Zahn, Thrawn, gone.

by waxbanks

I finished rereading Timothy Zahn’s ‘Thrawn trilogy,’ which I adored when I started reading it at age 12. I read it on our little first-generation iPad Mini using iBooks, which — I don’t need to tell you — is a somewhat pleasant pale imitation of the sacred act of reading a book.

My initial response to Heir to the Empire is here. These are initial responses as well, hastily written last week upon finishing each volume; the last section is new this morning.

Star Wars: Dark Force Rising (1992)

Not bad, but cluttered and rushed like Attack of the Clones. The revelation on the final page that Thrawn is creating a clone army must’ve hit me hard in the early 90s, but in the wake of Episode II and The Clone Wars it seems like no big deal, not even in terms of the Star Wars universe, where (after all) everything is kind of a Big Deal.

One does grow tired and bored of the plotting, though: the universe shrinks to suit the protagonists, there’s a fresh coincidence to move us into every damned chapter, and the human motivations are less complex than I’d convinced myself they would be, last time out. (The cartoonishly named Fey’lya is, of course, cartoonish.)

I suppose I’ll have to read The Last Command now, just to remember how the Scooby Gang finally defeats C’baoth. But the bloom is off the rose a bit. Having (comparatively) painstakingly established his universe in Heir to the Empire, Zahn moves a mile a minute here, and while the slow-building Noghri storyline offsets the zoomzip of Han and Lando’s wacky buddy-smuggler adventures, I honestly wish there were a bit more simulative space opera and a bit less Fun with the Old Gang. Oh well.

It’s Star Wars, I’m happy. No point moaning about an author so committed to pleasing his readers. Dunno if I’ll return to the Expanded Universe after this, but I’m enjoying my return engagement with the artless pulp of the Thrawn Trilogy. Zoom zip!

Star Wars: The Last Command (1993)

All this going on about clones. You start to wonder whether there isn’t a reflexive or metafictional element to it — after all, Zahn’s ‘Thrawn Trilogy’ is essentially a clone of the first three films. Instead of Tarkin, Thrawn; instead of Palpatine, C’baoth; instead of Luke symbolically fighting himself in a cave, he symbolically fights himself in a mountain.

Summary judgment: a brisk, largely pro forma conclusion to a series with nothing in the tank by the last page. Mara Jade gets the arc, Thrawn gets the ‘check out my omnipotent NPC’ vibe, and every well known line from the films gets a rerun.

Zahn was clearly juiced by the cloak’n’dagger stuff on Coruscant; he’s not able to pull it off with any panache, but it’s more vigorous than the rest of the book. Alas, the Delta Source plotline ends with a wet fart and is never mentioned again — the worst possible end to that part of the story.

This is the first Thrawn book where anyone’s in real jeopardy, yet the stakes never quite seem so high for our main characters, except for the potentially mortal Mara (the obvious locus of imaginative energy here): Leia never actually gets kidnapped, Han and Lando get out of every jam, Wedge wins every dogfight without breaking a sweat. Thrawn’s death pays off the series-long Noghri arc, but does so without style or weight; the murder happens ‘offscreen,’ and we see him die with a not terribly interesting final line. It’s…slight.

The book has energy to spare, but no style — ‘adolescent,’ in other words. Which is all it needed to be. I enjoyed it well enough and can’t resent its Force-by-numbers approach. But The Last Command rather diminishes Heir to the Empire in retrospect: all the work that Zahn put into painting in a functioning Republic finally goes to nothing more than some smugglers meeting in a casino, some starships blasting dully away at each other, and some Na’vi-esque noble savages getting a bit of revenge. It’s all so familiar.

Which is the point. I get it. But now I’m back to wondering what to read next, and I realize there’s no reason — really none — why it should be another Star Wars novel. Familiarity, after all, breeds…well, you know.

After a moment’s consideration

The last book I read before the Thrawn trilogy was M John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings, a short novel of Viriconium. Harrison is one of science fiction’s great prose stylists — the sort of writer who can take on Vance’s Dying Earth milieu without seeming like a pale imitation — and the action of Storm is almost entirely symbolic, overlaid with a dense dark crosshatch of meanings and evocations. It is ‘literary’ fiction of the highest order. At one level, though, it’s also an adventure tale about a mismatched band of soldiers and criminals flying spaceships and dueling aliens using laser swords.

In other words, it was both the ideal lead-in to the Thrawn books and the worst possible. Zahn is (or at any rate was) a competent, workmanlike writer; when he’s in his element, talking about astrophysics and interplanetary intrigue, he writes with vigour and authority. And if his overstuffed Thrawn books lack the mythic resonance that gives the Star Wars trilogy its always-surprising mournful undertone, Zahn certainly nailed the wild whooping boy’s-own-adventure vibe of the first film.

But I keep coming back to the Sign of the Locust, to Paucemanly’s grotesque alienated body on the dark side of the moon, to the hysterical poets in the Bistro Californium, to Queen Jane waiting in her tower, to that haunting phrase ‘the Evening Cultures.’ Even with Zahn’s SFnal expansion into galactic politics, the universe of Star Wars conducts its business with a childlike shallowness that seems, at times, like a simulacrum of wonder rather than the thing itself. Clone armies! Dogfighting spaceships! Space wizards! Furry death hobbits! Prissy robots! Mean admirals! Rogues with hearts of gold! Unkillable, unassailable heroes!

What Star Wars needs certainly isn’t Viriconium’s unremitting darkness. But the reason Harrison’s sequence is so harrowing, for me, is less its creeping symbolic illogic than its sense of inescapable time, specifically of time having stupidly passed and nothing to do about it. Star Wars is set in a New Republic fighting with the remnants of a terrible Empire, and the movies are about the passing of a generational torch, the unrecoverability of the old (Jedi) order, the way that friends can make a new family and a new world by coming to grips with the choices and natures of their parents. It’s a Vietnam story, in no small measure, a Seventies story. Yet the Thrawn books, despite initial gestures in that direction, end up replaying and recycling past glories. Thrawn and C’baoth and Pellaeon — the bad guys — are the ones clinging to the past. The good guys kill them. They escape. This is escapism.

But time is the one thing you can’t escape from, right? Time’s arrow, aimed at your heart.

The Thrawn books seem to have everything good about the original films except the best thing, which is their operatic melancholy, their sense of lost time. They’re so lightweight a stiff breeze could knock ’em over. I suspect that a stronger writer could have delivered the thrills of Zahn’s Thrawn vs the Republic story while still attending closely to, say, the subtler darkness of the Mara/Luke story. But that might have required slowing down a bit, breathing unclean air, letting the colours deepen. Which was Irving Kershner’s style, and indeed Joseph Campbell’s, but evidently isn’t Timothy Zahn’s, or even really (for all his great virtues) George Lucas’s.

(I leave it to you to decide whether it’s JJ Abrams’s.)

I liked these books a lot, can you tell? Stayed up nights happily devouring them. But that was then; already it seems long ago, far away.