Timothy Zahn: Beyond Thrawn

will: Welcome to Force Visions and our continued pause in rereading. Today, for your enjoyment, we’re going to tease up something we discussed a few times in previous posts: Tim Zahn himself, as person and non-Star Wars author.

This is a little short this week, as Real Life has flared up. We actually had a different plan in the work at first, a plan that will eventually happen, we promise. But in the meantime, here we go.

will: I’m going to start with an embarrassing admission: I haven’t read one Zahn story I really should. Cascade Point, a 1983 novella and (unsurprisingly) the feature story of his early-work reprint collection, won the Hugo Award for Best Novella. This is pretty significant, as by all accounts Tim first started selling stories–or, well, successfully selling them–to magazines (mostly Analog, though there are a few F&SF and others in his bibliography) in 1979. By that point, Zahn had already gotten his first novel, The Blackcollar (a military science fiction title of the type that was everywhere in the ‘80s–to give you an idea, it was republished by Baen Books), published, but winning the Hugo less than five years from the time you start writing is a major career boost.

Looking through Zahn’s bibliography is interesting, actually. Pre-1990 (before he started with Heir), he was a heavily short fiction writer, with a couple of mostly mil-SF novels. Hell, in addition to the Cascade Point collection in 1986, he had two full short story collections before or when Heir came out.

z: …both of which I have, thanks to the magic of used bookstore tables in conventions: Distant Friends and Others, Baen, 1992, and *sigh* Time Bomb and Zahndry Others–

–yes, really–

–yes, I know, no escape–

–, Baen, 1988.

I think that authors don’t often name their own anthologies, but I don’t know who named that one…on the other hand, we’re talking about the author who names starships Wild Karrde and Starry Ice.  So.  Um.

will: Yeah, my bet is on Zahn having a strong role in that.

z: Aaaaaanyway, Distant Friends actually contains “Distant Friends,” which is a novella, and some more short stories.  Time Bomb is all short stories.  It has been way too long since I read those and too much water has flowed under way too many bridges, but what I recall is a strong sense of warmth and humanity, which I even wrote about in my journal back then.  Alas, Real Life is hitting way too hard right now, so I don’t have time to go find my notes.  Also, all of those are in my current reread list, along with other stuff what we’re going to talk about.

But unfortunately, I haven’t read Cascade Point either.

will: Afterward, though, and after what would have been a massive windfall of popularity and name recognition, while there are still short stories and still mil-SF works, Zahn definitely branches–more novels, full novel series set in his own worlds, different genres.

Because I was introduced to Zahn through his Star Wars work, when I branched out, it was into his later novels.

My personal favorite, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times, is his standalone novel The Icarus Hunt. Published in 1999, it was intended as an homage to action-thriller novelist Alistair McLean (writer of, among others, The Guns of Navaronne, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare). It bears a lot of the stylistic flourishes that characterize Zahn’s work; most especially, while it’s technically science fiction, what it really is is a Cold War mystery thriller. Its worldbuilding allows Zahn to work with noir-esque secret identities, hidden agendas, and Eureka Moments. (Like Leia’s in the War Room…it’s a trope Zahn clearly likes.)

z: OK, whoever’s got my copy of The Icarus Hunt, please to be returning it.  …she said, plaintively.

But there are some of the same elements in his 2001 novel Angelmass, too, which I still have on the shelf where it belongs.  The setting is, again, space opera; there is, once again, Stuff What Ain’t What It Seems.  But Angelmass reminds me more of certain elements of the Thrawn Trilogy that I liked a lot and we certainly harped on for long enough.  There are these “angel” particles that make people calm and peaceful aaaaaand yup, I can hear the alarm bells ringing in the heads of anyone who’s ever read any fiction exploring this “free will” thing. It’s the exploration of…I don’t want to call them philosophical concepts, really, but I guess that’s the most covering term…that often distinguishes a book in my memory, and so I was all over the thought that went into, say, implications of the Force and obligations of a Jedi in the Trilogy.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Angelmass for similar reasons, although now I don’t remember many of the plotlines.  Because (say it with me) too long too much water too many bridges.  Also, this is in the Big Reread List as well.

will: All of which are even more present in Zahn’s biggest non-tie-in series, the Quadrail Series. This one has five books (Night Train to Rigel from 2005 being the first one, the last having been published in 2012), and it’s very much set up to evoke Hitchcockian thrillers. (Several of which are name-dropped over the course of the series. It hovers right at the border of being a bit too cute, but it generally works–partly because it’s a question of tone and feeling, not plot points). Again, Zahn builds a universe that lets him use structures he likes: interstellar travel is accomplished through Trains! In! Space!

Which means that the action is frequently set in claustrophobic settings. And in addition to fight scenes, the noir forms of talk scenes–“we’re going to have a nice civilized conversation between enemies, or maybe enemies, because we don’t really know whose each other is on–or whose side we’re ourselves really on”–come up a lot. Zahn plays even more thoroughly with paranoia/conspiracy storytelling, thoroughly exploring concepts like the shadowy untrusted employer, deep cover agents and friends that turn out to be entirely different people, and the very concept of a distributed conflict under the surface of a technically peaceful existence.

