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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Outbound Flight: Star Wars novel soars with Zahn at the helm

Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn is one of the best Star Wars novels I've read in a very long time.

But first: Has it really been fifteen years?

I mean, there's now been more time elapsed since Heir to the Empire, than there was between its release and the premiere of Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977. And even then that seemed like an awful long time.

It was a morning in May of 1991 when the news first hit like a blast from the Death Star. A small item in that day's newspaper – accompanied by the classic still photo of Princess Leia putting the plans inside Artoo-Detoo – about new Star Wars stories being on their way. Starting with a novel called Heir to the Empire, the first of a three-part trilogy by a writer I'd not heard of 'til that moment named Timothy Zahn. I read and re-read that story about eight times during homeroom before civics class started that morning. And that's all I was able to think about for the rest of the day... or the week for that matter. The article said the book was coming out in June, so I thought it would be at least a month before its release date.

It wasn't even that long. A few days later on Saturday I was in Waldenbooks at the old Carolina Circle Mall and in the sci-fi section a copy of David Brin's Earth caught my eye. I thumbed through it and at the back of the book saw a page devoted to Heir of the Empire... release date May 1991! I immediately went to the register and asked the cashier if he'd heard of this new Star Wars novel. He took me to the new hardcover releases... and there it was. I bought it at once. By the time Mom had brought the car to Reidsville I'd read Chapter 1. Twice. For the rest of that evening and throughout the last days of my junior year of high school, Heir to the Empire dominated my gray matter.

For those of us who had been faithful to the saga, throughout its almost decade-long term of dormancy, Heir to the Empire was like manna from Heaven. Our patience had been rewarded. Something happened those first few weeks after the novel's release: the longtime fans could practically feel it. It was like we just knew that this was only the beginning, that we suddenly had a bright and beautiful future ahead of us for this story we loved so much. As if a wonderful secret that we already knew in our hearts was about to be revealed to everyone else in this world. If 1977 gave birth to us Star Wars geeks, then 1991 was definitely our coming-of-age year. That was fifteen years ago… and it hasn't stopped yet.

By the time Zahn's trilogy – which continued with Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – wrapped up in 1993, he had forever left his indelible marks on the Star Wars saga. Most obviously, Zahn will go down in history as the man who jump-started off a story that seemed narcoleptic, even dead to some. But especially to dedicated Star Wars fans, Zahn will be remembered for giving us the two most popular characters that never saw a moment of screen-time in any of the movies. The first was Mara Jade, the beautiful assassin who wanted nothing more than to kill Luke Skywalker... before she ended up marrying him.

The second was Grand Admiral Thrawn.

No other new character – outside the prequels anyway – has captivated me like Thrawn did. To this day he remains one of my all-time favorite Star Wars characters. From the very beginning Thrawn screamed out cool. Maybe it was the mystery about him: who was this blue-skinned humanoid with burning red eyes? Where did he come from? How did such an alien wind up so high in command of the Imperial Navy? And then there was his mind: even if he were merely human, Thrawn would be eternally notorious for his brilliance as a tactical thinker. This was someone who could study a species' art and completely understand how that race would behave in battle. In a time after Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, Thrawn was a fitting villain you could believe stood head and shoulders with them as their equal. Which is partly why I've never liked how Zahn handled Thrawn's death in The Last Command: that was a punk's way to die, not something befitting so noble a military genius.

That's another reason why Heir to the Empire and Zahn's ensuing books were so well received: Zahn played out the plots with all the skill of a chess wizard. He was – and remains to this day – the acknowledged master of wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels storytelling in Star Wars literature. And with Thrawn, Zahn was at the top of his game. Yes, other writers have also done well with Mara Jade... but Thrawn will always be a character that only Timothy Zahn could write and manage.

Call us Thrawniacs, or Thrawn-aholics, or Thrawnies or whatever: a lot of us didn't want just more Star Wars. We wanted more Thrawn.

And gladly, Timothy Zahn obliged us. In 1997 came Specter of the Past, the first in his "The Hand of Thrawn" duology. Together with the following novel Vision of the Future, we learned a great deal about Mitth'raw'nuruodo: the man the galaxy would better fear as Thrawn. Zahn revealed more about Thrawn and his people, the Chiss. It was discovered that Thrawn was not the warrior-without-mercy that many believed him to be, but rather was someone who simply wanted to serve his people as best he could, no matter the personal cost. Then in 2004 Zahn returned to Star Wars with Survivor's Quest, and expanded upon something that seemed like such a throwaway line years earlier: the Outbound Flight Project.

