In Defense of Implausible Victories

More than any other work in Star Wars, the New Jedi Order (NJO) arc gave rise to a sense that for the Republic and Jedi to win the war something quite heinous would have to happen. Deploy Alpha Red? No, that isn’t smart against an enemy with superior biotech, but once having gained a decisive advantage over the enemy, would they all have to be fought to the death? The finale to the story, The Unifying Force (TUF), had to tackle this thorny question head-on and gave a decisive, unequivocal answer. No.

I recently re-read TUF, it’s been a decade since I last read it, so neither I nor the story can possibly appear the same. In the climatic battle which sees a Yuuzhan Vong armada assault Mon Calamari, the allied fleet gives a strong accounting of itself but is, nonetheless, outnumbered and outgunned. They cannot win this by force of arms. And, in a lot of ways, that’s the point! Star Wars may, by title, be a story about wars in space but there’s nothing that actually requires the victories be particularly military. In some respects the series is quite anti-militaristic.

One area is in its victories and this goes all the way back to the Original Trilogy. A small solo-piloted starfighter destroys a moon-sized battlestation able to destroy planets? And then, heaping further insult upon the Empire, an entire fleet of Star Destroyers, with a Super Star Destroyer as its flagship no less, loses to a “pitiful band” they outnumber and out-gun! Should the Rebel Alliance have won at Endor in military terms? No. Should Thrawn have won at Bilbringi? Probably. The Yuuzhan Vong? As shown in The Unifying Force, certainly, they had the superior fleet numbers and strategy.

All of this is to miss the point. Star Wars is, at heart, a quite traditional space opera and one of that genre’s requirements is that the heroes be up against it, outnumbered, outgunned, yet somehow they prevail. This motif recurs time and again and also crops up often in fantasy, Lord of the Rings’ Sauron has amassed armies beyond the ability of the heroes to defeat by force alone. Babylon 5’s Shadows and Vorlons certainly embody this, as do the Dominion and Borg in Star Trek.

Starting with the Thrawn trilogy in the early nineties, Zahn attempted to insert a measure of strategy into the story, with rules about gravity wells, the use of Interdictor cruisers, mole miners and space troopers plus more exotic technology like cloaking devices. Despite all this, however, he also stuck to the requirement to have Thrawn gain a decisive advantage over the Republic, intuit their final assault upon Bilbringi, spring a counter-ambush but still lost. Ah, but Pellaeon should have been up to taking command! Yes, and the Death Star shouldn’t have had to orbit Yavin to destroy the moon, it could have come out of hyperspace in the correct location if the Imperials plotted a course worth a damn!

Ah, but where’s the harm in wanting a more realistic tale? When the realism starts to kill the sense of wonder that a space opera depends upon. When the story and fantastical aspects give way to a demanding realism that says X can’t happen due to numbers Y given in sentence Z. The NJO, more so than most stories, flitted very close to this particular flame, much to its detriment for me, especially given how TUF concludes it. In having the enemy display varying power levels, with a mix of explanations for it, the NJO’s authors attempted to keep fans off-balance and unable to accurately gauge their abilities. Given what has happened in the years since the NJO, this is in hindsight, a far smarter move than was apparent to me at the time.

The Star Wars work of Karen Traviss has a certain reputation and is particularly linked to a deceptively major controversy. In fairness to her, the number was from Lucasfilm, nonetheless, it was the book Triple Zero that reaped the whirlwind! The offence? That there were 3 million clone troopers only! This was one controversy I stayed well clear of, but it was very instructive in terms of the dangers of quantifying anything. More than anything, it was probably this sort of controversy the NJO’s authors sought to avoid. Not only would it have seen them be far more limited in how they portrayed the Vong, but it would have prevented them doing their own version of the implausible victory.

At this point the War Realist might demand that the story show a military victory because it’s called Star Wars! Or that it show how nasty war is. Except it does! The battles of Yavin, Hoth and Endor have, when you think about it, absolutely horrendous casualty rates for the rebels! Is something more needed? Many barbecued Ewoks perhaps? Endor supplies those too! Star Wars recognizes war is indeed vicious beyond belief, it recognizes that there are times when negotiation isn’t possible thus the Death Stars have to be destroyed. But it refuses to dive into the pool of horrors that the likes of World War II represents.

