Posts Tagged ‘ Timothy Zahn

Dark Force Rising – Further Geek Reminiscences

The second book of Thrawn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy is unique in that it ultimately revolves around a MacGuffin, in this case a lost fleet of warships that could tilt that balance of the war in favor of whoever acquires it, and it focuses almost entirely on the backwaters of the Star Wars universe.

The central character in this chase is the smuggler-king Talon Karrde. Karrde is another character who would prove so popular that he would continue to play major and minor parts throughout the rest of the Expanded Universe’s development. He is established as a criminal counterpart to Grand Admiral Thrawn. Both men are practically omniscient: Thrawn assesses people and predicts events by studying their art, while  information-gathering have been Karrde’s life’s work. Karrde leads a smuggling organization mainly because that’s the best job for someone who wants to know what is really going on in the galaxy; the wealth and power are fringe benefits.

This means that Karrde starts out a dedicated neutral in the war between the New Republic and the Empire. He is content to do arms-length business with both sides, but mostly wishes to keep tabs on them. Yet Thrawn is on a crusade to defeat the New Republic, and begins dividing the galaxy into those who are with the Empire, and those who are against it. As he applies greater pressure to Karrde, Karrde watches his options dwindle until Thrawn finally eliminates the middle-course: neutrality is hostility, and so Karrde finds himself alone against the might of the Empire, his destruction one of the Grand Admiral’s pet projects.

By the end of the book, Karrde has been forced to cast his lot with the New Republic. Thrawn’s attempts to force Karrde into compliance have produced a marriage between the most capable and well-informed criminal organization and the New Republic’s military power. It is another Thrawn miscalculation, and one whose consequences he fails to appreciate. If Karrde could not be made into a friend, he should at all costs not have been made into an enemy. But Thrawn’s mistake is in thinking that understanding and predicting his enemies neutralizes them.

Thrawn’s antithesis in this book is Leia, who goes on a secret mission to Honoghr to convince the Noghri to stop working for the Empire. Thrawn happens to be there at the same time, and the mission nearly goes catastrophically awry, but Thrawn proves once again that his confidence in his own intelligence and capability is his undoing. Where Leia arrives as an uninvited guest, ignorant of local customs and circumstances, Thrawn is a revered lord with long experience dealing with the Noghri. Yet Thrawn casts aside his regard for custom the moment it becomes expedient, using orbital bombardment and the threat of genocide to terrify a people who are already in awe of him. Meanwhile, Leia salvages her mission simply by watching and listening to her hosts, and cooperating with their wishes that she leave their world before she causes trouble.

When I was younger, Leia’s segments of the book bored me. Her wanderings around Noghri villages and growing understanding of their history were poor substitutes for the battles and chases that comprise the rest of the book. This time I found it instructive. The films hinted that Leia was a trained diplomat and politician, but we scarcely ever saw her without a weapon in her hand or a man at her side. What Zahn does with Dark Force Rising is show the heroism of negotiation and discovery. It is Leia’s compassionate and respectful example, as a representative of the New Republic, standing against Thrawn’s blatant manipulations and threats, that make the Noghri willing to listen to what she has to say, and admit some uncomfortable truths to themselves. At the end of this subplot, there is a dramatic speech to a Noghri assembly in which smoking-gun evidence of Imperial perfidy is introduced. But it is the conversations about family and culture that lay the groundwork for victory. Leia’s compassion and understanding are revealed to be strengths just as much as Luke’s Force abilities or Han Solo’s cunning.

I would be lying, however, if I said these were my favorite parts of the book. They are pretty tame compared to the rest of the book, which includes a battle aboard an underwater luxury casino, Luke Skywalker’s and Mara Jade’s heist caper aboard Thrawn’s flagship, a massive battle at the Katana Fleet’s location, and an Alamo-style holding action aboard the Katana itself. The middle installment of any trilogy risks being flat, because it cannot really resolve anything, but Zahn solves this problem the same way The Empire Strikes Back did: by turning the characters loose on a breakneck series of set-pieces that make defeat exhilarating enough to feel like victory.

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.