the Escort Carrier, the Golan Defense Platform, and many of the other craft that showed up in Lawrence Holland’s Star Wars sims. I loved the movies, but Zahn and Holland ultimately made Star Wars real to me.

Like Fine Wine

When I was moving into my apartment a few months ago, I unpacked Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command and held them briefly, wondering if their 1500 pages would still be as magical to me now as they were when I was a kid.  Much of the sci-fi and fantasy that I enjoyed as child and teenager has not really survived my growing sophistication as a reader and writer. What was once exciting is revealed to be contrived. What was vivid is gaudy. What was romantic and sexy is cliched and childish.

Happily, Zahn’s trilogy seems to have escaped that fate. I was in its grip from the moment the book began, with Captain Pellaeon dressing down a young lieutenant aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera before taking a report to Thrawn’s private chamber. Characters like Pellaeon, Thrawn, twisted Jedi Master Joruus C’Baoth, smuggler chieftan Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade remain as interesting to me as ever. In fact, I find in many ways I am getting more out of the books now than I did when I was young. Some of the subtleties of character that I missed are more apparent.

For instance, Lando Calrissian often seemed like the dandified fop of Star Wars’ band of heroes. But Zahn understood that most of what we saw of Lando was an act. His smooth charm, gaudy tastes, and rakish attitude toward business was mostly an act he put on to fool both Han and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He was “good old Lando” with Han because he had already sold Han out and needed to cover that fact. He was a low-rent criminal and gambler with Vader because that was the only way he could keep Vader from simply killing him and seizing Cloud City. The “gentleman gambler” persona that he cultivated was overplayed by later and lesser Star Wars writers. Zahn takes care to show that Lando is shrewd, far more perceptive than he shows, and deadly serious about his enterprises.

Thrawn is another character who I find has eluded me until now. Where before I only noticed his tactical and strategic brilliance, and his uncanny ability to reach the right conclusions based on scant and fragmentary evidence, I am now realizing how blind he is to people’s feelings. Pellaeon sees it, which is why Pellaeon is secretly one of the book’s heroes. Pellaeon, despite a lifetime steeped in prejudice and service, understands people far better than does Thrawn. As Thrawn engages in a battle of wills with C’Baoth, Pellaeon realizes that Thrawn is the one who is out bounds. While Thrawn is making certain that C’Baoth knows his place, Pellaeon sees that Thrawn is trying to wring servility out of a proud man who already agreed to provide service. Pellaeon, not Thrawn, realizes that the Noghri assassins that Thrawn uses are not simply robotic killing machines. Thrawn dismisses a failed operation that will “only cost us some Noghri”, ignoring his Noghri bodyguard standing nearby. Pellaeon knows that Thrawn is falling prey to hubris.

Caught between an insane Jedi Master and a strong-willed genius, Pellaeon is forced to become a subtle manipulator and self-effacing counselor. He finds compromises between the two men that preserve their tenuous peace, and works to curb Thrawn’s worst excesses without Thrawn ever noticing. That Pellaeon has to do this, and is able to succed at it despite Thrawn’s keen intelligence, is the warning that Thrawn himself has fatal flaws.

Perhaps what most surprises me in this reading, however, is what Zahn did with the character of Luke Skywalker. What I missed in previous readings was how incredibly lonely and isolated Luke Skywalker has become since Return of the Jedi. Zahn really considers the implications of the tasks that Luke has been given, and what happens to someone like him as a universe that needed him starts to move on. Han and Leia are married and expecting the birth of their twins. Luke is suddenly on the outside of their relationship. His best friends have a life that is separate from his own. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic, and political operators are starting to take the reins from the Alliance’s original leadership. They are careful to show Luke respect, but neither need nor want his advice.

Worse, Luke must train the next generation of Jedi and does not know how. There are few records and no peers remaining. He must train his sister, and someday her children, but is haunted Ben Kenobi’s catastrophic failure with their father. People expect him to do a dangerous and delicate job for which is has had no training. He barely understands what it means to be a Jedi, yet people treat him as though he were an authority on the subject. He is oppressed by the specter of failure, and no longer has anyone who can really understand what he is going through.

It is telling that when Mara Jade changes course and drops out of hyperspace without really knowing why, the Force is guiding her to the place where Luke Skywalker is stranded with a broken hyperdrive. He is sleeping in the cockpit of his damaged X-Wing, the symbol of his identity as a war hero, lost in space and unable to move.

Like I said, I’m surprised at how well these books have held up.

  1. This was the first thing I read concerning the expanded universe as a kid. I don’t remember much of it now, so I’ll probably have to revisit them someday. I only remember reading it for hours on end because I refused to leave the car and go into the house of an old lady that smelled. Most of my time with it was spent on the floor in the backseat, heh.