Outbound Flight, as Thrawn explained to Captain Pellaeon in Heir to the Empire, was a grand undertaking by the Republic in the years before the Clone Wars. Under the guidance of Jedi Master Jorus C'Baoth, Outbound Flight was a mission of exploration taking it into the galaxy's unknown regions before leaving the galaxy entirely to seek out life in the far beyond. Or it would have been, had it not been intercepted and destroyed by a task force commanded by Thrawn... at the behest of Palpatine. Not much else was known about the endeavor until Survivor's Quest, when the Chiss discovered the remains of the great ship and turned it over to the now-married Luke and Mara Skywalker. And even then the story of what happened to Outbound Flight remained enigmatic.

Now, fifteen years after we were first told about the bold voyage, Timothy Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with Outbound Flight: at last the full account of what happened – and what went tragically wrong – with the Republic's attempt to journey outside the familiar galaxy.

(And in case you haven't figured out already, I'm a huge fan of Zahn's work. One of my most treasured Star Wars collectibles is that first edition of Heir to the Empire, that I later got signed by Zahn. And I'd be remiss if I didn't pass along the link to the interview I did with Timothy Zahn in February of 2000.)

It's five years since the Battle of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I. The Clone Wars are still half a decade away from erupting. Jorus C'Baoth (the original template of the clone Joruus C’Baoth from Zahn's initial "Thrawn Trilogy") is trying to get complete funding for his Outbound Flight Project. He has the actual ship: six Dreadnaughts in a ring formation around a central core. What he doesn't have is the full complement of fifty thousand crewmembers that will be used to found colonies during the journey. Taking up the matter with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, it is suggested by Palpatine's new advisor Kinman Doriana that if C'Baoth can mediate a dispute in a distant system, that doing so would provide C'Baoth with enough political capital to move the Senate to fully sanction Outbound Flight. C'Baoth and his apprentice Lorana Jinzler are soon on their way – and are met by Obi-Wan Kenobi and his fourteen-year old Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker – little suspecting that Doriana has engineered the entire scheme under the direction of his true master: the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. The Sith Master is secretly orchestrating events so that Jorus C'Baoth will get his full crew, including six Jedi Masters and twelve Jedi Knights. Which will make it all the more easy to destroy C'Baoth and several more Jedi in one fell swoop, thus removing possible interference with Sidious's master plan to control the galaxy.

Meanwhile the Bargain Hunter, a smuggling freighter piloted by Dubrak Quennto, Jorj Car’das and Maris Ferasi is at the edge of Republic space, perilously close to the Unknown Regions and trying to evade capture by an angry Hutt crimelord. The three smugglers make a blind hyperspace jump into the Unknown Regions, and upon exiting into real-space discover themselves confronted by a picket force of alien vessels: the Expansionary Defense Fleet of the Chiss Ascendancy. The trio of humans is brought aboard the flagship vessel, where they meet the commander of the force: a young Chiss officer named Mitth'raw'nuruodo.

Fans of Thrawn will be thoroughly delighted with this book, as we gain considerable new insight on his background in the years before he became a Grand Admiral in the Galactic Empire. Even at this stage in his career, Thrawn boasts a cunning mind, and already is showing his talent at discerning a culture's mindset for his own advantage by examining its artwork. But he's also an officer who is walking a tightrope between what he believes is best for his people and what is thought to be moral behavior as demanded by his rulers. Those who know something about Thrawn and how he comes into service of the Empire will know what I'm talking about: Thrawn's growing belief in the use of pre-emptive strikes, which is severely frowned upon by the honor-minded Chiss.

And speaking of the Chiss, Outbound Flight is must-have reading for anyone who's interested in what is easily one of the most intriguing alien species in the Star Wars mythos. At one point it is explained to the three human smugglers how Chiss government functions: it is probably one of the purest examples of meritocracy that I've ever seen detailed in fiction. We also learn a lot more about Chiss society and language. These details are interesting for sake of the Chiss in their own right, but they also illuminate much about Thrawn's character.

I loved the stuff about Thrawn and the Chiss in Outbound Flight. But where this book really succeeds for me is the story of Jorus C’Baoth and the Outbound Flight Project itself. We finally get to find out all about the original C'Baoth, from whom would come the insane Jedi clone that terrorized the galaxy in the original Thrawn Trilogy. And this is where the book outright shocked me...

...Because Zahn shatters the Jedi mold when he does Jorus C'Baoth. Let's cut to the chase: C'Baoth is a loon! From what little we knew of him from previous books I was expecting Jorus to be ego-centric, and definitely eccentric, but otherwise pretty sane. We find out in Outbound Flight that the original C'Baoth was anything but. His single-minded obsession with Outbound Flight is bad enough. But then there is what can only be called his warped totalitarianism: he tries to create his own "Jedi Temple" within the bowels of Outbound Flight with Force-sensitive children of colonists. He takes control of the mission's legal system. He refuses to listen to the counsel of the other Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi (who along with Anakin Skywalker has been sent by Mace Windu to accompany Outbound Flight to the edge of Republic space). He metes out harsh arbitrary justice for minor incidents without consideration of circumstance. As the novel progresses, Jorus C'Baoth becomes increasingly dictatorial and possessive over every aspect of Outbound Flight. He's like a micro-management Nazi with quasi-mystical powers. And in the end, what happens to Outbound Flight is as much the fault of Jorus C'Baoth as it is of Thrawn... if not moreso.

