Heir to the Empire, Chapter 1

Will: Welcome to the first regular post of Force Visions. Today, chapter one of Heir to the Empire. Heir was…well, I was seven when the book came out in 1991, so I know I didn’t read it at first printing. I was barely old enough to have seen Star Wars. I can’t actually recall how young I was when I first read it (or, ahem, saw it). As far back as my conscious memory goes it was a thing in my life. I do vaguely recall discussing the novels in middle school, so I’m thinking around then…say, thirteen years old. The Golden Age of sci-fi is always thirteen years old.

For this post, I wrote my initial commentary, then Z wrote her responses to me as well as her own commentary, and then I wrote responses to her. So first, you’re going to get my thoughts with her interjections, and then vice versa.

Sound good? Well, for all I know we’ll end up trying something new next week, so there’s that. Here we go.

I don’t know if I noticed it at the time, but I remember being aware before Zahn’s annotation (remember, we’re using the 20th anniversary edition) that he opens all his Star Wars books (if he can) with a Star Destroyer. And even from the first scene, Pellaeon grabs attention very well. We saw a few professional naval officers (like Piett) in the movies, if briefly, but that wasn’t the focus. But Pellaeon looks like, well, what he is: a real Navy man, out of a Baen (or Tom Clancy) book. Which…well, Zahn was a Baen author before he got this job.

Speaking of, I like how Zahn plays with the consequences of the design of the Empire–the way I heard it put best was that the Empire was Lawful Evil: the Emperor (and Vader) were the Evil, and most of the rest was the Lawful. So while the Death Stars and Vader are of a somewhat questionable nature, the loss of all of the midlevel officers, the backbone of the Fleet, is a real tragedy.

Z: There’s a long, long digression that could be had here about why and how an oppressive system of government is always going to be eventually evil, and going from there to how-innocent-are-they-who-prop-up-an-evil-system-anyway and…but I know what you mean, too.

And that’s part of what makes writing for Star Wars difficult. There’s the big-e-Evil of the Dark Side of the Force.  There are all the little-e-evils with intent, the corrupt officials and/or officers that an oppressive system will create.  There are the little-e-evils without intent, especially once the government is the one legal government and young rising career-makers have to go somewhere… and somewhere in there needs to be the sympathetic characters along with the outright evil, but interesting ones.

After Return of the Jedi the situation is easier to deal with in a way: The Big-e-Evil is gone, the little evils with intent can be and often are seen that way by not only the New Republic, but also by some of the Imperial Remnant, whose role as they see it is to keep Order.  The Imperial Remnant would be easier and easier to cast as Lawful Neutral the deeper we go into the New Republic era, except for their one blind spot as it were, the refusal to recognize the NR as lawful as well.

This can get even longer, so I’ll cut out now.

Will: Right, exactly. We’ll see this, the Law/Evil/Order/Civilization/Oppression/Legitimacy tension (wow, that was long) in other books too, basically any time you get Imperial defectors. And it’s also present in Thrawn. I don’t think I ever noticed before that Thrawn’s command center was in a former “luxury entertainment suite.” There’s something to be said for the difference between the decadent Empire that would give its commanders a private movie theater, and the Thrawn style that gives its commander a personal command center. And art gallery, but that’s still a tactical tool.

I’m sure the art thing is going to be the subject of more discussion later, so I’ll only say now that I like it, but I sure don’t get how it would work. And despite liking it, I think it’s an example of Zahn’s perhaps biggest flaw in writing alien species: he’s generally good at them, but he does have a habit of giving an entire species a “hat” (as the saying goes). See how he knows that an Elom will fall for the Marg Sabl maneuver just because it’s an Elom. Zahn does this a lot in his other books, which I do recommend (The Icarus Hunt is a personal favorite).

Z: When I first read the “art thing,” my reaction was exactly like yours, too: Like it, don’t get how it would work.  Today I still don’t get how it would work—if I did, I could do it myself—but I can at least squint and see the mechanism a bit; I’ve got further commentary on that below.

Will: I do read some milSF, but I don’t really follow tactics very well, so the whole “match vectors, rotate the superstructure, Marg Sabl closure maneuver…” bit is a fair bit of white noise to me. I mean, I can follow it to a point and visualize it somewhat, but it isn’t the focus of Star Wars, or my interest, so I don’t expend energy on it.

Z: *reaches for keyboard* *takes hands back* Later. When-we-get-to-Rogue Squadron-later.

Will: Looking forward to that, huh. Anyway, at last we get to the two pieces of Thrawn’s puzzle: Myrkr and Wayland. I’m not sure I get why Thrawn wouldn’t have already gone to Myrkr if he has that information–but on the other hand, what good would the ysalamiri be without someone to neutralize, and why tip your hand? And I never thought about this before, but why would the Obroans have Wayland’s location, given how top secret that was? I feel like if things were reversed, so that he knew where Wayland was but didn’t know where Myrkr was without a data raid (and you can’t go to Wayland without ysalamiri), that would make a lot more sense.

Z: I’d never thought about that before.  I think the tipping of the hand is a definite concern, though, especially when you think that Thrawn very probably knew who had Myrkr as a base and what he did for a living.  Thrawn probably figured on the information having a limited shelf-life once he took ysalamiri off of Myrkr.