    • They might be worth revisiting for you, but I couldn’t recommend these books to anyone who didn’t at least like Star Wars. If you’re kind of “meh” to the original trilogy, then I’d probably pass.

    • Matt
    • November 9th, 2009 11:00am

    I coincidentally just finished re-reading the Thrawn trilogy last night and stumbled on this blog post this morning (your other work was linked from The Escapist).

    Zahn’s work definitely holds up very well. I kept picking up on little subtleties (most of which you mentioned) as I read through.

    There were a few other little things – Palleon, whom we think of as harmless and neutral for most of the novels, has an angry little racist moment when he ponders how much he’ll enjoy having Rukh killed. Or the way that Karrde and Thrawn are so similar in temperament and strategy that they are classic Worthy Opponents to each other.

    I wished at the time that, after Phantom Menace was panned by all the critics, George Lucas had passed the script-writing duties off to Zahn and gone back to playing with, well, whatever toys billionaires play with. He could have avoided so many missed opportunities and Narm moments.

    Great post.

    • Yeah, Zahn does a great job of making Pellaeon seem like a much more neutral, passive character than he really is. I’ll probably do an entry for each book of the trilogy, and I think there are revealing moments with Pellaeon in each one. His racism is interesting to me because my understanding of Pellaeon’s character is that he is, on one level, the archetypal Imperial officer. He is a cold-blooded, by-the book professional who view the galaxies’ nonhuman races as inferiors to be subjugated. On the other hand, I think there is a better man that exists beneath all that training and habit. He is racist because the Empire is racist, but it never seems like he really feels that on a gut level. He understands that the Noghri might become unreliable, not because they’re untrustworthy aliens, but because they are beings who are being used and mistreated by Thrawn. He hates Rukh not because he’s a repulsive alien, but because Pellaeon feels an instinctive (and ultimately correct) distrust toward him.

      Thrawn looks at Rukh and sees a useful tool. A trained attack dog who will unquestioningly obey his master’s orders. Pellaeon sees that, and he also sees that Rukh is an intelligent being who is letting himself be treated and used as a tool. This makes Pellaeon worry, because he sees that Thrawn is oblivious to this, and he understands the threat posed by an individual who nobody is making any effort to recognize or understand.

      I’m really looking forward to book 2, when I get to talk a bit more about Thrawn and Karrde. Karrde is a great, great character. I love how he is slowly pushed into the anti-Thrawn camp, against his better judgment every step of the way. The scenes on Myrkr, when he is realizing that he is about to lose a life he has come to love, are quite poignant.

    • Matt
    • November 9th, 2009 2:15pm

    I agree that Karrde’s evolution is a very interesting character arc. Zahn literally doesn’t take the easy way out and have Karrde’s heart grow three sizes – he forces Talon (what a great name!) into a series of uncomfortable situations where each one forces him closer to the New Republic. Brilliant.

    Poor Palleon. Some of the other expanded universe authors treat him like a bland drone in the later books. He ends up playing second fiddle to a string of second-raters like Admiral Daala.

    • Oh, God, don’t remind me. Fucking Kevin J. Anderson. Can’t put a novel together to save his life, and never met a character he couldn’t botch. His novels are just a string of tenuously connected “adventures” that usually end with some red shirt’s grisly death. Admiral Daala as a “dangerous new threat” to the New Republic: she has 4 fucking Star Destroyers and no abilities. How terrifying! How will our heroes survive this?

      I love that Zahn and Stackpole effectively hit “undo” on everything Kevin J. Anderson touched. Stackpole basically rewrote the Jedi Academy stuff in I, Jedi and Zahn explicitly contradicted everything in the Expanded Universe that sucked.

    • Dan
    • June 16th, 2011 5:36pm

    I remembered this post, and recently picked up a copy of the first book at a used book store. Wow. I forgot how good these were due to the load of crap that later series (by lesser authors) in the Star Wars universe. There were a couple things I had forgotten about, such as the Empire’s need for a Jedi Master to take over and coordinate the fleet’s personnel through the force. And Pellaeon’s continuing fear of Lord Vader even though he is long dead which comes up in his comparisons between Vader and Thrawn. It makes me want to play TIE fighter again, except I don’t think that I have the patience to replay the missions where you have to defend an Interdictor cruiser against a hundred Z95s with heavy rockets until I can actually keep it alive any more.

      • Flitcraft
      • June 16th, 2011 11:36pm

      Yeah, I’m not sure I’d want to revisit a lot of TIE Fighter missions. The last expansion was ridiculous. Everything was armed and armored to the teeth. It took like hours to shoot anything down, and there were all kinds of instant-fail missions.

      But I’m glad you revisited HTTE. The dynamic with C’Baoth is really interesting, as is Thrawn’s growing, unwilling dependence.

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