STAR WARS: HEIR TO THE EMPIRE (1991).
Based on a couple of surprising word-for-word line echoes, I have a sneaking suspicion that parts of The Force Awakens (Episode VII) draw directly on this, the book that kicked off the Expanded Universe push in the early 90s. That’s probably a good thing. I read it when it first came out and loved it, of course — it’s the Lucas-authorized sequel everyone wanted back then, set a few years after Return of the Jedi and expanding the scope of the Original Trilogy while making good use of every one of its surviving characters. In retrospect it’s just another fast-moving pulp novel with just another ramshackle plot, though Timothy Zahn’s feel for the old characters is especially strong and the book never lets up its strong forward motion. The new characters have a whiff of Mary Sue-ism to them — Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Grand Admiral Thrawn are all a wee bit hypercompetent — but that was necessary to keep the OT crew (rapidly evolving into the X-Men) in check.
Zahn’s coup here is to make the galaxy of Star Wars seem densely populated and lived-in — something the first three films, with their laserlike focus on a small band of heroes, never managed. There’s a lot of travel in this volume. The FX budget is up, relative to the films, so instead of Endor’s fighting-in-the-woods we get a chase sequence amidst the Pandora-like forests of Kashyyyk, and Luke finally gets to show off his growing ninja powers. (‘One man,’ the awestruck Kardde breathes, as Luke singlehandedly wipes out an attacking stormtrooper squad by dropping the St Louis Arch on them. In a book full of lightweight nostalgic thrills, only that line gave me a chill, as if in the presence of something alien.)
The plotting is of course Golden Age-level, filled to the brim with coincidences which shrink the storyworld and undercut Zahn’s intuitive ‘worldbuilding.’ But the players’ motivations are credible and immersion is never sacrificed to the Rule of Cool. Ancillary Justice, in unreasonable comparison, is a much more ambitious book full of interesting ideas, e.g. the whole female-pronoun schtick, less credible than Zahn’s furry banana-animals which block The Force; compared to this adolescent romp it just sits there on the page moping, awfully Neat but short on, aah, Brio.
(As other folks have pointed out, Heir to the Empire treats Star Wars as if it were a science-fiction story rather than a fantasy tale about swordfighting wizards. This is all to the good, and in keeping with precedent. One of the original film’s great cinematic virtues, revolutionary at the time, was its depiction of a living, breathing space setting, where ships were oddly shaped ‘buckets of bolts’ and translator robots broke down in rough climates — you see its inspiration in Blade Runner and Alien, both by the great visual stylist Ridley Scott.)
Better to compare this book to its obvious contemporary replacement, The Force Awakens, which rehashes episodes from A New Hope with admirable velocity and efficiency but a surprising lack of wit — Abrams’s film stages wonder without ever inspiring it. (Much better dialogue than Zahn’s, mind you.) Because Heir to the Empire was the first major post-Return of the Jedi novel in the Star Wars universe, George Lucas himself signed off on the outline, and the entire Expanded Universe builds on the Thrawn books, it’s long been assumed that Episodes VII-IX would look a little like Zahn’s work. But Abrams, Kennedy, et al. threw out Zahn’s chief innovation, which was to ask what the New Republic would look like if it actually had to run like an interstellar Republic. Yes, Zahn literally returns to Mos Eisley — but he does so in order to show how Han’s collaboration with the Rebellion has cost him credibility with his fellow smugglers. Abrams gives us Mos Eisley in drag, and skips over all the interesting post-revolution stuff mainly so that the characters will be the same age as the A New Hope cast. Same with the climactic battle: Abrams gives us a third Death Star, only BIGGER!! and WEIRDER!! whereas Zahn ends his book with a New Republic garrison destroying a massive shipyard in order to keep the renascent Empire from reprovisioning. Which is to say Zahn actually took pains to write a sequel, to move on from the premise of the original films, while the new kids have rebooted a franchise.
By this logic, of course, the much-maligned prequels are bolder and more valuable storytelling than The Force Awakens — which by the way is now the biggest-selling film of all time. I believe it’s true. They’re worse movies, but by some standard better art. Better for us, not in the sense of moral edification (be serious) but as an opportunity for us to enjoy visionary transformation instead of the comfort of a risk-free rerun.
I really enjoyed Heir to the Empire. It was a small step beyond ‘just fine.’ Y’know, I might even reread the sequels.