Will: Zahn annotates that he tried to give a justification for why Thrawn never accepted the New Republic’s legitimacy, and in other commentary he’s mentioned the Yuuzhan Vong in that context (the idea being that a strong authority and huge military was necessary or the Vong would have destroyed everybody, I guess) but I never bought that. It’s the whole “I like this character, therefore I have to excuse his villainous nature” thing, the way I see it, and that never really works out for me.

Z: My thoughts aren’t as clear-cut on the subject, but there’s the digression on what is evil (or “villainous,” to use your word) and legitimacy and order vs. anarchy and who sees themselves as guardian of what, above.  I think we will probably end up getting into that a lot deeper, as we progress, is what I think.

Also, with apologies, I could not restrain myself and went on an etymological hunt, and found out that villain comes from, of all things, Latin villa as in country residence, and evil has an Anglo-Saxon root and is lined to “over”, as in “going over the top.”  Huh.

Will: So, “evil” means “extremist,” and “villain” means “owns a country house”? Sounds like political rhetoric. But I digress. Your turn, Z. What else do you think?

Z: We open, as Zahn does with every book in this trilogy, with a Star Destroyer.  In particular, with Captain Pellaeon receiving a message and teaching the messenger something about modes of delivery, protocol and procedure with a line that I have had engraved in my memory from the first time I’ve read it: “Routine information is not—repeat, not—simply shouted in the general direction of its intended recipient.”

So here’s something relevant about me—I am drawn to competency. Ask me who my favorite character is in any given work of fiction, and more likely than not, the person who is good at what they do will come up. Lester Freamon from The Wire.  Siuan Sanche from The Wheel of Time.  One–or two–folks who are going to come up soon enough hereabouts.  In the same vein, my favorite works of fiction usually turn out to majorly feature people who are very good at what they do.  The Vorkosigan Saga.  The Vlad Taltos series.  Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, which might as well be called Archie Goodwin books.

Case in point, our Captain.  Most of his on-screen time is spent playing Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock, true, but even though the fruits of it will not be visible until some time later, hints of how he is good at being a Captain that has held an inexperienced crew together and has been getting them into good operational shape are here from his actions on Page 1.  With sharply reduced resources, too, it is implied.  If my memory serves, later there will be a reference to when Thrawn “found [the Chimaera]” somewhere.  It was Pellaeon keeping them going until that point, however, which is also implied.

Will: Right. I can’t quote you chapter and verse, but I know Pellaeon says in the Hand duo that Thrawn specifically chose him and the Chimaera, and the implication is that Thrawn picked Pellaeon for how he kept a strong center to himself and to his duty (that is, his command, inherited as it was), even as the universe was splintering around him.

And yeah, the Holmes-and-Watson dynamic (or Vlad-and-Loiosh, or Nero-and-Archie, or what you will) is pretty clear. The thing everybody forgot for a while, I think due largely to Nigel Bruce, is that Watson is supposed to be very intelligent and capable himself. Now that we have more and varied versions of Watson, all of whom show plenty of competence if not the incredible brilliance of Holmes, that’s shifting back. Mike Stackpole (I know, I know, wait until Rogue Squadron) did a couple of interesting mystery stories with a setup like that. Not sure they ever really took off, though, for reasons we’ll have to save for a very different and very far in the future post.

Z: And if I had any doubts it was intentional characterization, Zahn’s own commentary on p. 4 of the 20th Anniversary Edition: “…Lieutenant Tschel was an example of the eager but inexperienced crewers… contrasting with the old-school competence and tradition of Captain Pellaeon.”

In the very next page I immediately hit the first example of “things one only sees in reread,” which is a couple of paragraphs, describing the Executor’s death, artfully worked in as explaining why Pellaeon has a very inexperienced crew, but simultaneously is a nice bit of foreshadowing.

A bit later on, page 9:

“[Thrawn’s] brilliant successes had won him the title of Warlord and the right to wear the white uniform of Grand Admiral—the only nonhuman ever granted that honor by the Emperor.

“Ironically, it had also made him all the more indispensable to the frontier campaigns.”

Will: Given what we later learn, I wonder how much Zahn was knowingly sowing seeds here? His general approach, as he’ll explain later, is to leave a lot of plot hooks, so that way he can always grab one if necessary, but he doesn’t always know what he’s going to do with them. He was able to use the references like this, to Thrawn’s work in the Unknown Regions (which were at the time presumably just to explain why he wasn’t in the movies) rather effectively ten years later. In story time, that is. It was only six years in real time. (Really, I checked. Holy crap.)

Z: It would be easy to blame Zahn of telling, not showing, Thrawn’s competency (as opposed to letting the reader deduce it, as with Pellaeon) but on the other hand, the entire rest of the chapter goes to showing in no uncertain terms, so.

Thrawn’s “trick” of figuring out tactics of a species or planetary force by their psychology as revealed by their art (as Will put it, “the art thing,”) is one of those rare things that feel less unrealistic and facile now that I am older and wiser have learned more.  I was… well, I don’t remember exactly, but I was either 14 or 15 when I first read Heir to the Empire, and my understanding of visual arts was, shall we say, weak.  The links from art styles to perception to psychology to mental understanding and flexibility to battle tactics are a lot less tenuous at my present age than at 15.  Come to think of it, I think it might have been my first exposure to the links in that concept chain, too.

Is it still a bit superpowery?  Sure, but um, the cover says Star Wars and after all, I should end appropriately: May the Force be with you.

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