One of the things Zahn has always done during his takes on the saga is impart to the reader just how vast the galaxy really is. That’s one of the bigger themes of Outbound Flight, to me anyway: the unknown, and how we approach it. On one hand, what we don't know is something that can entice us into discovery and adventure, the human crew of the Bargain Hunter come to find. On the other, fear of it is something that can compel us toward acting with wild irrationality, as happens to the mad Jedi Jorus C'Baoth. In Zahn's hands the Star Wars galaxy becomes not just a background setting, but a major catalyst toward character development. It's a heckuva great tool to have on hand, and I would love to see Star Wars writers in the future come to use it more.

When Zahn first wrote his original trilogy in the early Nineties, he had no idea what direction George Lucas would take the saga with the prequels. As a result there was a lot of supposition about the Clone Wars and critical dates in Star Wars history that doesn't jibe with what we now know is what "really" happened. One of the more glaring examples of this happens in Heir to the Empire, when Captain Pellaeon recalls how "...the early clones – or at least those the fleet had faced – had been highly unstable, both mentally and emotionally. Sometimes spectacularly so..." As we know from the last two prequels, it was the Republic that used clones, not "the clonemasters" that were referenced in The Last Command. A lack of knowledge about how Star Wars canon would shape up was something that couldn't be helped in the years leading up to the release of the prequels, though the various authors did their best in speculation. With Outbound Flight, Zahn doesn't dispute the Lucas-established canon... but he doesn't invalidate his previous work either. A lot of details have been "fixed", but if you bear in mind that Star Wars is supposed to be a legend, and one as protean as the best of them, then it becomes quite easy to reconcile the events of Zahn's previous books with the saga post-Episode III. Personally I think that Outbound Flight is a beautiful work of "retconning". Maybe someday there'll be a concerted effort to resolve all the Star Wars literary fiction of the past fifteen years to be in-line with the bedrock law of the completed movie series. If so, and if done even half as well as Zahn has done with Outbound Flight, then we're certain to have a well-concerted chronology forever free of "canon wars".

By the way, speaking of Star Wars literature, Outbound Flight connects to a lot of it. Characters that were new in Zahn's previous novel Survivor's Quest are "introduced" here. There are also many references to Greg Bear's Rogue Planet and tons of anecdotes about mysterious invaders from outside the galaxy... which longtime readers will automatically understand to be the Yuuzhan Vong from the New Jedi Order series.

Outbound Flight is vintage Zahn-style Star Wars. Reading this, and having it bring back so many good memories about when Zahn's first Star Wars novel came out and thinking about everything that's happened to the saga over the years, made taking it in a very pleasurable experience. It's a solid-written book that finally reveals what happened with an incident we first heard about fifteen years ago, and gives us a lot more about some characters that have greatly intrigued us ever since then. I can't recommend this highly enough to any Star Wars fans who might want both a rollickin' good action story combined with a steady stream of new saga lore to take in. Excellent book. Go read it. Now!


Eaglet said...

Thanks for this EXCELLENT review.

Zahn is my favorite SW author, and I am really looking forward to reading Outbound Flight.

I have read all of his SW novels and many of his SW short stories.

I have an interesting theory about Episode VII that I'm hesitant to say on a public forum, but I it if proves true I could say "You heard it here first!" .

Could the TV show developments also serve as a front to Episode VII developments?

The activity at LucasFilm and ILM could easily spun by their own agents as TV series work.

I didn't follow the Episode III developments too closely, but Episode III work seemed to cover up content modifications to be released in the Episode III trilogy DVD release.

Could it be that Episode VII is under development despite past evasive denials?

This is just one theory of an optimistic fan.

Eaglet said...


The activity at LucasFilm and ILM could be easily spun by their own agents as TV series work, diverting public attention from other activities.

Eaglet said...

Yet another correction:
I didn't follow the Episode III developments too closely, but Episode III work seemed to cover up content modifications to be released in the original trilogy DVD release.

Chris Knight said...

Well, what I would *love* to see happen is for George Lucas to write the scripts for Episodes VII-IX, and then hand-off production completely to others. I think one of the reasons that The Empire Strikes Back is considered the best of the series is that Lucas took an executive producer role, and let Irvin Kershner handle the rest of the details, like directing. It would give the fans more Star Wars and it would give Lucas all the time he needs to work on his other projects, like Red Tails etc. If not I'll be satisfied to have Episodes I-VI, but the end of the Empire and the return of the Jedi leaves a LOT of storytelling possibilities.

And thanks for the kind words :-)