I recommend The Icarus Hunt first, and if you like what it is doing, go on to Night Train.

z: …which, coincidentally, I just finished reading.  As in, two weeks ago.  Haven’t started the second in the series yet, which I also have on my shelf; I think the rest will be e-book purchases.  Anyway, what he said, and I do in fact like claustrophobic settings (you say claustrophobic, I say self-contained…) so there’s also that aspect of it.

Zahn’s even more obvious with the cliche aspects of the setting sometimes; the protagonist keeps showing people mid-20th Century thriller and police procedural movies.  That had to have been intentional.

will: It was. The protagonist admits it.

Zahn tried his hand at some other genres, too. His novel The Green and the Gray can only be described as his attempt at an urban fantasy. It still involves a secret war waged by factions beneath the surface of civilization, because once you have a good thing you run with it.

z: (…and it’s also unmistakeably young adult, and at least my edition of it has a gorgeous cover.)

will: Going back a bit further, there’s the Conquerors Trilogy, an earlier (Zahn was probably working on these around the same time as the Thrawn Trilogy) set of novels that plays with perspective–the first book is about Humans encountering a mysterious new race they call Conquerors, centering on one Han who gets taken prisoner by the Conquerors, the second book is about the Zhirrzh encountering a mysterious new race they call Conquerors, centered on one Zhirrzh who is set to guard a Conqueror they took prisoner (you see where this is going, right?) and the third on unraveling the first two.

(This may have been the series that really clued me into Zahn’s fondness for xenopsychology as a theme. If Thrawn is using xenopsych as a tool, this series has it full on weaponized. The Quadrail books have some of that too, though scaled down a bit relative to here.)

So, that’s some of the greatest hits, places to start.

z: Then there’s the man himself, whom I have had the honor to meet several times, at StellarCon in Greensboro or High Point, North Carolina.  For a while in the 2000s, they had Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, and Aaron Allston as guests all together.

(It was a blast, every time.)

Remember what I said about the short story collection having left an impression of warmth and humanity?  That right there is what I always think about first when I think about their author as well.  The first time I attended the convention, I had “met” Michael Stackpole already on one of the two newsgroups Will and I had met on.  He introduced me to…well, I’m going to call him Tim for this bit, because “Mr Zahn” and “Mr Stackpole” got stomped on in short order right after we’d been talking for, oh, thirty seconds.  This was at the charity auction of the convention, the first evening; when they learned that I was relatively new in the US, that it was my first time in the city (…and actually, in any city except the one my school was in), and that I wasn’t staying at the convention hotel but at a Motel 8 down the street (…I think it was? Or Econolodge?  Long time ago, and I was a starving graduate student, okay) they insisted on walking me there after the auction.

So yeah.

At a later point in the convention, a group were out to dinner, and I remember one point when Tim said “excuse me,” left the table, went over to a neighboring table that had been in his field of view, and helped the lady he had seen was having trouble getting ketchup out of the bottle.

…So yeah.

I attended writers’ workshops as well as panels about a number of things (not only Star Wars) at StellarCon.  I think it was in one of those panels and not in a workshop, though, that I heard Tim explain something that a) had puzzled me, b) demonstrated that he does, in fact, know his craft and thinks deeply about it to the point of analyzing others’ storytelling choices.  …yes, it must have been a Lord of the Rings panel, which puts this in 2004.  The question was “why all the changes from the books,” and Tim talked about the changes to Aragorn’s storyline in particular.  He pointed out that stories are often best served when characters have character arcs; when we get to see them learn or grow or make decisions.  Aragorn does have a character arc in The Lord of the Rings, the novel.  It’s just that all of it takes place before the curtain opens, and it’s all relayed in the Appendix.  The same goes for Arwen, for that matter.    That would really not have worked in the movie, Tim pointed out.  They had to show his indecision, his reluctance, then his later decision to take on the responsibility and use his power.

I had, of course, never thought about it that way, and since I’m a meta-analysis junkie, that was both a sweet hit right in the vein and a revelation.  …and an indicator that Tim is a good storyteller because he actively works at it most of the time, and knows what he’s doing.

Then there was the bit where I beat him in Star Wars Trivia Pursuit.  Twice.  …but I still won’t take credit for that; both times, it was Mike’s control of the Force that won us the games.  (We were playing in teams; I partnered with Mike both times; Mike was always “rolling the dice.” Artoo-shaped random number generator, in this case.  And unsurprisingly, since we were all answering every question we got asked, the only reason it was competitive at all was that there was a three-correct-answers turn limit and the only reason anyone would win was that they rolled the correct number to land on the pie pieces they lacked before the other team(s) landed on theirs.  Or rather, on the hub of the circle, as I recall.)

will: As I recall hearing Z tell the story, Mike’s die-rolling (so to speak) was of the “Okay Artoo, we need this number,” and getting it–every time.

z: And of course, Tim was always gracious in defeat.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him non-gracious, or non-graceful for that matter.  There’s a reason my mental picture of Karrde is his creator himself, and it’s not just the goatee.

will: We haven’t done a comprehensive review of Zahn’s work, of course; but hell, the ones we remember are the ones we discuss. Icarus Hunt and Quadrail are definitely my favorites, so if you’ve liked Zahn’s style and flourishes through the Thrawn Trilogy, check those out.

See you next week, when whatever we’re planning continues to happen.

z: And may the Force be with you.

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