This is an inspired move as, if you read more into that global conflict, one thing becomes clear – what is taught in schools is the barest, most permitted, surface skimming take possible. The reason for it being so? Because WW2 remains a horror beyond comprehension, it exerts a horrific fascination on our imagination now, but the scale of the conflict and its battles, the numbers of people involved and the level of destruction, is incomprehensible. You can be told Dresden was firestormed, killing the city and much of its population, but can you conceive of such an act and visualize it? The mind rebels at this, it cannot do it. And that’s just one act amidst a multitude.

What Star Wars and its writers understood is that, where war is concerned, more is less. It will never be a pro-war story, but neither will it show the full horrors of it because that blocks and kills the entertainment element, which is the focus of the story. Star Wars is meant to entertain but also show that the higher, more noble road is the better one to take. That we don’t have to become the enemy to fight them or kill every single one of them – best embodied in the treatment of the Empire by the Expanded Universe. In a post-Vietnam US, this was a contra-flow message in every respect but was very much welcomed by a battered and bruised populace.

And that’s what the EU is reflecting when it has these repeated, implausible, madly optimistic wins in its stories that appear to make no military sense whatsoever! There’s something in us that just likes against the odds wins, of 1,000,000-1 chances actually being winnable! It doesn’t matter that it’s realistic – arguably the point is that we know it isn’t and that makes it all the better! It’s that these wins allow us to think, if only for a small fraction of time, that we don’t have to opt for the colder, harsher methods. We can aspire to something better and win by doing so.

2 comments

  1. vadimk says:

    It always irks me when we’re presented with the 1,000,000 to 1 odds, and then with the lucky victory (how many times did we have the words “famous Solo luck” as the only explanation)? And I feel that in most such cases there was no real need to make the odds that bad, it was done deliberately in order for someone to say “never tell me the odds”.

    Of course, to make an event theatrical, you have to remove some of the less interesting details. For example, most sabacc games are shown as ending up with pure sabacc or idiot’s array – similar to how poker games are usually depicted as a battle of full houses vs straights or flushes, instead of long series of boring folds. That’s why the battles always proceed according to the “optimal” scenario for the good guys – every minor detail is working into their favour unless required to do otherwise by the plot.

    Combine that with the awesomeness and skill of the good guys (they wouldn’t have been heroes otherwise anyway), and we can easily believe most of the victories, and constant defying of the odds doesn’t break our immersion.

    But when we get into the “doing the impossible? easy!” scenario too often, you just have to stop and ask yourself “Wait, what?” and answer “Well, it’s just a story”. In fact, this happens with every exaggeration, not only the impossible odds. I may be a minority, but that does annoy me.

    Maybe that comes from the fact that I want the heroes to be heroic, not lucky. When faced with dire situations, they should struggle, overcome themselves, and earn a victory in the end. Maybe because I want the GFFA to be real (Jedi are kinda an exception to that from the start, but we’re used to it and accept it, to some limit).

  2. Ben Crofts Ben Crofts says:

    Given that I recall being quite irked by the sudden evening out of the Republic + allies vs the Vong at the start of The Unifying Force, though to be fair much of it was done by the Final Prophecy, I get your irritation. At the end of Destiny’s Way, with the advantage no longer being with the Vong, I wanted it to stay that way as it raises the questions of what should be done? They can slaughter the Vong and many Vong may wish to be killed in battle, but should that be done?

    That said, I don’t think these cases are all that common – while the films have both Yavin and Endor, the EU only has a handful scattered across the years – Thyferra, Bilbringi, Nas Soocha, Ebaq 9, Mon Calamari and Coruscant. In most cases too they were the finale of the arc too – Thyferra was X-Wing, Bilbringi – Thrawn Trilogy, Nas Soocha was Dark Empire.

    It’s interesting to consider that even the likes of hard-edged Battlestar Galactica still favours the win against the odds theme, it really is quite prevalent in story-telling. Even Weber’s Honorverse tales do this, while being quite ‘realistic’ by their own rules.

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